The 'Daddy' of the Metrosexual, the Retrosexual, & spawner of the Spornosexual

Category: books (page 1 of 2)

Welcome to the Hotel Scopophilia

Mark Simpson checks out The Voyeur’s Motel

I recently watched a documentary on Netflix. Which is what I seem to mostly do, TV-wise, these days – being middle-aged and male. This one wasn’t about Hitler, or unsolved grisly murders, or steam trains, however. It was called Voyeur. So, I think you can probably understand what drew my dirty old eye.

Despite the lack of any actual visual filth, it was firmly fascinating. Voyeuristically. I’m not generally into the ‘older male’ – especially now I’m fast becoming one – but I found myself engrossed by the exposed intimate interplay of two elderly gentlemen endowed with unfeasibly large egos. Made in 2017, the doc tells the story of how a 85-year-old journalist and a 79-year-old voyeur sired a New Yorker article and then a book. And even more intriguingly, how they possibly try to fuck each other – in the Mametian sense of the expletive.

Gerald Foos, the voyeur, for three decades owned a 22 room Colorado motel which he bought in the 1960s for the specific purpose of secretly spying on guests in their room, and bathroom, from an ‘observation platform’ he had installed in the loft. Peering through 6 x 14 inch holes cut in the ceilings of his rooms, covered by specially-designed fake ceiling vents.

And when I say ‘spy’, I mean perve. Although Foos saw himself as a researcher into human behaviour, it was nakedness and sexual activity between the guests that mostly interested and aroused him and filled the many journals he kept, and which Gay Talese, the journalist in this coupling, used as the basis of his essay and book. Foos, who frequently refers to himself in his journals in the third person as ‘The Voyeur’, originally approached Talese after reading his 1981 exploration of the free love subculture, Thy Neighbour’s Wife – which Talese assiduously and selflessly prepared for by residing several months at a clothing-optional resort. Writers and voyeurs savour human nakedness like mosquitos.

Foos did also manage to do quite a bit of common-or-garden non-erotic spying – such as the time he waited in the loft to catch a couple’s pet dog crapping on the carpet in their room, and then dumbfounded them during check-out inspection by being able to immediately detect the mutt mishap, despite the fact they had hidden the stain behind a chair. Foos triumphantly withholding their $15 pet deposit he required against… pet deposits.

(Actually, in the re-telling, this anecdote does seem to be mostly about anality.)

The celebrated – as much as any scribbler can hope to be – and devastatingly dapper Gay Talese essentially created the New Journalism with his Esquire profile ‘Frank Sinatra Has a Cold’: an extraordinary literary tour de force of 15,000 glistening words, and only a handful of them surly Sinatra’s. Bearded, burly Foos, until now a much more obscure figure, is rather less dapper and distinguished (in fact Talese insists that he wear a shirt and tie when on camera with him, instead of Foos’ favoured loungewear). Hilariously, Talese’s fastidiousness nearly gave the game away when he joined Foos on his viewing platform one evening to confirm the set-up. Foos had to suddenly yank him away from the vent: his silk tie was dangling into the room, just above the love-making couple he was peering at – fortunately, they were too engrossed in one another to notice the pendulous necktie trying to join in.

Foos was rather glamorous and devastating back in his 1950s US Navy diver days, as an old photo we glimpse of him in his trunks attests: I would certainly have perved. Though perhaps not gone to the trouble of building a viewing platform.

The documentary is not however just about Foos and Talese. It’s a foursome. It’s about the relationship between the two of them and their agendas and also their relationship to the documentary makers, Josh Koury and Myles Kane – and their agenda. Towards the end of the doc, from behind the camera, one of them asks Foos, with Talese sitting next to him, if he has any regrets about the collaboration – having already asked him this question earlier without Talese there. Talese is nobody’s fool and immediately and loudly denounces the directors for trying to trick Foos into contradicting himself and warns him that they’re trying to discredit him. He’s absolutely right, but it’s also perhaps his way of preventing that issue being aired.

Another point of drama is Talese’s incandescent rage on discovering that Foos had misled him: the journals begin a few years before he even owned the motel (something discovered by Washington Post fact-checkers – not by Talese). Talese rages on camera, in the bunker-esque basement of his palatial Manhattan Brownstone, that he is going to cancel the launch and publicly disavow the book, complaining that Foos has trashed his reputation. He later relents and re-avows the book, arguing that some factual inaccuracies don’t detract from its importance. Talese is certainly media-savvy enough to know the value of this kind of outburst on film, but his anger seemed very convincing to me. It was as if he’d suddenly realised that Foos had fucked him. Or been spying on him in his bathroom.

(An excellent write-up of the documentary with some input from the makers can be found here.)

Eager for more, I read the New Yorker article. Then I downloaded the Kindle version of the book. Which I devoured, but it was, in truth, slightly anti-climactic. After all that build-up, all that edging, the book seems a bit thin, considering Foos journals supposedly cover thirty years of nightly viewings. Talese fillets what I imagine are the best bits of Foos’ journals and writes connecting synopses, which attempt to distance himself somewhat from his subject/source. I’m sure that Foos like most fetishists (and narcissists) was extremely repetitive. I certainly I am. And Talese probably had a difficult job working through three decades of ‘observations’. But I can’t help but wonder if a less Talesed version of his journals might not have been more interesting, or at least more useful – as a case study.

Many of Foos’ entries suggest his voyeurism was bound up with a sadistic need to a prove his own superiority and smarts. When he is talking/bragging about the lengths and expense he has gone to design and manufacture ceiling vents that will allow him to observe his guests without himself being observed, and the problems he’s having with the manufacturers, he repeatedly sneers at them for their stupidity in asking entirely sensible questions about the design of his vents:

Nov. 21, 1966 – These idiots working for this sheet metal shop are dumb as radishes. They never think on a level higher than cigarettes or beer. “This vent will never function properly,” they say. If I told them what purpose it was going to serve they probably wouldn’t comprehend.

[Talese, Gay, The Voyeur’s Motel, Atlantic Press; Kindle edition 2017]

The fetishist often entertains a sense of superiority over those that don’t share their fetish (see also homosexuality). Voyeurism is a kind of omniscience, or a hankering after it. And the voyeur of course imagines that he (or she – but usually he) controls what he sees. And in a sense, he does, because in this case, he is unseen – while his subjects are seen by him. They exist for him. For his pleasure, and for his abuse. His curiosity is a desire to see what is supposed to be hidden and in that knowledge there is power.

But woe-betide the guest who has sex with the lights off – or under the sheets. At least one guest who preferred darkness – turning off the lights and the TV – for the performance of his conjugal duties prompted an immediate, creative and somewhat aggressive response from Foos:

‘I won’t stand for this at all. I return to the ground level and get in my car, and then drive it and park it directly in front of the #4 unit, parking it and leaving it there with the bright lights beaming on their window. Returning to the observation platform, he is standing up peeking through the curtains, complaining that “some son-of-a-bitch has left his lights on.”’

Unfortunately for Foos, his valiant efforts to lighten their sexual darkness come to nothing: the couple and the action then retreat to the Christian safety of beneath the bed covers, and he has to satisfy himself with observing the ‘animal-like thrusting under the covers’ that lasts for ‘three minutes’.

‘I finally get to see her body when she uncovers to wipe the semen away on my bedspread. She is very beautifully proportioned, but probably equally stupid and dumb. He comes back from the bathroom and notes that the lights outside are still on. He says, “I wonder what the situation is with this car with the lights on.” Stupid bastard, he’ll never know what my situation is, but I am well informed as to his unfortunate position in life.’

Note the God-like omniscience of the voyeur again: Stupid bastard, he’ll never know what my situation is, but I am well informed as to his unfortunate position in life.

In fairness, Foos is also angry with the ‘stupid bastard’ because of his lack of tenderness towards and communication with his wife (he often takes this gallant position, from his lofty eyrie). But it is mostly about him frustrating Foos’ perving – and anyway, she is dismissed as ‘probably equally stupid and dumb’. Perhaps because she wiped ‘the semen away on my bedspread’.

And then we have Foos’ pronounced tendency to despair of human nature and his general lack of trust in people – based on his ‘research’. That’s to say, he becomes bitter at the human failures and shortcomings of his paying customers, who wipe their KFC-covered hands (and semen spills) on the bed clothes. That he witnesses while spying on them for cheap thrills.

People can’t be trusted, is his sad conclusion about the human race. So true.

He even organises a test, a kind of Satanic temptation which involves a small, padlocked suitcase left in a cupboard in the room. He arranges for his wife to call him when guests check in, pretending to be a guest who has left her suitcase in the room with $1,000 in cash, making sure they overhear him. He then takes his position on the observation platform to witness human weakness in action.

The human race fails this test, dismally. A result which, I suspect, gave Foos a semi. He claims almost everyone forced the lock, and when they discover that instead of money, it’s full of old clothes, they then try to smuggle it out of their rooms to dispose of the evidence. Out of fifteen guests, only one, a middle class woman, returned the suitcase to the office without trying to open it: ‘And so of the fifteen test cases, only the woman was not tempted by greed. The Voyeur rests his case.’

Much as I enjoy the description Foos gives of a light-fingered minister frantically heaving the burglarized (as they say in the US) suitcase out of the bathroom window and throwing it into the hedge – and, in my imagination, sweating coldly for decades after at the thought of it being discovered and connected to him – this ‘test’ seems to me to be another manifestation of sadism, mixed with god-like ambitions. Foos would have made an excellent reality TV producer. (In fact, a 2002 reality TV show called Swag, produced by Madonna’s then-husband Guy Ritchie, seems to have been based on the same premise as Foos’ 1960s test.)

Foos put me oddly in mind of the bored prison guard in Jean Genet’s classic 1950s porn flic Un Chant d’Amour, who peers through spy-holes at various even more bored prisoners masturbating in different fashions. And after all, Foos’ motel, like many motels back then was a place that existed in part because of repression. Many of his guest were de facto criminals, sentenced to the limbo-land of roadside lodgings – and his ‘observations’ – by American mores. Much of what they were getting up to was taboo and illegal in 1960s America: adultery (sex with someone other than your marital partner) fornication (any sex outside marriage) and ‘sodomy’. Defined in Colorado law as oral and anal sex, whether homosexual or heterosexual, and carried a maximum penalty of 15 years, sodomy was only removed from the state’s statute books in 1971. (In 2019, many US states still had adultery and fornication laws on their statute books, though rarely used.)

The set up also put me in mind of Alfred Hitchcock’s Norman Bates, who famously spies on Marion Crane undressing in her room in his famous motel through a peephole in his office, hidden behind a symbolically significant painting. Foos bought his ‘voyeur’ motel a few years after Psycho, a film as much about the audience’s voyeurism as Bates’, was released in 1960 – though without, as far as we know, subsequently slashing anyone in the showers.

He does though claim to have witnessed the strangling of a young woman in one of his rooms. (In the documentary, Talese fails to find any mention of the murder in local police files.) Foos doesn’t appear to have any particular rage or hatred towards women – quite the opposite. He was married (twice), and both his wives seem to have been devoted and completely accepting and in fact supportive of his unusual hobby – that would often, he says, occupy him all night. His second, younger, wife, taken after the untimely death of his first, apparently often joined in with his voyeurism, and is there in the documentary, endlessly tenderly patient, protective, and caring of him in his cantankerous dotage. (Women’s interest in men is an eternal mystery to me – precisely because I appear to share it, but only on the surface. After all, when it comes to men, I’m a voyeur too.)

Most of the couples he spies on seem, by his account, to hate one another, be agonisingly mis-matched, or simply deeply uninterested in one another, and – most pitiful of all for Foos – hopelessly bad in bed. Foos’ misanthropy and pessimism about human relations (other than his own) is magically suspended for lesbian couples. He waxes lyrical about the mutuality and tenderness of sapphic love-making, in comparison to the selfishness of men:

‘Unfortunately, the majority of men I’ve observed are concerned with their own pleasure rather than the women’s. There is far less emotional love than just physical love. Lesbians, on the other hand, are better lovers to each other; they know what their partner wants and most of all there is an emotional closeness that can never be matched by a man. More tenderness, more consideration and understanding of feelings, etc.’

Foos is quite ‘liberated’ for his era. Not just in terms of his attitude towards lesbianism and women in general. He describes the attractiveness of the male partners as well the female ones, if generally in less detail – but he doesn’t pretend to be uninterested in or blind to the appearance of the males. In fact, when a single ‘handsome male’ checks in he makes sure he is assigned to a room with a viewing vent, in the expectation/hope that he will be joined by a girl later. He also records dispassionately instances of male on male activity, including one where a younger male dressed as a sheep and made loud baaa-ing noises while being chased around the room on his hands and knees by a ‘rotund’ older male. Foos, unlike me, refuses to judge:

Conclusion: This condition could perhaps be classified as a perversity, but it should not be condemned because both individuals are willing participants, and therefore the Voyeur will remain nondiscriminatory in its interpretation.

He also exhibits great sympathy for the plight of disabled young Vietnam vets, many of whom stayed at his motel with their wives. This helps turn him resolutely against the war, before mainstream public opinion did.

One particularly exciting tryst for him was witnessing his first threesome, back in 1966 when such things were still adventurous, involving a married couple and an attractive, hung (“at least 8-10 inches” – the lackadaisical two-inch margin of error being conclusive proof that Foos is not gay) younger man in the role of ‘stud’, while the husband directed and took photos.

‘…the husband got real close to the plunging penis and exclaimed, “You have such a nice big cock and I love to see it go in and out.” The husband was now more actively engaged in masturbation and reached orgasm at the same time as his wife and their companion. Then the husband said: “Hold it right there, and don’t withdraw your cock until I get my camera ready.” He took several pictures of the companion’s penis still embedded in his wife’s vagina, with the semen running down.’

As a famous 1960s Kodak commercial put it, record your ‘Warm and fuzzy memories’.

Foos concludes wistfully:

‘…And so I have seen my first episode of “threesome sex,” which enables this husband to fulfil his voyeur’s drive. I could completely envision myself playing the husband’s role, and I would definitely like to explore the possibilities of seeing this transpire in my life. I would really like to participate, and it displeases me that, at present, I must remain an observer. Incidentally, this was the largest penis that I have seen so far.’

Much like ‘hardcore’ porn, voyeurism is related to the visibility of the phallus – both the one spied and the one in the male voyeur’s hand (and the missing one of the mother, according to the Freudian explanation of fetishism). Even if the point of it, from a hetero perspective, is to be seen disappearing in a female orifice. And then reappearing: I love to see it go in and out. Group sex, along with oral sex, interracial sex and sex outside of marriage, was to become much more common as American mores, post-1960s, softened, according to Foos’ later observations. But it’s unclear whether he ever got around to participating. Or, more importantly, whether he ever saw a larger penis.

Foos would also plant sexual paraphernalia in guest’s rooms, one dildo and one pornographic magazine ‘and then wait for an unsuspecting subject, and place her, or him, or a couple in that room, depending on what type of information was desired from the subject.’ He bought 50 of each. No one complained or returned any of the items.

‘Fifty percent of the women utilized the dildo or magazines, the other fifty percent either ignored the devices or discarded them.’

Whether men ever used the Gideon dildos isn’t recorded. It is mentioned however that one of the women who did was a nun.

In keeping with his image of himself as a latter-day Dr Kinsey, as well as The Voyeur, he compiled annual reports. In 1973, for example, he noted that of the 296 sexual acts he witnessed, 195 were heterosexual white people who generally favoured intercourse in the missionary position, and less frequently accompanied it with oral sex and masturbation. The annual total of orgasms was 184 male orgasms and thirty-three female orgasms (though he admits some of these may have been faked).

The remaining seventy-four guests broke down into:

  • Twenty-six sexually active black heterosexual guests, ‘their preferred positions and orgasmic ratio was similar to the whites’.
  • Ten white lesbian guests, all of whom took turns performing cunnilingus.
  • Seven white homosexual males exchanging oral and anal sex
  • There were ten guests who participated in interracial sex and who also engaged in oral and intercourse.
  • Fifteen guests whose sexual behaviour didn’t fit into any of these categories – and included a man who urinated secretly in his female partners bourbon, a cross-dressing single male and the aforementioned sheep-and-shepherd male couple.

Interesting as they are, I’m not entirely sure how much value these reports have. But then again, despite having repeatedly made fun of the notion myself, I don’t think we can completely dismiss the ‘research’ aspect of Foos perving. When it comes to sex, research is never entirely perve-free. Freud saw libido and curiosity as inextricably linked – ‘you show me yours and I’ll show you mine’ and ‘where do babies come from?’ being two sides of the same enquiry.

Although Foos’ repeatedly describes himself as ‘the World’s Greatest Voyeur’ this is clearly not true. The great Alfred Kinsey, or ‘Doctor Sex’ as he was dubbed by the press, would have to take that accolade: with his Sex Research Institute, he succeeded in constructing a gigantic panopticon of sex – or ‘viewing platform’ – in 1940s and 1950s America with him at the centre. Kinsey personally observed hundreds of acts of coitus and masturbation, and his Institute filed and photographed thousands more. Kinsey also famously conducted thousands of intimate interviews with people about their sex lives.

Granted his approach was rather more scientific than Foos’, not to mention consensual. But he wasn’t entirely ‘respectable’ or ‘perve-free’ either, thankfully. The ‘indecency’ of what he was doing was not lost on many at the time. The owner of a hotel where Kinsey was conducting interviews famously lost patience with the long line of young men waiting outside Kinsey’s room and threw him out, shouting:

‘I WILL NOT HAVE YOU UNDRESSING PEOPLE’S MINDS IN MY HOTEL!’

Foos, of course, wouldn’t have seen the lines. He’d have been too busy breathing heavily through his fake ceiling vents.

This post originally appeared on Simpson’s Patreon

Further reading:

The Heart in Exile – The Strange Case of the Peculiarly Prescient Pre-Gay Novel

It’s LGBT History Month. So I thought I would share with you my hitherto hidden love for my favourite ‘gay’ novel. The Heart In Exile, published in the UK in 1953, by Rodney Garland – real name Adam Martin De Hegedus, an Hungarian émigré.

Though as the date and morose title, the use of a nom de plume – and my fondness for it – would suggest, it’s not very gay at all. In fact, it’s thoroughly pre-gay. 

Like the 1961 film Victim, it involves a suicide, but this time of a gentleman barrister, apparently over a bit of rough, rather than the other way around. 

When this book was published, the UK was still on the ration. Margaret Thatcher’s favourite song ‘How Much Is That Doggie In The Window?’ was in the charts. The scuttling of Britain’s post-war imperial pretensions at Suez was three years off, the Wolfenden Report, with its charming ‘Huntleys’ and ‘Palmers’ euphemisms for homosexuals and prostitutes (to save the sensibilities of ‘the ladies in the room’), wasn’t to be commissioned for another four years – and its recommendations wouldn’t be enacted into law for another decade and a half.

The Heart In Exile is not so much a novel as a gumshoe tour of the now vanished twilight demimonde of post-war London homosexual life, or ‘the underground’ as the narrator, Dr Anthony Page, a psychiatrist (yes, it’s perfectly 1950s in every detail), dubs it, only slightly ironically, as he tries to get to the bottom of why his sometime (boy)friend Julian Leclerc, recently engaged to be married, killed himself.

A clandestine world of ‘known’ pubs, full of gentlemen, ‘pansies’, toughs, ‘criminal elements’ and young soldiers, sailors and airmen on leave and looking for a cheap good time.

(I think you are probably beginning to see the appeal.)

Known pubs that would eventually become rather too well ‘known’, thanks to the ‘undisciplined’ ‘screamers’ and other non-respectable types giving the game away, according the eminently respectable narrator. The police would raid, names and addresses would be taken, ‘one or two wanted persons detained’, the  publican ‘warned to be more careful in future’. A warning he would heed, and then the pub would become unknown – and empty – again. The queer pub life-cycle beginning again somewhere else.

‘These meeting places of the underground changed all the time, like the publishing offices of clandestine newspapers, and the changes were usually abrupt. The underground took up a pub, and met there regularly, which mean that a good deal of the undesirable element came too. First of all the “obvious”, young and not-so-young pansies, who either couldn’t conform or didn’t wish to. This may have been due to social background: they had never had any training in discipline and they had little to lose. A few drinks did the trick: they got into high spirits, let their hair down, and screamed – and the underground was given away. Another unpleasant element that was often attracted to a pub of this sort consisted of those who lived on the fringe of the underworld: the near-criminal, the delinquent, the deserter.

As a consequence, the pub in question soon gained an unsavoury reputation. It was raided by the police. Names and addresses were taken, one or two wanted persons were detained and the publican was told to be more careful in future, otherwise his licence would not be renewed. He heeded the warning and, if next day a too-obvious-looking person turned up, he refused – with a heavy heart – to serve him. A few days later the pub was “clean” again, which meant that it was empty: the clientele dwindled to a few locals, postmen, commissionaires, charwomen and some respectable married men from other districts, who didn’t want to visit pubs in their own neighbourhood.

The underground, fairly well used to abrupt changes of their meeting-place, took up another pub after the raid, and the same cycle of events was repeated. It became crowded and famous, then notorious, and did very good trade; then it was raided and became empty again. In and near the centre of London there were comparatively few pubs which had not at one time or another been taken up by the underground.’

The Heart in Exile, (p.57)

Today, London’s established, post-Wolfenden, very gay venues, which once seemed as permanent as The Tower of London and the neon of Piccadilly Circus are also now fading into obscurity – once again thanks to too much information, but this time in the form of apps rather than police raids. The ‘underground’ is now so over ground, so connected and accepted, that it doesn’t seem to need actual, physical meeting places any more. Everyone is too busy cottaging and gossiping online

With the odd effect that the business of pickups is perhaps now more ‘discreet’ than it was in the pre-gay era – while ‘gay sex’ is once again no longer quite so gay as it was in the post-Wolfenden part of the 20th Century, involving as it does increasing numbers of ‘bi-curious’ men who for the most part have no interest in the gay identity, just ‘no-strings discreet fun, yeah?’.

My salty edition of The Heart In Exile, published by Millivres, 1995

The Heart In Exile is also a study in class – because Britain before The Beatles was all about class, and so of course was ‘inversion’ (the narrator’s favoured term). As documented in Matt Houlbrook’s Queer London, gentlemen preferred ‘trade’ – ‘normal’ working class young men who were happy to be bought a few drinks by a classy fella, and maybe get noshed off later.

While this kind of dynamic is often characterised as ‘self-loathing’ these days, it was nevertheless a perfect economy of desire. The object remained exactly that, rather than competition. And like the class system itself, everyone knew their place. But at a price. As one of those gentlemen acknowledges to Dr Page, it was not exactly a recipe for domestic happiness:

‘“You see,’ he said slowly, “the trouble with all people like Julian and you and I is that life is made extra complicated for us. We don’t like people like ourselves. We don’t want anybody who shares our standards, I mean educated, middle class and so on. In fact, we want the very opposite. We want the primitive, the uneducated, the tough. Then we are surprised that satisfaction is so difficult to obtain and that our affairs don’t last because we don’t share the same culture. Things are far easier for people who are attracted to others like themselves. Possibly younger, but from the same background. They are usually happy. There are hundreds of dons, museum officials, clergymen, civil servants like that. They settle down to a happy, married life with younger friends. I suppose they go to drag-parties and dress up like Indian snake-charmers or Carmen Miranda, but they don’t hunt and tour the pubs…”’ (p.67-8)

Although the Carmen Miranda Tendency is mentioned in The Heart in Exile, Dr Page doesn’t actually encounter any members of it. Almost every male in the book is either pursuing trade or… trade.

Page does however talk to an ageing aristocratic queen, Lord Harpley (who seems possibly to have been based partly on Stephen Tennant) who reminisces about his trips to Chatham picking up sailors:

‘”…of course, it was usually the other way around and I got picked up instead, and there was actually an occasion when one of them gave me half a crown. Please don’t laugh,”’….“I say,” he continued in his usual inconsequential way, “do you know any American soldiers stationed in London? I’m told some of them are madly queer. I always like their underwear….”’ (p. 128)

There are lengthy discussions between Page and other middle (and upper) class men about why they pursue ‘toughs’, often exclusively, what the appeal of working men might be, that sometimes seem faintly comic now, and no doubt potentially offensive to some. And yet they contain sociological and psychological truths. One of the reasons I like The Heart in Exile is because it is essentially a shrewd psychoanalysis of the post-war middle classes.

‘”There are various explanations,” I said,’… ‘“It may be that the working class has been or still is more easily available and, in the past at least, was less troublesome if mistakes were made. My private guess on Freudian lines is that they have fewer anal fears than the upper classes, but I think more important is that the worker gives us the impression, sometimes quite wrongly, that he’s more masculine and virile than the man from the middle class. There’s something about manual work that gives him a kind of glamour and sometimes something more real than a glamour. Besides, manual work definitely develops certain muscles. Quite often overdevelops them. You get hypotrophically big hands, fat wrists, a large dorsal, wide shoulders…” (p.96)

Much worse – and probably even more powerful – than the objectification of the working man and his big ‘ands and dorsals, is the romanticisation. And I should know. In an exchange with ‘Ginger’, a married ex-squaddie turned mechanic, Dr Page receives this explanation for why this otherwise ‘normal’ man had an affair with Julian, an officer, when they were serving together:

“It’s like this. I couldn’t put it the way you would. I’m only a working bloke. I left school when I was thirteen like, but what I mean to say is this: if a working man likes someone, he’d do anything for him, wouldn’t he?” (p. 174)

This is Scudder on the ladder again. And who could resist?

The Heart In Exile does however acknowledge that times are changing, that the ‘trade’ economy is receding in post-war London. It posits that because young working class men now have money to spend on pleasures and girlfriends – and also on their clothes, hair and bodies – they are less available. Even as they have become more alluring. As Dr Page puts it, in conversation with Tidpool, an ‘upper class invert’ (and MP):

‘”Generally speaking,… the primitive, undistinctive type quite unashamedly goes in for ornamentation. Look at their haircut, for example. Today it’s pure Regency, but few people in the middle class would go in for it. I’m talking about the young, of course, the spiv and the millions who imitate him. Sometimes the effect is ludicrous, but occasionally a chap is so physically attractive that he gets way with a sky blue jacket with twelve inch shoulders and flowery tie.” (p. 98)

The early 1950s had seen the rise of a working class dandyish youth cult in South London which seems to have copied and adapted and elaborated some of the ‘New Edwardian’ post-war styles aimed at the upper classes by Saville Row. Originally dubbed ‘Cosh Boys’, the term ‘Teddy Boys’ stuck after a headline for a feature the phenomenon for the Daily Express shortened ‘Edwardian’ to ‘Teddy’ in 1953 – the same year this book was published. 

The Heart in Exile is a good example of how homosexuals can be keen observers of masculine trends – perhaps the keenest. (See also Colin MacInnes.)

Little wonder Tidpool moans to Dr Page:

…”It’s an awful thing to confess, but I feel that a certain amount of unemployment would make things easier for us.” For a moment I didn’t know whether he was speaking on behalf of the Federation of British Industries or the underground. But he continued: “I mean, look at the West End today. The war years were exceptional. What a harvest,” he sighed; “but compare the years before the war with the present. You went out on a Saturday and between Leicester Square and Marble Arch you usually found something. Young men from the suburbs, from the provinces. They were yours for the asking. Sometimes it cost money, but not much. Boys accepted us because we were class; and not only that: they liked us because, unlike women, we didn’t cost them money. I suppose we made a fuss of them, which their girls didn’t. Anyhow, today they can afford women, and if they don’t want women they have plenty of money for other amusements…. And what’s more tantalising is that the young worker today is so good looking, so well-built, well-dressed…” (p. 99)

The decline in the availability of young working class men contributes to the emergence of a new type of homosexual, the outlines of which have been traced here by Neil Bartlett as the beginnings of 1970s/80s ‘clone culture’. Essentially, younger ‘inverts’ had begun to turn themselves into the trade they were looking for. 

Page discovers a trend close to my heart:

‘“Do people often try to pick you up?” I said’. ….

‘“Well.” He began to think. “I don’t count the gym, because it’s full of queers.”

“The gym?” I said.

“Yes. Full of them.”

For a moment I felt surprised; then I remembered the occasion when Terry had taken me to a swimming pool. This was, I imagined, a new post-war trend in England. A considerable proportion of young homosexuals regularly went to gymnasia and swimming pools, not only to look at, or try to establish contact with, attractive young men, but also to improve their own physique, and thereby their chances of success.’ (p. 136)

It seems as if the increased spending power of young working class men in the post-war period that made them less susceptible to the charms of gentlemen (and which was to give rise to rock and roll and pop culture) also made it possible for young working class ‘inverts’ to have more options than in the past. 

‘Terry’ is Page’s live-in male housekeeper, a young working class submissive ‘invert’ from the north who has reconciled himself to his sexuality, who dotes on Daddy Page – but Page is unable to return his love, and is anyway currently, and perhaps conveniently for the purposes of a very pre-Wolfenden book on homosexuality in which no actual sex occurs, celibate. Though he is at least able to admire Terry’s back muscles when scrubbing his kitchen floor. Terry goes to the gym, swims and has a familiar wardrobe.

‘Sartorially he was typical of at least one section of his generation all over the Western world. He had one suit, a single-breasted gabardine affair, for uneasy, representative occasions. He was more at home in blue jeans, lumber-jackets, moccasins and loafers, windcheaters, cowboy shirts, in essentially masculine, revolutionary, anti-traditional, almost anti-capitalist garments. All of which, oddly enough, emanate from the most demonstratively and aggressively capitalist state in the world.’ (p. 180)

But Terry and the proto-clone/hipster is not the star of this novel. No, the object of this novel is a proto metrosexual. A young Teddyish tough whose photograph Dr Page finds hidden behind a framed photo of Julian’s fiancé when searching his flat. 

‘In real life his hair might have been reddish and, masking the top of the photograph with my hand, I tried to work out what he must actually have looked like. I was sure now that he was English, more likely from London than the provinces, and I was sure he was “normal”. He wore a dark jacket – obviously “semi-drape” – a spear point collar and a dark tie in a Windsor knot. He was the type some middle-class inverts look at at street corners with nostalgia, a type sometimes dangerous, but always uninhibited. He would spend a good deal of money on clothes as dramatic as his haircut – more than people like Julian or I or anybody in our social group. We would not be allowed to call attention to ourselves in such blatant if successful ways as Ginger. As so often, I began to wonder whether these young metropolitan working-class males effect this remarkable self-dramatisation for their women. Maybe, I thought, but it was doubtful. They wanted to assert their personality and wanted to be admired by both sexes.’ (p. 53-4)

‘They wanted to assert their personality and wanted to be admired by both sexes.’

Now, where have we heard that line before? 

‘Ginger’ is both the star of both The Heart in Exile and of much of my own work. (Though, unaccountably, I didn’t actually read this book until c. 2006.)

Likewise he’s the real mystery of the novel, not Julian’s death. He is an absence for most of the book. Dr Page tours the London ‘underground’ trying to track ‘Ginger’ (as he thinks he’s called) down, ostensibly to try and make sense of the suicide. He shows a succession of middle and upper class men the photograph. Nobody recognises him – but everyone wants to meet him.

Without giving too much away the lad does finally make an appearance – right at the end of the book. He is of course everything the photo promised and more. He is however deeply mourning the loss of Julian – he was in love with him. Naturally, the young tough, bereft of his gentlemen, falls for Dr Page, who admirably, professionally – and entirely unconvincingly – refuses his advances, and recommends that he return to the normal life that he enjoyed before meeting Julian.

For his part, Dr Page resolves to be nicer to Terry and even take him on holiday with him. A glimpse of the settled private gay domesticity that Wolfenden was to successfully invoke as an argument for (partial) decriminalisation of male homosexuality – to get it off the streets and out of the pubs, and stop the corruption of ‘otherwise normal’ young men, however much they may have wanted to be corrupted.

At least until smartphones are invented.

De Hegedus himself however had no such moderately happy ever-after. Although The Heart In Exile was a great success, critically and commercially, and did much to advance the cause of the underground, he seems to have died by his own hand in the Bayswater area of London in 1958. Was there a ‘Ginger’ involved?

Alas, we don’t know. His death is clouded in obscurity. There was no Dr Page to solve the mystery.

This post originally appeared on Mark Simpson’s Patreon page.

There is a new (2014) edition of The Heart in Exile by Valancourt Books.

Driven Dotty

The Psychopathology of Everyday Driving

by Mark Simpson

Do you fantasise about roadside executions when someone fails to indicate?

Find yourself talking back sarcastically to motorway dot matrix signs talking down to you in HUGE LETTERS?

Abandon all hope for humanity whenever you visit the Hobbesian horror of your supermarket car park?

Hate cyclists when you’re driving – and motorists when you’re cycling?

Are you surprised and hurt when your wise advice and running commentary on your friend/partner’s driving isn’t gratefully received?

If so, then Mark Simpson’s Driven Dotty, an acerbic, confessional exploration of the psychopathology of everyday brum-bruming, the strange lusts and loathings that possess us when we get behind the wheel, is for you.

Or perhaps for someone you know, but wish you didn’t.

Driven Dotty is a last hurrah for the human-driven motor car. Before such silliness was abolished by automation and algorithms.

Driven Dotty, a collection of my blog-musings on the madness of motoring, is available on PDF for download for free on the link below:

Will Morrissey Have The Last Laugh – Again?

 ‘Has any book in recent memory not actually about wizards provoked so much interest?’

Mark Simpson on the most eagerly-anticipated music biography ever.

C4 News, 14 October, 2013

MORRISSEY HAS ALWAYS enjoyed the last laugh. His entire career has been based on it. Back in the 1980s, when he was in his pomp as the pompadoured front man of The Smiths – and loudly rejecting everything the 1980s stood for – Morrissey was asked if he thought that success was a form of revenge. “Absolutely and entirely a form of revenge,” he agreed. But revenge for what? “Well, for everything, on everybody,” he replied. “So now I can just sit back every night – when Minder is finished – and just chuckle, deafeningly.”

Right now he must be chuckling so deafeningly the neighbours are complaining to the council. Wherever it is he lives these days.

His much anticipated, much delayed, much-discussed eponymously titled autobiography is sweet revenge indeed. Has any book in recent memory not actually about wizards provoked so much interest? Before even its existence was certain? Before anyone seems to have read the thing?

Whatever its contents – and your guess is as good as mine – Autobiography is already stamped with Big Mouth’s trademark scorn. The photo on the book jacket (pictured), offering the world his not insubstantial chin. The apparent absence of review copies, ensuring his critics will have to pay to have their ha’pence worth – and everyone and my mother has an opinion on Morrissey.

But the best and biggest joke of all is that it doesn’t matter what they scribble. Or in a way, what he’s written: Morrissey has succeeded in getting Penguin to put his memoirs out as a Penguin Classic. The Bard of Stretford is somewhere between Montaigne and More. Someone who has always been openly obsessed with turning himself into a “living sign” (and the Amazon blurb mentions the word “icon” twice) – is now officially an instant classic. Penguin say so. So there.

A flabbergasted literary world has rushed to remind Morrissey that he just hasn’t earned it yet, baby. But in actual historical fact he already has.

Before he found something much more rewarding to do, the young, lonely Steven Patrick Morrissey wanted nothing so much as to be a writer. From his box bedroom in his mother’s council house in suburban Manchester this autodidact who left school at sixteen typed out screeds to the NME, and pamphlets about his twin obsessions, glam punk band The New York Dolls and James Dean. His mother was a librarian, and he famously quipped later: “I was born in Manchester Central Library. In the crime section.”

But Johnny Marr came calling and Morrissey became one of the most unlikely, most literary of popsters – using pop music as a giant fax machine to tell the world the story of his life: insisting that his lyrics, which often “borrowed” from the writers he admired, be printed on the record sleeves. I wouldn’t be entirely surprised if – and part of me hopes – his memoir turns out to be just his collected lyrics, with some hand-drawn titivation in the margins.

And what lyrics! Morrissey is unquestionably the greatest lyricist of desire – and thus of frustration – who ever moaned. If a young Oscar Wilde, another one of Morrissey’s idols, had heard The Smiths he wouldn’t have bothered writing plays. He’d have formed a band.

But part of the drama of Autobiography, part of what makes his book such an event that provokes such curiosity from all sides, is that despite turning it into great art, and becoming a global star, the actual details of Morrissey’s private life have remained resolutely private. Which is a shocking, almost indecent achievement in a culture as sure of its entitlement to know everything as ours is today.

Perhaps it’s just sour grapes on the part of a writer who was never a pop star, but having created this mystique, this cherished iconic status through his art and through his quaint obsession with old skool stardom in an age of mere celebrity, can it, I wonder, survive confession? Can prose compare to bloody poetry? Will he kiss and tell? Will he settle scores? And has Penguin dared to edit him?

But most of all, will he finally say “sorry” for stealing away the hearts of a generation?

Isherwood & Bachardy’s Furry Love Letters

Reviewed by Mark Simpson in The Independent (20/9/13)

Contrary to what the pop songs tell you, the language of love is not universal. It really isn’t the same the world over or even on the same street. Everyone’s love affair is utterly unintelligible to everyone else. It’s perhaps the whole point of having one.

Which can make reading other people’s love letters a baffling if not slightly pointless experience. Katherine Bucknell’s The Animals (Chatto & Windus), a collection of letters between the famous British-born novelist Christopher Isherwood and his lover the American portrait artist Don Bachardy, who lived together openly as a gay couple in Hollywood at a time when most were closeted, isn’t pointless. But love does speak in animal tongues. Cloying Beatrix Potter animal tongues.

Bachardy, who was just eighteen when a 48 year old Isherwood met him on a Santa Monica Beach in 1952, is ‘Kitty’, ‘Fluffcat’, ‘The Fur’, ‘Catkin’, ‘Sweetpaws’, ‘Dearest Darling Puss’, ‘Sweetcat’, ‘Snowpuss’, ‘Angel Lovecat’, ‘Velvetpaws’, ‘Sacred Pinkness’, ‘Sweet Longed-For Flufftail’, ‘Pink Paws’, ‘Beloved Fluffpuss’, ‘Whitewhiskers’, and ‘Claws’ (the latter epithet being perhaps the most salient to this reader of Bachardy’s waspish missives).

Isherwood for his part is ‘Horse’, ‘Drub’, ‘Drubbin’, ‘Rubbin’, ‘Dobbin’, ‘Old Pony’, ‘Dear Treasured Love-Dub’, ‘Slickmuzzle’, ‘Naggin’, ‘Drudgin’, ‘Drubchen’, and ‘Dearnag’. If this seems an unfair distribution of gushy epithets this is because it was meant to be. As Bachardy wrote in a letter dated 6 Feb 1961:

‘The horse Kitty loves has always been an old grey mare, so sweet and dear and never one of those greedy and faithless white stallions. And besides grey is more becoming to Kitty’s white fur. Two white animals would never do.’

The language of love may be unique to each couple, but one rule of sexual syntax everyone understands: there’s only room for one prima donna in one relationship.

Like many gay relationships, Bachardy and Isherwood’s was open though, perhaps understandably given the large age difference, more so on Bachardy’s side. ‘Dobbin’ often encourages ‘Kitty’ to enjoy strange saucers of cream, but is always anxious that Kitty return to his ‘basket’ and the primacy of their relationship not be threatened: ‘Dobbin is only happy if Kitty finds consolation – ONLY NOT TOO MUCH!’ Many of the letters resulted from separation caused by Bachardy’s prolonged dalliances with others abroad, such as the London theatre director Anthony Page.

Isherwood – who had a pronounced fear of the dark and hated being alone at night – attempts to explain and justify their campy, furry archetypes in a letter dated March 11, 1963:

‘I often feel that the Animals are far more than just a nursery joke or a cuteness. They exist. They are like Jung’s myths. They express a kind of freedom and truth which we otherwise wouldn’t have.’

The irony for the reader is that this is stated in a letter, written immediately after a face-to-face row, which dispenses with the Kitty-Dobbin shtick and stands out as perhaps the most direct, heartfelt and unmannered letter in the collection – and one that suggests that much of the time, like many couples, they are not so free or true after all. As Isherwood writes:

‘Oh – I am so saddened and depressed when I get a glimpse, as I do so clearly this morning, of the poker game we play so much of the time, watching each other’s faces and listening to each other’s voices for clues. I was so happy the other day when you said that about Dobbin having been a jailer and now being a convict…. Masochism? Oh, Mary – what do I care what it’s called.’

In her excellent introduction Bucknell does a skilful and brave job of trying to interpret the lovers’ talk for the reader. Apparently Bachardy reminded Isherwood of his younger self – and indeed there was a remarkably strong, possibly slightly disturbing physical similarity. The letters end in 1970, and Isherwood died in 1986, survived by Bachardy.

But thanks to The Animals Isherwood’s devotion lives on. As a typical sign-off from Dobbin put it:

‘Love from a devoted old horse who is waiting day and night with his saddle on, ready for his Kitty’s commands.’