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A gay childhood in Derbyshire

  On 25 March 2009, Narvel Annable, a local author, spoke to an audience in Derby about growing up gay in the 50s and 60s. He has kindly donated notes from his speech.

This is a fine moment for me! Here we are - gathered here this afternoon in Derby - me facing an audience about to announce that I am a homosexual! Who would have thought it? At long last, after all these years, I think we have become respectable!

It’s been a painful road since those days, long ago when I was standing in the Corporation Hotel passageway - a scruffy chicken – hoping to meet other chickens. Homosexuals – restricted to that passageway - were not allowed in any other part of that public house. The law, prejudice, ignorance, bigotry and discrimination have made life very difficult for many of us over this last half century.

I was thrilled to be invited by Derby City Council and be a part of this encouraging and commendable event which, among other laudable aims, seeks to give gay men and lesbians the collegiate support denied to me during the years when I was isolated - when I was a frightened, closeted teacher.

One colleague did give me some advice back in those dark homophobic days of 1978.
“Get yourself a girlfriend, Narvel. Better still, get yourself married. If our headmaster thought you were queer - he’d have you out of this school so fast - your feet wouldn’t event touch the ground.”

I was scared. But I’m standing here today with brave people. Some of you have been working long and hard – for me – so that I, and others can lead a better life.

This afternoon, it’s all about diversity and history. I know something about history. I taught it for 20 years - but never really understood its true importance until I escaped from teaching. I should have learned the vital importance of minorities having a history four decades back. That was when I was the only white face in a university class of African Americans – not very far from the fire – hate and violence raging in the Detroit race riots.

It was a privilege to be enrolled in one of the first ever courses of Black History. And we soon learned that people of African ancestry, the downtrodden of Detroit, had much to be proud of. Like gay people, they too, had been written out of history. Take heart! Now there’s a black president and the world has its first openly gay prime minister! No, not Gordon – Johanna the new PM of Iceland.

So how did that deeply closeted lonely youth back in the 1960s ever come to write books called Lost Lad and Scruffy Chicken?

This short extract from Scruffy Chicken will help to explain. The character called Simeon is actually myself as a teenager.

After being entrapped by the CID in a public lavatory, a famous actor called Wilfrid Brambell was arrested in the November of 1962 on a charge of intending to commit a lewd act of gross indecency.

The teenage Simeon read about this. He was fascinated by the idea of one man wishing to have sex with another man, but, in the macho, coalmining coalfields of Derbyshire, he wisely kept that fascination closely to himself.

The Brambell incident was splashed over the front pages of the popular Press. It reinforced the generally held prejudice that a 'homosexual' looked and acted just like the shambling, dirty, decrepit, toothless, unshaven old man, who was better known to the nation as - Albert Steptoe.

Shortly after the arrest, Simeon was watching the rag and bone man on the telly when his ‘ooncle ‘arry’ came in and said –
“Ton that dotty bogga off!”

Simeon could not conceive of a beautiful young man who was queer. There was simply no precedent for such a thing in his experience. Images of the butch and the attractive, the well-known icons of male beauty such as Marty Wilde, Adam Faith, Billy Fury and the ultra masculine Rock Hudson - all these were very firmly heterosexual.

Wilfrid Brambell might well be queer – but - never, ever in a thousand years could Rock Hudson be a homosexual!

Mother said to me: ‘If I thought you were like that, I’d bloody strangle ya!’

At about the same time in our colliery village of Stanley Common, we had a shy and gentle postmaster called Jack Carrier. One day he was there, the next day he was gone!
‘What’s happened to him?’ I asked mother.
‘That one! Good riddance,’ she snapped. ‘E were one of them funny sorts. No good to any woman,’ she growled.
‘Well, e were allus nicely spoken and polite ta me,’ sniffed Aunty Brenda, taking another swig of tea.

Clearly Jack had been discovered in some way, denounced and driven out of Stanley Common by ignorant homophobic outrage.

The effect on me? Well, it was the same as the effect on hundreds of thousands like me. I hid inside of myself. I became withdrawn and tried to pretend to desire girls. I drifted into a secret world of fear and insecurity.

Of course, the unwelcome appearance of a homosexual into my macho, working class family was first suspected some years before when Dad proudly presented me with my first pair of football boots to be used for my very first match at Mundy Street Boys School, in the hill-top colliery town of Heanor.

For father and son this event was a painful disaster. It left a long shadow which darkened both of our lives - a damaging, humiliating experience affording no mercy.

A sadistic schoolmaster encouraged aggressive taunts, brutal insults, screaming jeers reducing a miserable boy to a very low level of self esteem. Those boots used that one time in 1957, [never again] became symbols of a life long hatred of all macho sports.

With the assistance of that ‘sissy hating’ schoolmaster - some of the more savage pupils at that no-electricity-gas-lit Dickensian school - smelled blood. With impunity, they refined their daily ritual of taunting – jeering - screaming and pushing around their hapless quarry.

They had sussed me out. Why? Well, because I was different. I had no interest in football. I would not, could not assert myself with bare knuckles in the school playground – which, of course, made me a convenient target.

Yes, I was a homosexual. But sex had little to do with my suffering. Sex didn’t matter. Mundy Street Boys School was a culture of cruelty – a routine of physical and psychological torture looking for a victim. A typical day started with prayers and hymns and - for me - ended with a desire to be dead.

In the autumn of 1957, head bowed and eyes downcast, I had reached an advanced stage of humility and obedience to the bullies who had … broken me.

It was the end. On Friday, October 4th 1957, the day Russia launched the first ever man-made satellite – on that day - I had become Shaun Dykes.

Shaun Dykes. Perhaps some of you will recall Shaun. He was only 17 when it happened, last summer on Derby Pride Day - and it hit me like a thunderbolt. So many points of contact –

We were both gay.
We both went to school in homophobic Heanor.
We both tried to survive in a macho coal mining community.
We were both desperately unhappy to the point of considering self-destruction.
We both chose a way out which involved jumping from a high place.

Shaun jumped. As you see – I did not. Instead, half a century later, with fire in my belly - I wrote these two whodunit, autobiographic novels which are intended to educate the ignorant and break down barriers. Lost Lad deals with the joys and sorrows of my schooldays. Scruffy Chicken tells you what it was like to be a gay teenager in Derby in 1965.

In my next book – Secret Summer – out later this year – you can read about a teenager in love. A story inspired by a passionate event which took place in 1966. In a homophobic landscape, a gay teenager in love has to meet in secret, snatch tender moments – as – and - when such tender moments can be safely experienced. In these stressful circumstances, it often goes wrong - but there is no network of family support which is usually available to the heterosexual majority. Oh no. In my day - and even in the present day - you are on your own. You have to endure your heartbreak in isolation.

Like Shaun Dykes … sometimes it is just too much.

Fortunately, I managed to sort out my problems. Secret Summer [another whodunit] will be an enjoyable read promising a bright future when we hope that, at long last, the movie will change from black and white into colour.

On the subject of colours - on May 18th – one day after IDAHO Day - I get to see the hoisting of the Rainbow Flag over Bradford Town Hall and I get to address a crowd of hundreds – and I’ll dwell on all the good things which have happened to the gay community since 1966.

The recent editorial in the Pink Paper about queer stereotypes was very cheering. Gay film and TV characters are now more ‘real life’ – more like us. They’re no longer portrayed as angst ridden victims - but are seen by young people – yes, young people - as ‘team leaders’ rather than ‘outsiders’.

The very fact of standing here this afternoon. I am proud of Derby City Council and this splendid Tri-Network Event. I’m so pleased that every major town and city in the UK now has some form of gay support group - in sharp contrast to the culture of sleaze and fear which dominated my scruffy world as it was half a century back.

So - a big ‘thank you’ to all the conscientious people who have helped to make that change – made - allthis - possible. And I’m grateful to all of you for turning out to hear what I’ve had to say today.

View a clipping from the Evening Telegraph about the event on our blog here.

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