Queer Lives & Art: books and belonging with Lavender Menace

Lavender Menace Queer Books Archive and Blog was founded in Edinburgh by Sigrid Nielsen and Bob Orr. It was set up to preserve and celebrate hard-to-find and out-of-print LGBT+ books. Sigrid and Bob are working with illustrator and writer Kate Charlesworth on a series of portraits of queer writers. One of the illustrations will feature bisexual Scottish poet Hamish Henderson (1919-2002), who is represented in the National Galleries of Scotland collection.

Afton Moran, an Edinburgh-based, non-binary actor, speaks with Sigrid, Bob and Kate about the history of the archive and the life and work of Henderson.

The conversation covers everything from selling books in a chilly club cloakroom to the importance of feeling you belong.

Read this blog in Gaelic

Afton
Lovely to see you all. I’m excited to hear about Lavender Menace. The first question would be quite simply, why was Lavender Menace set up?

Bob
Lavender Menace grew out of a book stall that I ran in 1976 in the Gay Information Centre, run by the Scottish Minorities Group in Broughton Street, Edinburgh. It expanded to the point where I was able to attract a collective of people to help run it. By that time it was called Open Gaze Book Stall. It was so successful. Then to cut a long story short, we left the Gay Centre. The collective carried on organising with a view to opening a book shop.

Sigrid 
The first place that we were able to sell our books was found by Bob and it was Fire Island disco [a gay nightclub on Princes Street], selling books in the cloakroom. It was so cold that you could see your breath in the winter. If we were getting cold, we could go and dance and get warm! After a year of looking for venues in Edinburgh, we were offered a basement space by the Scottish Campaign to Resist the Atomic Menace in Forth Street. It was in a pretty ruinous state, so we spent the whole summer putting it back together. We wanted to have a bookshop with interesting colours. We had olive green and cream with pine shelves. There was a variety of tables, one of which we acquired when it was being thrown out of a bar in Hanover Street. There were two of us there, so we said, can we have it? And we carried it back to Forth Street. We decided to open in time for the Edinburgh Festival in 1982. We spent the whole night stocking the shelves. We had ordered books from America, from Gay’s The Word and from distributors down south and the next day at 10am the shop opened, and it was full all day. When we closed, we had £100. And that's how the story started.

Lavender Menace on the railings at the top of the stairs, Forth Street © Alison Orr
Lavender Menace Bookshop interior

Afton
That's amazing. There's a real sense of community and such a wonderful story of starting out. Is it still a physical shop?

Bob
Lavender Menace traded under that name for five years until 1987, when we moved to on street premises in Dundas Street and changed the name to West & Wilde Bookshop. My now husband and my business partner, we ran West & Wilde for ten years until it closed in 1997. Various factors to do with the economy, competition from High Street chains, the beginning of the internet, we were finding it really difficult to keep our heads above water and say ‘we're still here’. We had to close. So, no, it no longer exists in that form, but Sigrid and I went on to form Lavender Menace as a Queer Books Archive to save the books we were selling.

Sigrid
In 2015 James Ley, a playwright in Edinburgh, wanted to write about the bookshop. The play, Love Song to Lavender Menace was first put on at the Traverse Theatre in 2016. As a result of the play we were asked to speak to LGBT Youth Scotland and for the first time we talked to LGBT readers of now, some of whom were teenagers. One of the things that became clear was that many of the books that had really changed our customers lives had completely disappeared. People didn't even know the names of the writers. We did an online event about Iona McGregor, a very well-known young people’s novelist in the 60s and 70s who wrote a lesbian novel in the 80s. Many people said: ‘I was so happy to learn about a new lesbian author’. So, we decided to save as many of these books as we could and write about them, to create a database and blog and hold events.

Afton
That's fantastic there's still this archive living on through the stories of other people and of yourselves. When you first set up was there any backlash?

Bob
Well, yeah, the concept of a lesbian and gay bookshop, as we called it then, was actually beyond most people’s imaginations. Some people thought we were selling porn, some people couldn't understand that there were actually enough books to fill a shop. So from that point of view, it took quite a lot to convince people. Sigrid’s got a story about being sung a hymn to…

Sigrid
We had very little trouble in the shop, at least at first. In the beginning it was all pretty innocent. One day a man came into the shop and stood by the political pamphlets and began to sing hymns. He wasn't harassing anyone. I had seen him before and he seemed a very innocent character. So one of the volunteers and I stood on either side of him and said ‘can we help you?’ He took the hint, gave us a big grin and left. One time a teenager came in and threw a book across the room and you were there that day Bob.

Bob
Right, thank you for reminding me! Yeah, they were local school kids. We finally got an apology from the head teacher, which was pretty good going. But when we moved to Dundas Street, we were much more exposed and we had spray painting on the front window. We had a couple of attempts to burn the shop down. In a way we just took it as part of being there. But we survived. We got through it. And it was good publicity for us too of course.

Sigrid and Bob

 

 

The concept of a lesbian and gay bookshop, as we called it then, was actually beyond most people’s imaginations

Bob

Afton 
On the flip side, what sort of joy have you found in setting up Lavender Menace and the archive?

Sigrid 
Nobody has ever asked that question and I'm very happy that you've asked it now because that was running through everything, even the frustrating parts. In those days, it's hard to express now, but secrecy wasn't just an impulse, it was woven through everything in your life and everything you did. When my partner and I walked down the street, we had to be careful not to walk too close together, shoulder to shoulder. The bookshop was a chance to break out of all that and make a statement and say: ‘this is me, this is what I believe, and this is what I stand for’. In two different ways, one because there were queer writers, and two, because of the importance of writing and telling the truth about taboo subjects. Many of these writers had experienced much worse things than we ever had. E. M. Forster didn't dare to publish his gay novel, Maurice, during his lifetime and Iona McGregor also waited for her whole life. She published her first lesbian novel when she was in her 60s. To make a stand against all that was a privilege.

Bob
Yeah. For me, the joy of it was everything that Sigrid has said, but also being able to run a shop like any other business. Where we wanted to convince people it was a safe place to be. And to be able to welcome people on equal terms and show them that there was a chance for them to learn about their own identity through reading.

Afton
That's wonderful. Thank you for sharing that, it's so lovely to hear. I think we need to talk about the joys of queer businesses and ventures. What is the importance do you think of creating a space for safety and acceptance in Edinburgh?

Sigrid
One person who was a customer and spoke about the shop twenty-two years later expressed it very well, she said: ‘I can still get the books, but I can't get the space’. It must have meant a lot to people to be able to go to the space whenever it was open seven days a week. They didn't have to buy a book, just to see all these titles and see themselves reflected on the shelves. And know that we were all on the same page. One of our authors said: ‘thank you for a very gay evening, and you know what I mean.’ Just being in a world where you belonged. And it says that now in Category Is bookshop in Glasgow. They've put up big letters saying ‘You Belong’.

The Pink Paper

Kate
I moved up to Scotland in 1990 and I didn't live in Edinburgh, so although I didn't come into the shop very often, it was fantastic to know it was there. It was the only place in town that I knew of that I could go into and be guaranteed to be among my people. It’s lovely now that there are lots of places queer people are more visible, but then it just wasn't like that. I used to go in and look for my book and if it wasn't near enough to the front, I put it in front! [Sigrid and Bob] you probably always batted away authors who were coming in and rearranging the displays! It was a community hub to a degree as well. You could get The Pink Paper. I was contributing to it and that began in 1987, six weeks before Section 28 kicked off. So it was absolutely indispensable and the only place I knew I could get it was West & Wilde. You could get information about what was going on. It was a great. It was a gay Oasis!

Bob
I remember being delighted to have you as a neighbour and popping in every so often, Kate. It felt that we had made a connection with the metropolis down south.

Afton 
It’s places like Lavender Menace that are the reason why so many openly queer spaces exist. It reminds me of myself going into these places and feeling that sense of community. It's lovely to be around people that you know are just like you.
Kate, I know you're about to illustrate Hamish Henderson [for Lavender Menace] and there's a portrait bust of him in the National Galleries of Scotland. Could tell me who he was?

Kate
Well, I couldn't have told you much about him before we decided to do this. I'd heard of him, I knew he was a left-wing poet, but I didn't know he was queer. He was bisexual and a proud bisexual at that. He had such a layered and entwined life. He was a poet, lifelong socialist, internationalist, folklorist, activist and proud bisexual. He was brought up by a single mother speaking and singing Gaelic. He once asked where does this song come from, and she said some songs we sing are not in books. And that started him off as a folklorist and a collector of songs and material. He was an absolute force of nature. He was deeply involved in the Scottish Folk Revival in the 50s, he was really driving it. In 1951 he created part of the first Edinburgh People’s Festival. He also co-founded the School of Scottish Studies at the University of Edinburgh. He was openly bisexual in a time when homosexual acts in Scotland were illegal and were until 1980. He spoke at the 1974 International Gay Rights Conference in Edinburgh. 

Broad Daylight (Tricia Malley and Ross Gillespie) Mr Hamish Henderson, 1919 - 2002. Honorary Fellow. School of Scottish Studies, University of Edinburgh 1997 © Tricia Malley & Ross Gillespie, broad daylight

He was openly bisexual in a time when homosexual acts in Scotland were illegal and were until 1980. He spoke at the 1974 International Gay Rights Conference in Edinburgh. So many people still remember him. You may too Bob and Sigrid, my partner Dianne certainly does. He was a regular at the Sandy Bell’s Bar, a great folk music bar. He was a very convivial man. And I think he was probably a bit of a flâneur! Many of the photographs I've seen of him in later life, he looked very cheery.

Afton
He sounds fascinating, so I can imagine why, but why have you chosen Hamish as inspiration for your illustrations?

Kate
We don't have many bisexual people for one thing, and there aren't that many out famous writers, and he was very, very unusual. Although Henderson is such an astonishingly important person in modern Scotland, not that many people know about him. But what a guy, what a character.

Bob
Somewhere: For Us the new [LGBTQ+] magazine that's been out for a while, published an article about him and that's what really inspired me to approach Kate.

Kate
He spoke quite passionately about how it [being gay] was natural. And he got a lot of flack for that.

Sigrid 
He did campaign for law reform [LGBT+ rights and acceptance]. We do know that. This is exactly what the archive is for, to encourage writers and researchers to get on the radio and do podcasts and blogs and start a conversation about Scottish queer writers and artists.

Kate
He's underpinned an awful lot in Scotland, a lot of music wouldn't have been possible without him or this sort of revival of Scots and Gaelic.

Afton
It sounds like Hamish is a really important person to keep alive so I'm excited to see the illustrations and it’s such a wonderful job you're all doing. Thank you.

26 April 2022