When I started writing Little Gold I found I was working with two characters I’d met in a flash fiction piece I’d written the previous year. Little Gold was a girl (not unlike the girl I was at 12) and Peggy Baxter was her elderly neighbour. It’s actually quite odd to call her elderly, since she’s only in her sixties, but back in the 1980s life expectancy wasn’t what it is now and, certainly from Little Gold’s perspective, Peggy is an old woman.
I’m not sure I knew that Peggy was a lesbian when I wrote that flash fiction but as I started the novel I knew it for sure. She was, is, Little Gold’s lesbian fairy godmother in many ways. As I explained in my last blog post, her existence, her life, shows Little Gold that it is possible to live as a woman who isn’t traditionally feminine and who loves women. Of course, if you’ve read the book, you’ll know she’s a fairy godmother in other ways too, but that gift, what Peggy brings to Little Gold by just being herself, is what I want to explore further in this blog post.
Once it was clear that Peggy was a lesbian, and that much of her life story was going to be told through memory, I was determined to make her as rounded and realistic a lesbian of her generation as I could. Luckily, I’ve always loved queer history and had a reasonable basic knowledge. I have a selection of books, including the brilliant Daring Hearts and Just Take Your Frock Off, both products of the (much lamented) Brighton Ourstory Project in the 1990s. Daring Hearts has just been made available again as an e-book by its publisher, Queenspark. If you’ve never read it then you really should.
Other aspects of Peggy’s life were built from my own family history. I am a second-generation Brightonian and I grew up on tales of Brighton during the second world war, the fifties and sixties. I didn’t want Peggy to be one-dimensional, defined solely by her sexuality, since I’m sure I’m not alone in finding that extremely irritating in a queer character! I wanted her to have a life in my home town that was a rounded as I could make it, given the restrictions of the two perspective structure of the book. But I did want it to be unapologetically lesbian. And I wanted her to have her beloved friend, Vern, since that sibling-like friendship that can exist between lesbians and gay men is so rarely depicted.
The relationship between Peggy and Little Gold is centred very much around the peace and sanctuary of Peggy’s home. Given the era, and Peggy’s age and personality, there’s little there to mark it out as a lesbian home. So, to create the moment in which Little Gold fully understands who Peggy is, I took them into the loft and had them open an old box of Kenric newsletters.
I chose Kenric because I thought it was the most likely organisation for Peggy to have made contact with, that, whilst not overtly political, was likely to have had newsletters that used the words that Little Gold needed to see. This isn’t the place to give a history of Kenric. If you’re interested then you can check out their website and find out more.
I had a hunch that our local archive, The Keep, might have Kenric newsletters and this proved to be the case. I was able to request what I needed to see, go in and browse a fascinating box of material. And so, the words that Little Gold reads, from the adverts for Sappho magazine, to the details of social events, to the personal ads, are all as they were in a Kenric newsletter of the early 1970s. I don’t want to quote it all here. Go and read the scenes in Little Gold and you’ll see the language used. It’s of its time, quite understated, gentle, courageous language.
This personal ad touched my heart,
Feminine lady 38 would like to meet masculine person 40-55. Human and sincere – any area. Box 120/74
When I saw that ad I couldn’t help but notice the phrase, ‘masculine person’. I thought about the detailed, complex language of gender right now and how, maybe, humans are always looking for new ways to say old things. I wondered who that ‘lady’ was imagining that ‘masculine person’ to be. I wondered if a meeting ever happened. I wondered if there was friendship, if there was sex, if there was love. I wondered what they called themselves, what they called their relationship, what happened in the years that followed.
As a writer I am always imagining lives, picking away at the edges of reality to find a way in to a space where I can start creating. That’s my joy and, also, of course, a terrible liberty. Peggy Baxter is a pure fiction.
But I could not have written Peggy if I hadn’t had the words, images, voices of women of her generation. Just as Little Gold has Peggy as the living proof that a lesbian life is possible, so I have benefitted from the lives of the women who came before me. The books, the magazines, the old Kenric newsletters in the archive, all those were invaluable. But also, women themselves.
Coming out young, as I did, meant that I was a baby dyke in the community. I won’t pretend I always sat at the feet of older women and thought them gurus. I did my share of scoffing and smirking and being certain that my generation was grasping all kinds of stuff they would never understand. But I think I always did know that they had treasure in their pockets too, in the form of life experience. I particularly loved the warm, easy butchness I could often see in older women. When I felt welcomed, when older women expressed a friendly interest in my life, I think I fairly blossomed. It’s not a thing I ever had the words for, or ever managed to say to any of those older women, but I am grateful for it. I guess that the relationship between Peggy Baxter and Little Gold is my thank you to the women who came before me.
The world changes. In the thirty years since I came out, so much has transformed. A pre-internet world was slower, simpler, less overwhelming. I don’t know what, if anything, of this period book, set in the early 1980s, is relevant to younger readers. But I hope, if they read it, they might consider that there’s some treasure to be found in the lives of older lesbians, even now. Because we should have each other. We should find ways to talk and to listen. We all need to hear each other’s stories.