Plots

Sunday 22nd April 2018

Should novels have plots?

All novels should have plots. So I have heard it said and seen it written. In case you are wondering what a plot is, here is a typical definition: ‘the main events of a play, novel, film, or similar work, devised and presented by the writer as an interrelated sequence.’ This is hardly different from the definition relied on, by most people, for the word ‘story.’ In a novel, a story ‘…is a causal sequence of events, the why for the things that happen in the story.’ Given that my style of writing (in this novel) is similar to that for a film script, a narrator cannot explain causes. It is up to the reader to assume what the causes are, for any event, except where the characters discuss causes amongst themselves. In a film, the reader should be able to follow the series of events, and understand how and why they happen, from the scenes, as they are presented.

Why no plot?

Early on, in planning and conceptualising my third novel, I decided that I did not want to use the conventional stylistic notion of a plot. I wanted the characters to portray their own stories according to their own visions of the world and their own ideas about people and events, as shown by what they say.

The story unfolds sequences of events. Some of these appear to be random. Life is often a random sequence of things that just happen. Often there is no reason why things happen – they just do. Life is serendipitous. It is the way a character reacts to random events that tells us about him or her and reveals his or her attitudes. This underscores the uneven roughness of life.

It could be argued that my novel does, in fact, have a plot. This depends on what one considers a plot to be. What I have avoided doing – in writing the novel – is to allow the plot to drive the story. What the novel does is to present three characters, a milieu (the swinging sixties) in a place (London.) The ethos of the time is revealed through what the characters say to each other. Mainly. The three central characters meet each other by chance. They then attend parties, pubs and cafes in which they happen to meet other characters. The sequences of events are not dictated by some causal set of reasons. Other than the nature of the world in which they live. Each of them has his own ambitions that propel him in a direction, as he pursues his chosen career path. Many of the important things that happen are the result of random encounters or unpredictable, fortuitous happenings.

For example, Tom happens to be at a party where he is introduced to a man who works for the BBC. Through making this contact, Tom ends up with a career in broadcasting. Before that, Tom had no specific inclination to get a job at the BBC. It was a matter of luck that Tom happened to meet someone who could further his career, however indistinct his ambitions were, up to that point.

If there is anything that drives the story it is the characters. The work is mainly about individuals and their interactions. A reader might try to foresee what they will do, to anticipate how they will react and what path they might follow. The thing that interests me about individuals is that they often fail to do what is expected. It is true that much of the story is a sequence of events. The story moves in particular directions. But, its substance is always about the people. It is not a history of events. In that respect, it is akin to a biography. Readers cannot always see what is coming – as they would if there was a plot which leads them in a particular direction.

Because the story is set in a particular period of English history, it unfolds the ethos of the time, through its characters. They witness events happening in the world (the riots in Grosvenor Square, the assassination of Martin Luther King, the first manned moon landing) and talk to each other about these events, as they see them unfold in the media. There are many scenes in which the characters are sitting in a pub or cafe talking about ideas. Ideas that portray the milieu in which they live. Ideas that were prevalent in the late sixties. The reader will either like or dislike any specific character. My only task, as the writer, is to make a character appear credible. Some characters are clearly intended to be likeable; others are the nasty ones – the bad guys – and the reader is free to either like or dislike them. Some characters are introduced simply to oil the workings of the story. They are subsidiary roles or diversions, placed there only to entertain.

Rejecting conventions

In this, my third novel, I have rejected the conventions that are currently being pedalled by those in the publishing industry. Does this mean that my book will fail to be accepted by established publishing houses? Yes. Very possibly. I am not writing the novel because I have been asked to write it. Its origins lie within me; not within some external influence. In writing this book I have done a considerable amount of planning. There is, however, no document called ‘the plot’ which sets out the story. There is a ‘timeline’, but its role is to ensure that the sequence of events is tenable and to avoid mistakes in narrating when things happen. It is only a planning tool. It is concerned with continuity and consistency. The principal characters each have a profile – a piece of writing that helps me to gather together key characteristics of each one. This does not form part of the book. I also have a catalogue of names which lists every name introduced into the story and sets out notes about each of them. This avoids using a name more than once, for different characters. It reminds me of things like age, appearance, relationships to other characters and so on.

Style, method and approach

The novel is set out like a film script. It is not narrated. Notes are added at the top of each section (or scene) to indicate the date, who is in the scene and where they are. These are like the subtitles that sometimes appear in films. Hence, most of the material is in the form of dialogue. This is an approach that makes the novel read like a film script. I realise that this is an unconventional approach to the novel. None of my other works takes such an approach. Writing a novel in this way imposes restrictions and challenges on the way the story unfolds. I can tell the story, only through what the characters say and do. It is a visual approach to the novel. In a traditional approach to story-telling, the narrator can explain things that are not part of the action or dialogue.

I have introduced into this book, some stylistic devices that I have not used in other works. For example, the dialogue is often written using short statements, punctuated by full stops. For example: ‘Adrian: “Yes. So. As you can see. We have just about everything in here. Proper cooker with an oven. Fridge. Washing machine.” ‘ The use of full stops indicates the way that a character speaks. Normal speech is broken into words and phrases that are punctuated with pauses. We do not speak in the way that we write. There are points where the dialogue ignores the rules of grammar and syntax in order to portray a naturalistic way of talking. The characters have to talk as young, working class men would have talked in the 1960s. They cannot use words or phrases that were not current at the time. There are also brief statements about what is happening. For example: ‘They go into the kitchen. Adrian fills the kettle with water and puts it on the cooker. He lights the gas.’ These are like stage directions. They are actions that characters would not say; they are always brief and used only where needed.

Characters

The story has three central characters: Adrian, Michael and Tom. The story revolves around what they do. Other characters crop up and play subsidiary roles. Adrian plays the key part in the group of boys. Tom is the cover boy. Michael is the thinker. They are the same age, though Tom is slightly younger. Each of them came from a small town background in various parts of England. They each had different reasons for moving to London. The common denominator was a desire to get a better job and become established in a career. At the end of the book, Adrian leaves London to start a new life in New York. Michael goes to university to get a degree. Tom is the only one who stays in London but that is because he has secured a job at the BBC. They discover that they have musical skills and interests and they form a jazz band, which becomes very successful; but, its success conflicts with their chosen career paths.
As a group of friends, they all get on with each other very well. The tone of the story is positive. Whilst they are similar, as individuals, they also have contrasting characteristics. Adrian tends to be the leader, the decision-maker, the mover. Michael is challenging at times. Tom also can ask difficult questions. There are parts to the story when the group comes into conflict; even so, they stay together throughout the book until – at the end – they each go their separate ways.

Previous posts on my blog

Monday 2nd April 2018 – London theatre in the 1960s

Sunday 25th March – Writing about characters

Sunday 18th March – The swinging sixties

Sunday 11th March – What is masculinity?

Sunday 4th March 2018 – London past and present

See the home page for my blog

Theatre in the 1960s

Monday 2nd April 2018

Theatre and the arts in the late 1960s

The period from 1965 to 1969 was a time when drama and the theatre flourished in London. Many notable dramatists were at work then. Just as I went to see many plays and shows, during those years, so too, my characters spend a lot of time in the theatres of London.

Tom Stoppard, Joe Orton, Athol Fugard, Simon Gray, Alan Ayckbourn, John Osborne, Harold Pinter, John Antrobus, Peter Shaffer, Kingsley Amis and Edward Bond represent a selection of writers whose new works were staged in the London theatres of that time.

Drama in the 1960s was a great period for innovation, rebellion and nonconformity¹ but that ran alongside the traditional productions in the West End theatres and the burgeoning offerings of the television companies. There always has been Shakespeare – from from the time when he himself directed the first nights of his own plays.

Last month, I finished reading The Orton Diaries.³ I enjoyed this book for many reasons; not least that it brought back to me much of the feel and colour of the period that lead up to Orton’s death in 1967. As I read the final entries in his diary, I wondered if our paths might have crossed; given that I was also living in London at the time. I very much doubt that ever happened; there is certainly no evidence in my own diaries that it could have done. Unless I unknowingly passed him in the street one day. I noted what I did on August 9th 1967 but there was no mention of reading the newspapers or watching the television. So, I must have been unaware that he had been murdered. Orton’s diary does however mentioned several visits to the Royal Court; it is possibly, I think, to write a scene in which one of my characters – Adrian would be the best one – is that the theatre and sees Orton there. If I add the date of this into the manuscript, then at least I can anchor it to what he wrote in his diary entry for that date. I have already written a scene in which Adrian is present at a party also attended by the singer David Bowie. There is no evidence that Bowie ever went to such a party but he was in London at the time – so could have done. What I would not do is to write in an event that could not have taken place. I do not invent fiction – in that way. My fiction must be credible and if I mention an event or person that was real – then it is something that must be verifiable.

Joe Orton

The theatres also provided a varied diet of established productions by playwrights such as Noel Coward, Oscar Wild, William Golding, Jacob Lenz, T. S. Eliot, Eugène Ionesco, Harold Wesker, David Mercer and G. B. Shaw.

Many London theatres

There were many theatres in London; but one is bound to mention The Old Vic. Like the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, it is the one venue to which anyone present in London must go. It is my perpetual gratification, that I attended both of them, during my teenage years. My characters will also be seen in them. After these two, the one venue that stands out for me is the Royal Court theatre in Sloane Square. I was a frequent visitor there during the first year that I lived in London, having an address only a few minutes walk away from it.

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

The world of drama was varied; not just the mainstream theatres but also the theatre clubs that put on experimental works by up and coming playwrights. In 1968 I attended several productions presented at The Ambiance, a theatre club held in the basement of a restaurant in Queensway.

Several memories stand out for me. I went to see The Boys in the Band at Wyndham Theatre, on 23rd May 1969. A couple of days prior to that I had been at The Royal Court to see The Enoch Show, an agitprop production by Edward Bond, in reaction to Powell’s ‘rivers of blood’ speech.² I went to the Royal Court to see John Antrobus’s Captain Oats Left Sock on 6th July 1969. Later in July I went to the Old Vic to see Shaw’s Back to Methuselah Part 2. On 3rd October, 1969, I saw Troilus & Cressida, by Shakespeare, at the Aldwych theatre, the cast including Ben Kingsley as Aeneas, Patrick Stewart as Hector and Helen Mirren as Cressida.

Wyndham’s Theatre, London

I used my own experiences as the basis for my story, that part of it that saw the characters going to the theatre, but added in several shows and productions that I did not see myself, but which I thought would provide a fuller picture of London’s dramatic offerings during that period.

Royal Court Theatre, London

Music

More than just plays; musicals also contributed to the rich cultural life of sixties London. The capital city also provided a rich wealth of musical experiences. I remember going to see Jimmi Hendrix play live at the Royal Festival Hall. I was also a frequent visitor to the Henry Wood Promenade Concerts at the Royal Albert Hall. The Royal Ballet and the Royal Opera House, The English National Opera; there was no shortage of great art and excellent entertainment.

Poetry

Other writers were active at this time: novelists, poets, including B. S. Johnson, Alan Burns, Bob Cobbing, Brigid Brophy, John Betjeman, Philip Larkin, Graham Greene, Iris Murdoch, Ted Hughes.

Cinema and Television

The cinema and television also provided me with a rich diet of art and entertainment. I plan to write more on this subject, at a later date.

It is against this backdrop that my characters find their way into the theatres and auditoriums of London. My challenge is to the see the late sixties through their eyes. It is what the three main characters, in the novel, do that brings alive the London they lived in from 1967 to 1971.

Let me remind you of my approach to fiction. When I set a story in a particular period of time, I decorate the plot with references to contemporary events. I use historical facts as props; I use a backdrop of the events and features of the period to colour the background to the stage literary stage on which the characters play out their parts. This article acts as a map on which to locate the theatrical contours and landmarks of the 1960s. Before I commit anything to my manuscript I will check that I have got my facts right. I would not wish to send my characters to see a play that never took place or to a concert for which there is no historical verification.

George Bernard Shaw

This article forms part of my series about writing my third novel: The Streets of London.

Notes

¹ Dominic Sandbrook, White Heat, 2006.

² Peter Billingham, Edward Bond: A Critical Study, 2014.

³ John Lahr, The Orton Diaries, 1986.

Previous posts in my blog

Being an individual

London – past and present

The Swinging Sixties

See the home page for my blog

Characters

Writing characters

Sunday 25th March 2018

A novel is a story about characters. What they do, what they say, how they behave. If you want to tell a good story, then you have put into it people who the reader will like. I believe that. It is the approach I am taking in my third novel. It’s all about the people. If the people are good then the story will be good. It is the characters who bring the story to life; it is their story and they tell it in their own words.

No Narrator!

Which is technically rather dodgy. Because. There is no narrator. There is no voice telling the story. If I want to portray how any one of them thinks or feels about anything, then I have to make them say something. Or do something. There is no narrator to tell the reader “Michael felt sad, at what he heard.” You have to see that, in what Michael says or does. This is not as easy as it might seem. Think about life. It can be, sometimes, difficult to get the sense what is happening in a scene from our daily lives. If an event is significant, it might well draw that significance from a whole history of things known only to the two or more people who were there at the time. A fly on the wall, seeing only that moment (in isolation) would not appreciate its significance – without it being explained by a narrator. Novelists usually lead up to an event by telling the story about each of the characters through the narrator’s voice. This allows the background to be assembled. Parts of life histories can be explained. Personal life experiences can be unravelled. When readers get to an event, they understand its significance because they have been through the story leading up to it.

Characters you like

I have to think about characters. If I am going to write a successful novel, then what sort of characters will need to be in it? Based on what I have read, characters need to be likeable, credible, engaging and do things that are worth reading about. Even if you, the reader, do not yourself actually like male teenagers, you have to find something in my three leading characters that you like and can relate to. I have to give you something in each of them that is not about being male or about being aged eighteen. I also have to make them seem like real people – within the content of the story set in the 1960s. So, even if you were not born then, you see how the characters are portrayed and (from your general knowledge of English life) you regard them as being credible – real people, who could have existed, at the time. You also have to find them interesting. I try to give a variety of things that will make a character engaging. Not just one thing. Some characters are nasty. The bad guys. The villains. My three leading men are all nice. Their role is to be the heroes of the story. I can surround them with nasty, bad, villains. But they have to come out unscathed. Unblemished by the shit heaped upon them. They are three likeable young men who become successful but they have to go on a journey to get there. My novel tells the story of their journal through the streets of swinging London.

Real people – but not that real

I have tried to make them real people. But, not like any real person who you would be likely to meet. They are not that ordinary. In fact, they are three young men who are exceptional. None of us is ever likely to meet someone who is like Sherlock Holmes. But we can still believe in him, as we read about him in the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. He can seem real, but he is far from ordinary. Writing about exceptional characters is, however, a tricky business. If they appear to be too exceptional, they begin to lose credibility. We begin to doubt their authenticity. The knack is to keep them grounded; they might have exceptional talents, skills or abilities, but, really, they just the same as the rest of us, ordinary folk. The heroism of the three boys is their ability to hold on to their self-confidence and stay true to themselves when all around them is changing, when they are confronted with conflict, when they have to struggle with difficult situations.

There are three main characters in my third novel. In that respect, it’s a bit like Three Men in a Boat or The Three Musketeers. Each of the three characters is a distinct individual, in his own right. Collectively they form a group. In fact, they are, for part of the story, a jazz group. A band. A trio of Jazz musicians. It might well be that some readers will like just one of them – more than the others. There is no way of knowing. I just have to make them all equally likeable – for different reasons. All the three characters are male and they are all the same age. Give or take a few months. They were all born into working-class families in small towns in various parts of England. Each of them decided to leave home and seek his fortune in London – and that is where they met each other. They pursued their dreams and then they moved on. Two of them leave London and one stays to follow his new-found career in broadcasting. The novel portrays them through a narrow window – the years from 1967 (when they moved to London) through to 1971 – when their paths went off in different directions. It was the window of time, the period of their lives, that was most formative for them all. They went to London as boys, but they left it as men.

Looking at you, kid

When I started work on the novel, I had a rough idea, in my head, of what each of the three boys looked like. Using this rough idea, I decided to hunt for pictures that would help me to visualise each of them. Knowing that one of them – Michael – is, in fact, me, I copied the only surviving photo of me when I was 18. I then started to hunt for pictures of two teenage boys, filtering my search down to the year 1967. I found two that were spot on. As soon as I saw the photo I wanted for Adrian – I knew straight away that is was him. What I saw in the photo matched what I saw in my mind exactly. The photo for Tom was similarly totally spot-on. I now had three real faces to aid me when I needed to say something about their appearance, describe them, say what they wore, what their hair was like. Having three faces in front of me helped a lot. That gave me more detail than I could get simply from my imagination.

I also wrote profiles for each of them – stating their age, where they had come from, what jobs they did, and other personal details that I needed to get right. As I worked through the first pages of the book, each of them became a real person. They developed characteristics that marked them out and distinguished them from each other. Adrian was the leader. Michael was the thinker. Tom was the cover boy. Having met each other, which they did in quick succession, they began to realise that they shared a lot in common. That is what united them and was the basis of their camaraderie. It was not until they had been together, for some time, as friends, that they discovered they all were musicians. They all played instruments. They could all sing.

The boys in the band

After I had conceived of the idea of making the three lads into a band – I was not at all sure I wanted to use the idea. I thought about it for a few weeks and then decided that I needed to give it a go. If it didn’t work, I could always delete it all. Having decided they would form I band, I then had to decide what sort of band. I opted for jazz. But, it’s not my speciality. So, a lot of the time they played pop music. Straight away, I decided to make them a successful band. Not just three mediocre musicians who could not sing, but three accomplished instrumentalists with angelic voices. I liked the concept. The band becoming a runaway success. But I did not want it to take over the story. For me, it was just a subplot. I now need to make sure that it does not get in the way of the main storyline. As I work with the ‘band’ idea, I need to keep it under control. I need to make it serve the purposes of the main story. It must not become the main story.

This is a novel ‘set’ in the swinging sixties. Like pieces of meat are set in aspic. It is not a story about the swinging sixties. We like to look back on the late sixties and call it ‘swinging.’ What that means is not always clear. I have already discussed this in my previous blog article. Exactly the same story could have been set in 2018, or in the far distant future of even back in ancient Rome. There is nothing about the story that is anything to do with the 1960s – per se. It is still the same story. The 1960s provide the set, the props, the costumes. So, in that respect, it is a period drama. What I must take care to avoid, is writing a soap opera about either London or the sixties. I must stick to the plot. Not get carried away by the trappings and decorations. Let’s see what the next nine months will achieve.

Previous posts on my blog

Sunday 18th March 2018 – The Swinging Sixties.

Sunday 11th March 2018 – What is masculinity, anyway?

Sunday 4th March 2018 – London: Past and present.

Sunday 25th February 2018 – Being an individual.

See the home page for my blog.

Swinging Sixties

The swinging sixties

Sunday 18th March 2018

Was there a period of time in the history of the British Isles that can justifiably be called ‘The Swinging Sixties‘? Dominic Sandbrook clearly thinks there is; he called his 2006 book White Heat a History of the Britain in the Swinging Sixties. A search on the Internet has also thrown up quite a lot of material that uses this term to refer to a period of time. In this context, I am concerned only with Britain and, moreover, with London. Unlike Sandbrook’s tome, my novel is a work of fiction. Its central characters are imaginary. They all lived in London from 1967 to 1971. That London no longer exists. Any more than the London of Samuel Pepys still exists. My book anchors its central narrators into one city, at one period of time. They never refer to their world as the ‘swinging sixties.’ Had they done so, it would have been an anachronism. Likewise, I doubt that, during 1967, any of them would have realised that they living in the ‘summer of love.’ I am writing this article in 2018 – but I have no idea what this year (or its neighbouring years) will be called in the future. It is historians who name eras of the past.

My novel – The Streets of London – is set in the 1960s; that is where it begins and it ends in the 1970s – the era I call The Beginnings of Change. In America that would be called ‘Generation X’ and in some references it was the ‘Information Age.’ In my novel, the early seventies was a period of change. Not just because 1971 was the milestone year for each of the three leading characters but also because they were seeing changes going on in the world around them. Changes that marked the end of the sixties and beginnings of an entirely new age. I say it is set in London – in reality, it is set in West London. Most of the action takes place in an arc that runs along the Bayswater Road, from Marble Arch to Notting Hill and then down into South Kensington and Earls Court. My characters never go to the East End or South London or even the leafier climbs of the North, Enfield or Barnet. They stuck to the postcodes that began with a ‘W’ and rarely ventured outside of them. They were the aficionados of the West End scene. Bear in mind that the three main characters, in my novel, did not arrive in London until 1967. In that regard, what they encountered was, in sense, a fin-de-siècle version of swinging London. They might have found the swingier parts of West London, but they missed out on the main stream of it all; they were on its fringes and not at its heart. My three young men were too poor to be fashionable.

Inexperienced, lacking qualifications, too young to have got anywhere, they looked on in wonder at the well-heeled icons going past them in their designer clothes and swanky sports cars. They were more likely to buy their shirts at C&A than Lord John. But they do get into some of the smartest and most fashionable restaurants, bars and clubs – simply by being taken there by their older friends and celebrities they have met. London might have been a meritocracy but it awarded its benefits only those who were sponsored by the rich and famous.

How swinging was the sixties?

Swinging. I wonder what that means. I am sure it means different things, to different people. A search for its definition brought up ‘lively, exciting, and fashionable’, ‘sexually liberated or promiscuous’; to some, it was about wife-swapping, to others it was all about music. The era of swing. Of course, all of these things can be thrown into the same soup. Sandbrook has given us a vast cauldron of historic minestrone.

If the mid- to late- sixties could be called ‘The Swinging Sixties’, then what swings were they on? One of my most important research sources is Dominic Sandbrook’s White Heat – a history of Britain in the swinging sixties. More than any other author, Sandbrook has his finger on the pulse of the period. He monitors the beating heart of the era. That book is, for me, about research – the process of verification. What my novel is based on is my own experience; what I wrote about it, at the time. My diaries and my journals articles from 1965 to 1971 still exist. They are the foundation stones of my novel. But, the problem is, they are mine. Some journalists (and diarists) keep detailed notes of the present. They stand and observe everything around them. Just as Pepys did. I was not like that. I was completely entombed in my own little world. During the 1960s my observations of world events – the Cuban missile crisis, the funeral of Sir Winston Churchill, the assassination of President Kennedy, the first moon landing – were mere footnotes. Mere mentions. Alongside my daily scribblings, were my essays – treatises on current affairs in the 1960s. They would have gone down well in the 1860s; in terms of their style. They read like they had been written by a mid-Victorian academic. So, whatever I might have said about the late 1960s, I had little or no idea of what life was all about – even in London. After all, I lived only in west London.

Getting into the swing of it

The decade of the sixties was sandwiched between the end of the post-war era and the conception of the computer age. It was ten years of change. Real change. Fundamental change. Omniscient change. Both in its upsides and its downsides. The baby boomers generation grew up in a world that was different to that in which their parents grew up. Not just somewhat dissimilar. Fundamentally not the same. British society and culture were changing like never before. If the sixties did swing, then they did not swing at the same rate all over the British Isles. In fact, many historians and social commentators argue that it was only London that was swinging. The rest of the country carried on as before, by and large, save for a few odd moments when things happened here and there or when the Beatles began playing in Liverpool. Most of what we now think of as the Swinging Sixties happened in London; and pretty much only in London. OK. There might have been a few small-scale scenes going on in some of the larger English cities, for some of the time. They have largely gone unnoticed.

The Chelsea Drug Store in 1968

It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got swing

Jazz started in the USA; as did the blues. Like a lot of things that took off in America, it crossed the pond and took off in London. And then the rest of the UK. If ‘swinging’ is about music then there is ample evidence that a lot of it went on in London, during the sixties. I don’t know because even when I lived in the capital city, I never got involved in popular music. The only live gigs I went to in those days were orchestral concerts at the Royal Festival Hall or Promenade concerts at the Royal Albert Hall. As jazz or rock gigs; I hardly knew they existed. But that was something that was a consequence of my way of life. In my novel, I rectify that deficiency my forming my three leading characters into a jazz band. The three young men, around whom the plot revolves, discover they are musicians and singers. So, they form a jazz trio. ‘Just for a laugh.’ As they get into the swing of music-making, people respond to their sound very positively. They suddenly find themselves becoming very successful. Not something any of them had expected or planned for. They just happened to have three very well harmonised voices. They happened to be three talented musicians – a guitarist, a bass player and a drummer. After having some jam sessions in a friend’s flat, they are discovered by a man who works in the music industry. From there, they take off. So, that part of the storyline gives me a fair amount of scope to portray the music of London in the 1960s. Happily, for me, a lot has been preserved of the musical vibe of that age, one in which the mass media had started to get going.

Dudley Moore jazz Trio x 600
The Dudley Moore Trio – an inspiration for my band

The Dudley Moore trio offers a model for the jazz group in my novel.

Swinging both ways

Many see the middle to late sixties as being some kind of sexual revolution. Historians can look back and say ‘you ain’t seen nothing yet’ – knowing what the 1970s were to unleash on British society. The other sense – of the swinging sixties – was one dominated by sexuality. In England, homosexuality had been decriminalised in 1967. Even before then, London has a thriving gay scene; pubs, bars and clubs that catered for the vast numbers of gay men (and some women) who were living in London at the time. In fact, very many gay people moved to London to get away from the oppressive, small-mindedness of their home towns and villages. London as a cosmopolitan magnet that attracted people who wanted to escape from the tedium and prudery of English life as it was lived in the shire counties. London was also a boom town at the time: if you wanted a career that could really take off, the chances are you would find it in the capital. Documentaries and magazine articles of the time portrayed London as a kind of sexual utopia. A place where freedom flourished in a way it did not in the urban areas of the rest of the country. The capital offered the promise of an ample supply of jobs, work and sex and its streets were awash with people seeking just that. Not so much a scene, more a state of mind. They wanted it all, and they got it at once.

Harold Wilson

What you loose on the swings…

Not all of the sixties was good; many of us also saw some pretty bad shit. The 1960s did not swing for me – not in any conventional sense – that I have found. Not even musically. But I have it in mind to make my characters swing – in all directions. Even to the extent of making them musicians and forming themselves into a jazz band, as I said earlier. The three teenagers who are the lead characters in my book, move to London and embark on a voyage of self-discovery. They see the glittering and glamorous side of London. But they also catch glimpses of its dark side. It might be a city where the ‘streets are paved with stars’ – as Adrian puts it – but they also encounter some of the seamy underbelly of the capital and meet low-life figures who suckle on its paps. What stood out for me, during my time in London, was that anyone could meet anyone. It was not a classless society; it was just that class was not a barrier when it came to social life. As a teenager, I met many people who were either famous or rich or intellectuals – artists, playwrights, composers, gifted musicians, writers, philosophers, property magnates, millionaires.. people from all kinds of backgrounds and walks of life, from the upper echelons of society down to the low-life creatures who prowled the bars and clubs I went to. You arrive in London – from nowhere, being nobody – and overnight you could become somebody and you knew that you were definitely somewhere. That is how I saw the sixties. What London provided was a launchpad – once you got into the life of the metropolis, you could take off. Michael got a job as a Fleet Street newspaper reporter but left London to take an undergraduate degree at Bristol. Adrian did so well that he was offered a place in New York’s literary society. Only Tom remained in London – and he got a job with the BBC and started a career in broadcasting. Out of this melange of the ‘moronic fringe, the smart alecs and social climbers’ many sixties Londoners made it into the social, political, pop and financial stratosphere.

Guys ‘n’ Dolls restaurant in the Kings Road

Come out swinging

Homosexuals never had it so good. The law changed and they suddenly found they were no longer criminals – just for being gay. What gay the gay population of London found, was a city full of opportunities. Swanky bars, cool clubs, the beginnings of celebrity DJs, actors who everybody knew were gay and achieved notoriety or infamy in the national media. In those days, nobody ‘came out’ as gay – it was a word that did not arrive in this country until the 1970s, when the ideas of the gay liberation movement were imported from the United States, following the Stonewall riots of June 1969. The characters in my novel reflect this pre-liberation era. Even the straight ones. Two of the writers act as ‘ethnographers’ of the gay scene, spending a lot of their evenings in gay haunts simply to observe the natives ‘in their natural habitat.’ Adrian wants to write gay stories into his novels and Michael sees some juicy column inches for his newspaper editor. In my book, I present the sixties as being a period of sexual fluidity (to use modern-day parlance.) Some of the gay men that the boys meet were the died-in-the-wool homos who were friends of Dorothy from the cradle to the grave. Others trod a more winding path. One of the three main characters – Tom – changes sides during the early part of the story; having started out as a typical heterosexual teenager, he meets a gay boy of his own age, they fall in love and become an affaire (a word that today would read ‘partner’.) No, not a bromance. What they get into is full on. Tom goes around telling all his friends that he has become gay. A gay. Newspaperman Michael is ambiguous; you can never really work out which side his bread is buttered on. Adrian remains implacably straight throughout, and wards off several attempted seductions by the gay men he meets. To set a story in the mid to late 1960s and not mention homosexuals and the gay scene, would be like writing about the Tudors and failing to mention the executions and beheadings that were rife at the time. But then, that’s London for you.

Fashions of the 1960s

How to make a book go with a swing

I want my novel to be a success; well I would, wouldn’t I? But I want it to be entertaining and informative. That’s what I do. It’s not a historical novel. It’s, if anything, a coming of age story. But to make it readable, the story has to present entertaining characters who get into entertaining situations. The way I have written it, the book is mainly dialogue. Almost all of it is people talking. If major events happen, they talk about them. The events enter into the storyline only through what the characters say about them. Michael might have been there during the Grosvenor Square demonstrations, outside the American embassy, but he only talks about it. No part of the story narrates him being there, at the time. The big events of the 1960s are props that support the stage play. Things like the first men landing on the moon are talked about and described by characters who watched it on the television. Finding entertaining moments from the so-called ‘swinging sixties’ of London has not been difficult. Moments of fun, humour, frivolity, drama, revelation, self-discovery, pain, darkness, ambition, vision… all human life is there – in some abundance. Me, I have my person recollections to fall back on but I am also actively soaking up stories of other people who were there, at the time. It’s a soup of human experiences that has many ingredients. Even though I am now less than halfway through the first draft, I have not found it difficult to invent situations and happenings for my cast of characters.

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Sunday 4th March 2018

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Gender

What is masculinity, anyway?

Sunday 11th March 2018

As I have already explained, one of themes of my novel – The Streets of London – is masculinity. What does it mean to be a man? The second theme is growing up to be an adult. So the plot of the book (if it can be said to have a plot) is how boys grew up to become men, in the twentieth century.

In writing my novel (it is work in progress), I have been doing research. One of my research themes is masculinity. That is predicated upon there being such a thing. An abstract; an idea or attitude. Clearly, masculinity exists, if only because people talk about men being masculine. What I have been trying to figure out is what it means – as an idea, a concept – in the way it is used. Moreover, how did people use the term in the 1960s and 70s? Back then, was there a way in which men were masculine? Were there men who were seen as being not-masculine? Were there varieties of masculinity? How did a boy become a man who was masculine, in his own eyes and in the eyes of others? Were men forced to become masculine or did they choose to be?

There are a lot of questions here; I cannot answer them all in this article. But I have to at least understand them in order to write a novel, in which, those questions provide the thematic content of the story.

Today’s men

The challenge I face (as a novelist) is to be clear about differences – the differences between the world of today and the world as it was some fifty years ago. As I write my novel, I have to make it clear that what the characters are saying is about the world they are living in. Over half a century, the world has changed. We look back at the past through the lens of the present; that lens can easily distort what is seen, presenting an image that is skewed, misshapen, wrinkled. The world has moved on; it continues to move on, day by day. It might be easier to write about the world as it was in Roman times, during the renaissance, the times of the Tudors – those worlds were very different from our own. There seems to be more evidence and an established archaeology. The world of swinging sixties is more difficult to write about because it is too like today’s world. The differences are more nuanced. The evidence is less than it is for the times of the Romans.

Talking about the sixties

My novel describes London in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It does so through dialogue – what the characters say to each other – and through what they do. There are few passages of narrative. The London that is portrayed in the novel is a London seen through the eyes of the characters – in particular, through the eyes of the three main protagonists. The main characters talk about their experiences of being teenagers in London; they talk in pubs, at parties, in cafes and in each other’s bedsits. In this respect the whole book reads like a film script. There is much more talking than there is doing. If there is doing, then it is described and narrated through the dialogue. People doing things is the action – the scenes that portray events and describe activity. I do that through what they say. Instead of a narrator explaining what someone did, I get one of the other characters to tell what was done. So, it is a novel about talking. I might change my mind on this but that is where I am at, for the time being.

What kind of man is he?

I can offer one conclusion: there is no one masculinity. Masculinity is not a singularity; there are several kinds of masculinity. Men are aligned along a continuum – from being not very masculine at all through to being extremely butch. Most men are positioned somewhere in the middle. That there is a middle can only be accepted if there are ends; a middle is a place between two ends. What kind of men were not masculine, in the 1960s? I explore this question through the gay scene. It was on the 1960s gay scene that you could find men who were not masculine. The word used back then was ‘camp.’ Effeminate men were described as ‘queans.’ (I use the odd spelling that other writers have used to distinguish effeminate men from monarchs of the female gender.) As my characters observe, not all men who were effeminate were homosexual, any more than all homosexuals were effeminate, which clearly they were not. This looks as though I am playing around with gender. At some points that is so. But not always.

Gender is not polar it is fluid

Masculinity is not entirely about gender and not always about sexuality. However, often it was and still is.

What my characters do, in the book, is meet all kinds of different men. They try to analyse them. They find ways of describing them. In between the parties, pub sessions and evenings in the cafes, they read. One reads newspapers and magazines; one spends long hours in libraries and the other is always watching the television and going to the cinema. The three teenagers talk about men, who they are like, what they are like, how they behave, what they think and what they do. And if all this sounds a bit macho, there are scenes in which the boys meet girls and women. They each meet a lot of females. Female characters also talk about men. I am not suggesting that masculinity can be understood only by its being compared and contrasted with femininity. Or vice versa. These two ideas need to be explored as though they are free-standing conditions. Having done that, one can then go on to seeing them side by side, one being the reflection of the other.

What are you like?

The plot might, at first glance, seem rather odd. Three teenage boys move to London and start researching masculinity. In fact, the story unfolds rather differently. The main characters are a peer group – all around the same age, all male and all from similar backgrounds. As individuals facing the transition from adolescence to adulthood, they are each struggling to find themselves and confirm their own identities. They form a bond that enables them to do this together. That is what makes the story interesting. Despite their similarities, they are three quite distinct individuals. That is where their chemistry comes in. And, yes, there is a lot of chemistry. Not just within the trio but also between them and their friends and lovers. The three boys did not arrive in London obsessed with masculinity. In fact, it was Adrian (the writer) who picked up the term and ran with it, as a tool for considering the variety of people he met. Adrian then got the others to explore the idea with him. He begins to ask questions about what it is to be a man. He asks his two friends to consider their own manliness and how they grew up to be masculine. The three boys agree to go to gay bars to observe homosexual men in their natural habitat. They did that in the manner of anthropologists. Adrian is adamant that when they talk to the men, they do not make judgements or reveal their own feelings or attitudes about what they hear. They are not going there to judge; they are not going there to implant their own concepts into the scene. They are there to observe, with the least possible intrusion, and with maximum objectivity. They meet men who are not like themselves; men who are camp. Men who are not masculine, who defy the rules of manliness, who transgress social norms with respect to being male. All the boys find this fascinating.

Gender bending image

The three boys also meet men who are aggressively masculine; men who have taken their manliness to extreme lengths. Men who can at times be violent. Some of these men show a different way of being manly than the average bloke. Men who are ultra butch. Some of these are straight guys; some are gay. They find that there is no correlation between masculinity and sexuality. Some of these scenes are comic; they are the points at which the reader is prompted to have a good laugh. Even so, there is a serious side to this. The boys develop this notion of ‘aggressive masculinity’… a form of manliness that is threatening, abusive, confrontational, belligerent, challenging. Rather than just being afraid of such men (or just disliking them) Adrian tries to dig down into them, to see why they behave in the way they do. He craves insights into what he sees. He wants to discover what makes a man aggressively masculine. Some of these types are dark figures; but not all. Some are funny and charming, in an odd sort of way, and Adrian begins to view them as heroes. As a creative artist, Adrian employs the idea of heroism. He begins to admire men who are challenging, strong, truculent, virile, courageous, intrepid. He sees them as being storm troopers leading the assault against the front line of bourgeois vulgarity. He is attracted to the way in which they fearlessly ignore the formalities of polite life and just go for it. At times they appear to be reckless; they can be shocking; they can be brutal. But it takes guts to do that and they have to be smart to pull it off, Adrian concludes.

Is there such a thing as masculinity?

As I work through the theme and work with the characters to explore, with them, what it meant to be a man in the 1960s, I keep colliding with a wall – a conceptual wall in which some writers and talkers insist that masculinity is false-consciousness. In other words, manliness is not about how masculine you are (or not, as the case may be) but is about other aspects of personality, character and behaviour that get wrongly attributed (by society) to gender and its manifestations. In this narrative, masculinity becomes a shibboleth – something that obscures our understanding of people. Even by the 1960s, the concepts of masculinity and femininity were beginning to crumble. Today, they are legacy ideas – concepts we have inherited from a culture that has all but expired, disappeared into the annals of history. We cling to them out of habit. Today, the idea of binary gender is under attack from the cultural storm troopers. They are assaulting the belief that everyone is either male or female. That was not very apparent in the 1960s; the first glimmerings of it were seen in the early 1970s with the emergence of the radical feminists and ‘gender benders’ – not a term that Adrian and his friends would have used.
Gender politics started in the 1960s but it was not until the early 70s that it had become a movement in Britain.

Gender bending through the ages

Adrian and his friends see the rise of people who were leading an assault on gender polarities; their main target was stereotyping. And labelling. Adrian and his friends refer to each other as ‘boys’ and they talk about men and blokes. They do not use the word ‘guys.’ One of them is a ‘northerner’ and sometimes talks about ‘lads.’ Society gives us an armoury of gender and sexual ordnance. Our language is laden with the shrapnel of convention and traditional ideas and attitudes. We fire off rounds of values, about people, without ever thinking about it. Adrian is a writer and his friend Michael is a journalist; they work with words. They have to think about them. They have arguments about the meaning of words and the way that words are used to assert traditional values or to reject them. That was what young thinkers did back in those days.

Actor Glenn Close starred in the film Albert Nobbs in which she played a woman being a man

This might seem all a bit intellectual, somewhat cerebral, but my job is to write a story. After all, I am not a historian, not even an academic. I am just an entertainer.

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Sunday 18th February 2018

Sunday 4th March 2018

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London – past and present

London – past and present

Sunday 4th March 2018

Once upon a time there was a city – a very big city. A metropolis where eight million people lived and worked. That city no longer exists. A new city has grown up in its place, founded on its remains. It has the same name – most of it is in the same place. But the city, as I knew it, has disappeared into the mists of time. All that remains now are the memories.

Stag Square, Victoria in 1965

My third novel – The Streets of London – is set in the capital. The capital of the United Kingdom. Anyone who knows London, will know that it is a very large city. A city of many parts. From the ancient City of London, the area that some call inner London, to the urban expansion that is greater London. In my story, pretty much the whole of the action takes place in west London. Few scenes take place outside of areas of the W post codes. Most of the scenes are set in the area that runs from Fitzrovia – where the Post Office tower stands – through to the neighbourhoods of various Kensingtons up to Paddington. Many of the scenes are set in Notting Hill Gate and in pubs and bars along the Bayswater Road, from Notting Hill tube station down to Marble Arch. The area around Sloan Square, with the Kings Road, also comes into the picture. That is the geographical scope of the story.

The late 1960s and the early 1970s

The story begins in May 1967 and ends in late September 1971. As with my previous two novels, I have set the stories in real places – in Holiday it was the Italian seaside resort of Cattolica in the year 1966. In my second work – The Trench – it was the harbour area of Portsmouth around the mid 1980s. These are all real places. The characters and their lives are the fiction. Like a lot of fiction, however, it is based on real life. When I decided to set my novel in London – during the 1960s and 70s – I wanted to use that period as a stage set, a backcloth, against which and in which the action takes place.

I lived in London from 1967 to 1971. I kept a personal diary that recorded every day of my life from the moment I arrived until the moment I left. The diaries were supplemented by a journal, in which I wrote about what I did, the people I met and the experiences that I had. And much else besides. In my creative fiction work, I aim to present authentic scenarios. The reader will find constant references to the England of that time – to the London of the swinging sixties. Bear in mind, however, that is not a novel about London. Any more than it is a story about the swinging sixties. Those are just stage sets. The novel is about the three central characters around which and through whom the story is told. It a story about them. It is through them that I portray the story of London, it milieu, its culture, its peoples, its art, politics, economy, music and happenings. As I explained in my previous blog post, this is a novel with a theme – growing up, coming of age, the emergence of adulthood and how boys becomes men.

Biography

All novels are autobiographical; that was a claim I made recently when talking about the process of writing fiction. Many authors will write a story based on part of their lives, a period they lived through or aspects of their personal experiences. When we say ‘based’ we mean drawing on, using foundations of and reflecting what happened. My book is not in any way a true autobiography. However autobiographical its content might be. For a start, there is no one character in the story who is me. Instead, there are three characters. Each of them is the age I was when I lived in London. They are all male. They are three distinctly different personalities. They do, however, share many elements of their lives in common. Each of them came to London from small towns in England – small towns in the counties of Hampshire, Essex and Shropshire. This method of treatment was entirely intentional and carefully thought out. Indeed, as I work on the book, it continues to be worked out. Each of these three teenage boys tells his story – stories about what life was like in small English towns – and what circumstances motivated them to leave home and move to London in search of a new lives – just as I had done when I was a teenager.

Londons that have disappeared

West Kensington tube station

This article is focused on London. But only on that part of London which I knew best. The London I lived in, during the late sixties and early seventies, no longer exists. Just as the Londinium built by the Romans from AD 43 onwards, no longer exists. As one of the characters – Adrian – explains ‘Many Londons have disappeared; built over by generations of those that no longer saw them as having any value. The London of the middle ages has been trodden into the mud by the march of progress.’ That can also be said of any other of the world’s great cities – Paris, Rome, Tokyo, Delhi, Beijing – they all had periods of time that were stages in their history and development, stages that started, grew and declined and were replaced by later eras. The London that I see today is nothing whatever like the London I lived in fifty years ago. The book has a great deal of detail in it that was taken from the records I kept from 1967 to 1971. From the cost of renting a room to the price of a pint of beer – I kept records, I made notes.

Today’s readers might find such details difficult to believe. But where I give facts you can be sure that they are true and authentic. The dates of events – men landing on the moon for example, or demonstrations in Grosvenor Square – are well attested happenings. The Labour Party winning the general election and Harold Wilson becoming prime minister – is in the history books. If I mention facts or historical events in any of my novels I want to be sure they are accurate and verifiable. Even where I mention places I went to or things that I did (as annotated in my diaries) I still try to check the details in order to verify that my own records, made at the time, are reliable.

Many of the places that were important to me at the time no longer exist. I worked in Fleet Street but it is today a very different thoroughfare than it was back then. I visited the Stock Exchange many times but it was very different building than the one you would now think of. Some of the pubs I went to most often, no longer exist; those that still do have been changed out of all recognition. I frequently walked along Oxford Street – a road that is still there. But the Oxford Street that I saw bears little comparison to that seen today. In 1967 to 1969 I rented bedsits for five pounds a week – something that I had my characters do in my novel. As I was writing this article, I searched for bedsits to rent in West London. In Earls Court (one of the areas where I lived) there were offers of single rooms in excess of £200 a week. Others were considerably more expensive; you wouldn’t see much change out of a grand. We know that the cost of living has gone up. So it comes as no surprise. The mid to late 1960s was a period of full employment. My characters could get jobs easily, even as unqualified teenagers. Just as I did. What has changed most, to my way of thinking, between the sixties and today, is the way of life. The people and how they live – that is what makes London such a different place. Back then we had freedoms that simply no longer exist. Today’s society is much more challenging, much more demanding. The State was a fraction of the size that it is now.

Fiction that portrays reality

That is how I see fiction – the imagined story of fictitious characters and events played out against the backdrop of real history. But the 1960s is not far-removed history. There are plenty of people alive today who lived through those years. Many people will have been in London at that time and can remember places, pubs, restaurants, cafes, theatres, art galleries, newsworthy events; they might even have been there themselves. The novel will appeal to those seeking nostalgia for the days of their youth. My story might appeal to them for that reason alone. But that is not why I am writing it. Some readers might have been alive during the time of the novel and might even have lived in west London. The London of my book must be a city that they would recognise. Having said that, my experience of the city was limited. There were visits I made to neighbourhoods in the north, east or south of the city, but I never really knew them. I never lived in them. My metropolis had the Kings Road, Carnaby Street, Earls Court, Marble Arch, Hyde Park, Notting Hill and the splendours of South Kensington. I never intended to live in the west – it just happened. But, once I got there I stayed there. It was a world that I understood. A milieu that meant something to me.

I spent my childhood in Portsmouth, on the South coast of England. But I grew up in London. When I arrived in London – in 1967 – I was still a child; when I left – in September 1971 – I was a young adult. My story is about that transition. In those days young people came of age at 21. When I left London I was considered to be an adult. I was ‘of full age.’ In fact, by the sixties, our language had acquired specific age-related words – teenager and adolescent. My work uses many of the concepts and theories that were in vogue in the late 60s. My young characters are shown soaking up the intellectual, political and artistic ideas of their time. They talk about them, react to them, are inspired by them and satirise them. If a character comes out with a monologue about some sociological theory he has just read at the library, then it was something I had done myself when I was there. I studied social sciences and literature at the West London College. Whether you understand the era or not, whether you were alive at the time, or not, the story must appear to be real. It must portray a world that is credible and authentic. A novel is a tree of fiction whose roots run deep into the soil of reality.

Marble Arch in 1965

See also

The home page of the blog which lists the articles already published

Individuality

Sunday 25th February 2018

Being an individual

What does it mean to be an individual? How do people become themselves? How does a person portray his sense of being separate from everyone else? These are questions that present themselves to me as I write my third novel – The Streets of London. The novel covers the period from 1967 to 1971. A colourful, vibrant and diverse era that included the Summer of love and the Swinging Sixties. The theme of the book is masculinity – what it means to be a man in the twentieth century. And today. In thinking about this, it struck me that gender and stereotyping are all about being an individual. Some people are what they think they should be. Others want to be themselves. In this respect, the theme is also about conformity and rebelliousness. Individuality is about having a sense of self. A concept of one’s identity; a concept of one’s own subjective identity and a concept of how people see you and how you know what they see – these are discussed in this article.

How males become men

A human being is born male or female. Well, most are. As we shall see, later, there are exceptions. That condition is determined by the midwife (or doctor) who takes the baby out of the womb and immediately looks at its genitalia. She (or he) then tells the mother “It’s a boy” or “It’s a girl.” If the child is a male, he is treated like a male. He is brought up to be a male. What that is, in practice, differs from one society to another. In England, male children and brought up to be men. They are dressed as boys. When they grow up, they dress as men. They are given boys’ toys to play with. They are encouraged to do what boys normally do. They see around them a world that is pivoted on heterosexuality. So they become heterosexual. They become is what their believe their parents want them to be. They become, as adults, what they think their society wants them to be. This is has not been so true in history. It is something that characterises the twentieth century. In Victorian times, infant boys were dressed as girls.

Our society drives people to conform. It always has done. Society is a machine that manufactures conformity. It is geared to making people conform sexually and in terms of their gender. Even today, with our celebration of LGBT diversity, society presents us with a binary view of gender. Male or female. Everyone is expected to be either male or female. Males are masculine. Females are feminine. It’s all very simple. Isn’t it?

But how does society manufacture masculinity? That is what my novel is partly about. It tries to dig down into the mechanics of how masculinity is manufactured. It presents a view of the world in which society drives people to be one thing or the other. To be simple. To be clear. Not to fudge the issues. Not to be confusing. Especially when it comes to gender. Society manufactures masculinity; its systems and processes produce expectations and outcomes. Both for society as a whole and for the individuals that comprise it. Social processes make attitudes, beliefs, values, stereotypes, rituals, pressures, forces and a multitude of forms and fashions that mould and shape people. Manufacturing of social outcomes is a mass process. Masculinity is not a uniform cultural idea; not even in a single society. The wide spectrum of differences we find amongst men who are considered to be masculine, is the product of how each man or boy interprets social expectations, for himself. Family groups and communities vary in the extent to which they regard being masculine as important and their interpretations of social and cultural expectations differ too. Various social institutions are involved in the manufacture of masculinity; the foremost of these being the army and the school system and, in particular, the public school system. Sport is also important as a factor producing types of masculine behaviour and attitudes. Several writers have considered these – the military, schools and sport – as being systems used in the manufacture of conformity in general and in the process of configuring masculinity, in particular.

Expectations

Society expects males to become men and females to become women. Both communities and families foster such expectations. Both church and state reinforce expected outcomes. Gender is not something that we are permitted to individualise. Society expects each of us to behave in a certain way. But how do individuals realise what these social and familial expectations are? What are the mechanics of making expectations work? Why do we internalise the social norms of being masculine or feminine? How does that happen?

Parents expect their children to grow up to be like them. They expect sons to become like their father. They expect daughters to become like their mother. Schools do the same kind of thing. Schools know what parents expect; they know what society expects. Boys have to be masculine. Girls have to be feminine. It is the way the world works. Schools reprocess social expectations, as much as they are created by them. Education is a process that involves adapting to conformity. Liberal educationists try to help students with this process of adaptation. Progressive teachers help their students to understand that his happens and how to react to it.

The social order is based on expectations. Society has a strong belief that people should be how it wants them to be. To behave, to dress, to act, to think… in socially recognised ways. Society expects that people will behave in a certain way. Expectations are defined for almost all aspects of human behaviour. Expectation means wanting something to happen in a certain way. Wanting something to be the case. Expectations are about beliefs. Values. Rituals. Expectations are about the future. And also about the present. OK. So social expectations change over time. What society expected of young men in the 1970s is not greatly different from those of today. But neither is it completely the same.

People internalise expectations because they want to be the same as everyone else. They see the world in the same way as everyone else sees it. Shared views of the world are what binds it together. Shared expectations are what binds people together into a society. The machinery of creating expectations works in many ways. One of them is the sharing of norms and values. If a group of people share something in common with each other, then they can teach children how to grow up and adults can regulate behaviour. Rituals are mechanisms through which norms and values are celebrated and inculcated. Rituals are the foundation blocks of culture. Rituals shape daily life and everyday social interactions. There are rituals that configure gender and sexuality. These are rituals through which the social order of male and female is maintained and reinforced. Rituals mould people into having sex in a particular way. Courtship is a process that prepares people for having sex with each other and it involves many ritualised routines. One of these is dating. In my novel, I look at dating in the sixties and how people conformed to rituals in the preliminary stages of mate selection and intercourse. Dating was portrayed as one of the foundations of the process of conformity. As the novel shows, there were whole groups and communities that disowned the standard normalities of dating. These groups replaced the standard rituals that led up to sex, with their own individual values and customs.

Expected to be a man

How do individuals internalise social expectations? Do straight men internalise expectations about maleness in the same way as do gay men? Are there differences between straight men and gay men that affect the extent to which they internalise social expectations and conform to them? These questions are touchstones, litmus tests, that unravel the nature of conformity and individuality.

It could be argued that homosexual men have failed to internalise – and to conform to – social expectations. After all, if they are homosexual then they have clearly failed to conform to social expectations about their sexuality, through becoming heterosexual. Hence, they might also fail to internalise expectations about masculinity. It could be argued. Is that because they are gay? Is there something in homosexuality that makes an individual inherently less likely to conform to expectations about masculinity? It’s a chicken and egg conundrum. Are they gay because they are not conforming; or are they not conforming because they are gay? A man is gay if he has failed to internalise social expectations about his sexuality. Society expects all men to be heterosexual. Being gay means that a man has found ways of avoiding the pressures to internalise expectations about sexuality. But, even when a man accepts that he is gay, pressures to conform still apply. He is expected to behave like a gay person. He is expected to be a certain kind of gay person. Pressures from the gay community compel him to be gay in a certain way.

Most gay men – those who live in a gay community – conform to the social expectations of the gay scene. Insofar as they understand and accept them. This affects where they live, what kind of restaurants they patronise, which bars they go to, what kind of films they watch, how they dress, how they should decorate their homes, what kind of pets they keep, et cetera. Being gay permeates all aspects of life. It is a lifestyle choice and hence it stylises life from top to bottom. And yet there is, in the gay community, a widely held belief that people should be themselves. A belief that clashes with the pressures in the gay scene to conform to fashions and commercial exploitations. But then, this is not a highly organised process; it has not been thought-through before it gets to work on people. As with a lot of other communities, it just happens. It is the end result of historical processes.

Bringing the world inside you

What is internalisation? It is a process of bringing inside you what you see on the outside. By ‘see’ I mean understand, conceptualise, know, believe. Making your inner world match your view of the world outside. You no longer see things as being outside; they are what you think and feel inside. People have imported the (or a) view of the world into themselves – the world that they see outside of them, the view as they understand it. Does that mean, therefore, that a gay man has failed to see the world around him? Has he failed to see the view of the world in which a man should be heterosexual? No. The evidence is that a gay man knows only too well what he is supposed to be. He is well aware of the heterosexual view that he should internalise. It is not a failure to internalise social norms. Growing up to be gay involves a different set of processes. Gay people are painfully aware that society expects them to be heterosexual. They reject that pressure. They avoid it. They escape it. They accept that they are homosexual. They probably think they have failed to become heterosexual. They get over it. That is quite different from thinking that you have successfully become a gay man. Coming out as gay is a process that involves a man accepting his gayness and asking those around him to also accept it. Coming out as gay has become an established feature of British society. Many famous people have come out and most people would be able to name at least one celebrity who is gay. A search on the Internet, made today, suggests that gay men do not necessarily look different from straight men. You cannot tell a man is gay just by looking at his face. Or the way he is dressed. From the 1970s onwards, gay men’s fashions influenced men generally; their taste in music had a massive effect on musical popularity generally. Gay men’s style choices about personal grooming began to filter out into the straight world and men started to take more care of their personal appearance and to use cosmetic products. This gave rise to the metrosexual.

In my novel, one of the characters challenges a friend to say how became a heterosexual. As the friend says, he did not have to become a heterosexual; there was no point in his life when he had to ‘come out’ as straight. Being a heterosexual is the norm. It is not something that anyone must achieve; it just happens. The binaryism of straight and gay gives us insights into how the world inculcates us into conformity. Our society presents the social world of human beings in black and white terms. Our lives become an endless round of dichotomies. You have to be thing or the other. You are not allowed to choose. You have to be what the world wants you to be – whether that is the world of your community, your family or your faith.

Each individual has a private persona and a public persona. By persona, I mean identity, self, image, character – in the social sense. A persona is like a mask – you wear it in order to say who you are. There are circumstances in which these two things collide. Two senses of self clash. Recent research studies have looked at men who identify, publicly, as straight but who told researchers they sometimes had sex with other men. Such men might have a private persona of being bisexual – one that they might not disclose to even legitimate researchers. That is speculative.

What the research reveals is that men with heterosexual credentials – those that are not open to doubt – do sometimes have sex with other men, for a variety of reasons. The subjects of the research were men who identified as heterosexual to their family, friends, work colleagues and to the public generally. Judging from the research report, they were having sex with other men in a clandestine way. They were selected from a sample of men who used online apps to find other men, for sex. They maintained their identities as straight and the fact they occasionally had homosexual experiences did not alter their perceptions of themselves as straight. Many of the male subjects interviewed for the research were in stable relationships with women. The research suggested that many of these men had same-sex encounters only infrequently. The term ‘heteroflexible’ has been coined to describe these men. The difference between one’s public persona and how one sees oneself internally, the notion of a private persona, is long-established in sociology and psychology. What interests researchers are the rationales for these dissonances and how men justify presenting themselves as straight even though they are having same-sex encounters. These were men who had sex but without there being any emotional or romantic engagements; they did it purely for sexual reasons or gratifications. They said they were not attracted to men’s bodies and did not find them handsome. Many of them said they were interested only in the penis and not the person as a whole. These were men who were not exclusively heterosexual. Socially they presented themselves as straight guys. Most did not publicly identify as bisexual. They would have strenuously denied they were gay and pointed to their girlfriends or wives as evidence for their heterosexuality. They could not be said to be homosexually oriented. They had a heterosexual orientation but dabbled in homosex now and then. They chose to do this. It was not due to circumstances, as would be the case with prison inmates or male sex workers. They would choose to do this or not to do this, at will.
Sex is often a way of penetrating into the mechanisms by which individuals assert their separateness from the social world in which they live. In discussing individuality, sex and gender are often good topics to reveal and expose how people overcome pressures to conform. This happens because someone has a strong sense of being a separate individual. They are not ants in a colony. They exist separately from the society around them. They have refused to be configured by it; or they have failed to conform to its expectations.

Being an individual

Some people are conformists. Others are individualists. I use the term individualist simply to mean oriented to self or self-defining; as opposed to adhering to a set of beliefs about individualism. This is a notion, a concept, that any one person is either a conformist – they live up to social expectations – or an individualist – one who chooses whether to accept social expectations or to refuse them. But some people are individuals who reject convention. A man can either internalise social expectations about masculinity or he can make up his own mind. People who think about the outside world and then decide for themselves what they want to be, or to do, are individualists. It is not that they feel antagonistic to the outside world. Not necessarily. They have a strong sense of their own self. A person who decides to be what he wants to be – rather than what people on the outside want him to be – must have a strong sense of self. It takes guts to be different.

Being an individual is not easy. People apply pressure to conform to accepted norms, beliefs, values and customs. Today’s obsession with texting and commenting on social media is the new way of pressuring people to conform. People bully other people, online, to compel them conform to their own view of the world. That can lead an individual to be depressed, unhappy, even suicidal. The individualist is less affected by what other’s think of him. He wants to be self-determining. It is much easier to go with the flow; to do what other people expect you to do. If you want to be your own man, you have to be very strong mentally. Parents apply a lot of pressure on their children to grow up to be like themselves. Parents bring up their children to be like themselves, to behave as they do, to dress as they do, to have their beliefs, to have their ambitions (if they have any ambitions) and to be little models of themselves. With most families this process is successful. There are always a few who reject that outcome, both when they are young and when they become adults. There are individuals who are not anything like their parents. They are not the person their parents wanted them to be. They have forged their own identity. They have created themselves in their own image – not in the image of their parents.

Having the guts to be different is about self-confidence. A belief that what one thinks (about oneself) is right (if only for oneself.) Conformists often have a low sense of self-esteem and low self-confidence. This leads people to doubt themselves; to be uncertain about who they are and what they are becoming. Self-confidence is about having the strength to believe in one’s own values and priorities. It is also about having the strength to respect others. To value what other people think without always agreeing with them. To value the right of others to decide for themselves just as you decide for yourself. Conformity is a like a suit of armour. It protects, but it also imprisons. Conformists think that, if they follow social expectations, their lives will be easier. They are more likely to be accepted by others. They are more likely to agree with the values of the world around them. They are more likely to be deferential to authority figures.

Individualists have to protect themselves against the intrusions of the outside world. An individualist has to inoculate himself against internalising too many of those external expectations that clash with his own personal values and beliefs. Once someone has realised (or decided) that they are an individualist, they have to find ways to escape the pressures being applied to them by the outside world. Let us take, for example, the case of a man who wants to have his own take on gender. Some men become transvestites. Not the ones who seek gender reassignment (transsexuals.) Rather, those who want to dress as a woman for part of their lives. They have to be strong-minded individuals. Unless they are going to pursue these activities only in private, in secret. A man who wants to be a woman, at least to feel as though he is a woman, for part of the time, has to have a strong sense of his own self and his own identity. To him, gender is a game played by two sides. He knows how to switch sides and play for the other team. Many male actors have to dress up in women’s clothes and act a role. Doing that has no effect on their sense of identity. They remain actors doing a job. Acting the part of a woman might open up insights into womanhood if they play the role sincerely enough. But after the day’s work, they put on their male clothing and go back to being a man. Transvestites also do that. Very few are fortunate to have jobs where they can dress as women. They have to go back to being a man, when they go back to work. Being a woman is something they do only when they have the opportunity, when circumstances permit.

Earlier on, I argued that society was a machine that creates expectations about how men should behave and what they should do and be. In many societies, there is, in fact, a slot for the transvestite male. According to the rules of the machine, you can be a transvestite if you join a certain profession, occupation or religious group or engage in certain recognised rituals. Social machines can allow these exceptions. Today’s social machine allows some men to be gay. The machine manufacturers standard products but it can also turn out specialised components. Hijras are officially recognized as a third gender in South Asian countries; they are considered neither completely male nor female. Many Hijras live in well-defined and organised all-hijra communities. In India, some Hijras do not define themselves by a specific sexual orientation, but rather by renouncing sex altogether. Sexual energy is transformed into sacred powers. Seeing themselves to be neither men nor women, Hijras practice rituals for and on behalf of both men and women; they belong to a special caste. They may be devotees of certain gods or goddesses. There are other examples, in other countries, of male persons who adopt a trans-gender role for either religious reasons or because they become sex workers.

Transvestites and homosexuals are examples of people who have to escape from the clutches of social expectation. They have to find ways of being self-determining in a world which pressures them to be conformists. Some achieve this through religion; some through political ideologies. Some simply construct reasons and justifications of their own for why should not conform. Many are subject to discrimination, hate and social rejection. They might find solace and companionship in like-minded groups but they also have to be mentally strong enough to withstand the negative consequences of their status, if they are to survive (which not all of them do.)

I know this sounds a bit like a sociology essay. It is me thinking through the theory before I put it into practice in writing my novel. As I lived through the sixties and seventies, I saw the world in all its polymorphic colour. I saw it changing. I saw people changing. The world in which I lived was multifaceted, complex, challenging and always impermanent. My experiences of life fifty years ago are what leavens my literary ambitions. I qualified as a sociologist. What I now need to do is to apply my social theory, as I understand it, to fiction to create a novel that will both tell a story and entertain.

Choosing to be different

Do people choose to be different? Can they decide not to conform? Is it a matter of conscious thought? Most of the time we do not realise that we are conforming to expectations. The process happens, to us, without us realising it. Most people go through life without ever thinking about themselves, who they are, how they became the people they are. Life just happens. We just happen. There is no point in thinking about it. It is only when people stray away from the set pathway that they realise that they were conforming to a set of expectations. They find themselves off piste socially. Realising that they are in some way different coincides with realising that once they conformed.

Some of these processes of becoming different happen very slowly, over a long period of time. Some people who are different cannot point to a time or an event where everything changed. It does happen. But for some people, they drift unconsciously into being different. The ordinary person is not a philosopher – one who thinks deeply about the meaning of existence. Whatever protects the average man against failure to conform – it did not do it for them. Most people do not consciously conform to social expectations. It just happens to them. They do not realise that it happens or how it happens. It just does. They are seldom conscious of the mechanisms and processes of conforming.

Those who become individualists, are more likely to have become aware of such mechanisms and processes. They had to learn how to deal with them. Avoid them or neutralise them. If you want to be rebellious you have to learn how to be a rebel. You do not just become one. You might feel rebellious. But you still have to find out how to rebel. Circumstances can turn you from a conformist into a rebel. It can happen but it is not something that happens very often. A rebel can be someone who fights; he conflicts with his detractors. But he can also be a man with a rebellious attitude. A non-conformist, by nature. These are all kernels for a good stories.

If a man is sufficiently self-aware, he may choose to be different, decide in what way he will differ, how much he will differ and over what period time he will be different. That is not what happens to everyone. Some people suffer from mental health problems; that makes them different for a while (perhaps even permanently.) They might be aware of such issues and problems. They might even come to define such differences in their own minds. They might develop survival strategies that enable them to cope with those differences. It is not clear that they have chosen to be that way; it might be that, mentally, it just happened to them, without their choice. They became mentally ill. Likewise, it is possible that a man would reject some aspect of the culture into which he was born. If he was born into a religious community, for example, he might decide, intellectually, to reject that religion in whole or in part. He might want to become a devotee of some other religion or to have no religion at all. These transformations are thought through; their consequences are known and he is mindful of the potential repercussions. Sometimes, a man might be caught between two sets of expectations. Conflicting or opposing expectations. He has to choose which side to join. Sitting on the fence is far more difficult. There is a long and rich history of religious non-conformism in this country, as much as in the rest of western Europe. Some members of the Anglican tradition have left the mainstream church and joined protestant congregations that espouse an alternative theology.

It is an open question whether we do choose to be different or whether this just happens to us. For some people, I am sure, they just drift into it because of their circumstances. I thought of Miss Havisham from Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens. She was jilted at her wedding and spent the rest of her life wearing her bridal gown and living a reclusive life. Being different is not, of itself, a bad thing; there are thousands of celebrities whose difference brings them fame and notoriety but they see that positively. It becomes their trade mark. Members of the royal family are different – they are high-status individuals – but they would mostly regard their difference as being positive. They were born to be different. There are many hundreds of thousands of people who were born with a disability. Some of them are very different – physically – from the rest of the population. Some have used their condition to their advantage – such as the actors and actresses who were born with dwarfism and went on to come famous actors. Dave Rappaport for example. I was at the University of Bristol when he was an undergraduate there. Differences can be acquired or they can be adopted. Physical differences can be embraced and celebrated. Mental conditions can be a source of creative inspiration. Some of those who are bipolar become highly talented artists. Our society commands conformity in many ways. Can permit variations. It can protect diversity. In the west, we enjoy liberal, progressive versions of the state. This has not always been the case in European history.

The state machine

Society is a machine for manufacturing look-alike people – people who are similar to each other. Society works better when most people fit standard measures. Too much variation is unprofitable. The manufacturing machine expects people to behave in the way it wants them to behave. The machine comprises the state and capitalism and often the church or religious orthodoxy. Capitalism is a traditional philosophy, I know. These days it might refer to commercialism or a certain kind of economy. Modern capitalism is often seen as being corporatism. Many writers have seen the state as being organised and run by an elite; or a group of elites. Oligarchs. The ruling class. People at the top who rule those below. Top people control the country. Top means rich; or the wealthiest. They are the ones who have the most power. There is a passage in my novel, where one of the characters launches into an analysis of how the ruling class rules. He portrays thinking of the late sixties in which radicals, suckled on the paps of Marxism, saw people as being exploited by a kind of Big Brother totalitarian state. He rails against the mass media newspapers for imposing political will on the people. The will of their corporate owners. He belittles parliamentary democracy. He sees the politics of Westminster as being a ruse that deflects people away from what is really happening in the country. Journalists are told to focus on what politics say and do; in reality, he argues, this is all a smokescreen.

All of this is well-known. The state is a series of systems that wants people to be what it expects them to be; to do what it expects them to do; to not do certain things (criminal law.) Here in England, we believe that we are ruled by a parliamentary democracy. Well, some of us do. Others are not so sure. Those of a more radical bent believe that democracy is a weak force and that the real governors of our world are the corporations. Whatever the truth might be, the state is a machine that imposes itself on the population. What we fail to see are the newspaper moguls and corporate bosses who are imposing their values on the state. My character is a radical student; as a person he has chosen to become an individual – of a certain kind. No one made him become a radical. Neither did he become a radical by chance.

My concern here is with personal conformity and individualism (in the sense of self-compliance.) There are many social and political movements that are concerned with conformity. Religion is one of them. I recall the Tudor period when Henry VIII disestablished the church and attempted to convert the British to Protestantism. A large number of people became non-conformists. But many clung on to their Catholic beliefs. During a later period of English history, people divided themselves into puritans and Catholics, or later into Roundheads and Cavaliers, parliamentarians and royalists. In modern times, the Northern Irish community was (and still is) divided into republicans and loyalists. Every man, woman and child – in such situations – had to decide which side to join; on which side of the fence they would go. They had to choose which side they wished to conform to. These were situations that have parallels in today’s world.

The genetics of masculinity and the chemistry of sexuality

My novel is about masculinity and how men grow up to be masculine. The process is a complex one. And yet it appears to be simple. If you are born as a male you are brought up to be a man. The world makes you behave how a man is expected to behave. What I set out to do, in my novel, is to show that this process does not always happen successfully. I have introduced a number of gay male characters in order to explore the process of conformity and individuality as it concerns sexuality. But it goes much deeper than that. The heterosexual characters display varying modes of sexuality and levels of masculinity. I talked about people being standardised; in reality, this is far from being the case. We are all variations from (or on) the standard. Those who are conformists are not people who stick rigidly to the rules; they are people whose lives are mainly characterised by internalising expectations, most of the time and to some degree or other. But not necessarily in every respect. They can occasionally deviate from expectations. In some way. To some extent. Sometimes a person is a conformist, in a general sense, but at the same time, they can also be an individual. Conscious of their own individuality. It all depends on circumstances. We do not all lead exactly the same lives. Groups of people might be seen to lead lives that are similar. But there will always be variants.

Some people are generally conformists but have elements of individuality where they depart from the norm and defy conventions. If there is an expectation that people will dislike or reject homosexuality, some people will reject that expectation and take another view of gayness. Many people grow up in communities that hold sport in high regard and consider football to be of prime importance. A few might reject this view. That does not mean that they are all round non-conformists. They just don’t like sport or football. A man living in contemporary society, in England, might be a conformist, generally, in most aspects of life, but that compliance is tempered with attitudes, beliefs and values that are individual to him – his own preferences. Society is not so totalitarian that it requires absolute compliance with all expectations, all of the time. We have a degree of personal freedom. Some of the characters in my novel are exemplary heterosexuals but they allow themselves to deviate now and again. They occasionally dip their toes into homosexuality. That does not make them gay. It does not change their orientation. They are simply men who have sex with other men, occasionally. For them, it is a characteristic of manliness. Women might occasionally sample a bit of lesbian love. It is equally possible that a gay man might dip his toes into straight sex. I think that is less likely to happen and is rarer. My view of gay men is that, once they have come out, they are locked into that particular suit of armour, more so than their straight counterparts are locked into the armour of heterosexuality. It is one of my story lines that individuals do sometimes fail to comply, fail to conform, refuse to always be what they should be. Some men flout the rules; in doing so, they affirm the rules. As the French writer Jean Genet, once wrote: A man who fucks a man is a double man. A heterosexual man who has sex with another man is affirming his maleness. A man who occasionally dresses as a woman is affirming his masculinity – not denying it.

Let me explain one thing to do with this. Being gay is more than just about sex; gay is more than homosexuality. It is a lifestyle choice. It is a social and cultural position. I cannot say if this applies equally to males and females and there will also most certainly be ethnic differences and age differences. Gay has become something, in the twenty-first century, more than just about sex or even about partnership choices. An individual positions himself in a world that he recognises. Not necessarily consciously. And not as a one-off choice. Our lives slide into place according to the kind of work we do, the level of educational attainment we achieve, the kind of wealth we accumulate or enjoy, where we choose to live, who we choose to live with… a wide variety of factors make us what who we are. Our position changes over time; it evolves as we get older. As we marry and cease to be single. Or if we become disabled. Or mentally ill.

Another factor presses itself on my thinking. A person who lives in a family – all their lives – is more socially configured than someone who lives mainly in a solitary situation. Some live in fairly small family groups; other exist for most of their lives in extended family circles. Of all the factors that make people who and what they are, the family is the one that has the greatest influence. Small families of parents and their children might try to bring their children up to be individuals. Other families might do their utmost to make their children into replicas of the parents. Some families are based on values of liberal tolerance. In other cultures, there is stronger emphasis on conformity. The family is not always a standardised institution. Liberal societies allow families of be different. This then allows individual family members to be different.

Being a different race

A blogger called Devi Clark wrote: When I was ten, my blonde, blue-eyed best friend gave me a label. “I never thought I’d make friends with anyone brown,” she said. She was clearly embarrassed by her revelation and had summoned the courage to own up. I was dumbstruck for a moment. I never really thought of myself as brown, or indeed, as anything. I was just me. She went on to comment I still encounter many situations where people make incorrect assessments of me based on my looks. In her article, she went on to analyse the advantages of being different, seeing it as being positive characteristic. In particular, she saw being different a source of motivation and creativity. Writer Mandy Hale suggested that people should own their differences. She commented that if someone thought they were weird they should work on it. Several writers have talked about ‘being part of the herd’ and how leaving the herd can be a positive achievement. When it comes to race – based on skin colour – there has to be a point when a person realises that they are different to whatever group is around them or what kind of community they came from. Once they have accepted that they are different, they then have to work out what that implies.

We often think that black people came to the British Isles in the 1960s; this is far from the case. The very first Britons were people who were not white. Ancient ancestors who first populated what we now know as England, were brown-skinned people. Black people were brought to this country by the Romans back in the first century. They continued to live here and their presence was amplified during the time when the East India Company began to trade in slaves. Why should skin colour form the basis for racial discrimination? Some analysts of the history of slavery and of racism in this country have traced the source of discrimination back to economic status, poverty and the fact that black people were usually those who were exploited. In Britain today having a different skin colour is not in itself a disadvantage. It can be but other factors also apply. Some black people today are wealthy, hold positions of high office, are successful business people, are celebrities, Olympic athletes, distinguished sports people. Skin alone, is not a sufficient factor to explain disadvantage and discrimination. There have been many groups of people with white skins, who have become the targets and victims of hatred and intense discrimination.

A complex individual

It has been suggested, by some of the writers I have read, that a person is multi-layered. The self is not a simple, one-dimensional entity. It can have different parts. There can be more than one self; some of which the person is aware of and, in some cases, selfs of which he is not fully conscious. As babies and children grow and develop they become aware of themselves. They realise they are separate from the world around them and separate from people they see every day. A young person develops a sense of self and some degree of understanding as to what kind of self they have. Children grow to see themselves as separate individuals, persons, distinct beings or entities. During adolescence, we see ourselves, more and more, relative to people around us – in particular, our peer group. Adults can be defined or configured by their family or community. We used to talk about actuality. I think that meant ‘what we actually are.’ Allied to that, we used to use the phrase ‘self-actualising.’ Something invented by humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow. Something to do with personal growth. Fulfilling a desire for achievement, realising potential.

Are people ever completely separate? If, as I have just said, people are defined by those closest to them, can it ever be that a person is completely separate? Complete separation can happen only when an individual lives in isolation – like a hermit or someone marooned alone on an island. In normal daily life, an individual is socialised into a family or group or community. His self is, therefore, a reflection of the attitudes, values, cultures, behaviours, beliefs of those around him and is it not wholly self-defined. My idea of individuality sees a person as being positioned somewhere along a continuum from, at one extreme, complete separation through to, at the other extreme, being like an ant in a colony – having no separate existence beyond or outside the hive. Clearly, some people are conformists who are well-adjusted to the social world in which they live; others might accept most of what they are given or what is demanded of them, socially, but have peculiarities, idiosyncrasies, eccentricities, distinctions, elements of who and what they are which make them different. That is what makes people interesting. Homogeneous clones are not interesting.

It is possible to argue that everyone has two selfs – the social self that is defined by the people around us. And the inner self, which we ourselves determine, mould and shape. That sounds like a credible idea. I talked earlier about having a private and a public persona. The social self and the inner self. Components of our individuality. These two selfs are usually one and the same – we see ourselves as people see us. What we shape our inner self to be, is the same as the way we are seen by those in our world. But it is not always the case. It is not wholly the case. Some of us keep our inner self secret – in part, at least. We hide some of our differences from those around us. We have secret private lives.

People who are sexually different – in particular, gay people – can and do keep their sexuality firmly in the private sphere. If they are not totally out, their sexuality forms part of their inner self and one that is not disclosed to the world around them. They are not seen as being gay and therefore being a gay person is not reflected back to them. They pass as straight – by default; everyone is straight until proven otherwise. Britain has become a society where LGBT is accepted, if not celebrated. This creates a society where people can come out as gay, in most settings, most of the time, without fear of retribution. They might experience disadvantage in being openly gay, but their difference should not result in aggressively negative responses. Legally they cannot be discriminated against for being gay. They are allowed to be different. That is not the case in many other countries. Liberal progressive societies are ones where there is scope to be different without there being negative consequences. Being gay, disabled, in a minority group, makes an individual different but these are acceptable differences and they are often protected by law. Societies that protect people who are different are those that value diversity. Where there is acceptance of groups of people with specific differences (gay, disabled, transgender) there is a generally positive attitude to being different. This might have its limits (given our preoccupation with dichotomies.) But, in general, people value both being different and the freedom that permits people to be different.

Despite this widespread acceptance that being gay is OK, there are still men who experience fear and anxiety about being gay and about coming out as gay. They fear the consequences of being seen to be gay by those around them. Teenagers are especially prone to this given the endemic bullying on social media. Teenagers today lead their lives on social media apps. That was not the case when I was young. So, I cannot claim to fully understand it. What I have found, as I researched this subject, was that there are many men who fear being gay – either becoming gay – or being thought of as gay. There was evidence that some heterosexual men become obsessed with the idea that they are gay – even though they are not. Fears that they might be gay distort their sense of identity.

I briefly looked at a few novels and films that dealt with aspects of individuality and of being different. I will not deal with those now but I might well return to them later. In particular, I have started to look at Orwell’s Nineteen Eight-Four, the film Rebel Without A Cause and L’Étranger by Albert Camus. There are many, many more. These works provided me a method of weaving themes into a story. They reassured me that there could be a ‘genre’ for novels that dealt with themes of society and the individual.

See Introduction to my Blog.

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Embarkcation

Sunday 18th February 2018

Embarkation

First weekly post. I decided to write a blog entry each week to account for what I have been doing as a writer. In this, my first of these posts, I will say what I have been doing since the beginning of 2018.

The main work in progress is my third novel. The Streets of London, as I call it, is set in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The story it tells is about the lives of three teenagers who leave home and go to live in England’s capital city. The novel captures some of the flavour of that period of time, beginning with the summer of love, moving through the end of the swinging sixties and concluding with the years of change.

That is the story line. Behind it, there is a theme – what it means to be a man in the twentieth century. This theme explores masculinity – in its variations and how young men become masculine adults – or not, as the case may be. So, in one respect the novel is about growing up and becoming adult; in other respects, it is about individuality and how young people find themselves.

I started work on the book early in January and for several weeks pages flew off the computer on a daily basis. That is the good news. Having got the easy stuff out of the way, I am now finding I need to spend most of my working day doing research. That is the bad news. In the sense that work on actually writing the novel has slowed right down.

All three of my first novels have been set in special (past) periods of time. Holiday was set in 1966. The Trench was set in the mid 1980s. The Streets of London covers a period from 1967 to 1971. When I write about a specific period of the past, I want to get the details right. My works are not historical novels – not like stories set in the long past, stories about Tudor monarchs or Victorian noblemen. Even if they are not about the past, the stories have to be accurate. Works of fiction, in my view, need to get their facts right. Authors should not fictionalise the past. All my novels contain a lot of factual detail – it forms the backdrop and the props around which my characters act their parts. What I hate most, in novels or films, is seeing or reading things that could not have happened at the time. Or worse still, characters saying things that could not have been said at the time. Chronological disasters. Anachronisms. It would be entirely wrong for a character in 1967 to use a phrase that was not ‘invented’ until the early twenty-first century. That is a mistake made by writers who have not bothered to do their job properly. It would be as ridiculous as portraying someone in the sixties using a mobile phone. I like bringing the past alive – to readers who could not have been there at the time. Millennials. Even if you were born long after 1967, I want you to read my book and feel like you ‘were there.’

What else have I been doing?

In order to get my head round some of the issues that will appear in the theme of my novel, I have been writing two large essays. One is about the nature of masculinity. The other is about what I call individuality.

That shows how I work. I do research and a lot of reading. I then write about what I have learned. These two essays act a silos for what I know about the subjects. I will blog about these topics when I have completed my research of them.

Apart from that I have continued to write gig reviews for Music in Leicester magazine. Much of my work for the magazine has been put on the back burner so I can concentrate my mind on my novel.

And now here is next week’s news

Work on my research essays (mentioned above) will continue. I will be reporting on some of the music events I plan to attend. I will try to draft a few more pages of my novel. My guess is that I will be working on it for a long time. I also write pieces in the book I call my Writers Journal. This book is a store for my thinking about whatever it is my pen is doing at the time. I might public extracts from it in this series of posts.

The Trench

21st November 2017

Prologue
The story of a rock music venue – a cruel and shallow grave of artistic aspirations, a damp, dark hole in the ground in which pimps, bandits and swindlers run free, and where musicians with genuine talent are exploited without mercy, where those who might have become famous are lured into obscurity and where the scum of the town go to drink themselves into oblivion.

Riffkid of The Trench

Forward
The Trench is a work of fiction. It is about an imaginary live music venue set in the mid 1980s. The venue is set in the city of Portsmouth – the place where I was born and lived for my first sixteen years. Although I chose to place the story in the period 1983 to 1985, I was not personally involved in rock music in those days; neither did I live in Portsmouth. In order to write the story, I had to undertake quite a lot of research – into the music of that period and into the town as it was then. Having left Portsmouth in 1967, I could have no idea of what life there was like in the 80s. But my fiction has roots that run deep in the soil of personal experience. Having been to thousands of gigs over the years, I have collected together a vast array of memories through which I have trawled for inspiration. Even here in Leicester, I was not involved in live music until about 2001. Although The Trench is a work of imagination, I wanted it to be credible. There are still many people around today who were on the music scene in Pompey (as we locals call it) and for their sakes I wanted to give the story some credibility. I also have a horror of anachronisms, in both novels and films.

My description of The Trench draws together many years of going to clubs, bars and venues in various parts of Europe. I have mixed these together to form a cocktail of images. In this respect, The Trench is a confluence of personal experiences, just as are the people that I imagined in its dingy rooms. The Portsmouth depicted in this book is not an historically accurate place. The story of this book is a reflection of reality and not an attempt to portray it as it actually was. My novel tells a story and like a lot of stories it might be grounded in the real world but ultimately it only reflects it.

The lines of the Prologue to this work, are modified from a quotation attributed to the journalist Hunter S. Thompson (although various luminaries deny that he actually ever wrote it). I took the quotation and modified it to fit what my concept for this novel was.

#novels #TrevorLocke