Archive for A-B

‘The Disappearance Boy’, by Neil Bartlett

TDB(We have not discussed this in the group but it was a ‘spin off’ from one of our meetings, the |Bath group discused it and this review is in a personal capacity.)

This novel gives us a detailed insight into the world of the theatrical illusionist. With a background in theatre, and having done his research, the author seems to know exactly what he’s writing about. The concrete detail with which everything – the act, the theatre backstage, the immediate environs of Brighton and Hove – is visualised and described, giving us a vivid sense of place,.

The central character is Reggie, an orphan, brought up in a children’s home near Brighton, given a limp by childhood polio (c.f. Maughan’s ‘Of Human Bondage’), in his early twenties, gay, with little experience of sex or love, solitary and rather odd. Having lost his mother when young, he ‘talks’ to a gravestone that he’s selected as being hers – a sad metaphor for his desperately lonely self and sense of abandonment. But Reggie is a good-hearted, self-sufficient, quietly attractive character.

He is a resilient young man, without self-pity. In many ways a typical product of the 1950s, he instinctively espouses a “make do and mend” attitude. But Reggie is tired of such restraint. Early on, we gather that his stumbling gait means he risks collisions with others – in fact he welcomes them. Though keen to achieve intimacy of any kind, as a gay man in an age less tolerant than ours he needs to be furtive as he explores his desires.

When Mr. Brookes gets a new slot at the down-at-the-heel Brighton Grand, Reggie finds himself in a strange town, one full of dark and unexplored corners. And it is the arrival of Pamela Rose, a beautiful new assistant, that truly turns his life upside down. As the Grand’s spectacular Coronation show nears, Reggie begins to wonder how much of his own life has been an act—and sets out to find somebody who disappeared from his life long ago.

The story takes place in Brighton, in 1953, against the backdrop of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Brookes, Reggie, and Pam, the latest in a long line of glamorous assistants, develop a new act to celebrate the coronation. Pam and Reggie instantly understand each other and quickly form a strong bond.

As with “Skin Lane”, this book drips with atmosphere. Again, Neil Bartlett must have rigorously researched this book.

Quotations:

 “As you can see, the Lady is indeed missing.”

“How hard can being made to disappear be?”

A Mr Bridges, who in the calm, sunlit autumn of 1939 was living alone in the cottage which then stood next to the tracks at Bishopstone Halt (an unmanned concrete platform on the Hastings to Lewes branch line which had recently been constructed in case it should ever be necessary to get troops to the beach in a hurry), has spotted the tiny figure through his kitchen window. Fortunately, Mr Bridges has a clock above his sink, and he doesn’t need to waste any time calcu­lating in order to know that the next train is due past his window in less than three minutes; they run so close that they rattle his china, and their noise divides his solitary day into such regular parcels of time that he always knows when the next one is on its way. He also knows that this particular train isn’t scheduled to slow down or stop. First he shouts and bangs on his kitchen window; then he wipes his hands on his dishcloth and runs out of his front door, shouting as he goes.

The little boy doesn’t move. He doesn’t even seem to hear.

As Mr Bridges runs, the oncoming train is still so far away from the two of them that it doesn’t seem to be moving at all – east of Bishopstone Halt, the track runs dead straight towards Seaford for nearly a mile, and the distant blurred dot of the engine is barely visible at the vanishing point of the converging rails. It seems to shake slightly, even to hover in the distance, but not to be getting any closer. Mr Bridges knows that this is just an illusion. He knows that pretty soon the rails will begin to sing, the dot to swell, and before you know where you are it will be upon them. That’s why he keeps shouting as -he runs, calling out at the top of his voice and cursing his middle-aged legs for not moving as fast as he needs them to in this emergency. The spacing of the tarred sleepers forces him to clip his stride, which makes him swear even more — they are placed just too close together to let him break into a full run, and he knows that if he misses one and hits the clinker then a turned ankle will more than likely bring him down. Best as he can, he half lopes and half hobbles towards the boy, and, of course, straight towards the train. The dot hovers, and shakes, and begins to swell.

And now, right on cue, the rails begin their dreadful song; that strange, silvered, high-pitched music that can seem sinis­ter at the best of times, and which now makes Mr Bridges want to vomit as he hears it change key and grow louder. He sees that the little boy — still thirty sleepers away,- and with his legs still locked and spread — can also apparently hear or sense this change of key, because as the train approaches the child stretches his tiny arms out to make himself into its target, and his fists seem- to clench themselves into even tighter balls. The pain is starting to tear at Mr Bridges’s sides now His breath is drowned out by the rails. And now comes the whistle ‑

Cut.

Standing on a plinth just outside the entrance to the shop is a dummy made of painted and varnished papier mache, and although Reggie has made the best job he can of ignoring the sight of this unpleasant object for several mornings in a row recently, on this particular morning he suddenly finds himself unable to keep up the effort any longer. The dummy depicts a four-foot-high little boy His hair is an unlikely yellow, his lips a cheery cherry red, and the whites of his turned-up eyes look like they’ve been slicked on straight from the tin. Dressed in just a pair of shorts and a neat blue jumper, he’s wearing a leg-brace – complete with carefully painted-on brown leather- straps – and has a crutch jammed into his left armpit. With his right hand – and this is the point of his whole existence – he is holding out a bright red loaf-sized collecting box whose slot is just the right size for a copper – or even, more optimistically, for a fat half-crown. If you’re a passer-by then this little boy’s blind stare is meant to make you smile sadly and fish in your bag for some change, but that’s not the effect it has on-Reggie. In fact, if he thought he could get away with it, Reggie would have picked up a brick from a bomb site one morning this week and cheer­fully smashed the face off the thing. Yesterday, he’d caught a shopper in the act of dropping her coin and then patting the boy’s head with her gloved hand as if it belonged to a dog or well-behaved pony, murmuring a few well-chosen words of approval. This morning, there is no lady – thank God, other­wise I think there might have been some kind of a scene – but there are some raindrops caught in the boy’s painted hair

In the decade of Reg’s childhood the accepted treatment of infant paralysis was something called casting – the immobi­lising of the afflicted limbs in heavy moulds of plaster of Paris. The process was, thought to encourage recuperation, but often had the effect of wasting the very muscles it was meant to salvage, and sometimes even ended up condemning the child to life in a wheelchair. Reggie was spared this entomb­ment by a simple accident of circumstance. He’d spent the first two years of his life in a ward on the third floor of the London County Council’s National Children’s Home up at Highbury Barn, and as luck would have it, it became official LCC policy at the end of that second year to farm out any child considered unlikely to ever become a suitable candidate for fostering to an independent charity. The now-twisted Reggie fell heavily into that class of unfortunates, and once he was out of immediate danger he was simply sent away. He’d already been given his new name – Reggie because by law every abandoned child the Home received on its wards had to be christened, and because Reginald was a popular

The windows of the church were full of coloured glass, and on sunny days watching their colours come go on the stone floor reminded him of the cellophane wrappers from his favourite sweets. One window was more tly coloured than all the others, and he would always try sit where he could see it. Just like your name, Reg, one of nurses whispered, seeing him staring up at it. He grinned at her, lips closed, and looked back up. Sunday by- Sunday, our by colour, this window taught Reggie a lesson that sn’t directly stored in his body, but which nonetheless was planted so deep inside him that no surgeon’s knife could ever have reached it.

He couldn’t remember when the nurses had told him his mother was dead, but he was quite sure he had always known it as a fact. It never occurred to him to worry about the lack of detail in their story — the why and where and how — but instead he latched on to the good news in the tale, which was that she was now watching over him, and during his seventh summer, when every Sunday morning seemed to be sunny, and his favourite _window always bright, this idea of being continually spied on and cared for began to take a very concrete form in Reggie’s mind. The window featured a pair of bare-armed creatures swooping down from on high on outspread wings, all indigo and violet and parrot yellow — the source of the colours on the floor — and it was in exactly this gaudy and muscular shape that Reggie began to imagine his absent mother. The creatures in the window were smiling as they gazed down at the world, and as he stared up at them Sunday after Sunday it occurred to him that that was what she must be doing too. Admiring their muscular arms, he concluded that -she would be well capable of turning up and carrying him away at a- moment’s notice should a dramatic rescue ever be required

 He recalled in detail the last time when things d gone a bit further, which had been in Bradford last year during the run at the Alhambra; he’d spent forty-five minutes m a thin-walled boarding-house bedroom with somebody who the next morning had let his- eyes slide off Reggie’s face like a knife off a- plate. He wanted to know when one thing was finally going to lead to another, and he was going to actually spend a whole night with someone – spend the night with someone special, as his mother always put it. He wanted to know when he was going to kiss the same person goodnight when the lights went out and then hello again the next morn­ing when the sun came up. He wanted to know how he was ever going to make that happen.

 There were lots of other things that Reg didn’t mention, course – as I’m sure you’ve noticed. He didn’t mention the with the black hair that he had stared at yesterday morn-on North Road – it was the chef from his breakfast cafe, it happened, the Italian one – or talk about what his feel-were now that he was going to be heading back to London pretty soon, back to another single bed in a top-floor room. In other words, he didn’t talk about himself at all. Mothers can do that.

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Days Without End by Sebastian Barry

Thomas McNulty, aged barely seventeen and having fled the Great Famine in Ireland, signs up for the U.S. Army in the 1850s. With his brother in arms, John Cole, Thomas goes on to fight in the Indian Wars—against the Sioux and the Yurok—and, ultimately, the Civil War. Orphans of terrible hardships themselves, the men find these days to be vivid and alive, despite the horrors they see and are complicit in.
What Tom has observed among the Sioux is that men can choose to dress as squaws at home but, in battle, still be warriors. This thought becomes his guide. He feels at home in a dress but, as a soldier, follows orders even when they are treacherous, learning that there are good men and bad on any side.

Tom, John and Winona survive battlefields and atrocities, trek across America’s great plains into the agonised, villainous aftermath of the war between the states. Barry makes us understand how. Grief may freeze the heart, the body be tested to extremes, but where there’s life there’s hope, and love is what makes life worth living, a sentiment that, we are told in other reviews, links Barry’s novels across all their times and places.

There are vast open spaces and extreme weather

The world is seemingly indifferent yet the love for each other gives it some meaning.

Because we were nothing ourselves, to begin with” – is later amplified by the nightmarish tale he hears from a fellow Irishman whose passage to the New World ends with corpses floating in the bilges, immured and abandoned. “That’s why no one will talk,” reflects Thomas, feeling that what has happened is simply not accounted as a subject. “That’s because we were thought worthless. Nothing people. I guess that’s what it was. That thinking just burns through your brain for a while. Nothing but scum.”

They appear merely as two teenage soldier boys until this sentence is casually dropped in: And then we quietly fucked and then we slept.

The image of a country populated by spectral figures, devastated by conflicts that leave men “making the noises of ill-butchered cattle”, their limbs hanging by a thread, their bodies emaciated and withered, is in sharp contrast with the landscape that inspires awe in both Thomas and Barry, and which seems to demand an equal grandeur in the observer: “A vicious ruined class of man could cry at such scenes because it seems to tell him that his life is not approved.”

The descriptions are very visual- you can almost imagine it as a film.

The language is beautiful.

The book is full of questions about identity. The Indians who fight like savages one day leave food for starving soldiers the next. The kindly major leads a vicious assault on an Indian village out of revenge.

The war is reminiscent of the Old Testament command to out everything under the ban – everyone and every crop to be destroyed.

One of our members said: Having childhood memories of playing cowboys and Indians I’ve now come to see how the conquest of the American west with the dispossession of the native peoples was a crime. So I couldn’t get into the book despite its acclaim in many reviews as a good gay book read.

Another got fed up with the violence and nearly gave up three times but accepted that the violence wasn’t gratuitous.

Barry lives in County Wicklow with his wife, Alison, and their three children, Coral, Merlin and Toby. Barry has stated that Toby coming out as gay was important to the writing of Barry’s book Days Without End, and that Toby’s experiences informed the gay relationship in that book

McNulty is gay – not that the word would have meant anything in 19th-century America. That, says Barry, is one reason why the book is short: his narrator did not have the words or the notions to make it longer. McNulty falls in love with a young American man, cross-dresses and marries him. They adopt an orphaned Native American girl and build an unlikely family in Tennessee – a paradise created after the hell McNulty and his lover experience when they join the army.

Days Without End is dedicated to Barry’s son Toby – and McNulty’s sexuality is also a tribute to the teenager. “Three years ago, when he was 16 and I was doing the reading for this book, Toby was very unhappy, and when a young man is unhappy we must take note. I was desperately trying to find out what was wrong, but you can’t ask him directly. You have to be a sleuth, a kind of Sherlock Holmes of his unhappiness.”

At the time of the 2015 referendum in Ireland on same-sex marriage, Barry wrote an open letter – with his son’s permission – in support of a yes vote. “I felt I had to do something,” he says, “so I wrote to the Irish Times, which is the default action of the middle-aged Irish Catholic. I showed the letter to Toby and he just wept, which is unusual because he is a very mensch-like person.”

Later Toby was threatened on a train after kissing his boyfriend goodbye on the platform. “He was very frightened by that and it led to more unhappiness, so I thought we’re on a bit of a war footing here.” Toby discussed drag with Barry and how gay men from tough backgrounds sometimes used it as a form of empowerment. Those ideas seeped into the book, though not, Barry is at pains to point out, as a manifesto.

The character of McNulty grew out of a reference his grandfather Jack O’Hara made to a great uncle who emigrated to America to escape the famine. O’Hara, who fell out with the author over the literary airing of family secrets, is himself the mainspring of another Barry work, The Temporary Gentleman.

Barry has described his childhood as a “singular mess”. He says he and his three siblings were farmed out to relatives, which is how Barry heard the stories about the first world war, the Easter Rising and the civil war in Ireland that he has used to such effect in his novels. This obsessive winnowing of family secrets suggests a search for certainty after a childhood that had little.

 Quotations:

I am thinking of the days without end of my life…’

 “It was a mad world but a lucky one too, now and then”

We were two wood-shavings of humanity in a rough world

“The whole town was perishing like stray cats.”

“We were nothing. No one wanted us. Canada was a-feared of us. We were a plague. We were only rats of people. Hunger takes away what you are.”

“time was not something then we thought of as an item that possessed an ending.

We washed our shirts and trews and when we went out to get them off the bushes, they were as stiff as corpses in the cold. Some poor cows froze where they were standing like they had peered into the face of old Medusa. Men lost the wages of three years hence at cards. They bet their boots and then pled for the pity of the winner. The piss froze as it left our peckers and woe betide the man with an obstruction or hesita­tion to their shit, because soon they had a brown icicle on their arse. The whiskey continued its work of eating our livers. It was as good a life as most of us had ever knowed.

When all the bodies were in, we covered over the pits with the soil we had left, like we were putting pastry tops on two enormous pies.

John Cole’s long face, long stride. The moonlight not able to flatter him because he was ready beautiful.

we respectfully drop the men into their holes and then we cover them up with a bedding of earth and every man in due course has a mound of the same earth over him like eiderdowns in a fancy hotel.

“Hunger is a sort of fire, a furnace. I loved my father when I was a human person formerly. Then he died and I was hungry and then the ship. Then nothing. Then America. Then John Cole. John Cole was my love, all my love.”

You can rise up out of your saddle and sort of look down on yourself riding, it’s as if the stern and relentless monotony makes you die, come back to life, and die again.

“Oftentimes in America you could go stark mad from the ugliness of things. But now in the far distance we see a land begin to be suggested as if maybe a man was out there painting it with a huge brush.”

We would gladly put our hands over our ears but our muskets are raised and trained along the line of the wig­wams. We are watching for the rat-run of the survivors. There is a stretch of time as long as creation and I can hear the whizzing of the shell, a spinning piercing sound, and then it makes its familiar thud-thud and pulls at the belly of heaven and spreads its mayhem around it, the sides of wigwams torn off like faces, the violent wind of the blast toppling others flat, revealing people in various poses of surprise and horror.

Then they are pulling knives from their waists and hollering and -there is a sort of mad joyous desper­ation in it that kindles a crazy fire in the heart. We are not lovers rushing to embrace but there is a sense of terri­fying union none the less, as if courage yearns to join with courage. I cannot say otherwise. No fighter on earth as brave as a Sioux brave. They have their squaws and kindred sheltered and now at the last desperate moment they must risk all to defend them. But the shells have done terrible damage in the camp. Now I can see plain the broken bodies and the blood and the horrible butch­er shop of carnage that those bursting metal flowers have manufactured. Young girls are strewn about like the vic­tims of a terminous dance. It is as if we have stopped the human clock of the village, that’s what I were thinking.

“We worked back and forth through the milling bodies and tried to kill everything that moved in the murk,” he says. “Two, three, four fell to my thrusts, and I was astonished not to be fired on, astonished at the speed and the horror of the task, and the exhilaration of it, my heart now not racing but burning in my breast like a huge coal. I stabbed and I stabbed.”

“South don’t got uniforms, grits, or oftentimes shoes. Half of these fierce-looking bastards in bare feet. Could be denizens of a Sligo slum-house. God damn it, probably are, some of them.”

“John Cole says he loves me more than any man since the apes roamed.”

There’s a half-blind preacher in a temple called Bar-tram House and I don my best dress and me and John Cole go there and we tie the knot. Rev. Hindle he says the lovely words and John Cole kiss the bride and then it’s done and who to know. Maybe you could read it in their holy book, John Cole and Thomasina McNulty wed this day of our Lord Dec. 7th 1866. In the euphoria of war’s end we reckon a craziness is desired. God don’t mind we know because that day of deep winter is clement, clear and bright. Then as if a token of God’s favour we get a letter from Lige Magan. We been sending missives back and forth while we putting meat back on-our bones. He’s struggling with his farm. The men that his pa freed been killed by militia long since but two. His whole country ruined by war and like a waste of ghosts. The coming year lies heavy on his mind and how he to burn the land alone in January? Been set in grass six years and now it ripe for baccy. If we not otherwise engaged could we come and help him in his hour of need? He says all his cold district is a swamp of mistrust and he trusts me and John. Going to be hard years but maybe we could fed there were something to win. He got no kin but us.

“Don’t tell me a Irish is an example of civilised humanity. He may be an angel in the clothes of a devil or a devil in the clothes of an angel but either way you’re talking to two when you talk to one Irishman.”

Kill them all. Leave nothing alive. Everything was killed. Nothing left to tell the tale. Four hundred and seventy. And when the men were done killing they started to cut. They cut out the cunts of the women and stretched them on their hats. They took the little ball sacks of the boys to be dried into baccy pouches.

Let’s say my ward, my care, the product of some strange instinct deep within that does rob from injustice a shard of love. The palms of her hands like two maps of home, the lines leading homeward like old trails. Her beautiful soft hands with tapering fingers. Her touches like true words. A daughter not a daughter but who I mother best I can.

“a whole corpse gathered up into one tight fist of fear and fright.”

“no one wants to do it and everyone does it.”

“no such item as a virtuous people”

“Everything gets shot at in America, and everything good too.”

“a little kingdom…pitched up against the darkness”

“God in his farmer’s apron, scattering the great seeds of yellow brightness.”

“Time was not something then we thought of as an item that possessed an ending, but something that would go on forever…”

riding like ghosts through the spectral lands.”

“In the euphoria of war’s end we reckon a craziness is desired.”

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Untold Stories by Alan Bennett

A lot of this book has already been told in ‘A Life Like other People’s’

Compiled in the aftermath of an operation for bowel cancer, Untold Stories is, in effect, a giant autobiography, taking us from his childhood in Leeds to his present eminence by means of essays, dairy entries and family memoirs: the result is endearing, entertaining and pleasingly provocative. However, that makes it a ragbag: bitty and repetitive (How many funerals did Thora Hird have?).

It’s also extremely funny: he taught medieval history at Oxford and when, at the end of his first lecture, he asked for questions, a long silence fell, broken only when an undergraduate piped up with “Can you tell me where you bought your shoes?”

Bennett combines comicality with sadness, righteous indignation about the state of the world – Iraq, Tony Blair, the destruction of Victorian Leeds – with an observant delight in its minutiae. He recalls how the teacher who took him in the 1940s to the Leeds City Art Gallery had “the kind of old lady’s legs that seem to have gone out now, which begin at the corners of the skirt and converge on the ankles”.

The author describes his late start, anatomically, not maturing physically till he was 18, a circumstance that has lent a quality of perpetual precocity to everything he does, seeming to warrant special admiration as if it were a wonder that he’d done it at all. His remarkable writing here about his parents – Mam and Dad, as he invariably refers to them – reveals the extent to which he is still their lad Alan. Their sense of the home as a fortress, their horror of attention-seeking, their rejoicing in their ordinariness is shared by Bennett: he also shares his parents’ disdain for the enterprise, the ebullience, the sheer extroversion of Mam’s shop-assistant sister, Myra, and her “desire to be different, to be marked out above the common ruck and to have a tale to tell”.

Like many bright children, Bennett always felt himself to be a loner and a non-joiner: a late developer with both sex and shaving, he realised that he was one of those who would never learn to “dive, throw a cricket ball, piss in public, catch the barman’s eye”. His mother might diagnose his shyness as “the mark of a natural aristocracy”, but he worried that he might end up as a “denizen of tea shops and haunter of libraries”

His observations about education, which became obvious in ‘The History Boys’ are astute.

His experience of (assumed by the police) ‘queer-bashing’ is vivid and shows up police prejudice.

The ending, about cancer, is a bit depressing.

Like me, he loathes Earl Hague and Paul Johnson.

As he complains about dumbing down, I won’t let him get away with the notion that March 30th 1997 was ‘Easter Saturday’.  It was a week later. (Not the day after Good Friday.)

Quotations:

“You do not put yourself into what you write, you find yourself there.”

“the more institutions and freedoms and benefits one can take for granted – of which in my view free state-supported galleries and museums come high on the list – the more civilised a society is.”

Alan Clark and Kenneth Clarke resurrected this lunchtime to comment on the arrest of Pinochet. Both routinely acknowledge Pinochet’s crimes, although Clark A. is careful to refer to them as `alleged’, probably because he didn’t actually hear the screams of the tortured himself. Both have that built-in shrug characteristic of eighties Conservatism, electrodes on the testicles a small price to pay when eco­nomic recovery’s at stake. They both talk contemptuously of gesture pol­itics as if Lady Thatcher having tea with the General isn’t gesture politics too, the gesture in question being two fingers to humanity.

Appalling scenes on the Portsmouth housing estate which is conducting a witch hunt against suspected paedophiles and the nation is treated to the spectacle of a tattooed mother with a fag dangling from her lips and a baby in her arms proclaiming how concerned she is for her kiddies.

The joy of being a mob, particularly these days, is that it’s probably the first time the people on this estate have found common cause on anything; it’s ‘the community’ they’ve been told so much about and for the first time in their lives each day seems purposeful and exciting.

Also reading Eamon Duffy’s The Stripping of the Altars, which is hard going but full of interesting stuff about the ceremonial life of the late medieval church and its systematic dismantling under Edward VI and Elizabeth. I hadn’t realised that the Elizabethan Settlement also meant the end of the mystery plays, which were pretty well forgotten by 1580. It shames me that I am more outraged by these events of nearly five hundred years ago (particularly by the iconoclasm) than I am by anything that’s currently happening (and to flesh and blood) in Yugoslavia or SierraLeone.

not for the first time I wonder if Blun­kett would be a more liberal man if he were not blind.

Ludicrously I assumed that these recycling men would (because greener) be a cut above the ordinary bin men. In fact it’s the reverse. The traditional crew is jolly, know me by name and call out if they see me in the street. They also close the gate and don’t leave any mess. The green men are unsmiling, wanting in any obvious conviviality, shove the crate back any old how and don’t close the gate. Green, in Camden any­way, isn’t necessarily nice.

Much talk of republicanism, recalling Brooklyn-born Joan Panzer’s remark twenty years ago: ‘England without the Royal Family? Never. It would be like Fire Island without the gays.’

That Tony Blair (as today talking to troops in Basra) will often say ‘I honestly believe’ rather than just ‘I believe’ says all that needs to be said. ‘To be honest’ another of his frank-seeming phrases…. T Blair claims to the Hutton Inquiry that if the BBC had been right and the Iraq dossier had been ‘sexed up’ he would have resigned. This is presumably intended to pre-empt any calls for his resignation at the conclusion of the Inquiry, which, whether it reports so or not, has conclusively shown that this is exactly what happened to the Iraq dossier. I suppose ‘sexed up’ is a euphemism for ‘hardened up’ (`stiffened up’ even), fastidiousness about language not being one of the characteristics

 John Schlesinger dies. The obituaries are more measured than he would have liked… Short, solid and fat, John looked like the screen Nazi he had once or twice played in his early days as an actor; he was a scaled-down Francis L. Sullivan, managing nevertheless to be surprisingly successful in finding partners. Not invariably, though. Sometime in the 1970s he was in a New York bath house where the practice was for someone wanting a partner to leave the cubicle door open. This Schlesinger accordingly did and lay monumentally on the table under his towel waiting for someone to pass by. A youth duly did and indeed ventured in, but seeing this mound of flesh laid out on the slab recoiled, saying: ‘Oh, please. I couldn’t. You’ve got to be kidding.’ Schlesinger closed his eyes and said primly: ‘A simple “No” will suffice.’…. A memorial service for John Schlesinger. It’s in the syna­gogue opposite Lord’s and though it’s Liberal Jewish I don’t feel it’s quite liberal enough for me to tell the bath-house story. Still, there are a lot of laughs in the other speeches, so I do feel able to give John’s own account of his investiture with the CBE. John was so aware of his sexuality that he managed to detect a corresponding awareness in the unlikeliest of places. On this occasion HMQ had a momentary difficulty getting the ribbon round his sizeable neck, whereupon she said, ‘Now, Mr Schlesinger, we must try and get this straight,’ the emphasis according to John very much hers and which he chose to take as both a coded acknowledgement of his situation and a seal of royal approval.

At Cambridge as an undergraduate he was once in the Rex cinema when the adverts came on, including one for Kellogg’s Ricicles. ‘Rice is nice,’ went the jingle, ‘but Ricicles are twicicles as nicicles.’ Whereupon Cedric boomed out: ‘But testicles are besticles.’ By their jokes ye shall know them.

Finish reading Toast, Nigel Slater’s memoir of his child­hood. It’s such an enjoyable book I regret reading it so quickly, bolting it in fact, the metaphor appropriate. Food apart, it’s also a very sexy book. The young Nigel must have had some sort of glint in his eye because he’s always getting shown a bit of the action until at fourteen he starts spend­ing his evenings hanging round the local lay-by spying on couples having it away. Life finally takes off when he fucks a girl-friend with his best friend watching from the other bed. An idyllic childhood I would have said. The rest is history. Or cookery.

Around nine I go out to put some rubbish in the bin to find someone curled up on the doorstep. I say someone because, swathed in an anorak, it’s impossible to tell whether it’s a man or a woman; he/she doesn’t speak and when shaken just moans a little. He/she is surrounded by half a dozen plastic bags, most of them empty and not the carefully transported possessions of the usual bag lady, if it is a lady. So, having talked about it, we eventually ring 999, where the Scotland Yard opera­tor is quite helpful and within ten minutes (on a Saturday night) a squad car comes round with two policemen. They’re sensible and firm with what turns out to be a young man. He’s filthy, his hands so black he might have been shifting coal, and is no help when they try to get him on his feet, moaning still and saying he has an abscess.

Now an ambulance arrives, and it’s this that seems to bring the young man round. He plainly doesn’t want to go to hospital and, abandoning whatever possessions he has on our doorstep, vanishes into the night. One of the policemen conies back and explains that, because among the rub­bish is a squeezed-out lemon, he is likely to be an addict, the juice used to purify the drugs. He counsels caution when we’re clearing up the mess lest there be any needles about and then says, ‘Actually I can do it,’ goes to the car for some gloves and tidies everything away himself and in such a sensible, straightforward way it seems genuine goodness.

It makes me ashamed of my habitual prejudice against the police when here is one dealing with what for him is presumably a regular occurrence and going out of his way just to be helpful. I think what a dispiriting job it must be night after night coping with the thieves and addicts of Camden Town and how hard it must be not to despise respectable folk who call them in to solve what for us is just a problem of hygiene. With a final instruction to swill down the flags, he goes off in the squad car, I go up and have my bath and then we sit down to our shepherd’s pie.

There is a wood, the canal, the river and above the river the railway and the road. It’s the first proper country that you get to as you come north out of Leeds and going home on the train I pass the place quite often. Only these days I look. I’ve been passing the place for years without looking because I didn’t know it was a place; that anything had happened there to make it a place, let alone a place that had something to do with me. Below the wood the water is deep and dark and sometimes there’s a boy fishing or a couple walking a dog. I suppose it’s a beauty spot now. It probably was then.

‘Has there been any other mental illness in your family?’ Mr Parr’s pen hovers over the Yes/No box on the form and my father, who is letting me answer the questions, looks down at his trilby and says nothing.

‘No,’ I say confidently and Dad turns the trilby in his hands.

‘Anyway,’ says Mr Parr kindly but with what the three of us know is more tact than truth, ‘depression isn’t really mental illness. I see it all the time.’

Mr Parr sees it all the time because he is the Mental Health Welfare Officer for the Craven district and late this September evening in 1966 Dad and I are sitting in his bare linoleum-floored office above Settle police station while he takes a history of my mother.

‘So there’s never been anything like this before?’

‘No,’ I say and without doubt or hesitation. After all, I’m the educated one of the family. If there had been ‘anything like this’ I should have known about it.

‘No, there’s never been anything like this.’

‘Well,’ Dad says, and the information is meant for me as much as Mr Parr, ‘she did have something once. Just before we were married.’ And he looks at me apologetically. ‘Only it was nerves more. It wasn’t like this.’

The ‘this’ that it hadn’t been like was a change in my mother’s personality that had come about with relative suddenness. In the space of a month or so she had lost all her fun and vitality, turning fretful and apprehensive and inaccessible to reason or reassurance. As the weeks passed the mood deepened, bringing with it fantasy and delusion: the house was watched, my father made to speak in a whisper because there was someone on the landing, and the lavatory (always central to Mam’s scheme of things) was being monitored every time it was flushed. She started to sleep with her handbag under her pillow as if she were in a strange and dangerous hotel and finally one night she fled the house in her nightgown and Dad found her wandering in the street whence she could only be fetched back into the house after loud resistance.

Occurring in Leeds where they had always lived, conduct like this might just have got by unnoticed, but the onset of the depression coincided with my parents’ retirement to a village in the Dales, a place so small and close-knit that such bizarre behaviour could not be hidden. Indeed the knowledge that they were about to leave the relative anonymity of the city for a small community where ‘folks knew all your business’ and that she would henceforth be socially much more visible than she was used to might have brought on the depression in the first place. Or so Mr Parr is saying.

My parents had always wanted to be in the country and have a garden. Living in Leeds all his life Dad had never even had an allotment, but in his childhood he had spent holidays on a farm at Bielby in the East Riding, which he always talked of as a lost paradise. The village they were moving to was very pretty, too pretty for Mam in her depressed mood: ‘You’ll see,’ she said, ‘we’ll be inundated with folks visiting.’ The cottage faced onto the village street but had a long garden at the back and it seemed like the place they had always dreamed of. A few years after they moved I wrote a television play, Sunset across the Bay, in which a retired couple not unlike my parents leave Leeds to go and live in Morecambe. As the coach hits the M62 bearing them away to a new life the wife calls out: ‘Bye bye, mucky Leeds!’ That had always been the dream. Now Dad was being told that it was their longed for escape that had brought this crushing visitation on his wife. Not surprisingly, he would not believe it.

In their last weeks in Leeds Dad had put Mam’s low spirits down to the stress of the impending move. Once the move had been accomplished, though, the depression persisted, so now he fell back on the state of the house, blaming its bare unfurnished rooms still with all the decorating to be done.

‘Your Mam’ll be better when I’ve got the place straight,’ he said. ‘She can’t do with it being all upset.’ So, while she sat fearfully on a hard chair in the passage, he got down to the decorating.

My brother, who had come up from Bristol to help with the move, also thought the state of the house was to blame, fastening particularly on an item that seemed to be top of Mam’s list of complaints, the absence of stair-carpet. I think I knew then that the stair-carpet was only the beginning of it but my brother galvanised a local firm into supplying and fitting the carpet in a couple of days. Mam seemed scarcely to notice and when, stair-carpet or no stair-carpet, the clouds did not lift my brother went back to Bristol and I to London.

Over the next ten years this came to be the pattern. The onset of a bout of depression would fetch us home for a while but when no immediate recovery was forthcoming we would take ourselves off again while Dad was left to cope. Or to care, as the phrase is nowadays. Dad was the carer. We cared, of course, but we still had lives to lead: Dad was retired – he had all the time in the world to care.

‘The doctor has put her on tablets,’ Dad said over the phone, ‘only they don’t seem to be doing the trick.’ Tablets seldom did, even when one saw what was coming and caught it early. The onset of depression would find her sitting on unaccustomed chairs – the cork stool in the bathroom, the hard chair in the hall that was just there for ornament and where no one ever sat, its only occupant the occasional umbrella. She would perch in the passage dumb with misery and apprehension, motioning me not to go into the empty living-room because there was someone there.

‘You won’t tell anybody?’ she whispered.

‘Tell anybody what?’

‘Tell them what I’ve done?’

‘You haven’t done anything.’

‘But you won’t tell them?’

‘Mam!’ I said, exasperated, but she put her hand to my mouth, pointed at the living-room door then wrote ‘TALKING’ in wavering letters on a pad, mutely shaking her head.

As time went on these futile discussions would become less intimate (less caring even), the topography quite spread out with the parties not even in adjoining rooms. Dad would be sitting by the living-room fire while Mam hovered tearfully in the doorway of the pantry, the kitchen in between empty.

‘Come in the pantry, Dad,’ she’d call.

‘What for? What do I want in the pantry?’

‘They can see you.’

‘How can they see me? There’s nobody here.’

‘There is, only you don’t know. Come in here.’

It didn’t take much of this before Dad lapsed into a weary silence.

‘Oh, whish’t,’ he’d say. ‘Be quiet.’

A play could begin like this, I used to think – with a man on-stage, sporadically angry with a woman off-stage, his bursts of baffled invective gradually subsiding into an obstinate silence. Resistant to the offstage entreaties, he continues to ignore her until his persistent refusal to respond gradually tempts the woman into view.

Or set it in the kitchen, the empty room between them, no one on-stage at all, just the voices off. And what happens when they do come on-stage? Violence, probably.

Her fears – of being spied on, listened to, shamed and detected – were ordinary stuff. This was not the territory of grand delusion, her dread not decked out in the showy accoutrements of fashionable neurosis. None of Freud’s patients hovered at pantry doors … Freud’s selected patients, I always felt, the ordinary not even getting past, or even to, the first consultation because too dull, the final disillusion to have fled across the border into unreason only to find you are as mundane mad as you ever were sane.

Certainly in all her excursions into unreality Mam remained the shy, unassuming woman she had always been, none of her fantasies extravagant, her claims, however irrational they might be, always modest. She might be ill, disturbed, mad even, but she still knew her place.

It may be objected that madness did not come into it; that, as Mr Parr had said, this was depression and a very different thing. But though we clung to this assurance it was hard not to think her delusions mad and the tenacity with which she held to them, defended them, insisted on them, the very essence of unreason. While it was perhaps naive of us to expect her to recognise she was ill, or that standing stock still on the landing by the hour together did not constitute normal behaviour, it was this determination to convert you to her way of thinking that made her conduct hardest to bear.

‘I wouldn’t care’ Dad would say, ‘but she tries to get me on the same game.’

‘You’re imagining stuff,’ he said, flinging wide the wardrobe door. ‘Where is he? Show me!’

The non-revelation of the phantom intruder ought, it seemed to Dad, to dent Mam’s conviction, persuade her that she was mistaken. But not a bit of it. Putting her finger to her lips (the man in the wardrobe now having mysteriously migrated to the bathroom), she drew him to the window to point at the fishman’s van, looking at him in fearful certainty, even triumph; he must surely see that the fate she feared, whatever it was, must soon engulf them both.

Few nights passed uninterrupted and Dad would wake to find the place beside him empty, Mam scrabbling at the lock of the outside door or standing by the bedroom window looking out at a car in the carpark that she said was watching the house.

How he put up with it all I never asked, but it was always the aggressiveness of her despair and her conviction that hers was the true view of the world that was the breaking point with me and which, if I were alone with her, would fetch me to the brink of violence. I once nearly dragged her out of the house to confront an elderly hiker who was sitting on the wall opposite, eating his sandwiches. He would have been startled to have been required to confirm to a distraught middle-aged man and his weeping mother that shorts and sandals were not some subtle disguise, that he was not in reality an agent of … what? Mam never specified. But I would have seemed the mad one and the brute. Once I took her by the shoulders and shook her so hard it must have hurt her but she scarcely seemed to mind. It just confirmed to her how inexplicable the world had become.

‘We used to be such pals,’ she’d say to me, shaking her head and refusing to say any more because the radio was listening, instead creeping upstairs to the cold bedroom to perch on one of the flimsy bedroom chairs, beckoning me to stay silent and do the same, as if this were a satisfactory way to spend the morning.

And yet, as the doctor and everybody else kept saying, depression was not madness. It would lift. Light would return. But when? The young sympathetic doctor from the local practice could not say. The senior partner, whom we had first consulted, was a distinguished looking figure, silver-haired, loud-talking, a Rotarian and pillar of the community. Unsurprisingly he was also a pull your socks up merchant and did not hold with depression. At his happiest going down potholes to assist stricken cavers, he was less adept at getting patients out of their more inaccessible holes.

How long depressions lasted no doctor was prepared to say, nor anyone else that I talked to. There seemed to be no timetable, this want of a timetable almost a definition of the disease. It might be months, but one of the books I looked into talked about years, though what all the authorities did seem agreed on was that, treated or not, depression cleared up in time. One school of thought held that the depression should be allowed to run its course unalleviated and unaccelerated by drugs. But on my mother drugs seemed to have no effect anyway, and if the depression were to run its course and it did take years, many months even, what would happen to my father?

Alone in the house, knowing no one in the village well enough to call on them for help, he was both nurse and jailer. Coaxing his weeping parody of a wife to eat, with every mouthful a struggle, then smuggling himself out of the house to do some hasty shopping, hoping that she would not come running down the street after him, he spent every day and every fitful night besieged by Mam’s persistent assaults on reality, foiling her attempts to switch off the television, turn off the lights or pull the curtains against her imaginary enemies, knowing that if he once let her out of his sight she would be at the front door trying to flee this house which was at the same time her prison and her refuge.

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A Life like other People’s – Alan Bennett

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

A sardonic portrait of his parents’ marriage and his Leeds childhood, Christmases with Grandma Peel, and the lives, loves and deaths of aunties Kathleen and Myra. Originally released in 2005 in the compilation `Untold Stories’ it was released on it own in 2009.

The petty, lower-middle-class worries over what was common or not common; the aspiration to hold cocktail parties; the horror of putting oneself forward: these were the things that dominated Bennett’s early life, expressed as they were by his shy, unsure mother.She imagines that other families – those that weren’t common – enjoyed cooked breakfasts and hosted cocktail parties, this last a constant obsession. “What my parents never really understood,” says Bennett, “was that most families just rubbed along anyhow.”

Bennett blames his mother’s timidity on his aunties, Kathleen and Myra, who bullied and shamed her with their more dazzling lives. But their ends were not dazzling, nor was his mother’s, and this memoir, dominated by the women in his life, is Bennett’s cry against the worst that age and illness do.

Within their own family, however, there are those who are different. Bennett’s two aunties, his mother’s sisters Myra and Kathleen, are regarded as “sisters of subversion”.

When war comes Aunty Myra joins up as a WAAF and is posted to the Far East, where she has servants, returning after the war with various exotic souvenirs and an intimidating (to Dad’s thinking) collection of photographs. She marries an RAF warrant officer, while Aunty Kathleen marries an Australian widower.

Later there is a family rift when Myra, staying with Dad and Mam, takes it upon herself to dismantle and clean their Belling gas oven, an act charged with social ramifications, both intentional and misconstrued. Kathleen is mocked for buying a Utility armchair with compartments for cocktail paraphernalia and reading matter.

Mam thinks it common, Dad sees it as impractical and therefore pretentious, being the opposite of its purported utility. “Splother”, says Bennett, was his Dad’s invented word “for the preening and fuss invariably attendant upon the presence of aunties”, but it also serves to describe anything pretentious and showy.

In 1966, when Bennett’s Dad retired from his job as a butcher, he and Mam moved out of “mucky Leeds” and settled in a cottage with a back garden in a village in the Yorkshire Dales. There, in a supposedly idyllic setting, Mam descended into semi-madness as Dad became “both nurse and gaoler”.

Over the next years she was in and out of institutions, where Dad would visit every day, even when it meant a 50-mile trip. But Mam’s mental illness is unfailingly “modest” and unassuming: “She might be ill, disturbed, mad even, but she still knew her place.” It’s called ‘depression’ but sounds more like paranoid schizophrenia.

Questions about his mother’s mental illness open the 242-page book and remain central to the story. Popular in the 60s/70s were psychiatrists R. D. Laing and Thomas Szasz, known as “radical therapists.”

Laing advocated “an anarchy of experience” and thought family dynamics created mental instability. Szasz focused on love and loss within families as the spark that ignites the fuse of illness. Both themes — anarchy, and love and loss — inform Bennett’s memoir.

I know most of the places and churches he talks about. I can hear Bennett’s flat Leeds’ vowels and steady, homely drone throughout the narrative.

Psalm 91 ‘Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night; nor for the arrow that flieth by day’ at Compline simply wasn’t true.

I had to look up ‘kist’ = a chest used for storing clothes and linen.

Quotations:

“Frank died last week, haven’t we been having some weather.”

“Seldom can a comma have borne such a burden.”

So while she rests at the undertaker’s my brother and I consult our diaries and decide on a mutually acceptable date for the funeral, and I take the train to Weston-super­Mare for what I hope will be the last time now, though get­ting off at Nallsea, which is handier for the crematorium. It’s a low-key affair, the congregation scarcely bigger than the only other public occasion in my mother’s life, the wed­ding she had shrunk from more than sixty years before.

Of the four or five funerals in this book, only my father’s is held in a proper church; the rest, though scattered across England, might all have been in the same place, so uniform is the setting of the municipal crematorium.

The building will be long and low, put up in the sixties, probably, when death begins to go secular. Set in country that is not quite country it looks like the reception area of a tasteful factory or the departure lounge of a small provin­cial airport confined to domestic flights. The style is con­temporary but not eye-catchingly so; this is decorum-led architecture which does not draw attention even to its own merits. The long windows have a stylistic hint of tracery, denomination here a matter of hints, the plain statement of any sort of conviction very much to be avoided.

Related settings might be the waiting area of a motor showroom, the foyer of a small private hospital or a section of a department store selling modern furniture of inoffen­sive design: dead places. This is the architecture of reluc­tance, the furnishings of the functionally ill at ease, decor for a place you do not want to be.

It is neat with the neatness ill-omened; clutter means hope and there is none here, no children’s drawings, no silly notices. There are flowers, yes, but never a Christmas tree and nothing that seems untidy. The whole function of the place, after all, is to do with tidying something away.

In the long low table a shallow well holds pot plants, African violets predominating, tended weekly by a firm that numbers among its clients a design consultancy, an Aids hospice, the boardroom of the local football club and a museum of industrial archaeology.

In the unechoing interior of the chapel soft music plays and grief too is muted, kept modest by the blond wood and oatmeal walls, the setting soft enough to make something so raw as grief seem out of place. It’s harder to weep when there’s a fitted carpet; at the altar (or furnace) end more blond wood, a table flanked by fins of some tawny-coloured hardwood set in a curved wall covered in blueish-greenish material, softly lit from below. No one lingers in these wings or makes an entrance through them, the priest presiding from a lectern or reading desk on the front of which is a (detachable) cross. A little more spectacular and it could be the setting for a TV game show. Above it all is a chandelier with many sprays of shaded lights which will dim when the coffin begins its journey.

Before that, though, there will be the faint dribble of a hymn, which is for the most part unsung by the men and only falteringly by the women. The deceased is unknown to the vicar, who in turn is a stranger to the mourners, the only participant on intimate terms with all concerned, the corpse included, being the undertaker. Unsolemn, hygienic and somehow retail, the service is so scant as to be scarcely a ceremony at all, and is not so much simple as inadequate. These clipboard send-offs have no swell to them, no tide, there is no launching for the soul, flung like Excalibur over the dark waters. How few lives now end full-throated to hymns soaring or bells pealing from the tower. How few escape a pinched suburban send-off, the last of a life some half-known relatives strolling thankfully back to the car. Behind the boundary of dead rattling beech careful flower beds shelter from the wind, the pruned stumps of roses protruding from a bed of wood-chips,

My mother’s funeral is all this, and her sisters’ too; grue­some occasions, shamefaced even and followed by an unconvivial meal. Drink would help but our family has never been good at that, tea the most we ever run to with the best cups put out. Still, Mam’s life does have a nice postscript when en secondes funebres she is brought togeth­er with my father and her ashes put in his grave.

Sometimes as I’m standing by their grave I try and get a picture of my parents, Dad in his waistcoat arid shirtsleeves, Mam in her blue coat and shiny straw hat. I even try and say a word or two in prayer, though what and to what I’d find it hard to say.

`Now then’ is about all it amounts to. Or ‘Very good, very good, which is what old men say when a transaction is completed.

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Jeremy Thorpe by Michael Bloch

jtAre we to believe that if it wasn’t for Norman Scott, Thorpe would have formed a coalition with Heath and there’d have been no Thatcher?

To some of us, 600 pages seemed a bit daunting at first, especially since the subject doesn’t interest some very much and one member had never heard of the subject, but it was so well-written that I on wanting to know what happened next.

It was long suppressed by the subject – until his death, said I was ‘a fair cop.’ A fortnight after Jeremy Thorpe’s death in December 2014, Michael Bloch’s long-suppressed biography of the former Liberal party leader was finally released. Bloch began his research over twenty years ago, conducted hundreds of interviews in 1992-94 with Thorpe’s contemporaries, colleagues and lovers, and had surprisingly amicable discussions with the man himself.

It begins by seemingly dismantling a character for whom the author clearly had a high regard.

His family had coat of arms from namesake but unrelated family. This fed his fantasies at many low points of his life.

He had Irish low church (Anglo-Catholics were a thing of horror to them) forebears, one a policeman, another ordained without a degree but with the gift of the gab, with poor health and who was a windbag in parliament.

Thorpe took advantage of friends and then discarded them

Born in 1929, he was from boyhood an incorrigible show-off. He got a kick out of misbehaving and evading detection; and on the rare occasions when he was caught, perfected the trick of stout denials of his guilt.

He was accomplished at getting out of games at school, then national service

He was not a committee man but brilliant working on his own

Homosexual acts were illegal when Thorpe was coming to prominence and gay politicians ran the triple risk of blackmail, nasty criminal penalties and career ruin. Even when the law was repealed, many more years had to pass before any politician could come out as gay and hope to survive. Yet it was one of the hypocrisies of that era that so long as they were reasonably “discreet” about it, gay politicians could enjoy a successful career, even a glittering one. An influential figure on the Labour benches was the prodigiously promiscuous Tom Driberg. The Tory ranks included the bisexual Bob Boothby who pursued liaisons with characters from the criminal underworld at the same time as having an affair with the wife of the prime minister, Harold Macmillan.

When Thorpe became leader of his party at the precocious age of 37 his secret was already widely known at Westminster because he was far from careful. He was compulsively promiscuous and all classes were represented in his choice of partners “from heirs to peerages to rough proletarian youths”. He boasted to friends that he had seduced TV cameramen, footmen at Buckingham Palace receptions, even policemen on duty at the House of Commons. He played with fire by sending compromising letters, often on House of Commons stationery. At the time of Princess Margaret’s wedding to Anthony Armstrong-Jones, Thorpe sent a friend a postcard: “What a pity about HRH. I rather hoped to marry the one and seduce the other.” His main taste was for men younger than himself and from less privileged backgrounds whom he might dominate in the guise of playing a protective role. When he became leader, he promised anxious colleagues that he would curb himself and get a wife. He did get a wife, cynically telling his press secretary that he thought it would boost the party’s poll rating, but he did not curb himself. During his engagement, he bragged of having sex with “a New York street boy he had picked up in Times Square and taken back to the Waldorf Astoria”. Even Driberg, whose recklessness was legendary, urged Thorpe to take care after hearing gossip about the Liberal leader from rent boys that they both used. Michael Bloch indulges in some psychological speculation about why Thorpe had such a “craving for dangerous adventure” and conjectures that he had “a subconscious longing to be caught and punished”.

Some of Bloch’s new revelations concern the Dorian Gray figure in Thorpe’s youth, Henry Upton. Upton was the sadistic heir to a peerage, with a string of homosexual convictions and tabloid exposures, who disappeared from a boat off the Sussex coast in 1957. An eminent art historian claimed that Upton was killed at Thorpe’s instigation in order to cover up thefts of money. (Bloch is careful to say that the claim was unsubstantiated.)

We thought that the author would blacken Scott’s name but Scott does this all by himself – writing a 17 page letter to Thorpe’s mother ostensibly about lost luggage.

The judge at Thorpe’s trial termed Scott “a neurotic, spineless creature, addicted to hysteria and self-advertisement…. He is a crook. He is a fraud, he is a sponger. He is a whiner. He is a parasite.”

It was thought that a wife should stand by husband with homosexual tendencies

The author’s Thorpe is not all black: credit is given to his political achievements where it is due. He helped found Amnesty International. He was a passionate voice against Ian Smith’s racist minority rule in Rhodesia and the apartheid regime in South Africa. He supported the abolition of the vicious laws against gays, so he wasn’t a hypocrite in that respect. His most significant contribution to history was to help Ted Heath pass the legislation taking Britain into the Common Market. Without Liberal votes, it would have been lost. Bloch also makes a persuasive case that Thorpe, an inventive electioneer, was a pioneer of modern campaigning. For a period before he was ruined, he swept his party off its feet and charmed a fair bit of the country, presiding over a Liberal revival which took the party to a level of popularity it had not seen for half a century.

Hypocrite Cyril Smith refuses to share a stage with Thorpe.

The judge at the Old Bailey showed how the establishment protects its own.

Not for the first time, you wonder what it is, exactly, that the Liberal Party stands for. Chamelions?

Thorpe’s reference to the insularity of the UK is even more relevant now in the light of Brexit.

Empire Jack’s sword means little compared to the sword from the Peterloo massacre carried about by Ramesy McDonald, as recounted in Fame Is The Spur by HowardSpring

Thorpe using money to build a bridge over a duck pond seems like an omen of later expenses scandals.

The book is ingeniously constructed but repetitive – that overbearing mother appears too often and some judicious editing wouldn’t go amiss.

Quotations:

In Ursula’s drawing room there was a table draped with a large damask cloth under which two small boys could disappear and not be seen: Jeremy called this his ‘secret house’ and would sometimes lure a friend there, where they would engage in such intimacies as small boys are capable of. On at least one occasion this happened while a fashionable and unsuspecting tea party hosted by his mother was taking place in the room beyond. Thus from earliest childhood Jeremy experienced the thrill of forbidden pleasure in reckless proximity to a conventional world, with the risk of exposure and disgrace adding to the excitement.

but always aimed to know just enough — an assessment which might apply to the whole of his career.

Nor was he much of a reader, usually preferring to ask a friend what was in a book than look at it himself.

At this critical stage of his emotional development, he fell entirely under the powerful influence of his mother, who drummed into him that he was the most important person in the world, that he could do no wrong, that he should exploit every opportunity to advance his career and that he must succeed at all costs. In years to come, he would often rebel against her pos­sessiveness; but the egotism, ambition and ruthlessness she had implanted would never be far away.

In so far as he exhibited any serious romantic feel­s, it was towards older women such as Megan Lloyd George ther than his contemporaries. If he ever seemed to be getting close to a female undergraduate, as he did to Ann Chesney when they were both involved in the OULC, the relationship was likely to arouse the destructive attention of the one who was long to remain the principal woman in his life — his mother.

for at least some of its aficionados at the time, homosexuality also represented an exciting and conspir­atorial world. The idea of operating clandestinely outside the normal scheme of things lent a bohemian spice to life, and there was an element of thrill inherent in the risks involved, ‘like feasting with panthers’. Homosexual circles, obsessed as they were by secrecy, loyalty and code language, had something of a masonic air. Homosexuality could also overcome barriers between classes: gentlemen traditionally sought pleasure with working-class youths such as guardsmen, often to the benefit of both parties.

(It must, however, be noted that Jeremy was always sympa­thetic to the campaign to change the law on homosexuality in which, as will be seen, he became active after his election to Parliament

At the time of Princess Margaret’s wedding to Anthony Armstrong-Jones, Thorpe sent a friend a postcard: “What a pity about HRH. I rather hoped to marry the one and seduce the other.”

such a “craving for dangerous adventure” and conjectures that he had “a subconscious longing to be caught and punished”. Or maybe he just liked a lot of sex.

In the autumn of 1966, a young man called Bill Shannon was loitering outside an antique shop on the King’s Road when he noticed a tall, saturnine figure in a dark suit. “Looking for anything in particular?” the stranger said. They went back to the man’s flat in the heart of Westminster and had sex. The man then got out a camp-bed and invited Shannon to spend the night, and the next morning handed him £3. A few nights later the man picked him up again. “Do you know who I am?” he asked. “A very nice gentleman,” Shannon replied. The man pointed to the mantelpiece, decorated with photos of himself and various eminent political figures. He was, he explained, an MP. A few months later, he was elected leader of the Liberal party.

Like Jeremy, Bessell was a showman and extrovert, witty and imaginative, an elegant charmer with a theatrical touch who enjoyed intrigue and danger. He indulged in a promiscuous heterosexuality hardly less dan­gerous in terms of career and reputation (particularly among the God-fearing Cornish) than Jeremy’s homosexuality: he kept a wife and family in Cornwall and mistress in London, and was a compulsive and accomplished seducer of women. He was a fan­tasist and in this respect went further than Jeremy: he developed a habit of telling everyone what they most wanted to hear, caus­ing many to regard him as a liar, hypocrite and mischief-maker. As a lay preacher who practised little of what he preached but had a power to hold audiences, he was also seen, by those who knew the truth about him, as a crook of the Elmer Gantry variety. His sense of fantasy was particularly marked when it came to his busi­ness career: he was not without talent, and set up a number of successful small enterprises (including the felt-tip pen and vend­ing-machine companies of which Jeremy became a director), but he overreached himself by launching a series of wildly ambitious transatlantic schemes which he hoped would make him rich but merely landed him in debt. The fact that he managed to hold off his creditors for so long was a tribute to his persuasive powers. (He looked to his political career to help rescue him from his business troubles, writing to a creditor that `the letters MP are worth more than stocks and shares …’)

If you are in public life you are more vulnerable and must not put yourself in a position where you can be subject to blackmail or other pressures. Peccadilloes which might be acceptable for a pri­vate citizen can become a great danger to security with a person in public life.

That day I gave birth to this vice that lies latent in every man.

“Bunnies can (and will) go to France. Yours affectionately, Jeremy. I miss you.”

Had he not done any of these risky things, it is unlikely that Scott could have done him much harm. Jeremy turned the affair into a drama because, consciously or unconsciously, he wanted a drama. It was almost as if he had a psychological need to sustain a threat to his career, which provided him with a challenge and gave him a thrill of fear.

Between (Heath) and Jeremy there had long existed the mutual mistrust of the dedicated plodder and the brilliant lightweight, the repressed introvert and the flamboyant extrovert.

This country has been in retreat since the war — retreat from over­seas possessions, overseas commitments and many of the responsibilities it accepted abroad. There are some who would wish to go further and turn this island into one with a siege economy. The time has come to end that retreat, to reverse it, to advance into Europe.

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Closet Queens: Some 20th Century British Politicians by Michael Bloch

cq(We have not discussed this in the group but it was a ‘spin off’ from one of our meetings and this review is in a personal capacity.)

Bloch is a Freudian who believes that all men, from Churchill down, are sexually ambiguous, and that the strenuous heterosexual endeavours of politicians like Sir Alfred Milner and Lord Curzon were “fuelled by a degree of repressed homosexuality”. He has little documentary evidence to go on, private correspondence and diaries being routinely destroyed by the authors or their estates; his bricks “have had to be made with limited straw”. The word “rumour” crops up frequently. Churchill may have been more at home in male company, but evidence for the proposition that he was bisexual is slender. Likewise, there is no evidence that Edward Heath ever had a sexual relationship with anyone. Edward Boyle is said to have “never showed any discernible romantic interest in anyone of either sex”. In which case, one might ask, what is he doing here?

He has little documentary evidence to go on, private correspondence and diaries being routinely destroyed by the authors or their estates; his bricks “have had to be made with limited straw”.

According to the author, the Macmillan government, which balked at decriminalisation, “contained more closet queens than any other of the century”. Macmillan’s 1959-60 cabinet “included a homosexual or bisexual foreign secretary, chancellor of the exchequer, colonial secretary, health secretary and minister of labour, and was presided over by a prime minister who was rumoured to have been expelled from Eton for homosexuality”.

Some of the behaviour documented here, whether the perpetrators were gay or heterosexual, would have been scandalous or distasteful in any era. Loulou Harcourt was said to have tried to seduce all four children (male and female) of a friend, colleague and fellow bisexual. Labour’s Tom Driberg spent a lot of time cruising public lavatories. Ian Harvey, a foreign office minister, was found in the undergrowth in St James’s park with a guardsman. Labour’s former secretary of state for Wales, Ron Davies, had his celebrated “moment of madness” on Clapham Common. Not forgetting the murky business surrounding Jeremy Thorpe and the alleged attempted assassination of his gay lover.

This book is the product of 12 years research. Many biographers left out any papers which hinted at homosexuality so there isn’t much to go on.

It isn’t as gripping as his Thorpe book.

It seems that the authorities often turned a blind eye to homosexual activity except for times when a puritan stirred up persecution.

Although David Maxwell Fyfe was opposed to relaxing laws against homosexuality and blocked Wolfednen’s reforms for 10 years, he was liberal on other issues, e.g recommended limiting the death penalty’s scope

For those who blame religion for homophobia, it is worth noting that Queensbury, who persecuted Oscar Wilde, was an atheist.

One of Churchill’s boyfriends appointed bishops.

Balfour, who mucked up the Middle East, was a masochist.

My father adored and canvassed for Lord Hinchinbrooke as MP for South Dorset up to 1962. It turns out that he bordered on being a paedophile.

Lord Boyle, the vice-chancellor of my university, comes across as pleasant as I expected.

It is to a gay, Jewish liberal, Hoare Belisha, that we owe the Highway Code, zebra crossings and diving tests as well as his famous beacon.

Though closeted, most of these MPs supported law reform.

Many of them were Anglo-Catholics.

The author perpetuates the myth that local authorities ‘promoted’ homosexuality in the run up to Section 28

The Gay people I know today, including my former MP, seem quite adjusted and normal indeed some are very boring. Many people seem unaware or uninterested in how very difficult it would have been pre 1967.

In 1958, Churchill said about a minister who had been caught with a soldier in the bushes of St James’s Park: ‘On the coldest night of the year? It makes you proud to be British’

” George Brown says to Harold Wilson, ‘Harold what are we going to do about the Homosexual Bill?’ – ‘Pay it of course’.”

Quotations:

Gossip about secret homosexuality has always invited prurient curiosity.”

Here…for what it is worth, is my survey of homosexual, bisexual and sexually ambiguous British politicians of the last century. I have cast the net wide, including some who managed to be fairly open about their tastes while avoiding trouble, others who led complex double lives, often married with children, and some who to a greater or lesser degree repressed their sexuality, along with some who seem to have been genuinely bisexual, and some who would normally be considered heterosexual but who had homosexual pasts, or who exhibited a strong vein of platonic homosexuality in their relationships with young men. (I have also included a few who had no discernible sexual feelings – though who knows what lurked in the hidden depths?) Inevitably, the result is more a bird’s-eye glimpse of the subject than a through-going analysis: much remains shrouded in mystery; bricks have had to be made with limited straw; cautious use has sometimes been made of oral testimony whose value can be difficult to assess.

“that failing acquired by most of the Egyptian officers, a taste for buggery”.

the Führer “is certainly a homosexual”, and that his failure to rise above the rank of corporal in the First World War was due to his “very pronounced perversion”. To many, this later explained Hitler’s surprise appointment of his handsome architect, Albert Speer, as Minister for Armaments. “Tell Speer I love him,” Hitler informed Field Marshal Milch.

As all homosexual activity between men was illegal in England until 1967, and continued to attract intense social disapproval for a quarter of a century after that (the annual Social Attitudes survey suggested that half of the population still considered it to be ‘always wrong’ as late as 1993), this was something that Thorpe, like so many others, had to keep secret from the world at large. Any public exposure of his sexual activities, apart from putting him at risk of criminal prosecution, promised to spell the ruin of his political career amid circumstances of the utmost disgrace. He therefore led a double life

Thorpe developed as a clandestine homosexual were not dissimilar to those which made him such an effective politician. These skills may be said to fall into four categories: (1) quick wits and sharp antennae; (2) acting ability — enabling one to dazzle the public with show­manship, and cover up and dissemble where necessary; (3) a talent for intrigue and subterfuge (surely a necessary part of the equipment of even the most ‘virtuous’ politician); (4) a capacity for taking calculated risks, allied to an aptitude for dealing with threatening situations. Another factor in Thorpe’s story was that there seemed to be a psychological link between the thrill of ‘feasting with panthers’ (as Oscar Wilde described the dangerous allure of casual homosexual encounters) and the general excitement of politics.

the very fact that they were actors, risk-takers, intriguers, etc. would tend to draw them towards the profession.

many of the century’s educated at all-male boarding schools, which (while officially proscribing homosexuality on pain of expulsion) fostered intense and often sexual friendships among their pupils, and also provided training in `playing the game’ (which from the closet-queen point of view meant breaking the rules and getting away with it).

In the not so distant past, to describe anyone (let alone a public figure) as a homosexual was a slur, and a book dedi­cated to so describing a whole group of people would have been regarded as potentially libellous in the case of the living, a cruel attack on those who cannot answer back in the case of the dead, and altogether in poor taste. But now that, in most Western societies, homosexuality is generally accepted as a normal preference, and psychologists usually consider that an element of it resides in us all, it is surely time to try to under­stand the strain of ‘closet-queenery’ which runs through recent political history and has made a significant (and by no means entirely negative) contribution to it. And it implies no disrespect to these often brave and gifted men, and to the tribulations and disappointments they endured, to suggest the phenomenon, viewed retrospectively, of professing set of mores for public consumption and adhering (if only mentally) to another for private satisfaction possesses comedic possibilities: I make no apology for the fact that this book aims to entertain as well as enlighten. It might be said that such lives were hypocritical. But hypocrisy is not one of the seven deadly sins; it can spare feelings, avert trouble, and act as a useful social lubricant. It is said to be a very British quality

Churchill had written: ‘State intervention … in the form of statute … will never eradicate evil. It may make it more dangerous for the evildoer. But such a policy, while not decreasing immorality, only increases its ill effects … The state should protect [its citizens] from harm, and must govern men as they are and not as they ought to be:)

In old age (they were born and died in the same years), Maugham is said to have asked Churchill whether he had ever had a homosexual experience, and allegedly received the reply: ‘I once went to bed with Ivor Novello: it was very musi­cal. If such an event took place (or, indeed, horseplay with fellow cadets at Sandhurst) we may assume that it was inci­dental, and Churchill was surely a virtual stranger to physical homosexuality: for that matter, he seems to have had a low sex drive and is unlikely to have engaged in much serious cohab­itation with his wife except as was needed to produce their offspring. Yet emotionally, he was clearly drawn to men rather than women, a fact which needs to be borne in mind when assessing his complex personality: the closest relationships of his life were with members of his own sex, even if they stopped short of the physical.

Although Browning’s obsession with teenage boys was well known (when he later became a Cambridge don it was an open secret that he frolicked with young soldiers and sailors), Curzon remained devoted to him after his disgrace, often accompanying him on continental holidays, and later having him to stay as a viceregal guest in Calcutta and Simla.

Curzon might therefore have been expected to take a rel­atively tolerant view of homosexuality. However, as Viceroy he was bizarrely obsessed with the prevalence of what he called ‘abominable practices’ among the princely rulers of the native states, which he regarded it as his mission to stamp out. This topic took up an inordinate amount of space in his cor­respondence with the Secretary of State for India, Lord George Hamilton, a broadminded man who was frankly puz­zled by Curzon’s obsession. When Curzon opined that the cause of this ‘horrible taint’ was the custom of early mar­riage – ‘a boy gets tired of women at an early age, and wants the stimulus of some more novel or exciting sensation’ ­Hamilton dared to suggest a simpler explanation: that what Curzon regarded as ‘unnatural vice’ was ‘for the Indian upper orders, a natural pleasure. He warned Curzon against treat­ing the princes like ‘a set of unruly, ignorant and undisciplined schoolboys’. But Curzon was not to be deflected from his moral crusade. When the Maharajah of Ulwar, despite being ‘an active youth and splendid polo player, was found to be ‘infected with this virus, he was deprived of power in his state and ‘placed in the hands of a British officer under a strict system of discipline and control. When the Maharajah of Jodhpur was found to be indulging in ‘dissolute orgies at the palace … a carnival of unnatural vice, Curzon decreed that ‘he be treated like a confirmed drunkard or madman, writing to Hamilton that ‘far the best thing is that the boy should die. Similar sanctions were taken against the rulers of Bhurtpore, ‘a confirmed sodomite, and Bharatpur, who was suspected of having murdered the objecting father of one of his catamites. When Queen Victoria expressed her fondness for the Maharajah of Holkar, who sent her charm­ing telegrams on her birthday, the Viceroy hastened to disillusion his octogenarian sovereign with the news that this ruler was ‘addicted to horrible vices. Curzon’s naive solution to this ‘problem’ was to set up a Cadet Corps to train young native princes to serve as his bodyguard. When he first inspected the Corps at their headquarters at Dehra Dun in 1902 he was delighted. Its tone and spirit [writes his latest biographer] seemed admirable, and he believed its well-born apprentices were as enthusiastic … as if they had been English public schoolboys. Unfortunately it soon transpired that the Corps shared another trait popularly associated with public schoolboys: It was fortunate that the inevitable scan­dal did not break until after the Delhi Durbar of 1903 in which the Corps had played a prominent role. Richard Davenport-Hines, noting that Curzon’s descriptions of the `depravities’ of the princes contain a mixture of ‘effulgent dis­gust and prurient relish, sees his behaviour as an attempt to `overcome his own femininity’ through `fury at the sexual ambivalence of others … There were no open and honest memories of Eton; no realisation that what he feared most were the feminine traits in himself’

Curzon showed a similar attitude to the case of Sir Hector Macdonald, a Scottish hero who had risen from the ranks to become the general commanding the army in Ceylon, and who in 1903 was accused by white settlers of indulging in orgies with ‘temple boys’: after returning to London to explain himself to the military authorities, he committed suicide.

A cartoon by Max Beerbohm shows him looking isolated and out of place in the House of Commons, a tiny, refined, foreign figure surrounded by coarse, fat, baying Tory MPs.

I have known many homosexuals in the course of my life, in this country and abroad; and some of them are my friends … Down the centuries they have played a large part in the development of … western civilisation. As artists they can depict and interpret emotion … perhaps better than anyone else; but in their own lives they shrink from it. With rare exceptions they are by nature promiscuous. They like to pick each other up, casually, in bars, clubs and Turkish baths. They enjoy sex in its cruder manifestations; but the enjoy­ment is transient … They don’t believe in a past, or a future. They live for the day, and even for the hour. Many of them are attracted by the ritual of the Church, and by the per­sonality of Jesus – no nonsense about family life there; but few of them are religious in depth. They call themselves ‘gay, and so they are, for they are nearly always good company; but basically they are not happy. Homosexuality is equally prevalent among what used to be called ‘the higher and the lower orders’; and sometimes these are attracted to each other. This is known in homosexual circles as ‘plain sewing: They are addicted to blackmail [sic] . . . It is because they have played, and always will, an important part in shaping all our lives … that I have done and written so much about them. The trouble is that, to a considerable extent, and much against my will, I share their general outlook on life.

Enoch Powell (1912-98) was one of the most brilliant politi­cians of his generation, considered by some to be more than a trifle mad. He was the only child of primary school teachers in the Black Country; like Edward Heath (who was to be his hated rival) he was a mother’s boy, though his messianic fervour prob­ably derived from his father’s Welsh ancestry. He also resembled Heath in showing early promise as a musician — though Powell gave up his beloved clarinet in early youth because (as he later put it) he feared it might release passions he could not control. At Trinity College, Cambridge, where he was an outstanding classical scholar, he fell under the influence of the great classicist and poet A. E. Housman: he admired Housman’s collections A Shropshire Lad (which was covertly homosexual) and Last Poems (which was overfly so), and wrote poetry in a similar style throughout his life. Powell (again like Heath) was a solitary and self-absorbed character with few social graces who shunned inti­macy with his fellow human beings; but in old age he confessed to Canon Eric James, a former Trinity College Chaplain, that he had been in love with a fellow male undergraduate at Cambridge (probably Edward Curtis of Clare College), and that this infat­uation had inspired love verses published in his First Poems. CI love the fire/ In youthful limbs that wakes desire … ‘) In 1937 Powell was appointed Professor of Greek at the University of Sydney, from where he wrote to his parents, with astonishing frankness, that he was repelled by his female students, while feel­ing ‘an instant and instinctive affection for Australian males between the ages of seventeen and twenty-three. This, he added, might be ‘deplored, but it cannot be altered; and it therefore had to be ‘endured — and (alas!) camouflaged.

When he was invited to contribute an entry to Who’s Who, she had to stop him giving as his recreation ‘to diaphtheirein tous neous’ (ancient Greek for ‘the corruption of young men’).

However, while the Fabians were relaxed about alternative sexual preferences, the British labour movement as a whole was deeply rooted in the fierce Evangelical Christianity which also spearheaded the crackdown on homosexuality during the Victorian era. Radical reformers such as W T. Stead and Henry Labouchere who sought to clear the streets of child prostitutes saw homosexuality as an equivalent scourge: hence the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885, which raised the age of (heterosexual) consent from thirteen to sixteen, incor­porated the `Labouchere Amendment’ which criminalised virtually all homosexual behaviour between males as ‘acts of gross indecency.

iave and gifted men, and to the tribulations and disappointments they endured, to suggest the phenomenon, viewed retrospectively, of professing set of mores for public consumption and adhering (if only mentally) to another for private satisfaction possesses comedic possibilities: I make no apology for the fact that this book aims to entertain as well as enlighten. It might be said that such lives were hypocritical. But hypocrisy is not one of the seven deadly sins; it can spare feelings, avert trouble, and act as a useful social lubricant. It is said to be a very British quality

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The Visa Affair – Jake Arnott

tva(Not discussed by the group but written in a personal capacity.)In 1965 Joe Orton visited the American Embassy in London to get a visa to attend the Broadway production of his outrageous West End hit ‘Entertaining Mr Sloane’ and was caught up in a Kafkaesque world of oppression and paranoia. He was forced into absurd interrogations and accused of “moral turpitude.” In the mid-1960s Orton was one of the most talked about new playwrights of the decade – even attracting the attention of the Beatles to write them a new film.

Writer Jake Arnott has uncovered a previously unpublished story by Orton about his this encounter. This story becomes the heart of a new drama, in which Arnott also draws on letters, archive, newspaper reports and personal testimony to create a darkly comic drama revealing Orton’s life and the world that he lived in.

Orton’s first commission as a playwright was from Radio 3’s predecessor the Third Programme in 1964 and this new play is part of the station’s 70th season, celebrating seven decades of pioneering music and culture.

In ‘The Visa Affair’, Orton has just found success in the UK after years of obscurity, and Broadway beckons, but events in his past threaten his American dream. As embassy staff challenge him about his criminal record we follow a labyrinthine struggle as Joe is forced to defer to authority, deny his sexuality, and to look again at his subversive acts and how they affected his writing and work.

Throughout, Orton plays a game of hide and seek with bureaucracy – evading its surveillance whilst revealing its absurdity.

Leonie Orton-Barnett, the playwright’s younger sister who oversees his literary estate, suggested Mr Arnott adapt The Visa Affair for radio.

Orton’s own narrative voice forms the heart of this drama. It is a rich source of character, dialogue and unfolding plot. Writer Jake Arnott says: “Though his work often seems surreal, Orton always insisted that what he wrote was reality. This is real. What excites me about this project is the opportunity to dramatise a hidden work: Orton’s own encounter with the kind of absurd bureaucracy that he brilliantly depicts in his plays.”

Mr Arnott, whose novels include The Long Firm, intends to add more material from letters, personal testimony and archive documents to flesh out the story. It will be his first radio play and a “huge honour”, he said

The 20-page story follows Orton’s Kafkaesque visit to the American Embassy in Grosvenor Square in 1965.

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