Saturday, 13 December 2014

TITLE OF THE YEAR: THE BEXHILL MISSILE CRISIS

My Sussex writer group - Southeast Authors - voted THE BEXHILL MISSILE CRISIS the best title of the year. Wow. Now if only people would buy the f##‪#‎ing‬ book!


David Gee and Paradise Press poet Jeffrey Doorn reading at the ODL (Opening Doors London) Christmas Party in Tavistock Square. ODL provides support and social activities for the older members of  the LGBT community.

Monday, 27 October 2014

Wot I'm reading: (slightly) Gay Paree in the 1950s

JAMES BALDWIN: Giovanni's Room


In the beginning was the word, and the word came from Gore Vidal: The City and the Pillar (1948). In 1953 the word came from Mary Renault: The Charioteer. Then in 1956 came Baldwin's Giovanni's Room, recently given a new edition in the UK and the USA. These three are the 'pivotal' gay novels of the mid-20th-century, and I've now re-read two of them, with Mary Renault still to be revisited.

David, a blond all-American WASP with a mainly heterosexual past, falls in love with a gorgeous Italian barman. Their affair is brief and intense, doomed by David's inability to commit to a homosexual relationship. We know from the beginning that Giovanni is facing the guillotine but we don't know until nearer the end what crime he has been driven to and how much responsibility David bears for driving him to it.

This, because of its time, is a very 'respectable' read with no explicit sex scenes, but it resonates with a powerful emotional intensity. Visibly influenced by the great French writers - Proust, Gide, Genet - the writing is always elegant and occasionally a bit precious: "I felt myself flow towards him, as a river rushes when the ice breaks up." In the last chapter, as the story moves from gay romance into melodrama, there are even a few faint echoes of Hemingway.

1950s Paris - "this old whore", Giovanni calls the city - is vividly evoked: her riverside promenades, her louche bars, her Bohemian artists, her sensation-seeking visitors. Beyond his major works which played a key role in the civil rights movement, Baldwin made a significant contribution to the 'canon' of expatriate life and gay fiction. Giovanni's Room may seem dated to the modern reader, but it remains a major milestone in the history of gay liberation.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

How to be the new Jeffrey Archer, the next Anne Rice!

Literary lifestyle coach Stephanie Hale has interviewed twelve of the world's best-selling writers of fiction and self-help books, picking their brains for tips on How to Write a good book and, more importantly (if fame and fortune are your goal), How to Make It Outsell Everybody Else's. Jeffrey Archer believes that story-telling is a gift from God - gifted to him, of course, but not necessarily to us lesser mortals. Some writers, says Joanne Harris (Chocolat sold 30 million copies), "have bigger egos than others." Bigger sales too: Archer has sold over 270 million books!

Barbara Taylor Bradford
Barbara Taylor Bradford (89 million): "A novel is a monumental lie that has to have the absolute ring of truth". Substantial advice from a Woman of Substance. Mrs Bradford says she cannot start work on Chapter Two until Chapter One is not only written but edited. (That's my style too, Barbara.) Editing, of course, is key. Lord Archer does 13 or 14 drafts of each book - in longhand. Joanne Harris thinks four is enough. New Age guru James Redfield recommends leaving a completed book for 6 months, so that you then re-visit it as a reader.

Taylor Bradford gets up at 5 a.m., Lord Jeffrey at 5.30. Alexander McCall Smith gets up at 4 and only writes for about three hours, but he reckons to produce around 3,000 words in those three hours and writes 4 or 5 books a year! The importance of discipline cannot be over-emphasized.

McCall Smith (only 40 million books sold, but he's written close to 100) is a big fan of Facebook and likes to discuss books-in-progress with his followers. " Joanne Harris prefers Twitter and Tumblr. Vampire queen Anne Rice (100 million plus) responds to all her fanmail and reviews/postings on Amazon/Facebook. New writers, Anne says, shouldn't try to sound like someone they admire. "Sound like yourself." Sound advice.

Your book needs the Pick It Up factor
James Redfield gave away the first 1,500 copies of The Celestine Prophecy. He says a book must have the "pass along" factor: write a book people will buy again to give to friends. Financial planning expert Sharon Lechter's mantra is "Pick It Up": a book needs a title and a cover that people cannot resist. Hers is Think and Grow Rich. Lifestyle guru Brian Tracy says, "Do anything to get a real, live publisher." If self-published books reach a reviewer's desk, "they are immediately thrown in the waste-basket."

Bernard Cornwell (20 million) sees himself as a story-teller, like Lord Archer. He's very anti writer's groups and has a lot of common-sense advice: "Something has to happen on every page ... you cannot bore people." A splendid pronouncement from Sir Terry Pratchett (85 million and counting): "Write with passion about subjects that you're passionate about."

Terry Pratchett:
"Write with passion"
Your head will swim reading this book. So many ideas, so many tips. Which one will work for you? I think the Big Selling Point - the "hook" - of my latest novel The Bexhill Missile Crisis is the question I ask in the Prologue: When did Sexual Intercourse begin? Poet Philip Larkin said it was in 1963 - "between the end of the Chatterly ban and the Beatles' first LP ." I say it was in October 1962 when the Cuban Crisis made everyone fear that there might only be time for one last fling before the Superpowers blasted the world to pieces. The four characters in Bexhill unfortunately choose the Horseman of the Apocalypse for this final fling (he rides in on a motorbike).

A final word from Brian Tracy: "There are three keys to writing a bestselling book, and nobody knows what they are."

Stephanie Hale's interviewees have shifted a billion books between them. Does that daunt our spirits? Shall we lesser mortals continue our desperate, even futile, struggle? Bet your ass we will!

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Wot I'm reading: Gay life before the Plague

Dancer from the Dance


Thanks to the affordability of Print-on-Demand a lot of so-called Classics are being made available again. Dancer from the Dance, regarded as a modern gay 'classic' has been reissued by the Quality Paperback Book Club. It was hailed in 1978 by one reviewer as "the best gay novel written by anyone of our generation." That generation was about to be decimated by the arrival of a disease first known as GRID (Gay-related immune deficiency), later re-branded as Aids. Reading with unavoidable hindsight I kept thinking of Roger Corman's film of Poe's The Masque of the Red Death with the Plague Bringer wandering up the grand staircase and through the dancers in the palace ballroom. A pestilence was about to descend on the disco dancers of 1970s New York, on the bronzed hardbodies of Fire Island.

The book's two main characters, the unbelievably gorgeous but deeply unhappy Malone and the extravagant drag queen Sutherland, are two of Manhattan's party people whose lives revolve around nights of clubbing and summer weekends at the beach. Every moment is devoted to finding hot new guys to dance with and shag. Poppers come in ampoules rather than (diluted) bottles (simpler times!). In the clubs "everyone was reduced to an ecstatic gloom ... how aching, how desperate." It's not hard to see why the Religious Right in America - 'Christian jihadists', we might call them - saw Aids as God's retribution on the citizens of Sodom and Gotham.

Andrew Holleran's narrator weirdly - even perversely - romanticises the great gay 'delirium' (his word for it), which takes place in toilets and backrooms, in abandoned buildings and under boardwalks. He doesn't call it sex. He calls it love. Malone and Sutherland are, with a new guy every night, looking for love.

The unnamed narrator, infatuated with Malone and amused by Sutherland, tells their story in a prose style in which the textured lushness of Truman Capote is intermittently punctuated by  the blunt terminology of a high-school corridor. There's a lot of lurid sex talk but very few descriptions of actual sex. The chapter in which Malone falls in and out of love with an Italian electrician is almost as overripe as Barbara Cartland but very touching for all that. Hard not to assume that Malone is a self-portrait.

This is a version of gay New York peopled entirely by scene queens, hustlers and mega-rich predators prowling for toyboys. There's scarcely a glimpse of gay men living domesticated or culturally-oriented lives outside the Scene and not many echoes of lonely men closeted in the intolerant boondocks. It's possible that the author is mocking the 1970s scene and its denizens, but the book reads more like a social chronicle than as a satire.

In the second half of this relatively short novel (150 pages) Sutherland's brand of camp and lurid sex-talk becomes wearisome, as it does when you're over-exposed to it in daily life. There's a framing device of cod ladies-of-letters exchanges between the author and a grand queen who's retired to the Deep South; these exchanges are seriously OTT and richly funny.

Holleran's extravagant prose, like his cast, is very much of his time, although of course that style and that lifestyle are still pretty much part of today's 'Scene'. A lot of contemporary fiction (not all of it gay) suffers from florid over-writing, and a lot of people (not all of them gay) still live by the same code: eat, drink, dance, do drugs and fuck our brains out, for tomorrow we ... become old and staid!

Dancer from the Dance - an anthem for doomed youth - manages to read as a book of its time and of ours. For me the great gay novel of the pre-Aids era is John Rechy's City of Night, written in a Beat-era style that owes a debt to Kerouac, a style Rechy never recaptured in the tawdry pseudo-porn books that followed. Rechy is a more urgent writer than Holleran, but Holleran's reputation will probably outlast Rechy's; perhaps it already has.

Saturday, 23 August 2014

Wot I'm reading: the man who loved dogs


Brian Sewell: SLEEPING WITH DOGS


After two books in which he listed the (few) artists he admires and the (many) he despises, plus a blow-by-blowjob account of his busy sex life, 80-year-old art critic Brian Sewell now sets out to catalogue the dogs he has owned,  from boyhood up to his present great age: usually two or three at a time. Some were pedigree animals, some were cross-breeds, a few were mongrels. Most were rescued from re-homing centres; one he brought back from Turkey.

This is a short book (130 pages), each chapter encompassing the life of one or two of his beloved pets. The life and the death. Brian sticks with his dogs in health and in sickness, tenderly nursing them through injury, blindness, incontinence. Some of them he was forced to take to the vet to be euthanased but more often than not he cared for them to the very end. "The deaths of dogs grow more painful the more we experience them," he writes with poignant accuracy. Some of his dead dogs were buried in his or his mother's garden; a few were dug up and re-buried in another garden. Others were treated to a Tibetan 'sky burial' on the roof of his house. Mr Sewell, lord love him, is a bit weird.

He writes an elegant Edwardian prose, dense with commas and subordinate clauses. He writes with a touching tenderness and a fierce passion. This is a man who has clearly loved his animals, loved them wantonly, lavishly and slavishly. Any committed animal-lover will not fail to weep and laugh with Brian as he bonds with - and inevitably parts with - dog after dog after dog.

Friday, 23 May 2014

Wot I'm reading: the only gay in the village

EDMUND WHITE: 
A Boy's Own Story

First published in 1983, the opening volume of Edmund White's three-part autobiographical novel sequence made its way onto my re-reading list after an article in Polari, the gay online magazine.  This novel in the form of a memoir deals with the 1950s boyhood of his unnamed protagonist, watching his parent' marriage dissolve, moving from the country to the city with his mother and sister, beginning to discover a love of books and realizing that he is gay. The narrator is a hopeless romantic: after some experimental sex with a fellow teenager "I'd already imagined him as a sort of husband." And yet whilst still in his teens he buys his first hustler.

Flashbacks to his childhood give his early years some of the magic of (oh dear) a fairy-tale. A beautifully written chapter about summer camp morphs delectably from the pastoral to the erotic. There's a pleasing humour in his effort to impress a glamorous jock at high school: Tommy wants help in a debate on Sartre's philosophy but our hero is privately contemplating more mundane issues - 'How low should I let my jeans ride?' The book's long final chapter, in a boarding school, introduces a few more interesting characters, including a priggish priest and a disturbed, disturbing boy who thinks and dresses like a Nazi. In the last few pages this rambling character study springs some surprises of the kind associated with a more conventionally plotted novel; I would have preferred the whole book to have this degree of structure.

White's theme is, essentially, the experience of growing up 'different' in a world where everyone else is fitting in, but he clearly set out to craft a literary masterpiece, a book about tormented youth that would out-Salinger Salinger. Noticeably under the influence of several French writers (Gide, Cocteau, Genet - even Proust), White writes a rich florid prose that is often glorious to read but occasionally hard to digest. 'I was living in shadow between two radiances, the mythic past and the mythic future'; is a sentence like that meant to be satirical, or is it merely pretentious? Tough call. There are scenes that go on too long, and scenes, like the one in a brothel, that aren't long enough. The best scenes are those with touches of humour and the moments when his hero has an Everyman obstacle to surmount that echoes the times when the average 'middle-brow' gay reader may have felt that he was the only gay in the village.

After the 'break-through' gay novels of the 1960s - The City and the Pillar, City of Night, Last Exit to Brooklyn - A Boy's Own Story belongs to a different canon. Despite a handful of not-too-coy, not-too-lurid sex-scenes White's book has a lot more style than substance. Can a book be too literary? If the author was trying to be America's answer to Genet and Gide, he certainly landed on target with A Boy's Own Story. A book to admire rather than one to savour and enjoy.

Monday, 28 April 2014

Making the news in Bexhill

The Bexhill Observer has given me a nice write-up this week - and the De La Warr Pavilion (featured on the cover) has sold five copies of The Bexhill Missile Crisis and ordered 20 more.

Onwards and upwards!


Thursday, 3 April 2014

Wot I'm reading: Wild about Wilde

Jonathan Fryer:
ANDRE & OSCAR
Gide, Wilde and the
Gay Art of Living

Not a recent book (published in 1997) but one I've only just caught up with. Jonathan Fryer has written a short and entertaining study of the friendship between Oscar Wilde and Andre Gide. They first met in 1891 when Wilde wowed literary Paris on an early visit, even before his first play (Lady Windermere's Fan) took London by storm. 

The pair were friends but never, we're told, lovers. They both liked younger men or in Gide's case young boys. He hung out with pre-adolescent boys on extended holidays in North Africa (much as gays still do today!). Fryer thinks that his relations with these youngsters were probably platonic, adoration rather than molestation, but he was lucky not to have suffered a greater shame than Wilde.

The rise and fall of Oscar Wilde is an oft-told tale, but Fryer's very readable style and admirable economy of words offers a  enjoyable 'overflight' of the familiar ground of Oscar's fatal friendships with Alfred Douglas and the Piccadilly rent-boys they shared. He quotes Wilde's most painful letter from Reading Gaol to his old chum Robbie Ross: "I curse myself night and day for my folly in allowing him [Bosie] to dominate my life." And yet he resumed this dangerous liaison after his release, causing Constance, his wife, to cut off the allowance she was generously paying him. He died, as we know, penuriously, losing the battle with the wallpaper in a Parisian hotel.

Gide's story may be less familiar. He seems to have been massively up himself, as we would say today but, like Oscar, he was a prolific letter-writer and a sharp observer of humankind. After his first meeting with Lord Alfred in wintry Algiers in 1895, Gide described him in letters to his mother as 'Byronic [and] devoured by an unhealthy thirst for infamy'. With considerable prescience he also writes: 'If Wilde's plays in London didn't run for 300 performances, and if the Prince of Wales didn't attend his first nights, he would be in prison, and Lord Douglas [sic] as well'. There's an element of hypocrisy in all this: Andre was only too keen to have some of Bosie's teenage Arab rent-boys passed on to him.

Gide married his adored cousin Madeleine: a sexless and ultimately loveless union. Over time he came to treat her as shabbily as Oscar did Constance, flagrantly pursuing rent-boys on the streets of Paris and even fathering a child with a mistress. It was easy 120 years ago - it still is - for a woman to marry a man not knowing he was actually gay. Wilde and Gide's treatment of their wives would be deemed marital cruelty today.

Jonathan Fryer has clearly done scrupulous research, but he is not overawed by the eminence of the writers he is exhuming and avails himself of a few opportunities to take the piss. Of Oscar's own account of the 'frenzy' with which he completed the writing of his banned play Salome after listening to a gypsy band on a Parisian boulevard, the biographer comments: 'Like many of Oscar's stories, this is entertaining nonsense.' He reminds us of Wilde's famous pronouncement (to Gide in Algiers) that "he had put his genius into his life but only his talent into his works."

Was Oscar Wilde a genius? Clearly he was a gifted playwright, but his comedies are not in the same league as Shakespeare's. You could make a case for Moliere and Coward being just as brilliant satirists of their times, even Joe Orton and Alan Ayckbourn, but do any of them deserve to be called geniuses? Genius is a word we should perhaps use more sparingly.

Gide lived twice as long as Wilde, dying at 82 in 1951. After selling his daring novels and travel books in pitifully small quantities for many years, he finally broke through to the big time and was even awarded a Nobel Prize. Oscar won no prizes and was awarded only infamy, but his plays have already given him a degree of immortality - something that may not happen to Monsieur Gide.

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Wot I'm reading: Bi-guys don't get the best of both worlds

COLIN SPENCER:
Backing Into Light

Colin Spencer, now in his seventies, is best known for his cookery books and a long-running food column in the Guardian, but back in the 1960s he was a leading novelist and playwright, much admired - especially by me. His quartet A Generation is one of the finest novel sequences of modern times and I would rate The Tyranny of Love (Part Two of the quartet) as one of the best novels written in my lifetime. Bisexuality is a major theme in the quartet and Spencer's handling of this prickly subject is as good as James Baldwin's in Another Country, one of the most significant novels of the 20th century.

Subtitled My Father's Son, Backing into Light is a short autobiography, highly 'confessional' in the style of Alan Bennett's diaries, filled with vivid family members - not just Spencer's loud brutish father and long-suffering religious mother, but aunts and uncles and neighbours - and his dad's mistresses, openly paraded before the family. Spencer had a love/hate relationship with his dad but, as the subtitle implies, he acknowledges how much he takes after him. He says that they came close to killing each other at different times (and once, curiously, he almost murdered his adored mother).

His unruly family life provided a rich seam which he mined for his fiction. For an admirer of his novels it's fascinating to learn the story behind his books: not many authors are as candid as this. But the rumbustious comic tone that underscores his quartet is conspicuously lacking here. This is almost a 'misery memoir': his home life was unbearably wretched, he was unhappy at school, dropped out of art college, came close to a nervous breakdown during National Service - woe upon woe. Only when his sex life gets going in his twenties does he start to enjoy himself. As a successful writer and artist he meets some seriously fascinating people: Forster, L.P. Hartley, Rattigan, Diana Athill.

Becoming the 'toy-boy' of John Lehmann, editor of the prestigious London Review, gave his writing (and artistic) career a serious boost, but he was lucky enough to have publishers beating a trail to his door, something which today mostly happens to celebrities from non-literary fields. He ends this memoir without explaining why his projected quartet became a 'sequence' and then fizzled out after Victims of Love (1978), which clearly did not complete the saga of Matthew and Sundy Simpson. In a throw-away line he says that Reg, the bisexual husband of Sundy (and lover of Matthew) is based on a schoolfriend, but the character reads like another side of the author who is surely both Matthew and Reg. It would be great if writing this autobiography could 'unlock' whatever it is that held Colin Spencer back from continuing with his towering novel sequence. Cookery's gain was very much literature's loss.

He's very honest about his bisexuality. Sexually and emotionally he was always drawn to both men and women. His marriage to a girl he'd loved since their schooldays was a wretched failure and his description of their parting and divorce is one of the most acrimonious I've ever seen.

Back when he was a novelist he alternated the volumes of A Generation with some zany comic novels and zanier plays. Gore Vidal famously did the same thing but Vidal's writing, even at its most satirical and vitriolic, was always tightly controlled. Spencer's writing - and his life - has been mercurial, volcanic. He has had an amazing number of lovers, male and female, but the disintegration of his marriage hangs over this bitter memoir like a black cloud.

Backing into Light reads like a 'stream of consciousness': I suspect that it was dictated and transcribed. The writing is sometimes scrappy and repetitious - more editing needed (a bugbear of mine!), although to some extent this clumsiness underscores the sheer raw intensity of the life being revealed. If you think bisexuals have twice as much fun as 'normal' people, think again: they have twice as much anguish.