When Authors Hide Secrets Part 2
Many authors were only known by what they wrote and a postage-stamp sized photo on a dust jacket. In that sense, at least, they had more freedom than most, for it was all the public knew about them.
Now that social media has provided us with too much information, we can find out pretty much everything we want to know about an author. The actor Tom Tryon was due to star opposite Marilyn Monroe just before she died. He had charm, intelligence, talent and a fan club. When he left the profession and switched to writing, his image retreated with him. As an actor he was all too visible. As an author (and a very successful one) he was no longer noticed.
The opposite happened to Edward Everett Tanner III, who wrote under the pseudonym of Patrick Dennis. He was living a quiet life, married with two kids, and then wrote the novel ‘Mame’, a frothy flamingo of a book that became a movie and a musical.
Over in England, coded writing rather suited our natural sense of hypocrisy. We always loved being furtive. The mistresses of Henry VIII tripped through secret passages, and the strip club girls of Soho ushered punters downstairs into near-beer traps they had to pay to get escape from. The gay bars were gaudy little dumps with red velvet curtains and tiny dance floors, run by theatrically camp staff. And the writers jotted down everything they saw and experienced.
The best way to write about any closed group of people is to see it from outside as well as inside. Colin Wilson was 24 and living on Hampstead Heath when he wrote ‘The Outsider’ in 1956. At the same time Colin MacInnes was writing ‘Absolute Beginners’, taking as his subjects urban squalor, racial tension, homosexuality, drugs, anarchy, and the new decadence.
Noel Coward was not yet 25 when he wrote ‘The Vortex’, about nymphomania and drug addiction. This son of a piano salesman became London’s bad boy, upsetting the old order by being interviewed in his dressing gown and smoking what people assumed to be opium. He was simply backstage during breaks, but loved remoulding his image. It was a rare case of the author encouraging, even daring, his public to decode his work.
Everything changed in the sixties and seventies. Governments were running behind public attitudes to abortion, race and sexuality. In the film version of Joe Orton’s play ‘Loot’, Hal and his lover Dennis have sex with a mannish female traffic warden in the back of a hearse in order to avoid a parking ticket. The satisfied warden says ‘I’ve a son your age. I’ll bring him around next time for a foursome.’ The scene tramples so many taboos in the space of 20 seconds it’s a wonder Orton’s work wasn’t banned, but nobody turned a hair. Galton & Simpson, the writers of ‘Hancock’s Half Hour’ and ‘Steptoe & Son’, were the writers who opened out Orton’s play for the screen and kept it subversive.
How much have we adapted? At the time of Oscar Wilde’s trial, one newspaper suggested that decent men were being driven into the arms of boys because their wives were too busy being feminists and everything would go back to normal if they returned to making jam. Cut to three years ago, when Oscar’s, the last gay porn cinema in King’s Cross, closed down. Its frontage wasn’t hurriedly buried in an attempt to prove it never existed. It was lovingly installed on the wall of the straight pub opposite. It’s this new warmth, this knowingness, where we’re comfortable enough as a nation to let everyone in on the joke, that interests me, because it opens up inclusive ways of telling fresh stories.
But it also removes the past tensions that made for good storytelling, in the same way that so many crime writers are now setting their tales in the past – when everyone knows so much it’s harder to be original. For 60 years there were novels, plays and films dealing with gay issues from blackmail and youth rebellion to plague and sex addiction. Sexuality was criminalised, books were banned, plays and films were heavily censored. It’s hard to be outrageous when your audience is unshockable. A friend of mine staged an explicit one-man show at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in front of his parents, who were up from the country. Afterwards, his mother said; ‘Which part of that did you think was daring, dear?’
So it’s not daring to be yourself on the page so much now. But modern British writers still use disguises. And there’s a reason for this that would never have occurred to us a few years ago. Nobody needs to be defined by their sexuality anymore. We can be who we want.