220 pages • Arcadia Books • February 18, 2010
Rupert Smith’s novel Man’s World is published later this month. It is the story two men from two different generations that explores both the gay scene of London today and the underground scene of fifty years ago.
Polari talked to Rupert on the eve of the book’s publication.
I thought it would be a good idea to start with a potted history of your work as a novelist. You’re three-people-in-one, aren’t you?
I am currently three people in one. My real name is Rupert Smith and under that name I’ve been writing what can loosely be called literary fiction with a significant gay content. The first was published in 1988. Man’s World is my fourth novel under that name. I also write erotic fiction under the name James Lear, which I’ve been doing since the early noughties. The sixth one of those is out this year. And under the name Rupert James I write commercial women’s fiction, the second of which is coming out this year. It’s the only way I’ve found to make any money out of it. I no longer have a day job. I was a journalist for many years but I gave that up a couple of years ago to concentrate on writing books. This is my living. I don’t have a private income, like a lot of authors seem to have, so I have to write a couple of books of year. If I just wrote literary fiction I’d be in the gutter.
You are a rather prolific writer.
I work 9 to 5 five days a week. People say, ‘wow, you’re so prolific, how do you do it?’ It’s no secret. I work 9 to 5 five days a week.
You’re not one of those writers who agonises over every paragraph, then?
They’re not writers. There’s another word for them that begins with ‘w’ and ends with ‘ers’. But it’s not writers.
It’s a job. You can’t sit around working in a bank waiting for inspiration and struggling. You’d be sacked. There are good days and bad days, but you still have to do it, but you can’t just sit there waiting for the muse.
What was the inspiration for Man’s World?
The germ of it was that many years ago I wrote a book called Physique, which was a biography of an eccentric character called John Barrington, who was among other things a physique photographer in the post-war period. He took photographs of men in the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s. Through him I found out about this secretive gay world, a lot of which focused around physique culture, and these A5 magazines with titles like Man’s World, which were a covert gay press. When the book was published I started to get a lot of letters from people who knew stuff about that era and who wanted to tell me their stories. I started almost by accident to accrue a lot of material about that world. It’s a wonderful history that has not been written about much. Not the British side of it, anyway. This is the time leading up to the Wolfenden Report and then up to the Sexual Offences Act ten years later.
And the time of Polari.
It was the crucible in which our life today was formed. I strongly believe that. I wanted to do something with this material. I was originally going to do a non-fiction book, but a) the copyright issues would have been a nightmare, because I would have wanted to illustrate it, and chasing the down the copyright for hundreds of photographs is not a job I would want to do; and b) I wanted to bring it to life, and as I’m not a historian I thought I would do it as fiction, as that is something I can do.
Originally I was going to write it as a single narrative set in that period. I tried a couple of versions and it was as dead as a dodo. I couldn’t make it come to life. I realised in the end that what I was trying to say was that things are very different now to how they were then, so that’s when I came up with the idea of a dual narrative that would contrast the life of two similar young men who are separated by fifty years. One of them is set in the 1950s when the man has just come out of national service and one of them is set today when the man is living the life on the London commercial gay scene.
Why did you choose a very scene-oriented narrator for the current period?
Because it’s the extreme. One of the things that made me want to write this was that I was talking to a lot of younger gay men around the time of the anniversary of the Sexual Offences Act in 2007. The feeling seemed to me that we don’t need to care about this history because look at what we have now, we’ve got the club scene, we’ve got the drugs, we’ve got Abercrombie & Fitch, we’ve got the lifestyle. So I wanted to set it in that world, which was entirely made possible by the struggles of the past but that tends to be a rather inward looking, hedonistic, unanalytical world. I’m not having a go at those people. And I hope Robert is a very sympathetic character but it’s very easy to get so absorbed in that world you don’t look outside of it. It’s an extreme expression of the lifestyle you can have today. What I was writing about fifty years ago was the options available to people then.
Is it difficult to work with a narrator who lives a life that is frustrating to look in at? Is it harder to make him sympathetic?
It wouldn’t be my lifestyle choice. But I had my day. Certainly at the age Robert is, which is coming up to mid-20s, I was doing it. So I know what I’m writing about. I would never attack people’s right to have fun and to indulge in hedonism. And I think that when you’re young that is what you should be doing. But you should also start to think about other things by the time you get to 25.
I think it is a very funny world, the commercial gay scene, and it’s fraught with ridiculousness. There are some fabulous people in on it, but there’s another side of it that is a bit fucked up, really.
Something you have written about elsewhere, and that you touch on in the hedonistic scene in Man’s World, is the trend toward barebacking and how it is caught up in the world of drugs.
It’s not a major thing. The drugs thing, and this endless search for oblivion, freaks me out a bit. You couldn’t go to a club now without being off your head on drugs. You couldn’t tolerate it. It seems to be so much part of the music, the clubs and the sex. I don’t want to sound preachy but this relentless pursuit of oblivion is worrying.
Barebacking really upsets me because so many of my friends died of AIDS. As far as I’m concerned anyone who promotes bareback sex is spitting on the graves of my friends. I can’t get over that.
It’s not something I’ve addressed a lot in this book as it’s another subject, it’s a big subject, it’s one that I feel too emotionally involved with to write about in any sensible way. I find it deeply distressing that the rate of HIV infections for young gay men is rising, and I think we’re failing them and that they’re failing themselves.
There is a lot of graphic sex in the book. Is it there to make a point about the hedonism?
It’s there for two reasons. I’m quite good at writing sex, and people like it. I do write erotic fiction with one of many hats on, and I’m quite good at it. People like reading sexy books. And I wanted this book to be entertaining, so sex, humour and a racy plot is what you need to give people. This book is about the search for love, and sexual identity, sexual fulfilment, so sex was always going to loom large. And it’s about an almost exclusively male environment. Both of the worlds I write about are very body oriented. The 1950s world is centred around this physique culture and the admiration of the body, and the world of today is about taking your shirt off in a club and going to the gym and starving yourself. Sex is a very important part of the gay male identity. That’s hardly a profound insight.
It’s interesting that there is often talk about how the current gay scene is over body oriented as if that is a post-liberation issue, and then you look back to the 1950s and find something very similar.
I don’t think this is an exclusively a gay thing. I think the culture is very body oriented. I think we castigate ourselves for things that are part of the wider culture. I was talking about the search for oblivion through drugs and drink. The gay scene is bad, but the mainstream culture is just as bad if not worse. And the sexualisation of culture is not just a gay thing.
I think we approach the interest in the body in a different way, certainly in the earlier period I am writing about. The body as an image and a symbol was a rallying point for gay men. The physique culture was masquerading as straight, mainstream, they magazines were not hidden. Now it’s still about making yourself look like what you desire.
Perhaps without the mystique though.
I don’t think it’s anything new. It’s no different if you go back to the 1920s, or the 1890s, or any of the other periods where there was a flourishing of gayness. Look at the Greeks. They were mad about the body.
Another issue that you touch on in the book is the gay marriage issue, which is the hot topic of the last few years.
In the broader world I think it’s the most important thing that has happened in the last ten or twenty years. In the eyes of the wider culture it gives us equality and parity. I celebrated my civil partnership last year after being with my partner for seventeen years. While our friends and family all recognised our relationship up that point as a long-lasting committed one, the chance for us to come together and celebrate that union and to have it legally recognised sends out a strong message. It’s a way of saying ‘right, it’s a level playing field from now on’.
I’m baffled by lesbian and gay people who seem to think that this is a bad thing. Why wouldn’t it be a good thing? The argument used to be that we as gay people are special, that what we want is freedom to forge our own special way of life. That’s bollocks. We’re not that different. Some people want long term relationships, some don’t. Some people want to get married, some don’t. At least we’ve got he opportunity to do it now.
I do find these people who cling to their outsider or victim status pathetic and contemptible. Go and live in Iraq if you wan to be a victim.
I never thought it would happen in my lifetime. When I was growing up and coming to terms with my gay identity I would never have dreamed that we would be able to marry, that it would be something where my partner’s family would be there, that everyone would be coming together, and nobody would have any problem with it. I never dreamed of it. It happened so fast.
It has brought to the fore cultural divisions in the West and it has shown just how many people are still opposed to any equality when it comes to homosexuality.
It has become the flashpoint. It’s interesting in America because they have a state-by-state approach and it’s constantly being tested. And the Pope! It depressed me so much. I feel sorry for Christians who are trying to lead decent Christian lives. The Pope is a Pharisee. What he says will go down well with a larger portion of the Catholic Church from cultures where homosexuality is not acceptable. But he is losing the Church. The Church should be a place for good.
It seems to me to be a place for focussing anger, especially with the rise of the ex-gay churches, and politicians like Sarah Palin who promote that without a thought.
I can’t take the ex-gay movement too seriously. People were trying to get me to sign up to something on Facebook, a task force to stop conversion therapy. That’s like staying yes, let’s all sign up to murdering children. Of course were against it, of course these people are lunatics. Of course some vulnerable souls are going to be drawn into it and screwed over by it. But on the other hand life is an attempt to convert you a lot of the time. Don’t get drawn into it. Signing a petition on Facebook isn’t going to stop anything.
Tell me about the House of Homosexual Culture.
The House of Homosexual Culture has been gong for about six years. It’s a loose conglomeration of people coordinated by me who organise events that explore LGBT history and culture. We started off as a group of friends who were frustrated by the lack of opportunity to engage with issues of history and culture. It started off at each other’s houses, and occasionally at pubs, and we would have guest speakers. It got bigger than that and we started in small venues with ticketed events. Then it got bigger still and now we’re resident at the Southbank Centre. We do about 8 to 10 events that explore some aspects of LGBT history. Some of them have been small panel discussions some have been great big events celebrating one individual’s life.
It has snowballed into this thing that has shown there needs to be a more structured engagement with issues of history and culture. It’s not written about much, and it’s not taught in schools. It’s an attempt to let people engage with the material in a live entertaining way. And also to make friends, a provide a place where older people can come and mix with younger people. It informed this book.
One of my main beefs is that the generations don’t get to mix very much. We tend not to have gay family members. You’re lucky to have a gay uncle or aunt who can tell you about how things were in their day. When I was young and first coming out it wasn’t as divided as it is now. One did meet older queens. And we try to do that with the events. Nothing pleases me more than when we have older people and younger people talking afterwards an getting a buzz off each other; and to give the older people, the ones who fought all the battles, a bit of kudos.
It’s good to keep this material in the public eye and to enable people to engage with it.
Man’s World is published by Arcadia Books on February 18, 2010.