Brighton City Reads 2012
PUBLISHED: 13:26 12 September 2012 | UPDATED: 21:51 20 February 2013
My Policeman, by local author Bethan Roberts, is the novel chosen for City Reads 2012. Jenny Mark-Bell spoke to Bethan about the book's challenges
Brighton author Bethan Roberts third novel is a profoundly moving tale of suppressed love, frustrated ambition and remorse. My Policeman is the first Brighton-based book to be chosen for annual literary festival City Reads, which begins on 15 September.
In the book Marion, now elderly and living in Peacehaven, begins her memoirs.
Interspersed with the recollections of the determined but ultimately disappointed Marion, are Patricks diary entries of 50 years earlier.
Both Marion and Brighton Museum curator Patrick love policeman Tom. Each has something to offer Patrick his sophistication and cultural currency, and Marion the respectability of marriage. Both are willing to do what it takes to keep my policeman, until a cruel concatenation of circumstances brings matters to a head.
The story was inspired by the marital muddle of E M Forsters lover, policeman Bob Buckingham. After some mutual antagonism, Bobs wife May and Forster became friends and she nursed him through his last illness. I think May had a much happier experience of a love triangle than Marion, Patrick and Tom, says Bethan.
My Policeman transplants Forsters story to Fifties Brighton. Bethans considerable research included hours spent in the Local Studies Library in Brighton Museum and interviewing her parents for period detail. She also scoured archive copies of The Argus: Not for the stories but for the adverts, wanted notices and the problem pages. The little things give you a snapshot of what people were worried about and what they wanted.
The apparent impossibility of taking on the voice of Patrick weighed heavily on Bethan for some time: I think what was stopping me was a kind of reluctance to make any politically incorrect comment. Its quite a responsibility for a straight woman in the 2000s to take on the voice of a gay man in the 1950s.
Writers have an obligation to imagine other worlds thats what we do but you have to be mindful of whose toes you tread on and make sure youve done it in a way that isnt going to offend anyone.
To capture the experience of gay life in Fifties Brighton, Bethan found one book invaluable Daring Hearts, published by Brightons QueensPark Books. There she found the testimony needed to conjure the atmosphere of notorious cruising ground The Spotted Dog and the rarified elegance of the Argyle Hotel: Its a wonderful insight into the way that gay men and women led double lives in the Fifties.
There is exuberance and excitement because Brighton did have a scene, even though it was underground. You get a sense of a community beginning to form, but theres also a real sense of fear and paranoia.
My Policeman was always meant to be a Brighton novel, and it raises fascinating points.Brighton has always been a permissive place, says Bethan, but in the Fifties the majority of people were actually not very happy about that.
Ive lived here for about 17 years now, and although it feels like my home town I still have that slight outsiders perspective. The setting allowed me to indulge my love of the place.
Once youve finished a book you can only hope that it reaches people and maybe touches them in some way. For people to take it seriously enough to discuss it is thrilling.
City Reads events include Tales from The Spotted Dog (2 4 October The Marlborough Theatre) with Brightons famous Fifties gay pub The Spotted Dog recreated for three nights of performance and readings, The City Reads Vintage Fair on 6 October at The Old Market, and Bethan Roberts in conversation with Lynne Truss on 7 October at The Old Market.