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Ready To Catch Him Should He Fall by Neil Bartlett

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interview with the author GAY TIMES OCTOBER 90

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quotations:

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

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

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

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

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

The man took the call in the kitchen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m sorry.

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

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

You can download it from here

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The Sins of Jack Saul – The True Story of Dublin Jack and The Cleveland Street Scandal by Glenn Chandler

Our group was disappointed in its written style – it’s tabloidy, sensationalist and even judgmental in places – and found lots of misprints and misspellings. Lots of material is crammed in which should have gone in footnotes. It needed a good editor? Was it vanity publishing?

The author seems to be obsessed by his subject and even fantasizes about how he feels – in the absence of diaries, how could he know?

And why a dark-haired model on the front when we’re told that Jack was fair?

Despite all this, many found it to be an enjoyable read and were particularly engaged with the meticulous research towards the end as to how people turned out and what happened top them.

The name entered the public consciousness through the libel trial that came about as a result of the Cleveland Street Scandal of 1889 at which a man calling himself Jack Saul turned witness for the prosecution and his theatrical performance on the stand shocked sensibilities with its unapologetic self-incrimination. Saul’s outspoken testimony, and the subsequent failure of prosecuting Saul for any of it, is something that scholars are still trying to wrap their heads around.

The judge and barristers running the trials seemed more intent on humiliating the accused by making jokes at their expense.

Little is known about John (Jack) Saul except that he was supposedly a male prostitute in London originally from Ireland known as ‘Dublin Jack’ and that he was admittedly involved in at least two scandals involving male homosexuality and prostitution in the late nineteenth century. The first such case was the Dublin Castle Scandal of 1884 which involved “rumours of a homosexual ‘ring’ in Dublin Castle, the centre of power of the [English] colonial administration [in Ireland]” brought about by two Irish Nationalist Members of Parliament who ran a libellous story in the militant nationalist journal United Ireland accusing other officials of indecent acts. Because of the accusations made by the members, Saul was brought to Dublin from London to testify for the Crown in the libel case that ensued against United Ireland. The allegations of the scandal came to involve high-ranking individuals from the Irish Parliament but “none of the evidence was published either in the Irish or English newspapers, and…all court records were destroyed in the Irish civil war” so no record of the allegations or Saul’s testimony survives except in brief allusions from his future testimony in the second, and much more widely reported, scandal five years later in London’s West End at a male brothel located at 19 Cleveland Street. It became known in the British media as the West End Scandal and is better known historically as the Cleveland Street Scandal. Like its Dublin Castle precursor, the Cleveland Street Scandal involved various high-ranking gentlemen caught up in male prostitution and Saul turned witness for the Crown testifying in a libel suit brought about by one of the alleged clients, Earl of Euston, against a newspaper that accused him of having patronized the brothel. This time, however, the testimony has been largely preserved and Saul is on record as admitting to living the “same kind of immoral life in London as he had previously done in Dublin”. The Earl of Euston won his libel suit even though Saul, an avowed prostitute at Cleveland Street and other bawdy houses, admitted to being party to a number of incriminating acts with the Earl. Saul’s openness in testifying to these acts left him open for prosecution, though he was never charged, much less prosecuted, to the chagrin of Henry Labouchere, of the Labouchere Amendment that convicted Wilde. It is entirely plausible that Saul’s admissions were so shocking and new that lawmakers were simply overwhelmed or felt that Saul, the common prostitute, would not make a good example of the new Criminal Law Amendment Act. This was, of course, left to the prosecution of Wilde five years later.

Mention is made of a ‘Mr. Dolling’. Nobody who knows his stuff would refer to the Irish and infamous Fr. Dollling of Mile End Road thus. He kept ‘open house’ for sailors and ‘rough lads’.

There is a reference, at the end, to an early form of hospice.

The author: I became intrigued by Jack.  Who was he?  Where did he come from?  How old was he really?  And what happened to him afterwards?  During the writing of Cleveland Street The Musical, I came across his infamous memoir, written eight years before the scandal broke, called The Sins of the Cities of the Plain.  It was basically pornography, but how much of it was pornography and how much autobiography?  Was any of it reliable?  And how did he come to write it, if indeed he did?  On page five he introduced himself to the reader.  Jack Saul of Lisle Street, Leicester Square.  Ready for a lark with a free gentleman at any time.  Most people now associate the Jack Saul of The Sins of the Cities of the Plain with the Jack Saul of the Cleveland Street scandal.  But I was determined to find out for certain.  Could the name of the author possibly have been a pseudonym, adopted by some later rent boy at the Cleveland Street trial who did not want his real name known?  Many people involved in selling sex used aliases.  Saul never revealed his age, or address, or anything about himself other than that he had a mother in Ireland.  After stepping out of the dock, he vanished, never to be heard of again.

My fascination with Jack was re-kindled when I wrote the musical Fanny and Stella, The Shocking True Story.  This was about the Victorian transvestites Boulton and Park, otherwise known as Fanny and Stella, who were put on trial in 1871 for conspiracy to commit sodomy.  Jack wrote about them in The Sins of the Cities of the Plain, ten years after the event.  He had known them intimately and described riotous sexual encounters with them.  He knew Boulton’s lover and ‘husband’ Lord Arthur Pelham-Clinton, and described being taken to a garden party by Lord Arthur where he was briefly introduced to the Prince of Wales.   Infact, Jack was the first person, other than the newspapers, to write about Boulton and Park.  Jack would go on to meet a number of aristocrats in his ‘professional’ life.

Using my skills as a genealogist, and putting together all that I knew about Jack Saul from the existing records, I determined to track down the real person.  This took me to Ireland, from the east coast to the west coast, from Dublin and the gentle slopes of the Wicklow mountains to the wilds of County Galway.  Jack Saul may have been an enigma, a mystery, but he did leave one or two footprints in the sand, clues to who he really was and where he came from.  And just as importantly, what happened to him.  The answers reveal much that is new about his part in the Cleveland Street affair and throw a new light on his involvement with the writing of The Sins of the Cities of the Plain.

Quotations:

The clients of the brothel at 19 Cleveland Street included Members of Parliament and the House of Lords, wealthy bankers, high-ranking figures in the military, and very possibly the grandson of Queen Victoria and Heir Presumptive to the throne, Prince Albert Victor Edward, Duke of Clarence. Prince Eddy’s role was never proven, but the merest hint of the involvement of the son of the Prince of Wales and heir to the throne elevated the affair into the major sex scandal of Victoria’s reign.

The other factor, which made the brothel infamous, was that telegraph messenger boys from the General Post Office were recruited to sell their bodies to supplement their wages.

That case was the first in a twenty-five year period of Victoria’s reign, which culminated in the trial of Oscar Wilde and his imprisonment in Reading Gaol. Between them, in the course of that quarter century, lay the so-called Dublin felonies, during which a number of men had their lives laid bare and ruined

Jack’s story is also the story of Charles Hammond, with whose life his became inextricably intertwined, the wily, unscrupulous, money-grabbing pimp and brothel owner about whom it is impossible to say anything very kind. Except perhaps that he too, like Jack, had a family he loved and was a survivor. Many monstrous men love their families. Had he lived today Hammond would have been branded a paedophile. His crimes however were of their time and while it is no excuse to say that in Victorian London child prostitution was rife, he was certainly not the most guilty of the guilty. Which is more and landed gentry who used his services.

 

Nothing much, it seems, changes. At the time of writing, the British media is obsessed with the subject of VIP sexual abuse of minors.

for research purposes, I had pho­tocopied a police statement signed by Jack from our own National Archives, and subsequently filed it away. I still had it. I dug it out and looked at Jack’s signature. The signatures on the police statement and the much later householder’s census form were unmistakably those of the same person

James took care with the horse. The hooves tended to slide on the paving stones between the tramlines, which the Tramways Company once spread with sand in the days when they were horse-pulled. Since electrical traction had been introduced, the company had neglected the roads. The jarveys who drove the horse-drawn cabs were the casualties of that neglect. There had been numerous court cases involving injuries to horse and driver, but the Dublin roads remained in a dreadful condition.

At Harold’s Cross, Jack Saul had plenty of time now to look back on a life that had been described in court as one of ‘infamy’. He knew that in the great reckoning — he had been a Catholic all his life if not a good one ­he hadn’t been completely bad, even if his family con­sidered him to be so. He had at least done one good thing, had stood up to the establishment and to the foreign occupier of his country of Ireland no less, in order to prevent an injustice. Was one good thing enough to balance the books?

Jack’s parents could not afford a doctor. Such gentle­men were expensive and indeed beyond the pockets of most slum dwellers. The stigma of poverty was attached to those who were forced to attend the infir­mary, and many used it as a last resort. Everyone became their own chemist, mothers and aunts and grans in particular dispensing homemade ointments and herbal medicines.

It was a Trojan undertaking for a family to lift itself out of the Dublin slums, and it took much more than the money earned by a cabdriver to do it. The most it anyone could hope for was a change of address, which frequently meant flitting from one hovel to another, often with the purpose of escaping a grasping landlord and escaping a demand for rent.

Grafton Street itself was like a lady in a beautiful skirt. Lift the hem and the vermin and filth were just inches from her dainty feet.

There was a system of National Schools in Ireland decades before they appeared in England. Jack’s educa­tion was strictly denominational. The State had created them in the hope that they would unite Catholic and Protestant children, but by the time Jack went to school (possibly the one in Mill Street) they had become, after strong intervention by the respective churches, strictly segregated. No Irish was taught. Jack learned English, and anyway, it was the language that you needed if you ever decided to emigrate, as hundreds of thousands did.

As a Catholic Jack was taught about Heaven and Purgatory. It did not matter how poor people were or how grim the living conditions, there was always a picture or a small statue of Our Lady lit by a votive candle in the corner of the room. Jack knelt down and prayed that someone so young as William might go straight to Heaven, for how could the soul of his little brother not be cleansed enough of sin so that he might go immediately to Heaven and sit with the angels? And while God and the Virgin were at it, could he please have another brother instead of more sisters?

His prayers were answered nine months later when James was born. Like Jack, James would survive into manhood. From an early age, Jack was raised with a second brother, Edward. There appears to be no baptism at Duke Lane for Edward Saul. He may have been adopted, though there was no official adoption in those days. When relatives or close neighbours died and young children were left orphaned, they would often be taken in by other members of the family.

What Jack didn’t see were the ravaged bodies of young abandoned country girls, thrown out of their families because of unwanted pregnancies, who would end up in the notorious Lock Hospital dying of venereal disease, some reputedly smothered to death out of kindness by nurses when they were past all hope. What price a wealthy admirer then? Of wealth in Dublin, Jack glimpsed a great deal. But it was all Protestant wealth. As a Catholic boy growing up he was made acutely aware of being a second-class citizen.

intercourse itself carried a penalty of life imprisonment, which in real terms meant a period of incarceration for not less than ten years. So foreplay was okay, oral inter­course had been deemed not to constitute buggery, but any movement towards anal intercourse could be inter­preted as attempted buggery, which was also a crime.

The taboo against such social classes mixing was almost as great as that against homosexual acts, if not actually greater…. What his parents would think of him even stalking to a soldier, seen as a tool of the British occupa­tion of their country, let alone becoming romantically involved with one, he didn’t care to think about.

The loss of the breadwinner was the worst thing that could happen to a family. There was no pension, no insurance. Widows were expected to work if their husbands died and that meant only one thing — charring or taking in laundry. There were no jobs better than that for a forty-year-old woman who could neither read nor write.

Jack’s new friend did not want a depressing tale of boys going hungry on the streets, bodies in dark alleyways, encountering violence, catching disease, visiting hospitals for doses of mercury. It wasn’t to be a story of raw survival shortened lives…. There is no hint of Irish famine here or potato blight. Everyone in the farm of Jack’s imagination is plump and well fed and monstrously virile.

 

They went to a Dublin clergyman they knew, a Mr Dolling, who was working in the East End of London helping the poor of Mile End and begged him to give them the money to go home. Mr Dolling knew nothing of their circumstances. He gave them the money and they escaped briefly

The reader from another planet, assuming he had learned English, might have thought it was a criminal offence to ride around in cabs, visit botanic gardens, play music, buy presents, go to balls, write letters and act in amateur dramatics. He might have come to the conclusion that to wear a check suit was an indication of guilt. Thirteen years earlier, at the trial of Boulton and Park, while The Times duly told its readers that certain evidence was unfit to print, Reynolds News was not afraid to refer to dilated anuses and the insertion of foreign bodies into those orifices.

Medical examinations in such cases were fraught with controversy, and there were some very weird deeply held convictions. (A doctor in the Boulton and Park case had stated that abnormal penis size was indicative of sodomitical activities, and given evidence in court that their sphincters were much dilated

James was not quite old enough to make sense of the exotic, effeminate Jack with his theatrical airs who had disgraced the family by ending up in court twice and who admitted to being a sodomite and a criminal, who moved within outlawed circles in London, who slept with soldiers and sold his body for money. Brother

Jack was truly beyond the pale.

Edward was old enough. The money Jack sent ho in regular postal orders was tainted, and he knew it.

As for Eliza Saul, mothers are, after all, mothers a Jack was possibly still the good Irish son who had j fallen in with the wrong people. He would find a job in London, another position as a valet in a respectable house, mend his ways and get married.

The Crown simply didn’t have the stomach to see eminent, respectable citizens and army officers given life sentences for such unmentionable crimes.

In the end, an elderly grocer and two lowly brothel keepers had received prison sentences while the more eminently respectable Captain Kirwan, Gustavus Cornwall and Surgeon Major Fernandez walked free.

Heat and light came from a single candle. Most of the time prisoners just sat in the cold and dark. A visit to Kilmainham Gaol today is a sobering experience that makes one feel almost ashamed to be British.

though it wouldn’t stop Jack giving his name to the police.

One of the more bizarre characters who drifted in and out of the house was The ‘Reverend’ George Daniel Veck, forty years old and the son of a publican from Alverstoke in Hampshire. Veck was not there to give the boys religious instruction. Far from it. He had been a telegraph clerk with the Eastern District Post Office until he was sacked for improper conduct with messen­gers. He had then become a student of theology, or at least professed to have been one, though the descrip­tion may well have been as fanciful as the title Reverend. As far as anyone knew, he had never taken holy orders.

Dressing as a man of the cloth gave him power, and limitless opportunities to pick wayward youths off the street to give them a bed for the night. He anticipated the notorious Roger Deakes, the self-styled Bishop of Rochester, who decades later in the ‘sixties was part of a gang who collected runaway boys at railway stations, recounted in the book Johnny Come Home.

There was always a room for Mr Veck and a youth at 19 Cleveland Street.

Hammond had met Veck in Gravesend where the latter had run a hotel and tavern, the Terrace, just a few yards up the hill from the pub outside which Hammond’s father had drowned. Veck’s charm had worked on Hammond’s mother and brother Ted, where he was a welcome guest. Who would not welcome a man of such religious convictions? Unfortunately his convictions did not run to paying what he owed. His house in south London had been repossessed after The Midland Railway Company who owned the property threw him out and took him to court for arrears of rent. He also absconded from Gravesend, for non-payment of rates.

But the Lord looked after those who looked after themselves. At Cleveland Street, Veck became inordinately fond of the young GPO clerk Henry Newlove and charmed his way into his home to meet his mother. It might not be an exaggeration to say that he fell madly in love with him.

Mrs Newlove was delighted that her son, already in la coveted position with the Post Office, should be keeping company with a man of the church. What could possibly go wrong with such a friendship? It could only be to Henry’s good. The boy had been without a father almost since the time he was born, and I she had worried about the influences on his life. She need not have. Veck became such a regular caller at the house that Mrs Newlove began to recognise his knock and would answer the door instantly before immediately putting the kettle on.

The Duke made it clear that he did not indulge in sodomy, at least with young men. That was no problem. Not everyone was a sodomite, as Jack from experience well knew, though the popular conception regarding men who had sex with other men was that they were. The same misconception holds true today.

What the Duke wanted was foreplay. Jack undressed, lay on the silk sheets, and duly obliged

It would be many years before the law caught up with Andrew Grant, but at some point in his illustrious criminal career he lost an eye, which was presumably put out by somebody. For the rest of his life, he wore an artifi­cial eye in the right socket and a scar on the right side of his nose. It couldn’t have happened to a more deserving person.

Abberline at this point must have realised that this s a case which could elevate his reputation after drubbing it had got during the hunt for Jack the pper. For here were real names, real identities, no fleeting chimeras around the back alleys of Whitechapel but men of flesh and blood who had addresses. And pretty respectable addresses too.

Lord Salisbury. Such matter wouldn’t normally bother the head of state, but with names like Lord Arthur Somerset and his links to the Royal Family, one couldn’t be too careful.

Peers of the realm, Members of Parliament, high-ranking members of the military establishment ­all were involved. Abberline was not too far off retire­ment. Would this make his career or break it? It was a serious consideration.

Jack was a walking Debrett’s.

the initials PAV might of interest…. He realised of course that PAV stood for Prince Albert Victor.

The letter mentioning PAV resides in the files of the Director of Public Prosecutions kept at the National Archives in Kew. DPP 1/95/1-7

Just to make matters quite plain and to give them the Royal seal of approval, the Prince of Wales wrote Lord Salisbury the Prime Minister expressing his great satisfaction with the way things had been handled.

The editor desperately needed someone to help him in his defence, which was to be one of justification. Parke was intending to say that essentially the libel as true and that Lord Euston had been a visitor to 19 Cleveland Street, as the newspaper had implied. Jack was someone who had actually taken his Lordship back to the brothel and had sex with him. Would Jack get up in court and say so? Or put another way, would Jack stand up in court and admit to crimes that might end up in him going to prison himself?

Jack said he would do it. They had something in common, Jack and Mr Parke. The unlucky young editor had been screwing the establishment just a few months. Jack had been doing it for years.

But Jack, while having Oscar’s bravery and some of his vanity, did not have his wit and self-assurance. He felt morally obliged to talk of his life of shame, to agree with the makers of the law that their intimacy was criminal. As he truly knew and believed it was.

`No proceedings should at present be commenced against Saul. As regards perjury, I see no means by which sufficient evidence can be produced to prove the offence of perjury. As regards sodomy, it would be both unprofitable and in my opinion improper to try Saul for the offence, the only evidence against him being his  own confession contained in his statement.’ Unprofitable. Indeed it was. Improper. Of course it would be. Nobody wanted to sully their hands any further with this dreadful business. No one knew what else he might say in court in his defence.

An editorial in Labouchere’s Truth demonstrated just how lucky Jack had been. It was taken up verbatim by number of provincial papers and was unflatteringly headed, THE “CREATURE” SAUL

To be trusted again was important to Jack after what he had been through. No one ever officially informed him that he was not to be prosecuted after giving his evidence in the Parke trial. As far as he knew, it was still hanging over him.

The Attorney General had written that at present no proceedings should be commenced. Had Jack known, it would have concerned him even more. The police had been severely criticised for letting him carry on unmo­lested picking up men around the West End. Inspector Abberline had been mauled for not acting on his state­ment. At any moment, now that the dust had settled, the police could come for him. There were scores of people who would not bat an eyelid at giving evidence against Jack if it meant saving their own skins.

Jack worked, and waited. Perhaps if they came now they would find him in a respectable place with respect­able people, just like Mr Violet had been. Jack always wanted to be among respectable people.

He was also claiming to be thirty-two whereas he was actually forty-three. While vanity obviously once again played a part, the Irish traditionally used the Government census as a way of getting one over their English rulers by lying through their teeth every opportunity.

The Sisters knew how the dying wanted to die. They could not be treated as ordinary patients but had to have a better diet than would be offered in any hospital. Tubercular patients tended to have increased appetites so the food bill was high. Charitable bequests made up a substantial portion of their funds.

Jack was well fed for the remaining weeks of his life. (Which would probably have annoyed hanging Judge Hawkins if he had known). The ward into which Jack

was placed was kept as cheery as possible by the Sisters. The four poster beds were covered by pink and white dimity curtains, and there was an open fire with a singing kettle for constant hot water and soothing drinks at any time of the day. One nun with one maid ran each ward.

When not in bed, Jack had the use of a large sitting room, and for fresh air — regarded as essential for tubercular patients — there was a balcony at the back of the hospice. In the grounds was a smoking pavilion. If one did not wish to smoke, one could walk in the rose garden.

Not all of the patients with whom Jack shared Our Lady’s Hospice were poor. Nor were they all Catholics, for the Sisters did not make any division between t religions. Protestants, doctors, solicitors, soldiers,

None of those mentioned in Jack’s statement or by Hammond’s boys were ever prosecuted. Of the occupants of the house, the self-styled Reverend George Daniel Veck was perhaps proof of the adage that God pays his debts without money. Although he lived to the ripest old age, it was certainly not the happiest. He became a doctor’s assistant but, by his late sixties, he was destitute, an inmate of St Marylebone Workhouse. Veck lingered on for another three decades until 1937 when he died ‘of no fixed abode’ and in extremely bad health at the age of ninety-eight.

There is no Jack Saul industry to erect a stone in Glasnevin Cemetery. The plot of neat, green grass across the Irish sea will likely remain such for a very long time, unvisited and largely unknown.

We lose touch with our past at our peril. Pendulums swing, and swing back again. What was a dreadful unmentionable sin then is no more, at least in the eyes of the law. Others see it differently. There will always be others.

In the course of his sins, Jack Saul undoubtedly gave a lot of pleasure to a lot of people. I only hope he got some in return.

There are two websites dedicated to his memory:

Victorian Pornography Part IV: Jack Saul

and specifically about this book

 

 

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‘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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