A review of Teardrops on My Drum by Jack Robinson, Swaffham, 1986
Joie de vivre unrestrained by poverty *****
Set mostly in Liverpool in the early thirties, this is Jack’s autobiography down to the age of fourteen. At least until he is twelve and able to start building his own life, he is horrendously poor, with no possessions, one set of clothes, shoeless and often starving. His father is a violent drunk. His uncaring mother sells the beautiful books that were his first school prize and pawns the nice clothes given to him as a present. Early on, he introduces us to the well-off Wallace brothers, who are an apt metaphor for 21st-century boys: waited-on and indulged with expensive toys, but not allowed out on their own. Though Jack says “there were times when I would have swapped my freedom for a good dinner … I felt sorry for them because they were prisoners. They envied me my freedom, thought I had the world at my dirty feet.” If you find that at all surprising, read this book and you will understand.
Do not imagine from the details of Jack’s deprivation that this is the story of a whinger, for nothing could be further from the case. Too proud to be the only one in his class applying for free lunches, he is entirely ready to take responsibility for himself. He is an absolutely wonderful boy, always determined to get the best out of life, adventurous, energetic, wildly enthusiastic, generous and able to relish the simplest pleasures to be found among the people, sights, sounds and smells of his city. The adult narrator has a remarkable gift for remembering these in details and recapturing his youthful excitement; the story is told in the unmistakably authentic voice of a boy.
For a boy with the new yearnings of pubescence, the most exciting possible adventures are of course erotic, hardly made less so by being forbidden. Naturally therefore, Jack seeks these out with his usual enthusiasm, and being good-looking and friendly finds them in such plenty that they become a main theme of his story. At eleven, he responds positively to advances from Eddie, a handsome policeman in a cinema, and begins an almost equally passionate affair with his schoolfellow Eggy. He “practically moved in with Eddie” when still twelve and fully so at thirteen, but had secret trysts with others besides these two mutually recognized lovers. Finally, at fourteen he joins a boys’ battalion in the army, where the boys are at it like rabbits.
Lest it be supposed from the foregoing that this is the story of a gay boy growing up, I should emphasise the sexual relationships described, and not just Jack’s, are all between boys or men and boys; there is no mention of men having sex together. Jack’s world is a pederastic one, sexually more in tune with ancient Greece than gay Britain today: “to see a handsome young man out on the town with his boy was a delight to my eyes”. Jack suffers from the problem posed by the eponymous 13-year-old hero of Angus Stewart’s novel Sandel that there is no answer to the question “What’s the specific term for a boy who loves a man?” In his consequent confusion, he sometimes terms himself homosexual, but also protests to Eddie “I’m not a homosexual! I’m a boy! Your boy! I love you.” Even when he has sex with boys around his own age, there is always a clear differentiation of roles. With Eggy, “we played our separate roles and set a fixed pattern: Eggy , the masculine lover, and I, the happy, fluttering, young sweetie”, but Jack is not an invert by fixed nature, for at the age of fourteen he starts simultaneously to experience a converse longing for boys, which he fulfils in the active role: “I wanted to be Chesty’s boy and Toby’s man.”
For a variety of reasons, including lack of motive as an adult to shed light on something the general public does not want to understand, and well-justified fear of the consequences, it is unusual for boys willingly involved in sexual relationships with men to tell their stories. Teardrops on My Drum is possibly unique as a published, book-length autobiographical account of a boy's involvement in man/boy love. Considering the number of autobiographical or pseudo-autobiographical accounts of sexual abuse produced to satisfy the public's unquenchable thirst for stories purporting to justify its unnuanced outrage over all sexual relationships between adolescents and adults, it would be hard to exaggerate the importance of Teardrops as a counter-narrative to the myth that abuse is what pederasty is about. Jack is certainly not speaking for himself alone; he makes it clear that similar love affairs were going on all around him, discreetly conducted and tacitly tolerated.
Jack and his lovers illuminate the characteristics of pederasty well-known to some historians, but to few others today. Pleasure and excitement are not mere ends, but far more importantly the means by which Jack finds the love and protection he craves. Always averse to sex without plenty of physical affection, he says “I think I like being kissed more than anything else. The sexy bits seem to make it nicer, but the kissing and loving is what I really like.” Besides giving him the love his parents deny him, Eddie feeds and clothes him (and perhaps anyone inclined to belittle this should first try out being as poor as Jack), teaches him boxing, which proves a great asset, introduces him to the theatre and is generally protective of his ever-appreciative boy’s happiness. Asked anxiously if he thought Jack acted girlish, “Of course not!” he replied. “You’re just a lovely handsome boy!” As with most men who have loved boys, the current notion that such desire might rule out getting married seems not to have occurred to Eddie; he tells Jack he does not know why he hasn’t, though “I don’t seem to have time for things like that. Anyway, people seem to shy away from bobbies.”
The most heart-rending moment is when Jack breaks it to Eddie that he has just signed up to join the army for sixteen years on a sudden impulse to “see the world.” Eddie is every bit as aghast as one would expect at this abrupt termination of their two years of bliss, but typically he sees at once that it is in the boy’s interest and that this must come first: “You mustn’t feel bad about it. If you were really my son, I would still have to let you go. You have a life of your own to live. Go out and enjoy it, lad.” Though Jack says he can come back on holiday visits, he is never one to look back, so I was not surprised when the next holidays he readily dismissed the idea in favour of new adventure. I was however saddened by this downside to his single-minded enthusiasm for the road ahead.
I have concentrated on the Greek Love aspect of Jack’s story because it is this for which it is most unusual and therefore valuable, but I should point out that it is also fascinating, if not priceless, for its insights into life in interwar Liverpool, a lost and grimy world as exotic as anywhere in its ways. Sometimes the portrayal of Greek Love converges with broader social history. I wonder whether anyone else has ever recorded this “fortunate” effect of the introduction of legal adoption in 1926: “A man might give an unfortunate boy a helping hand and, if a relationship developed, approach the boy’s parents and offer him a better chance in life. [!]”
Reviewed by Edmund Marlowe on Goodreads.com, 3 Oct. 2015
Comments of general interest will be collected at Letters To The Editor (some editing may be involved)
Jack 22 December 2017
I thought this book was a ripper. The prose style so beautifully expressed the essence of Jackie, the ever-smiling headlong rush of his homoerotically-charged boyhood. One mystery I kept pondering as I read it, though, was why the hell did he call it Teardrops on My Drum? It seemed plain wrong. This plodding, self-indulgent sentiment had no place in Jackie's brisk, upbeat adventures. The answer doesn't come until the very end or, even more concretely, until the beginning of the second installment, Jack and Jamie Go to War.
Jackie's life in Teardrops was a work of self-willed magic. Like a lark ascending, he fled his outcast state, his barren, worthless home, and took flight upon the homoerotic thermals of the masculine world around him. Peter Pan's advice on achieving flight is, "You just think wonderful lovely thoughts, and they lift you up in the air." Jackie, an earthy, real-world scouse, achieves the same effect through smelling nice smells. One of Jackie's earliest memories is of the stink of the middens, "ten foot brick wells for the throwing of muck into." Soon after, his mother, after betraying him by selling his precious books, is cursed as a "Dirty old smelly cow! Fuckin' stinkin' bastard!" Later he explains why he never kisses his mother: "She stinks! I mean she really smells!" Mother, traditionally hearth and home, is here a midden, a pit of refuse to be escaped at any cost. Set alongside this is Jackie's first childhood friend, Tommy Lawless, who is described as a beautiful boy who "always smelled as if he'd just stepped from the bath-tub...how nice and fragrant he smelled." And over the next dozen years, Jack's entire wildly adventurous life becomes a case of following his nose, with obsessively repeated references to the fresh, sweet, sexy fragrance of beautiful boys. When he first meets some American lads, his first impression is, "A smell of masculine deodorants and fresh linen, the clean scent of Americans, fragrant bodies, a new bouquet for the English nose to savour."
Throwing himself into the wide, sexy blue yonder, movement, constant frenetic fly-away movement is Jackie's most basic survival skill. Home would have killed him otherwise, both bodily and spiritually. I think it explains why he so abruptly left Eddie. Not once, but twice. At eleven, Eddie provided Jackie with the adult protection and loving home he'd never had. But at a moment of crisis for the boy, he leaves. After his mother pawns the fine clothes Eddie had given him, he says he felt too ashamed to see Eddie again. It makes no sense. Eddie would have been fully understanding and sympathetic -- and Jackie knew that. He had to leave because at that moment he needed Eddie too much. This was the beating heart of the home that Jackie had necessarily rejected. So he left, built himself up by his own bootstraps, and only then could return and become Eddie's boy. Until the need for movement again whirled him away. On to the boy-barracks where the homoerotic thermals surged into veritable thunderstorms of purple passion.
Then, at the conclusion of Teardrops, the unstoppable lark came a cropper -- right at the very gates of heaven. At fourteen, Jackie's relationship with the sixteen-year-old Chesty was ideal. In the boy-army world, dedicated to athletic and martial excellence, Chesty was both comrade-in-arms and protector and mentor. Sex, love, honour, courage: all were perfectly synchronised in a relationship worthy of the title Greek Love. So when Chesty was suddenly shipped off to a new posting, Jackie plummeted into the muckiestmidden of them all, the midden of the broken heart, with all the emotional squalor that entails.
But this was no place to end the story. This was a dramatic mid-point, not a climax. Ending it here, however, allowed the author to remove the big black emotional blob, to petrify it and place it on the front cover, let it glare out at the public like a riddling sphinx, brooding on its nasty secret but leaving the story proper unsullied.
This is confirmed in the first paragraph of the first chapter of Jack & Jamie. Announcing that he's left the army, fifteen-year-old Jack says that there are "No regrets. No teardrops on my drum. I could cry another day." Brilliant! Jack is an inspiration in his open-hearted ability to love and be loved, so his sure-handed use of emotional suppression, of knowing when to hold 'em -- today a much disparaged tool in a man's arsenal -- is something to be admired. Early in life, Jackie had every right to drown an orchestra in tears, but the music he created in their stead will, I'm sure, give his eternity a much sweeter fragrance.
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ANON 2 28 February 2018
Beautifully written considerations of a book that, when I read it, struck me as ineffably sad.