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Looking at things from a certain angle, you could say that I was at my gayest as a child. Not sexually gay, of course; that goes without saying. But innocently and instinctively gay, before I even knew what “gay” was, or that there was any stigma attached to gay behaviour. Playfully gay. Shamelessly gay. Gaily gay.
It came out in so many ways. Intense schoolboy crushes, but with none of the unrequited agonies that would come with adolescence. These were crushes in which I sought nothing back; I was merely content to idealise, to idolise, to bask in the glow. Fantasies of a twin brother, who could be soulmate and playmate – or of having au pair BOYS around the house, rather than our regular stream of Scandanavian sixteen-year-old girls. (In this respect, I realise with hindsight that my father was a very canny man.) Sighing over cute boys on the telly: Cliff Richard, Fraser Hines as Jamie in “Doctor Who”, Derek Fowlds on the Basil Brush show. Just wanting to BE with these people. To be included in their gang. To have them smile at me, take my hand, whisk me away to a land of fun and freedom.
But oh dear God, I could be such a little tart with it. Chasing boys round the school playground for comedy kisses, mouth puckered, arms outstretched. Or grabbing them by the waist and forcing them into a waltz routine: da da-da da daah, deet! deet!, doot! doot! It gave me a bit of a reputation. But not unpleasantly so; my antics were observed with bemused good humour rather than overt hostility. Somehow, I always got away with it.
“Michael, have you ever heard of homosexuals?”, a classmate once asked. I would have been nine or ten years old by then.
I shook my head. It was a new word.
“Well, you’re definitely one of them.”
I didn’t even bother to ask what one was. Just grinned and shrugged, then wandered off to do something else. The nearest I got to any conception of a separate sexual identity was with my recurring marriage fantasy: just imagine if they changed the law just for one day, so that boys could get married to boys! Because if they did, then I’d ask T.N. to marry me. Then we could be together for ever and ever, ah-men.
Although come to think of it, there was also my “male-only town” fantasy. A special town, which would only admit men between the ages of… well, I forget what the exact ages were, but I do remember the rule which said that men who reached a certain age would be obliged to move out of town. Oh, and I’d only admit good-looking ones.
Very Brave New World. Very Logan’s Run. Very circuit-party body-fascist. The clues were all there, should I have chosen to disclose them; but even at that age, I knew it was best to keep certain thoughts to myself. Male-only towns? Come on; that’s weird by anyone’s standards.
(It had a name as well, my sexy town. Shall I tell you? Don’t laugh. KIRBY. Yeah, I know.)
And then there was the snowball incident.
My grandmother’s sitting room had a large, three-paned bay window, looking out onto her small back garden – and, adjacent to the right, the playground of Doncaster Grammar School for Boys. One mid-morning break time in January (they must have started term earlier than me), I was sitting on the floor next to the window – all misted over with condensation – when I became aware of a commotion from outside. Wiping away a small patch of condensation at the bottom of the right hand pane, I peered through.
All across the playground, dozens of laughing and leaping teenage boys in blazers and ties were pelting each other with snowballs, in one almighty snow-fight.
Fun. Freedom. Inclusion. Contact. Anything-goes delirium. I had never seen anything more exciting in my life.
This is where it gets really gay.
After the break was over, I felt the most churning sense of loss. I needed to see more of this. Badly.
And so I stood up, stretched out my index finger, and wrote the following message in the condensation on the right hand window pane.
PLEASE GRAMMAR SCHOOL BOYS COME BACK AND PLAY SNOWBALLS AGAIN SO I CAN WATCH.
(In reverse lettering, of course. Come on, I was a bright kid.)
It didn’t work. Begging never does. I’d learn this much later in life.
But even that wasn’t my gayest moment ever.
That would be the Ken incident.
My cousin from Essex was a keen collector of Barbie dolls. She had loads of them in her room, all arranged in fun little tableaus; I particularly remember a groovy little bunch of them discotheque-dancing together. I was a bit jealous; you couldn’t do that sort of thing with my boring old wooden guardsmen, all featureless and identical in their drab little fort.
On one of her visits up North, my cousin brought a new doll with her. A boy doll! I had never seen such a thing, and was thrilled to the core; this was something new and exciting. I didn’t know you could have boy dolls!
His name was Ken, and he was Barbie’s boyfriend. Ken was dressed in the latest Carnaby Street fashions: intricately patterned salmon-pink jacket, cream slacks, and a matching cream cravat, in lurex. He also had a string attached to his back. If you pulled it, he said “Hi, I’m Ken!”, in a bright American voice.
I played a lot with Ken that afternoon. That clingy bitch Barbie scarcely got a look-in.
At bedtime, I sneaked Ken away with me, and placed him on my bedside table for easy access. That way, I could pull him any time I wanted.
“Hi, I’m Ken!”
“Hi, I’m Ken!”
“Hi, I’m Ken!”
I pulled him, and pulled him, and pulled him.
“Hi, I’m Ken!”
Pulled him with the lights out. Pulled him all night long.
“Hi, I’m Ken!”
Pulled him “just once more, and then that’s it”. But extra-hard this time. Yeah, YANK that string.
Oh dearie dearie me.
I turned the light back on and examined the doll, his cream lurex cravat now somewhat awry from all the exertion.
The frayed and severed string told its own tale. I had broken Ken. And now I would have to ‘fess up to my cousin in the morning.
My first moment of Gay Shame. There would be many, many more.
But none that would ever be quite so gay again.