By Professor David Abbott
Social Policy, School for Policy Studies.
Looking back some thirty-odd years later, it’s the fear that saddens me most. I am afraid to go to the phone box in case I’m spotted. But I keep trying to ring and it keeps being engaged. It’s 1986 and there are, as yet, no mobile phones, no internet, no on-line alternative realities.
On a rainy, dark evening, with the dog as alibi for being out (I am ever helpful, dog walking, teenage son) I get through to Gay Switchboard. It has taken three months. I have five 10 pence pieces worth of time. A man says, ‘Hello’ and I immediately blurt out my confession. He starts to tell me things I could do – a pen pal, a counselling service. I can’t do any of these: post to home will intercepted and I can’t go to a counsellor because I am 15 years old and I don’t know what counselling is, though it sounds like something my parents would not like or approve of. Next the man then says there is a bookshop I could go to and I perk up. There is a book, ‘How to be a happy homosexual’ and a bookshop, ‘Gay’s the Word’. He says I could read the book and this appeals. I can do books. I’m bookish. I am good and well behaved and I am bookish.
Apparently the bookshop is ‘close’, but he obviously hasn’t grown up in a town where 30 miles might as well be 300. Or perhaps he did but doesn’t now. The next night I go back to the phone box to find out train times. I will have to go on a school day. I will have to ‘bunk off’. The idea alone makes me feel ill, as I am a model student. I am a perfect child with a secret, rotten inside that lies and deceives. But it’s that honed deception which means I also know that I will do it.
When the day I’ve picked comes I feign illness. I am never ill so I am believed. With the house empty I have about six hours to get to London, to get to the bookshop, to be in the bookshop and to get home again. Shot through with panic, I give no thought to what I’m going to wear. I am unworried by fashion. I enjoy going to Mass each week, my voice hasn’t broken and I read a lot so I have already opted out of most norms in my school and community, so I’m ‘devil-may-care’ about what I look like.
The bookshop opens at ten but I am early because I always am, because I am programmed to be, the same way I am programmed to be Catholic and straight and good and chatty with adults. I reach Marchmont Street easily after a short walk from Kings Cross station. Approaching the bookshop I want to be sick. A slightly built Asian man is coming out of the shop and taking down the shutters over the shop front windows. (I’m worried now that these are to protect it from attack. Will it be stoned or petrol bombed while I’m in there?) The man is grappling with the shutters which seem heavy and awkward. Instead of offering to help or pausing until he’s done I have to speak to him now or I will walk on and go home. There is no small talk at my disposal and I tell him that a man on the phone said that I could get a book here.
Looking back I realise that this is the first gay men I’ve ever met. Well, looking back properly I realise he isn’t. When, many years later I bump into him in a gay bar in Cork, I realise that the priest I knew in childhood is also gay. But this bookseller is the first man I have met who is able to be who he is and I wonder where he is now and if he knows that he was a part of my salvation.
Despite being interrupted by a teenager with no social grace, he is utterly patient and unphased and suggests I go inside and look around while he carries on opening up. I walk in and walk around but don’t want to look at anything. This is definitely not WH Smith or Luton Town Library, which to me reek of ordinariness (though I later discover that in the social science section there are books which attract people like me and we circle each other: literary cottaging in the ‘ologies’).
The man finds the book for me but says there is a better book, a nicer read, a fiction called, ‘The Boys on the Rock’. Thrown but compliant (because that’s how I think I am) I say, ‘Great’ and take it and buy ‘Gay Times’ in a fit of bravery at the till. This is all my Christmas cash saved up – the train, the tube, the book, the magazine. I hand it all over and my goods are given to me in a brown paper bag.
Another man, a customer who I have studiously ignored whilst also checking at every available moment, approaches. He says why not have a cup of tea. There is nothing I want less – or more. We move to the back of the shop and I divert my eyes from anything and everything that I most want to look at. He asks if my parents know and I say, ‘No because they’re Catholic’ a short-hand which I assume is self explanatory. He says the Pope is a ‘monster’ and I’m both thoroughly confused and deeply affronted as only the year before I spent a whole day and night in a field waiting for him to visit and singing hymns all the way to Coventry and back. Once again, ordinary talk evades me. I grip the sides of my chair and he talks and I have no recollection of what he says. What I really want is for the man to abduct me. Abduct or rescue me. But the man in the bookshop doesn’t abduct me. He just directs me back to Kings Cross because I pretend I don’t know the way. For a moment, on the pavement in front of the shop, as he points in the direction of the station, he stands close to me and his shoulder touches my shoulder and I wish the route was longer, more complex and that I needed it all to be repeated.
Book and magazine are now mine, but I live in a house where the children cannot keep secrets or hide possessions, even if the grownups can (or think they can). Can I really take my prizes home? If I put the magazine in a bin it will be traced to me. Someone will call the police, fingerprint it and trace me. So I resolve to keep it in my drawer along with ‘Boys on the Rock’ which I read in one go that night when everyone is asleep. Sometime later both are ‘discovered’ and for a while the fault line in our family is cracked wide open. It doesn’t last and soon a story emerges which closes everything up, but I am not closed up and everything has changed.
All these years on I read my own words about the fifteen-year-old me and I think he sounds crazy and desperate. “Bookshop Saves Young Life” – the unusual but compellingly true headline. There are many days in which I am still crazy and desperate, but I am escaped. I am free.