In 1979 I moved to London from Birmingham, in an effort to get nearer the hub of artistic endeavour and theatrical recognition. I joined the Inland Revenue as a Trainee Tax Inspector because that was the only job I could find which would pay my removal expenses.
So, we loaded up a hired Box Luton, the three of us who at the time were locked in a fragile menage and came down the motorway.
We had nowhere to stay, so our first port of call was the Advisory Service for Squatters, at 2 St Paul’s Road on the Islington/Hackney border. Squatting was not itself illegal at the time, and it was possible to stay in an empty house for a minimum of three months before anybody could begin to throw you out, unless they happened to live there themselves.
The idea was that we would find somewhere over a weekend, dump all the stuff we’d brought, and I’d drive the van back and then catch a coach.
The ASS was beyond helpful, and their work for the public good has never been acknowledged. They housed hundreds, probably thousands, of homeless and penniless people over the years before the pressures on squatting got too great.
We were welcomed to the city, provided with tea and biscuits, and sheltered for the night at a commune which was itself probably a squat. The dedication and kindness of these philanthropic hippies was exemplary.
We slept on the floor of the living room, and at three o’clock in the morning we crept out into Hackney to 73 Whiston Road. Our guide, whose name I think was Roger, was expert at jiggling a Yale lock; only jewellers had Chubbs in those days.
In five minutes, we were in. In another ten minutes we had the electricity on – don’t ask - and we were in possession of a two-story, three-bedroom house and small back garden.
These were the days when local councils were buying up empty private houses piecemeal, with the intention of bringing them back into occupation as public housing; only cutbacks in the wake of the 1976 financial crisis had left them without the money to follow through the plan. So Hackney Council was our landlord but didn’t know it.
Meantime, one of the last things I wrote in Birmingham was a short story, Me and Mr Mandel. I submitted it in cut form, to Radio 4’s ‘Morning Story’ slot which ran daily Monday to Friday at 10.45 a.m. for many years. Hundreds of writers got a breakthrough on this excellent platform.
This was in the days before the BBC abandoned its role as a committed supporter of new writing and its principles of open access. It was accepted, at the usual rate of £2 per minute.
And so, on the day after I returned the van to Birmingham, I was sitting on a packing crate in the empty kitchen of number 73 on a bright sunny morning in June, with Steve and Anna, listening to my first radio play being read by Cyril Shaps, a fine old stalwart of what was then the Drama Repertory Company.
He also appeared in over 200 film and TV productions, from James Bond and Dr Who to Bar Mitzvah Boy.
I say, ‘my first radio play’, because I had always thought of it as a dramatic monologue, even though it belonged in the storytelling tradition, rather than the dialectical ‘argument for one character’ which I think makes monologues truly dramatic.
After its broadcast it was published in a Gay Men’s Press anthology, Cracks in the Image (1981), but I also performed it from time to time on occasions when a solo play was needed for a local gay group with very little space.
Cyril Shaps in Barmitzvah Boy
At the time, it was one of the very few plays I wrote which did not come in some sense out of personal experience. In the late 70s, the ‘plight’ (awful word then current) of ‘elderly gays’ surfaced as an issue thanks to the work of CHE’s Griff Vaughan-Williams and the August Trust.
The central problem was invariably seen as loneliness caused by the ageism of gay social networks, death of partners, and ostracism of families. However, I thought of the many gay men who lived in the East End (I went to drag pubs) who were embedded in their communities and nothing said.
They were gays hiding in plain sight as single men, not the marrying kind, who kept themselves to themselves. One such is Mr Mandel. However, I also wanted to explore the idea of relationships with men which were deep and enduring, which were what we would now call homosocial in the Queer Theory jargon.
Today we accept this kind of fluid border between the sexual and the social, but in the 70s, under siege, we saw the world in binary terms, ‘straight’ and ‘gay’, and intense relationships between men had to be sexual. Didn’t they?
These two old men are in a marriage, and it is more than convenience. There is love, they need each other, and they redeem each other. They even share a bed in a freezing Victorian slum in the depths of winter.
Yet they would back off in horror at the suggestion that this is a gay relationship. After all, they are not ‘like that’. Yet though they are not ‘queer’ in the old sense, they are ‘queer’ in the new.
I always heard the voice of ‘Me’ as Irish, although there are only hints of it in the script; talk of ‘the Fathers’ thrashing him at school, and phrases like ‘for the love of God!’. Cyril Shaps on the radio was a beautiful reader, but he was definitely Jewish, and to my mind that was wrong, it was too inward-looking.
Though these two weren’t 'The Odd Couple', they needed to reach out across cultural differences, to be essentially unlikely yet inevitable.
We’re now perfoming it again for the lockdown readings in 2021. I’ll be interested to see where ‘I’ come from this time.
Peter Scott-Presland (April 2021)
Read the Script
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