Andrew Doyle on Forrest Reid

The acerbic writer and stand-up is determined to spread the word about his gay literary hero – who died 70 years ago.

Most GT readers will know Andrew Doyle for his stand up comedy; as a frequently hilarious, sharply intelligent, and fearless stage presence, ready to push audience tolerance of “bad taste” to the limit.

Some of you may be aware that he’s also a busy playwright, with more than a dozen musicals, plays and comedies to his name—including a co-writing credit with Tom Walker on YouTube sensation Jonathan Pie’s live show.

Relatively few people, however, will be aware of Andrew Doyle the academic; that this former teacher is, for example, a Visiting Research Fellow at Queen’s University Belfast. Or that a recent project has been a biography of a literary hero—the Belfast-born novelist Forrest Reid, who died 70 years ago this month.

“I first found out about Reid while reading the works of E M Forster—Forster and Reid were close friends, and he had written an essay on Reid’s work,” Andrew explains. “Reid was from Belfast, my family is Northern Irish and I had studied English Literature—so it struck me as odd that I hadn’t heard of the man Forster described as the most important novelist in Northern Ireland.”

Andrew eventually tracked down some of Reid’s work, and immediately loved them, but admits that Reid highlights the fickle nature of literary trends. “It would have been uncontroversial to say, during Forrest Reid’s lifetime, that he was one of the most important novelists from Northern Ireland—right up to the 1970s or 1980s, people like the Belfast-born poet John Hewitt were doing so. He’s just fallen out of fashion.”

Admittedly Reid’s work could never be described as “commercial”. “Reid had a very specific view of the world; it’s always to do with male adolescence, that period of life he romanticised and felt was the only period of life worth living. It’s nearly always set in or around Belfast, almost always to do with the idea of paganism and a belief in animism—that the Earth and the landscape are alive with spirits, elemental forces. That’s not what’s going to fly off the shelves in Waterstones.”

“What you do get in his novels is someone who is able to write through the eyes of an adolescent male very authentically, and yet with this beautiful clear prose style which he cultivated over many decades of work.”

Nor does it help that Reid’s work is extremely difficult to classify in literary terms. “Chronologically, you might say he’s a contemporary of the Irish Literary Revival,” Andrew says, “but his work doesn’t sit comfortably with that because its apolitical—and the Irish Literary Revival was a very politicised movement.

“Reid had no interest in politics, in Catholic or Protestant divides. When there were air raids over Belfast he would play his opera records full blast out of the windows to try and stave it off. Reid is a very eccentric, unique individual—and writes as such. A lot of people find his books alienating, but those who do connect with them become very single-minded and obsessive about them.”

Andrew would be the first to include himself among the latter group, not least because he considers Reid an important gay novelist. This is despite the fact that Reid notably hated sex. While he possibly had some sexual experiences as a younger man, the author was certainly celibate in later life.

It is, of course, worth remembering some context here: Reid was just 19 years old when Oscar Wilde went on trial for sodomy and gross indecency. Yet Reid wasn’t simply a gay man hiding in the closet; he genuinely loathed sex—heterosexual and homosexual. “He felt it was all corrupting, he thought that his innocence and his youth was corrupted by the onset of sexuality,” Andrew says.

“This makes his work quite complicated for a modern gay reader, because, of course, the books don’t revel in sexuality. The novel Uncle Stephen has the closest you get to the depiction of a gay relationship in Reid’s work, between Tom Barber—his most famous character—and the young poacher Jim Deverell—a working class, rougher lad of a similar age to Tom. There’s an obvious sexual frisson between them.”

“What gay readers will get is this sense of Reid writing about gay teenagers. Even when he’s writing Tom Barber as a pre-sexual boy, there’s that sense that he’s different from other people. All of Reid’s characters are very different from the society around them, and I think gay readers can identify with that.”

Above all, though, Andrew simply believes that Reid is a great writer. “As a prose stylist, he’s one of the best. Young Tom is a flawless novel; I don’t think Reid puts a foot wrong. Young Tom is particularly astonishing because it reminds me of the ways I used to see the world as a boy; it’s remarkable that Reid has access to that perspective.”

The Tom Barber Trilogy—consisting of Young Tom, The Retreat, and Uncle Stephen—are among the growing number of Reid’s novels republished by US-publisher Valancourt Books. Andrew has written introductions for each of the new editions, but admits this isn’t some grand flowering of renewed interest in the author.

“Every 30 years or so somebody tries to re-energise interest in Reid,” he says. “John McGahern, the Irish novelist, tried to do so in the 1970s. The academic Brian Taylor published a biography of Reid in 1980. I just want to see these books back in print, really; to say there’s a renewed interest is probably an exaggeration.

“He was never really appreciated in his home town, but he would never leave it either,” Andrew says. “People like Walter de la Mare and Forster petitioned him to come to London, and he just wasn’t interested. He just lived in his little council house in Belfast, did his work and got on with it. I would say people still don’t know who he is, and that’s part of what I’m trying to redress.”

First published in Gay Times #468 February 2017.

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