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Jonathan Kemp
Jonathan Kemp

Jonathan Kemp teaches creative writing, literature and queer theory at Birkbeck, University of London. His first novel, London Triptych (2010), was shortlisted for the inaugural Green Carnation Prize and won the Authors’ Club Best First Novel Award. His highly acclaimed collection of short stories, Twentysix, is a milestone of literary erotica in the tradition of Georges Bataille and Jean Genet. Originally from Manchester, he has lived in London for twenty years.


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London Triptych
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The Truth of Sex - Writing 'London Triptych'


London Tripytch started out as a short story entitled ‘Pornocracy’ that I wrote for a competition. I’d wanted to write about the secret histories of male prostitution for a while and that first attempt gave me the character and voice of Jack Rose. Oscar Wilde remains a figure of great appeal to me and a favourite writer, and it was through Jack that I found I could explore other aspects of Wilde’s life, aspects often only vaguely traced in the available accounts. Jack provided me with the perspective of one of the young boys involved in the Wilde scandal, and gave me the chance to imagine the lives of these bit players – the shadowy cohort whose fleeting appearance in the history books fascinated me. Who were these ‘panthers’ with which Wilde ‘feasted’?

          To say more than Jack’s story alone would allow, however, I needed other voices from other times, and so I formed the idea of three lives spaced roughly fifty years apart but overlapping chronologically. It made sense to counterpoint Jack’s exploits with a different, more mature voice, so I developed Colin. The early 1950s saw a great witch-hunt of homosexuals by the British press and the police, which included the arrest of Sir John Geilgud and the imprisonment of the writer Rupert Croft-Cooke (whose 1955 account of his prison experience, The Verdict of You All, is a wonderful read) and peaked with the 1954 scandal involving Lord Montagu and Peter Wildeblood, as recounted in the latter’s book, Against the Law. Colin’s worldview is shaped by that climate of fear. He feels imprisoned by society, but ultimately finds some kind of salvation, acceptance and recognition. I wanted art and love to be the source of those things.

          The third character, David, is a more contemporary voice; a man whose sexual freedoms, whilst having their precedent in Jack, are the fruits of late twentieth-century gay liberation. I wanted a voice from my London, drawing on some of my own experiences of the city, although David’s story is by no means an autobiography, although I’m aware that most writing is, in some indirect and alchemical sense, autobiographical. I agree with Jeanette Winterson that “There is no such thing as autobiography, there is only art and lies”.

          I use history to provide some kind of backdrop for the lives of these three men, and I use the city almost like a fourth character. As such, the city too needed to change. Jack’s London is not Colin’s, and David’s London is different again, not simply because our experiences of cities are mostly subjective, but because cities themselves are fluid, impermanent entities, grounded in a historical specificity that is in a permanent state of flux. For me, cities are also profoundly sexual and that sexuality is caught up in the anonymity they provide. There is a great deal of knowledge in the sexual, although it is often ignored, suppressed or opposed altogether. So it was crucial that this most sidelined and contentious aspect of urban life be central to the stories I was weaving. For Jack the city provides a way of having sex with men and making a decent living, without having to integrate such behavior into his overall sense of self. I wanted him to be uncomplicatedly libidinal. He represents a way of connecting with the body that is freer than, say, Colin’s; a form of sexual consciousness that is not shackled by psychology, nor by religious or bourgeois morality, all of which he has mercifully escaped, though he ends up as their victim, nevertheless. I reintroduced him within Colin’s narrative because I wanted to imagine how he’d change as he grew older.

          By comparison, Colin represents all that is destructive about the morality surrounding homosexuality – a morality represented by his parents, but also by the police, doctors and other people in his social group. For him, the city is a place to scavenge for visual scraps that he can use to populate his masturbation fantasies. For him Gore represents the antithesis of what he has come to expect from life, a kind of unimaginable sexual freedom. Like Jack, Gore is a mirror in which we see our own desires. Through Gore, Colin discovers another London, one that unsettles him as much as it fascinates him.

          For David, the city represents escape. Like many gay men of my generation who grew up in the provinces, London reeked of freedom and decadence, a beacon towards which we all made our merry way, like children dancing in a line behind the Pied Piper. The appeal was primarily, for me at least, one of anonymity – not just in terms of the sex available, but in terms of confronting and constructing one’s self. One could be anonymous in London – in any big city – in a way that is unthinkable in a small town; one could wipe the slate clean and start anew. David’s journey is one of negotiating the physical world and assessing his place within it. I wanted it to be clear that he has learnt something from that journey, even if he fails, as yet, to see exactly what that lesson might be. In setting up Jack and Gore’s reappearances as old men, I open a space for imagining David as an old man, as someone different again from the person we meet in the pages of his narrative. Our lives as gay men are not necessarily scripted to the level of straight people – we don’t tend to have children (though this is changing), and we tend to organize our sexual and personal lives very differently. One thing I was trying to do is to imagine the lives of older gay men in ways that enable us to write our own scripts.

          Wilde’s life and work became a governing principle as I worked on the novel, incorporating and adapting events from his life into the narrative. Wilde’s mother died during his incarceration, so I killed off David’s mother not long after he is imprisoned. All the words attributed to Wilde are mine, apart from one line. David’s story is told in the second person because I wanted to evoke De Profundis, Wilde’s prison letter to Lord Alfred Douglas. I like the way it appeals to a single recipient; a single reader – although in this case one who will never lay eyes upon it.

          I also tried to incorporate certain constants in the three narratives. As well as the city, there is the law. The police play a part in all three stories, as they have in the lives of many gay men. Love is another constant, as is sex. Indeed, the two are the most tightly bound themes of the book. Whilst I concur with Foucault that the truth is never to be found in sex, the truth of sex is one that is often overlooked in our panicky rush to categorize and moralize. I was attempting to write about gay sex in new ways, ways more in line with writers such as Georges Bataille, Kathy Acker, Neil Bartlett and Samuel R. Delany, for whom sex is an opportunity to explore subjectivity and sometimes language. I hope I succeeded.

          I wrote the three narratives as separate stories – even separate files – but I knew pretty much as I worked through them where the breaks would be. But they each had an almost identical dramatic arc, so that, when they were intertwined, they would peak and fall at roughly the same time in the overall narrative curve of the novel. What I noticed on reading it through for the first time after I had plaited the three narratives together were the ways the three voices echoed one another. Jack’s story ends with him traveling from London to Manchester, whilst David’s begins with the reverse journey. Having Jack reappear in Colin’s strand and then Gore reappear in David’s, was not something I had planned from the start. It came late, as did the title. But once I had decided on it I enjoyed working out how it would manifest, how these characters would be as older men.

          I repeated some locations to give a sense of different memories, different events occurring within or upon the same geographical site, such as Highgate Cemetry or Barnes Common. The three men’s lives unfold in tandem, as if simultaneously, transcending concrete time. It is, in that sense, very much a triptych.

          James Joyce’s claim that memory is an act of creation resonates with me. Wilde himself said, “Give a man a mask and he will tell you the truth”. These are my guiding lights. I think we need to believe more in the powers of fiction, to trust that some kind of truth lies in imagined stories, to believe that – to paraphrase Jean Cocteau – a lie can tell the truth. I’m inclined to believe that language makes realities (in the plural), for better or for worse. This is what storytellers do: we fabricate other universes; we make places that are governed by different laws.

          

          

          

          

          

          

          

          

         

          

          

          

          

          

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