Future Meetings in 2018

Contact us to join our future meetings: bristolbookclub@hotmail.co.uk

  1. April 19 Larchfield by Polly Clark (Harbourside Venue)We shall also be choosing more books
  2. May 22 In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower (In Search of Lost Time Vol. 2) – Marcel Proust (Bishopston Venue) We shall also be choosing more dates
  3.  June 19 The Sparsholt Affair –Alan Hollinghurst (Bishopston Venue)

We have given birth or cloned ourselves – there is now a Gay Men’s book group in Bath. It is run by one of our long-standing members so it should be kosher

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About us

The group started off about ten years ago and has members from a mixture of ages and backgrounds. The turnout varies between six and fourteen people, though we have about forty people on  the list of members.  The books we read vary from ‘light’ to ‘heavy’, usually written either by or about gay men. Anyone is free to choose a book but they don’t necessarily have to introduce it themselves. Discussions are quite lively: we have one member (me) who loves virtually every book fairly uncritically and one who virtually savages every book (but he is quite gentle really!). We meet monthly, usually Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday, at 7.30 for 8 in a member’s flat  on Bristol’s harbourside or at two members’ house in Birshopston and chat over a glass of wine, beer or cup of coffee. Some people turn up to every meeting; others choose which meetings to attend according to whichever book is being discussed at any given time. Either is fine Ffi: bristolbookclub@hotmail.co.uk

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Wonderlands: Good Gay Travel Writing by Raphael Kadushin

WsHighly disparate pieces, some fiction, most not, with the feel of places, rather than mere descriptions of them. It all looks rather like some project done for the sake of it, though there are some gems e.g. Toibin’s and the one about the Isle of Lewis.

Mack Friedman’s recall of summer vac jobs with salmon almost evokes the smell of fish. The workers’ camp, the backdrop of an Alaskan fish factory, is as male-bonded a world as any Marine Corp barracks and it underscores the poetic first love that is the work’s more authentic refrain, and that becomes all the more moving for its lack of realization. His first novel was about a Jewish gay teenager, who goes to work in a fish factory – so there’s a(n autobiographgical?) connection. I had to look up ‘ulna ‘ =  long bone found in the forearm that stretches from the elbow to the smallest finger,

Brian Bouldrey’s piece was very boring, with all the stuff about languages and continual ‘Moo moo’.
Mitch Cullin has some interesting observations about travel and Japan, Hiroshima in particular.
Edward Field drinks tea with Paul Bowles – an occasion for name-dropping.
Rigoberto González – with him I share the energising feeling of being in a strange city
Raphael Kadushin settles into the ethereal sun of a Dutch spring.
Wayne Koestenbaum’s Vienna is both a city of high low culture, and as I don’t relate to operas I didn’t relate to his piece.
Michael Lowenthal remembers a jarring encounter in the Scottish Highland
Alistair McCartney writes airmail letters to his long-distance lover Tim Miller, who tallies the 1001 beds he has slept in all over the world as an air steward.
David Masello laments modernizing cities e.g. a church being demolished to make way for a car park.
Robert Tewdwr Moss tracks through the back roads of Syria and his own version of Arabian nights. I also had to look up ‘corniche ‘ = a road on the side of a cliff or mountain. It was becoming more liberal in 1998.
Bruce Shenitz also wrote The Man I Might Become: Gay Men Write About Their Fathers. Here, he explores a Dutch island – nicely enigmatic.
Colm Tóibín discovers a Spanish Brigadoon. Post Franco, the people are allowed in to ceremonies but there’s a dig at the officials who observe while drinking champagne.

Philip Gambone’s poignant “Do You Join in Singing the Same Bigness?” details his stays in China and a life-altering trip to Vietnam. Asia becomes a place of second chances.

Edmund White’s beautifully muted “Death in the Desert” elucidates the impact of AIDS with haunting clarity during a stay in the Middle East and recounts his harrowing drive through the Sahara with a man he loved.

Matthew Link’s “No Man’s Land” depicts his trip to the literal ends of the earth—Antarctica—in terms befitting Amundsen or Darwin.

Boyer Rickel’s paean to Italy, “Reading the Body”; observes male body language.

J.S. Marcus’s “Everywhere” deals with botched archaeological excavations.

Not all of the collection has overtly queer themes, and few pieces are truly sexual; there are no tours of gay Amsterdam, the Berlin homostrasses or the bath houses of the tropics. Rather, Kadushin has gathered highly disparate pieces, some fiction, most not, about the character of travelling, the subtleties and nuance that attend gay men together (or alone, but seeking companionship) in foreign climes and the feel of places, rather than mere descriptions of them,  learning about a place teaches about one’s self.

 

Overall, the world seems more hostile now.

Quotations:

Soon, I realized, Japan would seem no more real to me than my vivid dream of the crows, and I’d again find myself surviving on my own in the desert. And yet, for a while at least, I was content with the sudden realization that we are born alone, that we die alone, and that living provides us with the rare opportunity to truly love and to be loved; that, I suspect, is the only thing I know for certain.

Then, while sipping my coffee at the Excelsior Cafe and reading a short story by Haruki Murakami, my eyes stopped on a single sen­tence: “No matter how far you travel, you can never get away from yourself” Shimao said. How true, I found myself thinking. How per­fectly true. And so I shut the book, preferring instead to gaze out­side, mindful of the crows that were beyond the window and which were just now sorting through the debris of the storm’s widespread havoc—their long, curved beaks pecking at the messes created by both man and nature. Sitting there, my coffee growing cold, I could have stared at them all morning.

“Ever wondered what traveling and returning home have in common? In his introduction to “Wonderlands,” Raphael Kadushin writes, “We’re always leaving home because we’re partly looking from something else. And usually what we find, in the end, is a gift, a small wonderland that we may only recognize years later, when we’re back home, safe again.”

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At Your Own Risk: A Saint’s Testament – Derek Jarman

AYOR2(Not discussed by the group but written in a personal capacity.)

The title must be a reference to the frequent admonition about cruising grounds and such like in the former Spartacus International Gay guide.

Jarman was an arty-man to whom I couldn’t relate but this diary shows how normally human he was.

Saint? Well he was in ironic way in which the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence use the term

It’s not true that the Wolfenden Committee didn’t consult homosexuals.

He writes about being a boy and having innocent, unknowing attractions to other boys, and of being confused when the adults reacted with horror and censure to innocent boyhood flirtations. He writes of going to school and having no role models to help him understand what he was feeling, of having no idea that there were even others like him, that there was, in fact, a whole underground social structure of men with the same desires and feelings as him. “I was desperate to avoid being the sissy of my father’s criticism,” he writes, “terrified of being the Queer in the dormitory.” Later, he writes of discovering gay role models in art (Genet, Burroughs, Cocteau, Ginsberg) and truly awakening to his own sexuality during a trip to America in the 1960s.

At Your Own Risk is a very angry book because he was writing in the last years of his life, as he entered the advanced stages of AIDS-related illness, starting to go blind as many of his friends died from the same disease that he knew would soon enough claim him as well. Moreover, he was writing from within a culture that had, throughout his life, consistently restricted and tormented homosexuals, legislating their behaviour and, with the onset of HIV/AIDS, all but ignoring the problem until it dawned on everyone that heterosexuals were being affected too. Jarman’s book is structured by decades, from the 1940s to the then-nascent 1990s (the book was written in 1992, two years before Jarman’s death), and in each decade-spanning chapter, Jarman chronicles how gays were treated by society and how his own dawning understanding of his sexual identity developed.

This is also a very hopeful book, though, despite its righteous anger and outrage. Jarman is looking back here, examining a life lived within the restrictive boundaries of what he calls “Heterosoc” (a society-wide conformity that rejects all possibility of other ways to live and love), but he’s also looking forward, imagining a future in which young gay men won’t face all of the same problems that he’s faced. He ends the book with a movingly optimistic address to future generations: “I had to write of a sad time as a witness—not to cloud your smiles—please read the cares of the world that I have locked in these pages; and after, put this book aside and love. May you of a better future, love without a care and remember we loved too. As the shadows closed in, the stars came out.”

Basically each chapter is a decade and each decade is made clear with a montage of articles, states or minds in that time and his own look and experience on it. What I really loved about his writing style (and try to do the same in my stuff) was the blatancy and rawness but at the same time keep the mood light or not too overwhelming, no matter how outrageous and offensive it may seem.

AYOR1940’s – mostly articles about the gays in the Military and how they would be handled etc. And how some of them would be rent boys

1950’s – Alan Turing, who decoded the Enigma Code, was gay. The powers that be turned a blind eye at first, then , maybe they used and abused him.

1960’s – his first visit to a queer pub.  Laws changed and it felt like it was ok to be gay in the open but the police started giving them drama by raiding clubs and all sorts. Now Jarman keeps talking about the Heath, how the firemen would have a locking and invite gay folks in their pool after the gays had finished clubbing.

1970’s – founding of the Gay Liberation Front, gay politics, manifestos, the gay manual, the drugs, baths, saunas. Media making it worse with stupidity and spreading the wrong awareness about AIDS. Calling it the gay cancer. The circle of death as more and more known gay folks were dying of AIDS. Pasolini, Wilde, etc.

1980’s – New AIDS acronym – Arse Injected Death Syndrome. (rivals = Another Idiot Discovered Sex; All Interested Die Soon) More misleading quotations from the media. Doctors were making it even worse because if they knew their patient was gay they’d tell the patient he already was HIV+ so as to stop them from ‘funking around’. So many more deaths of Derek’s friends it’s like he never knew when he’d see them next. So he has a little Lamentation section in memory of quite a few of his friends, the memories he shared of them and a kind word or two… or not. The Sun whipped up the most flames with the most ignorant headlines and articles which were so far away from the truth. And so many pages were dedicated to such articles and headlines. And how Derek finds out he’s infected too how the kiss or death was his kiss of life. Living the life of an AIDS infected gay man, interviews on the subject and the like.

1990’s – Derek is canonised by the gay order of nuns (the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence) for his films and books as Saint Derek of Dungeness of the Order of Celluloid Knights.

An Appendix – which was basically information sent to him by his friends who were involved in the struggle for civil rights. Stuff about Hetero Hero (Magic Johnson) admitting he has AIDS and turned into all-American Hero by the president. While Freddie Mercury dies 24 hours after his public statement and how the tabloids heave into action. Statistics of criminal injustice even though being gay was not a crime anymore. Queer Policing. Tax money issues. Something that looks like a constitution, laws, rights, demands and bills for people with HIV..

AYOR 3Quotations:

For the first twenty-five years of my life I lived as a criminal, and the next twenty-five were spent as a second-class citizen, deprived of equality and human rights. No right to adopt children – and if I had children, I could be declared an unfit parent; illegal in the military; an age of consent of twenty-one; no right of inheritance; no right of access to a loved one; no right to public affection; no right to an unbiased education; no legal sanc­tion of my relationships and no right to marry. These restrictions subtly deprived me of my freedom. It seemed unthinkable it could be any other way, so we all accepted this.

In ancient Rome, I could have married a boy; but in the way that ideals seem to become their shadows, love came only to be accepted within marriage. Since we could not be married, we could not fall in love. Since we could not fall in love, we were not loved.

The Heath no more belongs to the people of Hampstead than the Palace of Westminster belongs to the people of Westminster.

No man is an island, but each man created his own island to cope with the prejudice and censure. The time for politeness had to end.

Already the dormitory was divided into three groups: those who would report you – future guardians of morality; those who enjoyed themselves – myself; and the rest, frightened by their own come, and probably destined for the cloth.

James Lindesay writes: Heterosexuality (derived from the Greek `heteros’ meaning different, rather than the Latin `heitare’ meaning ‘to yawn’) is a condition in which the individual is sexually attracted to members of the opposite sex. It is becoming increasingly apparent that heterosexuals (or ‘drabs’ as they call themselves) do in fact make up a significant proportion of the community.

In his Symposium Plato recommends that only young men who love each other are fit for public office.

The modern Queer was invented by Tennessee Williams. Brando in blue jeans, sneakers, white T-shirt and leather jacket. When you saw that, you knew they were available.

Swinging London swung in the imagination rather than reality; however, there was a limitless horizon of optimism. What were these bars like? None of them would pass muster these days; apart from the lack of alcohol, sound systems were in their infancy so dance floors were an after­thought.

Part of the con was to steal the name Stonewall and turn our riot into their tea party. We are now to be integrated into the worst form of British hetero politic – the closed room, the gentlemen’s club – where decisions are made undemocratically for an ignorant population which enjoys its emasculation.

So they – Stonewall – won’t acknowledge this criticism. They’ll pretend there isn’t a debate. The only way that they can succeed in their politics is through the myth of homogeneity and the ‘gay community’. But our lives are plural. They always have been – sexuality is a diversity. Every orgasm brings its own liberty.

The slow-witted approach to the HIV epidemic was the result of a thousand years of Christian malpractice and the childlike approach of the church to sexuality. If any single man was responsible, it was Augustine of Hippo who murdered his way to a sainthood spouting on about the sins located in his genitals.

Those who thought otherwise, that sexuality was to be celebrated, were executed or pushed into the shadows. The battle goes on with Augustine’s pack hunting in the debased tabloids. Augustine was joined by other demented saints.

The passions in fact are dishonourable since the soul is more damaged and degraded by sins than the body is by illness… Real pleasure is only in accordance with nature. When God has abandoned someone every­thing is inverted, for I tell you that such people are even worse than murderers. The murderer only separates soul from body but these peo­ple destroy the soul within the body.

`Three years ago he was diagnosed HW+. His doctor, who knew he was gay, organised a test for him. When he went back two weeks later for the results, he was told he had the virus. The doctor was a born-again Christian and he said my friend should give up his homosexuality and become a Christian. He didn’t do that and we coped for three years. A month ago he was called up and asked to go and have further tests by the hospital. He was tested and then re-tested and called back to be told he had never had the virus. They had been investigating the doctor, who had been giving young men who he knew were gay false positive results.’

 The average police clear-up rate for the mainly consensual gay offences of buggery, procuring, and indecency is 97%, which is 28% higher than the average clear-up rate for rape and indecent assault on a woman. This extraordinarily high clear-up rate for victimles-s homosexual offences is suggestive of a police vendetta against the gay community.

Compared with men who have consenting sex with girls under 16, men who commit the consensual offence of ‘indecency between males’ with partners over 16 are five times more likely to be prosecuted, and three times less likely to get off with a caution.

Convictions for victimless homosexual indecency rose by 106% between 1985-’89. According to the Home Office this can be explained by the decision of some Chief Constables to ‘target’ these offences. Comparable heterosexual behaviour is rarely, if ever, targeted by the police.

As a result, the number of convictions for consenting homosexual indecency was nearly four times greater in 1989 that in 1966 – the year before the ostensible decriminalisation of male homosexuality.

Men who have consenting sex with 13 – 16 year old boys nearly always get charged with ‘indecent assault’ (despite the boys being willing partici­pants); whereas an ‘indecent assault’ charge is almost never brought against men who have consensual sex with girls in the same age range.

Prison sentences for consenting homosexual relations with men aged 16 – 21 are sometimes as long as for rape, and are often twice as long as the gaol terms for ‘unlawful sexual intercourse’ with a girl aged 13 – 16.

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Infidels by Abdellah Taïa

Taïa, a Moroccan expat living in Paris since 1998, has published eight novels in French, and has adapted one of these, Salvation Army, for the screen. As one of only a few openly gay Arab writers, Taïa occupies a unique cultural and political perspective. While Taïa embraces the secular values of France, values that have allowed him to live freely, legally, as a gay Muslim man, his writing expresses a critical relationship to both his adopted land and his original home.

Set primarily in Morocco at the tail end of the twentieth century, Infidels follows Jallal, the gay son of a prostitute, Silma, from his childhood to his death. Silma is the daughter of Saâdia Tadlauoi, an introductrice––a woman who assists couples having sex on their wedding night. Saâdia makes sure that blood appears on the sheet of a newlywed couple, no matter what. The social curse of Saâdia’s profession, her public association with sex, follows Silma and Jallal throughout their lives.  It starts with the boy spitting – a memorable opening chapter

Silma works as a prostitute and Jallal himself is forced into sex work, raped by men in the public baths. Silma has a gift with men, passed on from Saâdia, an understanding of desire and intimacy that is foreign to most. Jallal shares in her secrets, and together they also share a love of movies. For the young man, watching television offers a way of seeing the world outside of the oppressive confines of his life.

The most brutal passage of the book comes when Silma is imprisoned by the Government’s secret police. She is tortured horribly and her sexualized punishments mirror the social discrimination and dehumanization she faced for the crime of her intimate knowledge. After her release, she flees the country, but her experiences sharpen her disdain for nationalism. Silma’s final story, of love before death and finding peace in her relationship with God, feels both satisfying and incomplete.

After Silma’s death, Jallal moves to Belgium where, lonely and disconnected from his new surroundings, he meets Mahmoud. Their relationship is positioned as a love affair, though it is never consummated, confined by the blossoming of Jallal’s growing religious devotion. His haphazard shift to extremism at the close of the novel is complicated, a product of his search for love, companionship, and acceptance. His journey reflects a crisis of identity.

We were already familiar with his writing style that uses short and oftentimes simple sentences. The clarity of its written style is like blank verse.

This book is variously travel narrative, poetry and fiction, built as a series of monologues by Jallal’s mother, his grandmother, his stepfather and Marilyn Monroe. Sometimes it’s confusing – who is speaking?

One member of our group found it tedious.

Issues include Islamic fundamentalism, the West’s relationship with its Muslim immigrants, and secularism versus faith.

Physically, the book is beautifully produced. The Sufism, the 99 names of God and the spinning were lyrical – but would a Sufi be an Islamist?

The comparison of explosions to heartbeats was good.

The author: The moment of inspiration for the story dates back to 2000, said Taia, when he accompanied a cousin of his in Brussels to visit a friend who had been hospitalized following an accident. The friend was a Belgian who had converted to Islam, and at the time, said Taia, “we all fell in love with him, he projected a rare form of beauty, of someone who truly has spiritual faith.”

One day, he told himself, he would write about that moment. He created the characters of Slima, the mother, and her son Jallal, in order to be able to describe that moment, back in 2000, when he encountered a moment of purity, in contrast to the confusion about Islam in the West, the growth of religious fundamentalism in Moslem countries, and dogmatic secularism in France that had been developing over the years. Taia said when he created the character of Slima, he had the 8th century Arab Sufi poet and saint, Rabia Al-Adawiya, in mind because of the “inner purity” of both women. Infidels is a complex and multi-layered work that is written a little like poetry, but reading between the lines important questions are asked and contrasts are posed: sociological and political violence (as in Morocco) versus submission, religious freedom versus secularism (in France), Muslim faith versus Islamic terrorism, and violence towards women and feminism.

When he wrote the book, said Taia, it was “as if religious freedom could not exist in France.” With the book he wanted to make a space for his fictitious Islamist who, in most respects would be “against him”, but with whom he also has a few aspects in common. As Taia said in a recent interview in the Los Angeles Review of Books, “Our monsters are like us.”

At twelve years old in Salé, Morocco, Abdellah Taïa touched a high-voltage generator and lay dead for an hour before surprising everyone and breathing again. He defied death and would have to keep doing it: as a lone effeminate youth in his neighborhood, he was a target of sexual violence every day. On one occasion Taïa cites as a turning point, grown men on the street yelled in the night to wake him, threatening rape, and though he lay sandwiched between his mother and seven siblings in a shared bed, no one sheltered him. He is an artist intimate with vulnerability and he is unafraid.

My aunt Massaouda, an ex-prostitute, who used to tell us scary stories in the night. The muezzin calling for the Muslim prayer five times a day, that’s something I always find beautiful, inspiring, and crazy: a human voice so loud five times in the world. The whispering of naked men’s bodies in the public hammam, a place for marvelous transformations. My silent tears, during many many years, when Morocco wanted to kill me at the age of thirteen by deciding to make me a sexual object for horny men in the neighborhood. I had to save myself and only cinema was my shelter and my tenderness.

No sooner had I finished this book when I read, in the newspaper The Week: The only surviving suspect from the Paris terror attacks of 13 November 2015 — in which 130 people were killed — has gone on trial in Belgium over the shoot-out with police in Brussels, four months later, that culminated in his arrest. Salah Abdeslam (pictured), 28, a Belgium-born French national of Moroccan descent, refused to answer any questions in court this week, but did give a brief speech in which he insisted that his silence didn’t mean he was guilty. “What I see is that Muslims are treated in the worst possible way,” he said. “There is no presumption of innocence. Judge me, do what you want with me… I am not afraid of you… I put my trust in Allah.”

 Quotations:

I’m perverse. The perverse old woman everyone needs. A bit of a witch. A bit of a doctor. A bit of a whore. The sex specialist. They all came to me for help and they all turned their backs on me. That’s how it goes.

I watched television. That was where I learned to see things more clearly. The connections between people. Evil. Good. Masks. Languages. Illusions.

I change realities, really and truly enter fiction, cross the border, take on other colors.

When you’re old, I’ll still be there for you, though everyone, all the others have cast you out. I’ll talk to God, He will forgive us. God already accepts us as we are. He made us this way. In this condition. In this situation. We accept His decisions. We listen to His voice. You hear Him too, don’t you? Every night, he tells me to watch over you.

Every night, God loves us a little more.

The others crush us, prevent us from seeing the light; more and more, they shut us into a hell they first invented for them­selves. But He, God, Allah, is not them, isn’t like the image they made of Him.

God is in me. He’s also in you. You’re the one who gave me God. I know you also give Him to others, the men who come to our house, sleep at our house, eat with us, get undressed and dressed again at our house.

You see, I’m like you. In misfortune and in power. Divine and orphaned. I’m made of the same stuff as you. I’m in you. In every body. Every night. Every dream . . . I’m human. Extraterrestrial. Everywhere. Nowhere. Man. Woman. Neither one or the other. Beyond all borders. All languages.

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Ready To Catch Him Should He Fall by Neil Bartlett

An evocation of gay life, this is the first novel Neil Bartlett wrote.  In a dark corner of the best bar in the city, two lovers fall into each other’s arms. The bar has been called many names, but it is now known simply as The Bar. Its proprietor is the aging, still glamorous Madame. Its clientele is gay. The two who fall in love are Boy, a beautiful nineteen-year-old, and the handsome, forty-something “Older Man” referred to as “O” by the regulars of The Bar. This is the story of Boy’s and O’s courtship and marriage, of Madame’s role in the affair, and of the man called “Father,” who threatens to come between them.

Cruising is described painstakingly, as is the former Oasis Club and its regulars, including the chain-smoking, gravelly-voiced Flo, in Bristol.

The Boy appears at 19, a young man looking for something. For him, the search is quite literal: he walks the city looking for something, looking for a place he belongs. He knows what he wants, but he doesn’t yet know where to find it. In this, he is like every young gay man who leaves home and comes to the big city, having left his history behind him. O is another archetype: in his 40s, he has a history, one known in any detail, it seems, only to Mother; his question is whether he has a future.

Many of our group felt that the author wrote with great intimacy towards the reader yet also with a strange detachment from the characters. Despite its great energy, ther is a sense of emptiness.

The mugging scenes were realistic and well written yet lacking in emotion.  Is this because the author is primarily someone who works with actors on a stage where what you see is what communicates, not what you read.

I didn’t like aspects of violence in the key relationship, S & M., dominance. It took the romance away. Nor do I like drag,

Some reviewers point to literary allusions but I can’t see any (though they are listed at the end), nor did I see the relevance of quotations from the Book of Common Prayer. And he could have quoted the collect about ‘God who seest us amidst so many and great dangers’ with the queer-bashing that tolls like  bell throughout the novel.

Surely, by the 1990s, terms like ‘nigger’and ‘Jew’ weren’t in use.

It was rare to have a happy ending in those days.

Interview with the author GAY TIMES OCTOBER 90

Bartlett’s first novel Ready to Catch Him Should He Fall (Serpent’s Tail, £8.99) has just been published and it is no exaggeration to say that it stands head-and-shoulders above any British or American gay novel to have appeared in several years. Ready to Catch Him Should He Fall is (to use a journalistic cliché) a searingly honest evocation of gay life, cultures and rituals; it is tender, brutal, explicit, erotic and moving — set in a nameless but eternal city and with a time-scale that can only be defined as fluid. The novel centres on the relationships between ‘Boy’ (a young man seeking experience), ‘0’ (his older lover), and ‘Mother (their protector); and their love and care for each other and of the other inhabitants of The Bar, the locus of their interactions. Above all, this enormously impressive and exciting novel — a fictional debut of staggering assurance and ability — reveals the depths of Bartlett’s commitment to our history, our present and our future

 

London in the same way as in Who Was That Man? It is London, but it continually changes its shape. You could turn a corner or open a door and suddenly you’re in a city that you don’t quite recognise.

PETER: And the book is not set in any recognisable time . . .

NEIL: It clearly is set now, or the action of the story takes place now, except the people keep describing it as ‘Well, of course, in those days, when this happened, life was like this’. But there are very strong elements of previous periods of gay life. I

mean, it goes into — not exactly time-slips — but without being able to say exactly

where and when it happens you are in a different era of the city’s life. Going back to the late 19th Century, but also the 1940s, 50s, 60s, 70s.

The book is a return to a lot of very deeply held beliefs. Things very deep inside me which are to do with my life and my parents and the way I was brought up,
and my family, and that’s why the book is dedicated to my two grandmothers. Out of respect for them and the part that the world they represent has played in my life.

PETER: The book does seem to have a certain religious and ritual feel to it . . .

NEIL: It’s not intentional. It’s probably a reflection of how deeply it is in me.

Intellectually it wasn’t planned and I surprised myself with that aspect of it. I think
in a sense that some ritual is being enacted, and clearly the ritual is the standard narrative of love: love, courtship, marriage, child. (I did have the Book of

Common Prayer open on my desk the whole time I was writing the novel). I’m not religious now and I don’t go to church, but, like anyone who is brought up with it,

I know my way around the Book of Common Prayer and the idea that the book can have services and ceremonies in it for every occasion of your life. Of course, the fact of the matter is that as a gay man I don’t suppose that the Book of Common Prayer in a literal or obvious way has a ceremony in it for any occasion.

That’s exactly the contradiction that the novel is about— so having no ceremonies of our own, we invent new ones.

PETER: The sex in Ready to Catch Him seems to be or become sacramental . . .

NEIL: Of course! Sex is! But what happens is like we say we are inventing new sounds but of course you can’t. There are shapes of desire and of love — because

love has a shape — they aren’t abstract energy. The shape of love must be in­formed, either positively or negatively, by the traditions that are deeply inside you, whether you like them or not.

Now I’m not being fatalistic about it and saying therefore that you are inescapably conditioned to see ourselves as surrogate heterosexuals doomed to re-enact the rituals of that conditioning. And that pro­cess operates both positively and nega­tively throughout the book — it glorifies the images; it makes glorious the loves that are being described.

I have an image of the artist as being someone who is conductor of or a recep­tor for my culture — and things are going through me which are larger than myself. I am using the language, I am talking about incidents and images which don’t belong to me. On a literal level there is so much in that book which is inspired by the quality of other parts of the history of gay writing. But also in a larger sense, like with the character of Mother, where already four people have told me that they know who she is. They’ve said “Oh it’s great that you’ve put her in the book, but you’re too young, how did you possibly know about her?” and then they tell me about either a woman or a drag queen that they knew about who was exactly like her. So clearly in creating that figure — for instance ­and in Boy and 0 as well — I’m using images of people that don’t just belong to me but are part of gay culture or the scene.

RICHARD SMITH: What you have done in Ready To Catch Him — and what you did in Who Was That Man? — was put that history and that sense of continuity together in a form that is assimilable by the most people . . .
NEIL: Yes, but it has a very odd effect, that detail, because it must be read so completely differently by people who don’t know — and yet it has a very real effect for both of those people . .

One of the things I try and do when I’m writing is to be able to talk about a dress or a club and have some sense of tangibil­ity. That it isn’t just some vague throwback to those days. That it was real, and it’s as real as your memories as a homosexual. So I do that terrible thing of phoning people up at 11 o’clock at night and saying “What make-up would she have worn in 1954” and “Does pan-stick have an hyphen?” Because if one of those things is wrong then I feel I let people down. It’s so disrespectful to talk about these things and get it wrong.

RICHARD: It’s very strange in gay fiction to find someone so affectionate about the gay scene . . .

NEIL: Well, it’s fantasy that I have. But in the same way that the book is a sequence of fantasy events. It’s wishful thinking on my part, the idea that the bar could somehow be a place where there are relationships as deep as the relationships in the book. But of course I think it happens, I have been in places and seen men looking after each other — and that’s what we’re talking about.

In 1985 I was in Toronto and I was hanging out with a bunch of four men who shared a flat and were known as The Family (and their names actually appear in the book). There was this great weekend where one of The Family had split up with his boyfriend and the other two decided that this was a mistake and that they should get back together again. They spent the whole weekend on the ‘phone and in the bars, bringing these two guys back together again. And at the end of the weekend there was this fabulous tear-stained scene on the Sunday night and they kissed in the bar. One of them was the barman and the other guy jumped across the bar and kissed him — and everyone in the bar applauded. Everyone knew what was going on. And I was very young and very stoned and very in awe of these terrific men. I just thought that was the most marvellous thing. That a man should do that.

PETER: I’ve propounded in print several times that homosexual life is — certainly potentially — far richer and far more sustaining than heterosexual life because heterosexual life looks inward whereas gay life can be far more outward looking . . .

NEIL: I think it’s very important to talk about how very many different ways of doing it there are, in the same way as there are very many different ways of doing heter­osexual relationships. I don’t think it breaks down as a dichotomy. But the vast majority of gay people are raised by families. That’s what we know about. It’s the beginning of our lives. So I think the hunger to claim that life-bond of deep relationships is profound. So I think that’s where all that energy in the book comes from — the desire for that.

RICHARD: The narrator often appears as this whinging character . . . Do you ever feel distanced as an artist, an observer, from other gay men?

NEIL: Well, it’s funny. I don’t think the narrator is particularly distanced. Sure, of course I do feel distanced at times, but doesn’t everyone? Everyone feels that they’re looking at things from the outside. No. That’s not true. I’m evading the question. Yes. I sometimes feel that I am so aware of the complications of any given situation that I’m incapable of being . . . I’m very conscious that if I’m in a bar I’m always reading everyone’s stories. I’m obsessive when it comes to making things mean

 

something. And so, often, I’ll find myself in a place, watching and listening and think­ing rather than . . It’s because of my job, as an artist I don’t have a sense of work and leisure time. The gay world, what you’d call the scene, is about leisure time. As an entertainer I make things that people consume in their leisure time ­books and performances — so that gives me a very unusual relationship to that culture. If I’m in a pub I’m quite likely to be sitting there thinking ‘I wonder what is the film or book that this lot could come and see’. So immediately they’re ‘them’ ­because I’m in a relationship to ‘them’ in so far as I make things that they consume. I sell and they buy. I think that’s a useful way of describing my position. An outsider.

It’s a bit of a problem when someone beautiful comes up to you and says “Hello” and you think ‘Oh!’ and you look at them and then they say “I’ve just read your book.” And you think ‘Yes. Yes. Later. Let’s talk about it much later — like over breakfast!’ That’s very odd. When you’re writing a book there is something peculiar­ly frightening about putting what you really think about life down on paper. And when it’s finished, someone you don’t know (and you don’t even know they’re doing it) can pick it up and open it and think they know what you know about life.

Being held responsible for one’s work is sometimes very hard! And you mustn’t think about that whilst you’re making it, ’cause if you do; forget it! Your hands freeze . . .

RICHARD: Don’t you think straight people are going to find the book rather baffling?

NEIL: Well, people say that but . . . Jeanette Winterson gets asked the same thing and says “I never had any trouble understand­ing Wuthering Heights.” That’s the good answer. Books are about other people’s lives. I don’t know. I think the book will be castigated for being baffling. They’ll say “Who could possibly be interested in what a few men do in a bar late at night?” There’s nothing you can do about that. It’s certainly not a book written to please people. Sometimes you want to write something that’s going to be totally in-penetrable to anybody but your immedi­ate peers.

PETER: Couldn’t that cause people to level at you the accusation that you suffer from a ghetto mentality?

NEIL: The idea of a ghetto mentality, is a joke in this country . . . If there were a ghetto here I’d go and live in it.

You know you get people saying “Does being gay influence your work?” I just look them in the face and say “Oh, no, not at all.” It has become a redundant question to me, finally, which is great because I’ve had enough of that question. If someone can’t see that I am as much a gay artist when I am producing a play written three hundred years ago about an eighteen year old girl as I am when I’m doing a cock-sucking scene in the new book, then’ I give up. My work is a sufficient answer to that question.

Quotations:

“But do go back and amend my description of Boy so that he is, some way, if you see what I mean, your type. Make him fit the bill; imagine for him the attributes that you require.”

” O was always at Madame’s right hand, though never intimate with her. “By sheer force of will power,”

`the kind of wanting which extends beyond the night into the day.”

`will always be handsome. And Boy will always be beautiful, I think.”

After six nights in a row with 0, Boy spent the seventh night on his own; he went to his own place. He slept immediately and deeply, and then got up at six am to turn the television on and make the tea ready for when the man he lived with got in from work. They had their tea, then Boy went back into the living room to watch the breakfast television, which was sport, and -then the–ptio-ne-rang. t was 0, calling Boy up for the very first time.

The man took the call in the kitchen.

He was surprised, since for all Boy’s nights out, during which, as the man correctly assumed, Boy had sex with many different men, he never received visits, calls or letters from the men he had been sleeping with. The man did not think that Boy ever gave his address or phone number to anyone. He wondered sometimes if Boy even told people what his real name was.

And now there was someone on the phone saying, Is Boy there?

The man dried his hands and took the phone through to Boy, then walked back into the kitchen. Then he heard Boy say ‘Yes’, and then he heard the TV change; Boy had got up and turned it over to a boxing match, which was something Boy never usually watched. Wanting very much to hear (because he was sure that this was a lover calling, from the voice), the man used the boxing match as an excuse, and he came and stood in the kitchen doorway with a wet plate and the cloth in his hands, and looked at the televi­sion. And on the screen was a blackhaired, whiteskinned, nineteen-year-old boxer. His lip was split, and he was bleeding.

What had happened was that 0 had been at home, not sleeping, thinking about Boy at six in the morning, and he had called up and said, ‘Are you watching TV,’ to which Boy had replied, as the man had heard ‘Yes,’ and then 0 had told Boy to turn over to the boxing; he’d just said, ‘Get up and change to the third channel. I’m watching it, and I want you to watch it too. It makes me think of you.’

Though it was so strange and cryptic, Boy understood this call, because he began to understand now that there are different kinds of wanting someone. He thought, there is wanting to go to bed with someone, which is really just an erection; and there is the kind of wanting which extends beyond the night into the day, the kind where you spend all day waiting, sometimes several days. Sometimes you are waiting for a phone-call–and sometimes for a touch. You think about the person all the time, I think about you all the time, that’s what you say. And you begin to say things that don’t make any sense to people who don’t know what’s going on between you, but you know that the other person, to who what you’ve said is really addressed Will know what you mean even, even though he may not actually be there.

And also, as he watched the Boxer on the television, Boy began to think that there are two kindsof sex; the kind of sex where you say do this, do that, or you manoeuvre yourself into position for a particular kind of pleasure; and then there is the other kind of sex, where you want to say, do anything. Do anything you want to me, you can do anything you want, I give you entire permission over me. This feeling and especially those words cannot actually be. spoken, because the words are too shaming; but for the men I know and for myself certainly I know that it usually comes out as fuck me, please fuck me, though that may not be exactly what you mean. I mean it is not necessarily about wanting to be actually fucked this feeling. It’s more to do with the way my women friends use the word ‘fucked’, when they say I fucked him, or I didn’t want to fuck him — for us it still means I literally fucked him, he got fucked by me. What I mean is, sometimes you are on top of him, you have the back of his neck in your teeth, and you still find yourself wanting to say to him, fuck me, go on, go on, even though you are on top of him.

This is all so hard to tell someone, so you try to do it with your body. When you see a man bury his face in his pillow, he is doing it  to avoid saying all this; to escape from the words he hears himself wanting to say, to silence himself, because he knows that your face is just six inches from his but still he cannot look at you or say what he means.

You noticed this when 0 and Boy were out together. They were always very close to each other, but would never seem able to look one another in the eye, as if afraid of some terrible blush. They avoided each other’s eyes in different ways: 0 would stare away as if checking some man across The Bar; Boy would often as not still look down ail the floor as had always been his habit, as if he were indeed living up to his name, as if he were indeed some young and inexperienced Boy who 0 had just fucked into the ground. As if he was unused to having his body turn on him and shame him by admitting that it wanted these things to happen to it. As if reluctant to acknowledge it in public that it was indeed his body and not someone else’s body that had done those things the night before or the afternoon before. As if he was not responsible for his actions. As if suddenly he might be able to help himself and sudden­ly right there in the middle of The Bar he would say out loud: Fuck me. Please fuck me, take this body of mine right down into the deep with you, pull me under the earth, drag me under the sea; pinion my arms, put your mouth over mine and pull me under these heavy waves I’m feeling, drown me.

When 0 put down the phone at the end of his first call, he did not know how to say goodbye, to Boy; he did not know what name to use. He would remember this later, this not knowing what to call him. Boy or Darling or whatever. One night, later in their affair, 0 woke up in the middle of one of his long and noisy dreams and lay there for a long time looking at Boy’s face as he slept. And then, very deliberately, as if this was what he had decided, 0 said, very quietly, but very defi­nitely, out loud, baby.

This time there was no knife, they just got him on the floor and it was just a fist which had come down on the man’s face again and again. And it happened just two streets away from The Bar. He came into The Bar with blood everywhere. He was trying not to cry, and he kept on saying I’m shocked, I’m just a bit shocked that’s all. He wasn’t as badly hurt as he looked, actually, but it was enough to make us all think at least twice.

People say to me that I must be keeping a list of all the attacks I hear about. They say it’s morbid, they say what are you trying to prove anyway. They say why do you have to talk about that just now. They say to me, how many of them do there have to be before you think you’ve got enough on your list. They say when are you going to stop it, and I say, when am I going to stop it, when am I — it was the second night they were in the bar together after their week of absence I remember. When the man had had his face washed (by Stella) and been given a drink, and one of the barmen had called for a taxi, Mother got right up and got on the stage and told Gary she was ready for her song now. She did her own intro. And if ever I thought it, that was the time I thought that Mother knew what she was singing about.

First she dedicated her song that night to the man who was bleeding (he was still in The Bar, the taxi hadn’t come yet), and then to the ‘ men who had brought their fists down on his face just two streets from her Bar. Then she went on and dedicated her song to all those men here tonight who are still hunting, all of those who are unhappy in love, all of those who are putting up with second best, all of those who are not getting what they want. Don’t waste another night, she said; if there is somebody here you want then go right up and tell him about it, you just tell him, because he may not be here tomorrow night. If you want him to beat you, then you ask him; if you want him to stop beating you, then tell him. If you want him to take you home, go right up now and ask him, sure he will.

She then proceeded to recite a bitter list of  all the failed marriages which we had in our midst or knew of. She named the names of all the broken, hearts. She dedicated her song to all the boys who had really regretted doing it, all the men who had ever said, naming no names, it took ten years of my life, and now I can truly say that I never want to even talk to him again, never to see him. And then, just when people were looking genuinely shock­ed by what she’d said — remember that this man, who we all knew, was still sitting there with the blood just washed off his face, as if to remind us that she wasn’t joking — then she said, don’t be scared boys.

She said, don’t waste any time, Boys, because you don’t have any to waste.

She looked right at 0 and Boy when she said this and it was as if she was trying to scare them in particular, even as if she was trying to frighten them away from each other, as if she was saying, to them, and to all of us, this is what you have to go through, right?

She said, I want you to listen to this song very carefully tonight. I want you to ndte that I am not singing just ‘take my back, because it’s my best feature’ (in the mirror we could see her beautiful strong back in the low cut of the dress, and of course we could see ourselves too). I am not singing ‘Take my body’. I am not singing ‘Take my head and my heart and all my bad habits but by the way I’m sorry that you have to put up with all that but they’re just part of the package you see.’ I am not saying take me on my good days. I am not saying take me like I look tonight and pretend that’s all you’ve got to take. I am saying take me when there’s blood on my face. What I am saying most specificially is take all of me — and here of course Gary began the melody on the piano and we all smiled and then she sang, sang her song, and believe me we did all listen to the words that night, we knew that the man who had been attacked was there, and we knew that 0 and Boy were standing shoulder to shoul­der in our midst, we saw them in the centre of the mirror, saw ourselves standing beside them and standing by them and give me a drink now because I had such hopes of a lover of my own on the evening and here I am.

Give me a drink. You know I have always wanted to get married, not for always, but just for once in my life I wanted to live out my love for a man like they did. I suppose you think I mean I want to walk down the aisle in white with my friends watching, but that’s not it, that’s not what this feeling is to do with. Or not all of it, because of course I would love to do that. But that’s easy to laugh at. What I want is to hold his hand in public. And what I want then is to hold his hand in front of the television for several evenings a week, and if you don’t understand that, and if you don’t know what that feeling is, if you don’t know what it’s like that then you know nothing, nothing, nothing.

I’m sorry.

I mean, Gary says you dream about mar­riage the same way you dream about some­one coming down your throat; it’s not some­thing you’re going to actually do, not these days, but that doesn’t mean you don’t dream about it. It doesn’t mean you can’t actually almost feel what it would feel like.

O held onto him, but Boy said, don’t try to stop me from crying. Boy said, I am not crying because he’s dead. I am crying for the life he led. And it isn’t my fault and it wasn’t his fault but I wish there was somebody to blame, if he wasn’t to blame then who was to blame, who was it, oh I want to hurt them, I want to hurt them, I want to hurt them.”

You can download it from here

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Herbert P. ‘Rex’ Batten, 1928-2017, RIP

RexIn 2014, we read his book for Gay history Month.

Rex was born in rural Dorset in 1928. He moved to London to take up a scholarship at RADA as a contemporary of Joe Orton and Alan Bates. His dashing good looks earnt him the name ‘Rex’ in touring companies. After bit parts in films and free-lance writing for radio, Rex decided the acting life was not for him and spent most of his working life in teaching.

He was the author of ‘Rid England of This Plague’ a semi-autobiographical account of the persecution of homosexuals in the 1940s and 1950s . Rex Batten studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, as a contemporary of Joe Orton and Alan Bates.

In later life, Rex suffered from cancer which Ron Woollacott recalls he ‘never once complained’ and ‘remained cheerful and opti­mistic’. Following a period of remission the cancer retuined. Loved by all who knew him, neighbours rallied around to care for him at his home in Landells Road, East Dul­wich, but after a short period Rex passed peacefully away on the evening of Tuesday, 7th November

His partner John 1944-2017 died a few months before.

Rex was interviewed in.2012 by an academic for a book Queer 1950s: Rethinking Sexuality in the Postwar Years edited by Heike Bauer, Matt Cook

RBChapter 7 deals with the significance of the home, about which Batten writes much. ‘Home’, writes Richard Hornsey, was ‘one of the most contested sites in the concerted drive for social reconstruction and renewal in post war Britain in the 1950s: As a material place and as an ideal, it represented what could go right for the nation. It alluded to a companionate and nuclear form of family to which men and women brought their respective and highlv gendered skills, and to a coming gereration reared with a clear set of values aligned with respectability and good citizenship.’ The new welfare state was based on presumptions about the tight form and functioning of this unit, further ingraining it as the obvious and ideal base for domestic life. Home had long held this pivotal status in British culture, but it was given a fresh impetus in this period in ways that we can trace through novels.

Batten’s book ‘is valuable for what it suggests about the 1950s and about the complex dance men like Rex had to perform in living out their daily relational,, social and sexual iive5. But what is especially telling in Rex’s testimony is the way home is writ large in his accounts and carries multiple meanings and associations. It is, I argue, one of the key ways in which he oriented himself then and remembers that period in his life now.’

“Rex was 20 he moved I from his family home in Dorset into his lover’s house in a nearby village, Ile lived with Ashley not his real name) for a year and (when in the same house with his subsequent lover, John, moved to London when he got a place at the Royal Academy of of Dramatic Art. He and John lived first in a bedsit near Russell Square and then in another in Camden. In 1957, the couple moved into a house in East Dulwich in South East London and lived there together until John’s death on Christmas Lye 1994. Rex still lives in the same house and has a new partner., also called John, to whom his novel is dedicated.”

He’d come from “a rural slum was an apt description…. Hew in Lower Budleigh was another world. Torn was impressed._ The transformation Ash had worked moved the man into a realm well beyond sirnple sex. He had created a show­piece…the perfect recreation of the archetypal cottage that never existed.”

Ashley’s interior transformation is a partial articulation of upper-middle class and self-consciously tasteful homosexuality whereas Rex’s parents’ home is characterised by emotional bonds.

When Ash divorced, it had been the ‘better pieces of furniture’ he had clung to tenaciously, hiding them in a barn. toprevent her family getting their hands on them.

Ashley ‘would casually mention country house parties in the days before the second world war’, writes Rex. At these parties and in these homes, “footmen served dinner nude with their cocks and balls painted gold.”  These were like the Mayfair apartments “where worrking-class men and guardsmen might be corrupted.’

But these contemporary activities of a decadent queer past seemed out kilter with postwar austerity. The war had blown the smart world of the 1930s into the past.

“Tom’s new boyfriend. Michael, is, meanwhile, shown in the novel to be more equal in terms of age, class and moneyand the compan­ionate domestic relationship is apparently more in tune with the new era. Michael moved into the cottage with no consultation and ostensibly ‘no great plans’ – the move to cohabitation itself signalling the desire for a relationship with Toni (he did not want to ‘risk being turned down);’ Ashley meanwhile, went to ‘take care of his ailing widower father’ and left the two younger men to it.’ Rex characterises this time as ‘a simple domestic period’ with little intrusion from the outside world, he emphasises repeatedly the equality of the partnership in terms of sex and domestic chores especially, and in the novel and

in interview the home is pivotal to the way Rex describes the initial and subsequent stages of their relationship. At moments of crisis, the domestic represents normality and continuity and comes as a mode of reassurance.

“… the narrator remarks that ‘both. in their different ways, had been bought up to conform’. Their shared experi­ences and understandings of home provide a means of speaking to each other and to family; friends and neighbours about their relationship and intimacy in ways which might not have been easy to articulate directly. For Tom and Michael/Rex and Tom the domestic space offered a haven in which discretion was not a burden, and the unspoken was not seen as oppressive or repressive. The men were held bythe benign inarticulacy of those around them and the ongoing ordinariness of the day-to-day. In the nonel, when John returned to Dorset in the
wake of Ashley’s arrest, his mother was waiting’: She cooked him breakfast while his father was at work. Everything was fine. Vic wagged a welcome and jumped and barked insisting he would take Ton for a walk.  After their brush with the law, he turned more to his family because ‘support was there without having to ask or explain. Rex  an John didn’t tell any of their London friends about what had happened to them; the wartime slogan ‘careless talk costs lives perhaps found new resonance…for queers in the early to mid-1950s…….. the escalating arrest and prosecution rate reaching an all-time high in 1955,

Tom took care not to put his family in the line of homophobic abuse”; he ‘valued them far too highly’ – it was relatively easy for him’ to do, partly because of his own domestic circumstances and “his validation of home and what it represented. This engagement with the domestic and familial, which tugs against wider press. characterisations of those ‘evil men’  haunting street corners and public toilets, resonates with a 1950s reformist discourse which stressed domestic accord as a way of legitimising homosexuality.

“What Rex and John sought in their East Dulwich home was the space to conduct their relationship without standing out from those around them. They ‘just wanted to he accepted in the new street’. The two felt a sense of local community which did not stop at a bedsit next-door. ‘It was very much a south London working class street he said. Within a week, ‘half a dozen bread puddings’ had arrived from neighbours who doubted the ability of two men to look after themselves and the couple were subsequently invited to local parties.

Deliberately or not, their home was not flamboyantly different, from those of other postwar couples with limited disposable income. ‘All the furniture when we moved in was second hand, pre-war’, … They bought Homes and Gardens and ripped out the Victoriana (it was old fashioned, past a joke: you did not take it seriously’); covered a door with orange formica…..fashions change) and, like others of their generation, did not only use the parlour for best ‘

Whatever local knowledge there was about Rex and John remained tacit, and only in 1967 a full ten years alter they had moved in did they buy a double bed.

Aside from continuities with the local community there were ongoing connections with Rex’s Dorset home and village. The East Dulwich house belonged to a close family friend who had moved to Dorset, so allowing            and John to move in, ‘this was not only a piece of good fortune but a sign of the importance of familial networks. That Rex had this connection might also have helped in their integration into the neighbourhood; there was a sense. of continuity. Maps of his home county still hang on the wall. “These west country links embraced both Rex and John, and once, when Rex visited Dorset alone, his mother berated him for not bringing John with him: ‘he IS family, she had said, and don’t you ever do that again?’

They were the kind of couple addressed by the Wolfenden recommendations and the Sexual Offences Act of 1967 relating to the permissibility of sex between two men over 21 in private and they fitted into a refashioned postwar domestic culture which was seeing more and more (though far from all) couples living independently together, This is a more distinct and privatised version of homosexual identity than had been apparent., or possible before, especially tor men ‘without much money.

Previously, queers became resigned to living alone because for social reasons it would be difficult or impossible to live with another man.

When they ” gave me permis­sion to photograph it, he asked that I did not include the door number for fear someone might come and smash the glass.”

In the book, Rex “fictionalises his story, renders it in the third person, and uses pseudonyms. He thus preserves a distance between himself and the events he describes and so replays what was a felt necessity for many men in the 11950s who were queer themselves or who were writing about queer men.”

“Rex himself describes not having the language to describe himself or the subcultural “type’ he encountered as a younger man whilst at the same time ‘knowing’ what he wanted and was. He did not ‘come out to neigh­bours or his parents, but they knew and exercised those values of discretion, respectability and propriety which were…prized the postwar generation and did not necessarily signify a lack of care.”

It was a cold climate for gay men under Home secretary  David Maxwell Fyfe . The “sense of anxiety and fear about Rex’s documents was real and warranted.
And yet, running alongside this in Rex’s testimony is another set of memories: of prolific sex; of intimacy; support; and, the clincher, of home …..it provided a connection to the outside world and a mode of achieving legitimacy within it, and yet also functioned as a place of retreat as it did for a wider public. These understandings intersect and run together in Rex’s final comments in my interview with him.

he said, ‘you can’t buy a home, you’ve got to make it,…and I think home means to me. a place you can be together and you feel not cut off from the world outside but you are part of it and that great mass can do what they want outside.'” Rex’s ‘evidence of experience brings us into close touch with the resources and identifications of one queer man and one queer couple in the 1950s. These are unique to them, but they also help us to draw out broader circulating ideas and experiences about queer identilication and aspiration – and indicate the ways in which they often cling to family, to home as the basis of domestic life.

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MY CAT YUGOSLAVIA – PAJTIM STATOVCI

MCYPeople in our group were generally glad to have read it. It has fantastic episodes and intense descriptions of one’s inner life.

Here are also some loose ends – whom is the newe lover? How did he get here?

It’s essentially an allegory about identity, love, death, sex, and facing one’s fears, demons, and their past. It goes back and forth from the point of view of son, then mother, son, then mother, and by part 2, you somewhat lose whose voice is telling the rest of the story

It takes a while to work out who everybody is and how they are related to each other.

Despite a childhood history with ophidiophobic nightmares, he buys a boa constrictor and sets it loose in his apartment. The snake takes up residence under his sofa, driving away his few human visitors, and quickly adopts strangely companionable behaviors more befitting a dog than a reptile.

Emine is brought up in a quietly conservative village near the Kosovan capital of Pristina, she was married off to a man whose name, Bajram (“celebration”), belied his fierce temper, and it has taken her decades to pluck up the courage to leave him.

In the 18th and 19th century. British writer and Albanian advocate Edith Durham wrote High Albania in 1909, and described the customs she encountered amongst the Albanians of what is now northern Albania and Kosovo. The language she used to describe Albanians then calls to mind the trope of the noble savage today: men who kill for honour and women who spend their lives in childbirth or domestic servitude.

An urgent longing for love belies Bekim’s inscrutability. We find echoes of that same longing in Emine’s girlhood reminiscences. She is a fiercely intelligent daydreamer at odds with her strict and superstitious father. In one of the novel’s most affecting passages, she realizes that the objective of her education has always been to make her a more suitable wife.

There’s too much stereotyping – no Albanian man in My Cat Yugoslavia, apart from Bekim, is anything other than a rustic bigot, and no Albanian woman is anything other than a besieged housewife. The nuance and care afforded Bekim’s character doesn’t appear to be extended to his countrymen and women. It’s clear that Statovci means to depict the closed, conservative nature of Kosovar Albanian society when he describes Emine being sexually harassed in a marketplace and Bekim’s father beating his family

It’s a literal take on ‘crushing the serpent’s head’ in Christianity, though Islam doesn’t have a serpent in its fall myth.

The snake that Bekim brings into his apartment is both foreign and fear-inducing; most of his days he spends cooped up in a terrarium, just as many of the Kosovans in Finland felt penned in at their reception centres and gawped at when they stepped outside.

The pet serpent becomes a peculiar character in its own right, its reptilian coolness and shedding of skin reflecting Bekim’s progressive loss of his own warmth. The book’s most notable animal, however, is the one in the title: an anthropomorphic talking cat named Yugoslavia, whom Bekim meets at a gay club. The cat quickly charms Bekim, despite sharing so many of the hatreds that torment him: the cat is anti-gay, anti-immigrant, and as selfish and abusive as Bekim’s father. Even so—and much as his mother did, for years, with his father—Bekim caters to Yugoslavia, bringing the cat home and attending to its every need.

Is the cat really aloof or is it afraid of exposing its neediness? There is more than one cat. The first cat talks. The second cat was abandoned, uncared for, unloved in the native country until rescued and restored to health. And finally, there is the black cat in a litter, “just normal, mongrel kittens,” in the author’s words, to distinguish them from the black and white cat who speaks, and the orange cat who doesn’t. The talking cat so full of himself could be the author himself, and the follow-on cats could be those who’d suffered during the war, coming finally to the children, those ‘normal’ integrated ‘mongrels’ who’d adjusted to their new environment in their adopted country and married with locals.

These relationships are as visceral – the boa constrictor’s intimacy crushes, almost asphyxiates – as those of family and home country. War destabilises and mangles identity – “We were vagrants,” Emine says. “We were stuck between the truth and the lies. We no longer knew what was real” – and it’s in these bizarre, intense interactions with animals that the reader gets a feel for the hybrid nature of migrant life.

In his History of Albanian Literature, linguist Robert Elsie describes the Albanian literary canon as lacking in eroticism. I would argue that this has changed over the past two to three decades, as more Albanian women have begun writing about love and sex (and writing novels, period).

Year after year, Kosovo is ranked as one of the most homophobic countries in Europe, which is why we need more protagonists like Bekim to normalise queerness and forms of love divorced from domination

However, somebody knowledgeable has pointed out: Kosovar Albanian characters inexplicably use phrases that belong to the Toske dialect of Albanian, which is not spoken anywhere in Kosovo. Someone else pointed out that those who left kept their language whilst those who stayed developed it.

The author: “When I told people where I come from, instead of interest, I many times received pity.”

This (the cat) unusual relationship, Statovci told me, may represent, for Bekim, “a different kind of love” from the others he has known, “stronger and more powerful, because it has crossed borders and walls. Maybe he thinks that if he can get someone like that to give him love and acceptance, he will be O.K.,” Statovci added. “Maybe he needs to feel that it is possible for people who think in a similar way the cat thinks to see him as more than a refugee or as a gay guy—to fall in love with him.”

Statovci has long been haunted, he told me, by George Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” particularly the famous line “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others,” which Statovci called “a beautiful analogy of the world we live in.” Yugoslavia the cat may also remind readers of Behemoth, the demonic feline in Mikhail Bulgakov’s “The Master and Margarita,” who mixes his devilry with charm, though Yugoslavia seems more devil than charmer. And midway through Statovci’s novel Yugoslavia becomes a regular house cat, which Bekim carries around. The novel never explains how or why a talking cat existed or what to make of his disorienting return to ordinariness. Had Bekim imagined Yugoslavia into existence out of desperation? Had something in him shattered, and Yugoslavia emerged? The feline’s shift may contain a cultural metaphor: in Finland, Statovci told me, “cats are domesticated, whereas in Kosovo they are seen as dirty.” But this only says so much. Perhaps, the novel seems to suggest, this is how a mind can break, folding in on itself, elaborate as an origami swan, until it is torn apart.

My Cat Yugoslavia is a work of fiction – from start to finish, but I do make use of some autobiographical elements

I also wanted to show the different levels of discrimination and racism and how integral and automatic it often is, with characters that are guilty of doing it and with characters that are its victims and with characters that first suffer from violence and then act in a violent fashion. Bajram, who himself has suffered from racism, ends up acting racist towards Finns and being more and more violent towards his family. Bekim’s mother, Emine, who loathes working Finnish mothers, ends up landing a job herself. The cat in Bekim’s story is ruthless towards Bekim, at first for no apparent reason, but later on starts showing symptoms of being a victim of bigotry. It’s the saddest thing ever when people who have confronted intolerance and hatred end up being intolerant and hateful, but that’s how it goes. What hatred generates and what it calls upon is hate.

I’m actually just turning in my master’s thesis on animal representations in some selected short stories of Ernest Hemingway and Franz Kafka

MCY 2Quotations:

“Gays. I don’t much like gays… How repulsive. Men’s hands don’t move through the air like that, and men don’t talk the way women talk. And men don’t wear such tight tops and wiggle their bottoms like that – like a prostitute, a whore!”

“When people on the television talked about the disputes between the Albanians and the Serbs, I didn’t bother listening; the news anchor might as well have been speaking in Chinese.” (To suggest Emine would be unaware of the roots of the Albanian-Serb conflict in Kosovo is laughable.)

He starts to use false names, like Michael and John, simply to “avoid the next question, which is, ‘Where are you from?’ ” “It’s one thing to tell someone you are Swedish, German, or English,” Bekim says, “and quite another thing to say you are Turkish or Iranian. It’s only very rarely that someone’s home country is of no significance at all.”

“I noticed the cat across the dance floor”

I had never seen anything so enchanting, so alluring. He was a perfect cat” with gleaming fur and muscular back legs.

Then the cat noticed me; he started smiling at me and I started smiling at him, then he raised his front paw to the top button of his shirt, unbuttoned it, and began walking towards me.”

I didn’t answer. He glanced quickly out of the window where the evening was beginning to darken and turn red. What if I stopped loving him or what if he could no longer bring himself to say it, or what if he fell in love with someone else or got a job on the other side of the world? Anything could happen. He could die.

…“Don’t think too much. That’s your problem.”

He moved his hand on my stomach; his fingertips felt warm and soft and his skin smelled of sliced almonds.

Then I said it too, because it would have been sheer madness not to say those words to a man like that.

only pretty and good at housework, or so I’d been told,

never heard of a single female politician, a female teacher or lawyer.

All of a sudden tanks and soldiers were filling the streets. When Albanians started being systematically removed from their jobs, from positions in hospitals and the police, and when it became impossible to study in Albanian, the situation turned desperate. There was no room in the city to breathe. The caretaker in our apartment building didn’t bother to clean the floors with Albanian residents. The bosses at Bajram’s office were sacked and Serbs were appointed in their place, and eventually Bajram too lost his job. Local authorities gave Serb-owned businesses tax cuts while general taxation for Albanians was increased. Albanians had to study in basements and private apartments, in secret, and teachers caught teaching Albanians were routinely attacked, gas grenades were thrown into civilian apartments, and innocent people were beaten up in the streets.

The air became thick and damp, heavy with the smell of burning, because it was breathed in turn by the desperate and the insane. I worried that I would wake up to find our apartment building on fire or that my children and I would be kidnapped and taken away, that we’d never see one another again. How was it even possible to experience hatred to such a degree that you altogether lost your sense of right and wrong?

When war broke out in Bosnia and we heard about the bru­talities to which the Bosnians were subjected—they were driven out of their homes, their houses were bombed, pregnant women were tortured and raped and taken to concentration camps—I wondered what was happening to this planet. At what point had humans turned into beasts that mauled one another, that held their neighbors’ heads beneath the water?

“What? What did you say about religions?” he interrupted me angrily and slammed his coffee cup on the table.

“Yes, at school the children learn about all different reli­gions,” I said warily and breathed out as calmly as I could.

Bajram hit the table with his fist so hard that coffee spilled from the cup. He stood up and walked over to me. I didn’t dare look at him because I could feel his expression without looking. It was red-hot, like a ceramic burner turned on full.

“Why have you sent our children to a Sunday school?” he asked and hauled me to my feet.

“I haven’t done that,” I tried to assure him. “In schools here they teach children about all religions.”

I tried with all my might to calm him down, to escape the ensuing conversation. “It’s part of their basic education, part of their curriculum,” I said and tried to slip free from his hand.

Bajram looked at me for a moment with that same expres­sion on his face, that bloodthirsty expression, the kind of expres­sion you see only on the face of one who is about to exact the final, ultimate revenge. He held my shoulders with both hands, moved his right arm round my neck, and began to squeeze.

The very next day Bajram marched into the children’s school and forbade the teachers to teach them about religion. Accord­ing to Bajram, the teachers had stammered in response, trying to lie to him, and said that this was an optional course about life philosophy in which the students were encouraged to think about the world and its various phenomena, including religion. At first Bajram had scoffed at them, dug his fingers into his fore­head, and shaken his head as though he had a headache. Then he asked them why he hadn’t been told about this. Its as if you’re trying to steal my children from me, he said.

When he came home he told me how he had shown them what’s what. I couldn’t understand how he seriously imagined he would be able to change their ideas of life by talking to them about Islam. On some level I admired his determination and resolve. He blindly believed in his own world and trusted that his own faith would save him from all imaginable sins for which he feared divine retribution. It wasn’t a bad way to live your life.

The following month Bajrara lost his job. He was genuinely shocked at this—despite the fact that he knew his employers had found out that he had been deviating from the prescribed syl­labus. He had been talking to the.students about Islam and told them their life philosophy classes were a pack of lies.

He had been given two options: he could either resign or he would be fired. Upon realizing the difference between the two and the implications they might have, he took the former option. After this he seemed depressed for a long time because he truly loved his job and had wanted to do it full-time, not just in the afternoons and evenings.

His employment record arrived in the post. Bajram looked at it for a while and slipped it into his desk drawer. He took it out again, read it for a moment, then put it back in the drawer. He did this so often that one day, when he had gone out for a walk, I took out the sheet of paper and read it for myself.

Employment terminated at the employee’s behest due to dis­agreement over interpretation of the school’s aims and values regarding equality.

That’s what it said.

At times it seemed as though what we saw on television couldn’t really be happening. It was a mirage, an unreal reflec­tion of unreal events. But it was all truly happening, the lives of every single one of those people had ended, and I felt like a coward for refusing to die in the conflict. We will all die one day, I thought, and there will be nothing left of us. Wouldn’t it be nobler to die back home rather than to run away? To die in battle rather than of old age?

When the news reported the events in Ratak on January is, 1999, we began to question the existence of God. What had that woman, gunned down, ever done to the Serbs? What had that child done, what had those desperate men done, men who real­ized their village was surrounded by Serb troops? And when those men saw the soldiers shooting randomly at innocent peo­ple, where was God then? Where was he? When men who had been captured were suddenly told, Run away, and when those men ran away up the hill only to be cut down halfway there, where was he? And when after this skirmish they showed video footage of an orphaned little boy weeping, what did God do with that child?

I told the woman that I didn’t particularly care for cats either, I am like my son. They are too erratic, too quiet. I said I couldn’t understand why Finnish people kept them as pets because in Kosovo the cat is considered a dirty animal.

She was convinced that this was not about a fear of actual snakes but about things the boy associated with snakes, the images and memories he had of them.

She was convinced that this was not about a fear of actual snakes but about things the boy associated with snakes, the images and memories he had of them.

Bajram showed the imam into the apartment and the imam followed him after taking off his snakeskin shoes and leaving them in the hall. His socks, the same color as his suit, were damp at the toes.

All at once my cat started hissing. It had walked to the edge of the boulder, its teeth bared, and began to hiss at something moving around in the long grass below us. The cat was lean­ing forward—it looked almost as though it might topple off the edge of the boulder. Its fur had become bristled and restless, and its sharp shoulders stood unnaturally high and its mouth opened and now looked extraordinarily large compared to the rest of its body…..The snake was plump and must have been about a yard long. It was clearly a sand viper, Vipera ammodytes, the most poisonous viper in Europe.

“Wipe it away and you’re dead, they said, wipe it and you’re dead, you fucking parasite refugee.”

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Forbidden Territory (Coto Vedado): The Memoirs of Juan Goytisolo

FT 2The author is a connoisseur of experience but not of commitment. He fantasises a lot.

In the light of current events in Catalonia, it is very relevant now. We wanted to know more about Franco’s Spain but it’s an interesting history of dissidents.

It might have been more interesting had we read some of his novels – he alludes to things and then says that he has dealt with them elsewhere, in such and such a book.

His name means “The Garden of Secrets.” At one stage, he describes himself as n extrovert but it is quite clear that his schoolboy behaviour was extremely introverted, bordering on Asperger’s Syndrome.

He one slept through a whole day, not sure whether it was 8.00 am or pm; an experience I have also had.

Spanish writers tended to censor personal failings – maybe as a result of the confessional which wipes the late clean.

The translator has done a good job at creating some evocative prose – particularly at the end of this volume. There are beautiful descriptions and he is good at putting across what a child might feel but his style is impenetrable in places. There are too many long sentences with lots of sub clauses.

Goytisolo is a ruthless critic of Spain and its upper classes and no less a ruthless critic of himself. He was struggling with the stranglehold of a family in a fallen and irrelevant aristocracy that welcomed Franco, with the emergence of his homosexuality in a culture rigidly opposed to any sign of it, to the censorship of books that were his lifeline to becoming a writer, to bad Argentine translations of American literature — so many things that say so much about Spain during that period.

He recalls a childhood that included the Civil War when his mother travelling into Barcelona and was killed by bombs from an air raid. Was it this blow or a combination of it and being molested by his grandfather that gave him such an entrenched feeling of not belonging? He shook off the influence of religion and Franco early on and eventually emigrated to France to write. He was a communist in spirit but never fully a member, became a long-time lover of a French woman despite knowing of his own latent homosexuality. Only in his 30s does he reconcile his sexuality and find a certain peace within himself.

It is in some sense very clinical, and the sense that Goytisolo may be a clinician studying Goytisolo, is emphasized by the occasional switching of tenses. Sometimes he speaks of Goytisolo in the third person, more often the second (addressing the actions of a “you” which is actually himself). In some passages this appears to be done as a way of taking a certain amount of distance from personal ownership of actions.

He deals with the complications and micropolitics surrounding the doomed journal Libération and those concerned with getting the records straight, family, relationships, consciousness-raising, and sexuality.

In 1963, Goytisolo was cited by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization as the Spanish author most translated into various languages, second only to Miguel Lopez de Cervantes. Some consider De Biedma to be a worthy heir to Federico Garcia Lorca. His new approach to writing poetry, influenced by T.S. Eliot and W. H. Auden, made him bridge the gap between the old Romanticist Spanish writers and the post-Franco avant-garde movement called the Movida, which he prefigured.

It is said that Goytisolo’s theme is moral decay and in a powerfully violent prose he conveys his belief that literature should be committed to social progress. Kessel Schwartz describes him: “A disoriented victim of his own idealism …, he denounces with nightmarish intensity the system which falls so much short of the impossible paradise he once visualized….”

FTQuotations:

spinster, who looked like a guardsman according to Leopoldo, surrounded by a small band of curates and canons. They accompanied her in her life of leisure and benefited from her generous charity. In decorative lapdog role, they would come to her society gatherings, her an arm when she crossed the street and obsequiously hold her sunshade. In this way, Uncle jokingly concluded, these pious leeches inherited all her wealth when she died.

A much-handled copy of a Prayers to St. Joseph, which I just happen to have with me as I write these lines, meticulously gathers er a series of miracles in which Divine Justice fulminates indiscrimi­nately against freethinkers, blasphemers, trade unionists, Repub­licans, masturbators, and enemies of the Pope: “In one town there was an ple of Heaven taking revenge. At about midday the priest was taking holy Communion to a sick man. After leaving the church he walked in front of an inn where there were three men seated at a table. Two got up and took their hats off as they saw the most holy sacrament. The third man, rather than imitating them, began to mock them, and, as an example of his courage and wit, he blasphemed horribly against Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary. Hardly had the wretched man uttered his blasphemy than he fell unconscious to the ground in the presence of his terrified companions. A doctor was called, so was the parish priest, but all to no avail: on three separate occasions the priest came to confess the dying man, but always in vain. That blasphemy was his last word on earth. He shook with horrible convulsions for ten hours; delirious, he cut his tongue with his own teeth and then expired. … Another individual who was very fond of reading immoral newspapers saw his daughter, dressed in white about to go to a neighboring village where the bishop was administering the sacrament of Confirmation; flew into such a rage that he tore off her veil, snatched away the bouquet she was carrying and shut her up in a room. After a few days a wild horse ran through the village without hurting anyone, went in the thoughtless father’s house, knocked him down, and stamped on him till he was dead.”

While the idea of the family has for years ceased to have any meaning for me, the strangeness of our surname and a purely atavistic reflex action can explain my mania for consulting the telephone directories of the cities I visit in the vague hope of happening upon a remote member of the clan. However, except for Mexico City and New York, I have never discovered any trace of distant relatives by this means.

My unhappy contribution to his second death fills me today with sadness and embarrassment. Little, very little, survives of the work of this rebel thrust by an untimely birth into a society traditionally hard on dissidents and whose harsh therapy in times of crisis would find an unfortunate complicity within the heart of his own family. His Notes poetiques, subtitled Poesia is llibertad, printed at the beginning of the century, have never reached my hands and I know nothing about them apart from the odd passing reference by his nephew, my mother’s first cousin, Professor Josep Calsamiglia. In spite of that, the few details I have to construct his history and character convert him into one of the few ancestors with whom I feel affinity and a moral closeness beyond the fortuitous, uncertain ties of blood, an affinity stained in his case with remorse and melancholy. The writing destroyed and torn to shreds by me as a child has perhaps unconsciously infected me and insi­diously emerged in all I have written and write. Whether true or not, the idea of that possible transmigration consoles me for my unredeemable action, which it transforms into a rebirth if not a gentle form of afterlife.

How could the second, hidden existence have tolerated the pedestrian, mediocre life of the first? The compromise between the two must have been real, since I can see nothing to indicate that she endured marriage and domestic life as an annoying burden. She had probably fashioned for herself an inner, spiritual life where she could take refuge through writing and reading. My father and the rest of us were no doubt the pillar of her life: but it was a life with its hiding places, havens for rest and meditation, pleasant, protective shade.

a priest came in civilian dress and, before celebrating mass and giving communion to the adults, he called me to his side and said he wished to hear me confess. Although I followed to the letter his instructions and searched out, bewildered and confused, anything that might give cause for reproach, I never conceived the idea of establishing a connection between that act and the nebulous notion of sin. I evoked or invented some theft or fib and received absolution from that man without feeling any emotion.

Ar times, with the help of the very few photos of the period, I have to reconstruct our busy day-to-day existence in those first squalid months. My brothers and I unfailingly appear badly dressed—I’m wearing castoffs—with my hair cut almost to nothing, dirty knees, in my shoes, a strange mixture of orphan and street urchin. Our status was confusing because of its ambiguous, imprecise character: were surrounded by pupils from bourgeois families but the experience, manners, and clothing of everyone else were clearly different from ours. Viladrau period—with the rather wild freedom we had got used to, a ferocious fondness for reading, a liking for solitary life, self-taught its—separated and would always separate me from the rest of my friends. Although the school life we were entering tended toward uni­formity and discipline, the centrifugal attraction of our tribal existence was more forceful and won out in the end.

I already felt the true harshness of life: their childishness, sociability, affected ways were totally incompatible with my love of solitude and wading contracted in Viladrau. Except for geography and history, in which I immediately shone to the point of correcting my teachers, at least mentally, my marks were usually average. At recess, I would retreat to some corner or hidden spot with a novel or an illustrated geography book. Efforts to make me play football always failed miserably. In the annual psychopedagogical reports they made to parents, the fathers would anxiously emphasize my isolation, lack of enthusiasm for games, disin­terest in my classmates, my furtive reading. My odd appearance, reserved character, and surliness did not help to integrate me into the class Referring to the excessively long sleeves of a jacket that was already quite old, one of these elegant, refined boys had remarked sarcastically: “You’re so young, are you already inheriting?” This comment left me with a feeling of humiliation and helplessness and intensified my misanthropy. The childish hobbies of my schoolmates, their social code, which I did not share, brought me back to my personal world: the house in Pablo Alcover,

a victim of my own timid, antisocial ways, I ingenuously sought out opportunities to astonish others with sudden demonstrations of largesse or daring. My grandmother used to leave her purse in her room while we were eating, and I would use any pretext to leave the table and casually pinch her money: first, five peseta notes; then, twenty-five peseta notes—a big amount in those days. With the fruit of my thefts, I used to walk up Calle Mayor in Sarria and go to the sweetshop that still belongs, I believe, to the Catalan poet I most admire today, the surrealist J.V. Foix. There, my grandmother’s notes were exchanged for big bags of sweets, which, once at school, I gave out condescendingly to my peers. This lavish generosity—highlighted by the fact that my own lack of pleasure in sweets kept me, scornfully, on the edge of the subsequent scramble—earned me interest and friends and flattered my feelings of vanity and revenge.

Any revelation of my religious agnosticism, Marxist ideas, sexual behavior would have been an unbearable blow to him. It would have been gratuitously cruel to lead the conversation around to any of these topics. Condemned to dis­simulation, I remained emotionally distanced from him, not worrying too much about his sad, frustrated life, mentally prepared for the time when t would disappear completely. Only after he was dead, after the unexpected meeting with him, alive, real, almost flesh and blood, the night I delirious after taking too much majoon, could I judge him more objectively.

One night, when the whole house was in darkness, I had a visitor. Grandfather, wearing his long white nightshirt, came up to the head of my bed and made himself comfortable on the edge. In a voice that was almost a whisper, he said he was going to tell me a story, but began straightaway to tickle me and cover me with kisses. I was surprised by this sudden apparition and above all by its furtive character. “Let’s play,”

Grandfather would say and, after putting out the bedside lamp by which I sometimes read before falling asleep, and which I had switched on upon hearing his footsteps, he stretched out by my side on the bed and gently slipped his hand down my pajamas until he touched my penis. His touch was upsetting but I was paralyzed by fear and confusion. I felt Grandfather leaning over my lap, first his fingers and then his lips, the viscous trickle of his saliva. When after several unending minutes he seemed to calm down and sat down again on the edge of the bed, my heart beat rapidly. What was the meaning of all this playing around? Why did he make a kind of groaning sound after fingering me? I had no answers and while the unwelcome visitor tiptoed back to the adjacent room where Grandmother was sleeping, I lay there for a while sunk in a state of anxious confusion.

The incident with grandfather and the reaction it aroused in the family certainly had a traumatic effect upon me. My father’s visceral hatred of homosexuals—Grandfather provided the nearest loathsome example—sometimes reached morbid extremes. He once related with great satis­faction to Jose Agustin—who wasted no time in repeating to me—that Mussolini ordered the summary execution of “all queers.” Although at that time I had not the slightest idea about my future sexuality, the news, rather than exciting me, filled me with unease. Of course, I thought that Grandfather’s behavior toward me was reprehensible; but  his punishment, cheerfully trumpeted around the house, awoke my sense of injustice and earned my condemnation. Mussolini’s crude therapy must have been mentioned by my father, just as a simple piece of information, in the presence of my grandfather, who accepted it without protest—as usual. His submission to other people’s judgments, his passive acceptance of his pariah state as natural, his inability to react against the attacks he continuously suffered much later provoked in me tremendous pity for him. His compulsive pederasty, shamefully hidden for decades, had been lived out as a secret tragedy: a vice condemned by the religion he believed in and the society that surrounded him Since he did not have the moral temper necessary to control it, he had no choice but to offer his head to the executioner’s axe each time he had the misfortune to give in to it and was then exposed to public pillorying. The memory of this self-contempt resulting from the scorn of others, of the shame that was accepted and transmuted into inner guilt, weighed very heavily in my decision to affirm my destiny whatever the cost, and to set everything out clearly for myself and others. When Monique published her first novel, entitled Les poissons-chats—a work that describes the love of the heroine for a homosexual—Grandfather Ricardo read it, two or three years before he died, and was terribly shocked. Luis told me how he had explained in tears that the passions explored in the book were a hateful sin, that he had suffered from them throughout his life, and that whenever he yielded to them he had most deeply offended God. The idea that I might follow in his tracks, that I too might resign myself to a miserable, broken existence was the best antidote for my doubts and hesitations when, not entirely surprisingly, I found myself in the con­tradictory position of enjoying an intense emotional relationship with Monique and discovering the physical happiness I had not felt till then with a Moroccan construction worker living temporarily in France. With wise timing, death saved my father from this final cruel blow: the rea­lization of his secret fears, perhaps his darkest forebodings, had finally been expressed in me.

My sister used to buy the film magazines of the time and to ‘d the tiresome, annoying business of describing characters, I got the of cutting out photos from them and sticking them on the pages of my exercise book with simple captions indicating their identities. This vice—the discovery and use of which would no doubt have modified the novelistic art of such conscientious authors with an eye for detail as Balzac and Galdos—allowed me to get on with the ins-and-outs of the exploration of the Amazon, which I was describing, without worrying about useless character sketches or tedious particulars. I was a most pre­cocious author of photo-novels and was also pioneering a way into that soon-to-be-fashionable world of behaviorist narrative. No commentaries or digressions—straight to the point! With a similar facility and enthusiasm, I wrote a sentimental novel about Joan of Arc and introduced some anachronisms into it. I am unsure if they were unconscious or not but they would now no doubt be greeted by the most prominent critics as examples of a daring, outspoken desire to innovate: rather than die on Bishop Cauchon’s bonfire, she died on Robespierre’s guillotine after a dramatic confrontation with him I have a much vaguer memory of my other fifteen­year-old creations: I think there was one about the French Resistance to the Nazis, another with new scenes in the life of Kit Carson, in an episode of my own making. The films shown in the two Sarria cinemas that I visited regularly with Luis were a source of second-rate ideas, characters, and settings for the proliferation of plots. Fortunately any notion of originality and plagiarism was not yet part of my personal literary baggage.

Not one of my teachers or masters played a role in the development of the literary tastes I have just mentioned. My reading evolved exclusively within the family, without the slightest connection with what they taught or tried to teach us at school. The idea of giving us texts of the classics to read rather than stuffing our heads with dates of births and deaths and the titles of their many works had not yet even penetrated the brains of the ignorant, small-minded priests in charge of our literature classes. The only book that deserved the honor of being read in class throughout my secondary school life was a volume of Father Coloma’s stories, in my last year with the Jesuits. We didn’t even get that at the Bonanova school: the good brothers of the Christian Doctrine referred body and soul to the learned critical judgments and proven knowledge in the subject of Guillermo Diaz Plaja. Considering the educational system we suffered, it is not surprising that my love and interest in literature derived from other sources: first, Uncle Luis’s advice and then my mother’s library. Self-taught like almost all the men and women of my generation, my culture, which was tentatively shaped, would for a long time retain the mark of the prejudices, gaps, and insufficiencies of barren, sunbaked Spain choked by the censorship and rigors of oppressive regime. It is very significant that the books I would soon upon would be almost without exception by foreign authors. I read novels that I devoured between eighteen and twenty-five either in French or in the second-rate translations that were smuggled in from Buenos Aires.

When I began to masturbate at the onset of puberty, the incredible new pleasure casually discovered on a summer’s day became one of the centers,’ if not the epicenter, of my life. This potential for enjoyment sited in my body overwhelmed at once, with raw strength, the religious or moral speeches that stigmatized it. In bed, in the bath, at Torrentb6, I regularly surrendered to respect for a material law that, for the space of a few seconds, confirmed me in my isolated, private existence, my irreducible separation from the rest of the world. However, I do not mean that traditional Catholic doctrine on sex, which was drummed into us in classrooms, confessionals, pulpits, religious manuals, made no impression on me. The idea of sin—of mortal sin with its hair-raising consequences—tortured me for several years. Dozens of times, kneeling opposite one of the local parish or church priests, I confessed my guilt and tried to reform myself. I knew full well that hours or days later that vital source of energy bursting out of me would impose its law and would imperiously destroy the fragile framework of precepts that condemned it in vain. Aware of this I escaped the reproaches of the same confessor or spiritual director by regularly changing my church and confessional in a kind of hide-and-seek, the absurdity of which was only too obvious.

It is only the content of books that attracts me, they are an object for immediate consumption: once read they get in my way and I’m happy to get rid of them provided I can buy them again whenever I may need them.

I feared, quite rightly, that wretched time in the lecture theatres might make me hate what I made for, the precious field of my future vocation and inclinations.

As bitter as crab apple: that’s how the boy defines his own region, the boy who, lying on the sand next to you, vaguely flourishes his arm toward the harsh, burnt countryside, the beach blurred by the mist, the plain, white town sunk in the lethargic depths of the siesta: ravaged, bloodless land, abandoned mines, ruined chimneys, blackish profusion of stag: evidence of past euphoria aggravating the unwelcoming impression of poverty: horizontal lives, yawning caves, calcareous desolation, ancestral stubbornness: women in mourning, prematurely worn out, laden with pitchers next to the freshet: sleepwalking peasants, strings of mules, sad, silent men peacefully sheltering under a sunshade: no change nor likelihood of change: solitude, repetition, monotony, desire to escape, to throw the dust off the soles of their shoes: emigration to Madrid, Barcelona, France, wherever: the price of a bus ticket and a suitcase with their only inheritance: their brutal life-sentence and also their hope.

A drowsy, decrepit, colonial city: police dressed in drill and wearing white tropical hats: horse-drawn carriages sway indolently: the marketplace bustles pro­miscuously: the Hotel Simon with its ancient rooms.

Discovery of rhythms, smells, voices, sweet apprenticeship in idleness: tentative exploration of the urban scene, horror and fascination intermingle, inner civil war, insoluble contradiction: plurality, alternating current: creative, spermal spark, product of a simultaneous collision: an exercise in ecstatic contemplation of a world that in another way wounds your defenseless moral sensibility.

The harsh, guttural or singsong accent of the south, through which your love for your language will perhaps mysteriously be filtered: territory conquered inch by inch, listening to the dull tones of resignation and poverty, gradual dual appre­hension of a possible belonging and of the uncertain, chance nature of the doubtful identity granted to you.

Your indifference to Spain—that incomplete, fragmentary entity, which is sometimes obtuse and pigheaded, at other times brutal and tyrannical—in whose negligent bosom you have grown, will suffer the impact of the brief fruitful trip through the region of Almeria: to your youthful tiredness with the pobre, brut, trist, dissortat native town beautifully evoked by Espriu, and to the dreams of escaping to some place in the north where the people are neta i noble, culta, rica, lliure, desvetllada i felic will be counterposed henceforth to the image of a radiant, captive landscape whose power of attraction will divert your compass and draw it toward the tormented configuration of its tracks, hills, and steppes: your first holidays with Monique, on the eve of your journey to Paris, will thus be cause for an unforeseen, fertile combination: source and subject of nostalgia, compensatory vision of a frustrated homeland, glimpse, hint, forerunner of a world that is still fantastic but already present in your mind, silent, near, lying in wait for you.

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