Escape of a Half-Naked Sailor

P.N. Furbank

  • Three Queer Lives: An Alternative Biography of Fred Barnes, Naomi Jacob and Arthur Marshall by Paul Bailey
    Hamish Hamilton, 242 pp, £14.99, October 2001, ISBN 0 241 13455 2

I used to have a homosexual friend who puzzled over the phenomenon of the homosexual ‘queen’. The performance – screams, limp wrists, hand on hip etc – was a very familiar one, many of one’s friends would occasionally indulge in it: the puzzle was that it was reputed to suggest a woman, whereas one never saw women behave in the least like it. The impersonation, though a deliberate breaking of the rules of orthodox ‘masculine’ behaviour, engendered a freak, a monster, unknown to the species or to ordinary human society.

Why this was so, I would think, is because ‘queening’ is, or was (maybe it has pretty much gone out in our post-Wolfenden days), an acting-out of self-hatred or desperate self-mockery. The thought occurred to me recently on seeing a production of Vanbrugh’s The Relapse at the National Theatre. The actor playing Lord Foppington, the madly vain ‘man of fashion’, was highly talented; but he (or perhaps more likely the director) had decided to make Foppington to some degree a ‘queen’, and the result was that, brilliant though the performance was in many ways, it just wasn’t – a fatal flaw – actually funny. One can easily see why, moreover. To ‘queen’ is to laugh at oneself, whereas Foppington has to be blissfully innocent of any shadow of self-criticism.

The novelist Paul Bailey has produced a biography of three ‘Queer Lives’; that is to say, lives of the ‘queer’ or (as they have later come to be called) the ‘gay’.[*] The subject of the last of his studies is Arthur Marshall, famous as the reviewer of girls’ school stories and impersonator of ‘Nurse Dugdale’. Bailey was told by Marshall’s friend Noel Annan that Marshall was homosexual and once suffered much unhappiness from an affair with a demobbed soldier. There seems no reason to disbelieve this. But it does not follow that one should have guessed it from his passion for female impersonation. He makes the point himself in his autobiography, Life’s Rich Pageant.

Kind readers, possibly worried about me and the effect on my character of all those female clothes, need not be anxious. The donning of the necessary underclothes and, usually, silk stockings, the dresses, the wigs, the make-up afforded me no pleasure in themselves and were merely a means to an end, that of acting. I got no kick of a transvestite sort . . . The dressing up was pleasurable solely because it was the theatre, it was acting, it was make-believe, it was fun.

Much of the reason his reviewing and his drag-act went on making one chortle, never seeming to grow stale, lay in the fact that, unlike the case of ‘queening’, it contained not the slightest trace of misogyny or of self-contempt.

Indeed, it may be entirely wrong to associate transvestism with homosexuality. One thinks of the impressive story of the Chevalier d’Eon, diplomatic representative of Louis XV in England. A valiant military man and notably skilled fencer, he eventually decided, on ideological grounds, that he valued femininity (the ‘Amazonian’) above masculinity and took to women’s dress. To support himself, though hampered by a skirt, he would give public exhibitions of fencing; and he spent the last years of his life in tranquil domesticity with the widow of a naval officer. (She was astonished beyond belief when, at his death, it was revealed that he was a man.)

Female impersonation, expertly undertaken as by Marshall and d’Eon, is a matter of choice; homosexuality, evidently, is not. But why should it be a deep problem? At first sight the reason is not obvious, and indeed it is plain it was not so in the Greco-Roman world. Brichot, writes Proust, striving to understand the Baron de Charlus’s homosexuality, ‘reassured himself by recalling pages of Plato, lines of Virgil, because, being mentally as well as physically blind, he did not understand that in their day to love a young man was the equivalent (Socrates’ jokes reveal this more clearly than Plato’s theories) of keeping a dancing-girl before getting married in ours’.

One reason homosexuality, in the Christian era, has often been a scourge and misery to people seems to lie in the muddling of sexuality with gender. A man erotically attracted to persons of his own sex has been liable to be told (by sympathisers as well as adversaries) that he must in some sense really be a woman, and a homosexual woman that she must in some sense be a man. ‘We all know women with a strong dash of the masculine temperament,’ Edward Carpenter writes in this stereotypical vein, ‘and we all know men whose almost feminine sensibility and intuition seem to belie their bodily form.’ The fallacy of ‘intrinsic’ gender – of gender being not a social construction but a biological fact – is, when backed up by sexuality, a dangerous superstition, almost as much so as a belief in ‘race’. As with the latter it can lead to chauvinism, separatism, ‘gay pride’ and an affectation of ‘otherness’ (not to mention tenth-rate fiction). It was a mild advantage in the term ‘queer’, as opposed to ‘gay’, that it could not be interpreted as a boast.

The subject of Bailey’s first ‘life’, the music-hall artiste Fred Barnes, would hardly have known the term ‘queer’, let alone ‘gay’. His is a poignant story. Born in 1885 in Birmingham, the son of a prosperous butcher, he became a singer, dancer and light comedian, specialising in the role of the elegant young man-about-town. Very good-looking, in a lustrous-eyed, crinkly-haired ‘period’ way, and stylish in his footwork and stage presence, he had, in the years just before the First World War, risen to the top of the tree. Then in 1913 there occurred a macabre event. It appears that his father, who had wanted him to join the family business, grew appalled at what he considered Fred’s corrupt way of life, his effete and dandified manners and epicene friends, and one evening, when Fred was performing in Birmingham, he turned up at the stage-door, armed with a meat-axe and ‘threatening to put an end to Fred’s cavortings’. Fred’s agent warned him in time, and he escaped by the front entrance; whereupon his father went home and slew himself with the same axe.

Soon after this time – whether or not as the consequence – the generous and sweet-tempered Fred launched on a career of mad extravagance, entertaining lavishly, gambling, spending a fortune on clothes, servants and smart cars, and becoming a heavy drinker. His friends began to be embarrassed by him, as an eccentric; and on one occasion, in Australia in 1922, he got too drunk to appear on the stage. Worse followed. In October 1924, driving through Hyde Park, he ran into a man, was arrested and, though trying rather wildly to bribe the police, was charged with being drunk in charge of a motor-car and sentenced to a month in Pentonville jail. Oddly, what seems not to have come out in the trial was that, at the moment of the crash, a half-naked sailor escaped from Fred’s car, carrying the rest of his clothes under his arm.

Fred imagined that his career was in ruins but, soon after his release from prison, on the stage of the Camberwell Empire, he was loudly cheered by a loyal audience. All the same, the pattern of his decline was now set; and how horrific it would be! In his palmy days he could be seen walking down Charing Cross Road, in a white cashmere jacket with matching plus-fours and knee-length pink stockings, a marmoset perching on his shoulder. By the 1930s he was entertaining in Southend pubs in exchange for a drink or small change, his ravaged features plastered over with make-up, and on his shoulder, this time, a pet chicken. He gassed himself in 1938.

Bailey tells Fred Barnes’s story very compellingly, but has to fill in gaps as best he can. He builds much on a remark in Harry Daley’s autobiography This Small Cloud (1986), that the appearance of Fred Barnes’s Rolls Royce ‘was a welcome sight to many an unemployed man’, and he quotes from Daley’s fascinating account of how Barnes was banned from Olympia during the annual run of the Royal Tournament but made it a point of honour to defeat the ban.

Gradually there would be a vague stirring in the distance; then shouting and the sound of running feet. What are they saying? What? ‘He’s in again!’ ‘He’s in again!’ Everyone starts to run – some this way, some that. But they are not all running for the same reason. The Military Police and their self-righteous sympathisers feel personally insulted and are running to catch Fred Barnes if they can, and throw him out neck and crop. But scores of young sailors are running to find him first, to warn him of danger and hide him until excitement dies down.

But something seems to be wrong with the chronology here. Bailey implies that the ban went back to the time of the Hyde Park affair, but this can hardly be because for several years after it, he was still a relatively successful performer. Much that we do not know about must have happened subsequently, for him to become the hunted animal depicted by Daley.

Bailey’s other subject is the prolific popular novelist and autobiographer Naomi Jacob (1884-1964). Her father, a converted Jew from Poland, had been headmaster of the Minster Choir School in Ripon, and, according to Naomi, was a womaniser and a bully. She harboured the utmost detestation for him, and her novels would often feature a ‘bad Jew’ who pretended to be more English than the English and brought shame on his race. Once, when she was a child, he smacked her on her bare bottom, and one can interpret much of her later career as a determined effort never again, like this, to be at someone’s mercy. The accoutrements and perquisites of masculinity, evidently, seemed to her a valuable weapon to this end. From an early age she was a talented impersonator (during the 1920s she was in demand as a character actress, specialising in Cockney maidservants and drunken cooks), and her best and most lasting impersonation was that of a male. Short, plump and moon-faced, with heavy horn-rimmed glasses, dressing in men’s tailored suits and heavy masculine boots or brogues, she would speak in rich baritone tones, laying down the law right and left. She liked to claim, to new acquaintances, that she had masqueraded as a sailor on board a destroyer during the First World War – a not impossible story, though it was wise not to believe all that she said. Bailey first encountered her when, as a resting actor, he was serving in Harrods, and he formed the impression that she was J.B. Priestley.

It is important to emphasise the ‘impersonation’ aspect, for Jacob’s attitude bore no resemblance to that of her friend Radclyffe Hall, author of The Well of Loneliness and addicted to soulful Edward Carpenter-like theories about ‘a man trapped within a woman’s body’. ‘Character’ in Jacob’s novels, so it would appear, was very largely a matter of regional or ‘racial’ stereotypes, rendered by means of queer spelling – a very simple form of impersonation, much like her stage one. As Bailey puts it,

throughout her long writing career Micky [this was Jacob’s nickname] liked to ‘reproduce’ the accents or dialect of her characters by having them drop aitches, elongate their vowels, substitute vs for ws, and vice versa. There are nightmarish pages in the novel Barren Metal when a Yiddish-speaking Jew, a Cockney and a Yorkshireman are conversing in what Micky believes to be idiomatic English. The apostrophes come at the hapless reader like shrapnel.

As a writer, lecturer and contributor to the BBC’s Woman’s Hour she earned a great deal and owed her success to her determination to say whatever she liked. In her many autobiographical volumes (they always had ‘Me’ in their title) the dates were bafflingly vague, and the facts in one were liable to be contradicted by those in another. (They contain some good stories, however.) As a lecturer she would cheerfully pronounce on subjects she knew nothing whatever about.

More to the point, in the context of the present book, she seems to have been remarkably successful at living. She had many lesbian attachments and, especially in her later years, when she owned a villa in Italy, she showed great talent at maintaining a ménage à trois. The cuisine, at her insistence, had to be English – Yorkshire pudding and plum duff, and spaghetti boiled for not less than half an hour – and there were, perhaps, rather too many cats and dogs; but it was a price that her friends and lovers found worth paying.

Bailey relates that the then young actor Harold Lang developed an obsession about her. It began when, aboard a ship sailing to Naples, he heard her bawling: ‘Steward, where’s my shaving water?’ Eventually he and Kenneth Tynan collaborated on a surrealistic radio play, The Quest for Corbett, and persuaded her – though at first she said ‘she didn’t understand a bloody word of this “avant-garde tripe”’ – to star in it. According to Bailey, she did not actually realise it was about herself. This is not too easy to believe; but one can suppose that, when or if the truth dawned on her, she would not have let it disturb her.

Fred Barnes and Naomi Jacob were both dead by 1967, the date of the Wolfenden Act, and Paul Bailey himself, who was thirty or thereabouts by that time, had, he tells us, already found his emancipation from ‘what the beetroot-complexioned hacks of the popular press, acting as the nation’s arbiters, labelled “the twilight world”’. He arrived at it by indirection, through two bungled encounters. One was with a middle-aged actor, who took him to bed but got up in the middle of the night to beg forgiveness on his knees from Jesus and the Virgin Mary for the small ‘sin’ he had made Bailey perform. Bailey took this ‘abjectedness’ as a lesson. The other was with a woman, who, after they had attempted some kissing and cuddling, began to giggle uncontrollably, exclaiming: ‘You want a man, don’t you?’ ‘Yes,’ he astonished himself by admitting. ‘“So do I,” she said, without malice. “Let’s go and get drunk.”’

Bailey speaks of the 1950s as ‘that especially repressive decade’; and certainly in those years the police were highly inquisitorial in regard to ‘cottaging’, or getting-up-to-no-good in public urinals (a scene which Bailey himself found too alarming). But maybe the extraordinary emphasis on the ‘cottage’ at this period was also a sign of revolt, a step towards Wolfenden. One remembers Tocqueville’s remark (true of both the American and the French Revolutions) that the oppressed will revolt, not at the lowest point of their fortunes, but when hope or prosperity seem to be returning. Bailey has a good deal to tell us, some of it amusing, about the ‘cottage’ cult and the shock of the Wolfenden Act to ‘queer’ traditionalists. ‘Tolerance is so boring,’ complained an ageing landscape gardener friend of his, who had enjoyed the thrill of the chase for nearly half a century. ‘He died,’ writes Bailey, ‘before the cottage clearances of the 1980s and the destruction of the Biograph, the cinema in which he had rarely looked up at the screen.’

All the same, though not wishing to appear a bigot, I cannot help feeling we are well rid of the ‘cottage’ and its cult, which was really rather awful. To put it in a word, it encouraged an obsessive promiscuity which, in a heterosexual, would have seemed almost like certifiable madness.

Bailey’s is an engaging book, and he has achieved it without the usual aid to intimate biographies – letters. But I am forgetting a magnificent series from Arthur Marshall to Noel Annan, written in the person of M’Bonga, a dusky maiden. Here she explains about seats for the rugby match at Twickenham:

M’Bonga humbly kiss Big Chief’s toe.

M’Bonga velly sorry but M’Bonga have specially reserved seat in topmost date-palm for Thursday. M’Bonga only able to obtain seat by method not approved of by Big Chief. All seats now gone and M’Bonga quite unable to squeeze Big Chief in, wave pampas grass skirt how she may. If Big Chief dead nuts on seeing match, Big Chief must queue on Zambesi bank and maybe M’Bonga wave to him from date-palm. M’Bonga make up to Big Chief later and do special dug-dance for him in wigwam. M’Bonga mighty keen join Big Chief for rice cake and gourd of coconut wine after game. Big Chief no regret coming of M’Bonga; M’Bonga plenty friendly.

Fifteen nose-rubs from M’Bonga.

[*] The term ‘queer’ cam in, I think, in the late 1920s, and ‘gay’ in the late 1940s or early 1950s.