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LGB(ooks)TQ: Play Remembers Edinburgh's Lavender Menace
Claire Sawers , November 24th, 2018 14:50

Claire Sawers chats to playwright Jame Ley, writer of Love Song to Lavender Menace, a play set in a lesbian, gay and feminist bookshop, plus Sigrid Neilson and Bob Orr who founded the original shop in 1980s Thatcher-era Edinburgh

James Ley’s homage to underground Scottish queer nightlife and LGBT activism – against the backdrop of small c and big C conservative Edinburgh in the 1980s – started out as a Kickstarter campaign but ended up selling out dates at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe. Earlier this month it toured to the Belfast queer arts festival, Outburst, and this weekend it’s starting a run at the Soho Playhouse in New York.

Love Song to Lavender Menace pays homage to a radical LGBT and feminist bookshop that started out in the cloakroom of the gay club night, Fire Island in Edinburgh. The club had no sign outside and dancers went up a dark staircase next to a sign on Princes Street which said ‘Watches of Switzerland’. The venue is long gone now, and replaced, ironically enough, by a branch of Waterstones.

The fabulously named Lavender Menace took its name from the writer Rita Mae Brown, author of Rubyfruit Jungle (her first novel, and essential reading for many lesbian readers in the 70s) who used to go on feminist demos with other lesbians and shout out, “We are the Lavender Menace and we are not going away!”. Their bookshop represented a tiny utopia for a community that was otherwise overlooked – besides the odd gay-friendly corner in a pub, clandestine swaps of gay books or cruising spots after dark. It gave a place to meet for those who felt unwelcome in buttoned-up Edinburgh at the time, and the play looks back longingly, but also joyfully, at its glory days.

The Quietus met up with Edinburgh playwright James Ley and Bob Orr and Sigrid Neilson, the original founders of Lavender Menace and the story they’ve worked on together, wrapping together history, activism, liberation and culture.

What other LGBT bookshops were there before you opened up Lavender Menace, first in the cloakroom in Fire Island then in its own shop on Forth Street in 1982?

Bob Orr: None. Only us in Scotland. And Gay’s The Word in London.

Sigrid Neilson: There were several in America [where Sigrid grew up]. That’s how I heard of all this in the first place. This is part of my story. I went to the first one I was able to visit. It was Artemis in San Francisco. It just had a few shelves of books. The rest was shirts and posters. It was in ‘79. The address escapes me. Maybe on the edge of the Castro? It was like making a pilgrimage. I’d been living in New Mexico for fourteen years and actually getting to see the LGBT movement in real life, instead of just reading about it in very hard to reach places where I could. There was Giovanni’s Room in Philadelphia. The first one was the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop in New York, and there was A Different Light in San Francisco, that also opened up in Los Angeles. Any many more.

Before that, had you been finding stuff in libraries, or hearing about things through word of mouth?

SN: Haunting the bookshops, the sleazy newsagent next to the cinema. You could not find those books in those days. There was a sort of undercurrent of lesbian novels by an author with the pseudonym Ann Aldridge. The first I found at the sleazy newsagent was called I Am A Woman In Love With A Woman, Must Society Reject Me?

[To Bob] Where was the one you went to in Edinburgh?

BO: Down Haymarket way, there was Bobby’s bookshop. That was much later though. I remember noticing a book, simply because of the cover. It was on a book stall in Central Station in Glasgow, where I was brought up. It was a half naked man which was quite unusual. It was No End to the Way [by Neville Jackson]. It was a Corgi, a mainstream publisher. It must have been ‘68. It was just a revelation.

James Ley: Did you feel a bit naughty buying the book?

BO: Oh yeah. I looked away. But I thought, that’s not going to be there the next time I come back. Once it’s gone, it’s gone. So I plucked up the courage and bought it.

JL: Even in the early 90s I remember coming to the Edinburgh Festival from Fife. I remember buying Attitude magazine in Kirkcaldy train station and I was meeting friends. We were all friends from Youth Theatre. I remember pretending I didn’t know what it was. I was like, “Oh I bought this magazine! And it turns out it’s a bit gay…” But it was a similar thing where I remember having to do this covert thing.

A bit clandestine. And were you out at that point?

JL: Not quite. I was just on the cusp. I was maybe about 16 or something.

With that memory in mind, what did you want for the books section that you set up? I presume you wanted to create something quite welcoming?

BO: Oh yeah. It was in the Gay Centre, the play talks about how the committee said, “We think it would be a good idea if we sold some books”. And I’m putting my hand up… I’d got a job through a member of the Gay Centre, at a bookshop called Holmes MacDougall. A school textbook publisher with a retail outlet. So I sort of learned the ropes there, doing summer jobs. I came To Edinburgh to study. I said “Yeah, let’s give it a go.” This is before Sigrid came on the scene so I really did it on my own.

So was it a bookcase?

BO: Yeah it was a display case. The sort of thing your granny would put her finest china in. It had a glass front and a lock on it – it was just so people wouldn’t pilfer from it. It was painted a pale blue. You can see it in a scene in the BBC documentary, Glad To Be Gay? from 1976, when the book stall, which was called Open Gaze, opened. There’s someone being interviewed and you can see it in the background.

SN: Did you have No End to the Way?

BO: No.

SN: What about The Gay Guide, or was that too American?

JL: There was The Front Runner.

SN: Oh! I’d forgotten all about that. That was a book that you could actually get in real bookshops, by a writer called by Patricia Nell Warren. And The Charioteer by Mary Renault – that had been around since the 50s.

Where were you hearing about the books?

BO: Well exactly, you see. Because I wasn’t really a reader. That’s the strange thing. Because I had the experience, and some contacts in the book trade, but Sigrid is the reader.

Were you stocking magazines too?

BO: Yeah, there was Gay News – that was around from ‘71 I think. Gay News had its own unofficial distribution network. Menzies or WH Smith wouldn’t touch them of course. The only way to get them out was if someone, like me, went through to Edinburgh, and sold them in Glasgow. You picked them up from the station, you sold them, you paid the bill at the end.

SN: It seemed like a huge stroke of good fortune when you could get hold of one. Don – my partner’s brother – went to buy one in London. He’d seen it in a newsagent. He was about 14 at the time. He wore a hat that made him look older and had a pack of 20 Rothmans cigarettes in his pocket because that was in Monty Python. He went and bought it for me. It will have been around Earl’s Court somewhere.

BO: It was a newspaper. There’s a Facebook page for it now because they’re archiving all the early copies.

JL: There are copies in the National Library of Scotland. The journalism in them is so much better than you’d get now. Attitude and Gay Times are written in that dumbed down way to appeal to everyone. The thing that struck me was the quality of the articles. The discourse, and the links to socialism. It was quite refreshing. And nourishing even, to read it.

So you were on Broughton Street with the bookcase, and next it was Fire Island?

BO: Yeah, in the play there’s the episode with the Christmas card. Remember that? [To Sigrid]You tell the story.

SN: I had a friend in my writers group who produced a Christmas card that showed the Virgin Mary standing in front of the manger. God’s hand is handing down a plaque that says ‘child benefit’. No-one ever really thought about Mary’s plight – having a kid without even having the fun part! There was another one, which was from a feminist publisher of cards. It showed Thatcher’s hand reaching into a woman’s handbag and snatching benefit. This one said, “The birth of a man who thinks he’s god isn’t a rare event.” [Laughs] It’s a bit changed in the play. So we had these cards, along with Socialist Worker and other subversive things on the bookstall, after Bob expanded. It was getting busy and Bob wanted to start a mail order service. I had turned up and so had a lot of people. I think the BBC film had brought people in that weren’t there before. So we formed the Open Gaze Books Collective, which was your name. There was a weirdo in a meeting. His name was James, and he stood up and said, “Did you know that we have blasphemous cards on this stall?” And the committee voted to instruct us to take them away. We didn’t think that was right so we walked out. That’s how Fire Island came into it.

JL: The conservatism of that was all about making gay seem more palatable, and not wanting to seem subversive or political. A bit like the Rita Mae Brown book, with the feminist who doesn’t want to be polluted by ‘the lavender menace’, and having that weaken their argument. In Edinburgh, it does come down to what we would now call white, cisgendered men running Pride, wanting to be that more kind of acceptable, embraced face of homosexuality, rather than queerness and all its kind of diversity.

SN: The people who ran Scottish Minorities Centre [SMG], some of them very conservative. There were two who I understood were actually members of the Tory Party, there were others, the majority I would say, were very conservative people. The chairman, who was one of our flatmates, was very liberal. It all sort of rattled along until things like this happened.

I guess we’d maybe use the word ‘intersectional’ now too. When on the surface people think they’re in the same unified community, sharing the same values, but actually there are people who are able-bodied, or Christian, or Tory, and all these sub-divisions appear and things get more complicated… But I guess that helped you define who you wanted to be, and where you fitted in with all that? You wanted to kick against all that.

BO: Exactly. We were sort of pushing the boundaries. It was probably the Socialist Worker that was getting up their nose, and the Christmas card was the catalyst. But nevertheless, it’s a true story. I mean, I came out through the SMG, and spent a lot of my formative years with them. I came out when I was 21, and this would have been when I was about 29, something like that. It was quite a wrench.

Were they quite supportive?

BO: No. Just go. We had to leave everything behind, you see. It wasn’t ours.

JL: But it reminds you of how these things happen. It’s nice, you have to find different ways, alternative ways to make things happen sometimes.

And allies?

JL: Yeah, allies.

BO: And then so is the church, I mean individuals in the church. And not just the Church of Scotland, the Episcopalian church, they were quite supportive of what SMG was doing during the 70s.

In what ways?

BO: In Glasgow, providing premises.

SN: The first place they had a women’s disco was called The Cobweb in the Catholic Chaplaincy in George Square [Edinburgh].

BO: Yeah. Some of the supporters were in the closet.

Maybe that was their way of being supportive.

BO: But still, it would still have been exposing – actually, that’s not quite the right word… They had their line managers to answer to. The guy that ran the Iona Community Centre on Clyde Street, he gave us a room to use. He turned out to be gay.

I know there’s a newly opened queer bookshop in Glasgow, called Category Is, which is doing brilliant things in terms of providing a hub and stocking a great range of books dealing with trans, female, and radical issues, amongst other things. And there’s the specialist women’s bookshop in Wigtown, Reading Lasses which opened in 1998. That specialises in lesbian fiction, female writers, and LGBT+ interest books. That opened twenty years ago but those two examples are still incredibly rare and niche, for a country the size of Scotland.

SN: I’ve not heard of Reading Lasses – I would have gone there long ago if I’d known that. I wanted to say before, someone told me that the week West and Wilde closed in ‘97, Waterstones moved their gay books back to the back of the shop. It happened instantly.

SN: West and Wilde was the successor to Lavender Menace. After I left Raymond Rose became Bob’s partner. They found a street level venue on Dundas Street in the New Town. It was very big, and the colour scheme was grey and white. They had a bust of Augustus. The play takes place on the night that changed.

JL: Play two would be in West and Wilde – if anyone wants to commission that!

Love Song to Lavender Menace is currently onstage at the SoHo Playhouse, New York