Inspiration for The Road Between Us.
The Road Between Us opens in June 1939 with two men being arrested in a hotel room overlooking Piccadilly Circus. One is English, the other German. They are in love.
This scene came to me one humid evening while I waited under the statue of Eros for a couple of friends. We were going to see a film together. They were late. As I watched the tourists posing for photographs in front of Eros — kissing, hugging, laughing — I recalled reading somewhere about how this symbol of the city had been taken down during the Second World War and hidden in the countryside. It seemed like a powerful metaphor. The capital losing its libido.
In fact, as I discovered from my subsequent research, the opposite happened. Londoners became more promiscuous during the war, and not only in terms of affairs and one night stands. The Piccadilly Commandos, as prostitutes were known, were never busier. Gay men, too, began adopting the attitude that with bombs falling every night they may as well seize the day. The trouble was, theirs was still the love that dare not speak its name.
The Englishman, an RAF officer called Charles, is court martialled for ‘conduct unbecoming’. The German, Anselm, is deported home and sent for ‘re-education’ to a brutal labour camp. There he is forced to take part in experiments to ‘cure’ him of his homosexuality. Charles becomes a war artist and, in an attempt to save Anselm, volunteers to take part in the Allied invasion of Southern France, what would become known as ‘The Forgotten D-Day’.
Time is a continuum, with the past constantly exerting an influence on the present. I wanted this novel to have two narratives then, past and present, running in parallel. Each would explore the themes of survival and redemption from a different perspective. The present day narrative concerns Charles’s son, a diplomat taken hostage by the Taliban shortly before 9/11. His name is Edward.
I tried to imagine what it would be like to re-enter your old life after a decade in captivity, frozen in time. I thought about how it is possible in middle age to not recognise yourself at first glance in a photograph, because in your imagination you still look like you did when you were in your early twenties. What if your family and friends had changed beyond recognition, too?
I read about a man from Arkansas who, in 1984, was in a car crash that left him in a coma for 19 years. What haunted me about his story was that when he regained consciousness he thought his daughter, who had been an infant when he last saw her, was his wife. His wife, meanwhile, had turned into a middle-aged woman he no longer recognised. It got me thinking: what if, against his will, a father was to fall in love with his daughter? Another thematic link between the past and present began to suggest itself. Forbidden love.
The theme of forbidden love in The Road Between Us
We — that is, we in the West — like to think our attitudes to sex have become progressively more enlightened and liberal. Take gay marriage, which is currently being pushed through the statute books by a Tory government. A. Tory. Government.
It seems astonishing to think that until 1967 homosexuality was a criminal offence, punishable by a year in prison or the option of chemical castration. How far society has travelled in a relatively short space of time.
Or has it? Certainly the contribution to the gay marriage debate made by General Dannatt, the former Chief of the General Staff, suggests there is some way to go before we can be said to be a truly tolerant society. Speaking in the House of Lords recently he warned that the Gay Marriage Bill was threatening “respect and tolerance”.
But those who object to it find themselves in a minority. The majority, according to polls, can’t see what all the fuss is about.
Homosexuality, then, is no longer the love that dare not speak its name. And in literature it positively shouts it: having become so popular as a subject it has its own genre (with Edmund White, James Baldwin, and Alan Hollinghurst being among its greatest practitioners).
And with the notable exception of Fifty Shades of Grey, a commercial novel about bondage and sadomasochism, heterosexual sex doesn’t even register on the cultural radar anymore, other than as something to be mocked in The Bad Sex Awards. Forget Lady Chatterley’s Lover, even Updike’s Couples or Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint wouldn’t get noticed if they were published today. In the age of online pornography, there’s nothing to say about polymorphous couplings that hasn’t already been said, nothing remarkable, nothing shocking.
But that is not to say there are no sexual taboos left. There are. Could Lolita (1955) have been published today? I doubt it. The publishers would be surrounded by torch-carrying mobs calling for Nabokov and other “paediatricians” to be lynched.
I think it would be more accurate to argue that instead of travelling in a straight line, as it were, attitudes to sex have often been reactive, constantly veering off at unexpected angles. The Hogarthian decadence and hedonism of the 18th century was, after all, followed by the prudish morality of the Victorian era, with John Ruskin supposedly running from the marital bedroom in terror when he first encountered his bride’s pubic hair, and Queen Victoria refusing to believe that such a practise as lesbianism existed. The Victorians did believe in male homosexuality though and, until 1861, punished those who indulged in it with execution.
In that harsh context the two years’ hard labour to which Oscar Wilde was sentenced in 1895, after being convicted of “gross indecency”, could almost be considered lenient. But things were to get worse before they got better. Intolerance reached a new low in the early 1950s, when gay men lived in constant fear of blackmail and imprisonment. One of the reasons? Homosexuality had become equated with treason, thanks to the Cambridge spy ring.
Alan Turing was a victim of this. The man who through his code-breaking work at Bletchley Park probably did more than any one else to achieve an Allied victory, was chemically castrated for his alleged sins. He is thought to have killed himself not long after, by eating a poisoned apple.
This then was the climate in which Sir John Wolfenden published his ground-breaking report in 1957, a subject upon which I touch in my new novel, The Road Between Us.
On the eve of war, the central character, an RAF officer, is court martialled for “conduct unbecoming”. His lover, meanwhile, is deported to Germany, where he is sent for “re-education” to a brutal labour camp. There he is forced to take part in experiments to cure him of his homosexuality. These include injections of hormones into his testicles.
As I discovered in my research, inmates also had to undergo “renunciations tests”. In these they had to prove they were cured by having sex with a female prostitute. Failure to perform was often met with summery execution. Little excuse was need. The pink triangles the prisoners wore on their striped uniforms were routinely used by the SS guards as target practise.
The novel has a duel narrative and, in the present day one, a British diplomat is held hostage in an Afghan cave for eleven years. When he is unexpectedly freed, he returns to London to find his wife is dead and in her place is an unnerving double, his nine-year-old daughter now grown up.
The idea for this relationship came partly from reading about a man from Arkansas who, in 1984, was in a car crash that left him in a coma for 19 years. What haunted me about his story was that when he regained consciousness he thought his daughter, who had been an infant when he last saw her, was his wife. His wife, meanwhile, had turned into a middle-aged woman he no longer recognised. It got me thinking: what if, against his will, a father was to fall in love with his daughter? A thematic link between the past and present began to suggest itself. Forbidden love.
My research now took me to some dark places. In 1967, I discovered, there was a limit to the new spirit of tolerance about sex between consenting adults. Even though The Wolfenden Report took its inspiration from John Stuart Mills’ On Liberty — that the law ought not concern itself with “private immorality” — it was agreed that incest should remain a criminal offence. “The general feeling of history and society on that matter is that it ought not to be tolerated,” Wolfenden declared.
Curiously, one of the recurring arguments that have been used by opponents of the Gay Marriage Bill has been to ask: Where will it all end? Norman Tebbit went so far as to imagine a world in which he might be allowed to marry his own son. This might seem bizarre as a tactic but actually, if you think about it, it is quite clever. He is out to undermine the idea that homosexuality is a normal form of sexual expression. How? By associating it in the public imagination with incest. Such is the power and danger of this particular taboo.
Incest had been tackled in literature before. Well, a couple of times, with a gap of two and a half thousand years in between. There’s the mother and son relationship in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, and then there is the sister and brother affair in Ian McEwan’s The Cement Garden. The only literary treatment of a father and daughter relationship I can think of is Andrea Newman’s A Bouquet of Barbed Wire (1969) and that was more a matter of hinting at the possibility rather than spelling it out.
I turned to Freud, who popularised the Oedipus myth in psychoanalysis. Freud said the taboo represents the mother’s genitals — a taboo being something that can be fascinating and repellent at the same time. The frisson of fascination comes in the private space, he believed, whereas the repulsion belongs in the public.
I also read a couple of memoirs written by daughters who have had relationships with their fathers: Kathryn Harrison’s The Kiss (1997) and Leslie Kenton’s Love Affair (2010). From a psycho-sexual point of view, the latter was especially insightful.
Kenton and her father were madly in love, it seems. She describes their relationship as intoxicating. “Breaking the taboo of incest had breached the boundaries of acceptable reality, forcing us to journey into unknown territory. We turned our backs on the rules and regulations of the world. Sometimes we faced each other with the kind of raw presence soldiers in trenches must experience as, together, they face the enemy’s assault.”
I was intrigued by this idea of forbidden love being like a war zone. In an early draft of the book I experimented with what the consequences of this might be, but when I showed the relevant chapters to some friends I soon discovered why Bouquet of Barbed Wire had been so coy. Incest truly is the love that dare not speak its name. Such are the feelings of revulsion it engenders, it is an almost impossible subject to write about, even euphemistically.
I re-cast the story so that the father’s feelings were implied rather than explicit, and this seemed to work better. He is still a soldier in the trenches but now he is fighting to avoid his impulses — the enemy’s assault. Possessed by desires that cannot be fulfilled, he must resist the urge to act on them and, in this way, he achieves a certain nobility.
That he has been held captive for so long — in what amounted to a living death — and has to re-discover his sexuality as he comes back to life adds, I hope, some poignancy to his story. He may have his freedom but with it comes the agony of choice. Men are qualified for liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites. This was an idea first proposed by Edmund Burke in that most debauched of centuries, the 18th. And it still applies today.
This is an extended version of an article published in The Spectator on 8 March 2014.