Duncan Fallowell

Backing Into the Light, by Colin Spencer – review

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.

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