“A man who trades a measure of freedom for a measure of security will in the end have neither,” Benjamin Franklin once declared.
But in the end, aren’ t we all guilty of such bartering?
London Triptych might find itself nestled between other works of gay historical fiction on the bookshop shelves, but its central theme – freedom and the pursuit of it – is universal. The debut novel by Stoke Newington resident Jonathan Kemp, it offers a gritty, sometimes smutty, glimpse into the hidden world of male prostitution in London via three lives in three decades: the 1890s, 1950s and 1990s.
The book’s roots were in Kemp’s research into Oscar Wilde’s dalliances with young men, including his beloved ‘Bosie’, Lord Alfred Douglas. But rather than focussing on the famous writer, the novel explores the intertwining stories of history’s ‘bit-players’, revealing in the process a remarkable consistency in the state of London’s gay underworld. “It’s not true to think of the Victorians as in any way repressed or prudish,” says Kemp. “Prostitution – both straight and gay – was a massive industry.”
However, while sallying forth into such murky territory might be seen as brave, the 43-year-old says he found writing dialogue for Wilde, who has a small part in the novel, “terrifying”.
“There’s only one line in the whole story that is actually from him,” he says. “It’s when one of the characters is recounting how Wilde said at his trial: ‘I do not like the sensible and I do not like the old.’ It’s difficult when you are working with someone who’s been so overloaded with cultural baggage to take a fresh look.
“Wilde has been done to death. But because he is always centre stage in those stories, I wanted to get the bit-player. I always thought, what about the boys that Wilde played with? What kind of lives did they have? What kind of feelings did they have towards him?”
London looms like a beacon in the background of the book – a magnet drawing in nonconformists and minorities. The novel was written in Hackney, and (not surprisingly for an author who also has a regular slot as a DJ at a club night in Newington Green) Kemp praises the borough’s radical traditions and newer reputation as a nest for musicians and artists. Hackney’s gay community was active in protests against Mary Whitehouse’s campaigns for ‘morality’ in the 1970s – but Kemp says there is much to regret about the relative superficiality of the community today.
“The whole concept of a gay conservative I find baffling,” he says. “But at the same time, there’s perhaps a lot to be said for courting or desiring some kind of assimilation. It’s not for me personally, but I can perhaps see the appeal – some people want to just fit in and get on with their lives and not bang that particular drum. However, that shouldn’t be done at the expense of the people that can’t, even if they tried to, fit in.”
Kemp was born in 1967 – “the year the law changed [and homosexuality was legalised]. I don’t think that they did it for me but it was nice of them.” His upbringing was in a small village in the south of Manchester “where to be different was to be ostracised”.
“When you’re growing up, you’re growing up surrounded by very limited horizons in terms of what you can do,” he says. “When I was growing up, I never imagined that I would have a book out. People from my background didn’t write books. So I think sometimes being gay can provide a way for you to be exposed to much broader horizons than you otherwise would be. In a sense, those boys that Wilde played with, they were being exposed to much broader worlds than maybe some of their peers would have been.”
Where some might see a danger in romanticising prostitution in this way, Kemp sees an opportunity to redress a balance. “Prostitution gets such a tough deal most of the time that I was quite happy to run the risk of romanticising it,” he says. “I tried as much as possible to show the more gritty realities, but it’s not always necessarily about being imprisoned and used against your will. One of the characters finds it provides him with a way of being that is quite useful, although at one point he sees in himself the ravages of that, the repetitive nature of it, and says something along the lines of: ‘I’ve been leading a life as regimented as the one I thought I was going to escape.’”
In the quest for freedom, the prize is often elusive.
London Triptych by Jonathan Kemp is published by Myriad Editions, priced £7.99.