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Holiday Reading


I’m off to the land of sun, sea and demons (i.e. Mallorca) at the end of the week, so I 20170902_143708_resizedthought I’d share with you my holiday reading. Strangely, my selection has been pretty painless compared to previous holidays where my final lists came as smoothly as constipation.

First up is Joan Lindsay‘s novel, ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’. Based on the true story of the mysterious disappearance of a number of  schoolgirls whilst on an outing, this was the basis for Peter Weir’s majestic film from 1975. Eerie, atmospheric, pulsating with burgeoning adolescence, Weir’s film should be seen by everyone, so I’m hoping the source will be just an enticing.

Given my recent re-discovery, holidays for me now need Agatha Christie:

‘If you turn off an unpretentious street from the Park and continue a little way down a quiet street you will find Bertram’s Hotel on the right hand side. Bertram’s Hotel has been there along time – dignified, unostentatious, and quietly expensive. It has been patronised by the higher echelons of the clergy, dowager ladies of the aristocracy up form the country , girls on their way home from the holidays from expensive finishing schools.’

Miss Marple, a posh hotel, murder…what’s not to like ‘At Bertram’s Hotel’?

My next choice, was actually selected for my June holiday but I didn’t get round to it. As I always like to take some Spanish literature with me (I am going to Spain after all) I am determined to read ‘Cry, Mother Spain’ by Lydie Salvayre this time…

‘Montse lives in a small village, high in the hills, where few people can read or write and fewer still ever leave. If everything goes according to her mother’s plan, Montse will never leave either. She will become a good, humble maid for the local landowners, muchisimas gracias, head bowed, sins confessed, with every Sunday off to dance the jota in the church square.

But Montse’s world is changing. Franco’s forces have begun their murderous purges, just as cities across Spain are rising up against the old order. Meanwhile, her brother Jose has retuned from Lerida with a red and black scarf and a new, dangerous vocabulary, and his words are beginning to open up new realms to his little sister. She might not understand half of what he says, but how can anyone become a maid in the Burgos household when their head is ringing with shouts of Revolucion, Comunidad and Libertad?

The war, it seems, has arrived in the nick of time.’

I loved John Grindrod‘s ‘Concretopia’ which looked at the post war architecture of Britain and, in some ways, talked about aspects of my childhood. With ‘Outskirts’ he writes about growing up on the edge of the green belt, that strange no-mans land between town and country which is a dream for kids. And I should know because that sort of place is exactly where I grew up (unfortunately, a recent trip showed how all those fields in which we built our childhood are now roads and houses and bereft of the packs of children who etched the concrete with life and fuelled their own imaginations…)

Finally, I have ‘All the Beloved Ghosts’ by Alison MacLeod. I have to be honest: what first drew me to this collection of short stories was the cover, from ‘Flowers in a Jug’ by Vanessa Bell (sister of Virginia Woolf and doyen of the ‘Bloomsbury’ group)…but it was the nature of the stories which sold it:

‘Hovering on the border of life and death, these stories form a ground-shifting collection, taking us into history, literature and the hidden lives of iconic figures.’

Chekhov, Sylvia Plath are just some of those mentioned in the blurb, but what really grabbed me was the delicious sounding tale set in Charleston (home to Vanessa Bell and her family), where ‘Angelica Garnett, child of the Bloomsbury group, is overcome by the past, all the beloved ghosts that spring to life before her eyes.’. I have a long held obsession  with Bloomsbury – lots of posh people droning their way through well equipped drawing rooms with conversations about buggery and books and art and getting themselves into all sorts of scrapes. Take Angelica Garnett: her father was artist Duncan Grant and her mother was Vanessa Bell who, at the time of Angelica’s birth was married to Clive Bell. Duncan Grant was also homosexual and previously had an affair with one David ‘Bunny’ Garnett, to whom Angelica, would become married, much to her parents horror. She was 24, he was 50…


…just before I go, here is the official video to my song of the summer, ‘Dive’ by Saint Etienne, filmed in beautiful Scarborough….happy holidays, whether you’ve been, yet to go and wherever you venture!

Posted in Agatha Christie, Alison MacLeod, Joan Lindsay, John Grindrod, Lydie Salvayre, Music Time: Saint Etienne | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

A Queer Sort of History

The-riot2017 marks the 50th anniversary of the (partial) legalisation of male homosexuality in England and Wales. (It would be 1980 before Scotland followed suit and 1981 for Northern Ireland). Bisexuality, transgenderism or lesbianism have never been illegal in Britain (despite a concerted effort in 1921 to make lesbianism a crime).

So, to mark this I thought I’d share my favourite British LGBT history books (well, almost all are British and almost all are LGBT). Of course, they  cover every aspect of LGBT history and you may consider others to be better, but these  will give you a primer (should you need it) on British LGBT history up until the end of the twentieth century.

For good, solid overviews on gay and lesbian British history, two great books are ‘A Gay History of Britain’ by Matt Cook (and others) and ‘A Lesbian History of Britain’ by Rebecca Jennings. Both are wide ranging and easily accessible. 20170729_124237_resized

Now that you have a good grounding you can start building up a fuller picture with books covering specific periods or people or incidents: Here are a trio of classi20170729_122812_resizedcs, covering the 17th and 18th centuries: ‘Homosexuality in Renaissance England’ by Alan Bray was one of the first published British LGBT histories and is still recognised as a great piece of research. At the time of its publication (1982), there few works which studied the history of British h20170729_123145_resizedomosexuality (the work of Jeffrey Weeks being a notable exception), so this came like lightening from another world. A decade later Rictor Norton published ‘Mother Clap’s Molly House: The Gay Subculture in England 1700 – 1830’ which proved in bold bl20170729_125900_resizedack and white with irrefutable evidence that we have been around forever and have always created our own defiant culture. Emma Donoghue’s ‘Passions Between Women: British Lesbian Culture 1668 – 1801’ (1993) is no less groundbreaking. None of these titles shed light on trans people’s lives, but look carefully and I’m sure that with all the cross-dressing which is shown to happen, there must have been trans people amongst them, even if they hadn’t yet learned speak their name(s).

I always think th20170729_124116_resizedat diaries are an excellent window on a world, and for 17th/ 18th century lesbianism in Britain, your first port of call must be ‘I Know My Own Heart: The Diaries of Anne Lister 1791 – 1840′ (Edited by Helena Whitbread). Anne Lister was a business woman from Yorkshire who made a considerable fortune and also loved women. Her diaries were written in code and translated by Helena Whitbread.20170730_172448_resized

Finally, for the thoroughly entertaining romp through the eighteenth century, you can’t do better than Julia Peakman’s ‘Lascivious Bodies: A Sexual History of the Eighteenth Century’. While not exclusively LGBT, this is a terrifically rude read and gives some excellent context to the previous books.

As we move into the nineteenth century, for an excellent overview on the changes in gay male culture see Graham Robb’s ‘Strangers: Homosexual Love in the Nineteenth C20170730_172431_resized (2)entury’, which is chock-a-block with detail, incident and scandal and captures the atmosphere of queer life wonderfully.

By the end of the nineteenth century we had the trial which  affected all gay men for the whole of the twentieth: that of Oscar 20170729_122602_resized (2)Wilde. Richard Ellmann’s majestic ‘Oscar Wilde’ is the place to start on his life, loves and all the queer goings on. Of course there are hundreds of other books about Wilde’s life, but for something a little different and less well known, try the biography ‘Truly Wilde: The Unsettling Story of Dolly Wilde, Oscar’s Unusual Niece’ by Joan Sche20170729_122457_resizednkar. For me this was an eye opening book, not having heard about Dolly Wilde before. Dolly was a truly ‘Wilde’ lesbian whose life highlights the lesbian culture which existed in Britain as well as Paris in the first part of the twentieth century, a Parisian scene which pivoted around artists such as Romaine Brooks. A thrilling, bohemian read.

The study of LGBT history is a relatively new phenomenon: one of the first British works was ‘Coming Out’ by Jeffrey Weeks, a pioneer in gay history. As a history of ‘Homosexual Politics in Britain from the Nineteenth Century to the  Present’ it provides an outline of key incidents and people, but remember that it is now an 20170730_111046_resizedhistorical document in itself: published in 1977, you can still get a whiff of petuli oil but it does accurately reflect the radical, pioneering spirit of the times – some of which might raise more than a frown these days.

As the nineteenth century drew to a close we find the first glimmers of a political movement for homosexual emancipation. Across Europe academics and protestors began to agitate: people such as Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, Magnus Hirschfield and Richard Krafft-Ebing had begun writing positively about homosexuality and others, like Germany’s Adolf Brand and20170729_122912_resized Benedict Freidlander had begun to attempt to bring queers together and drum up support with their magazine ‘Der Eigene’ (‘The Special’). Linking up with these radicals from across the sea were British people such as  Edward Carpenter, whose essay ‘The Intermediate Sex’ (reprinted in his book ‘Love’s Coming of Age’) gives a brief glimpse of what constituted ‘freedom’ in those days, and Havelock Ellis, a sexologist whose ‘Sexual Inversion’ was probably the first British medical textbook on homosexuality. Both men are fascinating characters and their work was ground-breaking. Each are well served20170802_201936_resized[713] with biographies: ‘Edward Carpenter: A Life of Liberty and Love’ by Sheila Rowbotham and ‘Havelock Ellis’ by Phyllis Grosskurth, both of which provide an insight into this exciting time. (Unfortunately, this European wave of hope came to a grinding halt when the Nazi Party came to power and in the post war years the rise of communism spawned a worldwide wave of suspicion and fear which kept LGBT people in the shadows.)

Of course, just because Ellis and Carpenter were out campaigning doesn’t mean things were fantastic for LGBT people…as ‘Oscar Wilde’s Last Stand’ by Philip Hoare shows. Excellently written and researched, Hoare’s book describes one of the most outlandish incidents in British LGBT history: An actress of some renown, Maud Allen was to perform Oscar Wilde’s ‘Salome’ in London. Coming not long after Wilde’s prosecution and imprisonment, this was a controversial decision in itself…and what Allen didn’t count on was the demented intervention of the MP 20170729_131002_resizedNoel Pemberton Billing. The First World War was in full swing and hatred of Germany and homophobia collided in Pemberton Billing’s mind, conjuring up ‘The Cult of the Clitoris’, a group of 47,000 British people who were, he believed, a danger to the state as their (homo)sexuality made them prone to German blackmail, thus forcing them to spy for the enemy. He accused Allen of being a member of this ‘group’ and she took him to court for libel. It is a great story and a great book.20170729_123042_resized

But what was real life like for LGBT people in the twentieth century? ‘Between the Acts: Lives of Homosexual men 1885 – 1967′ Provides interviews with men from all walks of life, shedding light on coming out and simply living when your very being is illegal.

Radclyffe Hall wrote one of the seminal lesbian novels, ‘The Well of Loneliness’ (1928) and lived a gloriously ‘out’ life while fighting those who would have her work supressed. Her life is an utter fascination and one of the best biographies is ‘The Trials of Radclyffe Hall’ by Diana Souhami. (Souhami is a great writer, and I can also recommend her book on the lesbian artists Natalie Barney and Romaine Brooks, ‘Wild Girls’ and that on Gertrude Stein, ‘Gertrude and Alice’)

While Quentin Crisp is now Britain’s ‘Stately Homo’, it wasn’t always the case, and his biography,20170729_122518_resized ‘The Naked Civil Servant’ still gives an astonishing account of a life lived unapologetically. Crisp may have some ideas and opinions which clash with modern thought, but his bravery and the importance of this book (and especially the TV version of it) cannot be underestimated.

But what of the lesbian twentieth century? One of my very favourite books has to be ‘From the Closet to the Screen: Women at the Gateways Club, 1945 – 1985’ by Jill Gardiner. Gateways was London’s premier lesbian club and came into public consciousness when ‘The Killing of Sister George’ (The stars of the film are depicted on the book’s cover) used the club and some of its regulars for the lesbian club scenes. The book is a carefully edited colle20170729_122951_resizedction of interviews with regulars and gives a fascinating insight into lesbian lives, politics and community in the second half of the twentieth century.

Nancy Spain was a huge television and radio star of the mid-twentieth century. She was writer of renown, with novels, biographies and newspaper columns to her credit. She was also a lesbian whose sexuality was never made public but, like many stars of the time, was hidden in plain sight: by which I mean people who were obviously queer but the huge fondness for them made society turn a blind eye to their sexual pecadillos: Kenneth Williams is another such person.  ‘A Trouser Wearing Character: The Life and Times of Nancy Spain’  by Rose Collis is a great biography and sheds light on Spain, her life and what it was like to live life in this conun20170729_125917_resizeddrum. Actually, I would recommend any of Rose Collis’ books as they are consistently fascinating – her biography of the actress Coral Brown is a scream!

Unfortunately, as far as I am aware there isn’t a definitive Trans History of Britain (but I’ve made up for this with some general trans histories later on.) Of course, many of these books cover ‘cross-dressing’ people throughout history and we will probably never know how many of them would, today, identify as ‘trans’, but it is always fun speculating. If we are looking at confirmed trans people, however, there are some excellent autobiographies out there: First up is ‘Conundrum’ by Jan Morris. Morris is an em20170729_123009_resized_1inent historian, journalist (being the ‘Times’ reporter on the 1st  expedition to reach the top of Mount Everest in 1953) and travel writer. She began transitioning in 1964, finally travelling to Morocco in 1972 for gender rea20170729_123204_resizedssignment surgery. ‘Conundrum’ was published shortly afterwards.

Julia Grant featured in two ground breaking BBC TV documentaries in the early 1980s, following her journey from ‘George’ to Julia. Brave, startling and shocking (especially in the treatment Julia received from one doctor in particular) these programmes were an  important moment in British trans history. Unfortunately, they are not available on20170729_124153_resized DVD or download, so the next best thing is Julia’s autobiography, ‘Just Julia: The Story of an Extraordinary Woman’.

Female-to-Male trans people are often less visible, but one such voice can be found in ‘Dear Sir or Madam: The Autobiography of a Female-to-Male Transsexual’ by Mark Rees.

‘Queer London: Perils and Pleasures in the Sexual Metropolis, 1918 – 1957’ by Matt Houlbrook. Does just what it says on the cover: a smorgasbord of q20170729_123223_resizedueer goings-on, revealing a fascinating underworld which the straight world – most of the time – turned a blind eye to.

1967 saw the partial legalisation of male homosexuality in England and Wales, but the journey to that point had been a long one. 20170729_123116_resizedThat journey has recently begun to be recounted in a remarkable book: ‘Amiable Warriors: A History of the Campaign for Homosexual Equality 1954 – 1973’ by Peter Scott-Presland. Scott-Presland chronicles the events and people which led to the formation of this important group and the work that it did to change legislation. This is done in perfect detail and cleverly weaves in the social, political and cultural context of the group’s work. This book is an essential read for anyone interested in British LGBT history: I await volume 2 with baited breath.

1967 also saw the murder – at the hands of partner Kenneth Halliwell – of the playwright Jo20170729_122700_resizede Orton. By 1967 Orton had set the stage alight with his satires such as ”What the Butler Saw’ and ‘Loot’, plays which earned him the title ‘The Oscar Wilde of Welfare State Gentility.‘ As well as plays and novels, Orton also left behind wonderfully filthy ‘Orton Diaries’ which spend as much time on his 20170808_182247_resizedsex life – from public toilets to building sites to Morocco – as they do on his professional life. Star of the Carry On films Kenneth Williams was a great friend of Joe Orton and also features in his diaries. However, whereas Orton sought the pleasures of homosexuality, Williams was far more repressed, often seeing physicality and sexuality in a distasteful light. In many ways the pair sum up the bi-polar feelings present in lesbians and gay men of the time, and as such ‘The Kenneth Williams Diaries’ provide a potent view of sexual repression as experienced by one of our best loved actors who made his name playing some of the campest creations in British cinema history. And if that conundrum doesn’t get you reading this book, nothing will.

In 1969, a police raid on the Stonewall Inn in New York sparked a riot which reverberated across the world and ignited the passions which would fu20170730_092928_resized (2)el LGBT campaigning to the present day. For more on this, a great start is ‘Stonewall’ by Martin Duberman, which tells of the history which led to the event through the lives of  six gay men, lesbians and trans people who played vital roles in the riots. An intoxicating book.

By the early 1970s, the aftershock of Stonewall saw branches of the Gay Liberation Front setting up in the UK and began to campaign for gay rights, lau20170729_122759_resizednch ‘Pride’ marches and many other institutions which we all now take for granted. This was a curious group, built on hippy ideals, gay liberation, women’s rights and black power and by 1973 it had split irrevocably, but not before establishing the bedrock upon which all future campaigning would rest. ‘Come Together – the years of gay liberation 1970 – 1973’ (Edited by Aubrey Walter) is a collection of articles from the GLF magazine while Lisa Power’s ‘No Bath But Plenty of Bubbles’ provides an oral history of the group. Both come drenched in the smell of petuli oil (and other, bodily fluids) and provide an exciting, funny, grubby, thought provoking and sometimes surprising story of possibly20170729_123130_resized the most influential group on modern LGBT politics.

‘The End of Innocence: Britain in the Time of AIDS’ by Simon Garfield is an essential read for anyone interested in how AID20170729_122638_resized (2)S affected Britain, and especially the LGBT community. It is almost impossible to read without feelings of anger and sorrow, feelings which fuelled the next wave of LGBT activists. In the US, as a reaction to government inaction on AIDS and the terrible hostility and prejudice metered out the those with HIV, activists began to get angry and staged headline grabbing stunts and demonstrations against bodies whose action or inaction was making the pandemic worse. In Britain one of the foremost ‘direct action’ groups was ‘Outr20170729_124136_resizedage!’ and their story, ethos and attitude is best summed up in Ian Lucas’ ‘Outrage! An Oral History’20170729_125842_resized. The film maker and artist Derek Jarman, himself HIV+ was at the forefront of this group and attended many demonstrations. His diaries, ‘Modern Nature’ and ‘Smiling in Slow Motion’  are works of considerable beauty and help to explain some of the controversies of the time, many of which are now swept under the carpet: for example why Ian McKellen’s knig20170729_122740_resizedhthood was definitely not seen as a ‘good thing’ and by some as a betrayal of LGBT campaigns. You can also find meditations on his art and friends and life in general. Wonderful.

One of the key British gay films of the 1970s is ‘Nighthawks’, a low budget look at the life of a gay teacher and his nightly cruising of the gay sce20170808_182221_resizedne. Filmed in real gay pubs and clubs , ‘Nighthawks’ is a 90 minute snapshot of a time and a place and a culture. Derek Jarman features in the background of one club scene. Another extra was, apparently, one Dennis Nilsen. In 1983 blocked drains in a street in Muswell Hill were shown to contain human remains. Under questioning, Nilsen confessed to killing 15 gay men over 4 years, none of whom had never been missed. ‘Killing For Company: The Case of Dennis Nilsen’ by Brian Masters is a chilling autopsy of the case and a revealing insight into the mind of a gay serial killer, shedding light on how the pressures on gay men (closeted lives, a need for sex, love and companionship while being forced by society to deny those feelings) could fester and mutate into such terrible acts. A disturbing read but one which reveals so much about the deep effects of repression on the psyche of gay men – and an area which is often overlooked in LGBT history.

By the early 1990s, the LGBT community had gone all ‘queer’. We were no longer simply Good As You: we were angry and defiant and didn’t give a damn what the hell straight society though of us. In Manch20170806_173902_resizedester we had ‘Homocult’, whose ‘Queer with Class: The First Book of Homocult’ is still funny and angry. Get hold of a copy if you can!

A volume more easily available is ‘That’s Revolting: Queer Strategies for Resisting Assimilation’, edited by Matthilda, aka Matt Bernstei20170730_111030_resizedn Sycamore. Full of endlessly provoking essays such as ‘Is Gay Marriage Racist?‘; ‘Queer Parents: An Oxymoron or Just Moronic?’; ‘Fed Up Queers’ and ‘The Price of Community: Bisexual/ Biracial Perspectives’. It isn’t a British production but it does give a flavour of what the 1990s were about (for some of us, at least).

20170730_172505_resizedTo give you something to get angry about, ‘Sex, Death and Punishment: Attitudes to Sex and Sexuality in Britain since the Renaissance’ by Richard Davenport-Hines, gives you a one stop shop for some of the vile punishments queers have had to put up with for centuries.  Again, not exclusively queer, but none-the-worse for it.

As I mentioned earlier, I’m not aware of any histories of Trans Br20170730_110933_resizeditain, but there are at least a couple of useful world histories: ‘Gender Warriors: Making History from Joan of Arc to Dennis Rodman’ by Leslie Feinberg is a great queer-trans history from a radical writer. 20170730_110949_resized‘How Sex Changed: A History of Transsexuality in the United States’ by Joanne Meyerowitz is less radical but no less fascinating. Great books both, but surely a History of Trans Britain is long overdue?

I have grown up with television and most of my formative memories of sensing my sexuality can be related back to television. I suspec20170729_124058_resizedt I’m not unique in that, so Keith Howes ‘Broadcasting It’ is a HUGE encyclopaedia of British LGBT broadcasting over the years. A truly exhilarating read, with surprises on almost every page.

From television to art, and a beautiful world history: ‘Art and Homosexuality’ by Christopher Reed. Music is, obviously ano20170730_092913_resizedther queer stronghold, and Martin Aston’s ‘Breaking Down the Walls of Heartache: How Music Came Out’ will take some beating.


Finally on our little queer trip, four books which will sum up queer history across the planet. Firstly, ‘Who’s Who in Gay and Lesbian History’ and ‘Who’s Who in Contemporary Gay and Lesbian History’ (both edited by Robert Aldrich and Garry Wotherspoon) These are concise books, overflowing with the great queers of history, from across the planet, some you’ll k20170729_164308_resizednow but many you won’t: a great and sobering experience.  Robert Aldrich’s ‘Gay Life and Culture: A world history’ does just what it says on the cover: authoritative, lavishly illustrated and essential. Gregory Woods ‘Homintern: How Gay Culture Libe20170729_164253_resizedrated the Modern World’ is a summary of all the great talented queers and how their worlds overlapped and collided and formed what the straight world viewed suspiciously as cliques and shady networks. While they may have been born out of survival, these networks also changed the world. At the end of this journey, something to really make you feel proud.


  • Aldrich, Robert (Ed.): ‘Gay Life and Culture: A World History’
  • Aldrich, R/ Wotherspoon, G (Eds.): ‘Who’s Who in Gay and Lesbian History’
  • Aldrich, R/ Wotherspoon, G (Eds.): ‘Who’s Who in Contemporary Gay and Lesbian History’
  • Aston, Martin: ‘Breaking Down the Walls of Heartache: how music came out’
  • Bray, Alan: ‘Homosexuality in Renaissance England’
  • Collis, Rose: ‘A Trouser Wearing Character: The Life and Times of Nancy Spain’
  • Cook, Matt:  ‘A Gay History of Britain’
  • Crisp, Quentin: ‘The Naked Civil Servant’
  • Donoghue, Emma: ‘Passions Between Women: British Lesbian Culture’
  • Duberman, Martin: ‘Stonewall’
  • Ellmann, Richard: ‘Oscar Wilde’
  • Feinberg, Leslie: ‘Transgender Warriors’
  • Gardner, Jill: ‘From the Closet to the Screen: Women at the Gateways Club: 1945 – 1985’
  • Garfield, Simon: ‘The End of Innocence: Britain in the Time of AIDS’
  • Grant, Julia: ‘Just Julia’
  • Hoare, Philip: ‘Oscar Wilde’s Last Stand’
  • Houlbrook, Matt: ‘Queer London’
  • Howes, Keith: ‘Broadcasting It’
  • Jarman, Derek: ‘Modern Nature’
  • Jarman, Derek: ‘Smiling in Slow Motion’
  • Jennings, Rebecca:  ‘A Lesbian History of Britain’
  • Lucas, Ian: ‘Outrage! An Oral History’
  • Masters, Brian: ‘Killing For Company: The Case of Dennis Nilsen’
  • Matthilda, AKA Matt Bernstein Sycamore: ‘That’s Revolting: Queer Strategies for Resisting Assimilation’
  • Meyerowitz, Joanne: ‘How Sex Changed: A History of Transsexuality in the UNited States’
  • Norton, Rictor: ‘Mother Clapp’s Molly House: The Gay Subculture in England 1700 – 1830’
  • Orton, Joe, ‘The Orton Diaries’ (John Lahr (Ed.)
  • Power, Lisa: ‘No Bath But Plenty of Bubbles: An Oral History of the Gay Liberation Front, 1970 – 1973’
  • Reed, Christopher: ‘Art and Homosexuality: A History of Ideas’
  • Rees, Mark: ‘Dear Sir of Madam: The Story of a female-to-male transsexual’
  • Robb, Graham: ‘Strangers: Homosexual Love in the Nineteenth Century’
  • Schenkar, Joan: ‘Truly Wilde: The Unsettling Story of Dolly Wilde, Oscar’s Unusual Niece’
  • Scott-Presland, Peter: ‘Amiable Warriors: A History of the Campaign for Homosexual Equality and it’s times: Volume 1, 1954 – 1973′
  • Souhami, Diana: The Trials of Radclyffe Hall’
  • Walter, Aubrey (Ed.): ‘Come Together: The years of Gay Liberation 1970 – 1973’
  • Williams, Kenneth, ‘The Kenneth Williams Diaries’
  • Woods, Gregory: ‘Homintern: How Gay Culture Liberated the Modern World’


Posted in Alan Bray, Brian Masters, Edward Carpenter, Emma Donoghue, Graham Robb, Havelock Ellis, Jan Morris, Jeffrey Weeks, Jill Gardiner, Joan Schenkar, Joe Orton, Julia Grant, Julie Peakman, Kenneth Williams, Matt Cook, Nancy Spain, Oscar Wilde, Philip Hoare, Quentin Crisp, Rebecca Jennings, Richard Ellmann, Rictor Norton, Rose Collis | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

This week’s book haul

20170811_172831_resizedJust the one book this week – and something from the Booker Prize longlist: ‘Elmet’ by Fiona Mozley.

This year’s longlist is a bit of an odd one. Of the books I’ve read only one deserves to be there: ‘Reservoir 13’ by Jon McGregor. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE Ali Smith and Zadie Smith, but their books on the longlist, ‘Autumn’ and ‘Swing Time’, despite being enjoyable (and probably better than most other novels out there) they just aren’t examples of these writers at their best. I would have much preferred to see Gwendoline Riley’s ‘First Love’ instead.

A first novel, ‘Elmet’ is being seen as the outsider in the list but as ‘an elemental, contemporary rural noir steeped in the literature and legend of the Yorkshire landscape and its medieval history’  (The Guardian) it sound like a great read (although I do wish we could come up with a better descriptor than ‘noir’ for anything even remotely on the sinister or gloomy side.) Lovely cover illustration (by Vanessa Lubach) too!

Posted in Ali Smith, Fiona Mozley, Gwendoline Riley, Jon McGregor, Zadie Smith | Tagged , | Leave a comment

‘Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile’ Adelle Stripe


Adelle Stripe’s novel ‘Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile’ is based on the life of Andrea Dunbar, a playwright whose early plays were put on at the Royal Court in London and later turned into the film ‘Rita, Sue and Bob Too’. It is also a book which highlights the state of the na20170708_144100_resized[556]tion so incisively and damningly that it should become a rallying call for change: all the more surprising and sickening considering it concerns a life lived until 1990.

Apart from her youth, what set Dunbar apart was being a single mother from a housing estate just outside Bradford. Having left school with few qualifications, she found work in local mills and cabs, finding time between long shifts, childcare and abusive partners to pull together those words. Until recently, Dunbar’s work had been neglected, even in her home city. In writing this novel, Stripe has brought Dunbar’s work and talent back into focus and, in doing so, has also  thrown a dazzling light on the inequalities which stifle and crush those born without money or status.

I have written of my admiration for the work of Nell Dunn before, and in some ways the career and work of Dunn compares and contrasts with that of Dunbar in illuminating ways. In a recent interview to mark the re-issue of the film version of her novel ‘Poor Cow’, Dunn talked about her first book, ‘Up the Junction’ which was written in a similar way to Dunbar’s plays. Both wrote about what was going on around them: for Dunn it was in working class Clapham/ Battersea in the late 1950s/ early 1960s. For Dunbar it was working class life in Bradford of the 1970s and 1980s. Both women listened intently to those around them and recorded what they heard. Both women were also attacked for producing amoral work, particularly wicked in the way they showed women’s sexual appetites.

But there the similarity ends.

When Dunn started to write she had the props which would support her career: Her family were rich and she had been well educated, providing her with the basic spirit which sets the middle classes up for life: confidence. She had stability at home with her husband Jeremy Sandford, himself an educated writer, and so she was already versed in the rules and norms of the literary world: indeed, Dunn had the connections: it was through her writer friend Christopher Logue that she met Ken Loach who would direct the BBC TV version of ‘Up the Junction’ and the film of ‘Poor Cow’.

Dunbar was born into a poor family on a northern council estate and had none of the back ground or support which blessed Dunn. You could suppose that society had moved on since Dunn began to publish in the 1960s: then Dunbar could only have ever been written about; by the 1980s, at least Dunbar could now be the one doing the writing. But, despite her success her short life was filled with the struggle to survive: as a mother, as a woman, as part of the poor working class and as a writer.

For Dunbar, education was simply something to be endured. As I have written before, possibly the most insidious way in which we are letting down working class children is in the inability of state education to induce a confidence in both themselves and their abilities: middle class children may not be more intelligent, but their confidence and sharp elbows get them much, much further. (And yes, family do play a part but when they too have never known that confidence, how do they instil it into another?) Dunbar was mediocre (at best) at most subjects apart from English where she shone, and she was lucky to have teachers who tried to encourage this talent, eventually leading to the production of her first play, ‘The Arbor’. But, as Stripe depicts her, Dunbar’s lack of confidence and self-awareness meant she understood neither her own intelligence nor talent and couldn’t see that her writing was a product of both:  it’s almost as if Dunbar believed the work was some sort of divine intervention which had nothing to do with her, almost as if it were something found  under a gooseberry bush.

‘I just stumbled across this writing by accident’

Working Class children often aren’t encouraged to dream because that way leads to heartache, especially if their dreams are out of the ordinary or kick against expectations: don’t get ideas above your station or you’ll come a cropper. For Dunbar this meant she left school with a few qualifications and took a job in a local mill:

‘…Some told her the raw wool was riddled with fleas and ticks when it arrived; they treated the fleece to remove the dirt. They had been given anthrax vaccinations and advised that she should have one too. The skins were grotesque and often riddled with scabies. Goats legs were found rotting in the shipments. Feet and Tails. Mites and muck. Filth ran out of every pore. It took hours to get clean after a shift. Her hand and clothes were covered in machine oil; she chain smoked to block out the stench and swore she would wear white for the rest of her life when she stopped working at the mill’

Despite how it reads, this is the terrible reality of mill work in 1970s and not the 1870s. Stripe is excellent at  depicting the grinding, grim work which Dunbar had to take, not to mention the men from whom she expected security but received far less than she’d bargained for, not least bullying and violence. She skilfully builds up the elements in working class life which unwittingly conspire against all those like Dunbar. The ‘system’ was against her from the day she was born and she knew it. She also knew that it wasn’t only her, it was her type, her friends her class:

‘There’s people in Buttershaw a lot more clever than I could ever be. I just stumbled across this writing by accident, whereas other people haven’t had the opportunity to get out and do that.’

Stripe hints at these lost dreams and unspoken pride in a poignant scene when Dunbar, her father John Brian and the rest of the family travel to London for the opening night of ‘The Arbor’:

‘Andrea looked over at John Brian, who had just spilled brown sauce onto the new shirt that Alma had bought him for the play. He was covered in sausage roll pastry flakes. 

State of him, Alma glared at him from across the aisle.

Andrea whispered from the corner of her mouth.

He’s still got all them books in the loft. I remember when me and Pam went up there one day. Encyclopaedias and maps with bits of paper stuck to them. All his writing. He went mad when he found us rooting about.

That sounds about right. But I think deep down, behind all that front, he’s dead happy for you. Never stops talking about you down the pub.

He’s a funny way of showing it, Andrea said.

She opened her bag of make-up and applied a layer of mascara which juddered as the train rocked on the tracks.

Honest to God, Alma said. I’ve never seem him more excited that I did last night.’


Stripe is careful not to take individuals to task for Dunbar’s struggles. The London literary world appears to have made little effort to try to fully understand Andrea, to understand her world: They were, I suppose, as trapped in their moneyed bubble as Dunbar was trapped by poverty. Of course, in some respects Dunbar was her own worst enemy: it is clear that she could be an awkward bugger when she wanted, especially, it seems, to those who were trying to help. Even her close friends could only support her to a certain degree – after all what did they know about the literary life in that there London?  These were two worlds colliding, frustration being the outcome for both. Dunbar, however, was the only one in this deal who understood life on the Butterworth Estate;  understood and knew the true cacophony of voices which at once stimulated and then stymied, making her writing so difficult. This dynamic would haunt Dunbar’s career: when the film of ‘Rita, Sue and Bob Too’ was released there were voices on the Butterworth – those same voices which had provided her with such fantastic material – angry at what they perceived as Dunbar’s betrayal, providing a distorted view of their lives for laughs and money. And Andrea certainly shared this feeling of exploitation, of mockery:

‘They’re laughing at all the wrong bits’

And that hurt, because this was her life, her family, her people.  Stripe beautifully depicts the clash of cultures with a sly wink  to the reader in one excruciating scene when Max Stafford-Clarke, the producer of her plays, pays Andrea a visit:

‘He wore his best silk Paisley short for the occasion, a pair of red cords, polished Chelsea boots, and carried a satchel with a typed up copy of Andrea’s new play enclosed.

Good afternoon, he said. It’s so lovely to see you. Thank you for inviting me here. It’s simply wonderful to see where you live.

His expensive aftershave filled the room and grabbed the back of Andrea’s throat.’ 


When ‘Rita, Sue and Bob too’ was released it was billed as ‘Thatcher’s Britain with her Knickers down’ and came under attack for the unbridled attitude to sex displayed by the characters, primarily Rita and Sue. This, coupled with the unashamed depravation on display in the film, meant that in some quarters these women were seen as beyond the pail, somehow unworthy: slags. And this view of women echoed through Dunbar’s life, with the beatings she received from men and being left alone to bring up three children. Stripe captures this claustrophobic misogyny by framing Dunbar’s life with the crimes of Peter Sutcliffe, aka The Yorkshire Ripper. Throughout the 1970s, Sutcliffe terrorised the women of northern England and when caught, he was convicted of murdering thirteen women and attempting to murder 7 more.  Some of the Ripper’s victims were prostitutes, some were not, and this coloured the police enquiries:

‘He has made it clear that he hates prostitutes. Many people do. We, as a police force, will continue to arrest prostitutes. But the Ripper is now killing innocent girls.’ Jim Hobson, senior West Yorkshire detective at a 1979 press conference.

It is hard not to draw the conclusion that Hobson, if not the whole police force felt that those murdered prostitutes somehow deserved their fate. None of those women deserved their fate, but this is just one example of how we set one group in society (deserving victims versus ‘innocent’ victims’; deserving poor versus undeserving poor) against another in order to hide the grim reality: a reality which Dunbar knew well enough and is framed brilliantly by Joan Smith:

‘Peter Sutcliffe was always different, but not by a wide margin: the world is full of men who beat their wives, destroy their self respect, treat them like dirt. They do it because they hate and despise women, because they are disgusted by them, because they need to prove to themselves and to their friends that they are real men. Occasionally, for one in a million, it isn’t enough. Peter Sutcliffe was one of those. But when the trees are so dense, who can with certainly pick out the really rotten timber?’ Joan Smith, ‘There’s Only One Yorkshire Ripper’ from ‘Misogynies’ (Faber 1989)


Stripe writes in a simple and clear way, using verbatim lines from documentaries and interviews but necessarily expands this to include fictional internal monologue.  In what might otherwise be a harsh, brutal novel, this brings a delicate humanity to the novel, highlighting the fragility at Dunbar’s core. But don’t mistake simple and clear for a lack of complexity: Stripe builds up the layers of a complex character in an extraordinary situation with dexterity, avoiding the pitfalls of polemic to produce a novel which lingers long after you have finished it. There are times when this ‘factional’ style makes the inquisitive reader query whether what they are reading is fact or fiction, which can be a distraction, but this is a minor issue. Stripe has created a fitting epitaph to a great writer and carried out a blitzkrieg  bombing raid on the myth of a ‘united’ kingdom, exposing the desperate inequalities to which we have turned a blind eye.

Andrea Dunbar died from a brain haemorrhage in 1990, aged 28.  Since that time little has changed in British society. Stripe clearly paints a picture of a divided Britain in the latter half of the twentieth century but now, in the twenty first, we can plainly see that the gap between rich and poor has become wider, not only in terms of income but in terms of life choices: universities are prohibitively expensive; the arts are becoming the privilege of the rich as state education funding is squeezed until the pips squeak; people on estates like Andrea’s are labelled lower than vermin  and shunted from pillar to post by government attacks –  the ‘Bedroom tax’ being the most famous example –  and the greedy councils who turn a blind eye to the dismantling of these communities once they get the scent of the gentrification cash-cow. And the struggle spreads as neighbour turns against neighbour in the desperate need for some – any  – form of respect, clambering over one another and pushing new scapegoats to the bottom of the pile: the asylum seeker; the Muslim; the outsider. And the hardship and suffering continues while those in power laugh all the way to the bank.

andrea dunbar

When she died, Andrea had been drinking to get rid of terrible headaches which had plagued her for days. Her final written words:

Bad points: feel very emotional. Only want to drink. Can’t sleep and eat. Hate myself and the way I look. Want to destroy. No time for anyone. Not interested in life. Always tired. Good points: I am trying. Want to sleep. Want to eat. Want to be my normal self. Want to leave the drink alone. Want the kids to be okay.”


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This week’s book haul

A non-fiction week, just for a change.

First up is Andrew O’Hagan’s ‘The Secret Life’, a collection of three essays on individuals ‘from the porous border between cyberspace and the ‘real world”: ‘The Invention of Ronald Pinn’ finds O’H20170722_141318_resized[610]agan exploring the darker edges of the internet by constructing a new identity from that of a deceased young man.  ‘The Satoshi Affair’ looks at Craig Wright, an Australian web designer who may, or may not, have created the ‘bit coin’. Finally, ‘Ghosting’ concerns the travails of the author when collaborating with the controversial Wiki-Leaks founder Julian Assange on his autobiography: clue  – it doesn’t end happily. I love O’Hagan’s fiction, especially ‘Be Near Me’ which seems criminally neglected. His work is always thoughtful, intelligent and heartfelt and I look forward to his next novel in much the same way as I look forward to a bright summer’s day. Much of his non-fiction can be read in ‘The London Review of Books’ , which originally published these pieces.

Next up is a slender volume, ‘Middlefield: a postwar council estate in time’ by Ian Waites. This is a beautiful collection of photographs and text around the council estate which the 20170722_141403_resizedauthor lived on as a child. Nowadays we are used to being told stories of these places as dark places of despair, drugs and desperation but Waite, like many others, looks back to a different time, a time of optimism, a time when governments and authorities cared about their people and wanted the very best for them. It may be nostalgia; it may be naivety but, as Grenfell Tower has so horribly reminded us, we can no longer allow hard-faced monetarism and greed make the decisions on how and where those in need live. I promise that if all you know about council estates is what you read in the tabloids, buy this book and you’ll change your mind.

‘Middlefield’ is published by Uniform Books and can be ordered on their website. As an accompaniment to this book, I would recommend ‘Prospect of Skelmersdale’ by The Magnetic North, an album I am currently obsessed with. Sort of electronic folk music, it is concerned with Skelmersdale, a ‘new town’ in Lancashire which was designated in 1961…

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This week’s book haul

First up this week, ‘RISINGTIDEFALLINGSTAR’ by Philip Hoare: ‘In this watery book, Philip Ho20170715_092307_resized[600]are goes in pursuit of human and animal stories of the sea…Along the way he encounters drowned poets and eccentric artists, modernist writers and era-defining performers, wild utopians and national heroes…Out of the storm clouds of the twenty-first century and out restive time, these stories reach back into the past and forward into the future. This is a shape-shifting world that has never been certain, caught between the natural and the unnatural, where the state between human and animal is blurred. Time, space, gender and species become as fluid as the sea.’  I haven’t read anything from Philip Hoare in a long time, but he produced one of my favourite books, ‘Oscar Wilde’s Last Stand’, which looks in detail at the Maud Allen case of the early twentieth century. An actress of some renown, Maud Allen was to perform Oscar Wilde’s ‘Salome’ in London. Coming not long after Wilde’s prosecution an20170715_105021_resized[604]d imprisonment, this was a controversial decision in itself…and what Allen didn’t count on was the demented intervention of the MP Noel Pemberton Billing. The First World War was in full swing and hatred of Germany and homophobia collided in Pemberton Billing’s mind, conjuring up ‘The Cult of the Clitoris’, a group of 47,000 British people who were, he believed, a danger to the state as their (homo)sexuality made them prone to German blackmail, thus forcing them to spy for the enemy. He accused Allen of being a member of this ‘group’ and she took him to court for libel. It is a great story and a great book.

Next up is an impulse buy, ‘This Young Monster’ by Charlie Fox. Published by Fitzcarraldo Editions in their beautiful but simple house style, ‘This Young Monster’ 20170715_092245_resized[601]promises to be ‘a hallucinatory celebration of artists who raise hell, transform their bodies, anger their elders and show their audience dark, disturbing things. What does it mean to be a freak? Why might we be wise to think of the resent as a time of monstrosity? And how does the concept of the monster irradiate our thinking about queerness, disability, children and adolescents?’ Flicking through the book I see glimpses of  Peter Pan, Twin Peaks, ‘Freaks’, ‘Alice in Wonderland’, Claude Cahun, Leigh Bowery, Divine, Fassbinder, Diane Arbus, Macaulay Culkin, ‘Heathers’…to name but a few. It certainly gets my juices flowing…


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