Get to Edinburgh this week if at all possible, where Angus Stewart’s Sandel, “a notorious novel about underage gay sex”, as Gay Times puts it, “has been dramatised in a production playing at the city’s Festival Fringe until 24 August.
The particular interest for heretics here is that the notoriety is about paedophilia rather than a relationship between two minors: both of the lovers depicted are teenagers, to be sure, but one is 19 and the other 13. The older partner, being over 18, is defined as an adult in English law, and his boyfriend is more than five years younger, an age gap large enough to warrant a psychiatric diagnosis of paedophilia in an older partner who is over 16.
We can call things what we want, of course: we can speak of minor attraction, intergenerational sexual relations, Greek love and so forth: there is nothing sacrosanct about legal and medical constructions, far from it: indeed there is much in them to take issue with. If I draw attention to the rhetoric, it is to note that this is a play that presents an unusually positive view of the relationship in question, so the producer and everyone concerned with its promotion in the present climate are presumably rather keen not to frighten the horses: the dread P word must not be mentioned. This is sensible, no doubt, and politically astute, although personally I find myself wishing people would call a spade a spade. Otherwise, the P word will only ever be associated with “abuse”, and that needs to change.
But back to Sandel, a play written and directed by Glenn Chandler, a gay TV drama producer who created the detective series Taggart, which became the longest-running TV detective series in the world. In other words Chandler is a major player in his business, and his involvement in this production will surely create a buzz. For the 13-year-old, Chandler has cast 17-year-old Tom Cawte, who is only five feet tall and said to look “much younger than his real age”. Presumably, putting an actual 13-year-old into this role was considered too controversial. Choosing an older teenager who would truly look the part was thus a challenge. In an interview with Scotsgay, Chandler said there was another one too:
“How could I cast someone able to play the eponymous hero, Antony Sandel, a choirboy outwardly innocent and pure but with a cunning, Macchievellian streak who manipulates the older youth into a relationship neither of them can get out of?”
With Cawte, he thinks he has succeeded. It will be interesting to see whether the reviewers agree, along with any heretics here who are able to see for themselves. For those who cannot, though, there is another treat: Sandel the novel, which has been out of print for decades, has been republished this month by Pilot Productions Ltd (£18.99; Amazon: paperback £9.99, Kindle edition £5.99). According to the blurb at Amazon, “Sandel became formative reading for a generation of boys growing up in the 1970s who knew their feelings fell outside the heterosexual male stereotype. Stephen Fry, a teenager at the time, lists Angus Stewart among those who opened his eyes to his homosexual identity, alongside Oscar Wilde, Gide, Genet, Auden, Orton, Norman Douglas, Ronald Firbank, H. Montgomery Hyde, and Roger Peyrefitte.”
See, here we have it again: a clearly paedophilic book (to my mind at least) presented as a gay one, positioned within a tradition of other literature also labelled gay, even though Douglas and Gide were well known for their active sexual interest in small boys, while Peyrefitte took up with Alain-Philippe Malagnac when the latter was a 12-year-old. The boy had a non-starring role in the film of the writer’ first novel, Les Amitiés particulières (Special Friendships), which depicted a romance between two schoolboys, one considerably older than the other: the younger boy, played in the film by the gorgeous Didier Haudepin, would also have been about 12 at the time of filming and who looked decidedly pre-pubescent on screen.
Admittedly these writers were all “cross-over figures” though. Peyrefitte and Malagnac were an item into the latter’s adulthood, while Douglas and Gide both hung out in gay social circles, in an age when little distinction was made between homosexuality and paedophilia: if they used words for it at all the hostile one would have been sodomy, while pederasty could be used in a neutral way. Both of these terms, significantly, referred to a sexual act rather than an orientation. And the age of the younger “boy” seems to have been very flexible for many: Douglas and Gide probably thought of a “boy” as aged no more than 10-14 but had older partners too; Wilde is rumoured to have had flings with rent boys as young as 14 but his youngest lover with age documentation (Alphonso Conway) was 16 and Wilde’s preference seems to have been for young men rather than for boy boys, as we might say. But that did not stop him hanging out with André Gide. Bluntly, the pair were sex tourists together in Algeria, where Wilde (though accounts differ) helped break the ice for a hesitant Gide with a boy waiter in a restaurant. Good old Oscar! What a shame that Wilde, so honoured now as a gay martyr, would be martyred all over again if he were alive today – this time not by the British criminal courts but by politically correct gays rushing to denounce his complicity with “child abuse”.
Anyway, if corners of the gay community are now interested in reviving Angus Stewart’s paedophilic writing, good for them, even if they are being rather coy and euphemistic about what they call it: it’s a start. And I must admit it had never occurred to me that the original version of Sandel might have had a genuinely gay readership of those who personally identify with the boy in the relationship rather than the older partner. I had assumed, wrongly, that by the time gay boys are old enough to be interested in sophisticated adult literature they would want to read about relationships between grown men, not stories of first love.
That is a striking failure of imagination on my part, which I suppose derives from the very different way in which I came to the book, not as a gay youth back in 1968 when the novel first appeared but as a young paedophile: at that time I felt this wonderful novel had been written entirely with a reader like me in mind! I was such a fan that I wrote to the publisher, and was delighted to get a friendly letter back from the author himself. After a short correspondence, he kindly invited me over to his abode in the Vale of White Horse, Oxfordshire, where he told me he used to divide his year between quiet rural England and an altogether livelier scene in Morocco, where he would always have at least one young boy living with him. Just like Wilde with Gide, he took me under his wing, encouraged me to forget my hang-ups and inhibitions with boys, and let my hair down. He was not so crude as to say or imply or even think that all the boys in Morocco are “up for it”, but he did persuade me, based not least on visual, photographic, evidence of his own experience, that many boys, certainly in that culture, were indeed open to intimate friendship with a man. This was a revelation to me: a liberating experience that changed my life.
Angus is no longer with us, alas, having died a good many years ago, which at least means I can speak freely – although it appears he all but outed himself (albeit under the pen name John Davis) when he wrote what was stated to be a factual account of his real relationship with the boy “Tony” which appeared as part of a book published in 1961, seven years before Sandel. This was Underdogs: Eighteen victims of society, edited and introduced by Philip Toynbee, himself a substantial public intellectual of his day. Incidentally, another measure of the quiet support that Angus, son of an Oxford University professor, managed to garner in the literary world, is that when he published a book of his very lightweight “satirical” verse – mere doggerel, really, in my view – it came with a foreword by W.H. Auden, no less, widely considered amongst the greatest poets of the 20th century as well as one of the most famous gay figures of his era.
There is a Wikipedia entry on Angus Stewart, and quite a lot more information about him is to be found at the magnificently eclectic and eccentric website of gay American historian Prof. William Armstrong Percy III – who gave a very glowing review of my book Michael Jackson’s Dangerous Liaisons, so he has to be a great guy, right? See the excellent notes compiled by Walt Kauffmann on Stewart at Bill Percy’s site.
Toynbee, Philip, ed., (Angus Stewart writing as John Davis, et al.) Underdogs, Weidenfeld and Nicholson, London, 1961
Stewart, Angus, Sandel, Hutchinson, London, 1968