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16 January 2009

The kiss that spanned 200 years

If you're into being kissed by people from the 19th Century and you haven't done it yet, then you'd

By Richard Herring

Winter comes and takes its toll on the elderly. I was sad to read this week of the death of William Stone, one of our last remaining World War One veterans.

Yet it’s incredible to think that anyone who was involved in that conflict is still around almost a century later, when so many perished before they had had the chance to live.

Closer to home, my Great Aunty Babs died on Boxing Day. She was 96 and had had a good knock, but it was still a nasty shock, if not exactly a surprise to get the news. My grandparents’ generation will soon no longer be with us and although her sister, my amazing Grandma Doris is still battling on in body, her mind is drifting away over the horizon.

Our family is not a huge one and I don’t have all that many close relatives. Aunty Babs was someone I’d see every now and again when we travelled up to Middlesbrough and who would send me a book token or a pocket diary at Christmas time. I used to love going round to their house as a child as Babs and her husband Joe Bainbridge had a little Scotty dog. I always wanted a dog, but my parents correctly ascertained that that enthusiasm would wear off if I actually had one and all the time and expense of such a purchase would fall to them.

I have a memory of the dog that I have only made sense of in hindsight, but I recall on one occasion I was about four and playing with him, and he was enthusiastically joining in. He was jumping up on my leg and suddenly everyone else in the family seemed rather concerned that he should stop and pulled him away. “He’s just being friendly!” I innocently declared. Of course now I realise that something else had been going on and the looks of horror and embarrassment and mild amusement on the faces of my relatives make more sense to me now than they did then. Is it bad that my main memory of a relative is actually about her dog trying to have sex with my four-year-old leg?

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I realised how little I knew about this feisty and sweet old lady when my dad sent me a copy of the eulogy my mum delivered at the funeral (I was away on holiday and unable to attend). Firstly Aunty Babs was christened Edith May.

I assumed she was a Barbara and that my mother had been named after her. But no, her name was Edith, which was cunningly abbreviated to Babs. Why? What were those crazy people of the early 1900s thinking?

She didn’t meet her husband until she was 32, which was relatively late in those days I would assume, and yet they managed 63 years of marriage.

And she’d played her part in a world war (the second one this time) by joining the ATS in 1943, where she worked at the Central Census War Office. She was involved in secret work (that my parents only heard about after her death – good that the secret was kept this long – you never know where Hitler might be lurking), working with the AFU–Armoured Fighting Vehicles. She introduced a card system, so that the War Office knew exactly where any vehicle was at any one time. How cool is that?

Good on you Babs. Your secret’s out.

The women on that side of the family seem to be long livers. My gran is 97 and still counting and last year bounced back from several maladies which would have taken out most people ten years her junior.

And the previous generation were just as hardy. I remember my Great Aunty Eva (though she must have been a Great Great) who passed away at the age of 102 when I was about eight.

I had met her a few times and on one occasion, when I was about 5 or so, I was at some party in her honour. I remember the day well because I also found a four-leaf clover when I was playing outside.

As we were saying goodbye at the end of the party, Eva came to give me a kiss. A nonagenarian was approaching me and quite rightly I was rather petrified of this wrinkly, hairy, but smiling old lady. She kissed me bang on the lips, which would have been quite unsettling for any child, but I remember it distinctly. We weren’t the kind of family who kissed on the lips – and to be honest I still get a bit freaked out by other people who do that with their children. If you do that you’re a weirdo. Or maybe I’m just repressed or overly prudish, but lips seems too sexual for family use (and I grew up in Somerset!). She was thus the first person to purposefully kiss me square on the mouth and it’s stuck in my mind. So much for four-leaf clovers bringing good luck.

Fortunately it’s had no lasting implications on my sexuality. I mean I have probably had sex with more ninety year old women than most people of my age, but I don’t think my gerontophilia can be attributed to his moment of near necrophilia mixed with paedophilia.

I am being unfair (and also lying about having sex with women in their nineties – I draw the line at 78). Eva was merely expressing her love for the cute little ragamuffin, some ninety years her junior, who would live to see things of which she could never dream.

But it struck me as I was reminiscing about this event that I have been kissed on the lips by someone born in the 1870s. That just seems too freaky to believe.

She was kissing lips when Queen Victoria was still on the throne, probably attached to a man in a top hat with an impressive handlebar moustache. What a baton has been passed on through time and saliva. It’s incredible to think that it is possible to be alive in the last year of the Noughties (can you believe this decade is almost at an end?) having kissed someone who was alive over 130 years ago.

I now see it as my duty to live until I am over 100 and to kiss some terrified young relation of mine square on the mouth, and so in two kisses we will have straddled two hundred years. The child will have to be old enough to remember the event, so I might have to be closer to 105 or 106 in about 2073. But it’s definitely something to aim for and a reason to carry on living. It’s not a nice thought for whichever petrified infant who’ll end up with the grey and puckered lips of the 106 year old me looming towards them, but I hope in time they will come to understand what they are participating in. They will have been kissed by lips that were kissed by lips from the 1870s. And that will be an amazing historical journey. It’s not perverse and strange, like you’re making it. It’s beautiful and timeless and the one occasion when it should be permitted to platonically kiss a child on the lips (have a go at the people who kiss their kids on the lips on a daily basis without this historical justification, rather than me).

I feel humbled by the realisation.

But if you’re into being kissed by people from the 19th Century and you haven’t done it yet, then you’d better pull your finger out. There’s only a few of them left. And don’t get complacent and think you can wait for the moment to present itself. You’ll have to get proactive. Yes it’s true that there are said to be people in places like Tibet who have lived to 150, but they probably won’t have the documentation to confirm this. And if you wait even three or four more years your only option might be to kiss a tortoise or a tree. And you don’t want to look like a pervert.

I got my 19th Century person kissing in early and I’m glad to have got it out of the way. You aren’t going to have half the choice I had and back in the seventies there were still a few 19th Century people who were at least not hideously ugly and a couple who might even still be called sexy. But you’re going to just get the dregs now. There are not any sexy people over the age of 109.

Of course the other option would be just to go down the graveyard and dig up a coffin and pucker up to the corpse. But that is sick.

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