The Leather Boys

“Oh my Gawd! Big Mary’s on that ship, darling. You’ll ’ave to do just what she says. She’ll draw a knife if she’s upset.”

This edition is from January 1969, from the New English Library. It’s a reprint of the original 1961 edition, which was published under the nom de plume Eliot George (get it?).

I think I bought this in the mid-1990s, when I was a student at Essex University, but I don’t remember exactly. Normally, I inscribe the date and the place I bought a book on the fly-leaf, but I haven’t with this one. It probably came from a charity shop, which Colchester was rich with at the time. I think I remember reading it, if not acquiring it, around the same time as Cruising by Gerald Walker, in which I also omitted to jot a time and place, but I see cost me 40p.

The covers a bit of an oddity, because there aren’t any biker babes in this book; in fact, women don’t feature large in it at all. It was probably issued under this cover to lure in a straight male audience (who may have been in for a bit of a surprise when they read it) and perhaps was cashing in on the cult appeal of the film The Girl on a Motorcycle, released the year before. By then, this book had already made it to the big screen,  with a Sixties Britflick cast that scores a perfect 10: Rita Tushingham, Dudley Sutton, Betty Marsden from Round the Horne, Mike Baldwin off Coronation Street, Dandy Nicholls.

Dick and Reggie are two 18 year olds who hang out at a bikers’ greasy spoon that is no doubt meant to evoke the Ace Cafe on the North Circular (and where, in fact, scenes from the film were recorded). Dick loves his nan and dressing sharp. Reggie loves his motorbike and hates his wife. Both boys end up loving each other.

They inhabit an era when young thugs said ‘smashing!’, Primrose Hill was a shabby backwater, a Perry Como haircut was a sign of youthful rebellion and the working classes began every aitch-word with an apostrophe, meaning the page ’as a ’orrible, ’ard-to-read look, as if someone ’oo ’as really shakey ’ands ’as scattered ’undreds and thousands over the ’ole page.

They aren’t wrong ’uns, really, Dick and Reggie. Rather, they are good boys who have fallen in with a bad crowd. They don’t like the violence but they have to do it because they are trapped by their own masculinity. Their whole existence fetishises machismo: the bond of the gang; the casual hatred of women; the tight leather clothes and throbbing machines between their legs. They love male things and societies of men but don’t know what to do with that love yet.

In the course of the story, they do over a church-hall dance and pour a pint of milk over the head of a vicar.

They do over a janitor’s shed just for fun.

They do over a newsagent’s for a share of the dosh.

They plan do over a picture house then run away and join the merchant navy. Go to Australia, get a new life together.

Freeman’s prose is clunky, workmanlike and with none of the verve or sass of American counterparts from the time, but it’s a nice enough little portrait of a world on the cusp of a big change. The working classes know their place, know they don’t like it and are bloody well about to change it through hire purchase and pop culture and holidays abroad.  It draws a neat comparison between parallel criminal underworlds – gangland and gays, explored to its fullest and best effect in the work of Jake Arnott – and how young men could and did drift between the two. It also dips its toes into the secret life of the merchant navy, with a cameo from the obligatory parade of shrieking pansies.

Women don’t come out of it well, though: they are thick and vain and nagging and avaricious, with insatiable sexual appetites. They will ultimately betray you. As a portrait of gayness it’s not too bad, capturing the thrill of first love as it flings you round like a switchback railway. It is mercifully free of handwringing and guilt – which perhaps made it endure longer than the other dimestore paperbacks that came out at the time – and there isn’t much furtiveness, which makes it a refreshing read. But the book can never let the reader forget this is the 1960s, when homosexuality was a problem and as such, needed a solution – still the case to some extent in representations today (look no further than Brokeback Mountain for an example of this). The solution, of course, had to be death for one of the young lovers. I’m not going to tell you which.

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