During the 1990s when I first worked in mental health, I met a few older men who had suffered the most awful ravages of "conversion therapy" in London during the 50s and 60s. Some ended up being institutionalised for so long and were so damaged (one even had a lobotomy) that they never made it back out into the real world. Nowadays, as you probably know, these vile practices continue in many countries despite advances in human rights for gay people. This was the motor behind my intention to write a novel that accurately reflects how many gay men were treated in 1950s Britain, men who such as Alan Turing who did not survive, while others became too damaged to write their own histories.
Lord Blister is a fictional work of true horror.
The Royal Victoria Hospital, East London, Sunday 17th October 1954. 11:40 am
The doctor asked his first question: “Did you have a normal birth?”
“I don’t bleedin know, it was twenny years ago!” Harry Bannister tried to laugh but his throat was too parched from the bawling and cursing at being dragged off to this Leviathan of a building. It was better than being left dead in a ditch, of course, but nothing in this place was remotely funny: the wall paint was the colour of young lichen, a colour that might have appeared soft under a morning sun but under the glare of the white pole dangling from this ceiling, it was bilious green. Hanging to Harry’s left was an eye chart, beside a coloured diagram of a sexless human with all its skin lifted off so its insides coiled around pinkly, like boiled sweets in a jar. The papery window blind left a slot of grey sky at the bottom. The room seemed to hold its breath, as if something appalling hid in one of the many drawers or tucked under the examination bed sheet.
The doctor picked up his pen. “I’m not suggesting that you would remember,” he said, “but your parents might have told you.”
“Well, it must’ve been a normal birth,” he glared at the doctor’s bowed head. “Cause I’m completely normal an I always ave been.” The flesh over his ribs was tender, brimming with bruises, his face throbbed, and his quiff had to be a complete disgrace. Should his face look blank, or spitting with manly outrage at being taken for a poofter? The doctor was hunched over the paper with his pen scratching along, then he paused as though he were working out complex sums with weird drugs – Harry froze. He could be up to his neck in shit here – but there had to be some way out and he was too clever to end up like poor wotsisname who’d been stuffed with killer.pills that had made him grow tits, according to Lionel.
“And your early development, was that normal?”
“Yeah. Everyfink about me’s completely normal.” Harry folded his arms tight. “I dunno what my brother told you, but I was only in France to buy silks,” he said. “Silks for ties. Nuffing mad.”
“Hm,” the doctor resumed his writing: upside-down, too scrawly for Harry to read. “Silks for ties,” he said with a scowl, leaning back in his chair with its black leather flanks protruding like a plump pair of wings.
“Yeah, I’m a tailor to the upper classes,” said Harry, trying to grin.
“Indeed. What is your earliest memory?”
“That’s easier, askin me somefink I can actually remember. But – can I ask you a question first?”
“What appens next? I mean, they brung me ere cause they think I’m – I dunno, then you’re askin me stuff like what appens next depends on my answers. So, ow do I know what the right answers are?”
“There are no wrong answers. Just tell me whatever comes spontaneously into your mind.”
“Right. No wrong answers, promise, yeh?”
The po-faced Herbert nodded. He looked to be in his twenties, though the black-rimmed glasses propped on his nose might have been an effort to appear older.
Harry shifted on the hard wooden chair that was oddly similar to the one in the Paris hotel bedroom – how impossible that seemed: less than fourteen hours earlier he’d been hundreds of miles away in a French restaurant, guzzling the darkest, earthiest brown of onion soups, yes, gorging on that city… of light, that city of rank smells’n church bells’n right dolly HPs...
What else had Lionel called it?
The city where you can sin to your heart’s content.
And a right fantabulous five minutes of sinning it had been.
Rue Frochot, Pigalle, Paris, Saturday 16th October 1954. 2.15 am
Harry and Lionel lurched up the five flights of crackety stairs at the hotel, which they had already concluded to be a brothel after seeing a black-haired woman stalking the corridor wearing just a vengeful frown and a waist-corset. Lionel was fading. His feet, in their new suede Gibsons, were worn out. His gammy knee was performing its usual duty of giving him something noble to whinge about, plus the Dubonnet – horror of horrors: served minus bitter lemon seeing the froggies hadn’t understood – had gone straight to his nerves and he was sure the porter had given them a funny look, never mind those hefty tips the day before.
Lionel pushed open the door of their scabby little room “What I wouldn give for a proper cuppa char! Even arf a cup, take the garlic taste away.”
“I fuckin love garlic –” Harry lunged in for a kiss, his hand like a cheeky crustacean nipping Lionel’s arse.
“Steady on,” Lionel patted his moustache.
“Hmph,” Lionel glowered with the reminder that he was not only older than Harry, but also his boss. “What joy?”
Harry grunted back and went to the other side of the bed. In silence they undressed, each folding his clothes with tailor’s precision. The rumble of something heavy being dragged over historic old cobblestones echoed from the street.
“Fuckin great, innit?” said Harry. “France. Sounds like a giant with indigestion!”
“An we’re goin to Oozyman’s grave in the mornin, right?” Harry finished filling their suitcases to be stashed at the Gare de Wotsit’s left luggage in a few hours’ time. “For our last day. You promised.”
Lionel flinched, his brows morphing from typical plucked surprise into complete horror. “Bleedin ludicrous. First foreign book you reads and we ave to find where the poor omi what wrote it’s buried.”
“Come on, Nelly, you loved that bit I read you – remember them tropical flowers like deformed pricks!”
“Never read filth like that in my shop again, do you ear? You’ll ave us all banged up.”
“Don’t be paranoid. Lookin at famous graves is normal.”
Lionel sighed, which meant he was too cream-crackered to argue, and then he crawled into the meagre bed. Harry leapt onto him and stroked his neck: lightly stubbled, solid, and fluted like a classical column, with a still-handsome head at its top. That jawline, thrown back on those nights he’d sucked Lionel’s cock in the work room at Fishcher and Baron, that unsheathed bell end so pretty and sweet-tasting…
“Nice evenin, eh?” Harry murmured hopefully, reaching under the rough blanket.
Lionel’s slack flesh moulded slothfully into his – how much tighter it would have been, pressed against all the conquests of Lionel’s youth, but if that ghostly troop saw him now they’d be sighing over his hairline. Lionel’d say he wasn’t in bad shape for a thirty-six-year-old, but even at his real, secret age of forty-four, he was imposing: that broad chest like a Roman Emperor’s. He nudged Harry to turn around and then juddered a half-hard cock against his arse-cheeks for a few seconds.
“S’the garlic, Arold,” he yawned. “Poisoned me, it as.”
Harry’s hand froze on Lionel’s bollocks, “Huh. A right friggin oliday this is!”
“Hmph!” Lionel turned his back and rolled away. “Oliday for oo?”
“S’my knee, innit. And beds,” Lionel laughed: a chokey noise that Harry had only once heard from him before, “ain’t my preferred location for lollopoloolah. Beds is naff.”
“But this ain’t no normal bed!” Harry groped at his own cock, suffused and aching with foreign heat. “Imagine ow many French people’ve slept in it!”
“Yeah an I bet they stink of garlic an all. No, Arold, you ain’t doin it fer me.”
“Final word? You jus wanna lie there like a frigid old cunt, do you?”
“I shoulda left yer in Calais!” Lionel was in full spate: “S’exhaustin, you are! No consideration. After everyfink I done for yer…”
All Harry could do was pretend to be asleep while Lionel recited the list. When at last silence fell, Harry spat on his left hand and attended to his hard cock alone. Again. He focussed on the perfect, invisible lover who’d slipped into the bed, lips for raining rough kisses and steely muscles like those London nights a long time ago… the impossible belief in a future Lyfe… the beautiful men rushed into Harry’s fingers now, sliding until the spasms seized his body and made his brain spin heavenwards.
Afterwards, lying still under his trails of sperm and sweat, he listened to Lionel snoring. For a stupid, childish second, his eyes stung, so he grabbed the novel from the night table and angled the pages to catch the refractions from the streetlamp, round as a planet against this night sky: the same darkness that draped the windows of Des Esseintes’ house! However ugly and cheap this hotel, a wank in Paris was a foreign and wonderful thing, if you had the right imagination. All those foreign syllables cascading through the strange-smelling air! Nel’s snores could be forgiven, even that lazy cock, but how anyone could want to sleep now, to miss a minute of breathing in the wafts of crumpled linen, noisy-crusted bread, the fumes of cigarettes from blue packets with dancing gypsies on them… it was astonishing.
None of Harry’s other lovers had taken him abroad. He arched over Lionel’s shoulder. “Barely got wood, did you?” he asked the half-lit, snoring face tht still looked cruelly like Anthony Quinn. Earlier that night in one of the late bars twinkling beside the Seine, this face had – briefly – dazzled like among the moody cream of Parisian youth. “I don’t get it, Nel.”
If Lionel heard, he was not interested. And he was hogging all the blankets, bunched around his hips, like the heavy tutu of a panto dame. Harry dropped back on his side of the bed and returned to his book. The part where Des Esseintes covers the shell of his pet tortoise with jewels…
The Royal Victoria Hospital, East London, Sunday 17th October 1954. 11:49 am
Blinking, Harry looked up.
“Your earliest memory. What is it?”
“No wrong answers, you promise?”
As po-faced as ever, the doctor nodded.
“That’d be my brother Ronnie beltin me one when we was avin a bath, probably cause… I dunno. Ronnie never liked baths. Still doesn’t. E ain’t got a shred of decency, my brother. Calls me a bleedin seamstress! But that’s pure jealousy cause e ain’t got a proper job. Always arguin, gettin sacked – honestly doctor, e’s the one whose ead wants examinin, not me.”
“How was your home life as a child? Your earliest years?”
“Fine.” This no wrong answers notion was dodgy as hell. Harry leaned back and folded his arms.
“And your parents?”
“Mum died years back. Killed in an air raid. Don’t make me a mental case though, do it? Oo ain’t lost someone in the War an’ all that?”
“Were you close to her?”
“Course – she were me Mum, innit!”
“I see.” One of the doctor’s stupid eyes twitched as he wrote, and wrote. His tired, mousy hair needed a trim, and his cream shirt collar bit into his neck.
Wants to go up half a size, Harry registered, shifty geezer. And now the doctor was moving his other wrist over to hide the page. “Watch it – you’re smudgin the ink.”
The doctor seemed unperturbed by the dark smear on his jacket cuff, obviously Burtex. “How would you describe your relationship with your father?”
Harry thought of his father’s fidgety ways, of the fists so readily waved but never used, the unemptied ashtrays, and the decrepit armchair that leaked sawdust. “All right.”
“Was there always conflict between you?”
“I never said nuffing about no conflict,” Harry touched his swollen eye.
“Then perhaps you perceived that your father’s love was withheld. Did he leave to fight in the War?”
“And you would have spent – a year or two as an evacuee?”
“Then your mother also abandoned you by dying.”
Harry’s fist twitched. “Gettin killed by a German bomb weren’t abandonin,” he managed to keep his voice steady.
The doctor kept writing. “Now, how did you get on at school?”
Maybe this po-faced Herbert ought to be humoured. The most boring possible answers, then they’d have no right to keep him here. Harry crossed his arms. “Well, I liked readin an all that… the village school I went to in Norfolk was all right…” He looked down at his shoes: polished to a T during Lionel’s epic sulk on the train, but now scratched and dusty because he’d been hauled over gravel in them. “An I dunno where you got all them other ideas from.”
“There have been many concerns expressed.”
“Yeah? Was it my brother? Or is ugly mate – e’s a right criminal, that one.”
“Criminal.” The pen paused. “How so?”
How could it be explained, without explaining the circumstances of that beating three months ago? “E just is.”
“Very well. Let us return to your school days. Did you have friends?”
“Any difficult or unpleasant experiences?”
“Come, come, Mr Bannister! What young boy, missing his father and grieving his mother, enjoys a completely happy childhood?”
“Well obviously there was beatins, but – ”
“Yeee-es, Doctor. An I expect they ad plenny of em at whatever posh school you went to, right? S’what lads do.”
“You mean the other boys beat you, as well as your schoolmasters?”
“Why do you think they hit you, Mr Bannister?”
“Cause they were stupid, I s’pose. Or bored.”
“Hmm. Nothing more?” he whisked another leaf from a drawer and went on writing.
The Class Kings, as they’d called themselves, had hated everyone, not just Harry. Slaps hurt, punches hurt more, then you kept out of the bastards’ way – that was how it had been before the divinely boisterous Lyfe had rescued him… yet two years of Lyfe’s protection and Lyfe’s boxing lessons had not been enough, in the end. Sometimes it was crueller to take something away than never to have given it. Harry bowed his throbbing head. “Maybe it was cause I was always turned out pukka,” he mused, “like they was jealous of my talent before I even knew I ad it. A born tailor, Mr Fischer calls me; says I’ve got a dead straight eye for fittin sleeves, an ow collars should turn, all the fiddly stuff what can go wrong. S’like engineerin, cept with cloth. You see badly set sleeves everywhere, Doctor, yours’re a bit too igh on that jacket, for instance. That’s the risk when you buy off the rack – ”
“Mr Fischer?” the doctor asked, with a cross little shrug.
“Owns Fischer and Baron, bespoke suitmakers where I work. Dean Street. There’s a Mr Baron somewhere, I never met im, even though I started more’n a year ago. Actually I don’t think he’n Nel – Mr Fischer, sees eye to eye. S’a good job though, I’m already the best cutter in the shop. There’s prospects… see? You must know what I mean, sure you got ambitions of your own.”
“June, hm… Prospects… You were offered prospects…” The doctor scribbled on; the sound of his pen brushing the paper was oddly like a breeze trailing across long grass, yet it was suddenly the most murderous noise imaginable. He paused and looked straight at Harry. “And what else were you given?”
“Wages,” Harry spoke slowly, “like what anyone gets for a doing a job, like what you get for sittin ere – ”
“Mr Bannister! When did you first harbour sexual inclinations towards other men?”
“What the fuck?” Harry clenched his fists, glaring around the poisonous room that made him feel like being a plant ripped from the wild, held under a magnifying glass so his darkest, most private passions could be plucked out then referenced with a textbook.