Rings of Saturn – WG Sebald

‘A walking tour through the landscapes of the past, in the company of the exiled and the departed’ might have seemed an unusual choice for the bookgroup but this curious mix of memoir, fiction and meditation on writing also becomes ‘an essay for the dispossessed’ which would resonate with many gay readers. Added to that, Helen Finch in her groundbreaking book ‘Sebald’s Bachelors’ points to the queer themes within Sebald’s writing and is most obvious here in the preponderance of homosexual and homosocial histories of lives lived on the margins, on the edge of things.

The reading group certainly picked up on these themes often tied up with the concept of the single man, and, anti-semitism. However, responses form the group were as varied and the subjects covered in the book itself; ‘the book reminded me of fractals’, ‘left me feeling wistful’, ‘unsure of the motive for the writing’, ‘ sense of decay and transience’, ‘I felt hope as if in anticipation of something’. A few readers did not like the blurring of truth and fiction in this way and suspected of him of using this technique to tie things up too neatly.

Like many reviewers, the group also saw some common ground with the writings of Bruce Chatwin, indeed, the two writers, when alive, were often asked to comment on each other’s writing concerns.

There were moments of humour, high camp almost, e.g. the fish and chip supper taken by the narrator in his hotel in Lowestoft. But again and again the group came back to theme of the outsider, be that the Jewish experience or the gay experience in Europe in recent centuries.

The majority of the group did find much of the book mournful but others found it’s sense of transience and entropy strangely uplifting,

PB-C

The Friendly Ones by Philip Hensher

It’s a novel of reflections, also a novel for our times: In a Brexit world of increasingly closed boarders and fear of new arrivals, it emphasises the benefits and enrichment that our society has gained from those who come from outside (albeit posh, skilled ones).

Hensher states that he took his story from “The Winter’s Tale” and “Eugene Onegin” Though we did know these well, iy seemed that the unjust death of young prince Mamillius corresponds with the presumed death of Sharif’s brother taken away from the family home by the Pakistani military forces. This would haunt the family for generations to come. From Eugene Onegin, Tatyana’s love letter to Onegin baring her soul is also replicated and her letter is received and rejected in a similarly dismissive manner in Hensher’s novel. From both stories, long time-lapses and people trapped in the mores of their times.

Who are the friendly ones? The Bangladeshi freedom fighters, the ‘hosts’ to immigrants? Collaborators with the Pakistani regime in these evil days called themselves, like the Eumenides, ‘the Friendly Ones’.

That one character became an ‘extremist’ is topical but was it necessary?

I liked it where young Leo became randy aged between ages 15 – 19 – a dwarf claiming to be big

p. 89 all get prizes – the first newspaper article | read by him was obsessed by the seeming lack of competition in schools so he writes here, glowingly, of sports teams and youth orchestras.

He also writes about CUs but Oxbridge has OIKU and CICCUI instead.

I would have liked a map of Sheffield – as in ‘The Northern Clemency’.

One member read it twice and found it ‘superb’.

‘It does go on a bit. Needs editing’.

It started as a cohesive narrative but became ‘straggly’.

The Bangladeshis return home frequently to see their family whereas the British rarely undertake the smaller journey to do so. Some hardly ever go home.

The various mothers come across badly.

Scenes from Early Life was remarkable partly because it used the same method to bring 1970s Dhaka vividly to life, plunging the reader deeply into the quiddity of the objects that made up that world. When The Friendly Ones moves its action to “Bangla Desh” – the original name for the country – in the second half of the novel, the Dhanmondi home of Sharif and Nazia in the time leading up to independence felt familiar to those who’d read Hensher’s earlier book.

There is, at one level, something scattershot about the narrative structure. In the

I started to get bored about three-quarters of the way through when the action abruptly changes to Dacca.

p. 439 has a good description of children encountering and marvelling at aeroplane food for the first time.

There’s an odd masochism scene with Josh towards the end – out of the blue unless I’ve missed something.

Though it is symmetrical, starting and ending with a perty, it peters out

Do gluttons explode? cause one’s stomach to rupture, which has very unpleasant consequences. In real life chances of survival are 50-50, but in a fictional work it’s usually portrayed as being lethal.

I had to look up khitmatgar  = A male servant, with responsibility for waiting at table.

also ‘haslet’ or acelet +  a pork meatloaf with herbs, originally from Lincolnshire. The word is derived from the Old French hastilles meaning entrails.

also ‘moue’ = a pouting expression used to convey annoyance or distaste.

Quotations:

“A bird was singing in the elm tree, a loud, plangent, lovely note, as if asking a question of the garden”

“the lawn, the red box of the barbecue, the white-shirted help”.

“He would not know how to begin to forgive Sharif for being Sharif, for being humorous and singing about the place, an old Tagore song, a funny old song he had just heard.”

“A woman passing a remark and walking away… the gaze and the hidden opinion”.

‘very supercilious and angry’.

‘Short men,’ she adds dismissively, ‘… very difficult in my view.’

“This is my wife’s country. This is where we will live and where we will go on living. The sea, the houses, the shops, the English sky: this is part of our country, and we will walk through it.”

If I lived in a cave and you were my only visitor,
what would I tell you that the walls had told me?
That people are unfinished and are made between
each other …JACK UNDERWOOD,`Second’

`Why don’t you put in for Oxbridge?’ Leo said once, in the pub where they thought they could-get away with it. Pete was untidy, scowling, pugnacious, and he kept his hair in a short­back-and-sides: he didn’t hold with sideburns and big hair and anything that would come and go. It made him look older than he was, though not always old enough to get a drink. He could have been in employment, even.

‘I’d love to,’ Pete said. ‘But it’s not for me.’

`I don’t see that,’ Leo said. It’d be for you if you got in.’

`There’s no hills,’ Pete said. ‘I couldn’t be doing with no hills. Oxford – no hills. Cambridge – definitely no hills. It’s Leeds for me. That’ll suit me all right.’

‘I thought you said you needed to test yourself in life,’ Leo said.

`I’ve tested myself,’ Pete said. ‘I don’t need to test myself until I fail and then understand that I’ve failed. There’s a world out there. They’re just men and women, writing their tests and seeing if you’re going to fit in. You and Tom Dick.’

‘He’s all right, that Tom Dick,’ Leo said bravely.

The next Wednesday he drove into the car park with a firm idea in his mind. The children from Gower were there. He made a small performance of shyness as he got out of the car. They would not shout if they thought he was likely to turn round.

`There’s that fooking Paki,’ one cried out. Was it the same one every time? ‘Paki! You fooking Pala in your fooking shirt and tie! Fooking look at the little Paki!’

Sharif turned. His expression was forcibly mild. He walked up to the fence. The children stood- exactly where they were, not moving and not quailing. They had the right to this land: that was what was in their minds. He had not looked at them closely before now. There were seven of them. The one who, he thought, had shouted was short and sharp-featured, with very dark hair. that stuck up at the back and paper-white skin. They all wore shorts and T-shirts; one or two wore those drapes of wool around the ankle called legwarmers.

`Did you call me a Paid?’ he said.

Tald’s come over,’ the boy shouted, with something like affected glee. The others were less sure.

Did you call me a Paid?’ Sharif said again. ‘I am not a Paki. I am certainly not a Paid. If anything, I am a Bangi.’

`You’re a Paid,’ the boy said, but not shouting now, speaking with derisory contempt to Sharif on the other side of the fence. `Look at you in your shirt and tie.’

`That is because I teach at the university here,’ Sharif said. `And I am not a Paid. If I were. Pakistani, I could understand your shouting “Paki” at me. I would not like it, but I would understand it. Do you know what I am? My country was Bangladesh. I have more reasons to hate the Pakistanis than you They ruled my country for twenty-four years. They robbed . They forbade us to speak our own language. When we voted or one of us to run the country, they annulled the election. They murdered people I knew and loved, and they murdered my brother. How old are you?’

Taki’s asking how old we are,’ the sharp-featured boy said. He was intelligent-looking. He could have done well. The other children were dull in their faces. They had no spark,or interest; they could not even walk away through self-awareness. Towards them was coming a larger person, a grown man.

`It was only ten years ago,’ Sharifsaid. ‘You weren’t born then.’ Took off,’ the boy said, and some of his friends started to laugh. ‘I’m fooking fourteen, I am.’

‘I’m fifteen,’ another boy said, his hair almost white, his jaw square, like- a hero’s, his eyes empty of anything.

`There was a war,’ Sharif said. ‘I had a brother two years older than you. You would have called him a Paid too. But he wasn’t a Palti. He was fighting the Pakistanis and they took him away. We never saw him again. My mother never knew what had happened to him.’

`Ay, but if he were in war, fighting as soldier, like,’ a boy offered from the back.

-`They tortured him,’ Sharif said. ‘The Pakistanis tortured him and they killed him and he was much the same age as you are. So I am not a Paki. You can shout out at me and call me a Bangi. But do not call me a Paki. Do not call me a Paki.’

The man was here. He was brisk and ginger and thirtyish; he looked as empty as the boys. His head was -shaved around -the back and sides and his shoulders bulged from the sleeveless T-shirt he wore. Are you talking to my boys?’ he said. ‘What do you want with them?’

`I am not talking to your boys, as you- call them,’ Sharif said. `They shouted inaccurate abuse at me and I was correcting their inaccurate misapprehension.’ –

`You little bastards,’ the man said, but affectionately. ‘What they bin shouting?’

`They called me a Paid; Sharif said. ‘I am not going to be insulted when I am parking my car at my place of work, and your boys —’

`They called you a Paki? It’s not exactly wrong, though, is it?’ the man said. Are you Pakistani? I don’t see there’s much wrong with —’

`I was explaining precisely what is wrong with what they were shouting,’ Sharif said.

‘If you called me a Brit —’

`I don’t care to be called what they called me,’ Sharif said, with a level gaze. If you are in charge here, you will see it doesn’t happen again.’

`I’ll see they don’t indulge their animal spirits in your direc­tion again,’ the man said un-seriously. ‘They’re good lads. This is our first team. They’ll be looking at trials for clubs in two years.’

`You should teach them how to read,’ Sharif said, walking away. He was not quite sure what the man meant. He understood that it was a world of no significance that he spoke about, in which his boys would in any case fail. ‘That,’ he turned his head, ‘would be of more benefit to them than the ball in the net.’

`Hey!’ the man was shouting, but Sharif went on walking, into the faculty. He walked with a certain buoyancy in his stride. Those children would dream of football and kick balls around until they could kick balls into nets six or seven times out of ten. Then they would fail in their dreamt endeavour and

would have to be sent off to learn how to read. Sharif knew that they could not read, or not much. No person who could read looked like that, so animal in the gaze, either docile or blankly raging. They didn’t know what they were here on earth to do. That was the future for the English.

There was ten minutes before his first student, and he could hear the shouting and whistling from the pitch behind the building. He picked up the telephone and dialled an internal number. In four minutes he had extracted a commitment from the registry that they would speak to the headmaster of Gower

I and extract a number of commitments in turn, before school was allowed to use the university facilities again. ‘f put the telephone down. He had ruined a child’s life – mewhere, one of those sharp-featured boys in the crowd had talent with the unlettered ball and an instinctive understand‑

of the spatial dimensions of a trajectory that needed no arks on paper. A dog could catch a thrown ball, after all. The brilliant moron, somewhere in that crowd, would have to do without the support of the university’s facilities, and he would fail in life because of it. Sharif was glad. And in a moment Mr Wentworth and Mr Tan knocked on his door, and he welcomed them in and began to explain, yet again, about ductile fracture equations.

There had been a note in his pigeon hole from Mr Ghosh, the manager of the hospice, asking if he would- come to see hi at the end of his shift. At first, long ago, these notes had ma him nervous. For along time now, however, they had appe when Mr Ghosh needed Leo’s help in a difficult matter. He worked there much longer than anyone else.

 

The Sparsholt Affair -Alan Hollinghurst

I enjoyed this more than his previous books: maybe because it isn’t full of Tory ‘toffs’, though one in our group said it felt empty, pointless and though he’s a very good writer there are too many characters. Many chapters start with ‘HJe’ but uit can take you up to two pages to find out who ‘he’ is.

Maybe it’s because it’s the anniversary of the 1967 Act that he was asked to write something pan-generational, though he’s light on the 1960s (covered by The Line of Duty?)

There is a sense of movement from darkness (the blackouts etc.) to light – but is it a critique, rather than an endorsement, or 21st Century gay life?

Many thought that it was about one hundred pages too long: the middle section drugged. There was ‘testosterone coming out of every page for the first 150.’

He writes about death and bereavement very well.. The frame-making is beautifully described.

One member read of three times because some parts weren’t clear.

A young man looks at a red chalk drawing of a muscly torso, made years before. He registers the residual heat of homoerotic longing in this ‘ancient pornography’, but has no idea he’s looking at his own father’s flesh, captured in youth. Johnny Sparsholt is the gay son of a closeted father, David. He is growing up into relative freedom whereas his father was mired in a corruption scandal with a Tory MP and rent boys. The incident reverberates through other lives but Hollinghurst chooses not to bring this into clear focus, instead keeping it a matter of oblique glimpses and somewhat cryptic allusions.

How we view the past, and what we find in it, are questions at the heart of Alan Hollinghurst’s sixth novel; an evocation of time, loss and change, the social and sexual revolutions of the last 70 years.

Two generations of gay men in 5 interlinked sections:

section 1: about stunningly handsome, closeted David Sparsholt in 1942 WWII Oxford, England. ‘A New Man’, takes the form of a plummily written literary memoir by an Oxford contemporary of Sparsholt’s, Freddie Green, recording the young sportsman’s dazzling first appearance half-naked in a window just before blackout time, and the flutter of rivalrous longings set off in the various onlookers ogling him from Green’s rooms across the quad. Great use is made of these wartime blackouts, with much of the action occurring in a beautifully evoked pitch-black Oxford where submerged lusts bloom into furtive touches and brushes.

Sparsholt has a fiancee, Connie, and is already in trouble for the “rhythmical creaking” overheard while she was visiting. But his apparent heterosexuality only adds to his allure, especially when it transpires that he isn’t above being flattered by the admiring attentions of Green’s friends. It’s a variation on the classic erotic farce formula of virginal innocence besieged by cynical experience. Not that Sparsholt’s ultimate seducer, a sensitive aesthete named Evert Dax, is cynical in himself (he’s too ardent for that), but his success has as much to do with the awakening of mercenary tendencies in Sparsholt as it does with the gratifying of homoerotic ones, which doesn’t bode well for Sparsholt’s future.

The immediate fun of this section is largely in its reviving of a particular style of fine writing, in which the euphemism and indirectness about sexual matters still had a certain currency. It isn’t  quite pastiche, more a sort of dead-on rendition of how an old-school literatteur who also happens to be an old-school repressed homosexual (so repressed he remains comically unaware of his own infatuation with Sparsholt) might have written at that time; Henry James via Ronald Firbank, with a gravitation towards words such as “moue” and “tendresse”, lots of double entendres (“Where do you like to take her?”). There is also some complicated snobbish satire, much of it at the expense of Dax’s father, a famous but evidently awful novelist who embodies the vice that Hollinghurst’s own novels seem to despise above all others: bad art. (One enters his books nervous of being found guilty of some appalling error of taste; woe betide any admirer of Strauss reading The Line of Beauty, or of Chagall reading this one.)

sections 2-5: his gay son Johnny, living in his father’s notoriously “scandalous” shadow 1951-2012

In part two, set in 1965, Sparsholt, now a war hero and successful industrialist, has married Connie and the two have brought their son Johnny, an aspiring artist, on holiday to Cornwall (encroaching on Patrick Gale territory?) , along with his French exchange partner, Bastien. Johnny is besotted with Bastien, but the sexually precocious French boy has discovered girls  and Johnny spends his days in rebuffed longing. Another couple, the Haxbys, are also in Cornwall, and it becomes steadily apparent that a clandestine affair is going on. The section reformulates the pattern of pursuers and pursued from the first part, with Johnny in the lovelorn Dax’s role, Bastien reprising the role of freshly arrived young Adonis, a small yacht furnishing the same sexually charged atmosphere as the Oxford darkness, and so on.

Continuing this pattern of repetition with variation, part three brings back Dax, now the gay eminence of a bohemian household in the comparatively liberated London of 1974. Chance brings Johnny, at this point earning his living as an apprentice art restorer, into the household, where he duly assumes the role of flattered ingenu (“I like your trousers”). He is eager to be initiated into the mysteries of gay London but unaware of the connection between Dax and his father, and of the less than straightforward motives the men around him might have for taking him to bed. The three-day week, with its intermittent darknesses, nicely echoes the blackouts of the first part.

There is a layering of similar situations on top of each other like a series of transparencies that cumulatively portray a culture as it exists in time as well as in space, revolving the same constellation of longings and confusions, with the gradual relaxing of attitudes around sexuality operating as the principle of change.

In the 90s we get a lesbian couple’s invitation to “do a baby for us”  on into the present era of selfies, makeover TV and internet porn. Johnny, by now a successful portrait painter, carries the novel at this point. He’s a warmly sympathetic character to keep company with, whether he’s musing on portraiture, attending a funeral, suffering the indignities of a vegetarian in a carnivorous world, painting the arriviste (and viciously named) Miserden family, or finding new love at a club in autumnal middle age. An amazing amount of the passion and folly of the human comedy is woven into his modest life, all of it beautifully observed and memorably articulated.

The author:

“I wanted to create in the reader that sense of half-remembered details,”

“If you think about the Poulson scandal in the early 1970s [a property and corruption case that resulted in the resignation of the home secretary, Reginald Maudling] … the Profumo affair people remember a bit better, but actually, if we tested each other on it now, we’d probably be a bit rocky, and that was a very, very prominent scandal.”

“I can see that I keep going back to the periods when things were more difficult and clandestine, because they seem from a fictional point of view to be more rewarding.”

“It’s a funny thing; when you could openly have gay clubs after 1967, but they had all these complicated licensing laws, and one thing was that they had to serve a meal. You had to be a member, so you paid; I can remember when I first went to London gay clubs in the late 70s having to become a member, this ridiculous thing, and write down your address. And then you got this fucking salad!” (There is an additional twist of humour: Johnny’s salad includes a revolting knob of sweaty, gristly ham; he later becomes, like Hollinghurst, a committed vegetarian.)

“passing through a door, going down a staircase, into this magical other place where your desires can be made fresh”

“I did have that sense that I was very fortunate in a way, coming along just as gay lit as a genre was really coming into its own, and finding there was this whole fascinating, unexplored world to write about. But then of course that was in the wake of gay liberation and various social and political changes; and then of course the great crisis of Aids was the second stage of that – it gave gay writing a new, unanticipated subject.”

And what about now? “The distinctive purpose of gay writing, its political purpose or its novelty or its urgency have gone, and the gay world, as it changes, is perhaps not so stimulating to a fiction writer like me,” he says – although he’s careful to make clear he’s talking about his own writing rather than issuing blanket statements. “It doesn’t mean it can’t be written about.”

But Hollinghurst has never seen himself or wanted to be seen as a chronicler of gay life or “to claim to be a responsible historian of it; but of course I’m deeply interested in it and its effects on people’s lives, and the way that one’s telling a story that’s not over; it’s not a fixed thing that one’s writing about, but something that’s constantly changing.”

“I was once asked to contribute to a book of essays by writers about being only children, and actually I thought, I don’t want to examine too closely this thing which I just knew was actually rather fundamental to my psychology, to my whole being as a writer. That double sense of being an outsider, wanting to penetrate a world, but also having a sort of self-reliance that I think only children have. They’re very happy to be by themselves and quite a lot of their interesting life is happening when they’re by themselves.”

The business of ageing, he notices, has also led him to feel that in writing, “I’m constantly opening up a forgotten room in my past, as it were”. 

Portraits do interest me. I must say, when I’ve had some spare cash, I’ve found myself collecting them. Since I don’t have much space at home, they are rather small ones, and they tend to be of people I don’t know anything about, so everything is conjecture, really.

BOLLEN: You actually go to auction houses and hunt around the sales?

HOLLINGHURST: Well, I became really addicted about ten years ago, when I discovered that auction houses put all their catalogs online. People get addicted to various things online. My addiction is relatively harmless.

I usually end up giving just a few little physical details, which encourage the reader to make up the character themselves. You could have a sort of Dickensian approach, where you get almost grotesquely detailed with an exaggerated sense of someone’s physical appearance. But I think for a lot of the great fictional characters, you might only know roughly how tall they are or what color their hair is, or perhaps their eyes might be rather significant. Oddly, I think it’s the lesser characters that you might describe more vividly because they only get one moment in the spotlight. But I build a lot of characters more out of what they say and perhaps the way that they say it—the mannerisms and gestures associated with speech, as well as the tones. I’ve always been interested in analyzing the way people say things and what they’re not saying or trying to conceal.

I didn’t want to write an idealized version of Oxford, like a terrible, hackneyed kind of Brideshead Revisited. Those years seemed a fascinating moment when people of different backgrounds might have just been thrust together there in a new way.

BOLLEN: Especially when you’re facing possible doom for the first time. The idea that the world is blowing up and there might not be a future could perhaps symbolize everyone’s college years, but for these characters, they can actually see the bombs dropping on the horizon.

HOLLINGHURST: Normally, as an undergraduate at Oxford, you have this sense of three or four years of a leisurely stretch ahead of you, but back then most people knew they were going to go up for probably only a year before they were going to be drafted and sent to who knew where.

“in a way [scandals] make it possible to talk about things that we wouldn’t otherwise talk about – that was one of the things about the Wilde scandal I suppose, wasn’t it? That it made a shockingly public, unambiguous statement about this thing that was otherwise not talked about in polite society.”

Quotations:

“rhythmical shadow” leaping and shrinking “across the distant ceiling”

“It was that brief time between sunset and the blackout when you could see into other people’s rooms.”

“a figure in a gleaming singlet, steadily lifting and lowering a pair of hand-weights”.

“indiscriminate darkness”

“no place for polite indecision”

“claiming the full heterosexual allowance to carry on in public”

“It is hard to do justice to old pleasures that cannot be revived—we seem half to disown our youthful selves, who loved and treasured them.”

Evert’s stroke had had two main consequences — his short-term memory was impaired, leaving him sometimes at sea in the midst of a conversation started with a clear sense of purpose and subject. He said he saw soft white squares, where facts in the form of images, or images of words, should be, pale blanks that floated on his mind’s eye like the shape of a bright window. The other effect, somehow doubly surprising, was release from worry — not only the worry that pervaded decisions and plans, but the worry that was caused by not being able to remember. This felt like a blessing, but was also, Ivan felt, a bit worrying in itself.

There was a rather oppressive need to keep him focused — on day-to-day matters, and on the looming plans for the house. Victor was tidied up now, really for good. And all the things that had been put off until he was tidied up loomed much larger. The advance for the biography was £10,000, a much smaller figure when the book was delivered than it had been when the contract was signed. The work on the house might cost ten times as much. Besides which, Evert needed a new project. A proper memoir was the obvious idea; but it could be another art book, portraits of artists he had known over fifty years. Other­wise he was going to spend every day forgetting what he’d gone out for and picking up strangers in Marks and Spencer’s.

Return to the home page

Release –Patrick Ness

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

Inspired by Judy Blume’s Forever, Release is one day in the life of Adam Thorn, 17. It’s a big day. . It’s a day of confrontation, running, sex, love, heartbreak, and maybe,  hope. Things go wrong.

Preacher’s son – gay, coming out.

In the interleaved story, an otherworldly Queen becomes entwined with the soul of a murdered girl, and moves through our reality, seeking answers and revenge, with a naked 7ft faun as her companion. These interwoven stories seem to be part of his style. In A Monster Calls, it was integral. Here, it doesn’t seem to be and is hard to understand, easy to skate past and ignore – for some, they will impart a sense of the extraordinary forces that might underlie the everyday; for others, they will distract from the “real” story of Adam.

Adam, nearly 18, lives in Frome, Washington. His dad is a minister and Adam considers himself completely under his dad’s Yoke while he still lives at home. Having homophobic, conservative parents means that Adam hides most of his true self from them. He’s gay and feels about one second away from them sending him to a conversion camp at any given point in time. But he has Angela, his very best friend, and Linus, his boyfriend whom he is trying really, really hard to give himself fully to (if only he could get over his lingering love for Enzo, his crappy ex-boyfriend). He also has a boss who sexually harasses him, a seemingly perfect older brother who is about to drop a shocking revelation on the family, and doesn’t know today is also the day he learns a secret from Angela that will throw him for a loop.

All of this is happening while the ghost of a local girl recently murdered by her meth-addicted boyfriend is carrying out her own part of the story, one that involves a giant fawn, visits to familiar places, confrontations, and an unexpected path to release. In anyone else’s hands, I would probably be left thinking, Um, okay, what is this doing here? But it’s Ness. He’s brilliant. He makes these dual but mostly unrelated narratives both work exceptionally well.

‘Different than’ should be ‘different from’

Quotations:

“Adam would have to get the flowers himself.”

“Blanched blond, tall, bulky in a way that might be handsome”

“You have no idea how hard I work to love you.”

“the funnest, funniest thing two people could do together”

“And two, I know what it is to be in love, Marty.”
“No, you don’t. Teenage love isn’t love. Especially if it’s…” He stopped.
“Especially if it’s what?” Adam leaned into the truck, raised his voice. “Especially if it’s what?”

He was different than Adam, is what Adam always told himself. Adam used words. Enzo used affection, didn’t he? And he had been affectionate. If he hadn’t said the words out loud much, he’d said them over and over again with a touch, with a kiss, with sex that was hardly just going in one direction.
“Why do we have to label it?” Enzo had asked, all along, it was true. “Why can’t we just be?”
And Adam had said, “Okay.” He’d said, “Okay.” He hadn’t even tried the it’s-not-a-label-it’s-a-map thing he’d sold to Angela. Why not? Why hadn’t he? Why the hell did he just take whatever Enzo offered? Without argument or demand. Without even apparent self-respect

 

“They’re your parents. They’re meant to love you because. Never in spite.”

“Maybe hearts don’t ever stop breaking once broken.”

“It was so much easier to be loved than to have to do any of the desperate work of loving.”

“Death is not the end.”

“Never pass up the chance to be kissing someone. It’s the worst kind of regret.”

“Blame is a human concept, one of its blackest and most selfish and self-binding.”

“Little girls aren’t naturally lost,” Karen said, frowning as she scanned saucepans. “Someone makes them that way.”

“It may cost you, my Queen. It may cost you dear.”
“All the best journeys do, faun.”

“Blame is something that is shared and denied in equal measures.”

“Marty: Dad’s right about you. You got lost on your journey somewhere.
Adam: That’s what everyone says who never bothered to go on a journey in the first place.”

“If you can’t pray it away, it’s not a real problem.”

“And there. The power of a word. The power of one word. That’s where it all changes.”

“Tread carefully, Marty. I mean it. The world has completely changed around you while you weren’t looking.”

“People with really stiff morals are easier to tip over.”

“Maybe there didn’t have to be any other reasons. Maybe love made you stupid. Maybe loneliness did.”

“Raising his eyes to look directly into Linus’s face was maybe the scariest thing he’d had to do all day long, but it was only the free-falling terror that always accompanied hope.”

“Every gay has to have their years in a huge coastal city. It’s like a law.”

“They’re your parents. They’re meant to love you because. Never in spite.”

“Upset isn’t the same as the world falling apart.”

“Adam’s stomach was tumbling with how much Linus knew and how he’d found it all out (it would turn out he knew as much as nearly everyone else in the school, which was a lot, but it also turned out that – in that unreachable, possible world – most of them actually liked Adam or at least didn’t actively wish him harm, so they’d given his sorrow some space; when Adam thought about it now, it still made his head swim, still made him blush, still made him wish he could crawl under a blanket and die there forever) – but looking at Linus, he saw no malice, no gossip, saw instead someone who might actually know.”

“She can smell him now, a smudge of unwashed skin, poverty, extreme loneliness. She takes the can, still holding his hand, unrolling it, running a finger across its weathered palm.”

“Why did everyone no longer a teenager automatically dismiss any feeling you had then? Who cared if he’d grow out of it? That didn’t make it any less true in those painful and euphoric days when it was happening.”

“If she needed him, he’d be there instantly, no questions asked, and he knew she’d do the same. She was here now. They had their bulgogi. This is what a family was. Or should be.”

“But here, now, again, this was more than the body, or the mind, or the personality. It wasn’t holy, that was a whole other mess, but it was something that could be touched only here.”

“But then she thinks, feels, reaches out, and knowing exactly what blame is – a human construct, one of its blackest and more selfish and self-blinding – she can find further strands of it, emanating in all directions, for blame is something that is shared but denied in equal measure.”

“an act that didn’t feel like penetration, but like combination”

“He had loved Enzo. Loved him. And who cared if it was the love of a fifteen – and then a sixteen-year-old. Why did that make any less? They were older than those two idiots in Romeo and Juliet. Why did everyone no longer a teenager automatically dismiss any feeling you had then? Who cared if he’d grow out of it? That didn’t make it any less true in those painful and euphoric days when it was happening. The truth was always now, even if you were young. Especially if you were young.”

“Physical beauty, of all the curses, was obviously the best you could get. It was still a curse though.”

“Well, Adam thought. I’ve had my mouth on his bare skin. That seemed to be effective.”

Return to the home page

Topics About Which I Know Nothing – Patrick Ness

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

I don’t usually like short stories but these are exceptional.

“Implied Violence”, which starts off the collection, is set in a call centre involved in selling martial arts classes over the phone. A caller asks a woman what she would do if an intruder broke into her home at night. “I’d call emergency services,” she says; but what, she is asked, if the intruder had cut the phone lines? “I’d let my rottweiler do,” she replies, “what rottweilers do.” “What if he’d brought minced beef with poison in it to put your rottweiler out of commission?” “He’s very persistent, this intruder,” says the woman, but she has a way to go before the call centre has done with her. It’s not the imaginary intruder that’s persistent, it’s the target-driven cold-calling company. The joke isn’t forced on us, and it is handled very well.

“Jesus’ Elbows and Other Christian Urban Myths” may be rather less subtle, and I felt that the idea that God made his son double-jointed so that he could stay up on the cross long enough to convert the thieves on either side of him, as well as hang on until the sky turned red on Good Friday was a bit blasphemous. “But he also had to be human at the time, too, because that was kind of the whole point.” Medieval painters knew this, but the knowledge was lost later on. Other stories of conspiracy would be funny if there weren’t ‘born again’ idiots who actually believe them. The idea that KJV is wrong because of its use of ‘mason’ is NOT a conspiracy – he’s right in that. KJV also mistranslates, to sanction, ‘prince’, ‘bishop’ and ‘church’

Ponce de Leon is a Retired Married Couple From Toronto – this story was told by several letters, between a mother and son, and the son and various authorities. That an old couple can start a new life is encouraging.

Quis Custodiet Ipsos Custodest was extremely odd – a cleaner who destroys dictionaries.

Sydney is a City of Jaywalkers conveyed the excitement of being in a strange city.

2,115 Opportunities explored all the little fluctuations that can cause or not cause an event to happen: we see over 2000 different scenarios (some are grouped together as they are similar) which just show how specific every little event had to be to lead up to two people meeting.

The Motivation of Sally Rae Wentworth, Amazon –I found it odd. Also The Seventh International Military War Games Dance Committee Quadrennial Competition and Jamboree.

The Gifted was another weird piece.

There’s a marvellous description, at the end, of what the author thinks of as reincarnation but which, to me, sounds like purgatory. Now That You’ve Died –I liked the idea that just as ‘you can’t take it (money) with you, nor can you take political ideas from the tabloids nor self-righteousness.

After graduating, the author worked as corporate writer for a cable company. He published his first story in Genre magazine in 1997 and was working on his first novel when he moved to London in 1999.

Ness was naturalised a British citizen in 2005. He entered into a civil partnership with his partner in 2006, less than two months after the Civil Partnership Act came into force. In August 2013, Ness and his partner got married following the legalisation of same-sex marriage in California.

Ness taught creative writing at Oxford University and has written and reviewed for The Daily Telegraph, The Times Literary Supplement, The Sunday Telegraph and The Guardian.

Return to the home page

The Bell – Iris Murdoch

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

This was all the rage when I was an undergraduate. A gay Christian was highly unusual then. Now, it’s almost compulsory.

This is a 1958 novel about a lay community sheltering in the grounds of a country estate.

Ex-teacher Michael Meade sets up a secular-religious enclave at his house, Imber Court in Gloucestershire, whose assorted inhabitants seek a “refuge from modernity”, which “with its hurried pace and its mechanical and technical structure” offers “no home to these unhappy souls”. The book depicts the portentous arrival of two visitors: a schoolboy, Toby, “greatly attracted by the idea of living and working, for a while at least, with a group of holy people who had given up the world”; and Dora, the errant wife of a scholar who is returning penitently but reluctantly to her stultifying marriage. Imber is in turn set against a convent of Benedictine nuns across the lake, a “buffer state” between the abbey and the real world in which Murdoch stages a clash of ideals: religious yearning, sexual passion, and the role of spirituality in a materialist era.

Consider, this novel was written in 1958 when homosexuals were whispered about, and called ‘pansies’ or ‘queers’.  Murdoch does not write of Michaels feelings towards Nick or Toby as dirty or twisted but just as a different kind of love.  It was beautifully handled.

In The Bell, Murdoch presents homosexuality through the context of several different characters. Firstly, there is the firsthand perspective of Michael Meade. Michael is inherently, though limitedly, affected by society’s perception of his sexuality, “Michael Meade at twenty-five had already known for some while that he was what the world called perverted”. Despite this understanding, Michael is acutely aware of his inability to separate his sexuality from the rest of his being, especially his religion, “It scarcely occurred to him that his religion could establish any quarrel with his sexual habits. Indeed, in some curious way the emotion which fed both arose deeply from the same source”. Murdoch provides the common societal attitude toward homosexuality through the character of James Tayper Pace. In describing his feelings towards Nick Fawley, James is nothing short of homophobic, displaying stereotypical attitudes reflective of 1950s English society, “‘He looks to me like a pansy,’….‘They’re always trouble-makers, believe me. I’ve seen plenty of that type. There’s something destructive in them, a sort of grudge against society’” . As yet another perspective on homosexuality, Murdoch provides the character of Toby with a more enlightened (though still not accepting) attitude, “In so far as he had up to now reflected on this propensity at all he had regarded it as a strange sickness or perversion, with mysterious and disgusting refinements, from which a small number of unfortunate persons suffered”.

In many ways, Murdoch’s representation of the homosexual experience is a direct reflection of common attitudes during the 1950s in England, “The Bell, Murdoch’s first fictional work that depicts the daily life of a male homosexual in detail, was published only months later in 1958 and accurately illustrates the legal dilemmas facing homosexual men during this era” . Murdoch’s examination of homosexuality during this time period should be considered especially courageous, “Murdoch often portrayed homosexuality in her fiction at times when it was not necessarily in vogue to do so, particularly during sensitive periods of change of legislative control over homosexuality in Great Britain”. In fact, during the 1950s “homosexual acts were still considered by law to be criminal offences” (“Cabinet Papers”). According to the Lesbian & Gay foundation, sodomy “was punishable by life imprisonment, though before 1861 it was a capital crime” (“Lesbian & Gay Foundation”). During the time period just before publication of Murdoch’s The Bell, prosecution against homosexuals was actually on the rise, “Between 1945 and 1955 the number of annual prosecutions for homosexual behaviour rose from 800 to 2,500, of whom 1,000 received custodial sentences” (“Lesbian & Gay Foundation”). As an alternative to imprisonment, some so-called “offenders” opted for a “cure” to avoid jail time, “In the 1950s and 1960s, behavioural therapy was used to try to “cure” gay men. Men convicted of homosexual acts were routinely given electric shock treatment, hallucinogenic drugs and subjected to brainwashing techniques” (Wheeler). According to Brian Wheeler of BBC News, “The most common form of treatment was aversion therapy, of the kind seen in Stanley Kubrick’s film A Clockwork Orange” (Wheeler). This treatment of homosexuality as a disease is reflective of Toby’s attitude in the novel, “He also knew, and differed here from his father, that it was more proper to regard these persons as subjects for the doctor than as subjects for the police”. While medical treatment would be far more desirable than criminalization, this is still a far cry from the attitudes towards homosexuality in England today.

In 1954, in response to increased controversy and media coverage, the Departmental Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution in Great Britain was formed to reassess the criminalization of homosexuality. Just before publication of The Bell, “The Wolfenden Report was published in 1957. It concluded that the criminalisation of homosexuality was an impingement on civil liberty. While the law should prevent abuse and protect the young and other vulnerable individuals, it should not intrude into matters of personal morality” (“Cabinet Papers”). Another revelation of the Wolfenden Report, was the vocational tendencies of criminalized homosexuals to seek refuge through clerical and teaching positions. Murdoch represents this tendency through Michael’s character. He is not only a teacher in his early career, but also a religious leader, who has dreams of one day becoming a priest. According to Grimshaw, “The guilt and fears some homosexual men experienced also stemmed from the social and moral responsibilities inherent in their vocations. Perhaps choosing such vocations to quell their fears and desires, homosexuals found that these fears paradoxically heightened when they could not suppress their sexual desires through their work”. Essentially, criminalization was driving homosexuals into these kinds of vocations where they attempted to escape themselves, but sometimes failed to do so, inevitably increasing the risk of harm to the young.

It could be said that Murdoch’s treatment of the social question of homosexuality certainly wasn’t undertaken in the search for popularity. It is very much the work of an activist, exploiting social issues through artistic literary means. During this time period, Murdoch also took the stance of activist in her contributions to the publication Man and Society, “Writing for the journal in 1964, Murdoch speaks out against members of society who “simply…make unfounded assumption about what it is to be homosexual,” adding that “the law and social prejudice” create difficulties for homosexual men”. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, homosexuality continued to be a topic of derision and judgment in popular media, “The infamous Sunday Pictorial feature of 1963, ‘How to spot a Homo’, [pictured above] might be less a subject of interest today.  Much use was made of stereotypes of mincing queens and child molesters or corrupters which bore at best marginal resemblance to the generality of gay men, then as now, but were nonetheless often believed”  (“Lesbian & Gay Foundation”). Homosexuality was not decriminalized in England until almost 10 years after the publication of Murdoch’s The Bell. According to the National Archives, “The Sexual Offences Act of 1967 decriminalised male homosexuality between consenting adults above the age of twenty-one” (“Cabinet Papers”).

Toby finds the lost medieval abbey bell while diving in the lake, where it was supposedly cast centuries earlier as a curse after a nun had an affair with a man; Dora suggests they secretly swap it for the abbey’s new bell, due to be delivered shortly, as a lark. Needless to say, things don’t go to plan, with consequences that are by turns slapstick and deadly serious.

In The Bell the mechanics by which the adolescent engineer Toby sets about getting an ancient submerged bell out of a lake – a tractor, a rope, an incline, then a makeshift crane and much leverage – are all worked out in such detail that one could imagine Murdoch having made drawings of the whole thing.

Everyone at Imber is trying to figure out how to lead a meaningful life amid the disintegrating ethical certainties of a secular society. But you can’t escape yourself.

The lay community doesn’t survive the scandal of the bell’s resurrection but the abbey remains at the novel’s end – its legacy secured, in fact, by Michael’s leasing of the house and its grounds to the nuns indefinitely.

Her novels often include upper-middle-class male intellectuals caught in moral dilemmas, gay characters, refugees, Anglo-Catholics with crises of faith, empathetic pets, curiously “knowing” children and sometimes a powerful and almost demonic male “enchanter” who imposes his will on the other characters—a type of man Murdoch is said to have modelled on her lover, the Nobel laureate Elias Canetti.

 TB 2Quotations:

[…] since, somewhere, something good existed, it might be that her problems would be solved after all. There was a connexion; obscurely she felt, without yet understanding it, she must hang onto that idea: there was a connexion. She bought a sandwich and took a taxi back to Paddington.

“like a bird out of the tower and fell into the lake.”

“potty communities are good for a feature”

“The bell is subject to the force of gravity.  The swing that takes it down must also take it up.  So we too must learn to understand the mechanism of our spiritual energy, and find out where, for us, are the hiding places of our strength.”

TB 3“I know how much you grieve over those who are under your care: those you try to help and fail, those you cannot help. Have faith in God and remember that He will is His own way and in His own time complete what we so poorly attempt. Often we do not achieve for others the good that we intend but achieve something, something that goes on from our effort. Good is an overflow. Where we generously and sincerely intend it, we are engaged in a work of creation which may be mysterious even to ourselves – and because it is mysterious we may be afraid of it. But this should not make us draw back. God can always show us, if we will, a higher and a better way; and we can only learn to love by loving. Remember that all our failures are ultimately failures in love. Imperfect love must not be condemned and rejected but made perfect. The way is always forward, never back.”
“Those who hope, by retiring from the world, to earn a holiday from human frailty, in themselves and others, are usually disappointed.”
“Our actions are like ships which we may watch set out to sea, and not know when or with what cargo they will return to port.”
“Violence is born of the desire to escape oneself.”
“The talk of lovers who have just declared their love is one of life’s most sweet delights. Each vies with the other in humility, in amazement at being so valued. The past is searched for the first signs and each one is in haste to declare all that he is so that no part of his being escapes the hallowing touch.”
“Toby had received, though not yet digested, one of the earliest lessons of adult life: that one is never secure. At any moment one can be removed from a state of guileless serenity and plunged into its opposite, without any intermediate condition, so high about us do the waters rise of our own and other people’s imperfection.”
“… he felt himself to be one of them, who can live neither in the world nor out of it. They are a kind of sick people, whose desire for God makes them unsatisfactory citizens of an ordinary life, but whose strength or temperament fails them to surrender the world completely; and present-day society, with its hurried pace and its mechanical and technical structure, offers no home to these unhappy souls.”
“The chief requirement of the good life’, said Michael, ‘is that one should have some conception of one’s capacities. One must know oneself sufficiently to know what is the next thing. One must study carefully how best to use such strength as one has. … One must perform the lower act which one can manage and sustain: not the higher act which one bungles.”
“But death is not easy, and life can win by simulating it.”
“Patchway had the enviable countryman’s capacity, which is shared only by great actors, of standing by and saying nothing, and yet existing, large, present, and at ease.”
“You don’t respect me,” said Dora, her voice trembling.

“Of course I don’t respect you,” said Paul. “Have I any reason to? I’m in love with you, unfortunately, that’s all.”

TB 4“Well, it’s unfortunate for me too,” said Dora, starting to cry.”
“Dora watched him for a while, nervously, and then returned to scanning the whole group. Seeing them all together like that she felt excluded and aggressive, and Noel’s exhortations came back to her. They had a secure complacent look about them: the spiritual ruling class; and she wished suddenly that she might grow as large and fierce as a gorilla and shake the flimsy doors off their hinges, drowning the repulsive music in a savage carnivorous yell.”
“Youth is a marvelous garment. How misplaced is the sympathy lavished on adolescents. There is a yet more difficult age which comes later, when one has less to hope for and less ability to change, when one has cast the die and has to settle into a chosen life without the consolations of habit or the wisdom of maturity, when, as in her own case, one ceases to be une jeune fille un peu folle, and becomes merely a woman, worst of all, a wife. The very young have their troubles, but they have at least a part to play, the part of being very young.”
“He went away, bent double with the pains of remorse and regret and the inward biting of a love which had now no means of expression. He remembered now when it was useless how the Abbess had told him that the way was always forward. Nick had needed love, and he ought to have given him what he had to offer, without fears about its imperfection. If he had had more faith he would have done so, not calculating either Nick’s faults or his own. Michael recalled too how, with Toby; he had acted with more daring, and had probably acted wrong. Yet no serious harm had come to Toby; besides he had not loved Toby as he loved Nick, was not responsible for Toby as he had been for Nick. So great a love must have contained some grain of good, something at least which might have attached Nick to this world, given him some glimpse of hope. Wretchedly Michael forced himself to remember the occasions on which Nick had appealed to him since he came to Imber, and how on every occasion Michael had denied him. Michael had concerned himself with keeping his own hands clean, his own future secure, when instead he should have opened his heart: should impetuously and devotedly and beyond all reason have broken the alabaster cruse of very costly ointment.”
“Toby had received, though not yet digested, one of the earliest lessons of adult life: that one is never secure. At any moment one can be removed from a state of guileless serenity and plunged into its opposite, without any intermediate condition, so high about us do the waters rise of our own and other people’s imperfection.”

Return to the home page

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

Return to the home page