Ned the impertinent homosexual dragon felt the fear and played on … 10 life-changing books

Some time ago, a friend posted his top ten ‘life-changing’ books, and then ‘invited’ me to do the same. I’ve always grown up with books,but it was really difficult to think of those which I could actually suggest were ‘life-changing’. In some respects, all books are – they stimulate the imagination, feed the mind, encourage you to think in new and different ways, imagine new worlds and possibilities.

And they become companions, hand-holders during times of your life which can be turbulent, frightening, or inspiring. On a recent trip to London, I had the marvellous opportunity to meet friends from many different stages of my life so far, reminding me of the different people I have been, the different chapters of my life. Laurie Anderson once described losing her father as like a library burning down – all those stories, those memories suddenly gone. During my trip I was reminded of some of the big and small stories in my life.

It was in that spirit that I began to think of other friends, of the books I turned to, sought out, stumbled upon, or was given, that helped me transform and grow, that mentored me or held my hand for a while. These are ten of those books, and of course the invitation is now open to you, dear faithful reader, to share yours too…

ned the lonely donkey Ned The Lonely Donkey. One of the first books I remember. I loved Ladybird Books – easy to read, exciting, great stories or information. I can’t remember much about Ned now except that he was a loveable lonely (and a bit mangey) old donkey in a field, and his story introduced me to loneliness, sorrow, isolation. it’s not, as far as I know, an autobiography. But there’s a happy ending, and he finds a friend in the field by the end of the book…

alex-haley_roots Roots by Alex Haley. I read this after being blown away by the TV series, enthralled by a black family’s story from capture into slavery through to a present day still haunted by racism and injustice. It appealed to an emerging liberal sensibility against oppression, but started from personal stories and testament. It may well have been the start of my interest in people’s stories and the telling of them, and my first clumsy political sensibilities.

dragonsinger Dragonsinger and the Dragons Of Pern series by Anne McCaffrey. At school, I was a Librarian, which was a good way of getting out of Games/PE lessons – there was always an excuse to go and do something in the library. I was fascinated by the fact that there were so many books, and my friend Andrew Cosgrove and I used to make up a Top Ten chart of books that we liked. We also had to deal with the spectre of the Phantom Clipper Nicker, which is another blogstory. I was always fascinated by this beautiful and magical cover, and the fantastical and fabulous world ir created – which was as real to me as any other world. Although I was a huge fan of television science fiction like Doctor Who and Blake’s 7, I hadn’t actually read much science fiction. I fell in love with the dragons, and the Drangonriders Of Pern, and the legends of that world Anne McCaffrey told. I kept revisiting the books as and when they came out, always delighted when a new one hit the shelves. I was delighted when Anne McCaffrey replied to an email I sent her, and took the time to give me a whole background to a coupole of her later gay characters. I had no idea there were so few women writers of science fiction, or what animportant part she played in the genre. I just loved the stories.

and the band played on And The Band Played On by Dandy Shilts.  I read this when it first came out, very nearly in a single sitting – a harrowing account of AIDS in the gay communities in the ’80s. I grew up, and came out, in the 80s, and the spectre of AIDS was everywhere, defining an identity, a community, a politics, and our sex lives. It’s difficult to look at the book now without being far, far more critical – particularly of the whole ‘Patient Zero’ character – but it was a roar of anger and an opportunity to write a queer history at a time when narratives were disappearing or being rewritten far, far too quickly. I’ve recently read Virus Hunt by Dorothy H Crawford, which gives a more up to date account of the origins of HIV, of how much our knowledge and treatment has come, and how far there is to go with our understanding of this virus.

how to be a happy homo How To Be A Happy Homosexual by Terry Sanderson – the homo’s handbook. Because we needed a manual, back in the day. A lovely, warm, encouraging, gentle and empathic book acknowledging the pitfalls and challenges of Coming Out, and celebrating its achievement. Nowhere near propaganda, but sensible and helpful advice that helped me understand myself, the impact of homophobia and homophobic society, and mincing along the yellow brick road of self-acceptance. With all the changes since, I don’t know if this or a similar book is necessary or helpful – but I suspect its message of self acceptance goes way beyond just Coming Out.

silence British And Irish Political Drama In The Twentieth Century by David Ian Rabey. I studied drama at University because I’d enjoyed writing, directing and (over) acting in panto. Then I had a long conversation at a student party with my Drama tutor David Rabey and fellow ‘Lurking Truth Theatre Company’ member Ian Cooper, as the Communards sang Disenchanted in the background. ‘This is me’ I said, reflecting on the rise of Section 28, the AIDS Crisis and my own Coming Out. The next day, I found a copy of the book in my pigeon-hole with a dedication from David encouraging me to move from disenchantment to action. Drama, public space and performance were all given a context, and my own anger, frustration and disenchantment a more positive, creative outlet. I became a Lovey, Comrade.

impertinent decorum Impertinent Decorum. Which is a cheat, as it’s What I Wrote. My first book, and the result both of my M.Phil research, life as a Queer Activist in London in the 90s, and became what one friend referred to as a ‘personal manifesto’. It’s concerned with Gay Male identities and ‘theatrical manoeuvres’ – the way gay men use the body, codes and space to create identity and culture. It feels like a far away place now, but helped me to make sense of creative and political activism, emerging politics and identities, and my first experience of researching, structuring and writing a book.It also introduced me to the gay slang/uage polari.

feel the fear Feel The Fear (And Do It Anyway) by Susan Jeffers. One of those ‘happenstance’ books that a friend of a friend recommended when I was going through a hard and self-questioning time. Essentially a Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) manual reframing negative thought patterns to an attitude that ‘I Can Handle It’, I still find it useful to revisit and have recommended it to many counselling clients with excellent results. A little American in tone, I can tell by the way people react to the title if they’re likely to benefit from the book or not.

LiarsAutobiography-thumb-300xauto-33214 A Liar’s Autobiography by Graham Chapman, of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. He has ceased to be. I loved both the inspiring, confused mess of his life, and the revelation that people ddo actually lie about their lives. Sometimes consciously, sometimes not. We are all works of fiction. I saw the film version recently – which was all very clever, but lost a bit of Graham in it.

wounded storyteller The Wounded Storyteller by Arthur Frank. A recent gift from my brother, I love the way the author recognises the importance and difficulty of the ill and wounded owning, telling and making sense of their own narratives, in an effort to limit the way the self becomes diminished in its journey through illness. It’s helped me make sense of the last two or three years – and is also a reason for this blog, even though I didn’t know it when I started. I’ve just recommended it to my Oncologist. I like this quote from the book, which beings together themes from most of these, my ‘life-changing’ books, which have helped transform, recreate and regenerate me over the years:

One of our most difficult duties as human beings is to listen to the voices of those who suffer. The voices of the ill are easy to ignore, because these voices are often faltering in tone and mixed in message, particularly in their spoken form before some editor has rendered them fit for reading by the healthy. These voices bespeak conditions of embodiment that most of us would rather forget our own vulnerability to. Listening is hard, but it is also a fundamental moral act; to realize the best potential in postmodern times requires an ethics of listening.

I choose to include reading in this definition of listening, as reading involves listening to many stories, faltering in tone and mixed in message, and which help us to remember our own vulnerability. I think, even as a child, I always knew that Ned The Lonely Donkey was a Wounded Storyteller.

Advertisements

The End Is Nigh – on (nearly) completing a novel

the-end

I’m coming to the end of my novel. I’ve known for a while that I was hitting the last 10,o00 or so words, as I aways had a target. But, more than that, the story has been told, and a journey has come to an end- for me, for the story, for my characters. We’re all a little relieved, and a little upset. Voices in my head are telling me to tie up a few loose ends, to make sure that I don’t forget to mention this or that. Most of the characters have survived, and a good few haven’t. There are, I hope, good reasons why.

It’s my fifth novel, and the whole process has been very different to any of the previous ones. Usually, I’m very disciplined, and can write 3-5000 words a day without much problem. It’s tough, but I haven’t found it too difficult to actually reach my self-set – or publisher imposed – targets and deadlines before. And so it’s hard, and disappointing and frustrating, to find that I haven’t been able to work that way with this particular novel.

But, it’s also been exciting and frightening and enjoyable. You never learn to write ‘a novel’. You can only learn to wrie your current novel. And every time is different – hoepfully beacause each story is different, and needs to travel a different landscape. This one has been through illness, and fear, and anxiety, and self-doubt. You can read about some of that on other pages of this blog. It’s also been a lifeline and a crutch for me. It’s filled my days and demanded my time and commitment when I really didn’t want, or feel able, to write.

And it needed to be that way, for the story to find its true nature. The other day I had a real revelation about the central protagonists, a genuinely surprising  realisation that I would have missed if I’d travelled any faster towards the end. The story is much, much better and richer  because of it.

I’m so not finished. There’s the difficult plotting and tying up of plotlines at an end, and then starting again right at the beginning to edit and rewrite.  It’s a hard slog and demoralising as you question every line, every word, of something that seemed perfect as it was pouring onto the page first time round.

And then, I have to persuade editors and publishers and agents and readers that it’s as good as I thought it was when I was in the middle of that unreal,  hallucintary trance of writing the first draft.

No-one else knows the story yet. It’s lying there, waiting, for you and your imagination to bring it to life. But it’s not quite ready yet. It lies mewling and seeking attenion somewhere between my mind and the computer. Which is another story, as I’ve just bought a new computer but simply dare not move my documents over in case something awful happens and it’s gone forever.

A little longer yet, I tell myself. A little longer yet, and then it really will be

THE END

Betty Bones And The Mystery Of The Phantom Clipper Nicker

even at  an early age Betty Bones knew she Wanted To Be Evil...

Betty Bones harboured many secrets…

Yesterday, I met up with an old school friend. We caught up on 20 years worth of love, loss,  career, family  and friends. He was warm, charming, friendly, happy and looking very well. I’ve missed him, and I longed for my old school days and what seemed simpler times. School reunions can be a bit of a minefield – memories are tricky magicians, and people change through circumstances, relationships, realisations, life’s little intricacies. Thankfully,  neither of was too different from the couple of classmates from a Catholic boarding school we both knew 20+ years ago.  We were able to step back.

My nickname at school was Betty Bones, given to me by my best friend Mary Harlot. We were camp and bitchy and dramatic, protective and ‘sisterly’. Mary died very suddeny  in 1999 and I’ve missed him ever since. I was explaining Laurie Anderson‘s description of grief or loss as a ‘library being burnt down’  one of the truest descriptions I know – a whole load of memories, connections, networks and relationships become ashes,suddenly gone. And for a couple of hours, in the company of an old friend, I was Betty Bones again, and Mary was alive with us  too.

I had a great time at school,  full of scandal and gossip – Mary and I used to write a weekly ‘Scandal Top Ten’ of rumours, gossip and half true events.The truth hurts but is always respected  he would say. Recently,  another  friend and school colleague, Simon Mason, has written a compelling and harrowing, brutal account of abuse and subsequent drug addiction, Too Far, Too High, Too Soon. He sent me  a picture of us both in a school play. where I was surprisingly butch as Huckleberry Finn.  My first line was Hello yourself, and see how you like it.  School  wasn’t as happy and sparkly, though,   for other people, and I’ve since heard several stories of abuse and unhappiness while I stomped, minced and breezed my way through.

I’d moved there after a traumatic and difficult first year in the local comprehensive, inhabited by bullies and a cloud of despondency. I started off a bright, creative student and ended up being a recalcitrant, disillusioned and unhappy child forcing my parents to move me. It’s not that it was necessarily a bad school, but it  was too big for me, and I got lost and frightened in its inability to see me. Although I was  never bullied (‘you would have eviscerated them’, my friend told me over tea), it was painful watching the effects on others.

In my first term at New School, a History teacher suggested we write a creative story after his history lesson. I seized the chance, he gave me an impossible mark of  10+ and read  my story out to the year. I was suddenly a writer, a weaver of tales, and haven’t stopped writing since. Unwittingly, ‘Humble John’ is  probably responsible for my first historical queerotica novels Hot On The Trail and Legion Of Lust, where I reimagiined history from a queer perspective. Most of what I experienced at school got reimagined by Betty Bones and Mary Harlot. So much so that I’m never quite sure what was real and what wasn’t. Truly,there was murder, and drunken nuns, and beatings, and imposter clergy who were surreptitiously ghosted away one night… some of which I might write about in later blogs (spoilers!)

One year, there were a spate of incidents in our library , ruled at that time by Mary Harlot and Betty Bones under the guise of Head Librarians, deciding which pupils would or wouldn’t be ‘allowed’ to take out books. It was an old library in a converted part of a beautiful chapel, with a simple shelving system involving boards held up by metal clips inserted into a metal frame. Like meccano.  Someone discovered that you could remove the clips and prop the shelf above up with a larger book. Unfortunately, if the book was taken away, the whole shelf of books fell down on the unsuspecting reader as onlookers stood by laughing. Thus was born The Phantom Clipper Nicker, fearsomely striking on many, many occasions. Our staff librarian, nicknamed Old Mother Diptheria for no other reason than she was elderly, noticed a reference book in the wrong place and attermpted to remove it, only for a shelf full of books to topple on to her. Help Me, she begged ,from under dusty tomes,  her weak, wizened  old hand was attempting to hold up. Unsuspecting new boys were directed by The Phantom and his/her accomplices to ominous looking tomes, unwaware of the fate that was due to befall them. Bodies In The Library. Rather appropriately, I last saw the library used for a location for the cosy clerical murder mystery series Father Brown   – but there was no sign of The Phantom Clipper Nicker.

When I left my friend, after a couple of hours of tea and gossip, I found myself crying for no apparent reason.  I do that these days. Perhaps it was another ‘Brokeback Moment’, perhaps it was just the events of the last three months catching up with me, perhaps it was 20 years of life being crammed into a couple of hours of tea and gossip.  Or perhaps The Phantom Clipper Nicker had struck once more ….