Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Look Down in Mercy

For a first novel, Look Down in Mercy is an extraordinary achievement. Like many fictional accounts of the Second World War, it is based on first-hand experience. Walter Baxter had taken part in the 1942 campaign against the Japanese in Burma, and had joined the subsequent retreat into India. The novel's version of these events is rendered psychologically plausible with a wealth of detail about physical and mental endurance, in a hostile climate, on the face of an unforgiving landscape, and at the mercy of an efficient and ruthless enemy. As a hardcore novel of warfare, it is persuasive and compelling.

But there is more to it than that. This is more than a pulp-fiction account of heroism and derring-do. Despite its depressing moments of racism about both the Japanese enemy and the Indian allies—moments which, like the book's similar evidence of routine sexism, are quite unremarkable for their era—the novel is no mere celebration of British strategic or moral superiority. Yes, it includes accounts of Japanese war crimes; but its British central character, Tony Kent, is all the more interesting for the fact that, in his personal relationships no less than his professional behaviour as a soldier, he is morally compromised throughout.

A further degree of complexity is added to an already sophisticated book by what we might call its 'gay theme', the intimate relationship that develops between Kent and his batman, Anson. So anguished is this relationship, on Kent's part at least (for Anson seems to accept it in good heart, with a docile equanimity that is often very moving), that it is perfectly in keeping with the context of the war. Like the retreat into India, on foot and in the extremes of illness and thirst, the love affair is no sentimental romance, but an epic of resistance and endurance. Even if the protagonists survive, it is hard to see how their love will.

Kent's attitudes to homosexuality are unquestioningly negative. Most of his moments of intimacy with Anson are compromised by guilt feelings and followed by attacks of self-loathing or, at best, of regret. Even at the decisive moment of their first embrace, while the narrative suggests the abandonment of scruples ('without considering the consequences'), nevertheless we are told that Kent puts his arms around Anson 'believing that what he was about to do was utterly disgraceful and criminal'. (Not until 1957 would the Wolfenden Report recommend the partial decriminalisation of male homosexual acts, and not until 1967 would those recommendations be enacted, if only in England and Wales; but this liberalisation would not apply to the armed services.) So deeply ingrained is Kent's disapproval that, even when disregarding the specific consequences of this particular embrace, at this exact moment, at this precise map reference, he cannot help being flooded with an awareness of the possibility of social scandal: informally, in any social milieu he knows, this sexual act must be judged 'disgraceful'; and formally, should it ever reach the courts, martial or otherwise, it must inevitably be judged 'criminal'. So much for the pleasure of the two men's first embrace.

In the morning, Kent feels 'misery and regret' over what they have done, even if 'he could almost feel love' for the man he is lying next to. In the hours that follow, he deliberately takes on a risky leadership role that he might normally have delegated to one of his non-commissioned officers, in part because 'he wanted to prove something to himself and to Anson, but what it was he did not know'. To have become the lover of another man—if only perhaps once, only perhaps in a moment of weakness, only perhaps for lack of the presence of women—is to run the risk of obliterating one's masculine identity, albeit while still wearing the uniform and insignia of membership of the armed services. To have spent a night in another man's arms is to call into doubt one's manly capabilities. Hence the test and the proof. In the hot light of day, 'something' needs proving, to the satisfaction of both parties. At this stage, it seems, Kent wants to prove that last night was an aberration and that he is still a real man.

Kent has read the British newspapers and he has seen, or heard of, the visible presence of homosexual men in Britain. In no respect does he identify with them, either as individuals or as a cause:

As for being a pervert (the word conjured up, for him, repelling images of furtive old men peering over the tops of public urinals, clergymen volunteering to undergo 'treatment' for six months to avoid prison, and effeminate shop-assistants talking like a music-hall comedian), last night was the first time that anything of that nature had happened to him.

He persuades himself that nothing of the sort would have happened if he had not been 'away from Celia for so long' (she being his wife); and that no such thing will happen again because he intends to track down 'that nice nurse' Helen Dean, with whom he spent a drunken night on the ship that was taking them to Rangoon. In other words, regardless of his fondness for Anson, he knows he does not belong to any of the limited range of homosexual types he is aware of—never having actively sought sexual contact with another man, never having been deemed a suitable case for either treatment or punishment, and not being effeminate (even if this needs proving to himself and Anson)—and he knows that, as soon as suitable circumstances can be arranged, his heterosexuality will prevail.
That is one step towards reassurance on the morning after. More difficult to achieve, because demanding a lack of witnesses, Anson's discretion, and continued vigilance, is that nobody else should ever become aware of the two men's relationship. After they first spend a night together in the security and comfort of a private bedroom and bed, Kent is again both ashamed and calculating: 'He had committed the unforgivable sin, and now there was nothing to be done except not to be found out'.

As we have seen, on the morning after their first encounter, Kent reassures himself that 'last night was the first time that anything of that nature had happened to him'. But, as it turns out, he has either forgotten his own schooldays or discounted them. There is a conversation between him and Anson, much later in the book, in which Kent explicitly claims never to have done 'anything like this' in his life. Anson, who presumably has, suggests that he must at least have 'known something about it … when you were a kid at school. Kent replies:

Yes, but that was different, utterly different. You must know what little beasts boys are. It was just dirty-mindedness, it didn't mean anything. Once, maybe twice, fooling around in the lavatories.

He adds, 'It wasn't anything like this.' This lack of meaning, as attributed to sexual encounters between schoolboys, clearly refers to the 'passing phase' theory of adolescent homosexuality, so useful to excuse the past indiscretions of men who had been through the English public (i.e. private) school system. Youthful experimentation, lack of female company, the hothouse atmosphere of a closed institution—these allowed for both romantic attachments and (as long as no one caught the miscreants) frictional release. But his and Anson's relationship is, as Kent says, 'utterly different'. It is, of course, more dangerous—running the risk of court martial and imprisonment or 'treatment'—and, as he has finally begun to realise, more meaningful. What he does with Anson is no mere 'dirty-mindedness'.

When the odious Goodwin arrives, 'venomous and sneering', to attempt to blackmail Kent, all of the latter's fears about the consequences of his 'criminal carelessness' prove justified. (The novel's opening chapter, in which Anson and Goodwin take a shower next to each other, proves to have been a mischievous diversionary tactic on the part of the author.) Imprisonment apart, blackmail was the main risk homosexual men faced during the era of criminality. It could be the outcome of any homosexual encounter with a stranger; and it could result from the negligence allowing a third party to witness a compromising encounter. Fear of blackmail kept many men celibate.

Walter Baxter exploits such fears for most of the novel, using Goodwin to embody the threat. The fact that we know he is a murderer eliminates any moral ambiguity about his repulsive personality. It is always going to be hard even for the homophobic reader to sympathise with him when he calls Kent 'nothing but a bloody nancy boy' and a 'gutless nancy', since he is such a manifestly nasty piece of work. Indeed, even the homosexual reader might understand how Kent, when faced with Goodwin's threats and insults, reflects that 'he would rather be suspected of murder than homosexuality' and picks up his revolver...

Goodwin is all bad, Anson all good. Both are rather two dimensional characters. But, as I have already suggested, the real power of this novel comes from Baxter's willingness to develop a central character who is morally ambiguous even to the extent of being thoroughly compromised. Kent is both a hero and a coward, a saver of lives and a killer, a homophobe and the lover of a man. He treats Anson as if he were disposable—and we can be sure that he would sacrifice Anson if his own safety were at stake. Anson knows this. And yet, in spite of all the negative aspects of his personality, Baxter still manages to use Kent as a positive representative of homosexuality: masculine, patriotic, mature and capable (in all these respects matching the less visible but steadier Anson).

Similarly ambivalent are both of the book's two endings, that of 1951 for the British market, and that of 1952 for the American (printed here as an appendix). One is unhappy and the other happy, but neither is definitive. I shall not go into detail about this, but Baxter clearly wanted to leave open the possibilities in each, not least in their moral implications. Compared with the heavy-handed alternative endings of Gore Vidal's The City and the Pillar (1948 and 1965), one involving murder and the other rape, these are—even if dramatic—subtle and suggestive in ways that, in both cases, appropriately round off a novel that consistently avoids resorting to the obvious.

Walter Baxter's second novel, The Image and the Search (1953), about a widow who takes several lovers in a quest to replace the image of her late husband, turned out to be far more controversial than Look Down in Mercy. In March 1954, Lord Beaverbrook used the pages of the Daily Express to put pressure on the publishers, Heinemann, to withdraw it. They did so, and also withheld it from Putnam's in the USA. In October of that year, publisher and author were charged under the Obscene Publications Act. They had to endure two trials before finally being acquitted. Anticipating by some sixteen years the absurdities of the trial of Lady Chatterley's Lover, one of the prosecutors asked, 'Would anyone give this book as a present to his daughter or his typist?'

Like E.M. Forster before him, Baxter found the pressure not to write about the topics that interested him too much to bear, and he gave up writing. Instead, he eventually became a successful restaurateur. His greatest success was in running, jointly with his lover Fergus Provan, the Chanterelle in South Kensington. If at some point he makes an appearance in Christopher Isherwood's diaries as a self-pitying drunk, we can offer him the courtesy of our indulgence. After all, this was a man who had written two daring and accomplished novels, both of which raised the topic of homosexuality at a time when for a homosexual novelist to do so took some nerve. And, having been daring, he had been ordered not to dare.

[This essay was first published as the introduction to Walter Baxter, Look Down in Mercy (Richmond, Virginia: Valancourt Books, 2014), pp.v-x).]