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Queens by Pickles

June 21, 2016

QPAnyone who was ‘on the scene’ in the mid 1980s will recognise these (stereo)types, like the leather queen who carries a motorcycle helmet but travels by taxi to The Colerherne, the vicar who justifies visiting gay bars as being an opportunity for pastoral work.

It was “lambasted by the gay press for its allegedly ‘negative’ portrayal of London’s gay community”. Part of the controversy was due to the depiction of characters in the novel. Many are lonely, bored or superficial. The author’s own interviews contributed to the controversy, both for his insistence that he needn’t present an affirmative picture of gay life in London and also for his unwillingness to publicly come out.

The novel has been described as “a funny, and kind of mean, taxonomy, of gay types in London in the Thatcher years.” Instead of names, the author often refers to characters by their position in gay life: Clone, Opera Queen, Northern Queen, Leather Queen, City Queen, Rent Boy, Insidious Queen. The author also accepts the names that gay men use for each other: Doris Mavis, Gloria.

It’s relentlessly ‘vinegary’, insidiously snide and I didn’t care much for ‘the plates’ – pictures.

Most of the pubs described have gone. Maybe there should be pink plaques.

Despite the many desperate people described, we get a happy ending. However, although Ben’s diaries started well we can predict that it will become depressing f his romance breaks up and he goes back on the scene.

Jonathan Black wrote: Stephen Pickles keeps on cropping up in my life. When I arrived in Oxford he was already a star. Out of all the scores of dandified young men milling around the Radcliffe Camera and the King’s Arms, trying to draw attention to themselves and to promote themselves as the new Brian Howard – model for Anthony Blanche, the flamboyant one in Brideshead Revisited – Pickles was IT. Very handsome in an Italian sort of way with a great leonine mane, he was decidedly glamorous and very famous – known always as just ‘Pickles’. His waspish witticisms were widely repeated and it was rumored that he’s already designed the sets for an opera in London. I hardly dared speak to him.

Years later we’d see each other in Soho. We shared a fascination for Soho and Fitzrovia bohemianism – Francis Bacon, Lucien Freud, Derek Jarman, Julian Mclaren-Ross – the model for Xavier Trapnel in Dance to the Music of Time – Dan Farson and Jeffrey and Bruce Bernard. Pickles was right at the centre of this – he had a flat above a delicatessen in Old Compton St and a regular seat at the right end of the bar in the Coach and Horses while I was the  boy from the provinces with his nose up against the window. – though I did get some kind of foothold when I became Farson’s publisher.

Pickles then published a book, a book of conversations overheard in pubs, called Queens. It showed an ear for dialogue like, say, Michael Frayn, Julian Mclaren-Ross or Alan Bennett. It’s a kind of masterpiece. (That’s a phrase Colin Wilson used of my own book. I don’t know if he meant to damn with faint praise, but that’s not what I mean – merely that Queens is unclassifiable. It’s not clear what kind of book it is at all.)

Georgia de Chamberet wrote: When I changed jobs, Pickles became my boss. He was a tough but inspirational teacher, and a perfectionist when it came to editing. ickles was divinely charming and witty — and fiercely protective of his privacy. His wickedly funny book, Queens, published in 1984 by Quartet, featured a photo of him on the cover as a wildly handsome young man. I remember a bleak period when Pickles lost friends to AIDS. Derek Jarman came to visit once or twice; he had incredibly clear, almost electric blue eyes, and was beautiful and gaunt like an effigy on a tomb. Pickles was a Soho man, and a regular at the Coach and Horses pub, immortalised in the play Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell.


THOMAS. Good evening!


THOMAS. May I join you? You look rather alone, and out of place here.

CHRISTOPHER. I was just finishing my drink. I wouldn’t say you had a great deal in common with the clientele. It’s not exactly a synod, is it?

THOMAS. Ah! Now there you’d be correct. You’re obviously an educated sort of man. A teacher? Or perhaps a journalist, I’d say!

CHRISTOPHER. Quite close, really. And yourself?

THOMAS. The church!


THOMAS. You sound surprised. I suppose it is rather odd, meeting a cleric in here, but I duck in occasionally for a G and T.

CHRISTOPHER. You’ve been here before, then?

THOMAS. Heavens, yes! It’s one of my little haunts, after choir practice, you see!


THOMAS. Do you sing? You look very musical, I don’t know why — but you do.

CHRISTOPHER. At university I did.

THOMAS. Ah! A choral scholar, eh? Cambridge, or Oxford? I’d say Cam!


THOMAS. And King’s, was it? The school for spies!

CHRISTOPHER. I’m afraid so. Although it’s quite some time ago now.

THOMAS. Well, well! You are in a different world, here. I know it’s naughty, but I can’t help thinking you’re a happily married man. Am I right?

CHRISTOPHER. Well — yes, as a matter of fact I am.

THOMAS. I get a little forward after two of these, I’m afraid. So you’ll have to forgive me. I wonder what brings you here, then. Eh?

CHRISTOPHER. I already told you — I was having a drink before dinner.

THOMAS. Ah, yes! So am I. But we both know what sort of person comes here, don’t we? I mean, the sort of person you are perhaps struggling against becoming. Forgive my being so presumptuous, dear chap.

CHRISTOPHER. I’m not sure it’s any of your business, actually.

THOMAS. Come, come. We can be friends, can’t we? I went to Durham, actually. I suppose that’s a touch redbrick for you, but if you count the Venerable Bede, I think we go quite far back. One doesn’t often find someone in here one can make conversation with. Have the boys left, do you know?


THOMAS. Oh, you won’t have missed them if they were here. And they always are. Rather an effeminate lot, and always talking dirty and swearing too much. But actually they’re quite amusing. They call me Mother Teresa!

CHRISTOPHER. I see. Well, actually, some young men answering to that description have just left.

THOMAS. What a pity! Never mind, though. You’re here. My name’s Thomas. And yours?

CHRISTOPHER. Christopher.

THOMAS. Like the saint! A charming name. I can just see you wading through water! That’s a very elegant tweed suit, Christopher. Rather posh for this place. What do you make of the gay boys, then? Very sweet, some of them, don’t you think?

CHRISTOPHER. I think they’re rather a miserable lot. I was just thinking what a profound waste of time, actually.

THOMAS. And I came and rescued you from disillusionment. The good Samaritan!

CHRISTOPHER. I wouldn’t say it was an act of rescue.

THOMAS. Well, pity perhaps. I know how hard it is, you see. When you’re not on the scene, I mean. This is what they call the ‘scene’, you know.


THOMAS. Well, it is, Christopher. This is a way of life for most of the people here. Every night, most of them. It’s a little overwhelming the first time, isn’t it? I remember how I felt ­lonely and out of place. Then someone came up and spoke, and it was like unlocking a grand piano — Chekhov, you know. And now I’m speaking to you.

CHRISTOPHER. Actually, I don’t feel at all like a grand piano ­locked or otherwise. I feel mildly sick, if you really want to know.

THOMAS. Understandable. I understand, Christopher. You mustn’t worry about it, dear chap. It must be very hard, leading a secret life. Do you suffer from feelings of guilt and anguish? That’s very common among people of our kind, you know. It takes such courage to break out, doesn’t it. To find the places to go, and dare to walk through the awesome portals, in search of unnatural love. Oh, I know what it’s like, Christopher!

CHRISTOPHER. I’m not sure that you do. I mean, you appear to be quite a celebrity here — Mother Teresa, and all that! You’re not exactly an outsider, are you? I think it’s rather disgusting, considering what you do! It’s just the sort of seedy involvement I couldn’t bear.

THOMAS. Dear, dear! We are in a prickly mood, aren’t we? You’re just struggling to find your real voice, Christopher. I’ve seen it all before. You’re happy with your family, but you want something more — something forbidden. And I can help you. Make no mistake, dear chap — what you need is help!

CHRISTOPHER. Can you stop talking to me as if I were some kind of patient! I find it utterly ridiculous. We’ve only just met, and you’re engaging in some ludicrous in-depth analysis. I was perfectly happy standing on my own, thank you.

THOMAS. But you weren’t, now were you? What you must do is give up struggling and start to live! Let things happen, if they’re going to. Don’t resist, or you’ll be unfulfilled for the rest of your life.

CHRISTOPHER. I can’t believe it!! Do you talk to everyone in this extraordinary way? Have you tried listening to yourself? It’s appalling!

THOMAS. I’ve listened to my heart, Christopher. And I’ve taken my questions to God. And He answered. And now I am hearing what your heart is trying to tell you. And I’m trying to give some help.

CHRISTOPHER. But you’re wrong. I’m not like that — like these people. Like you! I’m just curious, that’s all. Just curious!

THOMAS. And have you wondered why, Christopher? You’re alone, like most of these people! All, all alone. And I am extending the hand of friendship. Are you going to brush it away — you, a choral scholar with an unsung song? I want you to sing, Christopher. I want us to sing together!

CHRISTOPHER. Look! — Oh, what’s the use! Perhaps you’d like a drink?

THOMAS. Another G and T would be awfully nice! And then we can talk about the organ stops at King’s. Ah! That glorious Great Swell! What majesty! We have so much in common, you and I, Christopher. We have so much to talk about. Who would have thought it possible that we might meet here, in this den of iniquity?

CHRISTOPHER. Who indeed? It’s a pity I have to dash, but otherwise I’ll be late for dinner. Still, I’ll get your G and T.

THOMAS. It really doesn’t matter, thank you. Not if you’re going.

CHRISTOPHER. Oh, I am. I must!

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From → Novels, Sexuality

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