Edmund Gordon

Sun, sex and acid: Thom Gunn in California

When the celebrated British poet moved to San Francisco in 1954 he wrote ecstatically about his marvellous new life. But was he protesting too much?

Thom Gunn, photographed in San Francisco in 1996. Credit: Chris Felver/Bridgeman Images

San Francisco is a fantastic place… it’s terribly sunny… I am having a splendid hedonistic time here… I find myself continually going to marvellous orgies where I meet unbelievably sexy people… I dropped acid for Christmas Day… had sex for SIX HOURS… Then to New York, which I’ve never enjoyed so much… Some of the people I met introduced me to cocaine (one of the people was a singer for a pop group called Looking Glass), and that is a fine drug… Life is such fun here… I had an extraordinary three-way with two guys I met in a bar… I am really pretty happy… I’ve been doing a lot of nice acid this year… It was absolutely brilliant — a five-way on my 64th birthday. Age is apparently exactly the same as youth… I can hardly imagine a life more to my taste than mine.

Reading The Letters of Thom Gunn in locked-down London — the rain pummelling the windows, my children interrupting me every few pages with another querulous demand or howling grievance — I did sometimes wonder if I was wringing the absolute maximum amount of pleasure from my own life. Gunn was such a dynamic, stylish figure that it’s hard not to feel a little dull by comparison. His early work, collected in books such as Fighting Terms (1954) and The Sense of Movement (1957), is as sleek and subtly engineered as a flick knife, and he looks, in photos from those years, like he might well have been carrying one (all denims and leathers and Teddy Boy glower).

After leaving Cambridge in 1953 he swiftly established a reputation as one of the leading British poets of an exceptional generation, his only real peers being Philip Larkin and Ted Hughes. But a steady plod towards the literary establishment didn’t interest him much, and the following year he moved to California with his partner Mike Kitay.

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