Review: The Leather Boys by Gillian Freeman

They’re Britain’s ‘Wild Ones’ – the motorcycle cowboys who live for gas machines and faster girls – who ton-up along the Motorways, terrorising drivers and defying the law. Who experience sex too young, marry unthinkingly and live only for the next kick – whatever or whoever it is.

The Leather Boys is a savage, brilliantly told novel of these aimless young men and women. It is also the story of Dick and Reggie and the strange, twisted love that developed between them.

Review by Erastes

First off let me say that the first cover (with the girl) couldn’t be more erroneous of the title and the content of the book. I couldn’t scan my cover in, and couldn’t find a picture online. The blurb is pretty ghastly too making it sound like a British version of the Hell’s Angel’s books so popular in my girl’s school in the 1970’s. I object hugely to the term “strange, twisted love” because as you’ll see it’s nothing of the sort. The second cover is the original one, when the book was posted in 1961 it was published under a (jokey) masculine pseudonym. Nothing changes, eh?

The book is an essential read for anyone who might be interested in the late 50’s and the youth of that time, it may come over as rather quaint to Americans, because I’m sure that American bikers were never quite that shy and gauche as some of the characters here.  Although – sorry to disappoint you once again – this isn’t exactly about biker boys either.  Hell, could a book and a blurb and a cover BE more misleading?

Anyway, there’s not much to the story, really. Reggie is married but dissatisfied. His wife has told him that she’s pregant with another man’s child so he leaves her.  He meets up with Dick, another biker, who lives with his ailing grandmother in a typical two up  two down terraced house with no loo but the one outside.

When the two young men do get together it’s not accompanied by pages of pre-kiss angst. They are friends, and neither of them see much further than that. Reggie has moved in with Dick, and as was more common in those more innocent times they sleep in the same bed.  One night it just seems right and they kiss. Any sexual conduct is off screen, but is clearly alluded to afterwards. Dick is the one who asks “is this love? And do you think of me as a girl?” and Reggie, who is far more pragmatic simply says “of course not – you aren’t the right shape.”  Dick voices his confusion by saying that he thinks it’s strange that neither of them want to start playing the girl, by putting on lipstick and stuff like that. There’s none of the questioning of self and identity that we see more often in more recent coming out books. Dick loves Reggie and that’s it, really. For better or worse.

They decide-not just for the sake of their relationship, which they are aware they can’t share with anyone-but also to get away from Reggie’s wife, and Dick’s grandmother, and the book winds to a terrible conclusion, sadly in keeping with most gay novels of the time.  It is interesting to note that the film – which is well worth seeking out if you can get hold of a copy – has a completely different ending and one that disgusted me more than the end of the book.  In the film (as in the book) Dick goes to the naval yard to inquire about signing up with the Merchant Navy, and while he is there he meets up with a few of the other homosexuals who band together and all know who’s who.  In the book Dick simply wonders at these men – almost like a different species.  He realises then that although he is homosexual – that he’s not like these camp men, neither is Reggie and hopes they’ll be left in peace onboard ship.  However – in the film, the director makes that the end – Dick decides that he can’t accept that camp lifestyle and walks away from Reggie forever.

This doesn’t ring true with the depth of feeling in the book, and I don’t know why they changed it. Perhaps it was the only way to get the film made – in 1964(!) Dick was far too much in love with Reggie to have done this, and the last few pages of the book convince any reader that he never would have done that.

It’s a lost world – Britain’s Gone with the Wind. There are no more leather clad gangs who frequent coffee bars.  The day of the outside toilet are gone forever and Britain has lost that tang of innocence.  I remember the early sixties (just) but it takes the film to put it clearly in the mind of anyone who wasn’t around then. The empty roads, the way people lived, I don’t often advise reading the book and watching the film, but for anyone interested in the social history of this time, I highly recommend doing both.

The book is – in its way – comparable with Renault’s Charioteer, and certainly deserves to be as popular and as lauded as that book. Perhaps the prose isn’t quite as beautiful, perhaps the heroes are dirty, criminally minded and working class – far far below the lofty heights of Ralph and Laurie, but for my money it’s every bit as good and deserves to be back in print, not labelled as pulp – but a modern classic.

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