three pairs of lovers with space

A review of Enchanted Youth by Richie McMullen, GMP Publishers, 1990

 

The danger and allure of prostitution for boys  *****

                       1994 edition

Described as the author's "journey from prostitution to love", this memoir continues the story of Richie McMullen, recounted in Enchanted Boy, from the moment in November 1958, just after his fifteenth birthday, when he boarded a train in his native Liverpool in order to seek his fortune as a rent boy in London's Piccadilly Circus.

Enchanted Boy was good, but this is much better, Richie clearly having found his wings as a writer.  There is more humour and finer description.  Where its predecessor jumped about over ten years of Richie's life, this is a continuous narrative covering only sixteen months, and much more gripping.  The drama is such as to strain its credibility as a strictly true story, especially the twists and strokes of fortune in the larger-than-life story of love at first sight and Richie's inadvertent brushes with the underworld of serious professional crime.  I must admit to badly wanting it all to be true and, in the end, I was just able to.  Curiously, some fairly important new details about Richie's earlier life emerge, suggesting that in his first book he had not felt able to tell all.

Enchanted Youth is also an intrinsically far more enjoyable story.  Most of all this is due to the love story to die for of Richie and upper-class fourteen-year-old Alexander which, though taking up only a small portion of the novel, neatly holds it together.  But even without that magical component, it is more inspiring than the grim story of Richie's childhood, largely because it is the story of a boy who has finally and rightly taken his life into his own hands.

                London rentboys

The dedication of the book to boys in prostitution and the middle-aged Richie's charitable work on their behalf might have indicated an urge to decry their "fall" and the society that failed to prevent it, but campaigners hoping to find fuel here for stirring public indignation are likely to be sorely disappointed by Richie's frank and nuanced account.  In the first place, the second sentence of the memoir will dispel any illusion that this writer, eminently well-qualified from experience to know what he is talking about, thinks pubescent boys are too young for sex: "My body was fifteen years old, excited, eager for the unknown and ready for all the sex and money it could come by."  His much-respected friend Joker explains to a social worker, "We are sexual you know? ... You don't seem to understand, we actually enjoy having sex with other males."  Secondly, though Richie is furious about the mistreatment of rent boys, especially his experience of being kidnapped and raped over two days, he refuses to condemn prostitution per se: "Don't get me wrong here.  I'm not so much hung up about having sex for money as I am about putting up with the crap which goes with it. It's the way of living which is the problem not the selling of sex. Damn it, everyone sells something of themselves, whatever they do."

In the same way that I cannot imagine any spirited child failing to cheer for the girl heroine of Paper Moon in her final decision to run away, as I did at that age, so I cannot help but empathise with Richie for his decision to become a rent boy and, remembering in myself the adolescent longings he expressed so well in the second sentence I quoted,  deeply envy him the freedom and the better of the adventures it afforded him.  Hence much of the fascination in reading what happened, especially what happened sexually.  Unlike its predecessor, Enchanted Youth is sometimes erotic and better for it, Richie soon turning against the Catholic indoctrination that had earlier ruined sex for him.  It is notable, however, that though Richie says he was excited by sex with men, he never alludes to being turned on by them. The only genuinely erotic passages describe sex between Richie and other early teens, and are full of reminders of the smooth and hairless torsos of boys.

Richie is sadly dead, but if he were alive today, I somehow doubt he would approve of the disappearance of Piccadilly's boy prostitutes, long ago "airbrushed by omniscient CCTV cameras and the ubiquitous politics of totalitarianism," as Gail Cunningham aptly puts it in London EyesEnchanted Youth is an excellent memorial to an obviously lovable person who lived in more exciting times.  If only he had left a third book to tell what became of him and Alexander!

 

Reviewed by Edmund Marlowe on Goodreads.com, 26 Aug. 2016.