Category Archives: Books

“Dear 16 year-old me”

If you had the chance to write to your 16 year-old self, what would you say?

In 2009, the Elton John AIDS Foundation asked this question to a number of celebrities with a view to compiling their letters in a book. This is exactly what they did, and some of the results were terrific. Reading the advice that other people would give to themselves at that age seems to emphasise the bittersweetness of the adage: ‘youth is wasted on the young’.

Thought-provoking stuff

Jonathan Ross

Emma Thompson

Alan Carr

Patsy Kensit

The absolute show-stopper is, however, the letter Stephen Fry wrote for the book. It was reproduced in The Guardian newspaper at the times of the book’s publication and everyone in my flat read it one after the other:

I hope you are well. I know you are not. As it happens you wrote in 1973 a letter to your future self and it is high time that your future self had the decency to write back. You declared in that letter (reproduced in your 1997 autobiography Moab Is My Washpot) that “everything I feel now as an adolescent is true”. You went on to affirm that if ever you dared in later life to repudiate, deny or mock your 16-year-old self it would be a lie, a traducing, treasonable lie, a crime against adolescence. “This is who I am,” you wrote. “Each day that passes I grow away from my true self. Every inch I take towards adulthood is a betrayal.”

Oh, lord love you, Stephen. How I admire your arrogance and rage and misery. How pure and righteous they are and how passionately storm-drenched was your adolescence. How filled with true feeling, fury, despair, joy, anxiety, shame, pride and above all, supremely above all, how overpowered it was by love. My eyes fill with tears just to think of you. Of me. Tears splash on to my keyboard now. I am perhaps happier now than I have ever been and yet I cannot but recognise that I would trade all that I am to be you, the eternally unhappy, nervous, wild, wondering and despairing 16-year-old Stephen: angry, angst-ridden and awkward but alive. Because you know how to feel, and knowing how to feel is more important than how you feel. Deadness of soul is the only unpardonable crime, and if there is one thing happiness can do it is mask deadness of soul.

I finally know now, as I easily knew then, that the most important thing is love. It doesn’t matter in the slightest whether that love is for someone of your own sex or not. Gay issues are important and I shall come to them in a moment, but they shrivel like a salted snail when compared to the towering question of love. Gay people sometimes believe (to this very day, would you credit it, young Stephen?) that the preponderance of obstacles and terrors they encounter in their lives and relationships is intimately connected with the fact of their being gay. As it happens at least 90% of their problems are to do with love and love alone: the lack of it, the denial of it, the inequality of it, the missed reciprocity in it, the horrors and heartaches of it. Love cold, love hot, love fresh, love stale, love scorned, love missed, love denied, love betrayed … the great joke of sexuality is that these problems bedevil straight people just as much as gay. The 10% of extra suffering and complexity that uniquely confronts the gay person is certainly not incidental or trifling, but it must be understood that love comes first. This is tough for straight people to work out.

Straight people are encouraged by culture and society to believe that their sexual impulses are the norm, and therefore when their affairs of the heart and loins go wrong (as they certainly will), when they are flummoxed, distraught and defeated by love, they are forced to believe that it must be their fault. We gay people at least have the advantage of being brought up to expect the world of love to be imponderably and unmanageably difficult, for we are perverted freaks and sick aberrations of nature.They – poor normal lambs – naturally find it harder to understand why, in Lysander’s words, “the course of true love never did run smooth”.

Sexual availability, so long an impossible dream in your age, becomes the norm in the late 70s and early 80s, only to be shattered by a new disease whose horrors you cannot even imagine. You would little believe that I can say to you now across the gap of 35 years that we are the blessed ones. The people of Britain are happy (or not) because of Tolpuddle Martyrs, Chartists, infantry regiments, any number of ancestors who made the world more comfortable for them. And we, gay people, are happy now (or not) in large part thanks to Stonewall rioters, Harvey Milk, Dennis Lemon, Gay News, Ian McKellen, Edwina Currie (true) et al, and the battered bodies of bullied, beaten and abused gay men and women who stood up to be counted and refused to apologise for the way they were. It has given us something we never thought to have: pride. For a thousand years, shame was our lot and now, turning on a sixpence, we have arrived at pride – without even, it seems, an intervening period of well-it’s-OK-I-suppose-wouldn’t-have-chosen-it-but-there-you-go. Who’da thought it?

I know what you are doing now, young Stephen. It’s early 1973. You are in the library, cross-referencing bibliographies so that you can find more and more examples of queer people in history, art and literature against whom you can hope to validate yourself. Leonardo, Tchaikovsky, Wilde, Barons Corvo and von Gloeden, Robin Maugham, Worsley, “an Englishman”, Jean Genet, Cavafy, Montherlant, Roger Peyrefitte, Mary Renault, Michael Campbell, Michael Davies, Angus Stewart, Gore Vidal, John Rechy, William Burroughs.

So many great spirits really do confirm that hope! It emboldens you to know that such a number of brilliant (if often doomed) souls shared the same impulse and desires as you. I know the index-card waltz of (auto)biographies, poems and novels you are dancing: those same names are still so close to the surface of my mind nearly four decades later. Novels, poetry and the worlds of art and ideas are opening up in front of you almost incidentally. You spend all your time in the library yearning to be told that you are not alone, and an unlooked for side-effect of this just happens to be a real education achieved in a private school designed for philistine bumpkins. Being born queer has given you, by mistake, a fantastic advantage over the rugger-playing ordinaries who surround you. But those rugger-playing ordinaries have souls too. And you should know that. I know you cannot believe it now. They seem so secure, so assured, so blessedly normal. They gave Cuthbert Worsley the Kipling-derived title of his overwhelmingly important (to you) autobiography The Flannelled Fool: “these are the men that have lost their soul/ The flannelled fool at he wicket/ And the muddied oaf at the goal”.

You look down at the fools almost as much as you fear them. The ordinary people, whose path through life is guaranteed. They won’t have to spend their days in public libraries, public lavatories and public courts ashamed, spurned and reviled. There is no internet. No Gay News. No gay chatlines. No men-seeking-men personals. No out-and-proud celebs. Just a world of shame and secrecy.

Somehow, as you age, a miracle will be wrought. You will begin by descending deeper into the depths: expulsion, crime and prison – nothing really to do with being gay, but everything to do with love and your inability to cope with it. Yet you will, as the Regency rakes used to say, “make a recover” and find yourself at university, where it will be astonishingly easy to be open about your sexuality. No great trick, for the university is Cambridge, long a hotbed of righteous tolerance, spiritual heavy-petting and homo hysteria. You will emerge from Cambridge and enter a world where being “out” is no big deal, although a puzzlingly small number of your coevals will find it as easy as you to emerge from the shadows. Before you damn anyone for failing to come out, look to their parents. The answer almost always lies there. Oh how lucky in that department, as in so many, you are, young Stephen.

But don’t kid yourself. For millions of teenagers around Britain and everywhere else, it is still 1973. Taunts, beatings and punishment await gay people the world over in playgrounds and execution grounds (the distance between which is measured by nothing more than political constitutions and human will). Yes, you will grow to be a very, very, very, very lucky man who is able to express his nature out loud without fear of hatred or reprisal from any except the most deluded, demented and sad. But that is a small battle won. A whole theatre of war remains. This theatre of war is bigger than the simple issue of being gay, just as the question of love swamps the question of mere sexuality. For alongside sexual politics the entire achievement of the enlightenment (which led inter alia to gay liberation) is under threat like never before. The cruel, hypocritical and loveless hand of religion and absolutism has fallen on the world once more.

So my message from the future is twofold. Fear not, young Stephen, your life will unfold in richer, more accepted and happier ways than you ever dared hope. But be wary, for the most basic tenets of rationalism, openness and freedom that nourish you now and seem so unassailable are about to be harried and besieged by malevolent, mad and medieval minds.

You poor dear, dear thing. Look at you weltering in your misery. The extraordinary truth is that you want to stay there. Unlike so many of the young, you do not yearn for adulthood, pubs and car keys. You want to stay where you are, in the Republic of Pubescence, where feeling has primacy and pain is beautiful. And you know what … ?

I think you are right.

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Happy Bloomsday

Every year on this day, celebrations are held in Dublin and across the world to commemorate the life of James Joyce, and re-enact the events in his book Ulysses, which covers one day (the 16th of June) in the life of Leopold Bloom, as he travels through Dublin in 1904. Joyce chose this day for his book because it was the day he and his future wife Nora Barnacle went on their first ‘date’, walking to Ringsend together.

And just in time for the big day, a man in Dublin claims to have solved a riddle in the book: “Good riddle would be crossing Dublin without passing a pub”. More here.

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Olimpia Zagnoli and her illustrations

A couple of months ago, I posted these pictures of the artist Spacesick’s book cover versions of film posters. Since then, I have become far more attuned to artistic merit of book covers and the effects they have on whether or not I want to read them.  In conclusion: The simpler, the better.

The Milanese artist Olimpia Zagnoli has produced work for publications such as Grazia, The New Yorker, The Guardian and Yale University Art Gallery.

Here are a couple of sample book covers I thought were wonderful:

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The Book Surgeon

I love to read more than I like to do almost anything else. My parents are avid readers, our house is full of books and I used to devour them when I was young. For me, reading is such a joy that I can’t really pretend to understand a person who doesn’t love it. And if I encounter a person who shares the same passion, they are immediately elevated in my opinion.

Sadly, though, the past few months since Christmas have been so choc-full of exams, then balls and now dissertation and essays, that I can’t even remember the last thing I read for enjoyment. What’s more, I am afflicted with a habit of writing lists of things which, in my opinion, I ‘must’ read. Anybody else who does this knows that the list is never finished and can lead to annoying feelings of not having done enough which in turn makes one even more restless.

I was saying as much to my friend Beth, who reads more than I do. She showed me The Book Surgeon, to distract me.

Using knives, tweezers and surgical tools, Brian Dettmer carves one page at a time. Nothing inside the out-of-date encyclopedias, medical journals, illustration books, or dictionaries is relocated or implanted, only removed.

Dettmer manipulates the pages and spines to form the shape of his sculptures. He also folds, bends, rolls, and stacks multiple books to create completely original sculptural forms.

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Brilliant books and pet peeves

For Christmas, one of the gifts I was given was a book token for Hodges Figgis, Ireland’s largest book shop, on Dawson Street. HF used to be one of my favourite haunts when I was younger, the perfect place to kill time due to a seemingly unlimited of discreetly-placed chairs in which I would often sit with a pile of books to peruse.

One of the best things about book shops is beautiful books. ‘Never judge by its cover’ is an oft-repeated phrase, but we all do, so the significance of the pictures used on the front of a book is considerable. When it’s done well, the results are beautiful to behold. The photographs used on the covers of Penguin Modern Classics, for example, always seem to sum up the book within perfectly whilst also being aesthetically gratifying:

By the same token however, one thing that I can’t abide is a book which, due to its release as a major motion picture, is ruined with a movie poster-style cover. So little left to the imagination, so much curiosity already satiated. While movie posters aim to wave their arms in the air, as it were, and scream at the audience to come watch it, a book cover aims to titillate a reader’s curiosity and lure him into reading further. We all know the kinds of books I’m talking about:

Awful.

Luckily, American web artist Spacesick feels my pain and has even had the ingenious idea of retaliating by designing wonderful book covers of feature films in his “I Can Read Films” series. Here are some of my favourites:

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Julian Assange: The Man Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest

Julian Assange has been described as a spy, a sexual predator, a genius and a hero. His website wikiLeaks, a mirror website of which can be viewed here, has published hundreds of thousands  of political secrets, presumably with the purpose of “Keeping governments open”, as its tag line asserts. Examples of this include the ClimateGate e-mails from the University of East Anglia and lists of extra-judicial killings and disappearances in Kenya (which earned the organisation an award from Amnesty International) among many, many others.

The website is designed so that nothing which has been put up can be taken down. WikiLeaks is maintained on over twenty servers globally and over hundreds of domain names. Expenses are paid for by donations

WikiLeaks most recent release, the third of a series of ‘mega-leaks’ of classified U.S. documents in 2010, of over 250,000 American diplomatic cables has caused the greatest controversy to date. It comes at the same time as warrants for Assange’s arrest, first in Sweden and now across Europe via Interpol, for questioning in relation to a case of sexual assault in Sweden. This Daily Mail article shows that there is scant public evidence to support the victims’ claims. What’s more, it is widely believed that the allegations are part of a smear campaign aimed at discrediting Assange before he or his organisation do more damage.

This profile of the man in the New Yorker reveals many interesting details about his life. He is a known hacker, had a troubled childhood and is quite clearly very clever, if not a genius. As well as this, it is claimed that Assange has problems handling relationships, trouble with authority and a strong desire to fight for justice or at least, to uncover the truth.

Surely, I can’t be the only one to have noticed the similarities between this cyber (anti-)hero and the heroine of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy, Lisbeth Salander? She too was the victim of a massive smear campaign and spent much of her time on the run or in hiding from a vast organisation of political and criminal overlords willing to manipulate the truth and lie in order to keep their interests safe. Perhaps I’m glamourising the situation, but the resemblance is undeniably uncanny…

I imagine Larsson would have been a big fan of Assange.

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