This is something I have discovered the hard way by writing recently about two people who were clearly bisexual.
Earlier in the year, my book about the criminalisation of homosexuality came out, and the narrative interwove the rather tragic story of my great-great-grandfather, who got caught up in the Dublin Scandals of 1884 (the book is called Scandal and it is selling quite well).
The trouble began when I wrote about it in The Guardian, and they used a headline that included the phrase 'my gay ancestor'.
I had not realised at the time how much a headline like that would irritate the doyens of identity politics. I mean, was he gay or not? If he was gay - as a number of people pointed out to me, rather forcibly - how could he have had children or great-great-grandchildren?
Nobody wants to fall foul of the ferocious commentators who lurk below the line in the Guardian, but worse was to come. One man posted no less than eleven messages on Facebook explaining that he hated the book (though not actually why). That means I can't necessarily claim him as an irritated member of the identity politics brigade - but I have to assume he was.
The one thing identity politics can't cope with is the idea of people being both/and... People who, as I am, feel European, and British, and English, and from Sussex, and from Steyning and from South London (born in North London). That is the essence of Liberalism, it seems to me - the acceptance of multiple identities.
More than acceptance, in fact. It is embracing these different aspects - in the face of those who believe that men and women, gay and straight, French, Scots and English, can't possibly understand each other because we are too culturally conditioned. In the coming struggle between humanist and postmodernist, I know I'm on the human side (for my definitions of these terms, see my book The Age to Come).
Now, I realise, I'm doing it again. My new medieval detective novel has a main character, a real character in fact, a wandering scholar known to history as Hilary the Englishman. Six of Hilary's poems still exist, three are love poems to nuns and three are love poems to young men.
So whose side was he on? Was he gay or straight? Come on, David, don't sit on the bloody fence on this critical issue!
Well, the answer is that he was both, and in that spirit, let me put two fingers up to identity politics and nationalism of all kinds by reproducing here my translation of Hilary's famous Latin poem 'To an English boy'.
Those who know me well will know that I can't really translate Latin, at least well enough for this, but I can return other people's translation to the original shape of the poem with the rhymes and rhythms in the original places. Here it is (it is reproduced from the end of my novel about Hilary and the weird and mysterious death of William Rufus, Regicide):
I might add, as an aside, that the Regicide ebook is on special offer at 99p until Tuesday, and there is also a paperback version.
To an English Boy
By Hilary the Englishman (Hilarius of Orleans)
Hail to you, the handsome boy, who’ll never ask
For anything, no gift, no gain, no task,
On whom integrity and beauty bask,
Who captures all who see behind your mask.
Your golden hair and face I can’t resist,
Your conversation, but why make a list?
There is no flaw in you that I have missed
Except your vow that you just won’t be kissed.
Nature wondered for a moment, to employ
Its forces to make you girl or boy –
But while deciding which gender to deploy,
You leapt out male to give us all some joy.
Later, when she began to make you wake,
She marvelled that she could such a creature make.
Yet poor nature had made one mistake:
She still had forced you to mortality take.
Yet any other mortal can’t compare
With this unique son and nature’s heir.
Her beauty chooses now to live in you, in there –
Within your flesh as white and light as air.
Believe me, if Jove was ever to recover,
Then Ganymede would hardly be his lover.
You would be helping him discover
Wine by day and kisses under cover.
You’re loved by every boy and girl the same,
They sigh to hold your unrepeated flame.
Those who call you ‘English’ are to blame:
Change the vowel and use the ‘angel’ name.
See my book Cancelled! on the Southern Railways disaster, now on sale for £1.99 (10p goes to Railway Benefit Fund). One of my correspondents suggests that we all buy the paperback version (£4.75) and leave copies on the trains...
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