A lively tale of a charming bandit and proto-terrorist prompts Mark Simpson to wonder why we’re still thrilled by ruffians.
(Independent on Sunday, 5/1/2003)
Why, after so many years, are we still so hot for outlaws? As popular culture and news bulletins keep reminding us, Rebels, Robin Hoods, bandits, gangsters, serial killers and terrorists continue to exert a sweaty grip on our imaginations.
Is it because, to strike a Nietzschean pose (riding crop in hand), those who are not sadists are necessarily masochists? Are we all secretly itching to be held up, tied up and blown up? Is civilisation such a non-experience that we need a – preferably young, attractive and well-dressed – feral-eyed brute to slap us out of our dullard drowsiness?
Or is it because, having surrendered our own sadism to civilisation, we need someone who will rob and kill on our behalf? Someone who will, in other words, be “free” for us: an emotional lottery winner justifying our own pitiful, ticket-stamping repression – hence the need to make them very, very famous? Are “sociopath” and “psychopath” just names we like to call those who have more guts for life than us, but not enough education to know what we mean?
Jesse James, “last rebel of the American Civil War” and one of the first rebels of the modern age, didn’t have much of an education, but he certainly had an answer. “We are the boys that are hard to handle,” he declared in one of his many swaggering missives to the press, “and will make it hot for the party that ever tries to take us.”
Or, as Robert Pinkerton, the head of the famous Chicago-based detective agency humiliated by James after trying to “take” him, put it:
“His gang killed two of our detectives and I consider JJ the worst man, without any exception, in America. He is utterly devoid of fear and has no more compunction about cold-blooded murder than he has about eating his breakfast.”
High praise indeed from Mr. Pinkerton, whose men firebombed James’ mother in her home, maiming her and killing his young half-brother, and were to become the hired goons of strike-breaking US businessmen.
The passengers on the St Louis-Little Rock express flagged down and boarded at Gads Hill, Missouri, in January 1874 knew better than to try to take on Jesse, an irresistible mixture of sociopath and southern gent. “We do not want to rob workingmen or ladies,” declared the tall, handsome, finely dressed and feral-eyed outlaw to the stunned passengers on the express, “but the money and valuables of the plug-hat gentlemen are what we seek.”
Stunned not just at being held up at gunpoint, but that the gun in their face should belong to the famous Jesse James. As the celebrity outlaw walked down the passenger car, playfully exchanging hats with members of his captive audience, his elder brother Frank recited his favourite author, William Shakespeare, while their bandit buddies busied themselves unburdening the male passengers of their cash and valuables. When one man introduced himself as a minister, they promptly returned his money and asked him to pray for them, like the good Baptist boys they were. Likewise, after pocketing the conductor’s gold watch they returned it sheepishly when the baggage master protested: “For God’s sake, you won’t take it for it is a present.”
After courteously shaking the hand of the engineer and cheekily advising him always to stop at a red flag, the bandits departed on their horses in a cloud of dust and rebel yells. The crew then discovered the final and possibly most important act of the Jesse James Show: a prepared press release left behind with instructions that it be telegraphed to the St Louis Dispatch, a sympathetic Confederate-Democratic newspaper. “The most daring robbery on record!” it began modestly.
“The south bound train on the Iron Mountain railroad was robbed here this morning by five heavily armed men and robbed of dollars — There is a hell of excitement in this part of the country.”
The figure to be filled in the blank space would amount to $2,000 – not a vast sum of money, even back then, especially when divided five ways. However, as was often the case with Jesse’s performances, the hold-up was a priceless public relations coup.
Jesse and Frank were sons of a pro-slavery Baptist preacher who died in 1850 in the California Gold Rush when Jesse was just three, and a fiercely patriotic and dominating Southern mother, Zerelda, whom everyone seems to describe as “formidable”. Both brothers fought in the Civil War (1861- 1865), Jesse joining up at the stripling age of 16, serving with some of the most brutal and successful Confederate guerrillas, or “bushwhackers”. They conducted a war of annihilation against Unionists in Missouri, casually but systematically murdering their Federalist neighbours and freed or runaway blacks.
Missouri was a border state, and hence nowhere was the American Civil War more “civil” – that is to say, terrible. In the war of secession, civilisation lost to its malcontents and Jesse emerged a leader of these: despite the chivalry – and showbiz – of hold-ups like the one at Gads Hill, Pinkerton’s cold assessment of James was on the money.
As TJ Stiles’s Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War , billed as “the first major study of Jesse James in 40 years”, shows, James was both the product of this cataclysmic struggle and its legacy: after the South surrendered at Appomattox, ex-guerrilla banditry became a symbol of Confederate resistance to Reconstruction and the Radical money-men’s plans for emancipation in the South, as well as a political instrument of the Confederate wing of the Democratic Party. Without popular and political support, James’s criminal career would have been cut short much sooner; in fact he was only brought to account – a fellow bandit assassinated him to collect on the $20,000 reward posted by the railroads – long after his popular support and political usefulness had receded.
Stiles argues James was neither a Robin Hood (he didn’t always rob from the rich and certainly did not give to the poor), nor a Wild West figure (he was politically motivated), but instead a proto-terrorist:
“a transitional figure standing between the past and the industrial, violent, media-savvy future, representing the worst aspects of both”.
While this may be a convincing argument, it perhaps mistakes what a Robin Hood or an outlaw – or, for that matter, a terrorist – is. Mr. Hood was popular not because he actually stole from the rich and gave to the poor: rather, his popularity was expressed and excused in the myth of his stealing from the rich and giving to the poor; that is, the fantasy of him stealing and killing on our behalf.
Sure, Jesse James became a political symbol of resistance to Reconstruction, but more profoundly he also became a symbol, as all outlaws do, of resistance to civilisation and its repressions. The political resonance legitimised the enjoyment of his psychopathic freedom, at least to Confederates. Perhaps this is why his reputation of Southern courtliness was so important: courtesy and wisecracking from a man with a gun in his hand is perhaps the greatest expression of freedom, terror and, to ‘noble’ superiority.
Ironically, Jesse himself was anything but free. It was his ability to recognize and play the role assigned to him by society, history and family which guaranteed his lasting fame. Like other famous Good Bad Boy rebels that were to follow in his footsteps, from Elvis to Eminem, it was his momma he had to thank for that showbiz talent. The strength of Jesse’s narcissistic mother-son bond can be estimated by the fact that the woman he married was his first cousin and named “Zerelda” after his mother. As the Kansas City Times wrote of the original “Zee”:
“She is a woman of great dramatic power. The James family are nothing unless dramatic or tragic.”
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?’.
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.
Mark Simpson totally relates to the author’s 1970s childhood war-fetish, but has to draw the line at Ernest Hemingway.
(Independent on Sunday, 31 March 2002)
Robert Twigger is a man who wins awards. The jacket of Being a Man… In The Lousy Modern World boasts of the Newdigate Prize for poetry, the Somerset Maugham Award and the William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award. Perhaps this because Twigger is very talented, or perhaps it’s just because Twigger is the kind of man who wins awards.
Whatever the answer, despite ringing testimonials on the same jacket from those well-known gatekeepers of masculinity Will Self (‘a tour de force’) and Tony Parsons (‘I urge you to read everything that carries his name’) the one prize which Twigger’s been aiming for all his life – manhood – still eludes him.
Or as Leighton Bailey, Michael Horden’s fabulously starchy boss in the 1956 Rank film The Spanish Gardener says when firing him, ‘It’s as a man you’ve failed’. (As proof, Horden’s son has deserted him for his ‘Spanish’ gardener, Dirk Bogarde – yes Dirk Bogarde. In fake tan.). Of course, nowadays most men are ‘failures’ – but being manly is not now a very smart career move and most men under forty don’t seem to care whether they’ve failed as men or not, just so long as they win in the soft, sybaritic consumerist marketplace.
Mr Twigger however, does. Very much. Which is nice, but the real question is: should we care about Twigger?
Certainly Twigger’s evocatively recounted 1970s lower middle-class childhood is entirely familiar to me and probably millions of others: that odd emphasis on service and sacrifice, stoicism and stiffened upper lips, forever preparing to fight a war that ended thirty years previously. I too was an avid fan of The Colditz Story, The Guns of Navarone, Dambusters, Hotspur, Commando Comics, Victor, Dad’s Army and playing war in abandoned pillboxes. ‘Never mind the seventies,’ Twigger writes, ‘flower power, flared jeans and platform soled shoes; for me and my friends it was all war, war, war.’
Life forever presented itself as a test that might prove you wanting: ‘I never saw a river without imagining someone was drowning in it and waiting to be rescued, a railway track without working out how to save someone who had fallen in front of a moving train…’ Of course, it was a shining, virtuous childhood which laughably failed to prepare Twigger – or me – for the ‘lousy modern world’. Both of us would have been much better off with the platform shoes and flares the street-smart boys on The Estate wore.
If he’d lived in my village, Twigger and I would probably have been blood brothers for a few summers, covering the countryside with slit trenches and promises of eternal comradeship. But I suspect we would have drifted apart eventually, round about the time that I realised he didn’t have much of a sense of humour. Or maybe when he realised that I had a bit of an over developed one.
‘Being a Man’, we’re told, contrasts ‘twenty-four hours of “normality” in Robert Twigger’s suburban existence with half a lifetime of (mis) adventurous living’. In other words, bragging reminisces and whimsy about masculinity woven around a narrative of holding a barbecue and taking his wife to the hospital to have their first child.
Now, I don’t mind a bit of masculine bravado, but the ‘nasty scrapes’ the author has managed to get himself into, how if it hadn’t been for the adrenaline rush he wouldn’t have been able to haul himself back into the boat/onto that mountain ledge/confront that bull in Pamplona (yes, he really did go bullfighting) are, alas, mostly quite tedious. Several times Twigger mentions that his father was down the pub when he was born – but despite the fact that Twigger actually witnesses his son’s birth, with ‘Being a Man’ he somehow manages to be down the pub with the reader of his book, boring them to death with his tales of derring-do.
Twigger’s failure is a failure of self-consciousness, twice over. His masculinity is a failure because he’s always looking for the secret, the code,the instructions (hence a fascination with martial arts); but in a self-reflexive world this is to be forgiven. However his writing here fails because it’s not self-conscious enough; he doesn’t seem to realise how comically self-defeating that literal-mindedness is, or be able to diagnose his own malady, let alone anyone else’s. This is not forgivable, even without the constant invocation of that American granddaddy of twats Hemingway (and the‘lousy’ use of Americanisms throughout the book).
Twigger’s boyish Army obsession continued until he was sixteen; when he realised that the only people who wanted to join the army were either ‘misfits, gay… or teetering on the edge of a nervous breakdown.’ Yes, right, OK, but Robert I still don’t know why didn’t you join….
When Twigger finds himself in Mothercare he finds a part of his brain screaming that ‘BUYING NAPPIES IS STRICTLY FOR FAGS!’, an interesting response but one that is not analysed or even commented on. In a particularly risible passage he discusses at great length the story about Papa Doc’s encounter with F. Scott Fitzgerald in which Scotty complained that his dick was too small: Hemingway asked to see it and authoritatively pronounced it ‘normal sized’.
Twigger then advances an agonisingly torturous and entirely unnecessary argument that Hemingway worried about the size of his penis. Is Twigger the last person on Earth to have ‘twigged’ this? What’s clear is that Twigger has worried about the size of his penis – which is nothing to be ashamed of, especially in a book about masculinity – but he doesn’t tell us about it, instead he literally tries to put it in Papa Doc’s mouth. Not a pretty sight.
Speaking of which, in the gay world, afflicted as it is by far too much self-consciousness, there’s a term called ‘straight acting’. It’s supposed to denote ‘non-effeminate’ but unfortunately, unless the practitioner has a sense of humour, it too often merely denotes ‘a pain’. Alas, it would appear that this condition is not to be sexuality-specific. I have another award for the award-winning Mr Twigger: The Ernest Hemingway Award for Straight Acting Heterosexuality.
As Twigger writes himself: ‘What follows may be bollocks, so be warned.’ A commendable and very necessary warning.
I recently got around to watching the video for ‘Spent the Day In Bed’, Morrissey’s first single from his new Low in High School album.
Since writing Saint Morrissey – which was something akin to an exorcism – I’ve taken a somewhat more leisurely approach to the Stretford Bard’s output. Perhaps I’m slightly disappointed that he didn’t have the decency to finally retire incommunicado to Bognor Regis after it was published over a decade ago.
Instead my 58 year-old subject has, very selfishly, continued to tour furiously, put out new albums, as well as open his big Manc mouth and managing to epater les bourgeoisie fairly regularly, getting his name in the papers. I’m positively dreading all the updating I’d have to do for a new edition. Just when you think you’ve pinned and mounted your butterfly….
To make matters worse, ‘Spent The Day in Bed’ is Morrissey’s strongest, catchiest, most lyrical single for years.
Yes, the themes are very familiar – you might almost say… ‘tired’. The lines ‘Spent the day in bed/As the workers stay enslaved’ could be a three decades on sequel to ‘Still Ill’: ‘And if you must go to work tomorrow/Well if I were you I wouldn’t bother…’. And also ‘Nowhere Fast’ of course, with its lying in bed thinking about life and death and discovering ‘neither one particularly appeal to me’.
‘Spent the Day in Bed’ and the video are full of lazy intimations of mortality and gallows humour – but this time, a third of a century on, and with recent cancer scares, the gallows looms rather larger. Those sheets for which he’s paid and in which he’s laid could also be winding sheets, just as those pillows are ‘like pillars’.
But why not lie in your bed mausoleum taunting death?
‘Oh time do as I wish/Oh time do as I wish’
And avoiding life. Or at least, the impostor version of it we have to submit to:
‘No bus, no boss, no rain, no train./No emasculation, no castration’
In the video, when he gets to ‘no castration’, I think I detect a flicker of a self-mocking grin.
The video is almost as darkly funny as the lyrics. Morrissey in a Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? wheelchair is trundled into what looks like a dimly-lit 1960s Manchester working men’s club by a smirking, fresh-faced Joey Barton (I’d like to think Moz insisted that he get a shave if he wanted to be in his promo).
Barton, a famous Morrissey fan, is a professional ruffian footballer and tattooed boy from Birkenhead – well, Huyton if you want to be pedantic. And who wouldn’t want to be wheeled around by him in their dotage? Especially since Bette Davis is no longer available. (Though a passable stand-in does make an appearance later…)
Moz then performs the entire song seated, head tilted backwards, perhaps to catch the little light there is, perhaps to stretch out his 58-year-old neck, while his band perform on their feet around him – finally falling off his chair and out of shot at the end. A reminder that:
‘Life ends in death/So, there’s nothing wrong with/Being good to yourself/Be good to yourself for once!’
Life ends in death, so pamper yourself. By rehearsing it.
But it is the dreamy ‘Oh time do as I wish’ interlude in the video which is the main reason I’m writing this post. I almost fell off my chair when my old chum the performance artist David Hoyle suddenly appeared onstage at this point doing some sexy dancing with something shimmy. Watched avidly by Morrissey and Joey Barton, the latter hungrily popping peanuts into his mouth.
David, someone I got to know in the early 80s in London when we were both teenage runaways to Sodom-on-Thames, now lives in Manchester but grew up in Blackpool – where as a teenager he performed Shirley Bassey numbers in working men’s clubs, rather like the one in the video.
Hoyle and Morrissey have a lot in common – both northern, scornful, working class poet-prophets of the absurdity of desire, both determined not to keep the customer satisfied, and both keeping on keeping on, though one rather closer to the breadline than the other. It’s about time they got together.
And in fact much of the sentiment of ‘Spent the Day in Bed’ is also present in many of David’s shows (you can see many of them on YouTube) – which are also chock-full of gallows humour.
David likes to remind his audience regularly that they’re all going to die, despite their precious identities, ideologies and Sainsburys loyalty cards. He also likes to urge them to not bother to go to work tomorrow and try a little bit of anarchy instead. No bus, no boss, no train, no rain….
Here’s a review I wrote of one of David’s shows at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern in London in 1998, a frightening two decades ago, when he was still appearing as The Divine David (a persona he was shortly to kill off – before it killed him). All will be explained. Or perhaps not….
THE DIVINE DAVID AT THE ROYAL VAUXHALL TAVERN, LONDON
by Mark Simpson (Independent on Sunday, 1998)
Last year a one-man avant-garde whirlwind arrived on the London alternative cabaret circuit. Looking and sounding like Bette Davis meets Iggy Pop (and drinks him under the table) he proclaimed the death of drag and traditional crowd-pleasing en-ter-tain-ment.
Oh yes, and the redundancy of sexuality and gender as well.
“REMEMBER!” he would howl at the audience, after some crazed portrait-painting or singing Bowie’s Heroes in the style of Tommy Steele, “you may be standing there feeling very proud of yourself for being ‘a man’ or ‘a woman’ , ‘a straight’ or a” – spitting the word out like a piece of four-day old mince he found lodged between his teeth – “‘gay’, but you’ve all got something in common, something much more certain than any of these fragile illusions. YOU’RE ALL GOING TO DIE!!!”
“Now,” he’d add softly, “isn’t that lovely, ladies and gentlemen? Doesn’t that give you a warm feeling inside?”
But The Divine David has decided that this isn’t the kind of thing that the punters want. The embodiment of the avant-garde after the death of the avant-garde, the zombie Spirit of Humanity that used to urge audiences not to go to work tomorrow or pay any bills has gone corporate. A glossy colour leaflet advertises his latest show, Viva 5 Apathy, with pictures of smiling people in suits clutching lap-tops at board-meetings and includes a statement from the President, The Divine DavidTM, about how market research has convinced him that what is needed is a more consumer-led product.
“This time,” he concludes, “it’s corporate!”
Although this sensible mission statement is undermined slightly by a photo on the last page depicting The Divinely Skinny One snapped from behind in a pair of purple briefs, looking over his shoulder, sloppily lip-sticked lips parted coquettishly, mouthing a faux surprised “OH!”.
At the Royal Vauxhall Tavern, now re-named the Royal Vauxhall Conference Centre, Jay Cloth, The Divine David’s delectable-yet-efficient secretary and receptionist, takes your money (£3 waged/£3.50 unwaged), issues you with a name badge and does a spot of niche-market research, showing you some flash cards featuring fire, ambulance, police and mountain rescue and asking: “Have you used any of these services recently?”
The Vauxhall Tavern is a perfect venue for the Divine David’s reinvention of himself. Built in the mid-nineteenth century as a music-hall venue, after the Second World War it became a drag pub. In the seventies disco lights, black paint and a dj booth was added and it became a gay drag pub. Corinthian columns, flaking paint and a century of tobacco smoke, alcohol fumes and rowdy, anarchic performance reaches its apotheosis and nadir in The Divine David.
Except, of course, he’s now gone corporate. “I’ve learnt that people want entertainment”’ he announces when he finally steps out onto the stage, wearing a business-like mauve woollen twin-set with padded shoulders Herman Munster would have envied. “Audiences don’t want anything that will stretch them a bit. There’s going to be none of that avant-garde rubbish tonight. None of you need go home tonight to your rented accommodation feeling stupid.” He then performs a cappella quite the most disturbing version of ‘You Made Me Love You’ – so inane that it takes on meanings you never wanted to think about before: I didn’t wanna do it…
Entertainment over, David conducts a flip-chart seminar on how to “make a go of it” in business. “First,” he says, all schoolmarmish, “you take your self,” and writes ‘SELF’ at the top of the chart. “And then you get rid of that.” He strikes the word through. “And you become a what? Does anybody know?”
“A CUNT!” shouts out a drunken Scottish voice.
“Yes, a cunt that’s right.” He writes ‘CUNT’. “And what do you end up in?”
“A FOOKIN’ NIGHTMARE!”.
“A nightmare, exactly,” agrees David in a businesslike fashion, writing ‘= A NIGHTMARE’. “Does everyone see how that works? That’s lovely.”
The Divine David, corporate or avant-garde, doesn’t have much time for sentimentality. At one point he declares his support for Tracy Edwards: ‘Any woman who kills a man is a friend of mine.’
A little later he ruminates: “When I’m at a garden party or some such social occasion, people often come up to me and say, ‘Oh, David, there’s a gay over here, you must meet him.’ And I say, ‘Oh a gay, I know all about that – that’s about gristle up your shitter – if memory serves me right….’.
Not very fond of ‘men’ or ‘gays’, The Divine David has what some might call a certain distance on his predicament. Others, of course, will accuse him of ‘self-hatred’. But the whole point of The Divine David is drama and conflict, a refusal to become what you are supposed to be, a refusal to relax into identity, into niche markets and corporate/corporal values, into predictability. Or profitability.
So before the second half of his performance, we hear him announce over the p.a.: “Ladies und gentlemen, I’ve a confession to make. I’m terribly sorry, but I’ve gone avant-garde again!”
Out he prances on stage in an alarming vented black body-suit, stretched over his gangly frame and his head, leaving a mad little oval of smeared red lips and melting mascara eyes. To the tune of a disco rhumba he then dances and mimes in a delightfully demented way with a couple of hoops, including an hilarious wheelchair moment straight out of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?.
The Divine David is back – quite the scariest, funniest, smartest, truest, noblest thing you can see for three quid. Invest now.
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.’