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Text: World Copyright
Martin Foreman

Copyright of pictures acknowledged where possible







Cola in Cafes and Dances in Church Halls
New York Native, 27 January 1986


In the 1980s I regularly reviewed books for Gay News in the UK and the New York Native. The Leather Boys, by Gillian Freeman, was first published under the pseudonym of "Eliot George" in 1961; I wrote this review of the Gay Men's Press reprint in the mid 1980s.

The 1950s were a time of small but significant progress for gay rights in Britain. During that period the Albany Trust, the country's first organization run for and by gay men, was set up, and a Parliamentary committee
recommended the decriminalization of homosexual activity between adults - although it was not until 1967 until a law was passed to that effect. Public interest in the matter was reflected in newspapers and books and in the first gay novels that began to appear, which were both reasonably positive in outlook and not subject to prosecution on grounds of obscenity.

Of the three best-known gay titles in the '50s the anonymous A Room in Chelsea Square was waspishly amoral and probably confirmed more prejudices than it cleared. Mary Renault's The Charioteer and Rodney Garland's The Heart in Exile both reached wide audiences and were praised as much because of as in spite of their theme. Neither book, however, trod much new ground, The Charioteer because it reaffirmed the link in the public's mind between male homosexuality and the elite public schools, The Heart in Exile because its narrator was a psychoanalyst and the faint scent of guilt and complex, although muffled, was never far away. It was not until Anthony Blond, a gay literary agent and publisher, suggested to Gillian Freeman, one of his writers, that she might like to try a "Romeo and Romeo in the South London suburbs" that a totally new approach was taken - one which for various reasons has not been followed.

The Leather Boys, first published in 1961 under the pseudonym Eliot George, came out in paperback a couple of years later and has been out of print ever since. A film, with Freeman as scriptwriter, was made by Sidney J Furie. Although the film was critically well received when it was released in the US, where it is currently available on video, apart from one almost unnoticed showing on British television a few years ago, it has dropped out of circulation in England. for an indepth review / synopsis of the film, see british60scinema.net/book-to-film-adaptations-in-the-1960s/the-leather-boys Now Gay Men's Press has reissued the book under its Gay Modern Classics imprint and it will, I hope, get the recognition it deserves.

The plot is simple. Two working-class Londoners, both 18, get to know each other as members of a gang responsible for minor break-ins and thefts. Dick lives with his grandmother. Reggie is married but unhappy with his wife and the claustrophobic conditions in which they live. He is (although the word was not yet common currency in 1961) a rocker, following the fashion of wearing heavy leather gear and driving a powerful motorcycle. When Dot, his wife, tells him she is having someone else's baby, he leaves her and, with nowhere else to go, ends up with Dick. Sleeping together in the same bed, they find themselves kissing, having sex and falling in love. Unhappy with life in London, they decide to find work in the Merchant Navy and see the world. Before they go, they will commit one more robbery, this time on their own - which is where all their plans go wrong.

What makes The Leather Boys unique is its utter believability, despite its lack of literary roots or precedent. Dick's and Reggie's love springs from a mutual regard and common need for affection and is totally untrammelled by the heavy guilt and soul-searching their fictional predecessors had to go through. Nor do they meet each other through the subculture of gay pubs and cruising grounds, which, had the sought them out, they would have found, even in 1961. Their discovery of each other is accidental, like two men playing in a field and coming across buried treasure. Indeed, neither identifies with "queers" and when Dick comes across a group of queens at Southampton Docks, his reaction is totally negative. "He had never thought of his relationship with Reggie as being homosexual, he hadn't labelled or questioned it. It wasn't like this. They would never be like these men."

The book's appeal does not simply lie in its being a story of two humpy young men in love. Freeman is an accomplished writer who is able to create character and atmosphere in a few well-chosen words. Dick is amoral, a romantic; Reggie is honest, down to earth. Each influences and can be seen influencing the other. Dick's grandmother is an independent but lonely old woman; Dot is an unintelligent, grasping girl, dimly aware that she has brought her unhappiness on herself. The grey terraced streets of the city, with their dark houses where the only sanitation is an outside toilet, live, as does everything else Freeman describes.

The London of The Leather Boys is now history. Teenage gangs no longer drink cola in cafes and break up dances in church halls; they get drunk and slash one another before and after football matches. The local flea-pit cinema is empty or has become a bingo hall. Travel abroad is no longer a vague idea to the working class, who spend their annual holidays in Greece or Spain, nor is the Merchant Navy an escape route, with millions now unemployed and the union protecting what jobs exist. Above all, Reggie and Dick could never end up in the same bed so innocently. Whether the word was spoken or not, they would call themselves gay and might even have to struggle through questions of identity before reaching the self-acceptance that was so easy before.

With all the above in mind, read this book. Whether as a romance or a reminder of time and place you only vaguely know, The Leather Boys can be enjoyed more than most of the hundreds of gay novels that have followed it.


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