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.
Until 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.