Friday, 6 May 2016

Homintern: Timeline and Preface

A timeline and an extract from the Preface of my book Homintern, on the UK blog of Yale University Press:

LGBT Staff in Academia

A feature to which I contributed, in the Times Higher Education Supplement, on the experience of LGBT staff in the academic world:

From Gay Conspiracy to Queer Chic

An essay on LGBT culture, commissioned by the Guardian to mark the publication of my Homintern:

Interview with Gay Times

Here is an interview Gay Times did with me to mark the publication of my Homintern:

Ten Landmarks in Gay and Lesbian Literature

A brief list of good gay and lesbian reading I compiled for the Guardian:

Tuesday, 29 March 2016

The Man on the Rock

[This is the introduction I wrote for the 2014 Valancourt Press reissue of Francis King's novel.]

Educated at Shrewsbury School and Balliol College, Oxford, Francis King (1923-2011) began life from a position of privilege, but a spell of agricultural labour as a conscientious objector during the Second World War did differentiate him from young men destined for an easy passage into the Establishment. So did his homosexuality. That said, by developing a career with the British Council, working for them in Italy, Greece, Finland and Japan, he retained access to the upper reaches of British society throughout his life. Although the Establishment has never been too keen on artists, even the fact that he was a novelist did not prevent this. King would eventually become chairman of the Society of Authors, president of International PEN, a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature; and he was awarded the OBE in 1979, the CBE in 1985.

The Man on the Rock (1957) was the seventh of his novels to be published, one of them under a pseudonym. (By then he had also published a collection of poems.) The emotional core of the novel is provided by its central relationship between the American Irvine Stroh and the book’s Greek narrator, Spiro Polymerides. Irvine is a repressed homosexual, and Spiro is a bisexual who is not completely unwilling to take things to the next, physical step. In that sense, theirs is a homosexual relationship, albeit an unconsummated one. It is precisely the fact that they have not slept together that gives their bond both its tension and its weakness. In an early passage, Spiro says: ‘It’s odd that he and I never slept together; everyone in Athens was certain that we were lovers, and since he knew that, obviously the fear of what people would say could not have deterred him.’ Spiro is not averse to the idea of a sexual relationship with the older man; and, indeed, he has had a certain amount of relevant experience: ‘If he had wanted me to sleep with him, I suppose I should have consented: after all, when I was down and out in Salonica, I slept with men far less attractive, to whom I was under far less of an obligation.’ The sense of obligation is the point: he feels Irvine ought to be getting more than his does for his side of the bargain, and this makes him uncomfortable: ‘Yes, I could have slept with Irvine if he had wanted it; I think I should have preferred to do so, for then I should not have felt myself under so much of an obligation to him.’

As is often the case in King’s novels, love is shown as involving a good deal of voluntary self-abasement. This is especially so when an older person of either sex is in love with a younger. King also generally regards love as being a condition conducive to the manipulation of one partner by the other. Money is often involved. The relationships he depicts often end up in a state where each partner feels imprisoned by the other. (Spiro: ‘I feel as if—as if I were suffocating. One seems to be living in a prison all the time.’ Helen: ‘Oh, no. I’m the one that’s in a prison, I’m the prisoner.’) For just a moment’s freedom, a quick breath of air, lies have to be told, recriminations endured. Moments of piecemeal reconciliation are mistaken for the restoration of intimacy. Copious tears are shed, as if required by way of proof. But proof of what? Not love itself so much as what W.B. Yeats once called, disapprovingly, ‘passionate intensity’. Throughout the book, while he narrates it, Spiro is living off his wife who, although heavily pregnant, has to go out to work to keep them both. Yet it is he who feels the more trapped by this arrangement, wasting his days in their shabby home.

The book’s historical context is that of the Cold War and the decolonisation movement. Greece is being closely watched by the Americans in the aftermath of its civil war. And mention is made, from time to time, of the developing crisis of armed struggle against British rule in Cyprus. (Independence would be achieved at last in 1960.) While trying to annoy Irvine, Spiro affects to be concerned that ‘people are being shot and hounded and whipped’, but such concerns about public events are apparently only skin deep.

I have two reservations about The Man on the Rock: its narrative voice and the content of its second chapter. Having worked for the British Council in Salonika and Athens, King had garnered a decent education in Greek history and culture. But he shows no appreciable effort to make the narrator, Spiro, sound convincingly like an uneducated Greek for whom English is a second language. Neither the diction nor the syntax offers any concession to the creation of this character, who merely sounds like an Englishman of the author’s own background. This is very lazy writing. I do not mean to suggest that the whole book should have been written in broken English, but neither should his English be so full of the idioms of the English Establishment; or not without some explanation for Spiro’s facility with his borrowed tongue.

Also, Spiro looks at his own country as if he had recently arrived there from from Kensington, and at his own countrymen as if he had never been one of them. For instance, speaking of his own brother, he says: ‘Stelio threw himself down on to the bed which we had shared for as long as I could remember, and lay there, silent, in the thick woollen vest and underpants which Greek peasants wear even in summer’. And when the peasant boy Dino excitedly puts on a nylon shirt, Spiro says:

There was something at once ridiculous and touching in the contrast between the heavy, sun-burned, muscular, peasant body and the vulgar powder-blue cocoon which appeared to have been spun in sugar around it: something ridiculous and touching too in the Greek’s childish preening, as he gazed either down at himself or at his extended arm with a smile of idiotic beatitude on his features.

This problem arises almost every time Spiro uses the words ‘Greek’ or ‘Greece’.
My second main reservation about the book concerns its second chapter, which opens with a sequence of atrocities about which it is hard to care, even though it happens to the family and home community of the narrator. This deadness of effect is not merely because Spiro himself is numbed by the events but, structurally, because the reader has not yet heard enough about him to care much about what happens to him, let alone to family members to whom we are introduced even in the very moments of their deaths. This chapter would have served the book better if it had been moved further into it, perhaps as a flashback to explain and add nuance to Spiro’s character. By that point, at which the reader would be familiar with him, it would be easier to sympathise with what once happened to him and his family. As the book continues, there is little sign that Spiro’s wartime experience has a significant bearing on what he does after it. These are not insuperable obstacles to the reader’s enjoyment, however.

The narrative is rounded off with a moral crackdown. The Cold War era saw many clean-ups carried out by the Americans or, on their behalf, by their allies, on the pretext that the Soviets were systematically undermining the West with acts of moral subversion, intentionally leading to the blackmailing of insiders into handing over crucial information. Surveillance was carried out by both sides for the slightest sign of an opportunity of this kind. Homosexual men were thought to be especially liable to entrapment, and were therefore especially likely to be spied on by their own governments. Every now and then, arrests would be made—for sexual transgressions far more often than for espionage, which actually had its main roots elsewhere.

Speaking of his friend Jock’s mother Helen, with whom he starts an affair, Spiro says:

I was astonished that a woman who knew so much about everybody did not know that I stayed in Irvine’s flat. Or was she being disingenuous? Weeks later I asked her, and she replied: ‘Oh, I’d heard gossip about that, of course. But I never believed it. It never struck me that Irvine would do anything so foolish. Especially since these purges have started.’ It was typical that Helen should have heard about the purges long before Irvine or I or any of our American acquaintances.

By the end of the book, such a crackdown has indeed been carried out by the Americans:

there had followed a general ‘clean-up’: a marine was sent off to Naples for ‘psychological treatment’; an army major disappeared, almost overnight; two or three Greek clerks were suddenly without their jobs at the Embassy...

But moral panics tend to work on great cities only cosmetically. The Americans may have cleaned up their act to some extent, or at least to the extent of satisfying their masters back in Washington D.C., but Athens is still Athens. It still plays host to what Spiro calls ‘that strange life—predatory, furtive, feverish—which quickens in all parks at twilight’.

Francis King once acknowledged his ‘profound, if resigned, pessimism about the world’. It is this outlook that he applies, so unsparingly, to the relationships he portrays in The Man on the Rock. The single-mindedness of the approach is impressive. By absenting himself from the country of his own upbringing—the Britain in which novelists were expected always yo concern themselves principally with matters of class—and by writing about other people, from a range of cultures, in another land, he felt able to address one of his pet topics, the corruption of love, without compunction.

At the heart of the story he tells is the heartlessness of Spiro Polymerides. Once exploited himself, Spiro has become an exploiter in his turn, meanwhile forgetting that there might have been better ways of behaving. If he survived a tragedy as a child, the nature of that survival must be called into question. His lack of emotional intelligence turns out to be the scab over a wound, after all. King is not in the business of making excuses for his more unpleasant characters, but he does give us the material with which to diagnose their moral weakness. And King’s sceptical view of love’s possibilities has the incidental effect of highlighting the futility of political interference in personal morality. The authorities—any authorities—can purge anyone they choose, whether because of the gender of his sexual partners or the kind of dive he frequents; they can impose an approved course of psychiatric rebalancing; they can even (as so often happened in that period) apply electrodes. But in the Francis King universe no amount of conformist interventive treatment can reduce love to a benign condition. Moral or not, it hurts. That is why he takes it so seriously.

To the Dark Tower

[This is my introduction I wrote for the 2014 Valancourt Press reissue of Francis King's novel.]

Re-reading To the Dark Tower in 1975, when Arrow reissued it in paperback (it had first been published in 1946 when he was twenty-three), Francis King was ‘pleasantly surprised’—as well he might be. He recorded this reaction in his 1993 memoir Yesterday Came Suddenly, but he had little else to say about the book. By then he had published a further seventeen or so novels, as well as poetry, short stories, reviews and a lot else; and he had pursued a career that took him around the world. You could forgive his finding a lot more to talk about in a book about himself; but his first novel is more than just an item on a distinguished resume.

Roughly drafted during his first year as an undergraduate at Balliol College, Oxford, To the Dark Tower was mainly written in the evenings, at a small folding table in his bedroom, when, as a pacifist during the late months of the Second World War, he was spending his days doing hard physical work on a smallholding in Essex. By the time he went back to Oxford, after the war, it had been published.
Here and in subsequent novels, one of King’s main topics is the passion that simmers under the surface of English self-restraint during an era of bowler-hatted conformity and creeping suburbia. Late in the book, there is a scene in which the central character Hugh Weir and his friend Croft go for a walk in the New Forest. This great park was once created as hunting land for William the Conqueror but is now crawling with hikers and picnickers and has been subjected to the conventions of the suburban crowd, there for the day in their cheap automobiles:

Not too far: that was the great thing. Keep to the paths and picnic where others had left their picnic paper. And in case the solitude and the silence should suddenly become intolerable and one had to escape, two or three hundred yards away were parked the Morrises and the Austins and the Hillmans.

This may look like the beginnings of a complaint about the rising lower classes, perhaps similar in tone to the closing pages of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited (1945). But class was not a topic that particularly interested King. Indeed, as his career developed, he often gave his fiction overseas settings in order to escape the unspoken imperative of his era, that an English writer must concern himself primarily with questions of class. His international career for the British Council (Italy, Greece, Finland, Japan) provided some of the rich settings for these escapes from the British prison of class.

The New Forest picnickers who stay close to their cars and stick to the designated footpaths represent a small-mindedness and cool-heartedness that is to be deplored in English life. There is a dash of Lawrence in King’s work, perhaps more than a dash of Forster. He takes from the former the impulse to overcome inhibition, and from the latter the need for human connectedness. General Sir Hugh Weir’s masculine inhibitions have made him self-consciously rigid in both body and emotion—he does read books, but his assessments of what he reads are not made according to aesthetic criteria: ‘I have begun to re-read A Farewell to Arms. That is a virile book’—and yet he is a restless spirit, amenable to romantic inspiration. For such a more open-minded spirit, a dream may even take shape to the extent of becoming a plan: a sexual encounter, say, or a trip up the Amazon. But he needs help to make the leap, and he is inclined to resist, or unable to recognise, the helping hand. One such, at first, is Croft; another, Shirley Forsdike, who mistakenly thinks that René Descartes said ‘I feel, therefore I am’.

The suppression of emotional intensity is an obvious topic for a gay writer from the immediate post-war period, regardless of whether he makes gayness explicit as his central topic. (I think of Somerset Maugham and Terence Rattigan.) As the first novel of a gay writer during the period of continued illegality, To the Dark Tower has its points of interest, even if the theme of same-sex love or desire is not yet central, as it would be in some of King’s later books. Hugh Weir’s friend S.N.G., a writer, seems to be a homosexual of the old sort. His poetry is brutal but, from Hugh’s viewpoint, his private life seems to be conducted with discreet but not secret gentility: ‘So cautiously amorous, inviting young writers to meet his mother or giving them dinner at his Club’. In old age he is attended by Simpson, who began his service as gardener’s boy, then became chauffeur, and is now nurse-maid; but he obviously means more to his employer in an unnamed private role.

By contrast, as a heterosexual, Hugh is at least free to be open in his forays into human contact. He has seen the world. Even at seventeen, he went to Paris with S.N.G. and two other friends:

For his school-friends, on that visit to Paris, it had been sufficient to drink absinthe in a Montmartre café where the sexes danced together—women mooning round in each others’ arms, men swaying together. But to him this had merely seemed trivial: he had outgrown his adolescence.

So he buys off his virginity in the arms of a whore. Not for him the pose of cultured decadence that convinces his friends they are alive to the world. (But the whore still calls him ‘petit garçon’.)
In the carnage he witnesses among the trenches of the First World War, as he writes in his diary, ‘it had seemed to me that here was a brotherhood to be proud of—the brotherhood of Slayer and Slain. Those soldiers were nearer than lovers, their hate was more noble than any love. I saw then the need for suffering and death’. Something of the same thrill arises again, later, when he and S.N.G. travel together to Nazi Berlin and see ‘the virile youth goose-stepping through the streets’. He had thought this spirit had vanished from the civilised world, but here it is again: ‘A virile barbarism, pagan, not effete, strong, ruthlessly strong, ascetic—I had found what I imagined no longer existed’. He finds himself wishing for another war even as he sees ‘S.N.G.’s eyes closing in distaste’, not taken in by the surface glamour of the scene. Nazism is evidently more acceptable to the homosocial sensibility of the soldier than to the homosexual desire of the writer.

Where Hugh is unrestrained is in his advocacy of high standards of masculinity: he causes the death of his own son, Dennis, in a test of the boy’s virility and daring.

But he loved his Father, oh yes, he loved him. And in the innocently erotic dreams of childhood he and Father no longer wrestled, but lay silent and motionless together, all conflict gone; and Dennis’s face rested on his chest; and his arms encircled him in a snare of love.

When Hugh makes friends with the younger man Croft, he sees qualities in him that he would have appreciated in Dennis. And yet these turn out not to be the ones he had demanded of the boy when he was alive. Croft is good at cooking, housework and embroidery. Hugh writes: ‘It is only the bowler-hatted multitudes, afraid of being thought effeminate, who cry out: “That’s not a man’s job”. The true, the virile, man usurps a woman’s household function without shame’. So masculinity can have a third dimension, after all.

S.N.G. sees Hugh as a god who has responsibilities to those who worship him. If nothing else, he must live up to his own life-long refusal to join the cowed conformists. It is, crucially, S.N.G. who pushes him to respond to Shirley’s desperation—a response that proves, in the end, of equal benefit to his own unrecognised needs.

Hugh, or rather the General (as he becomes), has been a ‘hero’ in public life, even if he is not exactly a hero to the novel. His past has been spent ‘leading impossible expeditions, heroically showing young boys how to die’; for which he has been rewarded with mentions and medals. As a young man of action in public, he also achieved a good deal of action in private, sowing his wild oats, before settling down to married life, fatherhood and widower-hood. Yet in later life he finds himself hero-worshipped still, by a much younger woman in whom he has no interest and whom he therefore resists. In the end it is Shirley’s dogged pursuit of Hugh that comes closest to equalling any heroism he exhibited in his early life.

Francis King went on writing fiction to the end of his life, even while juggling the duties and distractions of a major figure in the nation’s literary life. He was drama critic of the Sunday Telegraph, chairman of the Society of Authors, president of International PEN, a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature... In the 1970s, he co-founded with Brigid Brophy and Maureen Duffy the Writers Action Group, which was to campaign for Public Lending Right. He was given the conventional honours of an officially recognised literary figure: the OBE in 1979, CBE in 1985.
His novels often included autobiographical themes or events. In this book, for instance, a preoccupation with the deaths of fathers is taken from the author’s own life: King’s father, who worked in the Indian Intelligence Bureau, died of tuberculosis when the boy was only thirteen. But he was never confessional, always circumspect. Despite the themes I have been outlining, in this early fiction and even towards the end of his career, he always seems to be holding something back. Perhaps that is how he most clearly differs, not only from Lawrence and Forster, but also from nearer contemporaries such as Angus Wilson. Perhaps his gradual entry into the Establishment accounts for this ultimate limitation on his fiction.

Friday, 25 March 2016

Oxford and Westminster

Nigel Nicolson, the son of Harold Nicolson and Vita Sackville-West, went up to Balliol in 1935. In his account of the atmosphere of the place, the undiluted masculinism of college life is shown to have been deliberately encouraged by the dons and willingly entered into by the students: ‘We took our cue from the dons, who discouraged heterosexual love as irrelevant to our purpose in being there, and treated girls as blue-stockings who could not be expected to understand our male society’. Of course, to discourage heterosexuality is not quite the same as to encourage homosexuality; but at Oxford they often seemed part of the same process. Only a few innocents were shocked, for whatever reason, by the long-established celebrations of maleness that university life involved. One was the future prime minister, Edward Heath, a friend of Nicolson’s: ‘Once we went for a walk along the banks of the Cherwell and came to the spot, known as Parson’s Pleasure, where undergraduates had for centuries bathed in the nude. Ted had never heard of it and was shocked. “Why,” he said, “anyone might come along. Girls might come along,” and nothing would reassure him’.1 Heath was a grammar school boy. His reaction to Parson’s Pleasure – by Oxford standards apparently so prim – is to a large extent a matter of background and class. The attempts that Nicolson made to ‘reassure him’ are not specified (Girls don’t come this way? Girls don’t shock? Girls don’t matter?), but what is clear is that the very fact that Heath, whatever his own sexual orientation, introduced ‘girls’ into the equation, is what stigmatises him as an outsider. By Oxford rules – unwritten but cemented by extensive precedent, like the British constitution itself – certain pleasures, whether innocent or not, are inviolate. Their continuance is understood. The presence of shockable girls would say less about the source of the shock than about the facile shockability of girls. The pleasure of the parson, whether derived from merely watching or actually taking part, is paramount.

Another future prime minister, Harold Wilson, seems to have been similarly bypassed by the supposedly prevailing ethos of 1930s Oxford. Wilson was at Jesus College, considerably smaller and poorer than the likes of Christ Church and Balliol. A friend and contemporary later said to Wilson’s biographer: ‘We were very naïve and innocent. … For example, I don’t think I had ever heard of homosexuals when I was an undergraduate, and Harold may not have either. I had no idea that spies were recruited at Oxford’.2 Not that this should come as a surprise: espionage was, after all, a secret service; and homosexuality was still, for the most part, a love that dared not speak its name. Although Wilson would later preside over a mildly reformist Labour government, he absented himself from the vote on the Second Reading of the Sexual Offences Bill (6 February 1966), so as not to have to vote either way on the partial decriminalisation of male homosexual acts. At the time of the 1974 general election, Gay News judged that, of the three leaders of the main political parties – Labour’s Wilson, the Tories’ Edward Heath and the Liberals’ Jeremy Thorpe (of whom, more later) – Wilson was the least sympathetic to the question of gay rights.3

Richard Crossman, who would be Harold Wilson’s Minister for Housing and Local Government, and later his Secretary of State for Health and Social Security, was better informed and better placed, as an undergraduate, not only to notice but also to take up the gay social and sexual opportunities the university offered him. Not only did he enjoy himself homosexually at that age—in his diary entry for 23 May 1929 he described a feverish Easter holiday in Cornwall with a young poet: ‘He kept me in a little white-washed room for a fortnight because his mouth was against mine and we were completely together’—but in later life when prominent in public life he openly acknowledged that aspect of his past. As his biographer puts it, ‘Dick never sought to conceal the fact that in his early years at Oxford he had operated predominantly as a homosexual. Given the circle, dominated by W.H. Auden, which he had chosen to infiltrate, it was hardly likely that it would be otherwise’. At Christ Church he competed with Auden for the affections of the heterosexual Gabriel Carritt.4 Auden did have a sexual relationship with Crossman, but on one occasion at least, Stephen Spender failed to seduce Crossman. Just as Spender was making his move, Crossman uttered the immortal lines: ‘You know, Stephen, since I met you my life’s entirely altered. When I first knew you I used to masturbate and I used to read pornographic books. But now, after being with you, all that’s stopped. I don’t masturbate and I’m absolutely pure!’ This successfully dampened Spender’s ardour.5 However, a further attempt must have been successful: for when Crossman died in February 1975, Spender recorded in his journal memories of ‘a reading party at Crackington Manor when I had a slight “affair” with Dick which was compounded of passion and lust on both sides, and was not in the least serious’.6

1 Nigel Nicolson, Long Life (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1997), p.66.
2 Ben Pimlott, Harold Wilson (London: Harper Collins, 1992), p47.
3 Stephen Jeffrey-Poulter, Peers, Queers and Commons: The Struggle for Gay Law Reform from 1950 to the Present (London: Routledge, 1991), pp 74, 111.
4 Anthony Howard, Crossman: The Pursuit of Power (London: Cape, 1990), p.24.
5 John Sutherland, Stephen Spender: The Authorized Biography (London: Viking, 2004), p.100.
6 Stephen Spender, Journals 1939-1983 (London: Faber, 1992), p.294.

Thursday, 24 March 2016

Homintern: How Gay Culture Liberated the Modern World

Forthcoming from Yale University Press, April (UK) and May (USA) 2016:

Gregory Woods
Homintern: How Gay Culture Liberated the Modern World


The Myth of the Last Taboo

New publication from Trent Editions:

Gregory Woods
The Myth of the Last Taboo: Queer Subcultural Studies

Seismic changes took place in Western societies’ attitudes to homosexuality around the turn of the 20th and 21st centuries. At first, gay communities suffered from rabidly hostile responses to the AIDS epidemic. Those terrible years were followed by piecemeal legal reform and a gradual thaw in the way gayness was represented in popular culture. From the ‘wages of sin’ to the commercialisation of desire, from pretend families to equal marriage, gay people were eventually sucked into the mainstream of contemporary life. But how irreversible are those changes, how secure the future they promise?

Best known for his literary criticism, Gregory Woods now turns his attention to journalism, film, TV, shopping, popular fiction, cartoons, the memoirs of the Beirut hostages, desert island stories, travel brochures, Italian camp, and anything else that takes his fancy. By paying close attention to the detail, he manages to convey the broader picture of a major turning-point in Western attitudes to sexuality. These essays amply demonstrate how gay and lesbian studies, far from addressing only narrow concerns, open up fresh perspectives on some of the more intractable issues of our times.


Those marked (*) are published here for the first time.

1. Mourning becomes a lecture [Grieving as media stereotype and a queer cultural festival.] (*)

2. We’re here, we’re queer, and we’re not going catalogue-shopping [Shopping catalogues and the commercialisation of sexual identity.]

3. Are we not men? [Desert island narratives in fiction and film.]

4. Holidays of a lifestyle [Gay and lesbian holiday brochures.]

5. The end of Arcadia [The beginnings of the AIDS epidemic in the French gay press.]

6. Something for everyone [Lesbian and gay magazine programmes on UK television in the 1980s and 1990s.]

7. An epidemic atmosphere [The AIDS epidemic as atmospheric effect in US crime fiction, 1981-2001.]

8. It’s my nature [Moral re-branding and the de-sexing of gay men in 1990s AIDS films.]

9. Is he musical? [How movies use music to connote a standardised version of the gay man.]

10. In search of Italian camp

11. The Orient in a cell [Male love and homosexual panic in the Beirut hostage memoirs.] (*)

12. The myth of the last taboo [The journalistic cliché as an indicator of liberal optimism and conservative regrouping.] (*)

Available from the Trent Editions online store: