Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Backing Into Light

Spencer 1Until I read this memoir, I only knew of Colin Spencer as a food writer. His cookbook Vegetables has been my completely reliable resource for when I accidentally buy salsify, or have to deal with beetroot in the raw. But now, I know of Colin Spencer as a jaw-droppingly unfaithful husband, a devoted and loving father, a puzzled and angry son who is far too like his own adulterous father for anyone’s liking, and a rampantly exuberant hedonist. I also learned a great deal more than I expected to about his sex life, years and years and years of it, with all comers.

His memoir (‘the first part of an autobiography’) Backing Into Light, may be an important addition to the history of homosexual and bisexual literary and artistic life in Brighton and London in the 1950s and 1960s. But I simply don’t know enough about that subject, or that slice of life, to be able to tell. I had thought that I knew a reasonable amount about the novelists and playwrights of the period. But Spencer mentions so many names I’ve never heard of, that I think this book must be a half-opened door to the subculture of gay memoir that one doesn’t know about unless one is part of the scene. I stand humbly at the door, realising that I know very few people at the party, and those that I thought I did know have whipped off all their clothes and are doing startling things with the wine waiter.

Backing Into Light also an anguished memoir of Spencer’s family: his violent and drunken father who carried on with mistresses galore under the undiscerning nose of his Christian and rather tolerant mother; and of Spencer’s first wife Jill, about whom we hear a great deal as Spencer analyses his feelings about their ghastly relationship and the nightmare of their protracted divorce. The problem with these sections is that they are of personal interest only. Would you want to hear about the depressing child custody battles of a stranger, especially if he gave fairly detailed descriptions of his wildly varied extra-marital sex life at the same time? No, me neither. Most people would rather hear just about the sex, or the anecdotes about famous people, or perhaps none of the above but prefer to give a sympathetic ear to the agonising failure of a marriage. The mixture is very disconcerting. Perhaps that is the intended effect, to show us what it was like to have lived a life with such distance between the highs and lows.

As far as mainstream readers are concerned, Spencer is now a respected and well-known British food writer, and an early advocate for vegetarianism. In the 1950s he was a celebrated novelist and artist, and a playwright, but that part of his life is now pretty much lost from the public eye, which is a pity. None of his nine novels are listed on his website, www.colinspencer.co.uk, but after reading this memoir I rather want to read Poppy, Mandragora and the New Sex (1966), for instance, which sounds fun and extravagant. His website is much more concerned with showing Spencer as an artist (even his food writing has been shoved into obscurity), and possibly this is with good reason. I really like many of his portraits and drawings on his website, the making of some of which are described in the memoir.

Backing Into Light will be instructive if you are interested in reading about Spencer’s encounters with John Lehmann, Evelyn Waugh, E M Forster, Raymond Mortimer, T S Eliot, and L P Hartley (not all of these are X-rated). It will definitely interest historians of gay subcultures, and those reading up on British literary and theatrical society in the 1950s and 1960s. It gives a fairly intense impression of Brighton and London from that period from the perspective of an artist who had exuberant sex with anyone available. It will enrage readers who believe that fidelity in marriage is more important than expressing one’s sexuality. It will make anxious parents feel better about their own child-rearing (I hope). Spencer’s outraged tone of a father who feels he has been separated wrongfully from his son comes out rather too stridently in the later sections, given all the evidence he offers at the same time to show how awful he was at the boring but necessary bits of fatherhood and being a husband.

The trouble is, Spencer is no longer famous enough as an artist, in any media, for his personal life to be interesting for the average reader. Such a memoir needs to be a gem of writing in itself to be a popular success rather than be valued for the light it sheds on its subject (Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals is a good example of what I mean). If this memoir had been solely about Spencer’s extraordinarily privileged access to the literati of his day, and his own writing and drawing, not just about which family arguments he put into the novels, it would have been a stronger book. And if the publisher had taken more care with the copy-editing and continuity of detail, it would have been a less aggravating read.

Colin Spencer, Backing Into Light. My Father’s Son (London: Quartet Books, 2013) £25.00 hbk ISBN 978-0-7043-7296-2

Kate podcasts fortnightly on forgotten fiction on www.reallylikethisbook.com, and is now looking for some Colin Spencers.

About Kate

Blogger, lecturer, podcaster, writer, critic, reviewer, researcher, and publisher (handheldpress.co.uk), in and on British literary history. Preferred occupation while listening to podcasts: cooking or knitting. Preferred soundtrack while reading: the sound of silence.

6 comments on “Backing Into Light

  1. Hilary
    September 9, 2013

    Well. Here’s a surprise. I used to read Colin Spencer’s every word when he was a food writer for the Guardian, but was never, ever curious about him, and when he stopped writing his column I never thought of him from that day to this. Now I’m hugely intrigued by his much more vibrant life, career and talents. I’ve just enjoyed a visit to Colin Spencer’s website, especially the Gallery, and even more especially the drawings. In the 50s and 60s it looks as though he drew (almost) everybody who was anybody in the literary world, and such lively and perceptive drawings they are.

  2. rosyb
    September 10, 2013

    I, too, very much enjoyed his website. It seems to be grasping life from absolutely every angle possible and be as indulgent and hedonistic as his life sounds. It’s quite life-affirming to take a look at in this day and age where people do one thing and churn it out over and over and over – Colin Spencer seems to be going for everything and the kitchen sink in quite a delightful fashion. I like a lot of his drawings too. But perhaps this going for everything made him lack a bit of focus? I find it interesting he wants to do painting alone now as he’s older. I remember reading Diana Athill on this also. Painting perhaps makes you connect more to the physical world and the moment and maybe that is more and more valuable and powerful as you get older and other pursuits take time away…

  3. Jackie
    September 10, 2013

    I’ve never heard of this person before, but quite enjoyed his drawings & paintings.He’s very talented!
    It does sound as if he puts a few too many details into his book.It sounds really messy. Maybe he felt it was more confessional for himself than thinking of actual readers?
    Your metaphor about the party gave us an excellent picture of your feelings as you read. Well done.

  4. Seb Wayneflete
    September 12, 2013

    It’s much more than just a pity that Spencer’s brilliant writing on food in later years so eclipses his achievements as a novelist, playwright and artist – at least at present. His novel sequence Generation was described by Sir Huw Wheldon as “…affecting, hilarious and grave … a tapestry of unforgettable characters in all their seaminess and sadness, their idealism and desires.” I’m sure it will be rediscovered by future readers and recognised for the master work it is. His most performed play Spitting Image was given a revival in a performance at the Hampstead Theatre a couple of years ago, and while its plot about a pregnant gay man might not seem as outrageous as it did in 1968, it remains an intensely comic and humanly moving experience – one reviewer said it has aged better than the plays of Joe Orton, Spencer’s exact contemporary to whom he was often compared.
    I feel puzzled by those who confine their life experience to a sexual and emotional involvement with only a single person – but I’m not enraged by them, as they are by less self-restricted folk. They seem to be so fascinated by sexual activities they find startling that they’re blinded to the complexities of feelings and human relationships that those acts are an expression of. I’m surprised at the claim that “most people” lead such cocooned lives that they are disconcerted by an account of the mix of highs and lows and of disparate activities and experiences that are the messy lives most of us actually lead – although perhaps few with the intensity and acutely observed honesty that Spencer has done. I suggest that lives become richer by getting to know those at the party better, and particularly those with hitherto hidden aspects.
    When I looked at Spencer’s website some time ago there was a list of his writings – I think there’s now a broken link. A full list of all his works is given on the Wikipedia page about him at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Colin_Spencer#References . And a google will come up with 10 pages of listings of where his books can be obtained.
    I feel the review misrepresents Spencer – for example I read no evidence that he was bad at the boring bits of being a father and husband. It’s true he doesn’t dwell on the details of responding to the needs of a peevishly pregnant wife, or of nappy-changing, but that would add to the detail complained about. However I agree totally about the careless copy-editing – don’t publishers care any more?

  5. Gary
    October 23, 2013

    Kate, I can imagine the shock opening up Colin Spencer’s Backing Into Light expecting to discover more about your highly regarded food writer and instead, in your words, feeling as if you were standing ‘humbly’ at a half-opened door peeking into a party where the few people you did know were ‘whipping off all their clothes and doing startling things with the wine waiter.’
    That was fun and you do suggest the memoir may be an important addition to the history of homosexual and bisexual artistic life in Brighton and London in the 1950 and 1960s (which it is) while confessing you don’t know enough about the subjects to really tell.
    Then the tone changes and becomes one of moral indignation. The problem with this ‘aggravating read’, you say, this ‘anguished memoir’ of the author’s family, is that it is ‘of personal interest only’. Spencer, you claim, is too like his adulterous father ‘… for anyone’s liking.’ But isn’t that why the book’s subtitle is: My Fathers’ Son’? You ask your readers, ‘Would you want to hear about the depressing child custody battles of a stranger, especially if he gave fairly detailed descriptions of his wildly varied extra-marital sex life at the same time?’ ‘No, me neither’, you answer yourself with righteous anger. ‘Most people’, you assert, would rather hear just about the sex’ or the anecdotes about famous people, or about the agonizing failure of a marriage, not of all of them together mixed up, which, you think, is ‘very disconcerting’. You guess, correctly as it happens, that maybe this is the ‘intended effect’, to show readers what it was like to live life with such gaps between highs and lows. Of course it was, Kate: the sex, the literati, the artistic output, the family, the parenting, the divorce, the highs and lows; are all elements of the author’s passionate investigation of life by his own rules. Why shouldn’t Spencer mix them up in his memoir – because you think some readers might find this ‘disconcerting’?
    And on what authority do you speak for ‘most people’? ‘As far as mainstream readers are concerned’, you assert, Spencer is a respected and well-known British food writer, the inference being that he should stick to his anointed role as you see it and not go around shocking people with details of a life lived adventurously. Why you think ‘mainstream readers’ would not find this interesting, I cannot imagine.
    In the 1950s, you say, Spencer was a celebrated novelist, artist and playwright, promptly contradicting yourself by telling us how you’re looking forward to reading Poppy Mandragora and the New Sex – published in the mid 1960s! A simple check of Spencer’s website would have helped you avoid such an elementary error. Quite apart from important paintings, portraits and drawings made in the 1950s, Spencer’s successful career as a fiction writer extends from the early 1960s to the late 1970s, his non-fiction work spans the mid 1980s to the late 1990s and he has made and continues to make important contributions to the visual arts, theatre and television. None of this seems to matter to you.
    The memoir, you say ‘will enrage readers who believe that fidelity in marriage is more important than expressing one’s sexuality’ and make anxious parents ‘feel better about their own child-rearing efforts’. Well, it certainly enraged you but is it really your place to be making such self-righteous value judgments in a review? Perhaps you are on some sort of a moral crusade? You go on to claim that Spencer’s ‘outraged tone of a father who believes he has been separated wrongfully from his son comes out rather too stridently in the later sections’, substantiating this by pointing to evidence (amply and willingly provided by the author) allegedly indicating how ‘awful’ he was at the mundane chores of fatherhood and being a husband. Why take advantage of someone speaking honestly and candidly about his life, warts and all, and denigrate him? This hardly seems fair or balanced.
    The impertinence continues. ‘The trouble is’, you say, ‘Spencer is no longer famous enough as an artist, in any media, for his personal life to be interesting.’ By this logic one has to be famous to have anything interesting to say, which is rubbish. For such a memoir to be a ‘popular success’, you say, implying this was Spencer’s intention, it would need to be ‘a gem of writing’, insinuating (erroneously) that it is not. The memoir would have been stronger, you go on, if the author had paid more attention to his privileged access to the literati or to his own writing and less to which ‘family arguments he included in his novels’. Kate, it is Spencer’s memoir – surely he’s entitled to include such content as he sees fit and not unreasonable to expect a reviewer to at least respect that.
    Your review reveals more about your own prejudices and inadequacies as a literary commentator than it does about Colin Spencer’s Backing Into Light, a book requiring enormous moral courage to write and an open mind to read, permitting as it does vivid, often challenging, insights into the complex life of a brilliant British author, playwright and artist pursuing an independent-minded, prolific and distinguished artistic life spanning six decades and continuing to this day. I think you owe Spencer an apology.

  6. rosyb
    October 23, 2013

    Gary, thanks for commenting on Vulpes Libris. Obviously this review has provoked long and empassioned comments from some. I think it is rather a shame that your comment is so overshadowed with defensiveness, however, as it’s left me wondering why you are trying to say and why. You do not say what your own reading of this book is or why you feel so personally exercised about an online review. And many of the points you make, if I may say so, appear to have misunderstood Kate’s. Of course it is Spencer’s decision what he wishes to include in a memoir. It is a nonsense to pretend anything said in a review takes away anyone’s right to free expression. But, similarly, if you publish it and have it widely read then people are also free to respond. The review itself sees both positive and negative points (I note you do not acknowledge any of the positive ones).

    What I read from the review is the following – that a memoir to be really interesting to a wide audience must be of high literary merit in its own right (as the examples listed), or give information about people who a wide audience are interested in (celebrities tend to do this) or cast some light on period of time and culture or issue (perhaps). Kate says this:

    “Backing Into Light will be instructive if you are interested in reading about Spencer’s encounters with John Lehmann, Evelyn Waugh, E M Forster, Raymond Mortimer, T S Eliot, and L P Hartley (not all of these are X-rated). It will definitely interest historians of gay subcultures, and those reading up on British literary and theatrical society in the 1950s and 1960s. It gives a fairly intense impression of Brighton and London from that period from the perspective of an artist who had exuberant sex with anyone available.”

    However she also states that the wider appeal may be diminished for the reasons stated in the review. Whether or not you agree with Kate is another matter and could make for a very interesting discussion on what makes a good memoir, what we look for in the genre, and why we are interested in picking over the details of someone else’s life – what it is that is needed. I went to an event a few years ago where this issue was discussed. A woman with the most incredible life story presented her memoir to a panel of publishers. She was not famous but she did have the most extraordinary story to tell. A discussion ensued about what we tend to look for in memoir ensued that was really interesting.

    In fact I think it could be extremely interesting to read about some of the issues that Kate seems less sure about…however, I think what I would question is how much one person in a memoir can give a rounded account that maybe takes in the other side of these issues. It is a difficult and delicate issue when people write about personal relationships and inevitably presents one account. Perhaps – for me – the objective perspective might be necessary to deal with that subject-matter. A biography rather than an autobiography. In order to give the reader the possibility of balance. Obviously, I have not read this book but think it would be hard to achieve in a memoir written by the main protagonist as it were. 🙂

    What I do think is a shame, though, is the general reaction to a reader giving their view – which is something they are entitled to do. This is no hatchet job. If you disagree, that is fine, but you do not so much disagree as seem to be saying that Kate has no right to her opinion and should apologise to the writer. Which is such a nonsense. Why should anyone apologise for reading a book and thinking about it and discussing that opinion?

    As to your assertion:

    “Your review reveals more about your own prejudices and inadequacies as a literary commentator than it does about Colin Spencer’s Backing Into Light, a book requiring enormous moral courage to write and an open mind to read, permitting as it does vivid, often challenging, insights into the complex life of a brilliant British author, playwright and artist pursuing an independent-minded, prolific and distinguished artistic life spanning six decades and continuing to this day.”

    I must say- I would rather read the book from what I’ve read in Kate’s review than the rather unquestioning cheerleading you have written above. Readers have to trust the reviewer has some objectivity and shades of light and shade in their response whether or not they agree with it.

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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