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The Madonna of Bolton: How I Learned to Love My Hometown

Posted on 11th July 2018 by Martha Greengrass

Growing up gay in 1980's Bolton, Matt Cain took refuge in Madonna songs and the hope that, one day, he'd make his escape. Here, he explains how writing The Madonna of Boltona novel inspired by his experiences, made him fall back in love with the town he came from.

When I tell people about my new novel The Madonna Of Bolton, they often say it sounds like a love letter to Madonna. And they’re right; it tells the story of a working-class boy growing up in the north of England in the 1980s who has a hard time and clings onto the pop icon to guide him through life. But what people who haven’t read the book often don’t understand is that it’s also a love letter to my hometown.

And this is a letter I never thought I’d write. Because I grew up hating Bolton. 

Of course, there are all kinds of reasons people can grow up feeling like they don’t fit into the world around them - or can be desperate to get out of it and escape to another world where they fit in better. And I explore some of these through the supporting characters in the book. But my lead character feels like he doesn’t fit in because he’s gay. And his life is loosely based on my own.

I grew up in the 1980s, at a time when the prejudice directed at gay people - or children who showed signs of being gay - was both savage and relentless. The bullying I experienced in my hometown left me feeling brutalized and hating myself. I also felt totally on my own; no-one I ever came into contact with ever said anything nice about gay people so I didn’t feel there was anyone I could open up to. And this was a time before the internet existed, when there were very few positive representations of gay people and their lives in the mainstream media. As the AIDS crisis raged, we were usually portrayed as dangerous, deviant, disease-carrying sexual predators. Knowing that what the other kids said about me was right and believing I was going to grow up to be one of these was terrifying.

Madonna became my escape. In her music, videos and tours she stood for sexual freedom, self-expression and a vulnerability that she always kept well protected behind a strong front. Perhaps most importantly, she spoke up for gay people when few others dared. Wherever Madonna was geographically, somehow I understood that the world she inhabited was one in which I’d be accepted. And it felt a million miles away from Bolton.

I also knew from interviews that the Madonna I idolized only came into being when she’d left behind a hometown in which, like me, she’d always felt like an outsider. It’s perhaps logical then that I came to understand that I too would have to move away from home to become the person I was always meant to be. 

This feeling was compounded when I started to explore the world outside Bolton. As a teenager I travelled to the nearby city of Manchester, where I was overjoyed to discover a thriving, busy gay scene. I went to university in Cambridge, where I met all kinds of quirky eccentrics who’d also felt like outsiders in their hometowns but now formed a welcoming, supportive community. And eventually I settled in London, where I found my tribe amongst fellow creative people and one of the biggest gay populations in the world. All of these cities feature prominently in the book. 

But for a long time my enjoyment of the cities in my life only made Bolton seem more and more dull and depressing. Whenever I travelled home to visit family, I’d shrink back into myself; as the train pulled into Bolton station it was as if I could feel my spirit being suppressed. In my head I’d hear the lyrics to the song Smalltown Boy by Bronski Beat and I started to take it for granted that leaving behind your hometown to move to a big city was an essential part of the gay experience. 

But then a few things happened to change my feelings towards Bolton.

First of all, several events in my family life set in motion a slow reconciliation with my hometown. These are the kind of dramas that affect every family but, as I’ve explored them through my alter ego in the novel, I won’t spoil things by detailing them here.

Around the same time, I began writing about gay issues for Attitude magazine and the mainstream press. As I met and interviewed several gay men in the public eye, I discovered that the 1980s were of the worst times in recent history to be gay. And this was true wherever you lived in the UK; Bolton was no different from any other town. 

But thirty years later all that was changing. With the legalization of gay marriage in 2014, finally gay people had the same rights as our straight counterparts. We were living in a new era in which gay pop stars sold millions of albums, gay-themed films packed out the multiplexes, and all the major TV soap operas featured gay characters with romantic storylines. Gay people were no longer social pariahs - and this was reflected in the number of Pride events springing up around the country.

In 2015, Bolton held its first ever LGBT Pride. Although I knew this was going to be on a small scale, I went home to make a speech against hate crime on the steps of the town hall. Two years later, I returned to take part in a much bigger event and a parade through the streets, something I’d never have imagined would happen when I was growing up in the 1980s. And yes, when the event was reported on the local newspaper’s website some readers posted comments about ‘freaks’ and perverts’, but I also met lots of LGBT people who’d chosen to live in Bolton and they told me how much the town was changing for the better. 

I gradually came to see that, whether I like it or not, my hometown will always be a part of me. It will always have shaped who I am, even if for a while I formed my identity in reaction against it. So if I wanted to accept and love myself, I had to accept and love Bolton too. 

The story of how I learned to do that is the one I tell in The Madonna Of Bolton. I hope you enjoy it.

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