Wednesday, September 01, 2004

Three Queer Lives

My post about City of Night the other day reminded me of another gay book: Three Queer Lives, by Paul Bailey.

‘Queer’, of course, is the word which was, for many decades, used by English people used to describe homosexuals, before gay became the preferred term.

The three lives described in Paul Bailey’s book are those of Fred Barnes, a show-business character; Naomi Jacob, a butch lesbian writer; and Arthur Marshall, who was both a performer and a writer; late in life he became something of a TV personality.

For my part I read Paul Bailey’s book because I wanted to know more about Arthur Marshall. In my youth, I attended a school where Arthur was one of the teachers, and although I had little contact with him personally I can at least say that I knew him.

Even in my schooldays, it was evident that Arthur Marshall was not a personality who would remain a schoolmaster for very long. By 1950 he had already acquired a reputation as a writer of comic sketches which were broadcast on the BBC, and at school he organised a dramatic performance which was entitled ‘Masterpieces’. This was a show which was performed, as the title indicates, entirely by the staff. It was a kind of variety bill, with sketches written by Arthur which succeeded in making every single member of the staff look ridiculous – chiefly, of course, Arthur himself. There were also ‘ballets’ and other foolishness. The boys loved it but the staff, I suspect, were not so keen. There were probably sighs of relief when he left.

Paul Bailey makes it clear that although Arthur Marshall was thoroughly camp, frequently adopting the persona of a mature female headmistress et cetera, he served with some distinction in the second world war. On one occasion, Arthur was in charge of a group of men who came under heavy fire from the enemy. His commanding officer contacted him by radio and asked for a report on the position.

‘Well, sir,’ said Arthur, shouting to make himself heard above the bombardment, ‘I’m afraid the (BOOM) – I’m afraid the Germans are (RAT-A-TAT-TAT) being rather beastly to us, sir.’

On another occasion he was given a desk job, and the officer in charge was one of those military liberals who like to use first names. ‘What’s your name?’ he asked Arthur.

Arthur, who had the initials C.A.B, replied, ‘Cynthia, sir.’


‘Yes, sir.’

‘Bit odd, isn’t it?’

“Well, sir, some chaps are called Evelyn, and some chaps are called Leslie, and I just happen to be called Cynthia.’

‘Hmm,’ said the officer, who was the unimaginative type. So, for several days, whenever the officer needed Arthur, he would bellow out, ‘Cynthia! Get over here, please.’

After a week or so, the officer called Arthur into his office for a private chat. ‘Now look here, er, Cynthia,’ he said. ‘I’m afraid this name of yours is causing a bit of difficulty. The chaps are beginning to snigger, and we can’t have that. Haven’t you got some other name we could use?’

‘Well, sir,’ said Arthur doubtfully, ‘I suppose you could call me Arthur.’

The officer perked up no end. ‘Ah! Jolly good. Arthur it is then.’

There are more stories in a similar vein in Paul Bailey’s book. The Times Lit. Supp. called it ‘Gentle, wise and funny,’ and for once I agree with that august publication.

What I like about Arthur Marshall is that he was always jolly, however adverse the circumstances. It is an admirable frame of mind if you can manage it, but of course very few writers can. They all take the world, and most of all themselves, so goddamned seriously.

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