Sex and the New Zealanders
By Jay Bennie
30th March 2008 - 04:10 pm
How dare a pompous pommy poofter visit our fair and perfect isles and publish a few criticisms of us and our way of life? The bloody nerve of the man! Didn't he understand that the only acceptable answer from a visiting writer or celebrity or politician or sportsperson to the spoken or unspoken question "What do you think of New Zealand?" is: "Very nice." Jay Bennie chats with Duncan Fallowell...
Duncan Fallowell managed to get through customs and immigration, settle into Devonport for a few weeks, and then tiki tour the country looking for a refreshed perspective on his life back in England, without learning the manners expected of any guest in our world class little country. Shame on him. A Sunday Star Times story, headlined Welcome to Hellhole and infused with outrage that Fallowell had found some of us less than attractive, caused a bit of a backlash. Maybe the devious sod had peppered his just-released book Going As Far As I Can with a few criticisms to provoke knee-jerk publicity from the easily outraged, but Fallowell puts the blame for the brief backlash on the media 'beat up.'
"What they were doing was responding to a media distortion, and all the really nasty stuff, the four-letter words and things, were just the loonies I suppose, responding to hearsay. All that happened very early on. Once people started to read the book, the real responses I could deal with. They weren't necessarily agreeing with me, that's not the point of the exercise, but at least I was getting a genuine response to a genuine piece of work, instead of just nonsense."
Now 60, the voluble Fallowell emerged from a prosperous middle class London background. As a teenager he was a child of the newly liberal 1960s. "My father is a self-made man, and had his own manufacturing business in the Thames Valley. And that's it, from my point of view. My mother was an ordinary housewife and mum. My background, I suppose, is suburban." Homosexuality was not an issue, just something that emerged. "I never had any problem with it - the only problem was how to stage it in public. But I would say that's probably the same as any other adolescent, staging his sexual needs in public. Adolescence is the age of embarrassment for everyone, not just gay men or women."
Media representations of gay people effect us all as we come to terms with our sexuality and Fallowell was exposed to a wide variety of representations of gay role models in his formative years. "If you are an intelligent English boy, who happens to be gay, or at least has some amount of homosexual feeling, there's an enormously supportive gay tradition that goes back a long way - 200 years - that you can tap into so easily, and you can cruise on it. But I do use the word 'educated', because it's mostly in a literary tradition, rather that a TV or pop tradition.
"For example, for my fifteenth birthday, my parents gave me the collected works of Oscar Wilde. They didn't know they were handing me a role model in the middle of puberty as I was emerging into someone who would fall in love with their own sex, but that's what they were doing. They said 'what would you like?' and on my list was the collected works of Oscar Wilde. They didn't say 'no you can't have that, it's funny'… they gave it to me… they're not particularly educated sort of liberal parents, they were just middle class, sort of well-to-do people, but there wasn't a problem about giving me that.
|Fallowell's book: Going As Far As I Can|
"The novels of Evelyn Waugh, which I'd read by that time, were always full of very attractive homosexual characters having loads of fun. You can go back to the works of Peacock and the regency dandys and the 18th century bucks, all of these gave a flamboyant sense of fun and homosexual subtext for those in the know… and are fantastically supportive.
"The fact that it was illegal, and there was this other side, of weirdoes in toilets and things like that, well that was much more difficult. Having the supportive tradition is one thing, actually turning this into rewarding sexual events is quite another!
"And on TV of course there was a lot of camp humour... there always has been in music hall. And working class pubs, drag pubs, it's all been going on, always has done over the years. There's plenty to tap into, you don't actually need a political manifesto in order to emerge from your chrysalis.
"It was illegal until 1967, the year I went up to university. The main problem for me was turning theory into practise, that's all. But there was never any problem with the theory!"
That awareness of his homosexuality emerged in Fallowell's early teens and he enthusiastically embraced his attraction to other boys. "You must remember that the language in which we framed these things was the result of the liberation movement of the 1960s. So I wasn't aware of being gay in that very specific sense probably until puberty, when your feelings generally focus sexually. I found myself 'magicked' by certain other schoolboys. I wouldn't say they were 'crushes' because sometime I never even spoke to them, or maybe there were a lot of them - rather than just one that you pined over. I was never one for pining in a corner - I had lots going on in my head and heart apart from the fact that I fancied someone."
He says he lost his virginity at the age of fifteen, "which is very late, I consider... I've been making up for lost time." His first full on same-sex experience was with a boy "who was far more interested in it than I was. But what I did have was sexual play, before puberty when I was young - between five and ten, with other boys and, to a lesser extent, girls. You know, showing each other one's willies and things. And, although it was sexual, it wasn't defined, because it was pre-puberty, one couldn't come."
Fallowell may have been a budding homosexual but he remembers being passionately in love with a girl at primary school. "I was roughly about eight. And I remember being in love with her, but in retrospect, it was…" "A crush?" I suggest. No, "it was more than a crush… I was really in love with her. It wasn't a result of propaganda or anything like that, it came from within. When I saw her talking to other boys, I got very jealous. So I have had bisexual history. For a writer or any human being it's ridiculous not to have intimate knowledge of half of humanity."
Fallowell recalls his early passions with even more intensity than his book recounts his anonymous encounters in the back room of an Auckland adult shop. "I remember, whenever I had a crush on boys later on... you used the word crush, it was more powerful than that - it was like 'enchanted' almost. If you use words like 'crush', it's insipid, if you use words like 'obsession' it sounds demeaning. This was something terribly exciting, but didn't lead to action. It was just a wonderful sort of technicality inside - you knew you lit up in some way when someone was near you or you looked at them. In that sense, until I actually had sex, it was no different between boys and girls."
It seems clear that Fallowell has no difficulty talking publicly about his most intimate thoughts and experiences. His openness in the book and in our discussion is almost disturbing. As a horny kid he must surely have been a force to be reckoned with. "I was enamoured with boys and girls before puberty, but at puberty I then became very shy. So, when I lost my virginity, it was to someone who took the initiative and was bolder and less shy than I was. I wasn't shy about this sort of thing, until puberty. What I remember, being a very notable thing, was that my outgoing sexuality shut down, and I became much more wary, because I suppose there was suddenly real stuff riding on it... I'm still a very shy person. All writers are shy."
But, "if you tolerate your own shyness, you die. You have to throw yourself forward somehow. And for me, there was never any question. I'm a vocational writer. I feel I was born to get my rocks off in books. In fact, I'm damn married to my books, rather than any individual, although I've had some very close sexual love affairs and relationships, and maintained them in parallel… I don't fall out of love with people, I just don't want to do the sex anymore. It's not that I go off them, it's just that I don't fancy them anymore."
If that sounds like a recipe for relationship hell, what does he look for in a sex partner? "I look for anything that just clicks. One of the good things about the 'gay scene' as they call it, although I've never done it that much, is that it crosses all classes, cultures and races, and so you from very early on become comfortable with people who are superficially different from yourself because you have this underlying thing in common which is more fundamental... the sex. When it comes to love, that's entirely different. That has to be something that can challenge me. Not somebody I can dominate. And not someone who dominates me, either. A love affair is not some gooey thing. A lot of it is gooey, as I'm sure you know, but a lot of it isn't - there's a lot a battle, there's a lot of conflict there, because you're both trying to express yourselves. And what love does is it allows this mutual expression to grow, but includes friction and conflict. My book is a love letter to New Zealand, it's not a sex letter, it's a love letter. And therefore it contains elements of conflict and discomfort, but underlying that, is a bond which holds, and legitimises the whole exercise in my eyes."
But when it came to the practical side of homosexuality, such as finding like-minded men, Fallowell came up against his wall of shyness. "I took lots of drugs at university, it helped me dismantle some of this. I'm still learning, by the way. Still learning how to enjoy another person fully. Without hurting them."
It's hard to resist asking if Fallowell likes himself, if he is comfortable in his own skin. After all, his book is as much an exploration of himself as of New Zealand. "Do you like yourself?" I ask, seeing if our chat can move away from the carnal. "Do you enjoy yourself fully?"
"Do you mean do I masturbate a lot?"
"No, not so much on the sexual level. On a self-comfort level. On an awareness of yourself, and who you are."
"I remember once when I was about fifteen, the penny dropped, and I suddenly thought 'I am a homosexual'. And I cried, for about fifteen minutes, and that was it. I'd passed through the mirror."
"What made you cry?"
"Because I knew I would have to leave certain things behind, that wouldn't be for me. But that's OK, the gears changed, and self-acceptance has never been a problem. That doesn't mean I don't think I have faults, I have many. But they are not particularly associated with my orientation.
"The other thing I did when I went to university was to get to know the girls a bit. Which I loved. And I always think I pull women far more easily than I pull blokes."
"Do you have many women friends?"
"Yes, I've always had lots of women friends, and as I say in the book, although I've fallen in love with quite a few men, it's the women who have kept me going in this life, and I have no question that that's true."
The bond between gay men and straight or lesbian women is a subject that deserves some serious sociological research, what does Fallowell get from these friendships? He doesn't even have to think about the answer... it pops out almost before the question is complete. "Consistency. And a kind of stability. But perhaps, hot love affairs of the romantic sort are inherently unstable, and the fact that I don't fall in love with women in quite the wrenchingly passionate way fall in love with men, is a good thing. It's like they always used to say in the late 18th century, and even in the 19th century, when the romantic movement was all in swing, you have a passionate affair with your lover, but use your head when you choose the person you marry. So there is a touch of that in the interpretation of my relationships with women.
"But also, women are also much more open about things than men are. I mean, men can be a nightmare. We really can. Just so uptight and screwed up, and so concerned about their self-image all the time. And I know why… the man's ability to have an erection is dependant on satisfying their self-image - it's that simple. And if his self-image is punctured, he loses his hard-on. So I understand this parading of cocks, this basic, strutting thing that's intimately male, because it's intimately connected with his ability to discharge his seed. But it can be terribly tiresome. And I do think there's something in this idea that nature's had enough of this destructive testosterone - I was reading an article just the other day, saying basically that evolution now belongs to the women… if we survive that long."
Fallowell's fear for the future is something we'll come back to later, but it may be worth noting that he has effortlessly and perhaps unconsciously veered the conversation back to sex, cocks and sexuality. In this, Fallowell in the flesh and Fallowell between the book covers are indistinguishable. What does he hope gay readers in particular will come away with from the book? "The idea that they can forget that they are gay, and just go with what they think. In other words, they don't have to edit themselves or basket themselves as gay. 'I'm a man who felt this on this occasion and I can say so'. I don't have to say 'oh by the way I'm gay', before I say it.
"In other words, I think the next movement for gay people is to lose the self-consciousness of being gay, and just be themselves."
Some people would say that in that direction lies assimilation, and the loss of identity and the loss of culture. The prospect of that loss doesn't concern Fallowell one bit... in fact he relishes the prospect. "Good! You can't separate yourself out from everybody indefinitely. We have 99.99% of our genes in common. I mean there's just a little flick of the switch that's slightly different. And I think you need to be very careful about building a whole culture on one little flick of the switch."
Next weekend, in part two of this feature, Duncan Fallowell explains why he prefers natural, unmodified bodies, reveals his favourite New Zealand town, and reflects on two icons of kiwi masculinity: Sir Edmund Hillary and the All Blacks. And he elaborates on his fears for the future of the human race...
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