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Sex and Marie Stopes


Spring-cleaning with granny
Diana Athill Writer
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My maternal grandfather had a beautiful library, wonderful library. I mean, it was a big room, and there also books in all the other rooms, too, but he really had a very good library indeed. No one was allowed to touch it, excepting my grandmother. So that when it was spring cleaning, the whole house would be cleaned by everybody else, but Granny would put on an overall and a sun bonnet to keep the dust out of her hair, and she had a special sort of stone jar with some sort of unguent in it for the ones with the leather bindings. And it took her about, oh, three weeks or a month. Slowly, slowly she'd go through the whole thing. Book after book after book would come out and be dusted and blown off and polished, if it was leather, and put back. And that was where I first discovered, to my thrill, I think when I was about nine, I discovered the full facts about sex. Because she was doing the smoking room and, very properly, in the smoking room, he kept his rude books. And there were six beautiful white vellum-bound volumes just called Ballads. And they were… I went in to sort of keep Granny company while she was doing this boring job and I was falling on the sofas and talking. And there were these things. She'd put them on the floor beside the desk. And I thought they were rather virtuous. I said, 'Oh, what are those'? Because I understood that ballads was the sort of one thing that one ought to like. And she said, very quickly, 'Oh, you wouldn't like those'. And I knew at once, and I didn't say a thing. I didn't give a sign. But that evening, downstairs I went and snitched one of them and took it upstairs to my bedroom. Wow! It was terrific, you see. They were extremely obscene, most of them. And there it was. I tumbled upon rather sort of boring one, didn't quite know what it all meant – the ones about farting I found boring – but they were very interesting. And on top of that, you see, from my mother's shelves, I discovered, a little bit later, a volume of Marie Stopes.

And so there you were, you were away. I mean, you knew everything. And from the Ballads, you knew it was fun. But books were useful.

Diana Athill (1917-2019) was a British literary editor whose publishing career began when she helped André Deutsch establish his company. She worked with many notable writers, namely Philip Roth, Simone de Beauvoir, Jean Rhys and VS Naipaul. Following the publication of her memoirs, she came to be hailed as an author in her own right.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is a London-based television producer and director who has made a number of documentary films for BBC TV, Channel 4 and PBS.

Tags: Ballads, Marie Stopes

Duration: 2 minutes, 34 seconds

Date story recorded: January 2008

Date story went live: 23 December 2008