No Sex, Please .... We're Gay!
- Created: Sunday, 29 June 2014 14:15
- Written by Tim Bairstow
"What's this place called?
He told me and, on the instant, it was as though someone had switched off the wireless, and a voice that had been bawling in my ears, incessantly, fatuously, for days beyond number, had been suddenly cut short; an immense silence followed, empty at first, but gradually, as my outraged sense regained authority, full of a multitude of sweet and natural and long forgotten sounds: for he had spoken a name that was so familiar to me, a conjuror's name of such ancient power, that, at its mere sound, the phantoms of those haunted late years began to take flight."
This sentence, and it is one beautifully and elegantly crafted sentence, must rank as among the finest ever written. You'll recognise it; it's from the Prologue to Evelyn Waugh's masterpiece: "Brideshead Revisited."
I confess that I saw the ITV adaptation on the television long, long before I read the book. I saw it when I still dwelt in my own 'Arcadia', a time before anything ever connected up in my mind with sex. I didn't really know about sex beyond the smutty and ill-informed speculation that I occasionally tittered over with friends in the playground - more appalled and horrified than titillated though we were. Had our parents really done that?
Yet, I remember it so well. I remember that the depiction of that inter-war Oxford and Venice, where Charles Ryder "drowns in honey" seemed to me more wonderful than anything else could have been. More than this, I can still feel the ache inside my chest, an ache of longing, that was put there by Waugh's haunting evocation of the friendship of Sebastian and Charles. I remember that I longed for a friendship like that; I longed to be Charles and to meet my own Sebastian. I wanted a friendship like that more than I had ever wanted anything though quite how it was to be achieved in the drab little Northern town in which I lived, I couldn't quite imagine.
Waugh intended the book to be about the potent hold, the power of Roman Catholicism which was so compelling to him and which tormented him and sustained him simultaneously. It's true, that is what the book is about. It's perhaps a shame, from Waugh's point of view, that what makes the book a classic, what stands out above all, what it will always be remembered for is something else entirely, the very thing that Waugh fought so hard against in himself and that is: the most poignantly beautiful relationship between two men, a glimpse of paradise, all too soon lost, that haunts Charles Ryder forever after.
The relationship between the two men isn't even explicitly shown to be gay in the sense that the only, rather coded, hint at sex between them is Charles' reflection that their life contained "its naughtiness, high on the catalogue of grave sins." However, the relationship is explicitly about love. The love between the two of them leaps of the page and burns deep in to the soul of the reader.
This is where I learned what a relationship between two men should be. I can honestly say that I didn't in any way, in my own mind, equate it with sex. That came later. At the time, I had no comprehension of what sex between the two of them might have involved; I didn't even know that such a thing existed. And yet, I saw and I recognised and I wanted at the very deepest level what they had .... romantic friendship.
What's really interesting is that Waugh manages, without any reference to sex still less any depiction of it (it wouldn't have been allowed by law for him to do that even had he wanted to) to define the very essence of a gay relationship. It is a romantic friendship between two men that creates a bond that is, ultimately, as strong as if not stronger than any other in human life.
I was twenty one before I actually read the book. Ten years had passed since I saw the wonderful television adaptation and, by then, I knew all about sex and had found, to some extent at least, echoes of the relationship between Charles and Sebastian in relationships that I'd had by then. What strikes me now, however, is just how formative the story of Charles and Sebastian had been for me. I knew, even if I couldn't put a name to it by then, that I was gay because I wanted to be like them. To be gay was to long for that romantic friendship, that bond above all other bonds in life. The want for, the need for, the enjoyment of that "naughtiness, high on the catalogue of grave sins" as a part of that friendship came later. Because of that, though I am no plaster saint nor ever have I been, I have always at least wanted sex to be rooted and grounded in that bond of friendship and love. I think, maybe, and it probably wasn't what he consciously wanted to do, Waugh's inestimable contribution to the emotional well-being and the dignity and honour of gay men everywhere is that he established with enormous power and skill the fact that what it means to be gay actually resides in the look that Charles gives to his beloved Sebastian as they picnic under the tree ... here rendered so perfectly by Jeremy Irons.
For that, we owe him a debt of gratitude and, as writers, we have a responsibility both to our own dignity and worth and to generations to come, to ensure that at least some of that comes through in our own work.