“I have no patience with the modern neurotic girl who jazzes from morning to night, smokes like a chimney, and uses language which would make a Billingsgate fishwoman blush!” (Agatha Christie, The Murder on the Links)

You might be able to tell from my gravatar that my hair was worn in a very short pixie crop. I decided to grow it into a bob, and it’s taking approximately eleventy billion years to get there. The result of this is that despite my love of all things art deco, and indiscriminate detective show watching, I cannot watch Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries due to serious hair envy.

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Image from here

Thank goodness Poirot is bald. And I don’t mind the fact that his moustache is (marginally) better than mine. So for now my experience of a fictionalised 1920s needs to be limited to novels where I can pretend that all the women have crew cuts.

Firstly, The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters. I don’t read many thriller-type novels, and Waters wouldn’t wholly fall into this category, but she can certainly write a page-turner and I find myself reading compulsively to reach the end as soon as possible. Set in 1922, The Paying Guests is set amongst the hardships and fallout of World War I.  Frances Wray and her mother live in the mildly oppressive south London suburbs, grieving the loss of Frances’ brother in the trenches and the subsequent death of her father, which has resulted in the need for them to take in paying guests (Mrs Wray’s suburban sensibilities baulk at the term ‘lodgers’). Frances had been a suffragette and in a loving relationship with another woman before the war, but had given up both to support her mother, and live a kind of half-life:

“She was young, fit, healthy. She had – what did she have? Little pleasures like this. Little successes in the kitchen. The cigarette at the end of the day. Cinema with her mother on a Wednesday. Regular trips into Town. There were spells of restlessness now and again; but any life had those. There were longings, there were desires…”

The paying guests arrive in the form of Mr and Mrs Barber, and Frances is drawn towards the colourful and artistic Lilian:

“And that was all it took. They smiled at each other across the table, and some sort of shift occurred between them. There was a quickening, a livening – Frances could think of nothing to compare it with save some culinary process. It was like the white of an egg growing pearly in hot water, a milk sauce thickening in the pan. It was as subtle yet as tangible as that.”

Frances and Lilian begin an affair, and the brilliance of Waters’ writing means this is set within meticulous – but never overwhelming – period detail, and is simultaneously erotic and yet with a sense of foreboding that draws you onwards:

“Only when Frances’s lips began to travel to her knuckles did she draw one of her hands free – the left hand, the one with the rings on it. She set it down to steady herself against Frances’s embrace and there was the muted tap of her wedding band, a small, chill sound in the darkness.”

I won’t say much more for fear of spoilers, except that The Paying Guests is Waters at the height of her powers, achieving a compulsive plot-driven story that is also humane and moving:

“Making her way back to the yard, looking again at the rosily lighted windows of her own and her neighbours’ houses, she had the stifling sensation that she was putting herself beyond the reach of those warm, ordinary rooms, cutting herself off forever from all that was decent and calm.”

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One of my favourite things from the 1920s

Secondly, Carter Beats the Devil by Glen David Gold. A fictional biography of Charles Carter, golden-age stage magician, Gold’s first novel follows Carter from his childhood discovery of his vocation, through his apprenticeship in seedy sideshows, to his zenith performing the titular spectacle.

“The rarest need in life is the one met suddenly and completely. This is how it was with Charles Carter and the art of magic.”

For much of the novel, Carter is in existential crisis (not as tedious at it sounds) having lost the love of his life. There’s also the small matter of being pursued by the Secret Service who suspect him of having killed President Harding and having an arch nemesis lurking in the background, waiting to strike. The 1920s setting is perfect, perched as it is on the cusp of a new world – technology is growing apace and the old theatre traditions are dying out, while the aftermath of the war adds an extra dimension to the audiences’ need for magic:

“Six nights a week, sometimes twice a night, Carter gave the illusion of cheating death. The great irony, in his eyes, was that he did not wish to cheat it. He spent the occasional hour imagining himself facedown in eternity. Since the war, he had learned how to recognise a whole class of comrades, men who had seen too much: even at parties, they had a certain hollowing around the eyes, as if a glance in the mirror would show them only a fool having a good time. The most telling trait was the attempted smile, a smile aware of being borrowed.”

As with magicians, Gold’s art is visual, he creates such vivid scenes that this was one of those novels that I could clearly see being filmed. Although a chunky novel, it doesn’t flag and, like Carter’s show, builds to a satisfying denouement.

Carter Beats the Devil is about the illusions we accept, those we refute, the role of marvel in our lives, and when to take the leap and abandon the need to know how it all works.

“Faith was a choice. So, it followed was wonder.”

To end, the most tickety-boo, spiffingest flapper of them all, the divine Josephine Baker, who truly is the cat’s meow:

“There’s no such thing as autobiography, there’s only art and lies” (Jeanette Winterson) or “The poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese.” (G. K. Chesterton)

Recently I fell subject to one of those viruses that seems never ending.  Basically for about two and half weeks I was behaving like this:

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(Only with much less impressive cheekbones). I wouldn’t bother mentioning it, stoic that I am, except it meant I had to turn down a last-minute ticket to see Zoe Wanamaker in Stevie, Hugh Whitemore’s play about the life of the poet Stevie Smith.  I love Zoe Wanamaker and I’m sure she’d be great as the idiosyncratic Smith, so I did not take this in my stride:

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(Only with much less impressive cheekbones). So to compensate for my loss, I’m going to look at two other instances where the lives of poets have been imagined, in a novel and in a play.

Firstly, John Clare (and to a lesser extend Alfred Lord Tennyson) as imagined by Adam Foulds in The Quickening Maze (Vintage, 2009), which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2009.

NPG 1469; John Clare by William Hilton

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John Clare suffered with poor mental health for most of his adult life, and for a time was an inpatient at High Beach Asylum in Essex.  The Tennyson brothers move nearby as Septimus is being treated for depression, but thankfully this isn’t an excuse for Foulds to create conversations on the nature of poetry between the two versifiers (can you imagine? ‘What think you Clare, of this long poem of mine?’ ‘Will you permit me Alfred, to suggest In Memoriam is better name than My Friend Hallam What Died?’ Ugh.  OK, so Foulds would never be that bad, but sometimes these things can be so clumsy as to become comical).

Instead Foulds looks at the lives contained within and without the asylum, and the nature of their various freedoms and restraints.  Alongside the patients live the profligate Dr Allen, who has progressive ideas on treatment but lacks the focus to truly push things forward; his daughter Hannah, desperate for freedom but unsure how to get it other than by marrying; the grieving Tennyson yearning for his dead friend and for critical approval; and of course Clare, the ‘peasant poet’, determined to leave the built environment of the asylum for the forest beyond:

“As he worked in the admiral’s garden…being there, given time, the world revealed itself again in silence, coming to him. Gently it breathed around him its atmosphere: vulnerable, benign, full of secrets, his.  A lost thing returning. How it waited for him in eternity and almost knew him. He’d known and sung it all his life.”

Things begin to unravel: Clare becomes progressively more deluded, the doctor veers towards bankruptcy again, Hannah harbours fantasies regarding Tennyson which amount to nothing. But The Quickening Maze is a novel of quiet, closely observed drama of domestic life (despite the asylum and famous poets), rather than enormous, declamatory moments:

“From her window, Hannah could see Charles Seymour prowling outside the grounds, swishing his stick from side to side. Boredom, a sane frustration, a continuous mild anger: Hannah thought he looked like a friend, someone whose life was as empty and miserable as her own…he raised a hand to lift his hat and found he wasn’t wearing one.  He smiled and mimed instead. Hannah gazed for a moment down at his shoes and smiled also.”

Foulds is an accomplished poet himself, and this shows itself in tightly constructed prose full of startling images:

“She liked the pinch of absence, the hollow air, reminiscent of the real absence. She wanted to stay out there, to hang on her branch in the world until the cold had burned down to her bones. She could leave her scattered bones on the snow and depart like light.”

The result is a tightly plotted novel that maintains a contemplative, elegiac quality: perfect for the poets it captures.

Secondly, Oscar Wilde, as imagined by David Hare in The Judas Kiss, which premiered at the Almeida in 1998.

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The story of Oscar Wilde is so well-known, it can be difficult to imagine what more there is to be said on it.  What Hare gives his audience is an Oscar past his prime, bruised and sad, the architect of his own downfall.  The first act sees Wilde staying in London to face the court over allegations he is gay (which was illegal at the time) while his friends urge him to leave:

“Ross. Oscar, I’m afraid it’s out of the question. You simply do not have time.

Wilde. Do I not?

Ross. You are here to say your goodbyes to Bosie.

Wilde. Yes of course.  But a small drink, please, Robbie, you must not deny me.

Ross. Why, no.

Wilde. And then, of course I shall get going. I shall go on the instant.

Arthur. Do you want to taste, sir?

Wilde. Pour away. Hock tastes like hock, and seltzer like seltzer. Taste is not in the bottle. It resides in one’s mood. So today no doubt hock will taste like burnt ashes. Today I will drink to my own death.”

The knowledge we have of the outcome, rather than resigning us to Wilde’s fate, actually adds to the dramatic urgency.  I found myself desperately rooting for Ross, wishing Oscar would listen, that somehow the outcome would be different and he wouldn’t stay long enough to allow the courts to give him a two year sentence. But Wilde is stubborn, proud, defiant, and wonderful, as his selfish, weak lover Bosie testifies:

“You have wanted this thing. In some awful part your being, you love the idea of surrender.  You think there’s some hideous glamour in letting Fate propel you down from the heights!”

But Bosie doesn’t want Wilde to leave, rather stay and fight his battles for him with his father, the Marquess of Queensbury, who is  challenging Wide in court.  Between his own wilfulness and Bosie’s self-interest, Wilde agrees to stay…

In the second act we are in Italy with a Wilde after he has left prison and moved abroad “grown slack and fat and his face is ravaged by deprivation and alcohol”.  Bosie is enjoying himself with the local beauties, while Wilde is isolated and contemplative:

“I am shunned by you all, and my work goes unperformed, not because  of the sin – never because of the sin – but because I refuse to accept the lesson of the sin.”

The Judas Kiss is a tragic play, but not in the usual sense.  No-one dies, there is no physical violence, and yet we witness betrayal, destruction and loss.  It’s heart-breaking, and at the centre of it all is the great genius of Oscar Wilde, who we witness fading away.

To end, the words of a poet rather than words written about them. Wilde responded to this trauma through his art, and created The Ballad of Reading Gaol:

“As far as I’m concerned, being any gender is a drag.” (Patti Smith)

I recently saw Phyllida Lloyd’s Henry IV at the Donmar Warehouse, the second in her planned Shakespeare female prison trilogy (yes, you did read that correctly). It’s quite wonderful, especially Jade Anouka as Hotspur (even my friend who hated the production thought she was great).  I’m generally obsessed with Early Modern gender issues anyway (well, everyone needs a hobby) and so this week I thought I’d give into this obsession and look at novels which explore notions of gender.  In many ways the written word is an ideal means to do this, as it’s not reliant on the visual image, so the theme can be explored without us all obsessing over a specific physical body. Having said that, let’s have some androgynous beauty to start us off, just because I adore Patti Smith & her & Robert Mapplethorpe are great to look at:

Patti Smith & Robert Mapplethorpe

(Image from: http://www.vsmag.com/cms/robert-mapplethorpe/)

Back to books. Firstly, Girl Meets Boy by Ali Smith (Canongate, 2007). Girl Meets Boy is a reworking of the Iphis myth, part of Canongate’s The Myths series.  As the title suggests, the story plays with easy ideas of how gender is constructed.  It begins: “Let me tell you about when I was girl, our grandfather says.” This simultaneously sets up the other major theme of the tale, how stories are made and how they are used to define ourselves.

“You’re going to have to learn the kind of hope that makes things history. Otherwise there ‘ll be no good hope for your own grand truths and no good truth for your own grandchildren”

Anthea listens to her grandfather’s tales which are filled with slippery notions of gender. The Iphis myth is from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and Boy Meets Girl is full of refiguration: of language, of gender, of how language constructs gender. When Anthea grows older, she falls in love at first sight:

“She was the most beautiful boy I had ever seen in my life”

Anthea and Robin’s relationship is passionate and fulfilling, and denies definition, however hard those around them try.  They challenge gender roles through their overwhelming happiness:

“She had the swagger of a girl. She blushed like a boy. She had a girl’s toughness. She had a boy’s gentleness. She was as meaty as a girl. She was as graceful as a boy. She was as brave and handsome and rough as a girl. She was as pretty and delicate and dainty as a boy. She turned boys’ heads like a girl. She turned girls’ heads like a boy. She made love like a boy. She made love like a girl. She was so boyish it was girlish, so girlish it was boyish, she made me want to rove the world writing our names on every tree.”

Meanwhile, Anthea’s sister Midge is struggling with her own identity, wanting to be recognised by her full name of Imogen, trying to decide between her career and her ethics, struggling with anorexia. Ultimately Midge and Anthea learn that while we can never start entirely anew – we are all born into a society that will seek to define us in some way or another – we can challenge how we are constructed in any variety of ways, both by ourselves and with others:

“I was born mythless. I grew up mythless.

No you didn’t. Nobody grows up mythless…”

Boy Meets Girl shows the power of stories, but also how they can also be constantly rewritten; they continuously metamorphose with each telling and with reader.

Secondly, Trumpet by Jackie Kay (Picador, 1998).  Joss Moody, a famous jazz musician, has died.  As his wife Millie is reeling with grief, she simultaneously has to cope with Joss’ secret being exposed: that he was biologically gendered a woman.  Their adopted son Coleman is furious that he father he adored has lied to him his whole life, and is threatening to write a tell-all book with a muck-raking tabloid hack.  And yet Coleman, if he stopped to think for a moment, would realise he is not so dissimilar from his father.  When he works a motorcycle courier he learns the power of clothes; how we construct our identity through them, and how others read them as signs:

“When he was a courier he felt liberated.  Like he could suddenly act the part of the biker and nobody would know any better….He could just put the gear on and join the clan…When he stopped to get a bacon roll, people would instinctively let him go in front of them. It was quite a discovery.”

Through Moody’s death, Kay is able to explore how much meaning we give to gender, how important we make it, and yet how little room there is for manoeuvre when we make it a fixed binary of male/female.  Trumpet is  a story of a happy marriage, and a talented jazz musician – what does it matter what was under Joss’ beautifully tailored clothes?

“I managed to love my husband from the moment I clapped eyes on him till the moment he died. I managed to desire him all our married life.  I managed to respect and love his music.  I managed to always like the way he ate his food.  I managed to be faithful, to never be interested in another man….I know that I loved being the wife of Joss Moody.”

By telling Moody’s story through others, Kay puts the reader in the position of the characters in the novel – Joss is a dominant presence, but slightly removed and never fully known. Trumpet makes a powerful comment on the damage society does when it seeks to restrict how people express their genders and sexuality, and it does this with a light touch that never loses sight of the individual personalities involved.

 “He was always more comfortable once he was dressed. More secure somehow. My handsome tall man. He’d smile at me shyly.  He’d  say ‘How do I look?’ And I’d say, ‘Perfect.  You look perfect.’”

It’s a beautifully written novel that doesn’t seek to tie up all the loose ends: one character’s epiphany takes place “off-screen” – we’re not told what was said to evoke such a change in behaviour.  This is a master-stroke.  Lesser writers would want to spell it all out, but Kay understands the power of what is left unsaid; and in a way, this is what the whole novel is about.

To end, how about a 90s sing-a-long?  All together now: “Girls who are boys/Who like boys to be girls/Who do boys like they’re girls/Who do girls like they’re boys….”

“Heterosexuality is not normal, it’s just common.” (Dorothy Parker)

I’m hopelessly late with this post, which was prompted by 17 May being the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia. At first when I was looking at what was going on this past week for a theme for this post, I was resistant to choose this, as it seemed I would be attaching the potentially reductive label of “gay writing” to literature.  I’m not sure about this label for the same reason I’m unsure of the label “women’s writing” – while not necessarily inaccurate, it seems to suggest its somehow not “proper” writing, that it can only appeal to ready-designated group and have no meaning outside of that. Well, to quote Maya Angelou, we are all more alike than we are unalike, and so great writing is great writing. Who a writer chooses to sleep with is their own business, and if this informs their writing I don’t see why it should be picked out as “gay writing” unless we have the label “straight writing” which, of course, we don’t. And I guess that’s my main objection.  There’s nothing inherently wrong with literature being labelled as gay, except that because the sexuality is marked out when straight isn’t, it seems to be suggesting a deviation from some sort of norm.  And as Dorothy Parker pointed out….. So why did I decide to go ahead with it?  Because we still need an  International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia, because the city I live in has seen a rise in homophobic attacks over recent years, because this sickening hate crime still exists, and so I wanted to recognise 17 May as an important day.  I hope one day it is no longer needed.  And now I’ll climb down off my soapbox to talk about books, no more ranting, I promise…

Firstly, Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters (who doesn’t mind being labelled a lesbian writer, so maybe I should stop being quite so precious about it) (1998, Virago).  This was Sarah Waters’ first novel and was widely well received; she has gone on to forge a successful literary career with four further novels.  I enjoy her work greatly, because she writes evocatively of the past (in TtV its Victorian London) and is a beautiful writer who also has a great command of plot.  The plot of TtV sees Nan King fall in love with a male impersonator, Kitty, and she leaves her home and family to work with Kitty in the theatres and music halls.  They begin a relationship, but when this disintegrates Nan leaves her and works in London, selling her body as a boy, becoming a rich woman’s plaything, and getting caught up in politics through her friendship with a neighbour.

“The Palace was a small and, I suspect, a rather shabby theatre; but when I see it in my memories I see it still with my oyster-girl’s eyes – I see the mirror-glass which lined the walls, and the  crimson plush upon the seats, the plaster cupids, painted gold, which swooped above the curtain. Like our oyster-house, it had its own particular scent – the scent, I know now, of music halls everywhere – the scent of wood and grease-paint and spilling beer, of gas and of tobacco and of hair-oil, all combined.”

Waters often describes settings through smells, and it is a technique that works well, creating a vivid earthiness that engages with Victorian literary tradition but pushes far beyond it, giving a voice to those largely unheard in the literature of the time:

““You say I know nothing about you; but I have watched you upon the streets, remember.  How coolly you pose and wander and flirt!  Did you think you could play at Ganymede , for ever? Did you think, if you wore a silken cock, it meant you never had a cunt at the seam of your drawers?….You’re like me: you have shown it, you are showing it now! It is your own sex for which you really hunger!””

“Tipping the velvet” is Victorian slang for cunnilingus, something I don’t remember occurring in Dickens…

Secondly, The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde (1891, my copy 1994). I won’t go into this in great detail, because I think it’s one of those novels that everyone knows even if they haven’t read it.  A beautiful boy named Dorian Gray has his portrait painted, capturing his first flush of youth.  Under the influence of the hedonist Lord Henry Wotton, Dorian offers up his soul to stay beautiful forever.  He gets his wish, and the portrait ages in his place, growing more hideous with each passing year as a reflection of Dorian’s corrupted soul.  This was Oscar Wilde’s only novel and was hugely controversial at the time, but as my plot summary has hopefully captured, it’s actually a highly moral work.  It’s also gorgeously written, with Wilde bringing his aesthetic sensibilities to his prose, and full of typically Wildean aphorisms to raise a smile amongst the dark subject matter:

“You have a wonderfully beautiful face, Mr. Gray. Don’t frown. You have. And beauty is a form of genius -is higher, indeed, than genius, as it needs no explanation. It is of the great facts of the world, like sunlight, or spring-time, or the reflection in dark waters of that silver shell we call the moon. It cannot be questioned. It has its divine right of sovereignty. It makes princes of those who have it….. People say sometimes that beauty is only superficial. That may be so, but at least it is not so superficial as thought is. To me, beauty is the wonder of wonders. It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances.”

TPoDG is a great read, with something for everyone: wit, morality, amorality, the Gothic, adventure, and almost pastoral in places with its detailed descriptions of nature.  It also, like Dorian, hasn’t aged one jot.  In this age of celebrity obsession focussed so much on appearances, the enormity of the cosmetics industry, of plastic surgery and of so much style over so little substance, TPoDG has as much to say about our society today as it did about late Victorian society.  We all have to face our portraits at some time…

Here are the novels wearing a rainbow, symbol of LGBT Pride (and surrounded by cat hair, sorry about that):

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