Light in the Shadows

Robin Maugham’s autobiography “Escape from the Shadows”. Published by Hodder and Stoughton at £3.50.
ALSO “Testament: Cairo 1898” his latest short story published by Michael de Hartington Publishers.

Robert Maugham belongs to that legion of writers who have emerged from the English right wing establishment, and who while holding on to their traditional political and social values and ideas of sexual propriety, have managed to write brilliant books which seem to invalidate them, “The Servant” being the most famous of these in Maugham’s case. This seems terribly schizophrenic and this is just what he is as we learn from quite early on in his autobiography, when lie introduces us to “Tommy” who all through childhood and adolescence is the rough, tough, games playing, fucking girls Robin, and later on a daring soldier, war tactician, captain of a tank regiment, personal friend of Churchill. In between times the other Robin is homosexual, a musician, scholar and eager to emulate his famous uncle Willie and become a famous writer. Thus he has a tremendously varied life and his book is fascinating reading.

The “escape from the shadows” is his gradual departure from fearing and hiding his homosexuality, from which he has now almost escaped, his father a stem lawyer, who was obsessed with the idea that his son must follow his profession, and his uncle William Somerset Maugham, who wasn’t nearly so great an influence in Robin’s life as one would suppose. More so it was the people Robin met on his visits to his uncle’s chateau: Harold Nicholson, T. S. Eliot, Noel Coward and many others. One almost feels at some points in the book that he’s indulging in name dropping, what with his long passages on Churchill and Gilbert Harding et al, but he’s not being a William Hickey; he is pointedly honest about these people and their weaknesses and difficulties, rises and falls.

It becomes clear in the last sad chapter that he has written his autobiography at the comparatively tender age of 56, because he believes he is dying. He has diabetes and a heart condition; he is lonely and lives only to write, his boyfriend Jim whom he met in what he persistently calls a “queer” club, who lived with him for 20 years has gone. He seems drained of the vitality which made him surge through so many different avenues of life when he was younger.

This book is compulsive reading if you have enjoyed Robin Maugham’s work, or if you are interested in his uncle W’s work or the host of famous literary and political figures he has come into contact with and about whom he writes both honestly and entertainingly. And of how a man who has the advantages and freedom money and upper class privilege can buy, has to struggle with his sexuality for so long.

“TESTAMENT: CAIRO 1898” tells the story of a young soldier, who, while in hospital after being injured, finds himself in a bed next to a young, sensitive, sixteen-year-old who, needless to say, he falls in love with, with shattering results. He knows the boy is gay because they visit a brothel together and he can’t get an erection with a girl, and of course the boy is friendly and charming to him and he is absolutely sure that he is going to want to go to bed with him. After an age, this opportunity comes and after one caress, the boy struggles, screams and pushes him away – all our nightmares. At this point our hero, saddened and angry, pays a young Arab boy to sleep with him, and of course they fall in love. It sounds dreadfully corny, and I suppose it is, but so beautifully, feelingly, skilfully written, that I completely forgot to treat it as an entertaining fantasy, and took it absolutely seriously.

The Other Side

The ABZ of Pornography. Edited by Richard Michael, with illustrations by John Kent (creator of ‘Varoomshka’). Published by Panther, 50p.

The first comment I have to make about this book is that it is 10p cheaper than Lord Longford’s thick and wearisome Porn Report. Secondly it’s a good deal more informative about what is said to be pornographic and obscene than Lord L’s effort and is considerably less biased, which is another merit it has over its rival.

Whilst the official Report waffles on endlessly, this book tells you ‘Everything you wanted to know about pornography (but were scared to ask)’, to quote the blurb from the back cover. And writers and editor attempt to shed a little light on this sensitive subject in the only rational way possible – with a little humour. At the same time it answers a lot of questions put by those of you who have been wondering what all the fuss has recently been about, and also provides some historical facts about porn and its rise to fame as the present day moralists need for salvation ‘red herring’.

If the whole overblown issue of porn and its corrupting consequences hasn’t bored you to death yet, and you want the facts without an imposed halo on them, I thoroughly recommend this literary venture that tries to set the record straight without all the righteousness and ‘doom is at hand’ theatricals.

By the way, did you know that Kinsey found ‘one male in twelve seems to have used an animal for sexual gratification at some time…’

On the Heath

Body Charge by Hunter Davies. Weidenfield & Nicholson — £2.

I really enjoyed Franco’s companionship for two or three nights. Franco is not a new boy-friend of mine, but the true hero of this novel…

He has a very fashionable job as an unlicenced mini-cab driver, but he is always wearing at least one part of his football gear even when he is working. For Franco doesn’t seem to like anything better than this sport and spends all his time off playing it on London’s Hampstead Heath with the first people who come along; a hobby which makes his grandmother ashamed of him. If he lives and shares his nice flat with her, it’s only because it’s more convenient. A very simple kind of life, indeed, and at first Franco’s character could appear as a kind of strange thirty-year-old school-kid, chatting about his contemporaries’ fantasies from a lucid although rather camp point of view.

Then he unfortunately gets involved in a fairly complicated adventure. Protagonists of this special drama are Zak, a sort of university drop-out, his sexy wife and small children, and Joff who is an unbearable BBC producer, who finds it’s not easy to share his life with both his young lover Eddie and his very straight wife.

A naked and strangled body is found in the Wild Pond one sunny morning on the Heath. Then a police inspector turns up, who asks Franco some very insidious questions about his way of life, and tries to make the amateur footballer admit he is a “homosexual”, a word which doesn’t echo in Franco’s head at all … while the police continue their investigations, he later discovers that his mate Ginger’s favourite sport isn’t football as he naively believed, but rather the high excitement of “fag hunting” in Hampstead Heath bushes.

I saw the book as a very professional “zoom”, to use a photographic term, on a guy completely lost among quotidian events who is led to find out his actual identity. But I wonder why such a “straight” – if the biographical information on the cover of the book is true – writer as Hunter Davies has decided to give us a rather honest explanation of “queer bashing”, and how he managed to write a few good pages of his novel about the Gay Lib Street Theatre …

Anyway, it’s time for straight literature to abandon its long-lasting stereotypes and cliches about gayness, isn’t it? Most of the time we are amazed to see the almost total ignorance of the subject when treated by so-called heterosexual authors, completely unable to go beyond the fascination/repulsion that homosexual relationships exercise on them. But then a “straight” reader could be disappointed not to find the usual emphasis on the stigma which must put a strain on all queers lives, but he has very little to lose really except a few misconceptions on the matter by reading “Body Charge”.

Telling it Like You Know it is

Laura Nyro isn’t everybody’s idea of a good time — at first. But like all good things, she grows with knowing, and if you don’t know her you’re missing a treat. She has the emotional appeal of Garland without the hysteria latent in all Judy’s later work, the sophistication of Streisand minus the supper club associations, and above all she’s got Soul, capital S.

Since 1967, the year of her first record and a disastrous appearance at the Monterey Festival (they just weren’t ready for her recreation of a late 50’s Apollo act) that turned so many names into instant Superstars, she’s been achieving not only an ever widening underground audience, but also creeping into public consciousness through the recordings of her own songs by Barbra Streisand – Stony End; the 5th Dimension – Stone Soul Picnic, Sweet Blindness, Wedding Bell Blues; Blood Sweat & Tears’ And When I Die and Three Dog Night’s Eli’s Comin.

Born and bred in New York City of Italian/Jewish stock, Laura is the epitome of city soul. Her songs are about life, love, dope, wine, and the streets – the city kid’s environment in fact – and many of them just have to be autobiographical.

Her songs are hard to describe — some are heavy versions of the best of Bacharach/David, others with their broken time signatures could link with Jimmy Webb. But one thing they all have in common – they swing, and none so much as Gonna Take a Miracle (the latest album). For a non-believer this is the record to get into first, the record that proved to the sceptics that she’s been where they were going – rather like Charlie Mingus had to cut Blues and Roots before he was able to record his more complex themes on his own terms. Miracle is the re-creation of the great early 60’s sounds that just hasn’t been bettered. Backed by Patti Labelle’s group Labelle, side one starts with an acapella version of I Met Him On A Sunday – the sort of thing recently you could hear groups of kids singing in New York subways (great for tone and echo) in the middle 50’s. The Bells contains some of the funkiest back up wailing against Laura’s lead vocal you’ll ever hear. Cold sweat music indeed. Dancing m the Street, You Really Got A hold Of Me, Spanish Harlem and Jimmy Mack are recreated and completely renewed without losing any of the urgent vitality of the originals.

It’s one of the funkiest, funniest, saddest, joyful.recreations of a past era ever attempted, and the liner notes (this is all of them) sum it up well;

Nights

in New York

street angels

running down steps

into the echoes of the train station

to sing …

four crazy angels indeed. And one of the most neglected and underestimated records of this or any other year.

On the other three available records – Eli and the Thirteenth Confession, Christmas and the Beads of Sweat and New York Tendaberry (the first record, originally released by MGM, is now deleted but rumoured for imminent re-release) the songs run the gammut from joy – Sweet Blindness, Stoned Soul Picnic, Lucki, Time and Love, to autobiographical songs that have obviously been painful to live through and helped her to write about.

On most of the songs she double-tracks and manages to produce the effect of a very together Motown back-up group.

All these albums are essential listening to anyone sick of the mindless immediate inanities of T. Rex and their ilk. These records will be valid for a long time – they get under your skin and stay there. Listen in a warm room on winter evening (or for that matter in a cool room in summer) with someone you love. Be still, let it come to you. Feel mellow then feel mellower – you know what I mean?

Laura Nyro records have probably never made CBS a fortune, but as a songwriter the royalties are rolling in, and it’s rumoured that a two million dollar contract has been signed.

Laura insisted, and got, complete control of production and packaging, and for once it’s completely justified.

A consummate artist/songwriter doing what she knows is best. Now it’s only up to you to hear and agree.