IN the Winter 2004/5 edition of the Gay and Lesbian Humanist Geoffrey Palmer, then in his 92nd year, tells us why he’s a happy homosexual. Shortly after penning this piece for the magazine’s occasional series of personal accounts, Palmer died on 22 January 2005.
If I want to boast a little, I tell people that I was born before the First World War. Well, so I was, in 1912, but the announcement never seems to impress many people, so usually I keep my secret hidden. I don’t remember much about the war itself, except for the Zeppelin that passed over the village, and the flags and balloons that decorated the shops and cottages on Armistice Day. But, above all, I remember my grandmother saying, bitterly, “Why should I have anything to celebrate? I’m the only person in the village to have had two sons killed.” (The Titanic went down in 1912 too.)
When I was five I felt there was something different about me but I couldn’t explain this difference. I was usually in charge of the makeshift costumes that the cops and robbers or, more often, Robin Hood and his merry men wore (because this was Sherwood Forest country), and when I was cast as Maid Marian or a lady cop I willingly accepted the role, principally, I think, because I had to be kissed by one of the winning teams at the end of the game after I had been captured, or released.
No, the difference never came to be important until I reached early adolescence, when I began to see that I was forever eyeing blokes rather than girls, but never in a sexual way. I just accepted the fact that I preferred a kiss from a boy than from a girl and never stopped to wonder why.
At grammar school my allegiances were divided. There were at least three girls I grew very fond of, and one in particular. I travelled to and from school by bus so that I could sit next to her and put my arm round her waist, which she didn’t seem particularly to care about, but put up with. At college in the early 1930s things were different. The good-looking men of my age received a lot of attention from me from a distance (I was shy in those days) and one or two of them reciprocated in a polite way, though without much encouragement.
At the end of the course I was notorious for two things: snogging the local “anybody’s girl” under a bridge in Wollaton Park, and finding out for the first time the real difference between male and female. Pale interest rather than rampant desire was the final outcome of these sessions, and falling in love quite seriously with a lovely girl I was going to propose to until I found out that she was secretly engaged to a man of thirty.
I relinquished her with a good deal of heartburning, but it didn’t last when a new roommate swam into my ken and engaged my attentions with a good deal of reciprocal interest; and my first venture into physical pleasure was thus engendered.
Then it was time for the wide world of teaching: a village church school where I lasted for five years. In all that time my main interest, apart from the local dramatic society (alas, no parts where men kissed men!), was the eighteen-year-old brother of one of my pupils – he, at fourteen, was far too young for me.
Sid, the eighteen-year-old, would do anything for anybody, including me, now getting less and less shy.
There was a Borstal institution at the edge of the village and I used to take a weekly class there, about twenty boys at the Evening Institute. Only one member of the class, an Irish boy with startlingly blue eyes, caught my attention, but I learned that he was already a hardened criminal and decided that discretion was the better part of valour – though he always moved up to give me room to sit next to him. Unfortunately, he smelled of Borstal.
When the war came I was teaching in Middlesex and, as the local council wasn’t keen on employing teachers who were conscientious objectors, I was graciously allowed to resign (before I could be sacked). The work of national importance that I was allotted to was the ambulance service, in which I worked for two years for 84 hours a week at a weekly wage of £2.50. The rest of the week was given to forming and running a small theatre company of like-minded friends, doing a bill of one-act plays in schools, prisons, shelters, camps and so on, during which time one was far too busy to think about sex of any sort, though thoughts did occasionally wander away from greasepaint, guy ropes, mud and cups of horrible tea.
When the war came to an end in 1945 and I had been allowed to leave the ambulance service, I became a professional actor and joined repertory companies in Sheffield, Wakefield and Nottingham; did a tour of Murder in the Cathedral, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Tobias and the Angel. The last of these was distinguished by the fact that, at the Stratford Memorial Theatre, with me playing the lead, it rained all week and hardly a single person came to the show. I was heard to mutter that I preferred the bombs!
My real life began in a Bradford theatre bar after a show, when I was having a drink and reading the New Statesman – that was when it was worth reading. I suddenly realised that my hand, under the table, was being sort of caressed in a totally acceptable way by another hand. I glanced round to see who was being so daring and found that he was a young actor who had recently joined the company and was rehearsing the next play. He had fair hair, blue eyes and a half-scared, half-determined expression on his face.
I gave his hand a thorough grasp to say, “Carry on, I don’t mind” – and fell hook, line and sinker in love, a real love, not something I’d imagined, or vaguely experienced, or looked forward to over the years, but a love that was to last for 53 years, a feeling that was to take over my life, and that was reciprocated with the same degree of fervour by the owner of the hand that was now clasping mine with an ironlike grip.
I never did remember how we got away from the pub or found our way to the digs we were sharing with other members of the company; or how I managed to stay in my single bed in a bedroom of four beds until it was time for breakfast the next morning.
As soon as we were able to be together, we talked incessantly for hours. I discovered that his name was John – though he preferred to be called by his second name, Noel – that he was twelve years younger than I was, that this company was his first venture into the world of theatre, that he really wanted to be a writer, that he had been invalided out of the air force while training in Canada because of knee trouble, which would never completely heal, that his father had died when he was three and his mother when he was eleven, and he’d been split up between two sets of uncles and aunts, and had been pretty friendless all his life. I think I was successful in indicating that he’d never need to feel friendless again.
From 1945 to 1998 Noel and I enjoyed a sweet and loving partnership which, over the fifty-three years it lasted, gave the lie to every bigoted fundamentalist, from Jehovah’s Witness to Roman Catholic, who expressed horror at the thought of two men living together, loving together and finding all the happiness in each other’s company their natures required. “They can live by Leviticus and die by Leviticus,” I used to say, “but we live by love and, yes, would die for it, if necessary.” And the Old Testament, particularly, became for me a Chamber of Horrors.
Noel and I shared flats together, wrote more than thirty books together, had an enormous amount of fun together and travelled widely. We had holidays in, and made lasting friends in, America, San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, Washington, DC, and Seattle, and in 1946 we joined a company, a part of ENSA, and took two plays to the Far East, for six months, taking in Upper Burma, India, Japan, Thailand, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur. (On the way out we were temporary captains; coming home after our contracts were fulfilled we became “miscellaneous details”, and that was what it felt like.)
The whole tour was totally unenjoyable. Apart from the heat and the millions of insects that ate us up, the company contained three old men who were always drunk and quarrelled incessantly, and a number of bimbo girls who got engaged to different officers at every camp we stayed at. England, recovering from war, was still burdened by rations, grey bread and Spam, but was heaven compared with what we had to put up with abroad.
The only occasion of any note was being driven back to camp after a show by a drunken captain who managed to turn the jeep upside down and roll it down a mountainside until it hit a tree. Nobody was seriously hurt, fortunately, though I was attacked by a battalion of huge soldier ants. The captain was eventually court-marshalled, which delayed our return to England by about six weeks.
Back home I dabbled again in the theatre for a few months, then returned to teaching in London, while Noel worked a lot in Northern Ireland for the BBC and the Ulster Group Theatre, and did a long stint at the theatre in Minehead, Somerset – though at every opportunity we would meet at the most unlikely places for a session to find delight in our loving together, to get on with the book we were writing and plan the next one – and I sometimes played small parts in plays during my summer holidays.
For some years we rented a flat exactly opposite the brand-new school in Islington of which I was now the headmaster; and Noel became a sort of unpaid appendage of the school – producing plays, using his car to take unwell children home, taking teams to football and cricket matches – and became as much part of the scene as any paid member of the staff. This went on until 1975, when it was time for me to retire after eighteen years of the headship, and time for Noel to give up work in TV, which he did not enjoy.
So we were free from bricks, children and cameras, and, though continuing to write, we went in for keeping bookshops, in Islington, Eye, and, latterly, Harleston in Norfolk. And in all those years I can remember only one occasion when we had a serious row. I don’t know now what it was about, but it ended up with one of us throwing the telephone at the other, though for the life of me I can’t remember who did what to whom, and the whole affair took only about ten minutes, finishing up with a good laugh and a stiff drink.
The bookshops did well and we were able to do a lot of travelling; and it was on the aeroplane from Seattle, my favourite American city, that I began to feel unwell, and developed a heart condition that gradually grew more serious and eventually demanded the wearing of a pacemaker. But life continued to be worth living with Noel by my side. We wrote more books, haunted the theatre, entertained friends, and loved each other more with every day that passed – until Noel died suddenly in August 1998, of a heart attack.
Then memories were all that remained and living them was what made a happy homosexual able to stay happy.
And, to finish with a boast, I can say that, though hundreds of children and their parents, staff, governors, administrators and political figures passed through my life, never once did I detect a sniff or hear an unkind remark, a comment on my sexuality, a critical glance or doubtful shrug in over fifty years of open and honest gayness. My parents, bless them, were simple village people and did not know a hawk from a handsaw.
“I am what I am” was, and still is, my creed, “and, if you don’t like what I am, then it’s you that’s got the problem, my friend.” No child felt awkward in my presence: he or she was too busy grinning at one of my weak jokes. And the only physical contact that passed between us was a ruffle of the hair or a smack on the bottom – and only then when Mum or Dad was present and we were laughing at something outrageous that the child had done.
I haven’t an ounce of paedophilia in me and that has helped me in my relationships. I’ve been a humanist for at least sixty years and I thank God that I don’t believe in him. Strange, though: I always watch the gloriously silly Songs of Praise. It’s a good laugh and the tunes are worth listening to.
Only recently I received a card from a not-long-married great-nephew who had heard from his mother the inside story of my thoroughly debauched life (according to religionists) and his response was, “Good on you, mate. Keep it up.” Which, in the necessarily short time I have left, I intend to do. You don’t have to be sad to be gay!