Our second online event Conversations with Writers took place on Thursday 2 September. Playwright Jo Clifford and novelist and short story writer Ely Percy were in conversation with Eris Young about writing perspectives from different generations – over a lifetime.
These three writers have done so much in their careers that the short introductions in online notices, and the mentions on social media or websites don’t give the reader an idea of the scope of their work or the experience behind it.
So (even though we haven’t covered everything) this blog post will give us a chance to tell a longer story – and thank all of them for sharing what they’ve done and lived as queer writers.
Jo Clifford describes her early play, Losing Venice, as ‘a mad historical fantasy’. It was performed at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh in 1985. She was also a supporter of Lavender Menace Bookshop and seeing the play was exciting for all of us who knew her. She went on to write over 100 plays, including Every One (a reworking of Everyman), The Tree of Knowledge, Playing with Fire (a powerful play also produced at the Traverse), Faust Parts One and Two, Ines de Castro (she also wrote the libretto of James MacMillan’s opera), Light in the Village and Great Expectations.
She also translated Yerma, Blood Wedding, and The House of Bernarda Alba by Federico Garcia Lorca – among others.
Losing Venice was revived at the Orange Tree Theatre in London in 2019. Jo’s recent works include Eve, the story of her transition, and The Gospel According to Jesus Queen of Heaven, which she first performed at the Tron Theatre in Glasgow in 2009. It was later performed all around Brazil and at the Traverse Theatre, stirring up controversy and attracting opposition from some church groups and the law.
More recently she’s written The Covid Requiem, commissioned by Pitlochry Festival Theatre, A Space to Bless (put on by Queen Jesus Productions at St Mary’s Cathedral in Edinburgh) and Slug Love (Tron Theatre and Trans Vegas).
Ely Percy grew up in Renfrew. They are a fiction writer who has published 50 short stories in magazines such as New Writing Scotland, The Scotsman, Orange, Causeway and The Edinburgh Review.
‘I started sending my stuff out when I was just 15, because I felt angry and misunderstood and rejected by the world – during a time, they told The Ampersand Project, that they were in psychiatric care.
Their memoir, Cracked: Recovering After Traumatic Brain Injury was published by JKP in 2002. They describe it as a memoir ‘about not being able to remember who I was’ – and about relearning to read and write. They then graduated with distinction from Glasgow University’s MPhil programme in Creative Writing in 2004.
In the early 2000s they began writing Vicky Romeo Plus Joolz, which they describe as ‘a butch-meets-femme lesbian rom-com’ and also as a historical novel, since it was published in 2019 (by Knight Errant Press).
Monstrous Regiment in Edinburgh published Ely’s second novel, Duck Feet, based on short stories about teenage life they had written in the Renfrewshire dialect. They recently read from it at Edinburgh International Book Festival and have appeared at many other readings and gatherings. Monstrous Regiment published one of the stories, ‘Nae Shame’, and decided to publish the book – they were taken with its ‘skilful balance of sharp humour and huge heart’.
Eris Young published They/Them/Their: A Guide to Nonbinary and Genderqueer Identities with JKP in 2019. It’s based on their own experience as well as research and interviews and covers common experience, language, law, healthcare, history of nonbinary identities and what friends and family and others can do to support nonbinary people.
They have also appeared in anthologies such as F, M or Other and We Were Always Here.
In 2020, they won the New Writer Award from the Scottish Book Trust.
They’re a short story critic for Carve literary magazine, which specialises in fiction in the tradition of Raymond Carver. They are Associate Editor of Shoreline of Infinity science fiction magazine, based in Scotland, and have appeared in Shoreline of Infinity 14 and in Astral Waters, Expanded Horizons and The Selkie.
And they’re Writer-in-Residence for Lighthouse Bookshop in Edinburgh and chaired Lavender Menace Archive’s first queer writing event in 22 years, Pride in Print in June 2019.
What advice would they give anyone who’s working on being a writer? ‘Tend your own garden’, they told The Ampersand Project.
‘When you’re feeling lost, turn your attention back to your work and just, work…your work can be an anchor for you when the whole hustle feels like way too much to deal with.’
Tending your own garden could sound like a narrow focus, but clearly – given enough time – it can lead you right over the horizon.
In the Royal Mile, former police inspector James McLevy is walking his dog, Jeanie, named for one the city’s notorious thieves.
At Waverley Station, the Empress Eugenie of France is arriving. Two demonstrators leap from the crowd, but the Empress and her ladies escape to Douglas Hotel in St Andrew Square. There they unpack a glittering diadem – made, not of diamonds, but of paste. Though the jewels are false, they are about to lead to theft and sudden death.
A short distance away at Moray Place, at the Scottish Institute for the Daughters of Gentlefolk, the scheming headmistress, Lady Superintendent Margaret Napier, is writing up her secret dossier. In the students’ quarters, Christabel MacKenzie, handsome, clever and rebellious, is composing a sonnet about her lover, Eleanor.
This is the opening sequence of Iona McGregor’s historical novel, Death Wore a Diadem, a mystery published by The Women’s Press and launched in 1989 at West & Wilde Bookshop.
For the purposes of the launch, we called it ‘a lesbian mystery’, and Iona herself calls it a lesbian novel in an interview. But even this brief outline shows that it was more besides – a portrait of many characters, from an empress to a detective to a madam, with a lesbian heroine at the centre.
Many lives in one frame
Describing Iona’s career gives a similar impression: many lives in one frame.
She told us the launch of Death Wore A Diadem represented an important moment for her – the first lesbian novel she had been free to write. She was animated as she spoke about her central character, Christabel MacKenzie.
The novel opens on Christabel’s 17th birthday. Like many fairytale heroines she is an orphan. She loves rambling over the countryside, shooting guns, and spending the day in bed with her lover. Left to educate herself in her radical grandfather’s library, she is a free spirit who does not fit well into the life of a Scottish lady. But is confident she can live as she pleases. In the story, despite the machinations of her nemesis, Lady Superintendent Napier – she succeeds.
For Iona, however, life was not often like this. (She certainly did not intend Christabel as a self-portrait, but as a lesbian who could have been, one dealt a run of cards for peril but also for good fortune and courage.)
Iona was born in 1929 – in England rather than Scotland, but she explained that she would have been born here if she hadn’t been premature. Her father was a teacher in a military school. She had a rough and physically active childhood with his male pupils for friends. She was a Catholic (though as an adult she had no religion) and ‘a great tomboy,’ and prayed to be transformed into a boy every night. (If God could move mountains, why couldn’t he do this?)
Later she said she was not sure whether she had been transgender or simply determined not to accept the feminine role.
Sent to a convent school, she argued with the nuns about Darwin. Moved to a school in Monmouthshire, she took well to the classics, especially when she discovered ‘Sappho et cetera’. She told Bob Cant, in his book about Scottish queer lives, Footsteps and Witnesses, that she had known from age eight that she was different.
As a young woman she settled in Edinburgh, a city she had always loved. But she found it impossible to meet partners or even lesbian friends, and so she moved to London. She found a job as a grammar school teacher, and quietly explored the fringes of the lesbian scene.
Once, she told the Remember When Project, she met a woman who had been an ex-girlfriend of Prince Ranier of Monaco. They went to the Gateways lesbian pub together and had a brief relationship.
Then she met the woman her friend Marsaili Cameron describes as ‘the love of Iona’s life’. They were together for 12 years and moved to Edinburgh. A few years later her partner left, swayed by family pressure and the sheer pain of a life in which everything had to be kept secret.
Her activist years and early writing
It was then that Iona became what we would now describe as an activist.
Why did she do it? The risk in those days was enormous. She was teaching at an exclusive school. Any exposure of her real life would have ended her career. But she may have decided she had had enough of secrecy.
At the same time, she also began to write her young adult historical novels. They were influenced by the prolific children’s writer Rosemary Sutcliffe. They had no queer content, she said, because the publisher made it clear to her that that would never be allowed.
Two of the novels, the ones she felt were the best, were set in Edinburgh: An Edinburgh Reel and The Tree of Liberty. The latter deals with the effect of the French Revolution in Edinburgh, where there were (mostly now forgotten) radical agitators and violent riots, and the book may have a clue to her life after her relationship ended.
Being a rebel is dangerous, but it can also be necessary for survival. The sister and brother in The Tree of Liberty are on opposite sides of the question. Caroline keeps her head down but reads, thinks and looks outward as hopefully as she can. Sandy, her brother, takes part in rebellion and barely escapes with his life – and doesn’t learn his lesson. As the story ends, he is on his way to revolutionary France.
Like Caroline, Iona was a survivor and believed in careful effort rather than impulsive action. The Scottish Minorities Group, which worked for legal reform, also created safe meeting spaces and started a women’s group in Glasgow. Iona became part of it. Making contact with the meeting was complicated, and Iona used the name ‘Chris Campbell’. But despite – or possibly because of? – the elaborate secrecy, she made friends at this time who were still close to her years later.
In Edinburgh, she worked in another SMG women’s group, founded by Ruth Schröck. She also worked as a Befriender on the Gay Centre Switchboard in Broughton Street, listening to queer people talk about the choices and dangers everyone faced in those days.
She did shifts in person at the Gay Centre, introducing women to the group and the scene in the city. She used her own name, met dozens of people week after week and could easily have been outed at work. But it must have made a difference to lesbians who arrived at the centre to meet a woman who was hospitable, well-read, funny, a cat lover, a traveller, a walker and a writer.
Free to write
She left the centre in 1980 and in 1985 she finally gave up her teaching job. She was not outed, but apparently small things built up and the time came to leave. So she was finally free to write the fiction she had always wanted to write, and Death Wore A Diadem was the result.
The novel was based on a long trawl through libraries and manuscripts – in the 1980s, a far greater task than it would be today. Recent scholarship by Rosy Mack has uncovered Iona’s correspondence with her editor at The Women’s Press, Jen Green, which shows that her research included a tremendous amount of detail and speculation about lesbian relationships in 1860. The letters even include diagrams of the school and the characters’ movements within it.
Iona apparently planned a sequel, or many sequels. The stories of Christabel and her lover, Eleanor, seem to be at their very beginning as the novel ends. James McLevy, a real life Edinburgh detective and crime writer, probably had a further part to play as Christabel’s friend and fellow sleuth.
But Iona discovered that she could write study guides which paid far better than detective fiction. And there had always been much more to her life than writing.
She travelled and had a large circle of friends she entertained regularly. She learned DIY and was never without an elaborate project. She acquired so many books that, when she moved into a care home later, they were removed by the vanload. ‘There are real gems in these boxes,’ said the librarians at Glasgow Women’s Library, who received the feminist and lesbian books. ‘Some of them are amazing.’
Iona probably also liked the variety of the better-paid writing she was doing, in addition to the study guides: it ranged over many subjects and required much research. As a writer, she was an adventurer.
She also returned to teaching with the University of the Third Age and was a founding member of the AD Group – which had two names for different occasions, Anno Domini and Aged Dykes. She had always been her own kind of lesbian, and she lived her own kind of old age.
This was a not always straightforward. She said that the struggles of her early life had given her ‘a weight, a social guilt’. ‘As she got older,’ said her friend Marsaili, ‘the physical, mental and emotional consequences of living with high levels of anxiety became harder and harder to manage.’
Nevertheless she lived to be 92 and passed away earlier this year at Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, to the sadness of her friends and her readers.
At her funeral in Edinburgh, Marsaili spoke about her and thanked her for her kindness to young newcomers at SMG, her intelligence and courage, and for ‘showing that another life could be lived.’
That life carries on in her novels.
Please feel free to leave a comment about your memories of Iona and the books you’ve read.
[Iona’s Death Wore a Diadem, An Edinburgh Reel and The Tree of Liberty and Bob Cant’s Footsteps and Witness are all part of the Lavender Menace Queer Books Archive. Iona’s work also features in our video Unsung: the queer books that tell our lives.]
As part of this year’s LGBT History Month, Bob and Sigrid took part in a live webinar conversation on 24 February with Chris Creegan about how queer books tell our story. The conversation ran long over time with thought-provoking questions and comments from those who attended virtually – and their enthusiasm for the books, writers and publishers of the 1980s and 90s who made so much possible today. Thanks especially to writer and mental health campaigner Chris Creegan, Cleo Jones of Edinburgh City Libraries who introduced us, and Pretty Bright who produced our video on unsung queer writers and the webinar. If you missed the conversation or the video, now’s you chance to catch up.
Feel free to leave your comments below. We’d love to hear from you.
The Hot-Blooded Dinosaurs: A Revolution in Palaeontology by Adrian Desmond Blond & Briggs, 1975.
QUEER DINOSAUR DISCOVERED! Some people may remember the ITV series based on this illustrated science book, now found mainly in charity shops. The queer dinosaur in the story of this book wasn’t a reptile, he was a human being – an eccentric from another time, who loved publishing, art, boyish girls and girlish boys.
Anthony Blond who founded Blond & Briggs in 1960 was born into a wealthy family who didn’t like him much. His company published everything from classics to trash and liked giving new writers their start. He rescued Simon Raven from drink and debauchery by paying him a salary to write and stay away from London. Raven had earlier written the classic The Feathers of Death, about gay obsession in the military, which was republished by Gay Men’s Press in 1998.
Blond’s autobiography, Jew Made in England (2004), also in the archive, tells the story of his hot-blooded life honestly.
This is a summary of a much longer blog which is in preparation on Anthony Blond and his queer publishing career.
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.
Privacy & Cookies Policy
Necessary cookies are absolutely essential for the website to function properly. This category only includes cookies that ensures basic functionalities and security features of the website. These cookies do not store any personal information.
Any cookies that may not be particularly necessary for the website to function and is used specifically to collect user personal data via analytics, ads, other embedded contents are termed as non-necessary cookies. It is mandatory to procure user consent prior to running these cookies on your website.