Sex – let’s make some noise.
British author Neil Bartlett talks about his new book of stories – and why he thinks we need to talk more creatively about sex.
Are we really as open about sex as we think we are? Personally, I sometimes feel that we’re leaving way too much of that conversation to other people, and specifically to the porn sites that crowd our screens. Where in our queer cultures are the conversations about how sex can connect us with our feelings, and with our evolving sense of ourselves?
I guess these are some of the questions that have determined why my new book opens with a story I never thought I’d tell, and ends with one I never thought I’d even imagine.
The opening of the book is based very closely on my own experience, and talks about a life-changing August afternoon that happened to me way back in 1974. Although I think of myself as a pretty happy and well-adjusted older queer man, I now realise that it’s taken me nearly fifty years to fully process what that afternoon did to me. I was fifteen, and the handsome stranger who I let drive me back to his house that afternoon was twenty-nine; he and I had met in a railway station toilet, so it was exactly the kind of set-up that all my childhood’s warnings were made of. However, what actually happened to me, as I finally got stretched out across his sun-drenched bed, was absolutely wonderful. For the very first time in my young male life, I lost control, and heard myself producing cries of joy – and in that one noisy moment, after a whole childhood of being silenced, and without this man ever saying a single word to me about liberation, or freedom, or empowerment, he taught me what turned out to be perhaps the most important lesson of my life; that my queer body belongs to me, to use as I see fit.
I know, from giving public readings of this story, that a lot of people find it hard to hear. They assume, as my young-alter ego gets into this older stranger’s car, that something really dreadful is bound to happen. Once that alter-ego makes into the stranger’s bed, not a few of them are shocked to hear me describe in such loving detail the noises that a fifteen-year-old can make as he gets his first real glimpse of sexual joy. And then, as the story ends, they are moved to hear that the teenager in this story – like the author who created him – then remained that stranger’s lover (on and off) for nearly thirty years.
It’s not a story you’re ever going to find on a porn site – and it’s one that I really want to pass on.
Like I said, my book ends with another story, one that I never thought I’d dare to let myself imagine. It deals with the loss of a life-partner; in other words, writing it meant that I had to imagine my own life without the presence of the man with whom I’ve shared it for the last thirty-two years. And yet, despite what you might expect from a story about loss, this story also involves a sticky and noisy afternoon of sex between strangers. Again, there is a decade-wide age gap between the two lovers – but this time, the oldest partner of the pair is in his early sixties, and has pepper-and-salt pubic hair like mine. In other words, this second alter-ego has a body that we don’t often see portrayed for real in our culture. And he’s going through something that all of us who have been lucky enough to share our lives with a lover dread, namely, being left alone after years of union. And yet, in the midst of his grief, this desperate and grey-haired man also finds his true self – and he finds it through sex.
As I hit my own fifth decade of queer lovemaking – and of queer writing – I find that I want more and more to let everyone who reads me know just how beautiful and empowering sex can be. Sure, porn can get you through the evening, but at this specific time in our growth as a queer community – when for the first time in our history some of us are free to write, and read, and talk about what we really need to talk about – I feel a powerful need to get down on paper just how good our bodies are not just at plumbing but at discovery, and care, and love – especially love in its more surprising shapes and ages. I want to talk about how fabulously unexpected our sexual life-narratives can be. And also, along the way, about just how wonderful the noises are.
ADDRESS BOOK by Neil Bartlett is available from all good bookshops, or you can purchase directly from the publisher’s website at https://www.inkandescent.co.uk/addressbook