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Book Reviews

A Length of Road: finding myself in the footsteps of John Clare, by Robert Hamberger

How do you choose to read a book? a recommendation or a good fly leaf ? I often wonder at gems which disappear through the cracks. This book which came to me via a promotion event at the Five Leave Bookshop which I was drawn to because of my interest in the poet John Clare.

John Clare known as the ‘peasant poet’ had little education, was poor, and worked as a farm labourer. At times relying on parish relief. The brilliance of his poetry, filled with intelligence, and lyrical beauty, was a giant leap from the expectations of his class. He brought language, grammar and detailed observations of the natural world which could only be born from his experience of working rural life. For these reasons, in addition to the struggles he had with his mental health, he was someone who my parents loved and championed. Hence my interest.

A Length of Road is written by the poet Robert Hamberger, it is his account of walking in 1995, from Epping Forest to Northamptonshire. Retracing the route take by John Clare in 1841, when he escaped from a psychiatric hospital in Essex and walked over 80 miles home. Later that year he was committed to the Northampton General Lunatic Asylum (now St Andrews Hospital) eventually dying there in 1864.

Robert Hemberger, chose to make this journey in reverence to John Clare, and to face his own personal demons. At the time his relationship with his wife was ending and he was on the cusp of permanently moving out from her and their three children. The book is well written and stands alone as a reflective memoir. Robert leads us through a working-class childhood, his loss of father figures, meeting his wife and having children, the cherishing and loss of male friendships. The strength of this book lies in his honesty and his own sense of culpability. There is an avoidance of placing blame on others which enables us to share with Robert his struggles with mental health and considerations of gender and sexuality. Without gaining conclusion Robert emerges from the roadside with knowledge as to his own resilience.

This writing skilfully takes you between the landscape of John Clare, his life and works to Robert’s story and poetry. Contrasting a landscape, which passes the same road markers and plants as Claire did in 1841 and is now also populated by lorries, the A1 and fast-food restaurants. Change and our journey through it, appearing to be the theme of this book.

This is a thoughtful account of personal growth, and a great introduction to the poetry of both John Clare and Robert Hemberger. I have read many well promoted books and memoirs which I have enjoyed much less. All hail to John Clare.

All nature has a feeling by John Clare

All nature has a feeling: woods, fields, brooks
Are life eternal: and in silence they
Speak happiness beyond the reach of books;
There’s nothing mortal in them; their decay
Is the green life of change; to pass away
And come again in blooms revivified.
Its birth was heaven, eternal it its stay,
And with the sun and moon shall still abide
Beneath their day and night and heaven wide.

Cathy Symes

Queer Print in Europe, edited by Glyn Davis and Laura Guy (Bloomsbury Visual Arts, £24.99)

That the publisher of this book is Bloomsbury Visual Arts tells us something of what we might expect – lots of magazine covers, page illustrations and a design-led publication. Overall a rather attractive, large format paperback.
The title indicates the scope of the book and is particularly valuable because of the coverage of countries we might not think of when we talk of LGBT+publications, Poland and Slovakia for example. The book does not attempt to cover everything and everywhere, comprising essays on publishing in particular countries, or strands of publishing within particular countries. Thus, for the UK, there is a long interview with Gail Lewis about material written by Black lesbians, a chapter on relevant reading for Trans lesbians in the 1970s, but no mention of Gay Times or the Pink Paper which were market leaders in lesbian and gay (well, mostly gay) magazine publishing in their day. Nor is there mention of GMP, perhaps the best selling gay press ever stocked by radical bookshops in this country.
But that’s fine, the book does not pretend to cover what it does not.
Most of the coverage is of small circulation magazines, some beautifully designed, like the Slovak Aspekt of the mid-90s, whereas Lesbians Come Together from 1972 looks mimeographed, a print technology some of those who used it might prefer to forget.
Several of the magazines came out of discontent with the feminist movement or feminist magazines – such as Histoires d’Elles which had one woman write in “I just want to bring up one topic: why such silence on homosexuality… Every month I hope to read about women whose joys and sorrows in life somewhat resemble my own, but nothing- complete silence.” Others developed out of the political left, or, similarly, out of discontent at being ignored by the left.
The content of the magazines described was as varied as the print technology. Academic articles here, contact lists there and, in the case of La Pluma in post-Franco Spain a call for autonomy for homosexuals, but also “collaboration with other groups of socially marginalised people” and opposition to capitalism and the “commercial ghetto”. On the other hand Revolt Press in Sweden published Tom of Finland male erotica and fifteen niche interest magazines, some of which would not have appeared on the shelves of any bookseller reading this, for good reason.
And bookshops generally? Sadly missing, save for one chapter. There are traces, such as News from Nowhere publishing, in 1980, Divided Sisterhood, a rebuttal to Janice Raymond’s The Transexual Empire. And an editor of the Dutch Mietje describes taking his journal to the communist bookshop in Amsterdam and being turned away by the owner, himself gay, because “… we don’t sell journals that discuss ‘bedroom’ issues, only political issues.”
But the last chapter, for those interested in radical bookselling history, is worth waiting for, a twenty page interview with Sigrid Nielson, Bob Orr and James Ley on Revisiting Lavender Menace. Lavender Menace – has there ever been a better bookshop name? – was the lesbian and gay bookshop in Edinburgh. The shop started off as a bookstall within the Gay Centre but got chucked out for being political. One of the criticisms was because the stall sold the card “The birth of a man who thinks he’s God isn’t such a rare event”,  a quote from Benefits by Zoë Fairbairns (slightly misquoted in the book under review). I can claim a footnote in bookselling history here, being responsible for publishing the card at Mushroom Bookshop! But it was for the best as Lavender Menace opened in Forth Street, then a low rent area, making it the second radical bookshop in the street as the anti-nuclear Smiling Sun also lived there. And then later there was West & Wilde in Dundas Street.
The interview moves from the early days of the bookstall – Open Gaze to give its name – through to the afterlife of Lavender Menace in Ley’s play Love Song to Lavender Menace, in archiving LGBT life in Scotland, and the current iteration of pop-up stalls run by Sigrid and Bob, both now in their seventies.
Queer Print in Europe will interest anyone passionate about radical print history, but the excellent final chapter is catnip for those interested in radical bookshop history.
Ross Bradshaw

After Sappho by Selby Wynn Schwartz, published by Galley Beggar Press

Fragment 147
For someone will remember us / I say / even in another time

After Sappho tells the stories of a group of women artists, feminists, writers, actors, most of them lesbians, networked across Europe and the US but centered mainly on Italy and Paris from the late 19th century up to 1928 (when Orlando by Virginia Woolf was published). Orlando is significant as in many ways this book riffs on the structure of Orlando. Each ‘chapter’ is headed by a fragment of Sappho’s poetry and that too is significant in how the book is written.

Many of the women in the book are wealthy women, but not exclusively and Schwartz tells their stories, parts of their stories, interweaving the characters in both time and space in small chunks. Little sketches. Almost threads. She structures it around fragments of Sappho’s poems… and riffs on those themes. So there is much to discuss about the structure of the book but there is also the history, the rich history.

For me, this was a page turner. Yes, there is some exasperation at the entitlement and wealth of some of the characters. And some of them frankly behaved badly. Our characters were often privileged but almost all of them had escaped abusive fathers, husbands and/or rapists. They found ways to escape and ways to be with each other. To find a way of being lesbian. Some had no resources and were supported by those that did. Throughout the book Schwartz uses an authorial voice that includes us in the ‘us’, like a chorus, I thought. The lesbians in particular, were trying to ‘make us’, make a way of being. They were all brave and I found this very moving.

Interwoven with the stories of the women are snippets about the latest theories on lesbians and legislative attempts to outlaw and silence them. The Italian codes of law affecting women (as property) were an eye opener, but shouldn’t have been surprising. As a reader you get a full sense of the rising feminism, especially in Italy, and the very real dangers to women.

As we get towards the end of the book, we hear the drumbeat of fascism. Some of these women became involved in that and some were annihilated by it. The many different stories here and the times they lived in led me to want to know more and to look things up. In particular I was lead to read a book I should have read long ago, No Modernism Without Lesbians by Diana Souhami.

Fiction or not? It is an alternative way of writing history. Schwartz riffs on facts, on Sappho, on Greek nouns and, I think, on the structure of Orlando. I’ll leave you with this. She refers to the ‘kletic’ in Greek. The kletic poem is one that calls or summons assistance. This book is maybe that. An invocation. A conjuring. I do think this book is about remembering. A colossal sweep that invites us to remember these women. And I’m thankful to the author and to the wonderful Galley Beggar Press for bringing it in to being.

Jane Anger
Illustration: Romaine Brooks called Peter, A Young English Girl – a portrait of the artist Gluck (Hannah Gluckstein)
After Sappho is available here: https://fiveleavesbookshop.co.uk/product/after-sappho/

Fabulosa!: the story of Polari, Britain’s secret gay language by Paul Baker (Reaktion, £15.99, due 1st July)

Older readers might remember the radio comedy Round the Horne which featured the rather camp Kenneth Williams and others, which had a regular nine million listeners. One of the features was the performance of “Julian and Sandy”, specialists in the double-entendre, who included some words that were strange to the average listener. These words were Polari, the series marking the high point of public acknowledgement of the language, but also the period during which Polari went into near terminal decline thanks to changes in public acceptance of gay people. And I do mean gay men as Polari was largely a gay male patois though it was understood but rarely used by many lesbians.
Fabulosa! is probably the last word in writing about Polari, the author here acting as a linguist and a historian. Polari was never a full, inflected language, which drew on Cant, Yiddish, Romany, backstage dialect and navy slang, but was primarily a cultural expression of a then marginalised community and a way of communicating secretly to exclude the outsider. A well-known example of a full sentence is “How bona to vada your dolly old eke” (How lovely to see your face/see you again).
Paul Baker analyses the language’s history and its development in the dark days of the first part of last century, giving a useful outline of gay life before partial legalisation and the Gay Liberation Movement.
Polari was particularly strong in gay bars, among camp men and in the drag scene. It hangs on as an historic memory, appearing now and then in documentaries of the period and is honoured by modern mentions including the Polari literary salon and the deliberately outrageous Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, one of whom is pictured here with Derek Jarman.
The author acknowledges that some Polari is at least dated, arguably racist and misogynist by modern standard but for a lot of gay men it was important and was something of its time.