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A Sentimental Education (Part 2) - by Neil McKenna

The second part of our guest post from Neil McKenna, in recognition of LGBT (Lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans-gender) History Month, in which he pieces together and finds a pattern in some fragments from his writer’s life...

Posted on 25th February 2013 by Waterstones

Act Two: Scene 1

September 1987: The Tabard Institute, Kennington. It is the first night of the new term for a year-long class in creative writing for lesbians and gay men. The boy (no longer a boy, and now in his late twenties, but still a boy in his own head) is there for one reason and for one reason only: to find a boyfriend. Every magazine article he’s ever read has recommended a night school class as a sure-fire way of meeting a life partner. Creative writing wasn’t his first choice. That was a class in gay literary appreciation in Islington, not far from where he lived . He was gay and he was literary, he reasoned, so the class was perfect. But when he’d turned up on the night to register there was a sign on the door saying ‘Course cancelled due to lack of interest’.

Act Two: Scene 2

October 1987: The offices of The Pink Paper. The boy, now no longer a boy – but still a boy inside ­– has turned up to volunteer for Britain’s new lesbian and gay weekly paper which promises to be something of a departure in lesbian and gay journalism. He’s  been encouraged by the course tutor at the Tabard. It’s week two of the paper and it’s chaos.

Two or three weeks after he starts as a volunteer, Clause 28 is tabled in the House of Commons and all hell breaks loose. War has been declared and for the next five years, the boy is immersed in the world of gay journalism, a heady mixture of politics, writing, demonstrations, direct action, personalities, clubbing, drugs and sex.

Act Two: Scene 3

1989: CamdenTown: the offices of Millivres  on the top floor of a Victorian building. Millivres is the company that publishes  Gay Times and a variety of soft-willied soft porn. HIM Magazine is a strange amalgam of news, features and dreadful soft porn, founded and edited by the redoubtable Brian Derbyshire, a leather queen from Central Lancashire.

Behind his rough exterior, Brian, or ‘Beryl’ as he’s known to everyone, is one of the kindest men around.

‘I hear you’re interested in gay history, Pet,’ he says one day.

The boy says he is.

‘Then why don’t you write a gay history column for HIM?’ Beryl asks.

And that was it. The boy was now officially a gay historian, sanctioned by Beryl, writing a column called ‘All Our Yesterdays’. It’s not brilliant  to start with, it has to be said, but it shows a spark of imagination, and a bit of promise. A lot of hard work lies ahead.

Act Two: Scene 4derek

1989: The boy has rung up Derek Jarman, the gay film director who recently announced at a conference in Westminster that he was HIV-positive, making him into the most visible person with HIV in Britain. The boys wants to ask Derek Jarman about Saint Sebastian, the subject of his film Sebastiane, acted in Latin, and oozingly homoerotic. Derek says that Sebastian wasn’t killed by arrows at all, but was gang-raped to death by Roman centurions. Well, if Derek Jarman says it, it must be true…

Derek Jarman is one of the most intelligent and one of the most interesting men the boy has ever met. He is also one of the most generous and encouraging of men, with a passion for making things happen, for helping people realise their potential.

Act Two: Scene 5

Spring 1999: The London headquarters of Random House, the largest publishing  house in the world. The boy turns up at 6pm at the offices of Mark Booth, the publisher in charge of the Century imprint. He’s asked to meet the boy, which is a miracle as the boy’s agent has been trying to flog his gay biography of Oscar Wilde for nearly three years now and he could paper the wall of his study with the rejection letters which his agent insists on faxing through. But the boy is not optimistic. Century have already turned the book down once.

Everyone has gone home. Mark Booth and the boy chat. He’s asked the boy to meet him, he says, as he had a conversation with Derek Jarman a year or two before his death from Aids, about the need for a gay biography of Oscar Wilde and then this proposal crossed his desk….The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde by Neil McKenna

Mark Booth has asked for the boy to bring any examples of new material and the boy has duly obliged with a particularly graphic account of the sexual preferences of Lord Roseberry. Mark Booth goes a little green around the gills and says he thinks he heard enough. ‘Bugger!’ the boy says to himself. ‘I think I’ve blown it!’

But the next day there is news. Mark Booth has offered a generous advance for The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde. It’s happened. Finally, I am on my way……

Neil McKenna for blog.waterstones.com

Neil McKenna is the author of Fanny and Stella: The Young Men Who Shocked Victorian England which you can buy on Waterstones.com (http://bit.ly/XAEZrY) or at your local Waterstones bookshop (http://bit.ly/85YOJ9).