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Backing Into the Light, by Colin Spencer - review

22 June 2013

9:00 AM

22 June 2013

9:00 AM

Backing into Light: My Father’s Son Colin Spencer

Quartet, pp.251, £25

Colin Spencer first came to my notice in the Swinging Sixties when a fellow undergraduate alerted me to his larky romp Poppy, Mandragora and the New Sex, the first novel since Woolf’s Orlando to treat of transexuality. It was published in
1966, two years before Gore Vidal’s Myra Breckinridge, and I associated Spencer with the ‘sexual allsorts’ group around the publisher Anthony Blond at that time. But he didn’t build on it and seemed to fade away. Now I know why: he never quite knew what he wanted to be — gay or straight, a family man or a rover, a writer, musician, painter or horticulturalist.

The next time I came across him he was married to a friend of a friend and living in a Regency cottage in Hammersmith, writing food articles for the Guardian. Urbane, good-natured, well-connected, he was the picture of modest and contented success, almost the last person I’d expect to have had the life recounted in Backing into Light. It is a work of stunning candour, in which Spencer tracks his own ambivalence, the more disturbing for the impression the book gives that even now he doesn’t quite grasp the destructive effect which his pervasive uncertainties, lack of focus or need for diversity had on all his relationships. Murderous and suicidal impulses thread familial or erotic involvements. The book opens with a horrific scene and the reader, thrown, never returns to the ground.


Spencer, one sees, belonged to an earlier generation than the 1960s crowd. Born in 1933, he did National Service and worked with John Lehmann. Among his other confusions was one of class — this was a world of suburban piano lessons behind net curtains, but he was always dropping out of any educational institutions which might have identified him. The father was a builder, alcoholic, serial adulterer and total philistine. The youthful Colin was emotionally drawn to older, arty males. And to sporty boys. And to intellectual girls. And to older women. And vicars. And to anyone else who was legal — except that homosexuality of any kind wasn’t legal in the UK until 1967, the year of the divorce from his first wife, a highly-strung, very upset woman. She got custody of their son. He had access at her discretion. Why did he marry her? Because that’s what his generation did.

Meanwhile there were many pick-ups or affairs, mostly with men, sometimes with women. Quite often he doesn’t fancy the people he does it with, but there’s little or no coercion. He moves to Greece, spiritual home of bisexuals, but returns to gay Brighton, the nearest thing to an anchor in his life. He is perhaps a casualty of the transition in social mores. Being born 15 years later, in a less sexually neurotic age, might have suited him better; or perhaps he was a pioneer, tacking through terrible storms towards the island of pantheism and free love (the book is among other things a startling indictment of the tortures of enforced secrecy). Maybe he should have married another bisexual like Harold Nicolson did.

On the subject of bisexuality he has not much to say by way of theoretical analysis, but the uninhibited rush of his text reveals its generosities, thrills and traps very clearly. For some in his era, bisexuality or marriage was often a retreat from being gay; but in Spencer’s case, as in many others, the pleasures of the body are not defined by gender.

Written in a straightforward manner with no attempt to gloss over the unacceptable or deny the contradictions, this is a remarkable autobiography which subverts everything you thought you knew about love and life.


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