My Policeman by Bethan Roberts
My review list for the Queer Book Nook is rather long but I was always going to get to My Policeman at some point. The release of the movie starring half of our favourite couple is looming ever closer and it was only fitting that I devoted some article space to this novel. So me being the impulsive sausage that I am, I ordered the book immediately and anxiously awaited its arrival. And I started it I just couldn’t put it down, but not for the reasons that you might think. I was so annoyed, angered, enraged, and every other negative feeling in between when reading this book that the pages just flew by, my temper flaring as I went. What annoyed me so much? It’s a bit of a long story really.
For those who don’t know, the book is set in 1950s Brighton, where Marion Taylor, the book’s protagonist and main narrator, meets and falls in love with Tom Burgess, her best friend Sylvie’s brother. Eventually, once he’s back from the military where he served as a cook and has joined the police force, she manages to spend time with him as he teaches her to swim and they start a friendship. At the same time, Tom meets Patrick, a slightly older museum curator, and they begin a romantic relationship. Patrick agrees to share Tom with Marion, although Marion seems clueless about this whole thing, and Tom marries Marion with Patrick as his best man. Things plod on for a bit until Marion finally realizes what’s going on and has Patrick arrested for indecency (basically being gay) and ruins Tom’s career as a policeman in the process. The two men lose contact and things finally come to a head when Marion brings an ailing Patrick to live with them and writes her version of events (the actual book we’re reading), a confession of sorts to the men of her part in the direction their lives took.
Marion is the worst character to have ever existed in a novel. I used to reserve this covered spot for Briony (the lying and manipulative narrator) from Atonement or Mr. Rochester (the misogynistic maniac who locked his wife in an attic) from Jane Ayre, but hats off to Marion, because she’s knocked both of those characters off the top spot.
My dislike for Marion began almost right away when we first meet her. She’s writing this ‘confession journal’ and talking about how she cares for Patrick, but everything she says about him is so passive-aggressive. I’m not sure how aware she is of this, but she has an underlying layer of soft cruelty when dealing with Patrick, like refusing to hire a weekend carer so she can give Patrick his bedbath, knowing how undignified it must make him feel.
“I will not avert my eyes at the necessary moment, or at any moment, I will not look away. Not anymore. But you never look at me as I tug down your pyjama bottoms…and the sheet becomes damp, your eyes squeeze shut, and your drooping face droops even more…I am not distressed…I am comforted by all this, Patrick…”
She also likes to mention all the things she does for him, playing programmes he would like on the television, giving him the sea view room, etc, but instead of endearing us to her it just makes us furious.
“I have given this bedroom to you, and I have arranged your bed, so you may see the glimpse of the sea as much as you like. I’ve given all this to you, Patrick, despite the fact that Tom and I never before had our own sea view.”
She wants the attention of sacrificing for Patrick, the drama of it all, and everything she does has everything to do with her and not very much to do with Patrick. Even on the very first page, we get a hint of how she enjoys the power dynamic between her and Patrick, knowing that Patrick relies on her for everything.
“It’s odd, isn’t it, that I’m the one now with pen and paper, writing this – what shall we call it? It’s hardly a journal, not of the type you once kept. Whatever it is, I’m the one writing, while you lie in your bed, watching my every move.”
Once she becomes a teacher, we begin to see how bullying Marion can be. She judges each child before getting to know them and often comments on how stupid they are or how they are clearly troublemakers etc. She makes her mind up very quickly about each child regardless if it’s true and only realizes this a little when Patrick praises art that one of her pupils has done and she observes that although she has judged that pupil to be difficult, Patrick has managed to see through the surface and see the child’s talent.
“Alice went on to display quite a talent for art. It was something I’d completely failed to pick up on, but you saw it clearly. I remembered what Tom had told me about you, early on: he doesn’t make assumptions just because of how you look. At that moment I knew it to be true and felt a little ashamed of myself. “
When Marion can’t ignore the obvious any longer, that Tom and Patrick are romantically involved, Marion’s language is very upsetting. She talks about Patrick being an invert and perverted, but never once thinks of Tom that way. Instead, she talks to her friend Julia, a colleague at the school, about how she might be able to cure Tom of his affliction once Patrick is out of the picture. Martian actually loses her friendship with Julia over this, as Julia reveals she is also gay that tries to explain that it’s not something that can be cured. Julia’s hinted solution is to leave Tom and Patrick to their lives and divorce Tom, but Marion’s sights have always been honed on Tom.
“Listen to me, Marion. I know he’s deceived you and it’s painful, but he won’t change…I know it’s difficult. But it will be better for both of you if you can accept that…perhaps he shouldn’t have married you”.
“I’m glad he married me. It was what he wanted. What we both wanted. And he could change…with me by his side. He could get – help, couldn’t he?”
Please don’t say these things, Marion. They’re just not true…Really, Marion. You have to open your eyes. You’re too bright not to. It’s such a waste.”
It’s here that she writes the letter to Patrick’s boss about his inclinations, never once stopping to think of what might happen. She says she just wanted to scare Patrick away, but when the plan backfires she keeps quiet instead of confessing what she had done.
In all honesty, there are plenty of good points about this book if we ignore the awfulness of Marion. Firstly, the book is fantastically written. The setting is described beautifully and the sections written from Patrick’s perspective are simply stunning, especially when he’s describing the artwork at the museum. There’s one particular passage where Patrick shows Tom the statue of Icarus, telling him the myth and discussing the statue with him.
“The most impressive thing about him, to me, is his belief in those wings. Useless, fragile, attached to his arms by a couple of cuffs, and yet he believes in them as a child might believe a cloak will make him invisible. He is youthfully muscular, standing with his hip to the side, his leg bent, his gleaming chest catching the spotlight above. The line from his throat to his groin delicately curved. He stands alone on his rock, looking coyly down.”
The descriptions here are simply stunning and I actually put the book down to Google the statue in question so I could see exactly what he was talking about.
The interactions between Tom and Patrick are captured perfectly, using as few words as possible and still conveying the danger that went along with being homosexual during this time. There are so many themes and issues covered in the book, from closeting to societal norms to toxic masculinity, and most of them can be seen from what people don’t do and don’t say, as opposed to the actual dialogue and action of the story.
Masculinity within society is evident throughout the novel. We can see it in how the men are expected to act, such as when Tom tells his family he’s been accepted into the military.
“After giving a brief nod, Mr Burgess stood up and held out his hand. Tom also stood, and clasped his father’s fingers. I wondered if they’d ever shaken hands before. It didn’t look like something they did very often. There was a firm shake and then they both glanced around the room as if wondering what to do next.”
This contrasts greatly with how his father behaves once he finds out that Tom is joining the military as a cook and not as a fighter.
“The two men stared at each other and Sylvie let out a giggle. Mr. Burgess suddenly sat down.”
You can also see it from the emotions they don’t show, and in how little they say during what could be an emotional moment, such as when Marion gets married and she mentions her dad’s reaction to it.
“I expected him to say something, to confess his pride or his fears, but he was silent, and when he adjusted my veil, his hands shook.”
When Tom gets his job as a policeman, he mentions to Patrick that if you’re interested in art then it makes you less of a man. It’s almost as if he’s looking to Patrick for permission to explore the softer side of himself.
I don’t mean to be rude, but it’s unusual isn’t it, for a policeman to be interested in art. Do any of your colleagues feel the same way, do you think?
“Down the station, if you like art, you’re wet. Or worse.”
For example, there’s a section where Marion, Patrick, and Tom are all sitting together having a drink and the conversation turns to gender roles in society. Marion expresses her wish to keep working should she have children and Tom is immediately set against that, stating that he would provide and she would stay at home.
“There would be no need for you to go to work, Marion. I could provide for a family. That’s the father’s job.”
Surprisingly, Patrick agrees with Marion rather than side with Tom to gain clout. It would have been easy for him to cause more trouble for Tom and Marion by causing them to argue, but by backing Marion Patrick manages to highlight how restrictive gender roles can be for both sexes, and not just men.
“I think Marion’s quite right. Why shouldn’t mothers go out to work? Especially if their children are in school. It would have done my own mother the power of good to have some profession, some purpose.”
During Patrick’s section, we learn of his previous lover, Michael, who had killed himself when someone threatened to expose his homosexuality. This entire story of their relationship and finding Michael dead was so real and heartbreaking that I had to stop for a short breather. I was never so glad for a cup of Yorkshire tea as I was at that moment. The fear and uncertainty that Michael must have felt really struck me and I felt myself wanting to reach through the pages and just make everything ok for him and for poor Patrick.
“Some weeks later I found another note in his flat, and this time the price of silence had doubled. Within two months of that first letter, Michael had killed himself.”
There’s everything you would want from a great novel, romance, complications, illicit affairs, art and literature, grief, loss, and heartbreak. Looking at this list of positives, this should have been a book that I loved, but it wasn’t. Unfortunately, It’s Marion’s fault that it wasn’t.
With the release date of the movie, My Policeman is a hot topic of conversation. During an interview with Rolling Stone, Harry talks about the plot and the importance of the movie. It’s important that people don’t write it off as just being a gay story about gay people, but rather a meaningful story about real-life things which just happens to involve gay people.
“It’s not like this is a gay story about these guys being gay. It’s about love and about wasted time to me.”
It’s entirely possible that young people today aren’t aware that homosexual practices were illegal in the 1950s. In fact, when speaking with my daughter who’s 15 on the subject, she stated that the 50s weren’t that long ago and I must have got my dates wrong. Sadly, the dates aren’t wrong and many men were sent to prison for simply deciding to love their partners instead of opting to pretend to be straight. Harry himself comments upon this.
“It’s obviously pretty unfathomable now to think you couldn’t be gay – that was illegal.”
From what can be gleaned from snippets and hints of the trailer, the movie will follow the book rather closely, although it’s uncertain whether it will all be from Marion and Patrick’s point of view as in the book. I’m rather interested to see if Patrick’s old lover, Michael will be mentioned within the movie, as well as Patrick’s mother, as they were both incredibly impactful on Patrick’s character. I also wonder how much we will be encouraged to view Marion as a naive victim rather than the villain she comes across as in the novel.
The main wish I have for the movie is for the many straight young fans of Harry to see just how difficult it used to be, and indeed still can be, for people who identify as LGBTQAI+. Statistically, it’s thought that there is 1 gay person for every 5 heterosexual people, and that would imply that there are many people out there struggling with their sexuality at some point in their lives. If this movie can normalize that even a little, then that will count as a win in my book. Harry actually commented on this, stating –
“I think everyone, including myself, has their own journey with figuring out sexuality and getting more comfortable with it.”
It’s easy to see just how much the movie resonated with Harry. He clearly identifies to some extent with Tom’s character, prompting the producer of the project to state that Harry was basically Tom in terms of character.
“He was so passionate about the material, the book, and the script, and I looked at Michael and was like, ‘Oh my god, he’s Tom. This is Tom’.”
The movie is due to be released in October for those in the US and November for those in the UK and I for one can’t wait to see it.
- How Harry Styles Became the World’s Most Wanted Man – Rolling Stone
- My Policeman producer Robbie Rodgers on meeting Harry in London prior to casting him as Tom, via Instagram Live.