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Sunday, 3 June 2012

~Kitten Wine~#35: The Well Of Loneliness

The very moral fabric of Great Britain, were the right wing media to be believed, is gossamer thin and in great peril of being torn asunder by the most innocuous of threats. From the 1950s on we have been led to believe that something as harmless as Pop Music was ready to bring the country to it's knees; from Elvis to the Rolling Stones, through the Sex Pistols to Frankie Goes To Hollywood and illegal Raves, youths with guitars and keyboards have been viewed as a great danger to the very existence of our society.
Or indeed there's movies! In the 1980s it was felt that terrible Italian slasher films with laughable special effects were the great cancer that would eat away the moral fibre of the British public; or when any unspeakable crime was committed, lamebrained tripe like Rambo 2, or not even remotely frightening guff like Childs Play 3 were trotted out as the cause of all our sorrows.
On a live TV debate about censorship, it was put to the ultra-Conservative Festival Of Light (the pro-censorship movement fronted by Mary Whitehouse and her Christian Right hags) that books are not censored, nor do they have any age restrictions, lurid gorenography like the works or Sven Hassel or James Herbert were easily available to Primary School children. The idea of banning or censoring books was snorted at (quite rightly!) as some kind of fascism. How dare we suggest that books could bring down the country!
But it was not always so....

In the early Twentieth Century, when pop music and films were still new pleasures, books were often seen as social menace, especially if they dealt frankly with the subject of (whisper it) s-e-x! D.H. Lawrence's classic Lady Chatterley's Lover, for example, was banned from the general public until the 1960s. But it was another book from the same era that we are to look at today....The Well Of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall.

Published in 1928, The Well Of Loneliness was the first book to properly address the subject of female homosexuality. Homosexuality in general was still illegal in Britain in 1928 (as it would be for almost another FORTY years!!) and many men, including Oscar Wilde, were jailed for their way of life. Homosexuality amongst women however, was not really taken seriously, quite bizarrely. It was almost as though Victorian and Edwardian society simply couldn't get their heads round the idea that women might not actually be sexually attracted to men. Many women were locked away in sanatoriums, or given horrendous archaic psychiatric treatment including lobotomies and ECT to 'cure' them of their befuddling illnesses.
So, imagine the reacion when a book arrived detailing the inner emotional turmoil of a woman born into the lauded gentry of nobs and chinless wonders, who was herself 'sexually inverted', as was the phrase of the time, and her struggle to be accepted as a woman first, a sexuality second.

The heroine of the book has the none-more-Streetlamp name of Stephen Gordon (yes, really!), her parents assumed she would be boy and christened her thus. Hiding her 'peculiar' sexuality, she moves to London to become a novelist and then, on beginning to understand her 'affliction', moves to Paris with a gay male friend to wallow in the non-threatening Parisian Bohemia where she feels accepted. But, as was typical of the time, Stephen has a crisis of faith and has to try and balance her 'sinful' sexuality with her love of God, and she tries to appease God, knowing it will bring her unhappiness. The underlying message of the book is 'Give us also the right to our existence', but ends with the protagonist falling in line with society yet begging the reader 'Is this truly a fair existence?'.

As you can imagine, the book caused an absolute outrage when first published. How dare a women write about cavorting with other fillies was no doubt the cry from the masculinist society of the day. The Sunday Express went even further (gosh, there's a surprise) calling for the book to be banned outright as it was 'a danger to the nation' and began a campaign to have the book suppressed. This fired the ire of writers, such as T.S. Eliot, George Bernard Shaw and Virginia Woolf, who protested it's innocence, and the left wing newspaper the Daily Herald, who started a campaign in favour of the book's publication.
Yet, despite this championing from the Left and the intelligentsia, the book was criticised (and remains criticised) by some of it's core audience. The book's depiction of a heroine who seems to want to rid herself of her conflicted sexuality, coupled with the fact that Stephen takes to cross-dressing in man-drag was seen by the Lesbian community as more harm than good. However, what cannot be taken away is the Trojan-horse quality of the book, which ushered in a new era of sexual understanding, and practically introduced the very idea of gay women within society, and not merely as some adolescent folly, curable by barbaric medical practises.
Modern readers may find the tome's cloistered frustrations rather overwrought and soaked in the most purple of prose, yet the book stands as one of the most important works of the 20th Century, and still finds new readership today.

I was introduced to The Well Of Loneliness sometime in the mid 80s, when it was loaned to me by a female acquaintance. A year or so later, while browsing the Indiepop section of Ffopp Records in Glasgow, I came across a 12" e.p by the band McCarthy called 'The Well Of Lonliness', which was bedecked in a sleeve mirroring the cover of the book. I had heard of McCarthy but hadn't really taken much notice of them. I knew I HAD to purchase the record, and later that day found myself enjoying the jangly, left-field Pop they created.
McCarthy sound not disimilar to a less muscular version of The Smiths, all chiming Rickenbacker guitars and contradictory lugubrious vocals, but McCarthy were far more politically motivated than Morrissey's troupe, leaning so predominantly to the Left that they made Red Wedge look like UKIP! The bands early song titles; 'Red Sleeping Beauty', 'Frans Hals', 'The New Left Review' and 'The Comrade Era' clearly spell out their agenda.

Rather annoyingly, the single 'The Well Of Lonliness' was not about the book, but merely an allegorical title to a song about perpetual defeatism. But I was immediately hooked, and with The Smiths having just split up, and Morrissey's solo work still a while away, this was the Leftist Indie jangle I was looking for.

McCarthy's debut album, 'I Am A Wallet' was a small masterpiece, casting their agitprop view over everything, from Capitalism ('Monetaries' and 'The Procession Of Popular Capitalism'), through the monarchy ('The Wicked Palace Revolution' and 'Charles Windsor'), the homophobic attitude to AIDS ('God Made The Virus'), vivisection ('Antinature') and American Cultural Imperialism ('Antiamericancretin').

As if to prove a point to their narrow-minded critics, their next e.p was made without guitars! Like the Human League had once claimed, 'This Nelson Rockefeller' (about the plight of teenage prostitutes) featured just voices and machines (i.e. synths and drum machines) but works brilliantly. Vocalist Malcolm Eden's voice sounds even more melancholic against the synthetic background. This is, perhaps, best showcased by the track 'The Enemy Is At Home'....

As the band progressed, their vitriol remained intact, with singles like 'Keep An Open Mind Or Else!' and 'Should The Bible Be Banned'....which practically brings us full circle.
After McCarthy split, guitarist Tim Gane founded the band Stereolab, whose situationist minimalism continues to this day.

So, there you have it, my Friends, a classic example of  where one art form led me to another, both at a pivotal time in my life and both which helped to shape my political and personal thinking.
Keep an open mind...
......or else!!


You can download McCarthy's album 'I Am A Wallet' here
And you can read The Well Of Loneliness for free at this website

Now don't say we're not good to you!!! 

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