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I’ll Be Gloria

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The big news of 1966 was that Horace McCoy’s classic American crime thriller They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? was no longer my number one true love. It was Shelagh Spaul.

Shelagh was 16, and so was I. London was swinging and the sexual revolution was in full flight. Most weekdays I would cycle to Shelagh’s house from my school in north London, in the forlorn hope of revolutionary activity. On this occasion, however, when I arrived in the pouring rain, it was her uncle Sidney who opened the door.

‘Shelagh’s not back from school yet,’ he said, in a voice so parodically camp it might have come from Round the Horne.

I’d heard about Uncle Sidney, though we’d never actually met. I’d heard that he’d just reached the half-century, that he lived in Shelagh’s family home, and that he worked nights in a sorting office.

I stood in the porch dripping puddles; he stood in the doorway wearing fluffy pink mules, a peaked cap with ‘Royal Mail’ on the front, and an almost transparent black silk kimono. I could tell he was naked under there, that his skin had probably never seen the sun, and that he shaved where I was sure most men didn’t.

Desperate not to upset the relative of the only female on earth prepared to feign interest while I spouted memorized dialogue from my favourite fiction, I thought it a good idea to disguise my dropped jaw and bulging eyes by staring at something. Unfortunately, the something I stared at was Uncle Sidney’s groin.

‘Come and wait in my room,’ he said. ‘You can rub yourself off with a towel.’

The layered complexity of this invitation went straight through my adolescent brain. In fact, almost everything went straight through my adolescent brain. Despite efforts to the contrary, the only things that stayed in there were facts about cars, three notes of a blues harmonica riff, and just about every word of dialogue in McCoy’s novel.

They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? is about two young unemployed Hollywood film extras. Gloria, whose early life was full of abuse and hardship, has a protective shell of despairing wit; while Robert, raised on a farm, is a gentle,

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The big news of 1966 was that Horace McCoy’s classic American crime thriller They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? was no longer my number one true love. It was Shelagh Spaul.

Shelagh was 16, and so was I. London was swinging and the sexual revolution was in full flight. Most weekdays I would cycle to Shelagh’s house from my school in north London, in the forlorn hope of revolutionary activity. On this occasion, however, when I arrived in the pouring rain, it was her uncle Sidney who opened the door. ‘Shelagh’s not back from school yet,’ he said, in a voice so parodically camp it might have come from Round the Horne. I’d heard about Uncle Sidney, though we’d never actually met. I’d heard that he’d just reached the half-century, that he lived in Shelagh’s family home, and that he worked nights in a sorting office. I stood in the porch dripping puddles; he stood in the doorway wearing fluffy pink mules, a peaked cap with ‘Royal Mail’ on the front, and an almost transparent black silk kimono. I could tell he was naked under there, that his skin had probably never seen the sun, and that he shaved where I was sure most men didn’t. Desperate not to upset the relative of the only female on earth prepared to feign interest while I spouted memorized dialogue from my favourite fiction, I thought it a good idea to disguise my dropped jaw and bulging eyes by staring at something. Unfortunately, the something I stared at was Uncle Sidney’s groin. ‘Come and wait in my room,’ he said. ‘You can rub yourself off with a towel.’ The layered complexity of this invitation went straight through my adolescent brain. In fact, almost everything went straight through my adolescent brain. Despite efforts to the contrary, the only things that stayed in there were facts about cars, three notes of a blues harmonica riff, and just about every word of dialogue in McCoy’s novel. They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? is about two young unemployed Hollywood film extras. Gloria, whose early life was full of abuse and hardship, has a protective shell of despairing wit; while Robert, raised on a farm, is a gentle, sincere man who longs for open skies and a chance to direct films. Trying to survive the Great Depression – there were an estimated 20,000 unemployed film extras in Hollywood at the time – they decide to enter a marathon dance competition because you get ‘free food, and free bed as long as you last and a thousand dollars if you win’. The story begins in a court of law where Robert is about to be sentenced to death for killing Gloria. The narrative is Robert’s firstperson retelling of the events that led to the killing, and his attempt to convince us that ending Gloria’s life was an act of friendship, not brutality. Uncle Sidney’s room was on the lower ground floor. The curtains were closed, and there was a dim table lamp draped in a lace shawl. He shut the door behind us. ‘Take your blazer off and put it by the Belling,’ he said. I put it by the Belling. Steam rose instantly. ‘There’s something of the beast about damp wool,’ he said, handing me a towel. There were paperbacks everywhere – on the floor, on the shelves, on the bed. Hammett, Chandler, Cain, McCoy . . . I dried my hair as Uncle Sidney’s voice morphed into an American Bacall Bogart hybrid. ‘Let’s go sit and hate a few people,’ he said. I recognized the phrase immediately. It comes from They Shoot Horses, and it’s spoken by the doomed Gloria. I quickly replied with a few words from Robert. ‘I know what you mean,’ I said, in my best American ‘noir’. ‘I know exactly what you mean.’ ‘You can be Robert,’ said Uncle Sidney. ‘I’ll be Gloria.’ That was okay with me, I role-played all the time. Not only Gloria and Robert, for whom I had a soft spot, but also Rocky Gravo, the dance marathon’s cynical, manipulative MC, whose personality I loathed but revelled in. I’d cycle past queues at bus stops shouting his catch phrase, ‘Give, people. Give.’ Sooner or later we all seem to come across a novel that fools us into thinking great writing is easy and ‘world-renowned novelist’ a realistic job option. McCoy’s simple, pared-down prose did it for me. McCoy’s ‘simple’ prose, in fact, took him years to master. He developed his craft working as a journalist and writing short stories for the now legendary magazines Black Mask and Detective Dragnet. His first novel, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, published in 1935, was followed by three others, No Pockets in a Shroud, I Should Have Stayed Home, Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, and numerous film scripts, including uncredited work on King Kong. I was never any good at dancing, but when Uncle Sidney rested his hands on my shoulders and began to shuffle around the edges of his Turkish rug, it was easy to join in. ‘Some of the girls think it will take 2,000 hours to win,’ he said, in his Gloria voice. ‘I hope not,’ I said in my Robert voice. ‘I don’t believe I can hold on that long.’ Uncle Sidney removed his hand from my shoulder, and placed it on my waist. After each lap of the rug he would slump slightly, resting more and more of his weight on me, as if hundreds of marathon hours were passing. ‘I’m going to get off this merry-go-round,’ he said in his Gloria voice. ‘I’m through with the whole stinking thing.’ ‘What thing?’ I said, in my Robert voice. ‘Life,’ he said, in his Gloria voice. In the novel, Gloria, exploited by Gravo and the event promoter Socks Donald, talks increasingly of suicide as McCoy moves his themes toward the climax that so impressed French existentialists back in the 1940s and ’50s. Camus, Sartre and Malraux all sang McCoy’s praises. Simone de Beauvoir called the book ‘the first existentialist novel to have appeared in America’. It’s never been out of print. Uncle Sidney stepped back and let his kimono fall to the floor. Except for his Royal Mail cap and fluffy pink mules, he was stark naked – my first ever view of an unclothed, completely un-haired, mature male. I noticed that his chalk-white skin was pink in places. Places I’d rather not have noticed. ‘Go ahead,’ he said, in his Gloria voice. ‘You know the only way to get me out of my misery.’ I hasten to add that, while Sidney’s words were from the novel, his nakedness was a contribution all of his own. It’s the novel’s penultimate scene, the one where Gloria, realizing that callous brutality and perpetual endurance are her life, takes a gun from her purse, hands it to Robert, and asks him to shoot her dead. Which he does. Totally oblivious of Sidney’s libidinous intentions, overly convinced by his role-playing abilities, I could think only one thing: Sidney was about to bring out a gun and ask me to shoot him dead. Even for someone with my limitations, it was a role-play too far. ‘You’ll have to do this next bit yourself,’ I said. ‘Do it myself?’ ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘You see, if I do it, it will be murder.’ For a few seconds the world stood still. Eventually, Sidney lifted his cap and scratched his head, the upward movement of his arm mirrored by a lowering movement further down. Sidney was beginning to process the possibility that somewhere along the line he had got this all wrong. I, on the other hand, was absolutely certain that I had just saved myself from a murder rap. Late that afternoon, when Shelagh and I were alone in her room, I explained, in complex socio-political terms, that the revolution should progress with some urgency as my mother would be expecting me home for an evening meal. Shelagh then revealed her true love to be Malcolm Hicks – a boy in the year above me, whose simian gait and matching embouchure couldn’t disguise the fact that he played harmonica like Larry Adler’s baby brother. A knock on the door. It was Sidney, looking smart in his Royal Mail jacket and matching trousers, peaked cap square over his forehead. He walked in and walked out again, leaving behind a tray of tea, digestives and a pencilled note with my name on it. He’d written, ‘Please, don’t go sit and hate me. So sorry, Sidney.’ My first true love came to an end; Shelagh and I lost touch. The last time I saw Sidney was probably the first time I understood him. It was at Leicester Square tube station sometime in the 1970s, just a few years after homosexuality had been decriminalized in England and Wales. I was on the down escalator, Sidney was on the up. I waved. He gave a beaming smile and waved back. In his hand he held another – it belonged to a comfortable round bear of a man with a full grey beard, a cable-knit cardigan and a smile even wider than Sidney’s. McCoy, it turns out, liked to role-play too – the part of a wealthy socialite. Although he enjoyed considerable financial reward during his lifetime, it was insufficient to keep up with his outgoings. He died in Beverly Hills of heart problems in 1955, aged 58. His widow had to sell his jazz record collection to pay for his funeral.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 34 © Laurence Scott 2012


About the contributor

Laurence Scott lives and writes in south-west Scotland.

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