John Waters' Role Models: Part Two
Filmmaker, fine artist, writer, actor and fervent Gay Rights campaigner John Waters has led an eventful life. In his new book Role Models he talks about the people who have inspired it. Here, we have the second part of the chapter dedicated to Waters' literary heroes – today's excerpt deals with Denton Welch, the Shanghai-born English writer who William S. Burroughs also credited as his greatest influence. You can read part one here.
John Waters - Role Models
- Part two.
From thousands and thousands and thousands of twisted volumes, here goes – John Waters’s “Five Books You Should Read to Live a Happy Life If Something Is Basically the Matter with You”.
And yes, it's all fiction. Maybe there is no better novel in the world than Denton Welch's In Youth Is Pleasure. Just holding it in my hands, so precious, so beyond gay, so deliciously subversive, is enough to make illiteracy a worse social crime than hunger. Published in the UK in 1945, ten years after the terrible accident in which the author, riding his bicycle, was hit by a car and permanently injured, this amazing (and thinly disguised) autobiographical novel is the graceful and astonishingly erotic tale of Orville Pym, a creative child who has lost his mother to some mysterious disease and "has not yet learned to bear the strain of feeling unsafe with another person." Hating "other people" who imagined "that they understood his mind because he was a boy," our elegant but damaged little hero, "longing for escape, freedom, loneliness and adventure," wanders around the grounds of a hotel where he has been taken by his father to vacation with his older brothers.
Have the secret yearnings of childhood sexuality and the wild excitement of the first stirrings of perversity ever been so eloquently described as in this novel? When Orville discovers an old book on physical culture and begins frantically working out to improve his body, he worries that he isn't sweating enough. Determined, he locks himself in the small bottom drawer of a dressing chest and, immediately "overcome with the horror of being a prisoner," innocently fantasizes that he is in a dungeon he remembers from one of his aunt's mid-Victorian novels. Orville instinctively welcomes the guilt of these thrilling, vaguely sexual yearnings, but he is just a child-how can he yet understand the friendly feel of future fetishes? He knows he is not like other boys, but the wonders of deviancy far outweigh any desire to fit in with his peers.
Orville yearns to be butch. Endlessly experimenting with fashion and different looks, he finally paints the toes and heels of his white gym shoes black, hoping to appear "daring and vulgar." While he leaves his hair "rough" and appears in his new, supposedly masculine outfit, his brother humors him by saying, "My God you look tough." But little Orville can't help his feminine side. He has always been obsessed with broken bits of china he collects at thrift shops ("No one ever wrote more beautifully about chipped tea services," a writer for The New York Times would comment decades after the novel was written). When Orville felt these girly items "pressing gently against his side" as he carried them in his pocket, "it gave him a sudden and peculiar pleasure, a feeling of protection in an enemy world."
It isn't easy being a creative child. As happy as Orville is when he's alone, he still feels the urge to create his own drama. When he sneaks into an abandoned ballroom at the hotel and finds himself onstage (my parents actually built me my own little stage at the top of the stairs in our first house, where I performed endless indulgent "shows" for my very tolerant Aunt Rachel whenever she visited), our little master of masochism uncovers a musical instrument enclosed in a case with a broken strap. Suddenly inspired, Orville runs to the musician's cloakroom and locks himself in, strips off his clothes, and starts whipping himself with the strap. In his furtive imagination, he was "Henry II, doing penance, at Beckett's tomb . . . a convict tied to a tree in Tasmania. A galley slave, a Christian martyr, a noble hermit alive in the desert." This kid knew how to play. God, I wished he had lived in my neighborhood. We could have really put on a show on my little stage!
[caption id="attachment_21707" align="aligncenter" width="347" caption="Denton Welch"][/caption]
Orville knew that after his fantasy was over, "his behavior, if discovered, would be thought rather peculiar," but he marched on bravely, looking for further stimuli. Stumbling upon a large chain in the meadow outside, he realized one end was "embedded so that it wouldn't come way. Almost automatically, Orville knotted the extremely dirty and heavy chain around his waist and then swayed from side to side, quite carried away by some new reverie." His little scenario continued. "Now he was chained up forever" in his mind and he "would have to drag it [the chain] backwards and forwards on the grass for the rest of his life," "chanting a new dirge-like song." But then reality hits. His brother catches him in full fantasy. " 'Christ! What are you doing?' he howls in utter amazement." " 'You'd be locked up if anyone else found you doing this sort of thing.' "
But nothing can stop Orville's inner drama. When he invades an empty church for more elaborate fantasies, I really identified with this child! First, Orville makes out with a brass statue of a woman on a tomb, reasoning that she "hasn't been kissed for five hundred years." He then climbs under the altar cloths, glad to be "in complete darkness and enclosed on all sides." "A thrill of pleasure" sweeps over our little lunatic, but that isn't enough. "What would happen," he wondered, if during Mass "at the vital moment, I should leap from my hiding place with an unearthly scream? The congregation would rise in panic thinking the devil had come down to earth. For a few moments I would be left to dance about madly . . ." Oh God, Denton Welch, you sure understand childhood rage. I still feel like doing the exact things you imagined for Orville every time I step into a church . . . even today!
Little Orville was a watch-queen, too. He loved to spy on the gruff and rugged schoolmaster and his two "deprived" older boy students, who were camping in the nearby woods on a much more physical vacation. When Orville sneaks back in a rainstorm and finds the schoolmaster alone, he gets caught peeping but is invited inside the hut for tea. Orville is ordered to take off his wet clothes and change into a dressing gown. The erotic tension between Orville and the schoolteacher is so thick you could cut it with a knife, but it might only be real in the child's mind. You're never sure. When Orville admits he has been watching the deprived boys, the schoolmaster asks nonchalantly, "Why don't you come down and help me with them sometimes?" Orville sputters, "They'd think it was queer," but the older man shrugs and answers, "They'd think all those things if you put them into their heads. Otherwise they'd think you were a perfectly ordinary person."
But Orville doesn't want to be a perfectly ordinary person. He wants to be this man's slave, and after washing up the dishes for the schoolmaster, he offers, "Will you be wanting anything else, sir?" The older man, maybe quite innocently, encourages Orville's fantasy by replying, "You can polish my brown shoes if you like." Little does the master realize Orville's lust as he begins the task. "In a dazed way, Orville fetched the shoes and started to polish them. As he thrust his hand into one of them, he thought, 'It's always mysterious inside shoes; like a dark cave' . . . He placed his fingers in the little hollows-like a string of graded pearls-made by the toes. Pressing his knuckles up, he touched the over-arching leather which seemed cracked yet humid. He thought that there was a whole atmosphere and little world inside the shoe."
But that's just the foreplay. The schoolmaster offers to "show him some knots" and then ties Orville's hands and hoists him up. "Let me down," Orville cried, "you'll wrench my arms out of their sockets." But the schoolmaster just "poked him sharply in the ribs and slapped his behind resoundingly" before offering to trade positions. "Now it's your turn . . . you can tie me up exactly as you like." Orville eagerly accepts the challenge and when the man complains, "The cords are cutting into me," Orville feels "great pleasure" before coming to his senses and politely announcing, "I think I ought to go now . . . thank you so much for a very delightful afternoon. I hope we'll meet again." Somehow Denton Welch has captured the undiscovered innocence of the Marquis de Sade and the ingrained perversity that only children can fathom.
"I don't understand how to live, what to do," Orville despairs; and who does when you're this age? Parents should understand that their young kids are not like them and need to have the privacy to fantasize both their good and bad desires. What you may find shocking about the perverse behavior of your child may not even be remembered by your offspring later in life. But what you may pooh-pooh as their silly young fears can be more debilitating to your children than you will ever imagine. When Orville later becomes scared by an older boy, roughhousing with him on a train ride, threatening to "trim his eyelashes" (how's that for a new kind of elegant torture?), Orville suddenly begins to scream. "The sound is piercing, like steam escaping. The people in the carriage looked at him with blank faces. And as Orville screamed he knew that he could not stop, that he had been working up to this scream all his life. Through his madness spoke these very clear thoughts, 'Now they'll never touch you again. You can be mad for the rest of your life, and they'll leave you alone.' " Amen, Denton Welch, amen.
CHECK BACK TOMORROW FOR PART THREE: LIONEL SHRIVER
Role Models by John Waters, is published by Beautiful Books on 2 December 2010. John will be signing copies of Role Models at Waterstones, Piccadilly, London at 1pm on Saturday 4th December.
Photo: © Greg Gorman
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