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Funny-Peculiar Men: Laurel & Hardy

Tonight the BBC screens Steve Coogan and John Reilly’s well-received 2019 film Stan & Ollie’, about the most famous comedy duo’s disastrous, almost-posthumous 1953 tour of Britain – and also their love for one another. Or at least, our investment in the idea of it. Back in the no-homo early 1990s me and my pal Nick Haeffner wrote a newspaper feature on the ‘queer’ appeal of their on-screen relationship that was cruelly spiked. With Nick’s permission, I expanded it into the version below and included it as a chapter in my 1994 book Male Impersonators .

(Of course, the conclusion is entirely wrong: Rick Mayall and Ade Edmondson weren’t the 90s inheritors of the Laurel and Hardy tradition – it was a cartoon cat and chihuahua….)

—————-

Stan: Well, what’s the matter with her anyway?

Ollie: Oh, I don’t know. She says I think more of you than I do of her.

Stan: Well, you do don’t you? 

Ollie: We won’t go into that! 

Stan: Y’know what the trouble is?

Ollie: What?

Stan: You need a baby in your house.

Ollie: What’s that got to do with it?

Stan: Well, if you had a baby it would keep your wife’s mind occupied; you could go out nights with me and she’d think nothing of it.

Their First Mistake, 1932

SUGGESTING THAT CINEMA’S most cherished comedy duo might be homosexual is not something you are likely to be thanked for. But this is precisely what Vito Russo does in his 1987 book The Celluloid Closet. Boldly claiming Laurel and Hardy for the history of gay cinema, Russo points out that in films like Their First Mistake (1932), the fat man and the thin man exemplified the ‘perfect sissy-buddy relationship, which had a sweet and very real loving dimen­sion’ with ‘unmistakably gay overtones.’

Could ‘buggery-pokery’ really be at the root of Stan and Ollie’s relationship – a relationship which has endured as the most fondly regarded cinema partnership of all time? Could their videos, amongst the all-time best-sellers and considered perfect children’s entertainment, be promoting some kind of queer Eros? Or is this rather the result of over-heated analysis, the product of the perverse imagination of gay critics?

Laurel and Hardy’s classic silent short Liberty seems to con­firm the Russo reading, in the most explicit way. Stan and Ollie play convicts on the run, who, in their haste to change into civvies, manage to put on each other’s trousers, which, given their famously contrasting shapes, proves somewhat impractical. There then follows a sequence of events that will be only too familiar to many gay viewers. Frantically, they try to swap their pants in an alleyway, behind some crates and in the back of a taxi. Each time they are frustrated by being discovered by some horrified passer-by, includ­ing: a housewife, a shopkeeper, a young heterosexual couple and a policeman. Sheepishly they scurry off in search of some other inti­mate place to effect their exchange (a building site, as it happens). 

Even critics unsympathetic to homosexuality have noted the sexual script here: as French film critic Andre S. Labarthe observed: ‘Liberty offers to anyone who can read, the unequivocal sign of unnatural love.’ 

But others have reacted indignantly to the suggestion that there could be anything ‘unnatural’ in the fat man and the thin man’s relationship. ‘There is something rather absurd about dis­cussing this seriously at all,’ harrumphs Charles Barr in his book Laurel and Hardy, responding to Labarthe. What is revealing is not so much Barr’s response as the example that he selects to refute the imputation: ‘Their First Mistake surely gives, to anyone who can read, an explicit rebuttal of Labarthe’.

In Barr’s analysis, the signs of ‘unnatural love’ represent in fact, through infantilization, the very naturalness and purity of Stan and Ollie’s love: ‘since their mental processes, particularly Stan’s, are those of nursery children, one takes it for granted that they should share a bed as in the nursery.’ Their infantilism, in other words, guarantees their ‘pre-sexual’ status.

This response by Barr sounds a bit like a dismissal of filthy foreign slanders, reminiscent of Leslie Fiedler’s remark in Love and Death in the American Novel that, ‘in our native mythology, the tie between male and male is not only considered innocent, it is taken for the very symbol of innocence itself.’

In effect, Barr is defending the myth of America itself, positioning the purity of the Great Ameri­can Childhood between Laurel and Hardy and those who would seek to corrupt their legacy. ‘After Mark Twain,’ writes Fiedler,

‘one of the partners to such a union is typically conceived of as a child, thus inviting the reader to identify with the Great Good Place where the union is consummated with his own childhood …’

Laurel and Hardy’s own ‘innocence’ serves to keep the critical lid on a veritable Pandora’s box of forbid­den desires. We laugh at their ‘queer’ antics to relieve our discom­fort at their associations. But we also enjoy that discomfort. This is why both Barr and Labarthe are correct. Stan and Ollie by their own behaviour reveal that they are not so innocent after all: why else would they display shame when discovered trying to swap their pants?

In Their First Mistake Ollie is sued for divorce by his wife (with Stan named as ‘the other woman’). The action then centres around Ollie’s incompetent attempts to run a house and look after an infant. Eventually he and Stan end up in their bed with the baby. Ollie falls asleep but is awoken by the baby’s cries. Half asleep, eyes closed, Ollie reaches over with the feeding bottle, but it inevitably ends up in Stan’s mouth who is sleeping alongside him, cuddled in his arm. Stan instinctively sucks it dry in his sleep.

The scene’s humour depends precisely upon reading this as both ‘innocent’ and ‘queer’, with the second reading held under the first. In other words, the signified ‘pre-sexual’ status of Stan and Ollie defuses the threat of the bed scene but does not remove the charge – if it did, where would the gag be? The disavowal of Stan and Ollie’s queerness does not erase it, otherwise they would never have cut it as a comedy duo and would have long been forgotten.

Ollie’s oral gratification of Stan is ‘funny’ precisely because to take it any other way would be shocking and indecent. The absurd protects itself against enquiry by salvaging the disturbing reading beneath the innocent one — by humorous ‘contamination’. Thus ‘there is something rather absurd about discussing this seriously at all’. In other words, Barr continues the disavowal through the idea of the ‘joke’.

Of course, Laurel and Hardy are not ‘gay’. But they are clearly not ‘straight’ either. Attempts by gays to claim them as ‘the ultimate gay couple’ almost miss the point. Laurel and Hardy’s dalliance with perverse signifiers – their ‘queerness’ – is actually a measure of their gender nonconformity as much as, if not more than, a sign of sexual deviation. Their refusal/inability to perform heterosexuality and play the role of ‘men’ is what defines them. 

This is the other mean­ing of their infantilization, their escape from the usual masculine standards. Unable to hold down a job for the length of a film, irresponsible, cowardly, living in the shadow of their Amazonian wives and regularly given a good pasting by them, our heroes are wonderfully, thrillingly catastrophic failures as men. Which is of course why we love them — gay or straight.

In her book Gender Trouble, Judith Butler argues that from a queer perspective heterosexuality prescribes ‘normative sexual positions that are intrinsically impossible to embody’. These in turn become ‘an inevitable comedy,’ and heterosexuality becomes a ‘constant parody of itself’. But the popularity of comedy duos like Laurel and Hardy show that this perspective is not exclusive to lesbians and gays. The particularly rigid enforcement of gender roles that ac­companied the arrival of capitalism and the sexual division of labour still rankles in the popular subconscious, and any ‘safe’ revolt against them, especially the transformation of ‘straight’ roles into pantomime, is enthusiastically welcomed.

Laurel and Hardy base their own brand of sex-role panto on the impossibility of the demands of manhood. The joke, so to speak, is on masculinity. This is even suggested in the title of their first headline movie together, Putting Pants on Philip (1927). In it Stan plays a kilt-wearing Scotsman visiting his American uncle Ollie, who is embarrassed by his nephew’s unorthodox leg-wear. Despite Stan’s portrayal as – of all things – a woman chaser (a peculiarly jarring image), most of the jokes revolve around Stan’s ‘skirt’. 

At one point Stan even treats us to a bizarre premonition of Marilyn Monroe’s trademark by standing over a ventilation grille, with predictable results. At this, women in a crowd that has been attracted by Stan’s strange apparel faint and a policeman warns Ollie, ‘This dame ain’t got no lingerie on.’ It is not Stan whom we laugh at, but the social agonies of the respectable gent played by Ollie who desperately tries to get his nephew kitted out in some ‘proper’ masculine attire, to no avail.

In a later silent, You’re Darn Tootin (1928), the trouser motif, or rather the lack of them, is taken to glorious extremes. It climaxes with the duo’s infectious mayhem embroiling a whole street full of men in one of their tiffs (brought about by their failure, once again, to success­fully perform a job). Soon trousers sail through the air in a ‘de-bagging’ orgy. No man, however dignified, is safe: workmen, busi­nessmen and even policemen succumb to the irresistible chaos Laurel and Hardy have brought to the masculine world – and quite literally lose their trousers. The gag is simple but universal in its effective­ness, relying on one basic assumption: men and the way they take themselves so seriously are actually the biggest joke going – just pull their pants down and you’ll see why.

Stan and Ollie, meanwhile, waltz away from this scene of masculine devastation sharing a pair of trousers. Unmanly men they may be, but together they have just enough dignity to go round after the ‘real men’ have been stripped of theirs.

‘Pants’ also symbolize the civilization and refinement of the ‘nether regions’; their loss stands for disorder. For the Russian critic and medievalist Bakhtin, laughter brings the mighty low and turns the natural world upside down – returning us to the body. The carnivalesque in our comic duo’s films resides most obviously in Ollie’s belly and bottom: soft, wobbly, outsized and irresistible, they are hardly ever out of frame. Especially that bottom.

The arse is the first line of defence in the paranoid masculine struggle against being ‘unmanned’. It is the inevitable site of floods of jokes designed to allay fears about being penetrated, sexual passivity and ridicule. And in case we should forget Ollie’s laugh­able arse and all that it represents, a stream of missiles launch themselves with unerring accuracy at his flabby flanks: water jets, nails, arrows, pitchforks, shotgun pellets and pins ‘prick’ his bot­tom in a sadistic torture that makes us squirm while we guffaw.

And, true to Bakhtin’s carnivalesque characterization of popular humour, everything these ‘crap’ men touch turns to shit. Objects exist only to be broken; conventions, to be flouted. Now wincing, now cheering, we follow their sniggering trail of destruc­tion to a millionaire’s trashed mansion, to a banquet become a battlefield, or to the remnants of a grand piano – the ultimate symbol of failed bourgeois pretension. 

In the anally-fixated, scato­logical humour of popular comedy, shit, bottoms and mess are gleefully celebrated as an antidote to the repressive strictures of high-minded middle-class respectability: bathos triumphs over pathos; the ridiculous over the sublime. Mess, destruction and disaster, epitomized in the custard pie fight, are fundamental fun. 

If their humour is medieval, then Stan and Ollie’s relation­ship is more modern. Inhabiting a resolutely hostile world where nothing goes right, the inadequate co-dependents that are Stan and Ollie have only each other to count on or blame: ‘That’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into!’ We identify not only with their hopelessness but with their love. We can laugh at their spiteful, shin-kicking, eye-poking squabbles only because we are sure that their love will endure. We know that out of the rubble of a Beverly Hills villa, the heap of torn trousers and the sea of ‘custard’, Stan and Ollie will emerge unscathed and indissoluble; survivors of everything the world can throw at them.

So admirable is their love that very often it is set against conventional male heterosexuality, as both a resistance to it and, for all our silly pair’s ‘crapness’, as a favourable contrast. Pack Up Your Troubles (1932) begins with war being declared and Stan and Laurel unsuccessfully trying to evade conscription by faking inval­idity (again their unmanliness allows them to display traits, in this case cowardice, that other men are forbidden). Once inducted into the army, they continually demonstrate their hilarious inability to perform the martial myth of manhood. In drill they are, needless to say, disastrous. Stan cannot get the hang of left and right and so hooks his arm around Ollie’s. 

True to form they both end up marching in the wrong direction — arm in arm. They are sent to the trenches, where their love continues to defy the expected manly performance: we see them at reveille in the same bed, arms wrapped around one another with their feet pressed against a hot water bottle. A sergeant major barks at them and orders them to capture some Germans. Their bungling ineptitude saves them from certain death and wins the day without the death of a single soldier, American or German.

One American soldier, however, is captured by the Ger­mans. Stan and Ollie resolve to visit his baby girl on their return home. On their visit they discover that she is being ill-treated by her foster parents. We see the girl being deprived of love and affection by uncaring husband and wife, especially the husband who is tyran­nical and sadistic. On this scene of glum misery the door opens and it is good old Stan and Ollie, clearly representing ‘love’. Naturally they rescue the girl from her ogre foster father and set about trying to locate her grandparents (what, I wonder, would be the popular reaction to the kidnap of a little girl from her heterosexual guard­ians by two men who lived together if it occurred off screen?). Tracing her grandparents proves problematic – they only know their surname: Smith. This provides the entree into a series of gags.

The first Mr Smith they locate turns out to be a boxer. When the door opens Ollie cheerily announces, ‘We’ve got your son’s child!’ ‘Blackmail, eh?’ replies the boxer and punches Ollie on the chin with a bone crushing right hook.

In another ‘Smith’ confusion they bring mayhem to a bour­geois wedding ceremony, leading the father of the bride to think that the little girl belongs to the groom. The wedding cancelled, the bride rushes over to Laurel and Hardy and thanks them effusively for saving her from an unwanted marriage. Once again our lovers manage to upset the heterosexual applecart in heroic fashion, offer­ing a moral contrast in their understanding of love to that of the cynical male characters they encounter who are sadistic, violent, selfish and callous. It is instructive of Laurel and Hardy’s relation­ship that a film that begins with a declaration of war and conscrip­tion quickly devotes itself to a sentimental storyline about children.

Alas, the parody of masculinity and the example of another kind of loving that our boys provide us with is dependent, finally, upon the exclusion of women. This is shown in Their First Mistake: the problem Ollie and Stan are debating is how to get the women out of their life. Any femininity entertained by them in the form of their frequent dragging up, for example, is a mere semblance (although it has to be said that Stan is unnervingly convincing in a frock). Real femininity, in the shape of their knuckle-dusting wives, is something to flee from – however, in contrast to the tradition, these fearsomely strong women are also very attractive.

Given this, it is perhaps unsurprising that the popular international Laurel and Hardy fan club is called Sons of the Desert, after the film of the same name where the boys can go to a convention of their men-only Sons of the Desert club in Chicago only by tricking their wives. Of course their wives find out and there is hell to pay.

This exclusion of women is an almost universal tradition in male comedy duos. From the sleeping habits of Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin or Morecambe and Wise to the drag extravaganzas of It Ain’t Half Hot Mum, any transgression of masculine standards is predicated upon the maintenance of a boys-only environment including even the 1990s out-of-the-closet comedy of Terry and Julian. Red Dwarf, a comedy set in space, takes this maxim to the cynical extreme of having the only female character played by a computer – i.e. femininity literally disembodied. (This is why Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders’ all-female comedy can be so refreshing and why their vengeful impersonations of men, complete with ball-scratching and fat arses escaping from jeans, so hilarious.)

However, it is Adrian Edmondson’s and Rik Mayall’s double act that must be the direct inheritor of the Laurel and Hardy tra­dition in Britain; like our defunct duo they are utterly ‘crap’ men and for them everything exists to be destroyed. Of course, their relationship is depressingly up-to-date. They sleep in separate beds and are spectacularly cruel to one another without respite in an almost ritualistic fashion; they are not allowed any of the tender moments that Ollie and Stan enjoyed in between the nose-twisting and foot-stamping. 

Nevertheless Rik and Adrian remain together and their tainted, twisted ‘love’ survives an equally tainted, twisted world. And, as with Laurel and Hardy, the rectum is both an exclamation and a question mark hanging over them – a fact freely acknowledged in the title of their latest incarnation: Bottom.

It is not, as some would have it, an age of innocence that has been lost, but rather an impossible tenderness between men.

In an interview towards the end of his life, Foucault sug­gested that the rise of homosexuality as an identity has coincided with the disappearance of male friendships:

‘the disappearance of friendship as a social relationship and the transformation of homosexuality into a social, political and medical problem are part of the same process’.

Perhaps what we have seen in the period since Laurel and Hardy is an increase of the presence of homosexu­ality as a thing to be disavowed in male-to-male relations, rather than its sudden arrival. If male-to-male ties were once taken to be ‘the symbol of innocence itself’ then perhaps this was only through a suspension of disbelief that is no longer tenable in an era when homosexuality is so much more visible.

In Ollie and Stan’s day the audience’s anxieties/interest in queerness could be titillated and the joke could safely be substituted for its actual expression: their behaviour could be ‘funny’ in a sense that was ‘peculiar’ but disavowed by being funny. But nowadays this mechanism, even with infantilization and the exclusion of women, seems unable to cope with any tenderness between our male comics. Looking back, contemporary audiences can enjoy the antics of the fat man and the thin man because, like Barr, they place them in a pretended pure and innocent past — ‘the Great Good Place’ — that never existed. 

Finally, perhaps Laurel and Hardy are regarded with such fondness today because they represent an impossible contradiction: innocence and queerness. They are men who are in every sense ‘impossible’ – then, and especially now: impossibly ‘funny’ and impossibly touching. Reports that Stan was ‘inconsolable’ after Ollie’s death only heighten our own sense of loss at the passing of their screen affair.

Nick Haeffner’s new solo album A New Life Awaits You is available on Band Camp

Tight Trousers & Slut-Shaming

You may have seen this photo of four young (white) working class lads minding their own business enjoying an evening on the town together, dressed in the way many working class lads dress these days – showing off their ink, their worked-out bodies, and their shaped facial hair. Spornosexuals.

Taken by a stranger a couple of summers ago, it was originally posted by Connor Humpage (on the right) to his Instagram, with the self-mocking caption ‘Tight trousers chose us’. The photo was then hate-memed to death by people who didn’t know anything about them. Except that they could abuse them with impunity.

Initially the remarks and abuse were mostly about their ‘bizarre’ appearance – clearly from extremely-online people who never got out much, even before lockdown. As Connor told The Tab:

The lads were mystified as to why an innocuous picture of them had gone viral in the first place. “I still can’t get my head around why,” says Connor. “It’s just a normal picture with my mates.” Whilst their tight clothes have been mocked, all say they work hard at the gym and just wore normal clothes. “If we were wearing flares or bootcuts we’d get the piss taken out of us,” says Connor.

Well, quite. Every weekend thousands of lads like these decorate city centres across the UK, out for a good time. And perhaps proffering a good time to be had. These particular ornaments were from the Midlands and were on a night out in Birmingham. (The photo seems to be of them outside All Bar One at New Street Station.)

Things took a turn for the even worse when at the height of last year’s BLM demonstrations, their image was appropriated by people making bigoted assumptions about them based entirely on their appearance again – in order to signal moral superiority on social media. Which led to the guys being abused online all over again, one of them even receiving harassing phone calls at work.

One of these memes was tweeted by a (white, gay male) features writer at woke website Vice to his 19.4K followers. It remains up – despite the Tab article last year about the guys’ experience (which includes Connor’s George Floyd/BLM art), and another last month on the BBC website.

One not untypical reply – from an account with a rainbow flag and pronouns in their bio – reads: ‘Every single one of them with their course of antibiotics in their back pocket.’

I’m old enough to remember when gay men were smeared and abused for ‘spreading STDs’. But apparently bigoted slut-shaming of young men you know nothing about is prideful these days, and worthy of 11 likes (including one from the woke gay Vice writer). So long as they’re white, working class and assumed to be heterosexual.

This is just good old-fashioned snobbery – in social justice warrior drag. With a nasty strain of sexual jealousy thrown in. My dear! Have you seen the low-life riff-raff hanging around that awful All Bar One in their vulgar clothes and common, brutish bodies? Ghastly!

The whole demented furore around the photo is essentially a social-media updating of the time the rather plain and dumpy middle-aged middle-class writer Charlton Brooker penned entire column in the Guardian abusing and slut-shaming the underdressed, pumped, young straight(ish) men in Newcastle-based MTV reality show Geordie Shore, as ‘awesomely creepy’, ‘synthetic meat’ and ‘vinyl sex dolls’. But, strangely, had absolutely nothing to say about the equally processed and underdressed women in it.

We’ve also been here before with Vice, before it went woke, back when it was the hipster’s Bible. It was a hilariously sexually confused piece published there some years ago, beating up on ‘sad young douchebags’, which prompted me to rush to their defence: selflessly interposing myself between them and the cruel barbs. It was also when I coined the term ‘spornosexuals’, to emphasise the continuity between metrosexuality and its second-generation, more, ahem, ‘fleshly’ incarnation. As I put it then:

What’s a douchebag? Someone with bigger arms than you, who’s getting more sex than you – and probably earning more than you, despite being considerably less expensively educated than you.

Not to worry – there has however been enormous progress in the years since. Nowadays bitter jealousy is presented as uplifting wokery.

The All Bar One lads got virally memed yet again recently, prompting the current round of media interest. But this time the meme was much more benign, a ‘deep-fake’ TikTok animation of them singing a sea-shanty – which has had 6.9 million views.

Nonetheless, they are once again being ventriloquised – and thoroughly objectified. Albeit in a more sophisticated fashion. The meme is funny because they appear to be convincingly singing the shanty and, like Olde Worlde sailors, they are muscular, have tattoos, ‘silly’ pants and are drinking. But of course, the punchline is that their spornosexuality is a long way from Olde Worlde sailors.

It’s worth noting that sea shanties (a current TikTok craze) are songs from an era when pleasures for the working man were few and far between and ‘grafting’ was hard, and filled almost every daylight hour. This particular shanty, “Soon May the Wellerman Come”, is all about looking forward to that tantalising pleasure:

[c. 1860-70] is a whaling song which has drawn academic praise as “a genuine cultural expression by exploited workers for whom “sugar and tea and rum” provided a much-needed respite from the drudgery and toil of their daily lives.”

Pleasure for the working man, now that ‘the tonguin’ is done’, is much easier to come by today – but clearly not everyone is happy about that.

For their part, the much-maligned lads have good-humouredly welcomed the TikTok meme: Connor thinks it’s ‘hilarious’. And are also relieved that it has prompted a completely different kind of response online to the first two waves of memes – friendly comments instead of hateful. As Connor told BBC’s Newsbeat:

“At first we were blown away by how negative everyone was. We didn’t ask for any of this,” he says.

“I think people forget about the people they’re trolling behind their phones or keyboards. We actually are real people and it does affect you.

“It gets to a stage where you don’t even read the comments anymore. You feel sorry for the people trying to ridicule someone just on how they look.”

Jamie, Connor, Kevin and Alex also ended up on one of the UK’s most popular breakfast TV shows, Good Morning Britain, finally talking in their own voices and own words about their experience. Though very briefly and, understandably, somewhat nervously.

Predictably though, it seems to have been mostly an opportunity for presenters, Piers Morgan and Susanna Reid to reheat the stale ‘bants’ that would have got them totally cancelled if they used them on a woman guest who had been mobbed online for wearing a fashionably short skirt: ‘Couldn’t you find a pair of trousers that fit, was that the issue?’… ‘Couldn’t you find the right size?’…

‘With a bit of hindsight,’ persists Morgan, 55, clearly unable to help himself, ‘would you have worn different trousers?’

Absolutely not,’ replies Jamie. Good for you, fella.

But then, no one – NO ONE – wants to see Morgan’s arse.

Connor Humpage and his insufferably vulgar body

Further reading:

Gore, Myra, Camille & Me

There’s a new edition of Gore Vidal’s best, most prophetic – and by far his funniest – book, Myra Breckinridge

The protagonist of this 1968 satirical novel, in case you should somehow be unaware of this seminal text, is a former mild-mannered man called Myron who has been transformed via the then new-fangled science of sex-reassignment surgery, over-exposure to 1940s Hollywood movies, and the inspiring writings of the campy critic Parker Tyler, into a glamorous, goddess-like dominatrix called Myra – ‘whom’, she declares in the first line of the book, ‘no man will ever possess’.

Oh, and not forgetting the mesmerising effect of a saucy revolving cowgirl-majorette statue above a billboard on Sunset Strip that Myra regularly hails as her alter-ego.

Myra teaches ‘Posture and Empathy’ at the Academy for Aspiring Young Actors and Actresses in LA, but her/Vidal’s agenda is really one of eye-watering revenge on American machismo and conventional sexual mores. No Vaseline.

What better time to republish Myra Breckinridge, when everyone under 30 is attending the Academy for Aspiring Young Actors and Actresses? A world where Rusty Godowsky toys himself on cam for cash. And machismo is now officially ‘toxic’?

The introduction to the new edition has been written by perhaps the only person left with big enough balls to do so: the stand-up academic and essayist Camille Paglia. You can – and really should – read it here.

It’s a wonderful, learned, breathless tribute to the book and its author by someone whom I have always assigned to the same admirably ‘awkward’ category as Mr Vidal. A free-thinking, free-feeling sexual non-conformist, forever bitch-slapping timid orthodoxy into taking a look at itself – while fiercely resisting bland assimilation into an adjective that thinks it’s an identity. 

Unsurprisingly, Paglia has found herself the target of today’s new conventional mores, and the nannyish, intolerant drive to ‘safe space’ students from, well, ideas – particularly her critical views of #MeToo and the current wave of transgender activism. A petition has been set up with the aim of getting her sacked from her job at the University of Arts in Philadelphia, where she has taught humanities and media studies for decades. 

Over a thousand people have actually signed it. What a world.

One can only imagine the furious denunciations, excommunications and ‘de-platformings’ that would have been visited on Vidal himself if he were still around today. Mind you, he was often attacked during his own lifetime for his heresies by gays who felt he just wasn’t gay enough. Which usually meant not being as dull as them.

Paglia’s introduction concludes with this final peroration for the cranky old patrician – which seems also to contain a kind of coming out (and perhaps the most succinct explanation of Paglia’s appeal to many gay men) from the campy, terrifying motormouth professor whom no man will ever possess:

‘Gore Vidal was a tremendous role model for any aspiring independent thinker. He was a bold provocateur, a cosmopolitan bon vivant, and a deeply learned man of letters for whom writing was a higher calling. He scorned every establishment and turned his scathing wit against all dogma and cant. His heretical view that the terms heterosexual and homosexual describe acts and not persons was revolutionary and, to me, profoundly true. In 1991, Vidal told Francesca Stanfill for New York magazine that my first book, Sexual Personae, “sounds like Myra Breckinridge on a roll. I have no higher praise.” It was the greatest compliment of my life.’

In 2009, a few years before his death in 2012, another fan interviewed Vidal. Luckily for him, and perhaps for me too, it was conducted over the telephone, not in trembling person. 

I was of course fixated on Myra B, and included this quote from it in the piece, citing it as an example of how Myra/Vidal anticipated metrosexuality:

‘…young men [today] compensate by playing at being men, wearing cowboy clothes, boots, black leather, attempting through clothes (what an age for the fetishist!) to impersonate the kind of man our society claims to admire but swiftly puts down should he attempt to be anything more than an illusionist, playing a part.’

But Mr Vidal made it very clear he wasn’t interested in talking about Myra Breckinridge. Fortunately though, he was though at least as keen on talking about 1940s ‘High Hollywood’ movies as Myra.

The piece also contains a confession from yours truly, concerning a certain topless cowgirl-majorette photo (below).

Simpson relaxing at home, London, 1989

Originally appeared on Simpson’s Patreon.

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.

Cruising the Streets

Mark Simpson gets mixed messages on the High Street  

(Another ‘lost’ Attitude column – this one from 1999)

It was one of those indecently mild Winter days. The sort that makes everyone feel a little bit naughty. As if you’re bunking off school, or cheating on your partner.

Walking down the High Street enjoying the feeling of my sap beginning to rise prematurely—and probably pointlessly—I notice an eminently humpable fellow in his late twenties bouncing towards me on his box-fresh trainers, sports bag slung over his shoulder. Unusually for me, I didn’t spot his signature on my radar screen before he crested the horizon. He is almost right in front of me before I see him. And then he passes me.

So I do a 180 clock, a discreet beat after he passes, meaning to cop a sly butcher’s at his arse. 

And I catch him doing the same thing. 

Our eyes meet and lock. Fuck!

Now, I am, without a doubt, the world’s worst street-cruiser. Probably precisely because the street is exactly where I wish I could meet chaps. I’ve always found impossibly attractive those you bump into for a second in the social Brownian Motion that is city life before they disappear off to somewhere you fantasise is more interesting than where you are. Many’s the time I’ve lost my heart to someone on the Up escalator as I ride the one going Down. If it’s easy to love what you can’t have, it’s even easier to love something the longer you look at the further it recedes.

And it never gets any closer with me. Friends of mine seem to have no trouble though, and talk constantly of meeting people outside Boots, on trains and in supermarkets. Though, if it’s Tesco Metro I have to tell them that, like Old Compton Street, it doesn’t count.

Joe Orton was so successful at it, if his diaries are to be believed, that he didn’t actually need to do all that hanging around in toilets he was so famous for, the greedy, jammy bastard. Joe just had to take a bus or pop out to the corner shop to buy forty Woodbines and Bob was his Queer Uncle. No wonder poor stay-at-home Kenneth bashed Joe’s brains out after reading his diaries. I would have done exactly the same—after I’d made him tell me how he managed to pull all those punters on Her Majesty’s Highway.

I’ve tried to work out why I’m so crap at street cruising. Is it that I scowl too much? Perhaps, but a few years ago, behind the safety of a double-locked door, anaesthetised with half a bottle of whisky, I experimented with smiling in front of my bathroom mirror and rapidly concluded that if I ever did this in public I’d probably be sectioned. 

And before the letters flood in pointing out that I’m too ugly, let me remind you that one of the first rules of street cruising is that no one is too ugly to score on the street—another reason why I wish I had the knack. Am I not shameless enough? Well, I try my best, but don’t always meet today’s exacting standards. 

But how to be shameless but without being tasteless? I should probably model myself on Quentin Crisp, whose obviousness brought him open contempt, but more trade than he could handle. But then, I don’t think my pale skin tone would be best complimented by hennaed hair. 

It’s quite possible that I do in fact get cruised, but I’m so wrapped up in my own desire that I would fail utterly to notice anyone else’s. I think though, that the real problem is that I want things to be cut and dried in a way that picking people up on the street by definition isn’t. As Joe says to a hesitating Kenneth in the film of Prick Up Your Ears, after a young man in the street glances at him very briefly, “What are you waiting for? A bloody telegram?

Yes, I am. And a detailed CV as well, please.

So, imagine my shock when I get that written application, in my hand, on my own High Street. There I am, looking right into the eyes of a lad who has turned to look back at me just the way I turned back to look at him. Even I have to admit that, on balance, he probably is interested. 

After a second that seems to last longer than my relationships, we look away. At the same instant. Recklessly, I stop and half turn around. He stops and half turns around. I loiter. He loiters. 

What are you waiting for? A voice shouts inside my head. Perhaps the spirit of Joe, raised from his bludgeoned slumber by my slaggy ineptitude.

The lad pretends – not very seriously – to look in a shop window, all the while darting scorching looks at me. But I’m still dithering. I’m still looking for some other explanation for his behaviour than the obvious. That voice in my head again, angry now: 

Do you want a bloody telegram?

Okay, okay. Look, tell you what, I’ll conduct one last test. I’ll cross the road and see if he follows. If he does, then I’ll speak to him. 

I cross. He crosses. He then pretends to look in another shop window, all the time looking at me. 

Get over there and say something you silly slapper before he has to go and draw his pension! 

But I need to rehearse the line in my head first: “‘Scuse mate, do you know where the tube is?” No, that sounds too arch.

Maybe “‘Scuse mate. Do you know the way to the Underground?” But The more I think about my opening gambit the more obvious and obscene it sounds, however I phrase it.

Finally, somehow I find myself in front of him. “‘Scuse me mate,” I begin, but before I can even complete my redundant question he’s cricked his head away from me at an angle of no less than 100 degrees, the tendons on the side of his neck flaring like the gills of a landed trout.

“I’m not interested mate!’ he blurts out of the side of his mouth. ‘‘I’M NOT LOOKING AT YOU!” 

His whole body is rigid and trembling with the effort of not looking at me. He’s terrified, poor lamb.

The street is beginning to spin around my head. I seem to have forgotten what you do after you breathe out. The spirit of Joe has deserted me in disgust. “Oh… right….,” I gasp. “My mistake.” I walk off quickly.

Shit. Shit. Shit. Shit. Shit.

As I walk back up the street, feeling the Winter air again and zipping up my jacket, I curse myself for misreading the signals so badly and terrifying that poor lad. He must have actually been looking in those shop windows next to me, perhaps looking for a gift for his lovely young wife and their beautiful, but perhaps slightly disabled small child that he takes time off work and misses football practise to help care for. 

He probably only looked at me because he was wondering why I was leering at him. God, I’m such a lecherous old perve!

Then I notice out of the corner of my eye that Mr Not Interested Mate has followed me 300 yards up the street, and is peering intently at me again whilst pretending to look in another shop window. 

A funeral directors.