Released in 1944 as part of the effort to boost morale, ‘The Happy Breed’ is the epitomy of the heartwarming English film: it tells the story of a typical working class family between the wars, headed by Celia Johnson and Robert Newton. Based on a play by Noel Coward, the chirpy script and sterling performances from the cast come together to produce something quite special…and in one short scene this modest film sums up exactly the English way with passion.
It is a summer’s day and mother joins father in the garden. Vi rushes in with terrible news that their son Reg and his pal Phil have been killed in a car accident. Aunt Sylvia takes Grandma up stairs as Vi steps in to the garden to tell the unsuspecting parents. As the terrible news is given we neither see nor hear it: instead a jaunty melody plays on the radio and the camera pans across the empty room, tea on the table, waiting, waiting…this lasts for a couple of painful minutes until finally the distraught parents reappear, shattered.
It is the space, the time which makes this scene, our expectations stretched, our imaginations filling the gap – in which life is seen to go on, the waiting tea, the crooning radio, until that terrible moment when the ashen faced Celia Johnson reappears, confirming our fears. It is a scene which sums up that ‘English’ notion of overlooking full bodied passions and events for fear of being seen as…what? Weak? Vulgar? Irrational? Yet, as Richard Dyer has it in his book on that other classic of English repression, ‘Brief Encounter’…
‘It is common to characterise this way with emotions as inhibited or even emotionless. The English are cold fish with stiff upper lips. Yet this is to mistake restraint for repression and lack of expression for lack of feeling.’
To my mind, it is the space created by the avoidance of real passion which makes such scenes all the more effective. Like the unnamed, unrealised horrors of the best horror stories, these ‘spaces’ leave much to the viewers imagination and are all the better for it.
‘The Sparsholt Affair’ is the gay ‘This Happy Breed’ and, perhaps, this is why ‘The Sparsholt Affair’ is the first book by Alan Hollinghurst since ‘The Folding Star’ (1994) which I have thoroughly enjoyed. I have usually found Hollingshurst’s work stuffy and slow moving, almost stifling in the way they present their groups of characters stuck away in closeted circles making reader identification difficult. That I didn’t finish his last, ‘The Stranger’s Child’ (2011), seemed to finally draw a line under our relationship.
Gay history (as opposed to LGBT+ history) is naturally in the air, 2017 being the 50th anniversary of the legalisation of male homosexuality in England and Wales, and Hollinghurst’s novel supports this with a panorama of gay life from the 1940s to the current day. But while ‘This Happy Breed’ doesn’t avoid the great events of the time – war, the General Strike – Hollinghurst doesn’t go down this route: this is no history of anger and marching and demonstrating and death, instead this novel presents gay life as it was/is lived, by gay men who simply got in with their lives, regardless of the sometimes harsh reality which encircled them.
In many ways, I suppose, Hollinghurst’s novel is a radical one: it doesn’t present gay history as a series of events, rather it is a panorama of existence: despite the horror stories which fill the pages of most LGBT history books, the fact of the matter is that we also lived through mundane days with mundane jobs and often had mundane queer relationships which carried on, sometimes with various levels of public knowledge, often completely in secret. This fact is what can shock straight society: for many LGBT people only began to appear in the last 20 or so years: this is despite the various ‘out’ LGBT people who have always been with us, either the media or known locally. For some reason, there really does seem to have been a willing amnesia (and not necessary through malice) to pretend these people didn’t exist, in every street, every town, in many offices, shops, factories, public services, hospitals and battalions. Some might say that this very mundanity makes for dull history, but sometimes it is the everyday, tiny, unheralded victories which are often most inspiring.
It can also come as a shock to find that what we, in the 21st century, see as ground breaking, earth shattering events were seen by some at the time as slightly less than newsworthy: The passing of the 1967 Bill may have been an important (if incomplete) step forward with photographer Cecil Beaton calling it ‘a time for celebration’ but with a certain rueful regret that ‘I wish this marvellous step forward could have been taken at an earlier age…to feel that one was not a felon and an outcast could have helped enormously.‘ At the other end of the spectrum gay rights campaigner Allan Horsfall remembers: ‘I don’t remember cracking any bottles of champagne or going on any carnival marches’. Similarly we look to the development of the Gay Liberation Front and Pride marches as further community milestones, but forget the often frosty reaction given to GLF women who visited London’ premier lesbian club ‘Gateways’ or that marches on an early Pride march had bottles hurled at them from less-than-supportive gays in The Black Cap pub in Earl’s Court. Not everyone ‘Acted Up’ in the face of AIDS hysteria or neither did everyone know someone who was inflicted with this disease. For many, a blind eye or simply the will-power to deal with their own personal struggles was enough to cope with.
‘I found I never had any sort of trouble about my relationship with Bob from my family or friends. There again, I think people probably accept situations provided nobody rams it down their throats. So I lived openly with these people, and they were accepted by my parents and I by their parents and so on.. it was so little a problem that we always had a double room when we stayed at my parents. And the same from my civil servant colleagues, for diner parties and so on…’ (‘Stephen’ born 1910, interviewed for ‘Between the Acts: lives of homosexual men 1885 – 1967 – K Porter & J Weeks (EDs))
‘The Sparsholt Affair’ opens in the early years of World War Two, with a small group of undergraduates discussing art and, in particular, the muscular beauty of a fellow student, David Sparsholt. We are in the land of the love that dare not speak it’s name and despite girlfriends, the unspeakable happens and the macho Sparsholt succumbs to the pleasures of the (male) flesh. Written as a piece for the biography society: captures coyness of the time, especially as written by Freddie Green, one of ‘The Club’ a small university society with an interest in literature and who all move into the orbit of David Sparsholt (The Sparsholt of the title).
Flash forward to the 1960s. Sparsholt is now married with a son, Johnny, whose gay crush on the French exchange student, Bastien, dominates his summer holiday with the family, while his father his preoccupied with a family friend, Clifford Haxby…
By the 1970s Johnny is working for an art dealer while he practices his own painting. Gay and open, Johnny crosses paths with the men who knew his father at Oxford and begins to move in their circles, all too aware of the frisson of excitement his surname produces, bringing up once again the (homo) sex scandal to which his father had lent his name (and much else) many years before. The book ends with Johnny a respected artist in his 60s, his long-term lover dead, a teenage daughter and a energised interest in sex.
Perhaps the greatest strength of the novel is its depiction of what Armistead Maupin has recently called the ‘logical family’:
‘We grow up as another species entirely, lone gazelles lost amid the buffalo herd of our closest kin. Sooner or later, though, no matter where in the world we live, we must join the diaspora, venturing beyond our biological family to find our logical one, the one that actually makes sense for us. We have to, if we are to live without squandering our lives.’
As we see, David Sparsholt, like many gay men of his time, lived two lives: that with his wife and family and the other with the men he loved and the men he fucked. Two families: one necessary and one logical. Within the necessary family he finds a place to hide, but it is the logical family which is his greatest gift to his son, Johnny. It is here that he finds his natural home: friends and ex-lovers, lesbians with whom he parents a daughter, their lives and intrigues which come together as the family everyone thinks of as impossible: the family you can actually choose.
There are many great things about this novel: the panoramic sweep of these men’s lives; the effects of an (unseen) history which means that Johnny is free to avoid his father’s mistakes and the wonderful way in which Hollinghurst’s writing is able to pinpoint and capture the subtle changes in gay attitudes and outlook: take the following passages: the first is the seduction of David Sparsholt in the 1940s; the second is Johnny stumbling on queer cruisers and the third is Johnny coming to terms with the changes to gay men’s sex lives
‘It was with an incredulous tension, as if carrying some large delicate object, that Evert, with his eyes fixed on David’s slid back step by step towards the bedroom door. In there too the blackout was up, the dark air, as he pushed the door open, as cold as the pantry. He didn’t; dare disobey by flicking the light switch, or felling for the bedside lamp. He felt he had a look of terrified coquetry as he stood there, and watched David get up, with the sigh of a strong man who’s been called on to help, the nod of almost concealed satisfaction, and come towards him with the whisky bottle in his hand.’
‘They went on, round the corner, and saw a man coming towards them, jeans and denim jacket, bald, muscular, about Johnny’s age, and looking at him sharply for a moment, as if spotting and then doubting something and showing, with a grunt of acknowledgement, he had got it wrong. He walked quickly past them, and after a pace or two Lucy glanced back, frowning still. ‘Daddy, do you know that man?’ she said.
‘What? Good lord no,’ said Johnny, and was suddenly more apprehensive about the other, unseen, stranger….the other man had left along the further path. But the atmosphere of what they had surely been doing quickened Johnny’s pulse and seemed to haunt the deepening shadows under the trees. He found he wanted to see what the other man was like, and looked out for him while talking emptily about something else. He might still be lurking somewhere – it was almost a relief to hear the hand-bell ringing, from the gate by the car park.’
‘Who is he?’ He saw a naked young man wanking and staring at the camera while sliding a translucent blue dildo in and out of his arse. ‘Good grief…!’ It wasn’t remotely the sort of thing he was used to looking at, and he was giddy for a moment at the sequence of casual revelations, that people did this, and that they filmed it and that others watched it. It was like a first teenage glimpse of a hard-core mag, but in its matter-of-fact way not like pornography at all.’
But there is still the problem that, if you were to read this in the future you would get little or no notion of the issues/ problems faced by gay men and the fights which resulted in the changes to gay men’s lives: Of course, this is a novel and polemic is often an uncomfortable fit within the form and, sometimes, it does become tiresome to read of gay men’s lives as one long slog to get us to where we are. Perhaps Hollinghurst should have referred more closely to the perfect balancing act between the fact and fiction as presented in ‘This Happy Breed’, which was, after all, based on a play written by another gay man, Noel Coward? We could also accuse Hollinghurst of taking the easy option: the closed worlds of Oxbridge and Art have always provided havens for LGBT people. If you want a panoramic gay history novel which avoids these pitfalls, the novel ‘Like People in History; by Felice Picano is a great place to start (albeit from a US point of view).
And yet, despite these criticisms, I thoroughly enjoyed ‘The Sparsholt Affair’: from the beautiful writing to the pull of the characters it is a proper page-turner of a novel: something I never expected to find myself saying about anything by Alan Hollinghurst.