By ANTHONY HOWELL.
Stimulating wholesome, representative
Eagerness in a positively affirmative
Language, always appropriately signed
While accompanied by smiles
Visibly inclusive and assessed for friendliness,
Happily, there now can be endorsed
A response to a dialogue of virtually
Unanimous agreement regarding
The censorship of the negative
Aptly yet respectfully enforced…”
RECENTLY, I ASKED Stewart Home if I could read his latest novel, Art School Orgy. He kindly sent me the text. It describes goings on in the ’60s at the Royal College of Arts, most of these shenanigans being wildly homoerotic trade-offs serving the students’ overweening ambitions in the art world. Influence exchanged for favours. It’s well-written, might be a turn on if you were gay. It makes no attempt to camouflage the now famous participants by giving them fictitious names. It’s about the most scandalous text I have read of a time I have lived through. Actually, although straight, as I saw myself then (now I would call myself bent), with my ballet background, I knew most of these people and was often invited to parties in the role of cook. It’s not quite how I remember it, but Art School Orgy reads like a camp thriller, highly amusing, and unpublishable, especially in these woke days. So maybe it’s time to review unpublishable books.
Home is known for his non-narrative 69 Things to Do with a Dead Princess (Canongate, 2002). It tells the story of a suicidal man investigating a theory about the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, with much explicit sex and philosophical debate. But note that it was positively reviewed by The Times and the London Review of Books. An exponent of an anarchic neoism that thrives like a mean cultural virus in a network of performance and media researchers, he also wrote a re-imagining of the 1960s in Tainted Love (2005) as well as many other ardent and indeed inflammatory texts. This is writing with no holds barred. Home will plagiarise, defame and exaggerate, using pornography and agitation to create garish and subversive literature. That said, he might counter criticism by saying that freedom of speech is at stake. We make much of this freedom, but libel laws and the prohibition of hate-speech tend to sap its foundations.
Without such daring literature, we grow soft. The giveaway Evening Standard no longer has a foreign news page, though it may include the occasional feature on some foreign affair. It suggests to me a court circular for plebs; packed with news of the Kardashians and other celebs, feeding the fashionable panic of our times, but without any actuality that matters. When did this cancellation of anything resembling news begin? For a poet, in our time, my instinct tells me it began with the social prohibition of words. Prancing Nigger, Nigger’s Heaven – you can’t have books with titles like that any more – if written by someone with a pale skin – so goodbye Ronald Firbank – whose wonderful stories mingle exotic cultures as if they were rare colours, creating a sensuous, imaginary world which is entirely his own. Goodbye Carl Van Vechten, whose description of Harlem in the twenties was dismissed by whites as describing a far too sophisticated culture – in which black people recognised Beethoven, Pushkin and Dumas as their antecedents – though the black readership took the title as an insult, since the book was written by a white man. And now we get a schism in culture in which black people blithely use the N word, while it’s forbidden to those of us whose skin is of the wrong hue. So the ban on the word has actually caused more racial separation than it has quelled. We can’t use “retarded” – since it is supposed to imply some sort of insult to the mentally impaired (am I allowed to use “impaired”?). And where will this end? Will males be forbidden to create female characters and vice versa? That will be the death of the novel.
Nobody Left (Fantagraphics Books, US 2020) by left-wing cartoonist Mr. Fish, is a very knowingly-illustrated book of essays and conversations with radicals, progressives and cultural icons about the end of dissent, revolution and liberalism in America. It is dedicated to social critic Chris Hedges, has a piece about outspoken journalist Christopher Hitchens, and comes with eulogies to Norman Mailer, Abbie Hoffman, et al. It’s almost coffee-table size: a handsome survey of the demise of radical thought since the ’60’s – but its publication suggests a resurgence, a new thirst for a truly outlandish freedom of expression, a right to use any word in the language, any name, a liberty well-nigh eroded by the cancel culture of more recent times.
And now Dana Gillespie’s autobiography Weren’t Born a Man (Hawksmoor Publishing 2020) comes through the letter-box. Fabulous blues singer, and Mary Magdalene in the original London production of Jesus Christ Superstar, Dana featured in films by Nicolas Roeg and Ken Russell, and used to organise the Mustique Blues Festival, maybe she still does. I am a huge fan of Dana’s. We share a great-great grandfather, and I shared many a ski-lift with her, when she was about eight, and maybe I was twelve. I used to tell her stories I’d made up, romantic ones, being already a fledgling writer back then.
Now Dana has stories to tell herself, and these are wonderfully entertaining. Some of her memories show just how much the world has changed since she and I were children. It was a world where helicopter parents were unheard of, and it was one in which the prudish minders of today’s mores would feel most uncomfortable:
My father always kept the lavatory door open when he used it himself, and sometimes he wandered around the house in the nude. One time, he answered the front door of the house in London absolutely starkers; the startled but understanding woman standing there said, “Henry, must you be so naked? You could at least wear a hat!”
In her teens, she became British water-ski champion and held the title for four years! Her sister Nixi was more my age, so in those days I knew Nixi better. I got to know Dana again in the late ’60s. Our patch was between Kensington and Sloane Square, whilst she shone in the West End – as she swiftly became the most sought after voice for the musicals.
Here she describes an incident from earlier days, while she was on a skiing scholarship:
The fact that my two ski instructors played the drums, in two different local bands, meant that I would watch them play, rather than going to bed early to be in good shape for the following day.
In the ski resorts, they always say that the foreign girls lose their virginity to the skilehrers (ski instructors), and I was no exception. I had been part of one of the junior teams that went to Arosa for the British Junior Ski Championships, and as we were housed in a hotel away from parental guidance it was — I suppose — inevitable what would happen. On the first evening there, after dinner, I had a ski waxing session with one of the instructors. This was important, as having the wrong sort of wax on the bottom of your skis can significantly slow you down. Anyway, after this was done, he invited me to his room, and not really knowing what would happen (but knowing something probably would) I went with him.
It’s not necessary to give him a name as he might want to forget the whole event, and in those days you could get six months in prison for sleeping with a minor. Although I was only 13, I looked much older, as I was tall, already large-busted, and had taken to putting blonde peroxide streaks in my waist-length hair. He knew my age, and in a way we were good friends — as much as pupil and trainer ever can be — and I absolutely don’t regret it at all.”
Such a breath of fresh air to read her here! Why should we be so afraid of people’s frank responses to their own experiences? Dana steered her own course through London’s entertainment scene with independence and aplomb. If you are into the world of the blues and popular song and celebrity, you will love this book. Accompanied by great illustrations, we engage through her with the music stars of her time, and mine. Its pages drip names like drops of sugary fruit. Dana has lived many lives, making a success of them all.
As is Stewart Home (and alongside her contemporary, Marianne Faithfull), Dana Gillespie is a tough. I think of Heathcote Williams, who wrote the hit ’60s play AC/DC. He was a tough. Maybe the last brilliant piece of tough literature I recall reading is The Sexual Life of Catherine M. (Editions du Seuil, 2021) by Catherine Millet, longtime editor of Art Press. Sex for its own sweet sake, described, outdoors and indoors, from dogging in the Bois de Boulogne to doing it in lifts. What makes the book so delightful is its organisation: the indoors compared to the outdoors – such a lovely structural idea. So the book is elegant as well as being tough. But where can we find toughs and tough literature today?
Does it — or they — exist? It is rare for tough literature to win prizes. It arouses strong supporters and equally vociferous detractors. Toughs make enemies. That is, their writing makes enemies for them. Toughs can be careless as to the formatting of a book. I like indented paragraphs or a complete line break between one paragraph and the next. Flash literature often does neither. Punk poetry — or aural poetry that gets printed — often fails to acknowledge where a line has over-run, again providing no indentation or indication. I am more appalled by these sloppy practices than whether you are inviting the reader to pee on your labia.
I see Takako Arai as a tough. An excellent translation by Jeffrey Angles and others from the Japanese of her Factory Girls came out in 2019 from Action Books. That year her poems were short-listed for the Sarah Maguire Prize. In my opinion, her book should have won. For me it was the poetry book of its year. Following in the footsteps of tough Japanese poet Kazuko Shiraishi (the Allen Ginsburg of Japan), Arai describes factory life in Japan and being the telephone operator, calling out if a worker got a call in the loom-shop operated by women where she worked as a girl, and she evokes it in rhythmic poetry which reminds me of Vachel Lindsay. Her poetry also has a cadenced Walt Whitman feel, but with a wonderful dragon-spiralling vocabulary like embroidery from the East that floats in and out of the verse and makes it utterly distinctive. She also recites it with verve. Her poetry deals in repetitions and riffs, as she calls out Yai-Chan, who is the best weaver for the robes of the monks, and finds her in a back-room:
Yai-Chan had been doing it
During the lunch-breaks with Shõ-Chan who fixed the looms.
Women are always getting called out! The writing is both abstract and forcefully direct. No mean trick. And no word-mincing. Takako Arai can write direct poems about stock prices, the inanities of fashion, and a great poem called “Membrane” about condoms. Here is the first verse:
Long, long ago
In Ancient Egypt – 3000 BC –
They were made, it is said, of billy-goat bladders and piglet appendixes
So they really were membranes
To begin with
Slaves who carried the pyramid stones
Surely in the night
Not only swilled
But slipped it on and humped….”
No subject is beyond the pale for her. But she is more than a one-trick toughie. She appreciates craft and can use it to subtle effect. And she has a lyrical way with metaphor. Here is her poem “Shadows”:
In this place suddenly thrown into disarray
It is impossible to distinguish
Between what is garbage
What is not and what is still useable
So much earth, sand and dust
Has fallen that
Everywhere I see
A great can of refuse
The mucus I wipe on my sleeve is black
My throat and lungs are eroded
Let it be, just the way it is…
Listless and resigned, I roll up my sleeves
And muster what little enthusiasm I can
I can’t let this be turned into a vacant lot
At least until I pick up the marble
I dropped here before things got this way
At least until I pick through the refuse
And save at least one suitcase’s worth of pure junk
This place will be completely stripped away
This place will disappear
I must stretch out my hands
And hold fast to
The shadows of this land
Even if only in a suitcase I will surely
Never open again
THE FLASH-LIT SCENE is now producing some vigorous writing. It’s a genre that seems inspired partly by Kafka’s shortest pieces of writing, partly by the prose-poems of Rimbaud. It seeks to suggest narrative, allude to a story or encapsulate the essence of a story in a paragraph. In 2008, Cinnamon Press brought out Holly Howitt’s flash collection Dinner Time. The writing is imagist and dreamlike at the same time, with violent undertones. Despite my objections to flash-lit formatting, I have enjoyed immersing myself in these short pieces, but what I found most arresting is Howitt’s novella, The Schoolboy (Cinnamon, 2009) – so it’s an earlier work, and does little to answer my enquiry about today’s tough writing, but boy, does it pack a punch!
I read it from cover to cover in one sitting. It’s written in the first person present of a schoolboy who has intellectual pretensions and who is meant to be preparing for his exams, but his mind is overwhelmed by his crush on a teacher, by his hormones, and by a context that brutalises him rather than educates him further. His family has ceased to function since his brother met with an accident on the rocks during a seaside holiday. It is possible that violence was done to him. We learn fragments of this back story as the claustrophobia of the classrooms and the school corridors, and the bad smells begin to cause nausea and the callousness of teen life gets under our skin. Every teacher has an obscene nickname, and sex is notched up without focus on enjoyment. Then there is a suggestion that the teachers themselves are in collusion with the subterfuges of their squalid and degenerate pupils. This is hinted at through the schoolboy’s relationship with the headmaster:
‘Have you been to see nurse?’ He faces me, ninety degrees from the class. He is speaking more softly than before.
‘No, Sir. I’m fine. Didn’t sleep well. Just tired.’ I would say that I am usually very articulate, but even I am frightened of Gravy, especially as I just ran out of his address to be sick, and I haven’t done as bid. Well, I hate our school nurse, who is fat with terrifying tits, and who smells like dog daisies. But fuck knows what he makes of my disobedience. He’s an odd man, his beady eyes always aimed above your head and leaving big gaps in his speech. But what scares me is his volatile temper. Well, it’s bad according to Ben, anyway. I look at Gravy’s mouth, which is at my eye level, and at his thin grey moustache. It’s scrupulously clean. He’s only a few inches away from me. I bet he’s obsessive about being clean. I wonder if he takes six sugars in his tea, like Hitler. Perhaps there is more than a passing resemblance to them, after all.”
There is plenty about school, and the private places every school secretes, and about those wild parties at home when parents are away, orgies that we can all recognise and identify with because we have been there ourselves. But at some point we have to acknowledge that perhaps we are living inside the mind of an adolescent rapist. Like a good painting, a good book can invoke a mood or a feeling, and contrary to current publication dictats, the mood does not have to be one generated by Soma (the bliss-drug of Brave New World), and the feeling doesn’t have to “feel good”. Holly Howitt’s novella evokes a mood of menace. I haven’t been so engaged by such a feeling, mixed with a fascinated horror, since reading Harriet by Elizabeth Jenkins – which describes the neglect suffered by a retarded heiress and her child.
Incidentally, Harriet is given the attention it deserves in an assessment by Hayley Anderton on her blog – Desperate Reader:
Jenkins paints a horrific portrait of Harriet’s fate. She’s incarcerated in an attic, her clothes removed and given to her husband’s mistress to pick over, she is steadily terrorised, starved, and probably beaten, she becomes filthy and lice infested losing the outward trappings of humanity. She must have watched as her child wastes away until he’s taken away from her hours before he dies, and then finally she too is at death’s door whilst all the time Patrick, Lewis, Elizabeth, and Alice watch on, their own lives made comfortable by her money.”
Tough literature is defined by its willingness to make use of hard language in order to tackle tough subjects: tough subjects are the touchy ones, at which toughs lunge, aiming for the heart: subjects which are in poor taste, subjects which we like to sweep under the carpet. Okay, so, I admit it: I’ve got an axe to grind– my own novel about cot-death was published last December and has already sunk like a stone. It seems that nothing gets much attention these days unless written by some… and here, in my mind, I launch into expletives – a tirade of unprintable epithets. Hey, wait! I am not allowed to use such loathsome language, not permitted to say such ill-mannered things. And the abuse I mete out – it’s not true of course. But the issue isn’t whether my outburst is true or not. The issue is freedom, and my right to use wrong words. But there’s no denying I feel embarrassed using them.
Words which become taboo gain potency. They have not disappeared. Their excision from “decent” speech and writing does not alter the fact that they are being thought, emailed in private and used in derogatory jokes (as becomes apparent from the unofficial messages of the Metropolitan Police). Most of such words concern the genitals, slavery and power, deviance, and the religion or race of others. For all that, language itself gains vigour from mixing all words in its melting pot. We use naughty words at intimate moments. Any two words create a new colour – just as we mix two primaries to get green. We use these words to let off steam in private. Too much surveillance, too authoritarian a view, and we start to feel that our thoughts are being policed. In our hearts, we resist.
As a dated pallid out of touch with the zeitgeist, I might wish to curse some poet from an ethnic minority favoured and fêted today. However, I’ve a black grandchild, and I guess that in my ancestry I’ve been black for a few generations, and probably yellow as well. As with most of our gene pools, my own is far more mixed than how I may happen to appear, considering the thousands of generations I go back, as we all do, which is good for hybrid vigour. In 2018, Kate Clanchy edited an anthology called England: Poems from a School (Picador) – which introduced poems written by pupils for many ethnic backgrounds. Later, in Some Kids I Taught and What they Taught Me, her autobiography about teaching in schools with a large number of children from migrant backgrounds, Clanchy adopted the notion of seeming a vulnerable ego, a persona; that of being a naive, middle-aged, middle-class woman with a fair number of pre-assumptions about her students and a curiosity about their ethnic backgrounds. Then she allowed these unconscious prejudices to get peeled away as she got to know her pupils better. She may have erred on the side of encouraging the children to identify with their history, when often our particular enthusiasms come to the fore if we emancipate ourselves from our background, but that failing cannot justify the onslaught of outrage that she has since sustained, despite initially being awarded the George Orwell prize. It cannot excuse the abuse meted out, and the accusation of being patronising (which carries with it an inherently colonialist implication). Certainly it cannot justify her publishers taking it upon themselves to apologise on her behalf and to disavow their interest in publishing her books. Worse, to my mind, is the fact that she has been attacked for saying that someone has ‘almond eyes’ or for referring to a big nose. If we take offence at all words dealing with appearance we bowdlerise life itself. Such attacks spell the death of description.
Our right to use slang is not excluded from this picturing. Slang adds shades. English is enriched by having Latin and Anglo-Saxon roots, among a myriad others. This enables writers to choose their words, to add context, emotion, or to flatter or insult – such concepts are colours when applied to narrative, and indeed to poetry, as is clear from the dramatic irony of Browning’s My Last Duchess.
So if I project myself as a racist scoundrel with sour grapes in some remark that uses the word forbidden to whites, as well as a word which implies that some of us may be impeded in some way, well, at least the language, when allowed to employ its full range of vocabulary, can actually create that projection still, and such expression is what enriches meaning. Used with some degree of wit, the insults may actually generate humour – even the butt of a joke may crack a smile. We disparage humour at our peril! The notion of banning all “hate speech” takes us down a slippery slope. Those cursing duels called “flytings” held before the Scots kings depended on a richly incorrect vocabulary for their poetic effect (and also influenced rap). James Baldwin had to be tough to write Giovanni’s Room, as he dealt with the issue of being both black and gay – gayness being anathema to that fiction known as the “black community”.
Censorship is like racism: it seeks to purify. To establish a single moral stock. But the thoroughbred breeding inherent to such a project, the eugenic idealism encapsulated in the notion of “one morality for all”, weakens the language, relieves it of its antibodies and renders it insipid, dull and easily infected by mass psychosis and the fake news projected not by so-called conspiracy theorists but by the media establishment on the payroll of ethno-philanthropists.
I’m hoping that the Bad Betty Press is part of the pushback against the wokeness which is putting us to sleep. They published Tom Bland’s Death of a Clown in 2018, and last year they brought out Camp Fear – a sizable collection of his latest poems. From the title, we get a sense of the ambiguities we will have to negotiate when reading his work. Are we dealing with genuine paranoia or a mere pose? Is the writing tough or is it trendy? I think the author wishes us to inhabit that uncertainty. His sense of what a poem might be differs from my own rather tight-arsed sense of form. But I’ve discussed more open possibilities in an article I wrote a while ago for The Fortnightly called “On ‘Freeing Up’“. Tom Bland is not concerned with sonnets and villanelles.
Bland is obsessed with his own sexuality, with naming the gay bars he insists he frequents, with cataloguing the tequila consumed, the lines of coke snorted, the chemicals secured in some lavatory. So there’s a crowing confessionality here, since Bland likes to boast about what a bad boy he has been. This in itself raises doubts. Maybe, in “reality” the poet simply shelters behind his laptop, making it all up. But I’m not going to pick a quarrel with Camp Fear over that. Fantasy has always been a writer’s prerogative, and the imagination can be more powerful than experience. So I am happy to imagine the poet dreaming up a fluorescently-coloured life for himself from the outer Hebrides of the Central Line. Nor do I take offence at the boastful Bland. Plenty of poets have been boasters, and plenty of poems have begun as boasts – as to how many of the infidel you have slain, or how many camels you slaughtered for your wedding breakfast.
Why am I being so generous? The book has one saving grace. It is eminently readable. There’s an economy to the writing. It moves deftly from one idea to the next. It’s not concerned with “being poetry” in any conventional sense, but the images it affords the reader are crisply presented. It’s a poetry of chunks. One nugget of writing juxtaposed with the next. You may get irritated, but you never get bored, for the language bounces pretty tightly from one sentence to another, and that keeps me reading. It should be noted that Bad Betty has done Bland proud. The book is elegantly produced. It feels great in the hands.
One conceit adopted is that of the psycho-analytic session, and this works well, as it enables statements to be questioned, undermined perhaps, and thus a particular stated motive may then be revealed as a ploy to camouflage some cause of disturbance that has have been lurking beneath the surface. The poet has a keen glance. He observes the analyst as much as the analyst observes him, and this allows a wry wit to emerge – and while the book is obsessed with its own I, fictional or not, the events described entertain:
I said to my therapist,
“I remember cruising at Fist, which had an area
enclosed by camouflage netting,
where all the action happened: weird how
just masturbated until the libido acted as gravity
or whatever pulling them into each other.”
“In Fist, Dennis Nilsen was both feared and idolised:
photos of him were posted
above the urinals
as a warning
or a sick joke, it was hard to tell.”
“It still bothers me as a child, I
couldn’t vocalise well enough
to be understood. People just heard a blur
of sounds, not words,
not anything they could comprehend.”
“Do you think that’s why you
allowed a man to strangle you during sex?”
And so the poem unspools its story, continuing into even more intriguing detail, with a journalist’s impulse to get to the core of the matter.
Not much grace saves C+nto (Westbourne Press, 2021), the book that has just won the T.S. Eliot Prize, though it comes with plenty of endorsements, and it is clear that Joelle Taylor, its author, is political flavour of the year (unlike the scapegoated Kate Clanchy). The book reads like an advertisement for a fetish. It emphasises the author’s sexual predilection to an excessive degree. However, if you don’t share the particular itch that gets Taylor scratching, you don’t have a hope of getting much out of the book. Dislocated prose fragments separated by spaces or obliques occupy many of its pages, while sartorial lyrics invoke a dress-code that means little to me. It feels like one long advert for being what a little Dutch boy stuck his finger into.
It’s Byronic almost, the way so many contemporary authors seem to prefer to be singled out for what they are, for what they do and for what they represent, rather than for the quality of their writing. The elevation of Taylor’s monomania reads like the very worst patronage on the part of the judges – the epitome of what Clanchy is being accused of, and that must be sad for its author – I can’t see why she entered the competition, since such a reading of any favourable outcome must have seemed inevitable.
Is it tough to be a butch? Maybe, maybe not. In contrast to the homeostatic theory of Freud, René Girard posits imitation as the underlying force informing sexual desire – see Deceit, Desire and the Novel (Johns Hopkins, 1976). Tough female role-models are the rage these days. The next James Bond movie will feature a female Bond known as Jamie. As men become increasingly doe-eyed, society insists on its women being weaponised. So butch-ness is now a trend. Frankly I revel in tales of warrior queens, and the thought that Joan of Arc was but one of the tough females serving in the armies of the Middle Ages. But whether the writer be butch, whether the matter of the writing be tough or delicate, the reader needs to be entertained – by the wit, by the music, the extravagance perhaps. Entertained by C+nto, I am not, or not very much. If anything, I can on occasion get involved in Taylor’s writing when it feels difficult, as in “Fist Fucking in the Yemen”:
one man knocks at the door but five push their way in ransack the living room kindly their pockets plump with misgiving pull out a string of coded handkerchiefs pull a woman from a rabbit a puppet show erupts inside a boi & suddenly jazz (you & me boyband, baby) I fell in love with the way men die we have been here before a small child has fallen down a hole & a dog comes to shout about it so you go in crawl belly white note the shadow of your father mottling the wall the job is too big, so you call for help & it helicopters in it launches in it tanks on in & afterward you write a song about it. I like my women bored and neurotic, when you sleep, you dream of men standing still. there is a lock & the lock is also the key & what you need to do is turn yourself.”
I’ll admit to finding a gnarled strength in that last sentence. There’s a hat-tip to modernism at work – so it’s ok to go abstract here, and then bring in detail that requires a glossary to get us closer to what is meant by the particular word (like boi) or a phrase in the jargon of a cult that fancies the same genitals as your own.
But Emma Hammond does modernist difficulty better, as in her new book Valour (Broken Sleep Books, 2021), and she does it with less of an agenda to grind. So now you had better unfriend me, diss me and order your own copy of C+nto in righteous disdain of my lack of insight as to its merits, since Taylor is a widely anthologised, award-winning poet, a former UK slam champ, and co-curator of Out-Spoken, the UK’s premier poetry and music club. But hold on. Perhaps this slam origin should be given some thought.
That aspirational duality of plebian and patrician insight that we associate with Shakespeare managed to unify a mixed audience – or so the theory goes. But literature has undergone a split. Slam poets are born up and along by praise from the inarticulate – always eager to spout their own stuff. Up until now this uneducated horde has just aroused the censure of the elite. However, the elite now feel their ground to be shaky, and so they have taken to arse-licking instead. The horde has grown too huge. And if being a masculine lesbian is theme, subject and motive for the writing here, at least it’s got a nice clubby feel to it, and is kinda correct in an anti-macho world. So how apt, proper and right it is for the uber-established judges of such a worthy competition to award their prize to Taylor in a spirit of equity appropriate to our awakened times.
There’s an irony in this that I appreciate. The literary establishment— that is, the commercially published establishment — here in the UK has always frowned on abstract writing and kept the gates closed against us that have engaged in such. But they can’t keep out the slammers. That horde has too many buyers in it to be stopped.
Since my days with the ballet, I have known and admired many queer artists and authors, perhaps more than I admire the straights. But I don’t need anyone’s habits thrust in my face. The point about Catherine Millet is that, like Catullus, she has style! She has her pithy moments. She explores situations, she intrigues us and our brows get raised as she recounts each amusing incident. But when it comes to other “straight” authors who make public how they get their rocks off, well, we all get our rocks off somehow, just as we all have aunties who pass away, and in general literature spun from such cliché experiences leaves me pretty cold. For instance, I find Henry Miller’s Tropics dull, with their repetitive, and exhaustive, descriptions of relatively predictable if Bohemian encounters. Oscar Wilde may have been gay, but being gay is not what he writes about. George Sand wrote about everything. Ashbery’s poetry works for whoever may care to read it.
I am no more interested in the local vicissitudes of being a small lesbian female with a preference for Harris Tweed than I am in the flavours of fish-bait. I’m neither a fish nor a fisherman, so I wouldn’t bother to pick up a book on the merits of choosing the right worm for your hook. And while this may offend some of you and send you scurrying for the trigger-recovery room, me? Well, as with the Turner Prize, and as with the slew of competitions that has grown like a cancer out of the ever-so-spurious creative writing industry, the T.S. Eliot caper sends me off in search of a gutter into which to vomit. Representatives of niche perversities are not necessarily tough – when it comes to their writing. But hold on, I’ve admitted to a gnarled strength. So just can’t get away from the acidity of my own grapes.
Anthony Howell, a former dancer with the Royal Ballet, was founder of The Theatre of Mistakes and performed solo at the Hayward Gallery and at the Sydney Biennale. His articles on visual art, dance, performance, and poetry have appeared in many publications including Art Monthly, The London Magazine, Harpers & Queen, The Times Literary Supplement. He is a contributing editor of The Fortnightly Review. In 2001 he received a LADA bursary to study the tango in Buenos Aires and now teaches the dance at his studio/gallery The Room in Tottenham Hale. He is the author of a seminal textbook, The Analysis of Performance Art: A Guide to Its Theory and Practice. Details about his collaborative project, Grey Suit Online, are here. In 2019, his exploration of psychic chaos, Multilation (with Consciouness), was published by the Fortnightly’s imprint, Odd Volumes. His latest collection is From Inside (The High Window).