Thursday, 19 November 2015

What I'm reading: how to start a gay revolution: quietly!

AMIABLE WARRIORS


I must begin by admitting an interest. Amiable Warriors is published by Paradise Press, who also published my Bexhill Missile Crisis; Peter Scott-Presland and I meet at Paradise events and at London's Gay Authors Workshops.

This big fat book (500 pages, plus 100 pages of notes and index) is only the first third of a history of CHE, the Campaign for Homosexual Equality, a grassroots organisation that started in 1964 and grew to have over 5,000 members and 150 local groups. Unlike the more flamboyant Gay Liberation Front, who organised demonstrations and sit-ins and some provocative spectaculars, CHE concentrated their efforts at the 'parish' level: meetings in towns where few if any gay men and women had come out; writing letters to local and regional papers as well as to the national media and MPs.

We all know about Oscar Wilde. Some of us remember the Lord Montagu case (1953) and indecency charges over the years against John Gielgud and Rupert Croft-Cooke, among many others. Amiable Warriors also is full of 'smaller' scandals and arrests, many of which ended in imprisonment, even suicide. Peter Wildeblood, charged (and jailed) at the same time as Lord Montagu, wrote a landmark book, Against the Law: "I would be the first homosexual to tell what it felt like to be an exile in one's own country."

Attempts to implement the Wolfenden Committee's recommendation (in 1957) that homosexual acts be decriminalised were met by vehement opposition from the majority of MPs and churchmen: "a Buggers' Charter", they called it. The activists from CHE and other groups who faced down this prejudice were bold and brave, coming out at a time when coming out could unleash hate-mail and even excrement through your letterbox. A handful of MPs and a few peers (mostly heterosexuals in both cases) took up the cause, and finally, in 1967, the law was changed. Gay sex was now legal - for men over 21 and only in private homes: not in hotel rooms, public conveniences, houses in multiple occupation or the armed services (or where more than two people were involved).

But a change in the law did not guarantee the end of hostilities. The battle went on. At the national level, to lower the age of consent and blur the edges of the other restrictions. At the local level, there were battles against homophobic local councils and churches to licence venues where gay men could socialize, support each other and (shock, horror) even dance! Especially in the North CHE activists fought long and hard to foster toleration of the gay community. Their opponents, newspaper proprietors as well as politicians and churchmen, continued to see gay lib as opening the door to degeneracy and corruption, but in reality "what homosexuals wanted and needed was lifetime partnerships, and the purpose of law reform was to make these more possible." This, after almost fifty years, we finally now have.

Exhaustively researched, Amiable Warriors offers an encyclopaedic overview of CHE, its roots and its branches. Many branches got bogged down in arguments about rules and procedures - the bane of trade unions and even the Women's Institute! Potted biographies of key players in the history of CHE give Scott-Presland's book an almost Dickensian flavour. Paul O'Grady (who also writes an introduction) and Brian Sewell are part of this history; Mr Sewell was as acerbic a branch chairman as he was an art critic!

Watching celebrity gays like Graham Norton and Alan Carr and a few bold sportsmen in the public arena today, it's easy to forget what a long hard road it has been for homosexuals from being prosecuted and pilloried to acceptance and even admiration. At the age of 19 I left my Sussex hometown (population then over 5,000), still thinking I was "the only gay in the village", clearly a statistical improbability. Now, at the over-ripe age of 73, I am able to look forward to lurching down the aisle next year with the beloved companion of my last five years (after his divorce comes through).

But we must not forget that even in this country there are still men - and especially schoolchildren - who are too insecure to come out and be confronted by ostracism and bullying. And there are many countries where homosexuals face persecution up to and including public execution.

Glad to be gay? Yes and no.

Thursday, 10 September 2015

Selling books. It's better for booksellers than for authors.

Paradise Press has received an order for a single copy of The Bexhill Missile Crisis from a leading London bookshop. The store demands a 35 percent discount on the retail price (£2.80 off £7.99). They expect us (me) to pay the postage (another £1.68 first class). The cost of the book from the printer works out at £3.61 per copy. Totting that up, you will see that I make a loss of 10 pence on this sale (that's 15 cents for US readers) - not including the cost of a jiffy bag and wear-and-tear on my shoes getting to the post office. If I mail it second class I can actually make a profit of 7 pence (11 cents) - about the price of the jiffy bag!. Bulk orders allow me a slightly better margin, as does a sale direct from the Paradise Press website.

I am paying people to read my book! Funny old world, isn't it? I could, of course, raise the book price, but £7.99 seems a fair (and competitive) price for a 215-page novel.

Do all authors have this problem?

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Wot I'm reading: Cane and Abel get a Southern Gothic makeover

John Hart is a new name to me. This is his fourth thriller, and the critics have heaped praise on him. Well-deserved praise.

Michael and Julian are brothers, whose lives have taken different directions since they left the Iron House orphanage in North Carolina following the savage killing of a bully. Julian was adopted by a senator and has become the successful author of dark children's books. Michael ended up under the protection of a New York crime lord, for whom he has carried out many ruthless murders. The crime lord is now dead and Michael wants to start a new life with Elena, his new-found love. But the gangster's son wants to kill Michael and anyone close to him, including his schizophrenic brother.

They say that all the best themes can be found in the Bible.Iron House, like the famous Blood Brothers, is a variation on the story of Cane and Abel. A violent variation, but a highly original one. The senator's wife has terrible secrets of her own. There's a wild child in the woods who should belong in a fairy story but somehow suits this one. The plot goes off in unexpected directions with two distinct climaxes, separated by a hundred pages in which this crime-and-revenge thriller morphs into Southern Gothic melodrama.

John Hart writes the kind of lean, vivid prose that is only seen in the very best thriller writers. The combination of Gothic and Greek tragedy brought to mind Thomas Harris's Hannibal, the most 'literary' book of the Lecter series. Here are two fine sentences from Iron House"The tenement house that almost killed the man was a river's breadth away, and a lifetime apart." "Jimmy took a deep breath, and smelled all the places he could bury a man." A calibre of writing you are unlikely to read in the self-published books that increasingly dominate the thriller market today. John Hart is a writer I plan to follow. This is far and away the best novel I've read this year.

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

What I'm reading: dishing the dirt on Hollywood royalty (and ex-kings)

In Chapter One of this bonk-and-tell autobiography the author gets a blowjob from Walter Pidgeon. I, naturally, fainted at this point but made a quick recovery and read on with mounting enthusiasm!

A farmboy from Illinois, Scotty Bowers headed for Los Angeles after his demob from the Marines at the end of World War Two (having seen some grim action in Guadalcanal and Iwo Jima). Working the evening shift at a gas station on Hollywood Boulevard, he was soon running a lucrative sideline as a "call-boy" (he calls it "tricking") with well-heeled Angelinos, most of them in the movie business - both men and women (he claims to prefer straight sex). As well as turning tricks himself, he also set up many another hard-up young man (or woman) with movie people great and small. Then as now on Sunset Strip, straight guys willingly turned gay tricks for a few dollars of beer money.

Randolph Scott and Cary Grant,
 a Hollywood 'Golden Couple'?
It's all yesteryear tittle-tattle, mostly set during the Fifties and Sixties. Everybody mentioned is safely dead and unable to start libel proceedings. But there is some juicy stuff here: pool-party orgies at Cole Porter's house, threesomes with Cary Grant and Randolph Scott, bondage parties with John Carradine. Somehow we've always sensed that our stage and screen idols have feet of clay; Scotty Bowers wants us to know that a proportion of their off-screen time is spent wallowing in mud. Charles Laughton and Tyrone Power had particularly extreme tastes.

The Duke and Duchess of Windsor,
better in bed than on the throne!
Many names here are familiar to the gay gossips: Noel Coward, Montgomery Clift, James Dean. I was only occasionally surprised by his revelations: moving on from deceased Hollywood 'royalty' to deposed royals, he says he bedded both the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and fixed Edward up with call-boys and Wallis with girls; 'Eddy' was "a damn good lover" (not according to Thelma Lady Furness, one of Eddy's earlier ladyfriends); and Wally "really knew what she was doing," said one of the call-girls. Wow. At a time when pornography was illegal in the US (hard to imagine, isn't it?) he arranged a private showing of ex-King Farouk's extensive personal collection for Dr Alfred Kinsey and his fellow researchers.

Rita Hayworth, a famous beauty
and famously stingy
Not all the scandal is sexual: Rita Hayworth was too stingy to buy her out-of-work brother new tyres for his beat-up truck. And Scotty reminds us just how terrible was William Holden's decline (one of the non-gay clients) into the farther reaches of alcoholism.

Like the Collected Works of Kitty Kelley, Full Service is written (ghost-written in this case) in a gushing Louella Parsons prose style straight out of the "fanzines"; gushing enough to read at times like Barbara Cartland (who would churn in her urn at the comparison, I'm sure). I feel slightly ashamed to have wasted a few hours reading this tawdry drivel, but - oh dear - it's an undeniably compelling read. That said, I did find myself wondering how much of it is the sleazy truth and how much is money-minting fantasy.

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Gay Authors Workshop in my garden


Gay Authors Workshop had a garden party in Newhaven (Sussex, not Connecticut!) on Saturday. The weather was kind to us.

Thursday, 12 March 2015

What I'm reading: gay un-lib

MARY RENAULT: 

The Charioteer


My dog-eared 1959 paperback of this gay 'classic' has a startling front cover blurb: "Three men plunged into a struggle with their unnatural love." Probably not the pitch they're using in the current re-issue.

It's 1940. Laurie Odell has been repatriated with other wounded servicemen from Dunkirk. In a military hospital in the West Country he develops a crush on Andrew, a naive young conscientious objector consigned to ward orderly duties as an alternative to prison. At a louche party (men dancing with each other: quick, bring smelling salts!) Laurie is reunited with injured sailor Ralph, on whom he  had a crush at boarding school; Ralph was expelled from their school for misbehaviour that is only hinted at.

Rather a lot is only hinted at as, in the midst of war, a gay 'love-triangle' develops.There's a lot of talk and no 'action'. A single chaste kiss; a couple of sex-scenes that take place off the page (like those in Gone With the Wind and most novels of the '40s and '50s). The book's best chapter is the wedding when Laurie's mother's remarries, full of precision-honed awkwardness. Of the three men, Laurie is still firmly closeted; Ralph is 'out', at least to his friends; Andrew doesn't know enough to think of it as a closet.

Words like 'rent' and 'queen' and 'cottage' were already in use in the 1940s, although 'gay' is not used in the sense we have for it now. When Renault describes the room in which the party is taking place, the furnishings include 'various poufs', which clearly would be edited out if it was being written today.

Andre Gide is, of course, the Patron Saint of gay fiction, up there in the 'Pantheon' with Oscar and Aubrey. E.M Forster's Maurice, begun in 1913, would qualify to be the first gay novel of the modern era had Forster not lacked the cojones to publish it (it appeared in 1971, a year after his death). Christopher Isherwood's Berlin Stories (1945) are generally hailed as breaking new ground, although the homosexual element in the two novels is less explicit than it was in the movie of Cabaret (having been left out in the stage play). Gore Vidal pioneered modern gay fiction with The City and the Pillar (1948), a more provocative book than Truman Capote's Other Voices, Other Rooms (also 1948) which is exquisite but kind of precious.

The Charioteer, which first came out, so to speak, in 1953, is painfully slow, very dated and more than a little 'twee', similar in many respects to Forster's Edwardian-era  Maurice. Nevertheless (again like Maurice) it is an important and deeply felt novel about homosexual love. It was daring in its day and clearly sent out a plea for understanding and tolerance. The men in the story are living with the ever-present threat of what happened to Alan Turing: exposure, shame, arrest and the choice between imprisonment and chemical castration. And let's not forget, there are many countries today where gays and lesbians live with the threat of violence and execution.

You can read up on Mary Renault (1905-83) on Wikipedia, as I just have. An English lesbian who relocated to South Africa with her lover, she is most remembered for a series of romanticized novels about the gay/bi warriors of ancient Greece. She declined to associate herself with the Gay Liberation movement, and yet her books made her one of the true 'champions' of our community in Britain and the US, We must continue to honour her memory.