Mortimer’s Deep by Simon Taylor Balnain Books, 1992.
A house of men on an island at the end of the world…
Mortimer’s Deep is a dangerous stretch of water in Fife. It lies between the village of Aberdour and the medieval monastery of Inchcolm on a stark, rocky island. Storms blow up quickly and, even on what starts as a calm day, lives can be lost.
The characters in Simon Taylor’s medieval novel survive the crossing, but they lose their old lives.
How did gay men live in the Middle Ages? Kings and nobles had male lovers or victimised their servants. In monasteries, same-sex relations were probably as common as they are in all-male settings today. There was severe punishment, but also close friendship and loyalty. For some, like Simon Taylor’s characters, the monastery was a home they could not find anywhere else.
Brother Michael flees to Inchcolm to escape his abusive master, Sir William de Mortimer. Michael’s good looks, he tells us, are his curse. His honesty and conscience bring him almost as much trouble.
Brother Simon has a brilliant career in the church in Rome. He is clever, strikingly handsome and ruthless, but his rise to power ends in disaster. In exile on Inchcolm, he is still scheming and involves Michael, his lover, in his web. Royal intrigues, false visions and mysterious deaths unfold – and Michael realises that someone must stop Simon. But it may mean the sacrifice of Michael’s hard-won peace on Inchcolm – or even his life.
The nineties were the age of ‘crossover’ novels and Mortimer’s Deep, a mystery one reviewer called ‘taut as a coiled spring’, is also a gothic novel – centred on the dark island and the monastery, still visible from the Fife coast today. It also has elements of horror and, most of all, a vision of queer history, woven from many sources by Simon Taylor – a medieval scholar and a native of Aberdour.
This is a summary of a longer blog which is in preparation and will appear here soon.
The Iron Ladies: Why do Women Vote Tory? By Bea Campbell Virago Press, 1987 ISBN 0860686892
Why do women vote Tory? How would a lesbian Communist journalist know?
Bea Campbell, who worked on City Limits and other papers in London in the 1980s, was curious about the rise of Margaret Thatcher – who did little to help her fellow women Conservatives. She persuaded Tory women to tell her why they supported the party. She didn’t realise that some of the women she interviewed – and especially two, Emma Nicholson and Janet Young – would support Section 28 and impose silence about queer lives on a generation.
Bea Campbell examines the strange and contradictory role of women in the Tory Party. She tells the story of the Primrose League, created by men in the party to channel the energy of Tory women away from equality. They became such a successful workforce that the party has needed them ever since – but kept them firmly in second place, confined to roles as guardians of morality and the family. The Iron Ladies helps explain why angry souls like Emma, now Baroness Nicholson, are still fighting against same-sex marriage and trans equality thirty years later.
This is a shortened version of a longer appreciation of Bea Campbell’s ground-breaking work, which will be published as a longer blog soon.
Murder in the Collective by Barbara Wilson Women’s Press, 1984 ISBN 0704339439
‘Safe spaces’ in 1984 were thin on the ground
‘Safe spaces’ for queer people were rarely heard of in 1984. This mystery by a lesbian writer explores the idea of ‘safe’ and ‘dangerous’. In a liberal, wealthy city, challenging the system isn’t supposed to lead to murder. But when Pam’s radical print shop collective proposes to merge with a lesbian typesetter, she is horrified to find the shop’s machinery smashed and one of her co-workers shot dead.
Quiet, methodical Pam teams up with impulsive Hadley from the lesbian collective in order to solve the mystery. At first, they are less than serious, but then they become lovers as well as fellow-sleuths. As Pam tries to come to terms with a complete change in her life, the situation spins out of control – and the police, saboteurs and foreign rebel movements are involved. Pam and Hadley are no longer sure if they can trust anyone – including each other.
Mysteries are one of the most popular types of lesbian books today, but few deal with the world of queer books and presses. Lesbian writer Barbara Wilson, now known as Barbara Sjoholm, founded Seal Press in the US, lived in London in the 1980s, and came to Lavender Menace to read from Murder in the Collective.
This is a taster of a longer appreciation of Wilson’s first crime novel, which will be published as a longer blog soon.
Maybe the Moon Bantam Press 1993, a division of Transworld Publishers Ltd ISBN 0593 027655
The Lavender Menace LGBT+ Archive has been growing for about a year now. One of our books was rescued from a remainder shop – Maybe the Moon by Armistead Maupin, a hardback novel published in 1993. On the front is a ‘friendly label’ showing a catastrophic drop in the price.
Why did the publisher, Transworld, expend so much effort to create a beautiful design? At the time the bookshop opened, few commercial publishers would go anywhere near a lesbian or gay book. We may never know what inspired Transworld’s change of heart. But Maupin’s novel lies at a crossroads in the history of queer books – and of our bookshop itself.
By the 1990s the Tales of the City novels were popular. They had even spawned a tv series (though the negotiations around the queer content led to years of delay.) But, meanwhile, Maupin had moved on to something very different. He was writing and publishing Maybe the Moon.
Tales of the City tells stories of colourful, bohemian San Francisco. They are comic and light-hearted though often serious as well (focussing, for instance, on the HIV epidemic.) Maybe the Moon comes from a very different place – and not just because it’s set in Hollywood.
Maupin’s reading for Maybe the Moon filled West & Wilde’s large shop. Tales of the City fans listened as Maupin explained that this was a different novel, not part of the San Francisco series, based on the life and writings of his friend Tamara De Treaux, who had died recently at age 30.
De Treaux was a Hollywood actor who had played the title role in one of the most famous films of all time, E.T.: the Extra-Terrestrial. But she remained unknown. She played the legendary alien in a rubber suit and was never credited. She was 31 inches tall.
‘She was invisible,’ Maupin told San Francisco Focus magazine in 1992. ‘It occurred to me that there was a very strong parallel between her and lesbian and gay actors who are required to stay invisible, to remain in the closet.’ De Treaux refused to obey the rules and gave interviews about her role to magazines and newspapers, drawing Spielberg’s anger – and Maupin’s respect.
‘She was the inspiration for my character Cady,’ he said. He insisted that Cady was an amalgam of De Treaux’ experience and his own. He believed, he said, in empathy as the basis of storytelling (and living).
Now, almost 30 years later, Maybe the Moon is out of print. The lesbian and gay community (as it was known then) has changed dramatically. But how does the novel read today?
Maupin’s portrait of Cady’s life – seen through her notebooks – is stark. There is gentle humour, as in Tales of the City, but some of it is darker. We learn how Cady copes with people’s ignorance, with constant hostile stares – with living in a ‘normal’ world which is, to her, a set for a film about giants. She lives by her feisty wit, but often has to bite her tongue because there is so much about her life that people simply cannot understand.
And then there’s sex.
To most people, Cady is a sexless freak – but she is strongly heterosexual and frank about it. ‘If sex with a little person was kinky by definition,’ she explains, ‘I had no choice but to embrace kink and be damned grateful for its existence.’
‘It was a question of perception,’ she adds, ‘and taking control of my own destiny.’
Eventually, she falls in love with Neil, a black piano player. He is a loyal friend – and then he and Cady become lovers. Their relationship is affectionate, sexual, and full of humour – even though it is not easy or without cost. One of the best parts of the book is their shy but joyous first night together on Catalina Island.
Meanwhile, Cady’s friends are outsiders like herself: Renee, warm-hearted, generous and somewhat dim, getting older, still single, and very talented at finding the wrong men; Jeff, gay waiter and writer – who is determined never to be closeted, but, like Cady, finds that honesty comes at a price. He helps her in a plot to defy her producer’s orders and appear at a lavish movie event, not as a character in a rubber suit, but as herself.
In his interview for San Francisco Focus, Maupin detailed his own struggles with Hollywood. One producer wanted to make a version of Tales of the City without queer characters. A screenwriter suggested that one of Maupin’s gay characters should become a serial killer.
The UK publisher of Maybe the Moon took a different, positive view. The initial print run of the book was 60,000. At least two versions of the silver-and-lavender cover of our copy were produced, as well as another, different, American cover. Someone thought it was a novel which would be bought and remembered.
It marked a time the lesbian and gay community was becoming the LGBT+ community, making a place to stand and facing outward. Like Cady, we were taking control of our destiny. Maybe the Moon has no lesbian, trans or non-binary characters, but Maupin’s view looks forward to the queer writing of today. It shows the moment we changed our vision: Cadence Roth, sexual outlaw, is straight, but she is also queer.
Footnote: Gay writer Paul Magrs blogged about Maybe the Moon in 2012 at http://lifeonmagrs.blogspot.com/2012/05/maybe-moon-by-armistead-maupin.html. You can see the American cover of Maybe the Moon as part of our banner photo at the top of our website. A new series of Tales of the City was launched on Netflix in 2019, with the same queer characters as the original series and no gay serial killers.
Please leave a comment about this review and your own thoughts if you’ve read the book yourself.
When we opened in 1982, one person asked shyly, ‘Are there were really enough lesbian and gay books to fill an entire shop?’.
Today, there are enough queer books (as we would call them now) to fill an enormous library. Small presses such as Onlywomen, Gay Men’s Press, and Brilliance Books opened the door. Larger publishers followed and created such classic bestsellers as Rubyfruit Jungle and A Boy’s Own Story.
Forty years on the queer library has so many floors, attics, cellars, corners, and balconies, that some of them are hard to find. The rise of the internet and changing fashions in publishing have meant that the original presses have closed – of all of them, only Virago Press still exists. Many of their books are now out of print and unknown.
But at the same time there are new queer writers and new shops and publishers. After 20 years which saw independent bookshops in decline, two queer booksellers have set up business in the UK since 2018 – Category IS Bookshop in Glasgow and Portal Bookshop in York. We don’t seem to have to worry about having enough books or readers.
This blog will wander through the queer library, climb the ladders to some of the inaccessible shelves, try the keys to rooms which aren’t usually visited, and help visitors make their own maps. We’ll call on guest bloggers to take us where we haven’t been before. We want to use our knowledge of the start of queer bookselling to connect the older books and writers with the new ones – it’s all one story.
We’ve already started blogging about the books in our growing archive – found in our own and friends’ collections and secondhand shops. And we invite you to comment – tell us about your part of the queer library and take part in readers’ conversations which wouldn’t have been possible when we opened the shop in the 1980s.
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