Reading good books is like making love. Reading bad ones is like masturbating. I’ve just read three good ones, one of which got on my nerves because it was about a homosexualist, as opposed to a homosexual. Which in fact was what the other two were about. Now if someone had suggested to me long ago that I would be reading three books about three men who preferred their own sex, I’d have said they’d been puffing on the magic dragon, but that’s neither here nor there. I was curious to read about James Lees-Milne (by Michael Bloch) because, although I never met him, I knew and know some of his so-called straight friends. The other two are the biography of Somerset Maugham, by Selina Hastings, and of John Cheever, by Blake Bailey. But let’s start with Lees-Milne. The homosexualist.
Lees-Milne was — like the other two subjects — bisexual, but unlike the other two had no children. His was a benign idiopathic homosexuality, but he viewed things only through the prism of homosexual eroticism. Hence my calling him a homosexualist. Here was a man who fell in love with women, although the affairs were almost never consummated, a serious lover of beautiful old buildings, and a writer of note, whose whole life was shaped and influenced by his homosexual mentors and gay friends. Yet he had a horror of those who flaunted their proclivities and he often called such people buggers and homos. Mind you, this was the buttoned-up England of the Thirties and Forties, with no Elton Johns around to wave the gay flag.
Still, Lees-Milne emerges as a hell of a gay cat, cattiness being the operative word. He thought of many of his fellow gays as shallow, slick, sophisticated and absurd, adjectives I used to use about old queens who hung out around Monte Carlo in the Fifties.