Colin Spencer was born in 1933. It’s a date that’s important in the sense that it puts his birth between the two world wars and leaves his future affected by both.
There are layers in ‘Backing into the light’. Stories beneath the story. Peel away the top layer, the story of an artist and writer coming to terms with his sexuality, and you find a man profoundly affected by his parents who, in their turn, had been damaged by the ravages of two world wars – both physically and mentally.
A novelist, artist, and food writer, Spencer has been a Sussex resident since the 1940’s when his family lived for a time in a bungalow high on the Downs, “it had great views of the sea and of any possible, and then very likely, German invasion fleet.”
His is a story of a man coming to terms with his own sexuality over a period in British history when society itself was grappling with its own attitudes to sexuality. And it is an uncomfortable look at fatherhood, and the affect of a father’s behaviour on his son.
Spencer writes of his father, “from the beginning, he ignored me and long before his death he disinherited me. I don’t think I had any notion of paternal care, for I never had a word or gesture of affection or concern.”
Those who publish the intimacies of their lives for all to read, and judge, have their own reasons for doing so. What lies behind Spencer pointing the spotlight so sharply on his own colourful life experiences?
“I’m trying to dig down into the reason why,” he explains over black coffee in his living room, the walls hung with numerous of his own colourful paintings, “why we do things, why we behave badly.”
His memoirs are a rapid fire of interactions, betrayals, affairs and travel tales. These vary from his memories of being in the army Medical Corps during National Service and nursing soldiers afflicted with STDs, to rather happier tales of Brighton in the 1960’s.
“All those gay pubs bars and clubs that existed in the 60’s. Gay men used to flock down at Whitsun and Easter holidays. Brighton would be a-buzz with interesting, attractive people.”
He then adds with a suggestive, broad smile, “it was terrific!”.
His memoirs also dig up the tale of a messy, bitter divorce involving a man denying his sexual identity in a futile bid to gain the right to spend more than a few hours a week with his young son. ‘Bitter’ in the context of Spencer’s divorce is an understatement. The anger that still burns in him four decades on glares up from the page.
“I’m very keen on the truth,” explains Spencer, as he makes clear why he is so frank, especially about his varied sexual encounters.
“I believe it helps other people, it helps them to be honest. It helps them not to spend hours of guilt and torture over various things. The more honest we are and open about everything we’ve been taught to feel guilty about the healthier we are as a society.”
And open he certainly seems to be, with lovers both male and female discussed in graphic detail, from ‘pimplepricks’ to frottage and buggery to “heavy breathing, grunts and teeth.”
Pushed on what he hopes readers may take from his sometimes dramatic, but never dull memoirs, he is adamant that it is not about giving any form of advice, “I wouldn’t be arrogant enough to give advice. The reader can take whatever they want.”
Some recommendations do sneak out though, “Enjoy all the intricacies and complexities of of one’s own individuality, because that’s the gorgeousness of humanity – we are all individuals.”
The core message of the memoir is perhaps “not to be afraid of yourself”. Spencer has what he describes as an “abhorrence of mass emotion and mass opinion”. Rather like the vibrant paintings that look out from the walls of his home he too is not afraid to stand out from the crowd, “to be a lone voice is very scary, but how valuable it is.”
Backing into light by Colin Spencer, is published by Quartet £25.00