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The Leather Boys


New English Library, London, 1966
price: 3/6; 128 pages
originally published by Anthony Blond Ltd in 1961 under the pseudonym Eliot George

dedication: For Gerald Leach (Harringay and the Old Bailey)

The blurb on the back:

They're Britain's 'Wild Ones' - the motorcycle cowboys who live for gas machines and faster girls.
Who ton-up along the Motorways, terrorising drivers and defying the law. Who experience sex too young, marry unthinkingly and live only for the next kick - whatever or whoever it is.
The Leather Boys is a savage, brilliantly told novel of these aimless young men and women. It is also the story of Dick and Reggie and the strange, twisted love that developed between them.

opening lines:
'They often does a motion as they goes, dear,' said the laying-out woman. She was both comic and obscene, keeping her blue felt hat on as she worked with a deftness Dick couldn't help admiring even though he felt so disgusted.

Gillian Freeman is the undisputed queen of this site, a fabulous novelist and screenplay-writer (and author of The Undergrowth of Literature) who's not really trash at all, but who was frequently marketed as though she were. Here's a case in point: a paperback from the New English Library packaged in a way that does no justice whatsoever to its contents.

The Leather Boys was an early work originally published under a pseudonym, presumably because its theme of gay love amongst working-class youth was considered a bit on the controversial side. It was filmed in 1963 by Sidney J Furie with a cast that included Colin Campbell, Dudley Sutton and Rita Tushingham, at which point Ms Freeman put her name to the screenplay ('adapted from the novel by Eliot George'). This reprint followed that film, but you'll notice that the photo on the cover is not a still from that source, nor does it even hint at the fact that the story within is about male homosexuality - indeed, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, you may think that the depiction of a young blond woman clad in black leather, with the swell of her breast partially revealed, has been chosen deliberately to mislead the casual browser.

And, despite the cover and the sleeve notes, the book has little to do with bikers either. One of our heroes does have a motorbike, but that's hardly the crucial point. In fact, far from later portrayals of the biker world, there are nods here toward a nascent mod culture:

One didn't only dress up for girls... His appearance mattered to himself. The time he spent on it was entirely for his own satisfaction. Well, perhaps not his entirely. Some was for the other boys, in peacock competition. They were the ones who judged and criticized and appraised. (p.26)

The story is terribly slight, but then that's not unusual for this sort of thing: it locates itself within a long-standing British tradition of the English male gay novel - from Forster's Maurice to The Pole and Whistle - in which the entire plot is man falls in love with another man and ... er, that's it, really. There may be the odd variation where things go wrong, because of the need to keep their love hidden, but essentially gay novels were so rare that this was considered sufficient material. Turns out to be a perfectly reasonable assumption. It's only a thin book, but Ms Freeman's faultless eye for the trivial reality of life is always a joy. She's back in the working-class world that formed the setting for many of her works in the early days, and articulating the voice of the inarticulate; here, for example, are the two young men in bed:

There was so much in his mind that he hadn't the ability to express. He wanted to ask Reggie if he loved him, but it was embarrassing to talk about love, although he watched it in films and sang about it i