Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Jack Wolf on Literary Trans-gressors

January 28, 2013

jack wolf

When? Saturday 23 February
Where? M-Shed, Bristol, Princes Wharf, Bristol BS1 4RN
What time? 2.30 pm

Jack Wolf explores characters and writers who were (probably or possibly) transgender and discuss his research into real life 18th/19thC women who chose to live as men. He will also discuss the challenge of writing a trans character in a historical novel whose experiences are as real as possible yet still make sense to modern readers. Jack’s novel, The Tale of Raw Head and Bloody Bones, has just been published by Chatto & Windus to much acclaim and was recently praised on Radio 4’s Open Book..

Free but donations to OutStories Bristol project welcome. Tickets via or on the door


Diana Souhami on Lesbian Lives: Bristol 2 February

January 16, 2013


When? Fri 8 February
Where? Bristol Central Library, College Green, Bristol BS1 5TL, 0117 903 7200
What time? 7 pm

Diana Souhami’s biographies explore the most influential and intriguing of 20thC lesbian (and gay lives). The subjects of her unflinching eye include Radclyffe Hall, Garbo, Cecil Beaton, Gluck, queens of the Parisian demimonde, Natalie Barney and Romaine Brookes, and Violet Trefusis, who had a passionate, eccentric affair with Vita Sackville-West. She has also written about the nurse Edith Cavell, and the story of her stay on ‘Robinson Crusoe’ island.  Her latest book, Murder at Wrotham Hill, examines the case of a murder that took place in Kent shortly after WWII. All her books from Gluck to Coconut Chaos are being rereleased by Quercus in February, in paperback and Kindle formats.

More information on Diana Souhami’s website.

Book via eventbrite, at the library or on the door.

Neil Bartlett at M-Shed Bristol on 2 February

January 14, 2013




What? A talk by Neil Bartlett

Where? M-Shed, Bristol

When?  2.30pm, 2 February 2013

A writer, director and performer whose work is steeped in gay men’s histories, Neil Bartlett’s first book, Who Was That Man? about Oscar Wilde was published in 1988. He has also written several novels, including Mr Clive and Mr Page (which weaves together incidents from the lives of Gordon Selfridge and Rock Hudson) and numerous plays, including A Vision of Love Revealed In Sleep, about gay Jewish East End artist Simeon Solomon.

Anyone who is interested in LGBT literature and history must come to this event.

Donations to OutStories Bristol gratefully received. Book via or turn up on the day.

She’s on the side of the angels: Val McDermid on Lund & The Killing

December 22, 2012

A couple of months ago, I was fortunate enough to have a very interesting conversation with Val McDermid about Sarah Lund and The Killing. I caught her before she gave a reading from her new book, Vanishing Point, at Bristol Central Library for a piece I was writing for Diva Magazine. Word count restrictions meant that, sadly, I was only able to use a few quotes from our conversation but I think what Val said was fascinating and it deserves reading in full. So here it is. The interview was conducted, of course, when we were innocents, long before we knew anything about what would happen to Lund in the third and final series.

You’re a well-known fan of The Killing – why do you love Lund?
I love her tenacity and her doggedness and her refusal to be palmed off, and her refusal to be seduced by the surface glamour of things. The whole political side of it is very glamorous and very exciting, and here there and yon and she’s like completely like “so?” I think the refusal to take anything at face value is the admirable thing about her as a character.

I found it quite interesting in the second series, there was a moment when she was taken to the crime scene and it just struck me that the way she was reading the crime scene is not the way your average cop reads a crime scene. To me, it had lots of echoes of the way Tony Hill reads a crime scene: you’re coming at it entirely from the position of inside the killer’s head. Why these things are the shape they are, why are things disarrayed in this particular way, what’s happened here…  it’s that sort of difference, that being apart, that separateness I suppose that probably also speaks to the lesbian experience, if you like.

I think one of the reasons why the whole lesbian crime fiction started in the first place was the sense of the lesbian as an outsider, very much in the American tradition of the maverick who walks alone. For a lot of lesbians, that’s part of their early experience, being the outsider, so it’s a genre which suits us particularly well. I’m not alone, probably, in seeing aspects of my own experience in Sarah Lund. I think we’ve all got a Sarah Lund in our past, we’ve all got a fucked-up, emotionally unavailable woman who we’ve fallen in love with, who has then just gone through out lives like a forest fire leaving scorched earth behind it.  You’d just have to feel so. This is a woman whose focus is elsewhere.

Lund seems to have a very particular effect on, well, all women really but lesbians in particular. Why do you think that is?
I think partly it’s the jumpers. It’s very lesbian-wear, you know, in the winter, your big thick jumper, because you’re going to go out and chop logs – or at least look like you’re chopping logs.

When you interviewed Sofie Gråbøl for the Culture Show, you said that Lund is an aspirational character. Why do you think that?
I think we’d all like to have that ability to see something through to the end and not be diverted by all the flimflam in the way. I think that notion of determining that you’re going to go for something and you go straight for it, I think that’s something more of us need to do I think: have a very clear idea of what we want to go for and just go for it.

And to just hang the phone up and walk off…
Yeah. We need to do a lot more of that kind of thing. Something happened the other day and I said to my wife, I’m just far too polite! It’s not a word people normally associate with me but in this particular instance I was polite to someone and, really, there were several things I could have – should have – said and I just didn’t. I thought, if I can’t do it, then what chance has the rest of the world got? Because I can be Bolshie at times. Sarah Lund wouldn’t have stood for it. She’d just have been ‘you’re full of shit’.

This phenomenon of the girlcrush (for example, the producer who announced she had one on her, at the BAFTAs). What do you make of that? Lund seems to affect straight women in a way I haven’t ever seen with other characters on television.
Given that sexuality is a continuum, the notion that all these straight women are going to find somebody attractive somewhere down the line. They’re going to have a girlcrush and I suspect that someone who’s clearly a no-shit figure, who has that determination and who blows every body else off that gets between her and her goal is quite an attractive figure if you’re going to have a girlcrush to go for.

Possibly another reason she’s so attractive is that there’s a real air of ambiguity around her, including in terms of gender. She’s very androgynous. She occupies the middle ground.
I think some of the ownership she takes of the situation without a second thought, without a backward glance, most people would perceive as a male characteristic, particularly in the workplace. We do tend to defer and that’s a word that doesn’t quite work in the same sentence as Sarah Lund. So I think all of those are the things we wish we could do in the fleeting moment, but we never quite manage it. Like the things we think of three days later which we should have said and even if we’d thought of them at the time, we probably wouldn’t have had the balls to say them. And it’s quite interesting when people do actually do that in the workplace and do the equivalent of putting the phone down, people talk about it for years. It’s extraordinary. We don’t do this often enough; it’s not about being aggressive. It’s about responding in a way a guy would respond without actually thinking about it and the world won’t end if we do it. She takes agency. She takes it upon herself to do it, but she doesn’t do it in a way that makes you think: ‘look! I’m making a statement.’ It’s completely ‘this is how I am, take it or leave it’. She doesn’t court favour from anyone, not even her own kid. We’re all in thrall to her children, she’s not!

Do you think she’s a Good Cop or Bad Cop?
I don’t think she’s corrupt.

What about in terms of moral ambiguity? I see Lund as something of a Thomas Ripley character, less concerned with right and wrong, more concerned with her being in the right.
I think there is an absolute conviction of right and wrong. I think she’s on the side of the angels, whereas Ripley’s entirely on the side of himself. I don’t think Sarah Lund does things because they’re in her self-interest – I think she does things because she’s absolutely certain they are the right thing. I suppose in that sense, the trouble would come if she thinks the right thing is in direct conflict with what her colleagues or her organisation needs her to do. She’d have been a very inconvenient cop if she’d been in South Yorkshire police during the time of Hillsborough, because she’d have just gone round saying ‘that’s not how it was’. So she’s not corruptible in that way, she’s not interested in her own best interests because, if she was interested in her own best interests, she wouldn’t be policing a ferry crossing somewhere in the middle of nowhere. I think she really doesn’t care about herself.

So you think she could never go over to the dark side?
No, because it wouldn’t interest her. What would be the point? There would be no point in it for her. I think people have said she has elements of the autistic personality and I think that is one of the areas where it does come through. Absolutely I think she has a moral compass and that steers her.

You know a lot about iconic female detectives, having created a fair few yourself. Where do you think Lund stands in the canon?
She’s up there in the pantheon. She’s definitely well on the way to being a classic of the genre. She’s a sort of Helen Mirren de nos jours, but in a very different way, I think Helen Mirren’s [character Jane Tennison in Prime Suspect] another one that provokes girlcrushes, in the same kind of way. She takes power, she takes what she needs to do the job she needs to do. It’s understandable that Linda La Plante steers her down the path of having a drink problem and this lonely old age: there’s an authenticity in that, but I was disappointed at the same time. I wanted her to go, invincible, into the far distance…

Do you think that Lund will ever be happy?
I think she can be quite content when she works things out and everything’s sorted, but I don’t think she weighs her life in those sorts of terms. I think she weighs her life in terms of ‘did I do the right thing?’ I think she feels terrible guilt over Meyer and I think she carries that with her. Those burdens make it hard to have an uncomplicated happiness. It’s hard to imagine her having a relationship. It’s hard to imagine her in love because of all the things that means about granting control to someone else and letting yourself go.

What did you get from the programme, watching it from the perspective of crime novelist?

What I liked best about both was giving a story space. We’ve become very stripped down and episodic about the way we tell stories now. It’s very hard to get a season that lasts more than six weeks and it’s very hard to get a season where it isn’t a different core storyline every week. You can’t get under the skin if you do it like that. It becomes superficial, a series of tropes and it stops being a powerful drama. I really hope that British television companies are going to understand that, particularly with adaptations. If you have a 400-page novel, you can’t do it in 90 minutes. You end up with bad TV drama and it doesn’t work for anybody because nobody buys the books afterwards. I think we need to learn to take a deep breath and understand that our viewers are very sophisticated. My readers are very sophisticated. They have no problem in grasping a storyline that has four subplots going on. Certainly, viewers can do that too: when you see something like The Killing, it’s labyrinthine and we stay with it.

Do you think it help that it was subtitled, in that you have to concentrate and you have to focus on the screen?
I couldn’t watch it when it first went out because my wife likes to stitch in front of the television, so subtitles is a no-no. So I had these secret sessions of The Killing or Inspector Montalbano when she’s out of the country or late at night after she’s gone to bed. So I watched the first one over the space of about a week and a half. It was completely that ‘I’ll just watch one more episode…’ It’s not even like the American stuff where it’s only 40 minutes, this was an hour long and you had to concentrate.

I came to The Killing late. I’d heard about it, thought ‘well, I’d better watch because everybody says it’s great, but I don’t get the thing where everyone is obsessed with that woman…’ then after about one and a half episodes, BAM! I want to marry her!
It’s the intelligence. Clare Balding says the secret of happiness is concentration – so I’m all for that. Then I also love her complete lack of self-consciousness, the character. She’s completely not thinking about how she looks or how she appears to other people. She couldn’t give a shit.

How do you think it will Series 3 will end? How would you like it to end?

Hopefully not dead. That would be very unsatisfying. I can see the dramatic power of that, that she makes that final sacrifice, to go out as the ultimate right – whatever that might be. I don’t know. It’s hard to think of it ending in a way that fulfils the needs of the drama and the audience. I can’t imagine a way that will satisfy both. If I was writing it, I probably would have to kill her – and then leave the country.

Perhaps she could bad, go to a women’s prison and then we could have a new spin-off series…
It’s possible she may go to women’s prison. Not because she goes to the dark side, but because she’s so inflexible about the good side. I can see her ending up there, that’s a possibility… just because we want more series, isn’t it? I think one of the difficulties for Sofie is that for us, she didn’t exist before The Killing and in fact she’s had a very successful, long career in Denmark. I think it’s easy for us to think ‘well, she can just go and do The Killing’ but she has other things she wants to do. But you never know, if the writer comes up with a good idea, it’s always tempting for the actor to come back and reprise it…

I think it would be very wrong if there was a happy ending, with Lund in love…
Finding love and happiness would be terrible for her! It wouldn’t be believable. It would undermine everything we know about her.


Thirsting for Waters

December 8, 2012

This was the second time I interviewed Sarah Waters, just before Affinity was televised. It was originally published in Diva, April 2008

ITV’s adaptation of Sarah Waters’ second novel, Affinity, follows a South Bank Show special on the nation’s best-loved lesbian author. Kim Renfrew’s cup runneth over.

You know you’re important when Melvyn Bragg selects you for scrutiny on his highbrow ITV arts digest, The South Bank Show. That’s exactly what’s happening to Sarah Waters in late March, when she’ll be profiled by the bequiffed peer, and it surely marks another step towards lesbian culture nudging its way into the establishment. ‘Everybody’s been saying “Ooh, you’ve arrived!”‘ says Waters. ‘I really like The South Bank Show because it has such a spectrum of popular culture as well as highbrow stuff, so I feel very flattered and excited to be on their radar.’


The show is part of the build up to the transmission of the Andrew Davies’ (he also did the screenplay for Tipping The Velvet) adaptation of Waters’ dark and difficult second novel Affinity. The programme takes us back to 1870s’ London, where we follow Margaret (Anna Madeley), a wealthy woman who, in the wake of her father’s death, becomes a do-gooder visitor at Millbank women’s prison. There, she’s entranced by Selina (Zoe Tapper, set to become the next big lesbian pin-up), a psychic who’s been jailed for fraud and assault connected to one of her seances. A bond – an affinity, in fact – develops between the two women, who embark on a romantic friendship-cum-romance proper, complete with much heaving of stays. Without giving too much plot away, Margaret is lured into a world of spiritualism, charlatanry and betrayal. (And watch for the traditional  cameo: as Margaret mounts the steps to the dressmakers’ shop, Waters can be seen walking down them.)

Perhaps it’s the transfer to the screen that does it, but the love-in-a-women’s prison theme – a juicy genre stretching back through Bad Girls to Prisoner, 1970s’ sexploitation movies to 1950s’ pulp fiction — seems foregrounded. Was there ever a cheeky element of homage in Waters’ subject choice? ‘My girlfriend thinks we should have had Bodybag from Bad Girls [in the programme],’ she laughs. ‘Actually, every depiction of women’s prisons draws on the same sources: women pent up together, passions building up like a kettle. It’s impossible to write a story now about a women’s prison and not invoke it. But of course,’ she adds, ‘I wrote Affinity before Bad Girls‘.

Stylistically, too, this TV adaptation is different from Waters’ others, as it’s a single-episode drama: quite risky for a slow, brooding and –  literally – haunting book like Affinity. But Waters is unperturbed: ‘I always thought it would work better as a one-off because the narrative is tight. I think Andrew’s structure is brilliant. It’s quite fast, but that’s the nature of TV, and audiences are used to that.’ Inevitably, though, simmering 350 pages down to 80 screen minutes is bound to entail changes, and this drama does rather romanticise the ending, which in the book, as Waters herself freely admits, is ‘quite brutal, really.’ But she likes what Davies has done, which certainly takes a kinder view of women than Waters ever has in any of her novels; they hardly paint a rosy picture about communities of women. All her novels, in fact, are riven with the betrayals and cruelties that women heap upon each other. ‘I keep thinking that people are going to start getting at me for this,’ she laughs, ‘I’d hate my books to feel misogynist – that would be awful! We tend to think about feminism as celebrating women, but I’m more interested in fractures across women’s communities. I suppose, as a writer, I’m drawn to people’s darker motivations. But when my women are nasty to each other, I hope I show it as part of a larger system influenced by other forces, like class.’

Another difference is that, unlike Tipping The Velvet and Fingersmith, Affinity won’t be broadcast on the home of costume drama, BBC1, but on ITV, a move that may well raise Waters’ profile even further and open her up to whole new audiences. And although it’s been – astonishingly – nearly ten years since Affinity was first published, Waters is very glad to revisit it. She says, ‘It’s been really nice to see it given a second life,’ – or perhaps that should be ‘afterlife’, given the subject matter – ‘but my main interest is always the book I’m working on.’

Currently, she’s busy with her brand-new novel, which she describes as ‘a post-war crumbling country house, rather gothic, full of class and gender tension.’ When I ask about the new book, she groans then quickly says: ‘I don’t know why I’m groaning, because it’s coming along quite nicely. I’ve been working on it for a year and a half, finished the first draft last year, and now I’m doing the first rewrite. It’s a much more traditional sort of story and I hope that people aren’t going to be shocked but,’ and here she lets loose a bombshell, ‘there’s no lesbian element at all.’ But she does hint that there’s a ‘rather mannish’ character in the book.

In the meantime, we still have the gothic girl-on-girl action of Affinity to relish and, beyond that, a screen adaptation of The Night Watch is also in the developmental stages. With so much Waters around, we need never thirst for quality lesbian screentime.

Because the Night

December 5, 2012

Published in Amsterdam Weekly, May 2007 (the Rock ‘n’ Roll issue)


It’s one of the most rock ‘n’ roll things imaginable: making a living from writing, often very rudely indeed, about lesbian life and selling it to the masses. So did Sarah Waters ever think she would get rich and famous from peddling dirty lesbian books? ‘No,’ the author laughs. ‘I never knew there was so much money in being a lesbian!’

It’s a flippant assessment of Waters’ short – her first novel, Tipping the Velvet was published in 1998 – but stellar career. She’s one of Granta’s prestigious Best Young British Writers; two of her novels were adapted into hugely successful TV series; she’s won 11 awards including the Betty Trask and John Rhys Llewellyn and been nominated for many more, notably the Booker and Orange prizes – the latter for both Fingersmith and her most recent, The Night Watch, which Waters was in town to talk about as part of the Amsterdam Literary Festival.

But it isn’t an inaccurate assessment. Waters has changed the landscape of literature – and quite probably lesbian life – forever. For many, reading Tipping the Velvet, her extraordinary debut about a cross-dressing oyster seller who conquers Victorian London first as a music hall star and then as a rent boy, was an epiphany. Here was an author who portrayed lesbianism in unflinching detail, and on its own terms, then got it – hand-tooled leather dildos and all – on prime-time BBC. And her books sell by the cartload. No one, not even Jeanette Winterson – the writer to whom Waters can most closely be compared, and to whom she feels indebted – has done that.

So, is the fact that she’s made lesbianism mainstream something to do with herself, or with the times? ‘I think it must be something to do with the times, really,’ she says. ‘It’s not like I came from nowhere. [Jeanette Winterson] is a writer who [did] such a bold thing: write ambitious literary fiction which was also completely lesbian, and there was no problem with that. In something like Tipping the Velvet, I think I just did the right thing at the right time.’

This modest response (she and Winterson must part company here) goes some way to explaining why, in London publishing circles, Waters has a reputation for being one of the nicest people in the biz.

But to ascribe her popularity to the zeitgeist alone would be to underestimate waters’ power as a storyteller – she’s up there with Fielding and Dickens in terms of page-turnability – the very thing that ensnares readers and which allows her to slip in often esoteric, and sometimes eyebrow-raising, aspects of women’s sexuality. ‘It’s a very old-fashioned sort of storytelling,’ she explains. ‘All my novels are in a way. They’re very accessible fiction, and they’re completely relaxed about lesbianism. Lesbianism is both completely important in them and also totally incidental.’

Although all of Waters books are historical, she denies that this is a distancing tactic: ‘I’ve never wanted to make lesbianism palatable by setting it in the past. If I was a historian, nobody would ever say to me: “Why do you bang on about the historians all the time?”’ In fact, it could be argued that the historical contexts of her stories are a way of connecting with the present: they sniff out the reasons for why we’ve ended up where we are now.

That’s certainly the case with the The Night Watch, whose very narrative structure – it begins in 1947 and ends in 1941 – explores where people have arrived by tracing where they came from. It’s a complex, tricksy, formidably researched book (as you’d expect from someone with a PhD in historical fiction), which all at once manages to capture the horror and after-shock of war, tell several love stories across every shade of the sexual rainbow, while also examining shifting patterns of gender. It’s also the most contemporary of Waters’ novels, though she’s slowly creeping towards today. ‘I’m doing a lot of thinking and reading and I have plans to write another book in the post-war setting. Maybe about 1950, that sort of period,’ she reveals. ‘I think I’m going to stay in this post-war world.’

Can she ever imagine writing something set now? ‘If I did write a contemporary novel it would have some sort of identity of its own – it might be a ghost story or something more gothic. I’m as interested in genre as I am in history, so that could take me into the present. For now, it’s still very much the past that inspires me.’

And from that fascination with the past, Waters has achieved a very modern version of success. Could all that fame have gone to her head? What, for example, is the most rock ‘n’ roll thing she’s ever done? ‘I did a gig with the Indigo Girls. That’s the closest I’ve ever come – I was on stage with people with electric guitars!’ she says.

Good answer. But did anyone throw their knickers onstage?

‘No, unfortunately.’

The Leather Boys

February 3, 2010

“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.

Mrs Christie, we salute you!

February 2, 2010

Where Agatha married Christie, 24th December 1914:

This piece of literary history is brought to you by Guthrie Road, Clifton, Bristol. It’s now retirement flats.