‘And we were pitiless’

Jeremy Seabrook, Private Worlds: Growing Up Gay in Post-War Britain

Pluto Press, 224pp, £14.99, ISBN 9780745348421

reviewed by Charlie Pullen

On 9 January 1969, a new play called Life Price premiered at the Royal Court Theatre in London’s Sloane Square. Starring June Brown, a young actress who would go on to become famous as Dot Cotton in Eastenders, Life Price was about the murder of a child on ‘a council estate in the Midlands’. With its hard-hitting themes and working-class characters, the play owed something to that bold social realist tradition that had emerged in British culture following the Second World War. Over a decade earlier, the Royal Court had sparked a theatrical revolution with John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, which itself took place in a ‘one-room flat in the Midlands’. Staged at the tail-end of the swinging sixties, Life Price was directed by Welsh actor and playwright Peter Gill, who had followed his role in the 1964 film Zulu by reviving a string of D.H. Lawrence’s largely overlooked dramas that examined the intimate lives of mining families in Nottinghamshire.

The Midlands was having a moment in theatre and the Royal Court was keen to promote the authenticity of this darkly comic tale of infanticide, which had been written not by one, but two local writers. The authors of Life Price, audiences were told, ‘are native to the Midlands and in a series of savage and very funny episodes they show the speech and the attitudes of the people on the estate as well as how the rest of the country takes up the incident.’ The play was controversial, but not a success. After ten days with no ticket sales, there followed two weeks where audiences were let in for free before the show closed as a relatively minor event in mid-century theatrical history.

Audiences were coming to see a collaboration by two friends called Michael and Jeremy who had first met as children in 1950s Northampton. Born at the close of the war, Michael and Jeremy had much in common. Both had been clever, working-class grammar-school boys who felt somewhat cramped in their humdrum, provincial surroundings. At school, Jeremy was struck by Michael’s precocity (he boasted of reading Gibbon’s Decline and Fall before he was ten and declared his ambition to stand as a Labour MP), and they subsequently formed their own drama society where they performed plays together at the town’s Liberty Hall. The pair won places to study at Cambridge, after which they had begun respectable careers in teaching and social work while starting to write. They shared a left-wing, sociological view of the problems they encountered in work and life. And both, though they hadn’t always spoken about it much, were gay.

In Private Worlds: Growing Up Gay in Post-War Britain, Jeremy Seabrook tells the story of his long and sometimes productive, but often fraught and tortured friendship with Michael O’Neill. Here Seabrook recounts how he and his friend found themselves coming of age, as what were then called homosexuals, at a time when one epoch of sexual morality was giving way to another less repressive, more relaxed era of expression and experimentation. Despite the book’s subtitle, however, this is not a tale of happy and harmonious development during the coming of queer utopia. Rather, it is the story of two friends who, as they would joke later in life, ‘failed to grow up together.’

The book is a record of deep and painful experience, of the psychic wounds that were inflicted upon and persisted within a pair of gay kids who got trapped between two moments in history: one characterised by shame, secrecy, and fear, the other by liberation, openness, and pride. Consequently, Michael and Jeremy suffer from a kind of double alienation, being at home neither in the heteronormative world of their childhood, nor in the apparently permissive society that developed as they got older. Their emergent adult selves were left largely untouched by legal reforms, such as the 1967 decriminalisation of sex between men. While they did live through the heady days of the sexual revolution and gay liberation, those winds of change ‘never really lived through us’, Seabrook says, and ultimately ‘had little effect on our friendship, which froze at the moment of its formation.’ Theirs would be a relationship full of silences, as if they never really left their childhoods behind them.

Seabrook is a prolific writer, and running through his strikingly varied body of work is a concern with the personal and political. His first book, The Unprivileged (1967), was an oral history of his mother’s family and their social progress, and since then he has turned his hand to writing for theatre, television, and newspapers, while also publishing various studies on topics ranging from loneliness, welfare, and poverty in Britain to sex work in the global south. He brings a sociological sensitivity to the analysis of friendship, selfhood, and sexual identity in Private Worlds, especially when considering the slow and complex nature of social change. ‘Cultures’, Seabrook explains, ‘are not changed by fiat, but are organic, living entities, which respond in their own time and at their own pace to an always evolving popular sensibility.’ For the young Michael and Jeremy, like the countless others who navigate this long process of development, there is no watershed moment of ‘liberation’. Laws can be passed or overturned, but such high-level modifications can be abstract, unreal, unless they are fully realised in the felt quality of everyday lived experience.

While the book’s nominal subject is sexuality, Private Worlds is just as much, if not more, about class mobility in the second half of the 20th century. Seabrook shares with other writers, such as the literary theorist Alan Sinfield, a way of looking back on the empty promises and disappointments that characterised the post-war era. Just like in Sinfield’s Literature, Politics and Culture in Postwar Britain (1989), Seabrook’s mother becomes a central figure who stands for the ‘thwarted’ and impoverished lives suffered by many working-class people at this time. As a girl, Seabrook’s mother is clever and finds an ordinary enjoyment in reading and learning, but then is ‘required’ at 14 to leave school and go to work. ‘In any rational society, her abilities would have been recognised’, writes Seabrook; ‘as it fell out, not only was her education abridged by custom, but most of her considerable energies and skills were subsequently absorbed by the dual urgency of survival and social concealment.’ Seabrook’s nascent sexuality is not the only cause for secrecy in his childhood, we discover, as his single-parent home is also ‘saturated with mystery and puzzlement.’

Like the French writers Didier Eribon and Édouard Louis, Seabrook shines a light on the hinge between sexuality and class, two categories that prompt sometimes overlapping, but often distinct forms of shame. As scholarship boys destined for university and better things, it is not only Michael and Jeremy’s queerness that provokes a feeling of difference and ‘unbelonging’ in these friends. Both are aliens in their homeland. For Michael especially, who was born in London, provincial Northampton is a place of ‘exile’. But we see how the powers of observation that Seabrook would one day exercise in his books and plays have their origin in his teenage years, when he and Michael ‘set ourselves up as observers and critics of society’. Spending their days like amateur ethnographers amongst the old working-class communities with whom they feel so little connection, the pair cast a cold, mocking eye over the people they will soon leave behind. ‘And we were pitiless.’

Indeed, looking back, Seabrook admits feeling filled with ‘sadness and remorse’ about the way he viewed his neighbours with ‘fascinated detachment’. But there is something heart-breaking about his guilt on this matter, as he is so evidently unable, as Thom Gunn once said, to forgive himself a youth. Can Seabrook’s teenage self really be blamed, as he is at one point, for not considering ‘whether historians of the future might marvel’ at his own life in this manner? This is not to criticise Seabrook, but instead to observe how powerfully this other source of shame haunts his book. To grow up gay in post-war Britain is one thing; growing up working class, then making the journey upwards and away through the period’s new system of stratified education, will produce different feelings of separation from home and sever other relationships that are just as difficult to repair.

Private Worlds is a sad book. On page one Seabrook tells us that he and Michael never fully recovered from the ‘shadows’ that ‘distorted’ their adolescence. This is, we are told right from the off, ‘an elegy for a doomed friendship.’ At the very end he shifts into the second person, addressing Michael — now dead — as he expresses grief not only for his friend, but for their relationship that never managed to be what it could have been. What is at once an elegy is also a warning: ‘a reminder of what always remains, for any minority, a provisional tolerance in need of constant defence.’ Queer people today will be only too aware of how fragile our protections can be, but Michael and Jeremy also remind us that a period, even one of great change like the post-war years, can become obscured by mythologies of progress that rarely tell the whole story.

Charlie Pullen is Lecturer in Modern Literature at Queen Mary University of London.