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Friday 1 September 2023

Colin Spencer (1933-2023): bisexual novelist of the 60s

Today I saw the Guardian obituary for Colin Spencer, treating him primarily as a food writer, which he became in the later part of his career. 

However, last year I did a re-reading (because they turned up during a reorganisation of some piles of books) of his quartet of autobiographical novels, Anarchists in Love (1963), The Tyranny of Love (1967), Lovers in War (1970)  and the rather later final volume which was not in my collection but available as ebook, The Victims of Love (1978). I'm not sure whether they have 'enduring literary value' but they are certainly of historical and sociological interest

As the obituary mentions, Spencer was an out bisexual, and this was very much expressed in these novels, though these days Reg might be considered pansexual: 'I just like sex, a lot'. And it is bisexuality, not attempts to 'go straight' or conceal homosexuality for prudential reasons. 

That said, there are extremely vivid scenes of gay life at various levels, from the alleys of artsy bohemian Brighton to posh London literary circles. On the Brighton scene, re-reading Anarchists in Love after, what, maybe 40 years, I realised why the Brighton section of Queer Beyond London seemed somehow familiar!

There's also a good deal of wider relevance for the historian of sex at the period (and indeed, society in general during this time of change) - there's a certain amount on STIs, from Eddie's panic when he discovers his mistress's husband is dying of tertiary syphilis, to Matthew's experiences as a VD orderly when doing his National Service. There's also mention of contraception ('cock-socks') and abortion.

The bisexuality, however, is primarily male: while Sundy and Jane both admit to some lesbian experience (though in Jane's case possibly on an emotional rather than physical level) this appears to be 'just a phase' in primarily heterosexual lives. 

I felt that there were certain rather period gendered attitudes to Jane as a female academic - and particularly in the later volumes considerable misogyny, but given that she was based on his first wife and they had a bitter divorce during which his bisexuality was invoked over child custody, that was perhaps more individual than generic. Sundy is on the whole a sympathetic figure and indeed in his autobiography, first volume of a planned trilogy (the rest has not yet appeared), Backing Into Light: My Father's Son (2013) Spencer claims that Sundy as well as Matthew was based on himself.

The tetralogy has been reissued with introductions by Spencer in paperback and ebook by Faber Finds.

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