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A Sentimental Education (Part 1) - by Neil McKenna
In recognition of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) History Month, Neil Mckenna, author of the recently published Fanny and Stella and The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde, pieces together and finds a pattern in some fragments from his writer’s life.
Act One: Scene 1
Norwich. Sometime in the mid-1970s. A Sunday afternoon in late February or early March. The sky is leaden outside and a keen, cold East wind, straight from the Steppes of Russia, chills and blasts and scours everything in its path.
In the small back room of a rather ordinary terrace house in Swansea Road, on one of the city’s few hills, a boy of about fourteen is moping around. He is thin, with dark hair, and large liquid blue eyes. He is pale and pallid and there are sooty shadows under his eyes.
The boy looks bored and unhappy, and indeed he is bored and unhappy. He doesn’t know who he is or what he is or how he fits – or rather, doesn’t fit – into the great scheme of things. For some time, now he’s been looking for answers. The only problem is, he doesn’t know the questions.
The boy is unhappy at his new school. He’s only been there for a few weeks and he hates it. His northern accent sounds strange to the other kids, and now it sounds strange even to him. He is a fish out of water. Lost, bewildered and sad.
The boy turns on the television on. It’s a film. A Victorian costume drama with gaudy colours. He watches desultorily at first and then his interest quickens. The film is about Oscar Wilde, with Peter Finch playing Wilde and John Fraser playing Lord Alfred Douglas.
Carefully, cautiously and going all round the houses, the film charts the passionate love story between Wilde and Bosie as well asthe terrible consequences for Oscar Wilde. The boy is riveted. And when Oscar Wilde delivers his great speech on the Love that Dare Not Speak Its Name there is something like recognition, something like realisation., but more profound. It was a light on the road to Damascus. A revelation.
He had always known that he was different. That he was not the same. That he didn’t quite fit. That he wasn’t quite right. That there was something wrong with him. He had always felt like a cuckoo in the nest, but had never fully understood why.
Once, when he was a very little boy, perhaps six or even five, and living in Manchester, two men had moved into the flats across the road. One of them had a pet monkey. The boy had rung the doorbell one day and asked to see the monkey which was dressed up in blue and gold and had a little hat. The younger man was very kind. But there was something about him that made the boy feel uncomfortable. It was as if this man could read his mind and so he left, feeling confused and unhappy.
But now the scales had fallen from his eyes. The boy knew now that he was what Oscar Wilde was, what Lord Alfred Douglas was, and what the young man with the monkey was. Most importantly he now knew what he was and that his life would never be the same again.
Act One: Scene 2
Two or three years later. A balmy evening in May or June. The scene is set in a large room in the Student’s Union Building at the University of East Anglia. It’s about 7pm and quite a large crowd are gathered.
The boy is sixteen or seventeen now. Still pale, still pallid, still thin with large blue eyes. But he’s happier now. He has a job at Bonds of Norwich in the soft furnishings department and he has a boyfriend. Sort of. His name is Peter and he is very handsome with long blonde hair. And he has a car! He’s studying English at UEA and he has dragged the boy to a GaySoc meeting to hear Angus Wilson speak.
The boy doesn’t know who Angus Wilson is .Apparently he is a writer, but this means nothing to him.
Two hours have flown by and Angus Wilson is still talking in his fluting voice about his long life as a gay man. The boy is enraptured. Here is a man who is unashamed about his sexuality, who talks and writes about gay life and gay history and gay sensibility in a way that no-one has before. It’s another Damascene moment. The next day he goes to the Central Library in Norwich and takes out as many books by Angus Wilson as he can and starts to read.
Act One: Scene 3
Norwich.1980 or thereabouts. The boy meets Alfie, who works in a boutique in Goat Lane in Norwich. Alfie is in his early-to-mid 50s. (though he’ll never admit to exactly how old he is) which is a very good ploy. Alfie has tales to tell. Lots of tales to tell about World War II and the invasion of US servicemen into Norfolk, all of them lonely and all of them desperate for sex. It’s a hidden history of gay Norfolk and the boy is fascinated.
A Saturday night, later that year in ‘The Studio 4’, a public house in Norwich, (so-called because it’s in a side street by Anglia Television and once upon a time it had aspirations to be the place to be for television types). Now it’s Norwich’s one and only gay pub run by a formidable crone called Nellie who mutters ‘Thankyermydarlin’ and only drinks brandies and milk as her bronchitis is so bad.
A flutter of excitement. A flutter of exoticism. There are two youngish men in drag in the pub. Well, half-in and half-out of drag. Sexy and attractive. How they fetched up in Norwich is the mid-to-late 1970s is a mystery wrapped in an enigma. The boy doesn’t very much care. He looks and he listens. This pair of radical drag queens are preaching a new and dangerous gospel of outrage and affront. They are angry, unapologetic, funny, camp and delightful. Many, if not most, of Norwich’s queens and dykes turn away, literally and metaphorically. But the boy listens. It is exciting. It is a possibility.
Act One: Scene 4
1980 or 1981 or thereabouts. On a train. The boy cannot remember the exact date as he is at university now and drinking, smoking and taking whatever drugs come his way. For some reason he is on the train going from Norwich to London. At Ipswich a man gets on and sits down opposite him. It is Angus Wilson. The boy remembers him and stammers out how much he enjoyed that talk he gave at UEA GaySoc. They talk, delightfully, for an hour or so and Angus Wilson tells the boy he should write. The boy is flattered but not convinced.
Act One: Scene 5
UEA: 1984. A queen called Andrew Medhurst who runs the GaySoc has asked the boy the speak about gay history. The boy is not sure what he can say, except that without a proper gay history, without gay historians, gay people will never be able to understand their story and their struggle. It’s the victors who get to write the history and as gay people have always been the victims since time immemorial , their history has always been written by heterosexuals...
Neil McKenna for blog.waterstones.com
Check back tomorrow evening for part 2 of A Sentimental Education by Neil McKenna.