Monday, August 9, 2010

Wingers Landfall by Stuart Lauder

I came across a reference to this book in a paper by Garry Wotherspoon.
I sought out a copy and read it in full. Winger's Landfall (Eyre and Spottiswoode, London, 1962) concerns Harry Shears, a winger (steward) on a liner, the Cyclamen, plying between Sydney and Tilbury docks in the United Kingdom.
Harry has been out in Australia for quite a few months. He takes up the position as winger after he knocks out the incumbent in a night attack. Harry is not necessarily a nice person.
The book recounts life below decks in a very lively fashion. The Merchant Navy, it seems, had its fair share of queens and queers among the crew. There are all types detailed here -- Diamond Lil, the queen of the tub; Rita, a drunk queer; sixteen-year-old flirt Marilyn (a boy); and old, fat queen Patience Strong. Harry is a butch type, but he's still attracted to the young bellboy, Prince, with whom he begins a liaison.
But Harry is searching for clues as to what happened to his half-brother, Danny, who went overboard from the Cyclamen just a day out from Tilbury.
He discovers Danny was part of a semi-religious group organised by Bernard, a wine waiter whom Harry suspects is using the group for his own sexual satisfaction. Bernard is in fact genuinely interested in the moral welfare of his charges, but Harry can't accept that anyone would be driven by noble motives.
Harry himself was in love with Danny, though he never acted on it. It turns out Danny was epileptic and threw himself off the boat in a fit.
The book descends into farce in its final pages, partly because it was forced to have a tragic ending. Written at a time when homosexuality was still illegal, books about such characters were required to have tragic endings if they were to be be published at all.
Harry tries to meet up with Prince, but as Harry had knocked out and possibly killed Bernard, Prince sends the police in his place. They arrive and Harry has a fit and collapses and that's it.
Up until then, the book was a surprisingly good read, full of observations about life on board a liner as well as in Sydney, Melbourne and Fremantle, where the liner stops on its voyage, as well as Colombo. The scenes of shipboard meals, cleaning the ship and details of the peak (the crew's cabin) are enlightening.
The book is very candid about the relationshiop between Prince and Harry, with no comment or judgment about the disparity between their ages. Prince seems quite comfortable with the relationship, but Harry is secretive and tortured about his desires.
The book is well out of print, but an interesting example of early homosexual narrative -- with the obligatory tragic ending.

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