Updated: Sep 26, 2019
‘If there’s one thing I cannot abide, it’s bogosity! Your family are completely bogus, and all this religion’s driven everybody mad! Do you know, I came to stay the weekend and I’ve been here for…’
This is another voice from my past, and it belongs to a man called Roger Fennell, who lived in my Aunt Julia’s house in Oxford. I’d been listening to the same diatribe since I was a kid, and the only thing that changed was the length of time he’d lived there. ‘I came to stay the weekend and I’ve been here for two years!’ ‘…seven years… eleven years… fourteen years… eighteen years… twenty-one years… twenty-seven years!…’ I watched my life slipping away as I listened to Roger telling of his misfortune at Aunt Julia’s hands after she’d plucked him from trouble once.
‘I crashed a car,’ said Roger.
‘He bounced a cheque,’ said Aunt Julia.
His life fell apart after he had a serious back operation and couldn’t work for a long time. It seemed that he might not walk either but he was a driven man, Roger, so he did. A curious walk it turned out to be, though, as he swung his legs in front of him like an electrified flower-pot man. And so he ended up in trouble: possibly the car he crashed was one he’d paid for with a bounced cheque.
Besides being a widowed writer, Aunt Julia was a prison visitor, so she took him in for the weekend before his trial. He slept in the bedroom by her front door and remained there for twenty-seven years until her death, frequently behaving like the drunken porter in the Scottish play, though he looked very English: as time wore on, he became a toothless parody of Denis Price and made increasingly more futile attempts to keep abreast of the housework he was expected to do in lieu of rent.
‘I’m not saying that your aunt’s not a wonderful woman in many ways, because she is, but I must be me!’ was another of his mantras.
During their twenty-seven years of co-dependency they never once discussed Roger’s homosexuality. However, on a few occasions she evicted naked young men he had brought home from the pub.
‘The physical thing never meant much to me, Stephen,’ he used to tell me. ‘I liked the chase more.’
Once Aunt Julia read me a poem by Walt Whitman called Farewell, My Fancy, about the death of a loved one.
‘Isn’t that lovely?’ she said afterwards.
‘Well it’s a pity it doesn’t mean anything because he wrote it about a man.’
‘The trouble with your family,’ Roger told me regularly, ‘is that there’s no love in them.’
‘The thing is, I’m not a home person, I’m a pub person,’ was another of his refrains. ‘My mother died when I was four. I was devoted to my father, but he married a ghastly old cow, and I couldn’t wait to get away. I had to be me. And great fun I had being me too. I had a wonderful life in London. All pubs are gay bars, you know, in a sort of way. Then, of course, I led the most marvellous life in East Africa, selling office furniture. Oh, some of those Sikh boys… Ranjit Singh aged seventeen: when he took off his turban his hair flowed down to his beautiful arse!’
I would hear these stories in various pubs around Oxford. It depended on which one Roger favoured currently, and sometimes which one favoured him as he was often banned for some frightful indiscretion.
‘They understand me here, my dear,’ he would say. One thing infuriated him, however: overt campness. ‘If there’s one thing I cannot stand,’ he’d roar at me, ‘it’s screaming queens giving homosexuality a bad name! They bring it into disrepute!’
Her sacerdotalism being somewhat qualified, Aunt Julia liked priests to agree with her. Therefore she didn’t have much truck with the Jesuits. The Dominicans were out too, since a cousin of ours was one. Generally considered one of the great intellects of the Catholic Church, he was even thought by some people to be a saint. But he maintained that gay relationships were as valid as straight ones, so Aunt Julia never allowed him in the house. ‘I always thought he was a bit of a Norman Hartnell,’ she told me.
The parish priest, Father Tucker, was popular with her and, as he was a convert, she expected him to be more right-wing than other priests. (Liberal Catholics always have to bear the burden of converts turning up on a regular basis and putting the enlightenment clock back, since they have to prove themselves more Catholic than anybody else.) I don’t know if she ever discovered that he wasn’t remotely right-wing, or that he did a great line in Ian Paisley and the Pope impersonations. During one of Aunt Julia’s dinner parties he hardly batted an eyelid when Roger came in from the pub rolling drunk and greeted him jovially as ‘Father Tucker, mother fucker.’
Popular too were the Oratorians, especially since the time Aunt Julia stayed with an extremely grand cousin whose house in the Westcountry was at least a quarter of a mile long. A door off the library led onto a balcony overlooking the church into which the Catholic villagers were allowed to file once a week for Mass. When Aunt Julia and her hostess went down the private staircase to the Communion rail, the Oratorian saying Mass, a weekend guest at the house, broke off from the rest of the congregation to give them Communion. Aunt Julia thoroughly approved of the feudal core inside English Catholicism.
Most popular of all with her, though, were the Benedictines. Whatever their personal beliefs, they generously allowed Aunt Julia to regale them with hers. The only time she was upset by one of them was when Cardinal Hume went on telly saying something politically correct and sending her into a fury.
‘I’ve never heard such rot!’ she roared.
Making a mock Sign of the Cross, Roger moaned from downstairs: ‘It’s all this bloody North, South, East and Holy Ghost!’
Although Aunt Julia and Roger weren’t prepared to discuss his homosexuality, she was intrigued by it.
‘Do queers have smaller bits down below?’ she’d ask Raymond or me in her drawing room on the first floor. (Roger had taken a fancy to Raymond when he moved to Oxford at eighteen and became a barman in one of Roger’s favourite haunts: ‘I used to tell him there was a five-pound note lying on the floor.’)
‘Fucking stupid cow!’ Roger would boom from outside his lair in the hall. ‘Complete bogosity! Does she think the Sikhs have smaller bits down below?’
In those days he made sure that Aunt Julia never heard his outbursts, but on one occasion she did, after he’d returned from the pub even more drunk than usual. He called her a bloody old cow. Furious, she said she was going to throw him out of the house, and soon they both realised they were checkmated.
‘I shouldn’t have called her a bloody old cow,’ he told me dejectedly.
‘There’s no gratitude in criminal circles,’ said Aunt Julia who started a new short story that afternoon, The Ungrateful Crook.
Using great diplomacy I somehow managed to patch up their tattered relationship. Aunt Julia changed the title of her story to The Repentant Queer, and Roger rewarded me with lunch at The Horse And Jockey.
‘They also wait who stand and serve,’ he boomed when the pretty barman brought our meal to the table. ‘As a matter of fact, they understand me particularly well here.’ Then he was back on the subject of Aunt Julia. ‘Your aunt’s always been very good to me. It’s just that I can’t stand families.’
Many years later Roger regularly called her a bloody old cow to her face, but that was after she’d become ill and couldn’t tell day from night. Then she’d wander into his bedroom at all hours and take away his sleep. He had to wash her, change her clothes, care for her.
‘I never thought I’d end my days dressing and undressing a woman!’ he’d roar at me.
‘Have I ever told you about the time I had an affair with a bandsman in the Coldstream Guards?’
I could feel my ancestors turning in their graves as the Coldstream was or were the family regiment (not that I made it into it or them). Roger was reminiscing about his East African days.
‘It was in Sixty-two. He was a drummer. Nineteen. And his battalion had been sent out to play some concerts…’
Roger had been quiet for some time and was still in mourning for Aunt Julia who had died six weeks earlier. He was now living in a flat for the elderly and had just sifted through a box of old letters and photographs. Images of boy lovers mingled with those of Aunt Julia on his table. He looked a bit drawn, though less tired than he had during the last days Aunt Julia spent at home, before she went into the care of kind nuns off the Cowley Road. Recalling the heady, sexy times in East Africa made him brighten up.
‘We were asked to entertain the troops.’
‘Did they understand you in East Africa?’
‘Very well indeed. You see, I had to be me!’
‘Did it ever go wrong?’
‘Once. I made a mistake about a Scottish boy. I used to work with his father. Very dour.’ He became quiet again. ‘Then there was Graham, of course…’ This was another story I had known for many years. ‘He couldn’t stay out of trouble. Terrible weakness for young boys. He was beautiful himself, but on a suicide course. Went to prison. That’s why I returned to East Africa. Those were the days when all the queers went around saying “Are you musical?”’ This part of the story was always accompanied by a camp, mocking voice. ‘”Are you myoosical?”’
He looked wistfully at the pile of letters and photographs. A young Sikh gazed out at us, his flowing hair hidden beneath his turban. A handsome bandsman beamed from under a solar topee.
‘My drummer boy was bloody musical, but he wasn’t camp.’ Tears were forming in his old eyes. ‘It’s just something they pass through, unless they’re Graham. You can’t hold them – but, of course, I never wanted to. I couldn’t have lived with any of them. I couldn’t have been me that way. I needed the chase. Boys turn into men and marry, even if they’re queer as coots. And the others become screaming queens, giving the whole thing a bad name. They bring it into disrepute!’
His eyes rested on a photograph of Aunt Julia. I remembered him following her coffin like a weeping, electrified flower-pot man.
‘Do they understand you here?’ I asked.
‘I should think not! I’ve been here for six weeks and two days, and they don’t know a bloody thing about me. And they’re not going to! I shall continue to be me within the confines of this flat… I’m too old for any of that anyway.’ His eyes were still gazing at the photograph of Aunt Julia. ‘Well, you’d better be getting along…’
We arranged to have lunch at The Plasterer’s Arms the following week: either Roger or The Horse And Jockey was out of favour now. As I walked away from his flat, I thought: Roger, you might just be giving homosexuality rather a good name and bringing it into repute – however bogus he would think me for saying so.
He was dead within the year. Raymond Rivers and I made the arrangements for his funeral as we couldn’t trace a single member of his long lost family.