The Leather Boys
Gillian Freeman, originally published under the pseudonym Eliot George
275 pages • Anthony Blond • 1961 [PB]
Titles can lead-in or mislead. The Leather Boys, as titles go, is redolent of a mid-sixties Warhol yawnfest or one of Kenneth Anger’s impenetrable, terrifying underground cinematic assaults. It even suggests a debt to Tom of Finland. But it’s as British as a barm cake. The Leather Boys is a 1961 London pulp novel by Gillian Freeman, and later made into a New Wave Brit flick in 1963 by the aptly named Sidney Furie. It is about two late-teen, working-class, south London ton-up biker boys who find themselves surprised, unnerved & ultimately confused to discover they’re in love with each other.
I became a fan of the film as a teenager, discovering it late one night on BBC2, back in the days when terrestrial television cared to bring great cinema to the masses. This was long before I became a swallow-tattooed card-carrying Smiths fan (St Morrissey is a huge, huge fan of this peon to proley poof passion) but it somehow seemed to reflect my feelings far greater than Queer as Folk, which was in full swing at the time and being lauded as a realistic a representation of gay life as we’d ever seen. Well … maybe it was, maybe it did reflect a certain reality. But not mine.
I suppose feeling greater affinity with two rockabilly bikers (Reg and Dick – ah, those solid monosyllabic working-class boy-names!) making nervy, burning eyes at each other across a frothy-coffee-splattered Formica table top in a Battersea café in 1963 meant that I wasn’t happy where I was. Too right! A combo of teenage self-loathing, boys on my mind, the universe at large telling me I was The Worst Person in The World Ever because of it, the working-class suburbs of Sheffield, lack of stimulation in every sense and dying, dying, dying all the time for life to BEGIN didn’t make me too approachable. And so I sought solace in another time, another place – albeit one where I’d have been slung in Pentonville at the first indiscretion. And this is my point – I felt so out of it, such a classic timeworn cliché of a misfit’s misfit that the only place I could recognise myself was in a three-decade old film. Why?
I think class had as much to do with it as anything.
All the gay novels I’d come across (stop sniggering at the back, etc) either featured languid toffs in white flannels lying on river banks and making allusions to their ‘proclivities’ and dreaming of the stable boy back at their parents’ estate, or two solicitors from Richmond meeting in the gents at Paddington and one finding the other dead by his own hand after six tentative months’ of clandestine meetings. I’d read Genet, but despite my burning need to become a bohemian I didn’t much fancy being a self-loathing softy getting all wet over illiterate brutes well into my old age. Then there were Mary Renault’s novels – a veritable ‘catalogue of upper-class buggery’. Pah. Where were my kind? They were in the post-Elvis, pre-Beatles era, engineer-booted and frothily quiffed, Romeo and Romeo in Wandsworth Town. Their tentative nervousness resonated with me, too: in the book, they don’t even kiss till page 89, and of course, all kisses in the film are off-screen (though you’ve no doubt they’ve taken place). In the book, as the sun cuts through the curtains The Morning After, the awkwardness and burning need of the boys to acknowledge what they’ve done is palpable. Neither boy starts taking trips into Soho or Earl’s Court with their newly discovered desires. Neither boy seeks others of his ilk. Neither even knows what’s happening:
“I love you,” Dick said. He couldn’t believe he’d said it… didn’t know how to go on. “When you kiss me and that,” he said at last, nervously, “you don’t pretend I’m a girl or anything?”
“Don’t be daft!” Reggie said. “How could I pretend you was a girl? You’re the wrong shape anyway.”
That’s not what I meant , thought Dick.’
And yet their love seems natural and real. Far more than any of the middle-class characters featured in the (admittedly groundbreaking) film Victim, which came out the same year as Freeman’s novel, but two years before Furie’s film. In Victim, one of the sad-eyed young men says, ‘Nature played a nasty trick on me.’ But having discovered The Leather Boys, I was beginning to feel less like him and more like I might have my own Reggie one day (and I have). Having long made good my escape and being one of the most well-read and well-viewed idiots in the western world, I still struggle to find reflections of my reality in queer literature and film and I still see all this through the prism of class and roots (for me, class is about where you’re from, not where you are). Today it seems, the nearest you’ll come to a working-class gay love story is one you dial a number to hear (‘Shagged dole officer for crisis loan – 0800 555555’) Poverty? Prostitution? Phwoar!
Unless their generation’s fondness for chuffing unfiltered Players and their gang’s love of speeding up and down slick arterial roads didn’t get them, I like to think of Reg and Dick retired together, engineer boots side by side in the hallway, living in the now as we ideally should, because ‘now’ is all there is.