The Kingdom Of Sand – Andrew Holleran (Jonathan Cape 2022)

Andrew Holleran’s 1978 debut “Dancer From The Dance” was amongst the first prominent novels written from the gay male experience which infiltrated the mainstream.  I read it probably before I was ready for it and it’s a novel I thought I would revisit one day as it is now established within the gay writing canon and is pretty rare as it was both written and set in the hedonistic post-Stonewall pre-AIDS era.   

In a career where publications have been sporadic I was surprised by the news of this his 5th novel and was very interested to explore this writer’s perspectives 44 years on from that debut.  I cannot fault the quality of the writing but from my personal standpoint this is one of the most depressing books I have ever read.

It is a raw, brutally honest study of gay men, loneliness and death.  This is the generation who survived the epidemic which emerged a few years after Holleran’s debut and here they are decades on being snuffed out one by one in barren, lonely lives in small town America.

The starting point is the narrator’s invitation from his sister to spend Christmas with her.  This would mean a departure from his rituals and routines he carries out in his dead parents’ house to which he has returned and cannot move on from.  The novel is a meditation on getting old, of still not being able to fit in, of loneliness and a paranoid fear of the future for that can only involve greater isolation, sickness and death.  Much of it features the slow demise of the narrator’s friend, Earl, ten years his senior and surviving to get through his pile of old movie DVDs whilst being observed closely by the narrator for parallels to his own situation and what this would mean for him in the not too distant future.

There’s no real physical decline in the narrator.  His home environment has shrunk him to a fearful shadow roaming the streets at night, even though he has friends, seems to regularly travel to Washington and still functions as a sexual being but for him his outlook is totally bleak.

Such nihilistic writing might have really appealed were I not on the wrong side of 50.  There’s too many nerves being touched and too much triggering going on for this to be anything but a difficult read. There’s also the issue of lightness and shade.  There’s little lightness here, where there is humour it is so black it actually drags the reader down further rather than providing relief.  Writers like Douglas Stuart have very successfully shown huge ability recently in making difficult subjects not only readable but very entertaining.  There’s a balance to be struck, I feel, but Holleran does not permit this here.  I’m wondering if this could at least be partly down to the difference between American and British viewpoints where we have a tendency to seek for humour in the darkest times.  I can’t just say this book is not for me and leave it at that because this book is exactly for me, but like when I read “Dancer From The Dance” all those years ago, I’m not sure I’m ready for it.

However, all this being said there are very important issues Holleran raises here and he is doing so in a style which will linger on in the reader’s mind and his writing is engrossing and actually really quite seductive (okay, it can be repetitive but I’m putting this down to emphasis).  It is no way a disappointment and has the potential to garner much critical praise and win awards but it is just very difficult to see things laid so bare and I felt quite relieved when I finished this book.

The Kingdom Of Sand is published on 9th June 2022 in the UK by Jonathan Cape.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

100 Essential Books- Young Mungo – Douglas Stuart (Picador 2022)

I’m not sure what I was expecting from Booker Prize Winner and current holder of my Book Of The Year Douglas Stuart’s second novel.  The promise of a 1990’s set tale of young love in a working-class Glasgow setting suggested the author was not going to stray too far from “Shuggie Bain” territory and there may be some who claim this to be a re-tread with 15 year old Mungo Hamilton’s relationship with a toxic mother being again a main focus.  This, however, is an outstanding novel and, I certainly wasn’t expecting to write this next bit, because of its greater focus on plot and sublime storytelling it is even better than his multi-award winning debut and perhaps the best book I have read since John Boyne’s “The Heart’s Invisible Furies” (2017)

It is another tale of a daily battle of survival here as Mungo battles against his environment, his disturbing older brother, Hamish, who overcompensates for his lack of height and thick glasses by being a ringleader for violence with an obsession for destroying the local Catholic youth and his mother Maureen, (known affectionately by Mungo as Mo-Maw) alcoholic and often absent.  In “Shuggie Bain” the mother character, the monstrous but appealing Agnes is given a central role.  Here, Mungo has to go it alone even more against Maureen’s fewer redeeming characteristics.  His only ally, Jodie, is looking for an out through education, an escape route which proves more flawed than she might expect.

The central narrative thread takes place over a May Bank Holiday weekend in the early 1990s making this a decade or so after the action of “Shuggie Bain”.  Mungo, battered and bruised from some incident is sent on a fishing trip to the Lochs with two of his mother’s friends.  We are plunged into a tragi-comic situation of two alcoholics negotiating a journey completely outside their everyday existence with the naïve Mungo in tow.  We know it is not going to go well.

Alongside this are the events leading up to this expedition.  Mungo’s life shifts from the mundane and the threats of violence when he meets James, a Catholic boy with a dead mother and father who works away on an oil-rig in James’ hand-built doocot (pigeon coop).  The boys find escape in caring for the pigeons (in a way reminiscent of Barry Hines’ “A Kestrel For A Knave” and film adaptation “Kes” of which there are echoes here and we know how well that turned out) and then in one another as love blossoms amongst the religious divide.

Once again, it’s beautifully written, there’s humour and warmth amongst the horrors but BAM! this author can hit you right between the eyes with shocking scenes of physical and psychological violence. Without doubt the mix can at times prove a difficult read.  I never thought I’d feel more sympathy towards a character than Shuggie, but Mungo, with his facial tics, unsuitable attire and devotion to a mother whose actions are consistently poorly-judged tops it.  Stuart does push further with the miseries than he did in the debut really putting his young hero through it and there is the odd moment where he might have been in danger of pushing too far and risking melodrama but such strong characterisations rooted so convincingly stops this from happening.  I did finish this feeling emotionally purged finding moments that I did not really want to read on from but ultimately being totally unable to take my eyes off the book.

I think if you are new to Douglas Stuart I’d suggest starting with the debut as he sets his stall out as a writer so well and then take this on to appreciate the upping of the ante.  I think the many, many readers who hold “Shuggie Bain”, like me, so dear in their hearts are going to be so impressed by this.

Young Mungo is published in the UK by Picador in hardback and as an e-book on 14th April 2022.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

Devotion- Hannah Kent (Picador 2022)

That’s 3 out of 3 novels I’ve read now by Australian author Hannah Kent, a prospect I’d so anticipated that I highlighted this new title in my “Looking Back, Looking Forward” post.

Her 2013 debut “Burial Rites” recreated nineteenth century Iceland, incorporating Icelandic sagas into the narrative and a use of documents and reports which really impressed me but I gave the slight edge to 2017’s “The Good People” set in a nineteenth century Irish village entrenched with folklore and fairies in a dark, foreboding read.  It’s three good four star reads in a row as far as I am concerned but maybe if forced to rank them “Devotion” would be at number three.

We are still in the nineteenth century but we begin in Kay, a Prussian village and a small community of Old Lutherans facing persecution for their beliefs.  Amongst them is narrator Hanne, an adolescent who sees herself as “forever nature’s child” and as an outsider to the rest of the community content with adhering to the traditions of the forefathers.  Into this mix comes a new family, the Eichenwalds with mother Anna Maria, a midwife from outside the region, whose unconventional  treatments arouse suspicion and daughter Thea who recognises Hanne as a kindred spirit.

So far this feels like we are on typical Kent territory with her doing what she does so well evoking a small community battling with tradition and a fear of new ideas but this is very much a book of three parts, with a marked tonal shift in each.

The second part ramps up the adventure stakes with the community’s response to persecution and the third, with what happens afterwards becomes more lyrical, spiritual and poetic. Compared to her other novels this has the same focused intensity but here the plot events bring about a sense of space which gives contrast to the pressures of small space living

This is very much a love story between Hanne and Thea as suggested by the “Devotion” of the title and this is the unifying strength between the three parts.  This is touching, often heart-breaking and effectively conveyed throughout. 

There seems to be a 4-5 year gap between Hannah Kent’s novels, which always feel thoroughly researched and may explain this but her third novel should cement her reputation as a very good historical writer and will give new readers who come to her via this publication a chance to catch up with her work so far whilst waiting for her next book to appear.

Devotion is published in the UK on February 3rd by Picador.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

The Hidden Case Of Ewan Forbes -Zoe Playdon (Bloomsbury 2021)

This is the first book by LGBT+ activist and human rights specialist and Emeritus Professor of Medical Humanities at University of London Zoe Playdon.  This is an author with an impressive CV and this book comes out of a five year research project which she only had the time to begin after retirement.

It’s both a simple story of basic human rights and an incredibly complex web of legal ramifications which attempts to put into context society’s treatment of individuals who do not belong in the gender to which they were assigned at birth and tracks how much of society’s response to trans people has developed from a court case from 1968, the details of which were hidden from the public.  The author states;

“Most people are unaware that until the late 1960s trans people lived in complete legal equality with everyone else.  Ewan was the reason that changed.”

Ewan Forbes Semphill was an unassuming figure to have caused such a seismic shift in attitudes.  A religious man, born in 1912, a gifted and popular local doctor in the small Scottish community where he lived, he liked dancing and was happily married.  Ewan, however, was born the Hon. Elizabeth Forbes-Semphill, a member of one of Scotland’s distinguished families and whose father had the dual titles of a baronetcy and a barony (he was the 8th Baronet Forbes of Craigievar and the 17th Lord Semphill).

The child became known as Benjie and had a very outdoorsy existence made miserable when forced to don dresses and pose as the “Hon. Elizabeth”.  With money, prestige and a supportive mother came the opportunity to tour Europe and receive revolutionary new treatments and Benjie became Ewan.  His gender was reassigned and an action which would surprise many who battled in later decades to achieve this, his birth certificate was changed without that much fuss.

Ewan slipped easily into the life he wanted to follow and that might have been it if the concept of primogeniture did not raise its ugly head.  With titles succeeding along the male line Ewan’s right to succession was challenged by a cousin he had barely met who forced a court-case to get Ewan to prove he was male who had been wrongly assigned to a female gender at birth.

It is an extraordinary tale of a man who just wanted to get on with his life but became inevitably and continually swept up in developments even though he lived largely under the radar.  I found this clash of the simplicity of Ewan’s life as a Highlands doctor against the whole maelstrom of long-lasting legal ramifications not easy to read.  There were so many big issues going on here that I found it hard occasionally to maintain focus in this format.  Perhaps it was too ambitious to condense a five year research project into one book for the general reader who may be grappling with these concepts of gender and sexual identity for the first time.  It is a demanding work but at the heart of it is this one man who probably never saw his life as extraordinary.

The actual tale of Ewan Forbes I loved.  His hidden case did have me lost at times but the author does bring it back to contemplate the legacy of the case and the gap that still exists in terms of trans rights and the ongoing threats to the existence of trans men and women.  There is some hope with greater acceptance, and strong following and support for a new wave of activists as well as Joe Biden’s pledge to improve matters in the US, following shocking policies from the Trump administration as well as the gradual removal of long-lasting practices which contravened basic human rights, in both US, UK and world-wide, even in places we might consider “enlightened”.

I do think just a little tweaking would have made this work a little more accessible and would have got it the wider audience it deserves but it is a sobering, thought-provoking and at times quite extraordinary read.

The Hidden Case Of Ewan Forbes was published by Bloomsbury on 11th November 2021.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

To Be A Gay Man – Will Young (2020) – A Real Life Review

I am a big Will Young fan.  A quick scan down my 100 Essential CD lists would illustrate this with his “From Now On” at #52, “Friday’s Child at #54 and “The Hits” compilation at #58.  He is somebody who I have written about a lot and who over the last 18 years has established himself as a significant national figure and especially within the cultural history of British LGBTQ+ issues.  This book is an inevitable choice for me to want to read soon after publication.

Some may be surprised by Will’s unflinchingly honest, forthright tone in this book but those of us who have listened to the “Homosapiens” podcast which he started with friend Chris Sweeney (I’ve gone through every edition with Will and Chris, the current series sees Will on sabbatical with Alan Cummings now alongside Chris) will be aware that the issues raised in this book are of great importance to the author.

Will has been upfront in the past about mental health issues and here deals with the notion of “gay shame” which for most of his life has overwhelmed him, threatening his ability to function.  Will very impressively explains the ways this becomes internalised, often at a very young age, in LGBTQ+ individuals and offers his strategies he has over time employed to help.

I did start off being slightly puzzled as to the extent of Will’s agonies over gay shame.  I am older than him and closer to the time when being gay was still considered a crime in the UK and grew up in a time when the only visible people who may have felt like I did (although this was never acknowledged by them at the time) were the camp comedians such as Kenneth Williams, John Inman, Larry Grayson and Frankie Howerd, none of whom were especially good candidates for the title of role model.  This history of LGBTQ+ culture is very well accounted for in Paul Flynn’s 2017 “Good As You”, my review of which can be read here.

In fact, it was really only when Russell Davies’ “Queer As Folk” was aired and Brian Dowling winning “Big Brother” and Will himself conquering the first season of “Pop Idol” that gay men could recognise something of themselves being portrayed.  Although Will seemed at the time an ideal, positive role model he was still grappling with the issues and shame of being gay which had been projected upon him by society and as a visible representation of a gay man he suffered considerable shocking homophobia from members of the public and in the media.  Will is right to air these here including the DJ Chris Moyles, the Mail Newspaper and correct once again to revisit the Mail’s hateful inclusion of an article on the death of the Boyzone singer Stephen Gately which is the reason why I will never pick up a copy of that newspaper again.  Incidentally, those most likely to suffer homophobia are young straight men who often in the form of “banter” have to face more putdowns and questioning of their sexuality than their gay male counterparts.

As well as being an honest and sensitive work this is extremely thought-provoking.  It made me wish I was part of an LGBTQ+ book group (or in fact any book group could valuably discuss this) to further explore the issues raised as it would be fascinating to hear others’ perspectives in the safe environment that such a group should provide. I may not have agreed with everything Will raises here but there is no doubt how his personal issues regarding being a gay man have caused a considerable struggle and his willingness to air these issues to help others is to be highly commended.

To Be A Gay Man was published in September 2020 by Virgin Books.

Breaking Down The Walls Of Heartache – Martin Aston (2016) – A Rainbow Read

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Treading similar ground to Darryl W Bullock’s “David Bowie Made Me Gay” (2017) this was published first and is subtitled “How Music Came Out”.  It’s an exhaustive study of LGBTQ+ music and musicians from the 1920s to the present day.  Martin Aston, who was written books on Pulp and Bjork is a celebrated music journalist and has certainly carried out his research here.  I chose to read it to give an alternative viewpoint to Bullock’s study and it does feel more global in its outlook as we move to the present day where you can sense Aston’s greater enthusiasm for the subject matter and an attempt not to leave anyone out which can make it feel, at times, sketchy.

 Although in this work there are probably far more names and the scope is wider I did prefer the Bullock book which feels more of a celebration.  There’s more of the author  within that work right from the title onwards, Aston’s feels more objective throughout and makes little comment on the quality of the music- good or bad.  Whereas I finished the first publication with a strong sense of wanting to discover some of these trail-blazing artists I finished this one with a sense of being overwhelmed and being bombarded with too many names.  Also oddly, Aston’s title references a Northern Soul favourite by Johnny Johnson and The Bandwagon who have no part to play within the text.  I’m sure there could have been more relevant song titles to use.

 But, and as the more academic work, this has a significant part to play in the recording of LGBTQ+ history.  Aston seems stronger on trans artists and in unearthing the obscure from a 50s lesbian Rockabilly Group the Roc-A-Jets who barely made it out of Baltimore, to 60s Brit-pop singer Polly Perkins, touted as a rival to the Dusty/Cilla/Sandie triumvirate but now best remembered for her role in ill-fated BBC soap El Dorado.  I may be wrong but I don’t recall these artists getting as much focus in Bullock’s book and there are many others like this.

Thinking about the two books I considered which would be the one I would most likely read again for pleasure and the Bullock work has the edge.  I think some kind of playlist suggestions or select discography from what really excited Aston or what he thought most significant would have made this seem more personal, especially as in this age of Spotify it would be so easy for readers to rediscover the obscure.  This is, however, a valuable examination of the development of an important aspect of LGBTQ+ culture.

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  Breaking Down The Walls Of Heartache was published by Constable in 2016.

David Bowie Made Me Gay – Darryl W Bullock (2017) – A Rainbow Read

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Subtitled “100 Years Of LGBT Music” Darryl W Bullock does a thorough job with his overview of popular music and the role played by LGBT artists.  If there is a central character then that is David Bowie whose “otherness” struck a chord with a whole generation who felt they didn’t fit in.  I was a little too young to comprehend the seismic shift which occurred in popular culture when Bowie appeared on the scene. Viewers who saw him put his arm around guitarist Mick Ronson on early evening “Top Of The Pops” (we obviously were not used to men touching then) were instantly divided into those who “got Bowie” and those (largely but far from exclusively split along generational lines) who most certainly didn’t. 

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In 1972 Bowie interviewed in “Melody Maker” said “I’m gay and always have been even when I was David Jones”.  How much of this was the fame-hungry Bowie looking for headlines?  This statement was revised over the years and we know enough about him to understand that his sexuality was not as defined as he suggested at the start of his career but these words ensured the music world would never be the same again.

 But the questioning of sexuality did not begin in 1972 and Bullock provides a largely chronological study. He begins in early twentieth century New Orleans with its ethnic mix, red-light districts, poverty and party atmosphere which saw blues, ragtime and jazz emerging from the dives and honky-tonks.  Gay pianist Tony Jackson was a leading light and blues singers such as Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith led the way in hitting the big-time often with female lovers in tow.

 As the music business got more profitable and big fortunes were to be made record label executives did not want to do anything to rock the boat and so closet doors shut firmly on artists such as Liberace, Johnny Ray and Johnny Mathis and in the UK, Noel Coward and Ivor Novello.

 By the 60’s and 70’s the sexuality of big stars became a tabloid newspaper obsession and artists such as Dusty Springfield, Elton John and Freddie Mercury were hounded waiting for them to be caught out.  Closet doors creaked open a little and then shut.  Dusty left the UK, Elton married a woman and Freddie died of AIDS.  By the late 90’s another much-hounded performer George Michael was able to turn the whole thing on its head when he was outed following a “lewd act” arrest (something which had more or less killed the career of Johnny Ray in the US decades earlier) and he came out unapologetically with the celebratory, joyous “Outside” single and video.

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Bullock does not just focus on the stars who made it and is perhaps even more illuminating on those who were unable to find success because of their sexuality.  Some forms of music opened doors (Disco, British 80’s pop, Folk music, New Romantics and Punk) and some did what they could to ensure LGBT artists would not succeed (Country, Hip hop, Reggae, Christian Rock).  Bullock examine these artists who have tried to change attitudes but it is a slow process in some areas.  In 2016 Trey Pearson of Christian Rock band Everyday Sunday’s coming out led to immediate axing from festivals and with the US veering more towards conservatism things might not change that quickly. 

In the UK more positive attitudes have ensured that an artist’s sexuality is not a kiss of death career-wise and this has meant that LGBT artists are now amongst our best loved stars – Elton, Freddie and George Michael have been joined as household names by Boy George, Frankie Goes To Hollywood, Pet Shop Boys, Morrissey, Jimmy Somerville, Marc Almond, Andy Bell of Erasure, Tom Robinson, Will Young, Sia, Sam Smith etc.  That etc. suggests that we are hopefully fast approaching the point where sexuality does not matter. Since the 1980’s the British pop charts have been fuelled by the sound of gay and gay-friendly acts (Stock Aitken and Waterman had a significant part to play in this) but in other parts of the world this is not the case.  I like very much the scope of Bullock’s work and his ability to document the past and project into the future.  This made “David Bowie Made Me Gay” both a celebration and highly thought-provoking.

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“David Bowie Made Me Gay” was published in 2017 by Duckworth Overlook

When We Rise – Cleve Jones (Constable 2017) – A Real Life Review

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Cleve Jones is an important figure in the fight for equality for the LGBT community in the USA.  He is also a survivor who lost hundreds of friends during the most horrific years of the AIDS pandemic.

This is his memoir and as a record of life in 70’s/80’s San Francisco this is about as good as it gets.  So much so that a six part TV series has been made of this book which has recently been shown in America.  On board for direction duties is Gus Van Sant and the screenplay has been written by Dustin Lance Black.  Both these were Oscar nominated (Black won) for their work on “Milk” (2008) about another very notable San Franciscan activist and politician, Harvey Milk who was murdered in 1978 and was very much a mentor for Jones.  Dustin Lance Black appears in the later years of Jones’ memoir and is well known in the UK as the partner of Olympic diver Tom Daley.  This promises to be a major television event and is currently apparently available to view on Netflix.  (I don’t have a Netflix subscription but am considering it on the strength of this alone).

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Dustin Lance Black, author Cleve Jones and Tom Daley

Jones is now 62, which makes him part of the generation who grew up with few acceptable gay role models leading to isolation and a belief that no-one else was like them.  Moving to the larger cities, especially in the USA, they developed a sense of community which, by strength of numbers, saw a beginning to challenge unfair laws and attitudes.  There were the short-lived decadent days of disco followed by the decimation of those communities by AIDS.  Jones is ten years younger than Armistead Maupin, this memoir feels contemporaneous to the novelist’s “Tales Of The City” series and those who relish Maupin’s San Francisco will want to explore Jones’ factual examination.

What I liked about this book is its celebration of Jones as a survivor and his unassuming approach to playing such a significant part in American Gay History.  The workings of US politics is somewhat of a mystery to me but Cleve the activist details his achievements in stopping a law prohibiting gay people working in schools, improvements in the access of medical treatments and wider issues affecting those working in the hospitality industry.  These achievements were largely brought about by mobilising the community. There is an awareness throughout of what else is going on in the world and he comes across as intelligent, impassioned and strong even when the odds are very much stacked against him socially, politically, economically and medically.  Cleve Jones also originated the NAMES Quilt Project which provided the first real memorial to those lost to AIDS, one of the most touching and sobering things I have ever seen.  Cleve was also around when the Rainbow Flag became adopted as a symbol, the relating of this being another high spot in his memoir.

At the end of “When We Rise” Jones states; “My generation is disappearing; I want the new generation to know what our lives were like, what we fought for, what we lost and what we won.” So much was lost but finishing this book leaves this reader with a great sense of how much was won.

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When We Rise was published by Constable in 2017