While England Sleeps by David Leavitt

There is much in this book that is absorbing, to such an extent that I didn’t want it to end. Theirs is also much that is true to ‘real life’, such as those young men who rely on an Aunt Constance figure for financial support; Rupert, who reminds me of someone I know, who likes the finer things in life, who thinks that politics is beneath artists, who doesn’t like controversy but loves his antiques. Like my friend, he turns up trumps at the end; Lady Abernathywho thought that Hitler had some good ideas, who disliked foreigners and anything modern and believed that the media was run by Jews, the existence of ‘pretty police’ who entrap gay men in toilets; Edward, the working class 19 year old who marvels at the number of books in Brian’s bedsit and whose quaint reticence captures the mood of the times.

Brian ‘fagged’ for Nigel at public school. I feel for his sense of insecurity when Nigel says that he has no opinions of his own but backtracks if he states an opinion which is unpopular. Like me, he always thinks of a clever retort after a conversation has finished. His feeling about his homosexuality is probably faithful to that time of oppression: he thinks it’s a passing phase because he is not effeminate, is full of self-loathing, thinks that homosexual ‘acts’ are a waste of sperm (remember Monty Python’s song ‘Every sperm is sacred’?) and is fearful for his future as a sad old queen held in contempt by the young. He seems to agree with Tim, who says thatwith men it is only sex, whereas with women it is love and that homosexuality corrupts mentality. Of cottaging and cruising, he has a slightly more mature thought about our holistic nature, that what we do with our bodies does effect our ‘souls’: “Who touches the body, however feelingly, also touches the soul.” Books of that period never had happy endings where homosexuality is concerned: ‘You know it will end in tears.’ Instead, we are left wit the world-weary observation that ‘Love makes us young, but the world makes us old.’

He has some sense of humour: when asked if he is a ‘card-carrying member of the Communist party’ he responds that he can’t be because he always loses cards. He has some obsession with the underground map that smoothes out differences – I reckon there’s an element of symbolism here but would need to read the book again to ascertain its meaning.

The Communists in the book, true to their doctrine, see homosexuality as decadent and individuals as dispensable to the cause

I am less convinced by Lucy. Although she knows about cheeses, at a time when the English tended to know only Cheddar, because she has French friend  and her conversation is superficial, to impress but who shows no interest in others’ lives despite asking them, I cannot believe her directly asking Brian about ‘buggering’.  Nor Phillipa who gets undressed in front of Brian. Pre-feminism, I can’t imagine women behaving like that. And did Edward really have a sister called Pearlene? We are told that about 100 year old carp – their life span is 60-70 at the most. Christmas decorations are described as being modest in the poorer districts. If that were true, it’s a far cry from the gaudy displays that abound on council estates in our time.

Some in our group thought that the book was enjoyable even though the narrator becomes less pleasant as time goes on and that it was realistic in its emotional context but others thought that it was a rosy picture of working class life and that the author hadn’t done his research properly: bedsits didn’t have en suite, there would only be one (if at all) telephone in a house, landladies would be very unlikely to allow you to have a member of the opposite sex stay over, there’d be no double bed and what Brit. ate curry back in 1936? Though the author is American, he should have his characters speak the Queens English, so we are never ‘obligated’ but ‘obliged’.

That our group had many differing opinions shows that the book was evocative and provocative, not mere ‘rubbish.’ However, one of our members said that if we did any more books by this author, he wouldn’t come. Like Brian, who always thought of a witty reply after the event, I suppose you have to ‘take it or Leavitt’

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