The Story of the Night – Colm Tóibín

TSOTNOur group thought this was a very extraordinary novel, brilliantly written with a translucent style of writing. It has a dispassionate quality, a bit like Primo Levi.

The main character is a disposable person who reinvents himself after his mother’s death. He sells his soul and gets manipulated; an outsider eager to please.

It’s the story of all sorts of nights; nights of passion and nights in which there is torture and people are ‘disappeared’. A sensed of claustrophobia and menace always lurk.

The Argentina of the period has a transport system which is wasteful, a porter never answers the phone, and the Falklands diverts people away from corruption into ‘a new toy called the war’. Mrs. Thatcher has ‘something ferocious implacable about her.’

The sexuality is furtive: people can take mart in wanking games but they are not ‘queer’. The sauna scene is accurate and could have taken place in just the same way anywhere over the world.

The book starts with ‘normal’ live: business and then gradually moves into sex, then AIDs. “When I meet an AIDs doctor who is rude, I’ll know that this disease is over”

One depiction of night: Later, we got a taxi to a gay bar for older, professional men, as Tom put it. Are you a professional man, he asked me. I said that I was. He laughed. Most of the men there wore suits and ties. The place was full of easy chairs and sofas, and the atmosphere was cheerful. We had several drinks. Tom knew a few people, whom he introduced to me, and we all talked for a while, about Argentina and New York, making vague jokes about sex. It seemed as though these men were tired of hunting for sex on a Saturday night and decided instead to look for company, mild conversation and some laughter. But maybe at a certain time of the night they stiffened and stopped standing around with drinks in their hands talking to people they knew, and they went in search of sex

Update: BBC3’s ‘Generation Sex: Secrets of South America’ on 12/2/14 showed a vibrant LGBT culture following the oppression. Burt the Roman Catholic Church still held sway on abortion and contraception while LG marriages are now legal.

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Completing the Course: A Fairy Tale Set in the School of Life – Tom Nussbaum

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

In October 2013, our group (apart from me hated the author’s ‘The Boy in the Book’.

I was interested enough to get hold of this book, written much earlier. His first novel, in fact.

It deals with the tricky subject of a teacher mentoring as student. Such relationships can be extremely beneficial but society has become ever more suspicious of them, not trusting that people can have a genuine concern and friendship without ulterior motives. As the author points out: Regardless of what anyone assumed, regardless of my label, Steven simply was not my type. Although he was an attractive, enjoyable person, Steven’s unfinished physicality did not arouse me. He was, after all, a teenager.

My motivation was something else: I was responding to Steven’s implied request for me to be available, to listen, and, perhaps, help him sort out some ideas, fears, or feelings, whatever they were.

In its 126 pages, it deals with coming of age, coming out, friendship and facing one’s inner demons.

The story largely comes together around the campaigns for and against Oregon Ballot Measure 9 (1992) which was similar to but worse than Britain’s Section 28 to stop the supposed ‘promotion’ of homosexuality. Campaigners were wanting to have gay teachers sacked, though the actual proposal read, “All governments in Oregon may not use their monies or properties to promote, encourage or facilitate homosexuality, pedophilia, sadism or masochism. All levels of government, including public education systems, must assist in setting a standard for Oregon’s youth which recognizes that these behaviors are abnormal, wrong, unnatural and perverse and they are to be discouraged and avoided.” It was defeated in the November 3, 1992, though it dragged on because The Oregon Citizens Alliance went on to introduce a series of watered-down ballot measures along the same lines.

We get the ubiquitous tank top but at least they were fashionable back then (1997).

As with the other book, we get some cheesy phrases:

Steven’s cheekbones glistened from moisture, too. But this sheen was not like that covering his scalp and brow. This wetness reflected a different kind of pain, the pain from within.

And:  Her golden hair fell into a simple pageboy style. She I was attractive in a nonthreatening way. She was like many of the girls I had dated in high school and college a generation before. She was a “safe” date. It was obvious to me why Steven had asked Lisa to the prom. She would not have any sexual expectations of him. Nor would he feel pressure to violate his personal moral code.

Of someone’s accent: His drawl was as comforting as iced tea on a shady verandah in August, and Southern charm oozed from him like nectar dripping from an overripe peach.

And an accurate description of a long day at work: watching the hands of my office wall clock slowly plod onward, like an aimless window-shopper meandering through a mall.

There are too many coincidences in this book. Old enemies become reconciled. All questions, the sort that have puzzled people for a very long time, get answered, just as in The Boy in the Book which my group loathed. However, I think this is a better book than that. I certainly enjoyed it.

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Gents 2We did this book as long ago as May 2006 and a review of it is here.

An old friend recently gave me a slightly different slant on it and has given me permission to publish his review.


Gents is the sort of novella I should have read when first it was published (the year Diana died and when I first moved to Winchester). John Heath-Stubbs used to say that Soho pubs were his second university (after Oxford); my own second university (after Cambridge) was cottage culture — now almost extinct. There it was I learned the social skills my strange upbringing denied me. But Warwick Collins’s brilliant idea was to examine a cottage, not from the point of view of cottagers, but rather from the perspective of three West Indian cleaners whose daily task it is to maintain hygiene.

Collins’s hero, Ezra Murphy, represents the author (his initials, reversed, spell “me”). Ez and wife Martha attend a Seventh Day Adventist church; he and his boss Josiah Reynolds – known throughout simply as ‘Reynolds’ – share Biblical forenames. Jason, third of this triumvirate, is a Rasta with two wives and (unless I blinked at the wrong moment) no given surname at all. “Flawed and holy” Jason sees cottaging as a white man’s problem (he’s considerably put out when he catches a black man at it):

`Whitey cold’, Jason said. ‘Cold inside.’ He began to utter the dark poetry in his soul. ‘ Colder than reptile (Jason’s word for cottagers). Don’ have no emotions. Come to de Gents for de sex wid another reptile. Don’ come for de wife, don’ want family, maybe don’ even want de other man. Come. Afterward go.’

Into this strangely ritualized all-male world enters Mrs Steerhouse (or Whitehouse?) from the council. At first she wants the cottagers out; but this results in lower takings which in turn lead to Jason’s departure — the council can no longer afford to pay him ­leaving Reynolds and Ez to reinvent the loo as a cottager-friendly (and very profit­able) facility. Behind all this, of course, is that two-faced decade the 1980’s, which inflicted Section 28 on us all whilst countenancing gay pubs and clubs on the basis that “if it works financially, it’s O.K.”

I’ve a confession to make. I’d never heard of Warwick Collins until I read his recent obituary in the Lymington Advertiser. This twice startled me. First, he was my own age (64) when he died. Furthermore, he’d apparently been my exact contemporary at The King’s School, Canterbury (1960-65). Yet I’d no memory whatever of him. It turned out he was on the Science side and a day-boy, whereas I’d been Arts and a boarder. That to some extent explains it, though (as co-editor of the school magazine) I’d have expected to recall his contributions. What a shame we never met — neither in Kent nor Hampshire! We could have compared notes about those formative (in my case closetedly deformative) years. As I acted a lot in school plays, he’d surely have recognized me on one of my many recent trips to Lymington. But he wouldn’t have welcomed appraisals like this one: “he refused” his publisher remarked “to be edited”.

He’d have hated me jibbing at his repeated use of “adjacent to” — though I’d have had nothing but praise for the way he links “adjacent” to Jason, suggesting that these three loo-cleaners are too intelligent for the jobs they’re obliged to do. Every Jobcentre advisor ought to be forced to read Gents; and all Birth Registrars should note that, if parents wish their sons not to end up ‘cantankerous buggers’ like Warwick Collins, they shouldn’t foist on their offspring initials like W.C.

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Gays the Word bookshop

I often have to go to meetings in Euston. During the lunch break, when I am supposed to be ‘networking’, I nip out and visit this shop. I always buy something, even though it is cheaper on Amazon, because it is important to keep specialist bookshops like this going. Our site is linked to it here.

Located at 66 Marchmont Street, Gay’s The Word is the only specifically lesbian and gay bookstore in the UK. 2014 marks the 35th anniversary of its founding. It which first opened its doors on 17 January 1979. Inspired by the emergence and growth of lesbian and gay bookstores in the States, a small group of people from Gay Icebreakers, a gay socialist group founded the store.

When the shop was founded, gay books weren’t generally available in ordinary bookstores. The early newsletters listed the few radical bookstores in the country where gay books were available and Gay News had a pioneering mail order service.

In 1984, Customs and Excise, assuming the shop to be a porn store rather than a serious bookstore, mounted a large-scale raid and seized thousands of pounds worth of stock. Works by Tennessee Williams, Gore Vidal, Christopher Isherwood and Jean Genet were among the books seized. Directors were eventually charged with conspiracy to import indecent books under the Customs Consolidation Act 1876. Unlike the situation with the Obscene Publications Act, which governs literature published in the UK, the Customs Consolidation Act 1876 does not provide for a literary or artistic defence of titles that HM Customs and Excise have seized under this Act. There is thus a discrepancy between the law which applies to books published in this country (Obscene Publications Act) and books which have been imported (Customs Consolidation Act) which makes possible the apparently contradictory situation where it would be illegal to import a book which could quite legally be published in this country. A campaign was set in motion and the charges were vigorously defended. A defence fund was set up and raised over £55,000 from the public. Many well-known writers also gave their support and Gore Vidal donated £3000. Newspaper articles appeared, various MPs visited the shop and questions were asked in the House of Commons.

‘Gay’s the Word, to my mind, is the fountainhead of queer literature in Britain. I am deeply grateful that these pioneers fought so hard for our right to tell — and read — our own stories.’  Armistead Maupin

‘Truly a fine example of how an independent bookshop should be.’  Time Out London

The photo, below, is of one of our members posing, sinisterly, outside! (You’ll have to click on it to see who it is)


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