Category Archives: Uncategorized

When Skies Have Fallen by Debbie McGowan (2013). A review by John Cook

When Skies

I write this on the morn of the day that will almost certainly set in train the high probability of SSM in Australia. How could I be churlish about a book that portrays a deeply felt love story between two men who meet as young’uns in WWII allied air forces and culminates in 1967 with British decriminalisation and even has a ‘Dear Mum and Dad’ letter in the manner of that of Armistead Maupin? The pair even celebrate with their friends what they call their common law’ marriage – I will at least try to be honest.

This book has a great deal of merit. Its starting point is January 1944 a period of huge emotional turmoil for a generation of young men and women in all probability going to their deaths. Some commentators, in the past, were stupid enough to say that there was no homosexuality in ‘their’ war and they have been proven wrong again and again. How could it not be natural for young men and women at that time to find comfort with one another and for some of these liaisons to progress to genuine heartfelt love? That is the case with Brit Tom and Yank Jim (as represented on the cover) each working for their respective Air Forces.

This is a story of their finding one another (very romantically) and how they manage their rapidly deepening emotional engagement. Despite being separated and demobbed, they manage to be reunited in post-war London and encounter the problems of living in that damaged world with the overlay of being sexual outlaws. This process is exacerbated by the 1950s which saw anti-homosexual progroms in the UK, the US, and Australia. They remain together and build their lives with parallel family developments that vary from supportive to the downright dangerously vicious – there is a lot of family content in this tale and a lot built around the constant theme of dancing.

Things culminate with some downright persecution and punishment but the physically wounded but undaunted pair being together to decriminalisation. The reader cannot but help trying to put oneself in the shoes of such a pair today with the prospect of today. Probably one of the most keenly felt elements is that the need to lie and dissimulate in order to survive together – at what price?

And now, to carp. I found the book to be a little to ‘soft’ for my taste with affected its believability. There was realism in what happened to these two men and their circle of friends and good variety of interest. But I found it all unfolded a bit to easily and conveniently for me. I would have preferred something of a harder edge at times. That doesn’t detract from the fact that this is a competent and well-researched book with the capability of educating the unknowing of a critical war period and the long slog of those who looked for their rights in its aftermath.

Enjoyable but with a muted recommendation.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

I Can Give You Anything But Love by Gary Indiana (2015). A review by John Cook

i Can

I can give you anything but high praise for this effort, Gary Hoisington (real name) for a very patchy effort.’ I have enjoyed his work in the past as edgy with a good clear eye for the grungier aspects of some gay life, Rent Boy 1994 and also Resentment (1998) and Gone Tomorrow (1993). This offering is a memoir which is presented in a number of compartmentalised flashbacks, some discreet, some linked. It all makes for some confusion without a lot of redeeming benefit.

He is still a skilled wordsmith with varying techniques employed in this case with varying success. Despite his claims, I found the ‘almost’ stream-of-consciousness treatment of his early years to be a fine piece of writing which I found difficult to stop – good stuff! The other passages spend time on his years in San Francisco and Los Angeles and Cuba. I cannot say I enjoyed the sections set in Los Angeles probably because they were unable to evoke much positive response or interest from me, however bizarre and desperate his living conditions, behaviours and friendships. Instead, I found myself feeling that I was being treated to the whingeing of someone who had missed the proverbial ‘train’ through his own self-indulgence from which he was unable to escape. As I have indicated above, he has had a wide readership and has been recognised for his abilities, but all that is left is the bitterness and invective he rains down upon his personal dislikes, Susan Sontag, David Lynch (seemingly deeply personal and vicious) and Ernest Hemingway (gets a bit of some support from me on this one).

The exception for me would be the Cuba passages. I have an acquaintance who is a keen student of Spanish (he has done multiple Camino pilgrimages) and who visits Cuba regularly (I have seen the photos). Indiana put flesh on why he and my acquaintance like Cuba and its men. There were regular passages, sometimes fondly descriptive of places, sometimes evocative of the people, their way of life and living that were greatly enjoyable. It is up to the individual reader to decide what they think of his personal interactions but I enjoyed his coverage of this strange corner of the world, half gripped by its socialist past and part with a growing awareness of what lies beyond.

I can fine nothing much better than his own words to finish.

The book… has turned out radically different than I expected. At some point I began to prune away anything suggesting the sort of “triumph over adversity” theme that gongs through much of the so-called memoir genre, paring away most evidence of my eventual career as a writer and artist–which has not, in any case, been an unmitigated triumph over adversity. I’m almost sixty-five, I still have practically nothing of my own, and could very well end up on the same trash heap where most old people in America get tossed, regardless of whatever “cultural capital” I’ve accumulated.’

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Boys of Life by Paul Russell (2016). A review by John Cook

BOYS OF LIFE

I have read some almost ecstatic reviews of this book but I must confess I would be more muted in my praise, I am, if anything, somewhat confused by it. The narrative is not really complicated nor particularly original. A young rural Kentucky adolescent with an emerging alcohol problem is adrift, encounters older Svengali-type man, there is sex. Older man makes movies and takes young-un to New York and a bohemian life-style. Movies become increasingly bizarre and highly sexualised – “I’ve got you now. A person’s semen contains every piece of information about that person”. Young man realises that he is part of a pattern of youth exploitation but wants to stay in the ‘relationship’. Youth eventually makes a break, goes somewhat heterosexual and returns to the boondocks. He is shocked out of his new pattern of living by finding his younger brother has followed his experience with the same Svengali and has died in mysterious circumstances that hint strongly at dangerously violent sexual activity. He reacts – I’ll say no more.

 

What interest I found in this work came mostly from characterisation and descriptive writing both of which helped to keep my interest high. This was particularly so with the people who surround the narrator in the New York alt-film world he encounters. I found myself having a series of deja-vu experiences. The opening section, down South, is highly redolent of a gay erotic fiction genre that has country boys exploring their sexuality (sex scenes are direct and explicit in this book). The section in New York brings on memories of Andy Warhol and Joe D’Allesandro among others (Pasolini is acknowledged). Carlos Reichart is the ‘heavy’ auteur who churns out existential rubbish that the narrator, Tony Blair, can barely process. The conclusion is straight out of  ‘Cruising’.

 

My greatest difficulty was with the typeface which my failing eyesight found annoyingly small and fine – be warned if you get the same edition as I eye-balled. For me, a central problem in this lengthy work is the tone utilised for to the narrator who starts out as a poorly educated and skilled late teen and whom we follow over an extended period of time. I don’t think the author successfully managed to convince me that he transcended this somewhat restricting viewpoint. The result is sometimes rather dull patches and a failure to identify strongly with the narrator – perhaps that was the author’s intention.

 

Overall, I feel myself wanting to criticise its length when much is so predictable. However, I did enjoy the odd out-there characters of the ‘company’ who counter posed the enduring semi-naivety of the narrator. The narration is entirely flash-back as Tony is in prison looking back on the events that brought him there – his ruminations being serviced by a jailer who has his own sad agenda as does the author for colouring him as he is presented apart from it being necessary to explicate the narrative process.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The King’s Assassin by Benjamin Woolley (2017). A review by John Cook

The King's Assassin

 

As an aficionado of Tudor and Jacobean history, I could not fail to be attracted to this story. I have long been aware of the existence of George Villiers, later Duke of Buckingham, as a key figure in the reign of James VI (Scotland) and I (England). He was something more, however, as he was a ‘favourite’. This is a fascinating term employed regularly to label someone who might be a relatively unlikely individual who gains a close association with a monarch and becomes involved in their power plays sometimes in overweening or inappropriate ways. It often acquires a tinge of scandal as there may be rumours of a sexual association as in the case of Piers Gaveston ‘under’ Edward II and William Bentick, Ist Earl of Portland ‘under’ William I of Orange. George Villiers is just such a case whether, or to what degree, one considers King James to have been homosexual. I must confess I was not aware in such considerable detail as presented here, that he might directly or indirectly (even accidentally) have been involved in that King’s death. Certainly, ‘assassin’ seems a somewhat unwarranted term to use.

 

Some readers might be a little surprised at the intimate language used in communications between James and his beloved ‘Steenie’ and the lengths he would go to in order to support and maintain him. However, I am reminded of the somewhat lushly poetical language male Victorians sometimes used when corresponding with their intimate friends. This goes that extra mile, however.

 

Woolley is not a ‘professional’ academic historian with his training/experience inclining to creative writing for radio, TV and the screen. His bibliography inclines to topics that are often tangential but are themed especially in early sciences. As such, his book ‘The Herbalist’ focuses on the life of Thomas Culpeper (not the executed one – a relative only) who was an apothecary, natural therapist and Republican leading up to the English civil war. Research for this book has obviously taken Woolley into the very early practice of modern medicine with Culpeper’s antipathy to William Harvey, developer of the theory of bodily circulation. This is all relevant as there is a great deal of coverage of issues of health throughout this work. This is natural enough for a time that saw plague as well as conventional illnesses. It is also, however, central to the main thrust of the book, which is that, at the end of a long career as a political creature to James I, Villiers acted either negligently or deliberately to contribute to the death of the ailing James and ensure the succession of the ill-fated Charles I.

 

The book is therefore an interesting insight into the daily lives and machinations of James’ court after he arrived in England to encounter a swarm of young Englishmen ‘on the make’ in terms of political and financial advantage as well as, perhaps, in the sexual sense as well. George Villiers’ life is presented in great detail (lots of supporting research and clever use of extensive resource material) and often in very lifelike ways. I enjoyed this aspect immensely as well as gaining an insight in James’ character particularly in his declining years and the formation of the habits and attitudes that were to so soundly underwrite the fall of Charles  I (who like Henry VIII and George V was a second choice as monarch).

 

Not an entirely easy book to read but very satisfying if your interests lie with historical biography.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Something for the Weekend by James Wharton (2017). A review by John Cook

Something for the Weekend

 

Last October, I wrote a note on James Wharton’s ‘Out in the Army’ in which he traced his path from rural Wales schoolboy to Trooper, war in Iraq, meeting Prince Harry and poster boy as the out Brit soldier. Toward the end of the book, he heads off into the sunset marrying his flakey boyfriend with the requisite cottage and dogs. It didn’t work. He returned to London as a fit younger gay man and hit the dating and pick-up scene which gradually intensified as he discovered chemsex on an ever-deepening scale to the point of addiction and his eventual rocky withdrawal (still fresh for him). This book charts his journey with personal ruminations and the fruit of his interviews with key persons dealing with this new crisis in gay culture especially David Stuart of 56 Dean Street in London.

While his pathway came as no great surprise to me – I may be 76 years old but I do have much younger friends who visit me from interstate and use my home as a base for their extracurricular activities which include Grindr, group sex, Ubering, electronic payments and, of course, degrees of chemsex use. I can say that my younger days had their wilder moments but nothing to compare with the planned deliberate 2-3-4-5 day events that characterize this behaviour. I almost have to admire the uses of modern technology employed to set up and carry out this kind of activity. Wharton argues it can even be justified on the grounds of being immediately economical though of dubious value when long term damage is considered. I have to accept a modified version of Wharton’s and other claim that “Chemsex culture is now gay culture.” This clearly requires more open discussion and the development of responses to the damage and needs that can and do arise from it.

The following link will take you to a recent James Wharton interview on this matter in ‘Attitude’ Magazine http://attitude.co.uk/exclusive-former-british-soldier-james-wharton-opens-up-about-addiction-chemsex-culture-is-now-gay-culture/.

This next link will take you to an SBS On Demand documentary that can also help to understand the phenomenon

https://www.sbs.com.au/ondemand/video/845773891939/chemsex

The story here is of Wharton’s experience so there is no extensive narrative. His voice, however, is always engaging and this reader found it easy to follow his progress through this problem thicket. The emphasis is on the reader listening carefully to what this aspect of gay culture involves in its phases (heteros are also involved but less so) then trying to understand what are beginning to be recognised as useful responses. Here are three quotes from the book that stood out for me.

The attraction:-

“Of course, you feel on top of the world: topless gays are on you, people who you’ve never met before want to access your body, to pull your pants off. Christ! Where do I sign up? It’s paradise, yes? If your first adventure into chemsex goes well, and by ‘well’ I mean that you don’t overdose, or wake up to find someone raping you, then of course you are going to go back the following weekend. And that’s how easy it is.” from “Something For The Weekend” by James Wharton

Recognizing something is not quite right:-

“There’s just no soul. The grimmest picture I can paint in your imagination is this: picture someone getting fucked, really getting fucked by a hot guy. And then imagine the guy, at the same time this is happening to him, busily swiping his iPhone screen as he frantically surfs Grindr in a quest to find the next guy to come around and fuck him. That’s how dead the sex is.”

The future?

“Just imagine what an artificial and virtual reality chemsex party might be like in the future. You’re sitting on your sofa at home alone, high on G or crystal meth and surrounding yourself with the kind of guys you want. A couple of Muscle Marys? No problem. Want ten twinks around you? That’s possible, too; in fact, anything we desire will be possible: who cares if it’s real or not? But all of this will come at a price. If we barely talk to each other as it is, think how much more isolated we will become if our deepest fantasies can be realised by simply sticking on a headset and then pressing the ‘play’ button. It will create yet more mental health problems, as well as depression, isolation and crime issues; issues that perhaps we should start getting ready to cope with right now.” from “Something For The Weekend” by James Wharton

Perhaps the way out?:-

“It’s about neuro-cognitive habits formed – sexual arousal accompanied by an unnatural dopamine release; not just once, but repeatedly. We are all designed differently, so we all have different abilities to recover from this. Some of us need psychosexual therapy, some need CBT. Some just need to get back in the sack but with the right person, the right environment; the right everything. A casual hook-up won’t do it, it would require some intimacy and trust, and some practice; it wouldn’t be enjoyable the first time. Or the second or tenth, possibly, so some commitment, vulnerability, and a patient and loving partner would be essential. Those are few and far between these days in big-city gay life, so we have a growing number of sexless, sober gay men populating our communities.”

I do hope you find the opportunity to find and read this not very long book – it will reward.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The Sparsholt Affair by Alan Hollinghurst (2017). A review by John Cook

 

The Sparsholt Affair

He’s back again with another novel after the usual lengthy gestation (6 years). It is also, as usual, beautifully written. The man is a prose master and passages regularly bring the reader to a halt in order to appreciate what has just been taken in. I would include the Cornwall section, the return home for the funeral and the description of modern clubbing life in this category.

I detected echoes of his past works recurring in this one while the key may be in the title, ‘The Sparsholt Affair’. Given the recency of SSM in the UK, all the G and L relationships in this story can only be described by the straight world as self-constituted affairs. The word ’affair’ has connotations of some degree of inappropriateness or behaviour outside the norm which sometimes achieves the notoriety of scandal and there have been plenty of these in UK history both before and after the legalisation of homosexuality. Hollinghurst is fond of an epic canvas as probably best done in ‘The Stranger’s Child’ (my favourite). Such stories, especially when segmented in time and with overlapping differing voices (as happens here) need a unifying thread. Hollinghurst obliges with an affair/scandal which is hinted at regularly though but never completely revealed.

The theme starts with the stolen view one evening of a considerable male beauty going about his exercise routine before his window in an Oxford college at the commencement of WWII. This is David Sparsholt (almost certainly at least bisexual) and what events follow provide the over-arching theme that is eventually pursued through his son Johnny (an out gay artist) into very contemporary times.

Think of ‘The Swimming Pool Library’ as a starting point, throw in some elements of ‘The Line of Beauty’ and the structure of ‘The Stranger’s Child’ and you get close to what is offered here. Hollinghurst also revisits the drug themes of ‘The Spell’ in a more modern chemsex culture and adds in what must his own growing awareness of his age and mortality along with the more recent acceptance of homosexuality.

It is quite a canvas and cannot be uniformly even. Despite his care and attention, not all passages work as well and I found the introductory Oxford context harder to engage. What always redeems Hollinghurst for me is the fine detail of his prose and nuanced understanding of human interactions and how to convey them subtly in the context of their time and place – a true master. There are occasional disputed issues of expressed taste in music and art but I find them largely unimportant though illustrative of characters, contexts and, perhaps, Hollinghurst himself.

There is a wide canvas of characters that circulate, grow and develop around the Sparsholts and Daxes (ouch!) and sometimes it requires an effort to remember who did what when but there are some instances that are wonderfully clear and memorable – for me the holiday interactions between young Johnny Sparsholt and Bastien in Cornwall constitute a novella within a novel.

This is work of considerable riches and interest and I must say I would like to meet and chat with Johnny Sparsholt as an older man like Hollinghurst (65?) and myself.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Logical Family: A Memoir by Armistead Maupin (2017). A review by John Cook

Logical family

This was a much anticipated read as most readers of gay Lit over the past almost 40 years and 6Million+ copies must have some appreciation of the ‘Tales of the City’ series by Armistead Maupin as well as his other novels and occasional works. While opinions vary, I have always appreciated and enjoyed all the series (though with a few dips in quality). Given the period covered, the books have reflected so many issues that have impacted generations of gay men and women who reached their adulthood in and after the sixties and seventies and many have wondered how much of Maupin’s real life experiences had found their way into their covers. We now have some answers. I found the cover design intriguing also.

The origins of the series as a newspaper serial have always been well known especially with their parallels with Dickens (I say that very deliberately). This book nests their creation within a very interesting life trajectory from an utterly traditional deep South conservative Republican background and homophobic father and brother through a series of rocky awakenings including Naval service in Vietnam and that utterly conventional glimpse of San Francisco from the deck of a returning navy ship and what it might hold for a footloose young man.

What has to be noted, however, is that this is not a tale of rejection of his past and the demonising of all the agents of his background (with the obvious exception of Anita Bryant – look her up if you are too young to remember her). He has clung to much of the essential warmth and gentleness that arose from his early years (he still sleeps in grand pappy Branch’s sleigh bed to this day) and it informs his view of the world. His struggles, fears and outrages over the years are quite similar to many of my generation and the manner in which he dealt with them was often funny, lively and cheekily humorous while never avoiding encroaching darknesses all with a wonderful sense of irony and wit. His much quoted ‘Letter to Mama’ must have struck a cord in the hearts of millions of gay men and women coming to terms with a straight world and family.

I had to enjoy his tales of early fumbling experiences and where they were located and understood his long period of physical sexual self-denial and the mixed emotional bases for his behaviour at that time. His time in the Navy and especially in Vietnam was almost entirely new for me as yet another example of those non-existent gay men and women at war. His experience with Nixon and appearance on the notorious tapes was intriguing as was his contribution to the de-mystifying of the life of Rock Hudson, again with joy, warmth and understanding of that icon (he does rate that word). He is still unhappy at the closeted world that Hollywood continues to be to this day. He handles the overlay of Harvey Milk’s assassination with a key moment in his family life with much tenderness again. It goes without saying that his real life experiences in the saunas and sex clubs of San Francisco and the subsequent AIDS years informed the series plots and characters as in the case of Dr Jon Fielding in the 1984 ‘Babycakes’. They were often related to his daily life experiences and lovers and friends. I took pleasure in reading about his interactions with Christopher Isherwood (having worked my way through his hypochondriac diaries). Maupin obviously saw him as an historically great man of gay letters and was warmed by his praise. The book includes one of Don Bachardy’s drawings that is particularly good.

It was good to hear his writing voice again with its ease of flow, warmth and sense of familiarity and optimism. Very much recommended.

He concludes for his ‘logical’ family

I think we’re in a much better place than when I began writing, despite all the efforts of right wingers around the world, simply because we are more visible and there are good people out there who know who we are, who love us and will fight for us. I am proud to have been a part of that fight over the last 40 years.”

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized