ambivalence; angels; anonymity; archive; attic; darkroom; daughter; definition; desire; dogs; dream; early experiences of; friendship; intimacy; Gateways; Greenham; grief; handwriting; jacket; leather; porn; oral history; research; roller coaster
Get SW on the phone to speak about Tessa Boffin. He taught her at PCL in the 80s. TB ‘obsessed’ – his word – with Neil Bartlett’s first novel Ready to Catch Him Should He Fall(?) It features a transhistorical relationship set against backdrop of AIDS crisis, between a gay protagonist in 1980s London and Oscar Wilde.
We talk about angels.
Angels: strong, caring.
Angels: obsidian black, opal.
TB’s angels hold all of that, SW says, a capsule of signs.
Sue tells us the archive could have gone to Sussex uni. Accessibility was a concern. Then the Londoners asking seriously: “Were there lesbians in Scotland?” They had to see premises. The library called every dyke they knew to fill the space. When the archive arrived, wagon double parked, caused havoc with traffic. Rich collection, interesting history, energetic change. Mythologised – it wasn’t only lesbians working there but gay men too. Now the biggest collection at the library. Lots of overlapping materials.
Following statement on trans inclusivity that the library put out recently, one member of the original group remarked on social media that they would rather have seen the collection destroyed.
Invited to have dinner with K and her wife. They have a friend visiting to work on their film about the dyke photo archive. The house is labyrinthine, a former b&b on the northern English coast. They’re doing it up but right now there’s still different patterned carpet and a sink in each room. The one room that has been decorated has a pristine white shag rug and mega sound system. The subwoofer glows cerulean in the dark.
After dinner K shows me upstairs. The first-floor landing has a door that opens onto a narrow space. An empty closet but she tells me to look up and there’s a ladder that pulls down. She suggests I go up, have a look. What treasures await? Climb up, stick my head through the hatch. She turns on the light from below. In an otherwise empty room, more patterned carpet, moths.
Processing images in the college darkroom as a teenager. My lesbianism worn overtly: short hair, polished leather shoes, men’s shirts. My lesbianism worn secretly: a crush on the studio technician concealed by her assumed heterosexuality. The red wash of the safelight spares my blushes as an image emerges in the watery bath of developer.
The photos taken with a heavy SLR given to me by my mother. Lit by an arrangement of domestic lamps. P on her bed wearing a vintage negligee. P in a suit, shirt and braces. Hair slicked back, leaning on the mantelpiece.
She lives in a small bedsit by the sea. A grand Regency building divided into a warren of privately rented spaces, made intimate by changing uses and the political transformations that produce them. It’s the early 2000s, New Labour’s second term. P on the dole. The checks getting more arduous each week she goes to the job centre. Brit pop on the stereo. Pulp, Suede. Tee Corinne’s photo of the dykes kissing on the cover of their first album though I didn’t know it at the time. Brett Anderson’s pinched voice “You’ll hide among the covers and wave as the aeroplanes go by / There’s nothing to say when you sleep all day but “bye bye”.” She’d featured in the video for Filmstar, showed it to me on the small tv, me paying close attention for a two second glimpse of her. Watching staticky reruns of The Divine David Presents as the sun comes up. Time is out of kilter here. Days and nights get swallowed and spat out to the rhythm of her bronchial cough. Her never really acknowledging what is happening between us.
The bedsit is too small to contain the architecture, higher than it is wide. Looking up from the bed gives the impression of standing at the mouth of a tunnel. To enter the flat you have to pull one door to so that you can open the other, enclosing yourself in a small space, a kissing gate. Held for a moment without light among motheaten furs, other bodies that won’t pass through but loiter in the twilight zone. In the dark, push my face into the soft pelts.
The photographs fixed and drying in the daylight of the classroom. Feeling exposed. Writing afforded a greater degree of privacy, a second skin.
Over dinner in the small Italian restaurant, T asks me about the reinterest in melodrama that her friend, the famous porn scholar, has been telling her about. An older man crosses to our table, mistakes me for T’s daughter. She’s incredulous, won’t stop talking about it all evening and the morning after too, over breakfast. It’s not because of the age gap. She early 60s, me in my late 20s, the same age as her daughter. Reveals an unspoken feeling, recomposed as a maternal melodrama.
Send C a snap of Catherine Deneuve taken on my phone during a trip to the archive at Cornell. I find her in a manilla folder, cut from a magazine. Scissors form a careful arch around that blonde coif of hair. Smoky eyes.
Devotion to straight stars – an object transformed by the queer desire of the fan. Desire as magical thinking, creating its objects by sleight of hand. “The image is desire” (Yve Lomax).
Sometimes I’m overwhelmed by all the longing within this history of photography, I write to C but in the end don’t press send.
Pick-up truck. Six dogs. Echo with the look of love. Feral who won’t be touched but stays close. The littlest one, seven months, greyhound and chihuahua cross, leaps through the grass. A small collie cross called Target who lags. Another chihuahua curled up on my lap as I ride in the passenger seat. Scruffy terrier at my feet, old and grey, my favourite.
When she pulls up, she’s wearing a t-shirt that has ‘NO’ printed across it. ‘My response to all your requests,’ she tells me.
Stressful situation at an airport. Then back to the house. There’s the photographer and the other women. A warm bath. The photographer gets in, then the rest of the women. I’m in there too, desperately trying not to catch anyone’s eye.
Early experiences of
- The gay youth group run by the council, before Section 28 is repealed. Call a number from the phonebook and arrange to meet one of the workers outside the new shopping centre. Then they’ll take us to the location, a secret.
At the group we watch films, If these walls could talk 1 & 2, But I’m a Cheerleader, write poems and draw pictures for a zine, dial up to the Internet away from the scrutiny of teachers/parents, work too hard to manifest crushes on each other.
- The gay and lesbian bookshop on Dorset St, behind the old Safeway. Copies of Dykes to Watch Out arranged in the window. Magazines in a stand next to the front desk. On Our Backs, Diva. Us standing on the threshold, not going in.
- The Candy Bar on St James St. Pink interior, sparkly bar. Older dykes on high stalls. Us standing on the threshold, not getting in.
À L’amitié (‘to friendship’) carved over the entrance to Natalie Barney’s Doric pavilion.
On the tape, you can hear S and J talking, S asking questions in her gentle, probing way. There’s a moment where you realise that the two of them are in a car, driving. The sound of the ignition and keys jangling. It grounds the exchange in a mood of conviviality, indicates intimacy between friends and collaborators. Positions me, the historian, in the backseat, eavesdropping.
Gateways – Greenham – grief
She tells me they used to dress like Greenham dykes. She’d read Oscar Wilde. Read and hated Radclyffe Hall. A friend had taken her to Gateways and she’d hated that too. Afraid about the butch/femme thing, the alcoholism. A shameful existence. Seeking others – other women – a mutual recognition that would ease the grief.
During the conference drinks R calls to tell me that she’s heard Barbara Hammer has died. BH ill a long time, but it floors us. A big presence, a big loss.
The last time I saw Barbara, she made a modification to her latest book and pressed it into my hands as we parted. Her beautiful cursive loops neatly across the title page, reminds me of an early summer morning with R, Greenwich Village iridescent in sun and rain.
The precious souvenir is mine but not mine alone. Imagine Barbara’s unique script joining up a constellation of disparate people and places, each inscription carrying the trace of community.
The photographer only died last year, her jacket still hanging in the hallway. Later in the evening, we’re drinking outside. It’s getting cold and T suggests I wear the coat. There’s a packet of cigarettes in the pocket, American Spirits. Have one, she says.
Leather starts off stiff but once worked by hands becomes malleable. Tools are used to create corresponding positive and negative sections of photographic likeness. In SM communities, leather’s pleasure manifests essential ideas about the animal and non-essential ideas about skins that can be pulled on and taken off again. Are images skins that we live in, authentic selves masquerading as other selves? Or is it the other way round?
The poorer the quality of leather, the more likely it is to bear the marks of the animal it once was. In the pub last month, Fiona says textiles are also methods that tell stories (yarns?) about histories of making. In conservation: the way an object degrades tells us about the way it was made.
Mandy Merck on the anti-porn feminists… Had any of them actually watched it?
Why does this feel like therapy, she asks.
Think of it as oral history, I reply.
But you’re not recording, she says.
They pick me up from the No. 17 express stop at Santa Cruz metro. When they arrive, I recognise her from all the B&W photos I’ve seen printed in copies of magazines. In colour, older, she’s bronzed by the sun, weathered. Solid, taller than him. He drives, me in the passenger seat. She arranges herself across all three seats in the back so she can get a good look at me. She comments that I am also tall. ‘Good’, she says.
At the orange house she fixes me champagne that is left over from a recent birthday, adding chartreuse to turn its taste sweet, floral. We drink outside, sat around the pond. A terrapin pokes its head above the surface of the water. On the second glass she turns to me, tells me that she has been imagining our conversations but now that we’ve met, she’s wondering if it’s not just research that I’m here for.
Me, P and R strapped in and cranked up toward the sky. Tangerine sunset. The Colossus is double track. S and Z in another cart. We meet at the top. They’ve done one loop already. Z motions to us to get off. A joke. We can’t. Down, down, down. Freed from gravity our bodies become perpetual motion machines. Darkening sense of the hole at the centre of the ride and us all circling it. Round, round, round. Later, on the ground and in the dark, we all look up at the tracks unspooling across the dessert like film. Two trains have got stuck at the top and it takes an hour to get everyone moving again.