27 January 2009

Maurice and other boys

For Jimmy and Michael, brothers-in-arms

Sat up late last night, couldn’t sleep. I’ve been writing none stop recently. Yesterday I re-read Robert Harris “Imperium”, his novel about the great Roman lawyer Cicero (a must read) then sat giggling to Stevie Smith poems for an hour. She was an uncommonly wise and hilarious woman:

Ceux qui luttent
Ceux qui luttent ce sont ceux qui vivent.
And down here they luttent a very great deal indeed.
But if life be the desideratum, why grieve, ils vivent.

Stevie’s poem is such a smart and succinct treatise on life, and so artfully artless as to be perfect. Another one that had me laughing out loud (or ‘lolling’ as seems to be the fashion these days) was her tale of a party drunk possibly with a dark secret. Maybe even a drug habit. I definitely identified with this poem, and my friends will testify to this.

Everything is Swimming
Everything is swimming in a wonderful wisdom
She said everything was swimming in a wonderful wisdom
Silly ass
What a silly woman
Perhaps she is drunk
No I think it is mescalin
Silly woman
What a silly woman
Yes perhaps it is mescalin
It must be something
Her father, they say…
And that funny man William…
Silly ass
What a silly woman
Elle continue de rire comme une hyene

Brilliant stuff. Laughing like a hyena indeed. Stevie Smith turns the establishment on its head at every turn so I am glad that she has become such a national institution, like some kind of mad avenging Edward Lear with a twinset and pearls. I had to just get some light-ish humour in there, as next last night I had to dip into E. M. Forster’s ‘Maurice’, as I had read his letters over Christmas and only having had read a ‘Passage to India’ (and loved it, and subsequently loved the film), and two and a half hours later I had to sit down at the laptop and say something. Because I’d just read my story and of course that was going to get me scribbling. So, a few questions. If you are to be vilified by breathing, why breathe? If you are told what exists within your very core is wrong, why not run from it? A question I am often asked as a gay man from the most thrillingly intelligent people is “What’s it like being gay?” I have spent a lifetime avoiding this question, because it insults me. Other questions, with hyene laughter (but non-funny, in this case) in the background, include “What do you do in bed?” or “Do you give or receive?” Most often this question is asked by women who hardly know you but immediately jump into bed with their new gay best friend. Some gay guys lap that shit up – why wouldn’t they, they are desperate for love, just once to be told “That is OK”. But really they are often exhibits in a rather garish zoo. How to be? That is the question we should all be asking, and in different ways we do. But this is more than mere existential angst, this is making good out of a very dark place. I remember telling my friend once that it had been easy for me growing up gay in the 1990s. Why shouldn’t it have been? But of course, it is easier to say that, than to retell each shaming sequence. The lusting love after friends, the misunderstanding of signals, the need to be touched but the knowledge that you are to be rejected. I realise that a lot of heterosexual people will read this and think ‘the boy is begging for sympathy’. But that is a typical inbred homophobic stance, in a way. The one simple different between Western straights and gays is that the straight people have never once been asked “What’s it like being straight?” or “What do you do in bed?” The natural response is FUCK OFF. I have a million of those little stories, and you probably don’t care. I just need to record all this for posterity so one day I look back and remember that not all I have said and done is a charade. Today on the radio, when America should be rejoicing, I heard some Alabama freak cursing the “black Marxist” for supporting “marrying the gays” and of course we have the horror of Prop 8 to deal with, which to gay couples and gay individuals goes back to that very simple childhood fear: “We do not like you. What you do is wrong. We do not accept you.” No words can explain how sad that makes me feel, because it just adds such power to all the little homophobic off-cuts we shrug off everyday as friendly fire. In E. M. Forster’s “Maurice”, a novel he only allowed to be published after his death in 1970, firstly for fear of recriminations (he wrote it in a year in 1913) and latterly for more sedate worries about its datedness, he puts forward our case sweetly but with bite. I say sweetly, as it is happily unlike the amazing James Baldwin’s more stormy and ultimately tragic work "Giovanni's Room", because Forster was set on a happy ending. The hideous thing is that Forster wrote in 1960: “Since ‘Maurice’ was written there has been a change in the public attitude here: the change from ignorance and terror to familiarity and contempt…We had not realised that what the public really loathes in homosexuality is not the thing itself but having to think about it.” What’s hideous? It is still true. Nearly 50 years later. However, I don’t despair. Neither do I couch myself in grief. I fight against laziness within the ranks as much as outside of it. But I take great strength from heroes and villains such as Forster, Gore Vidal, Baldwin and others, who although with their own terrible foibles, blaze an intelligent and never easy path for us. Neither do I always see fit to work for the tribe. The tribe can be stupid, and grating. But when I hear of happy endings, like Maurice and Alec (even though, that smart cookie Lytton Strachey said “the relationship of the two rested upon curiosity and lust and would only last six weeks”) or my married friends in the real sphere Jimmy and Sergio, or my friends Dani and Steph who are to be joined in love this March, or Michael who has fought all his life for truth in gay representation with his beautiful daughter by his side, I can still rejoice. Hope is a good thing (and I’m a famous cynic, as my blog readers will know). Alec and Maurice are divided by class, and after many ups and downs Alec decides to emigrate to the Argentine. Maurice goes to see him off to get one last glimpse of him, but Alec doesn’t board the boat. Maurice hurries off to their meeting place to see if he is there, never quite hoping that his heart’s joy is about to come true:

“In a little while he would decide what next should be done, but now his head was splitting, every bit of him ached or was useless and he must rest.
The boathouse offered itself conveniently for that purpose. He went in and found his lover asleep. Alec lay piled upon cushions, just visible in the last dying of the day. When he woke he did not seem excited or disturbed and fondled Maurice’s arm between his hand before he spoke. ‘So you got the wire,’ he said.
‘What wire?’
‘The wire I sent off this morning to your house, telling you…’ He yawned. ‘Excuse me, I’m a bit tired, one thing and another… telling you to come here without fail.’ And since Maurice did not speak, indeed could not, he added, ‘And now we shan’t be parted no more, and that’s finished.’

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