The Perils of Pauline

The Pauline Conversion

No plan survives contact with the enemy. As I wrote in my last blog about researching The Pauline Conversion, as you dig around in the archives you have to be prepared to unearth something that stops your neat idea in its tracks. If you’re unlucky it sends you reversing back to the start line. If you’re lucky it diverts you onto a shinier, more interesting path. The Pauline Conversion is very much an example of the latter.

The journey to The Pauline Conversion started over a year ago after Russia passed an anti-gay law just months before hosting the Olympic Winter Games in Sochi. You might remember the fuss, which resulted ultimately in mass hand-wringing and general inaction. This law angered me, naturally. It was a hugely retrograde step for the country, and the global community fluffed its response.

It set me thinking. Could I write a book satirising this situation in some way? It felt a natural fit for St Paul’s College in an earlier, less equal time than the contemporary Britain of The Pink and the Grey. I’d also been itching to write a story about a younger version of Dennis. One calculation later, I settled on 1972 as a first approximation. In those days the summer and winter games occurred in the same year. Munich, in the summer, suffered from terrorism: not a great backdrop for a St Paul’s story. Sapporo’s winter games were a better fit, mirroring Sochi in 2014.

That took me back to February 1972, when the Sapporo games took place. I noodled with the idea of St Paul’s or the university staging its own games, but nothing grabbed me – and it wouldn’t be Dennis’s thing at all, unless there was a gold medal in tea preparation. In search of inspiration I looked into that time in more detail: what was going on, globally and locally?

A lot of change. A lot of unrest.

Change is constant, of course, and someone’s always up in arms about something. But Cambridge was experiencing a greater turbulence than usual. Miners were on strike across the country, and the energy shortage was about to bring power cuts and disruption. Students took part in a sit-in at a university building, arguing for a greater say in university affairs and changes to exams. Not far from St Paul’s a large rectangle of old Cambridge was being demolished and redeveloped: a multi-storey car park, a modern shopping centre.

All this on the back of the great social changes of the 1960s. For gay men the decade brought, eventually, decriminalisation – though there’s a difference between legal and socially acceptable. Even five years after decriminalisation, attitudes towards LGBT people (not that this term was in use) had barely shifted from much darker, more violent times, even in a semi-enlightened Cambridge that would have tolerated St Paul’s for a couple of centuries. And discrimination was rife not just against gay people. Women were poorly treated (they still are, of course), and beginning to fight back: stereotypically, burning bras in the cause of women’s liberation.

In Dennis I saw a man who would be uneasy and suspicious of too much change too rapidly. But he would also be a moderniser, understanding the worst way to manage change is to build a dam and hide beneath it. He would also be a man of multifarious routines, as we all are, with that nagging middle-aged sense of a life slipping away unfulfilled.

Change, then: a rich seam to mine, at many levels. Environmental, social, personal, with Dennis at the core pushing and coping and not coping and blundering.

An idea bloomed and I started to write, but the story lacked fizz. I persevered for a while hoping a light bulb would blaze above my head, but I felt I was writing words to throw away. Changing tack, instead I hugged cups of tea and stared through plate glass at winter crowds, letting my mind wander, waiting for something, something…

Inspiration hit me, eventually, in the shower. (Without tea, plate glass, or winter crowds.) It was the character of Red. Red, I knew, would set the sparks flying.

A complete scene-by-scene outline followed at its own dozy pace, and then when I could procrastinate no more, with research in hand, I started on my second first draft: ninety-four glorious, frustrating days of writing. And after several further months and a few more drafts, with feedback from trusted compadres and the attention of my bluest editing pencil, I decided it was ready. (You can edit a manuscript forever. It’s never finished, it’s just time to stop fiddling and let go.)

There are things I’d like to have covered in the book. I barely touched on racial discrimination. A bolder author would have included a black character and the terrible racism common at the time. But that might have appeared tick-box tokenism and diluted other aspects of the story. You can’t do everything. You’re painting a picture not taking a photograph, and readers aren’t daft.

So it’s done, and it’s out, and I think the paperback looks tremendous. The plan now is to promote the book, and in particular attract reviewers – from “normal” readers and from pro or semi-pro reviewers. On Amazon, reviews are king. Reviews drive sales, and sales drive reviews. That’s the plan, anyway. And as we know, no plan survives contact with the enemy…

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The equality wagon

road-sign

 

Reality is so much worse and so much better than advertised in the brochure.

It is forty years since any human looked up at Earth from the surface of the Moon and yet we are exploring the solar system and beyond, with automated probes dancing around the planets and near-autonomous robots poking around Martian rocks with an electro-nasal-trowel and a laser. We are an overpopulated planet greedy for moar of all the things and starting to pay the environmental price, and yet we can be in touch with (almost) anyone, (almost) anywhere, (almost) anytime, in ways that would astound and bemuse even our younger selves, let alone our candlelit, sheet-draped ancestors.

Some governments around the world still try to suppress or deny or punish homosexuality in every possible way, often with the tacit or active support of some religions. And yet other countries are hurtling along the motorway to full or near-full equality. Not altogether painlessly, it must be said. The equality wagon is moving at a hefty clip, but one wheel does have an alarming wobble and the windscreen wipers are scraping dry smears into the driver’s eye line.

And that’s why here in the UK we’re apparently heading for a classic British fudge over equal marriage. Worse than true equality, better than being mugged by a gang of rabid vicars.

If the bill passes as proposed, it’ll be a hodge-podge of opt-ins, quadruple locks and placatory flannel, ensuring — in fact, enshrining in law — that same-sex couples may be discriminated against by entire faiths or by individuals, in a kind of à la carte smorgasbigotry.

It’s a funny kind of equality.

But hey, we should be grateful, I suppose. In the UK every mile travelled in the last twenty years has been in the same direction: forward. The wagon lost its reverse gear just after Section 28.

This assumes, of course, that the bill passes. It looks certain to succeed in the House of Commons, despite the legions of Tory MPs trying to hurl javelins into the spokes. The House of Lords may prove a more formidable opponent, containing as it does not only older, traditionally more small-c conservative types, but also twenty-six bishops in the Church of England, who by gracious virtue of fudges passim still have a place in the legislature. The Lords Spiritual and Lords Temporal together might yet conspire to erect a diversion, like Wile E Coyote with an ACME hole-in-a-wall sticker, which our careering equality wagon might or might not successfully navigate unflattened.

Let’s assume the bill passes. What then?

It is surely inevitable that, one by one, the religious cul-de-sacs and chicanes will disappear in a series of highly contentious roadworks over years, perhaps decades. Some churches might even split into factions — it would hardly be unprecedented. The Church of England itself might schism, over this issue and women bishops, which gives me the excuse to chuck the word disestablishmentarianism into the blog as if I know what I’m talking about. In truth I cannot see the wagon stopping now, or U-turning — at least in the UK.

What’s also inevitable is that as homosexuality continues to become increasingly normalised in society — marriage being one of the last great gated communities closed to the equality wagon — then the final taboos become even more unsustainable. You never know: we might even see that most rare of creatures, an out gay footballer at the top of the game.

And on that subject I will have more to say…