Obituary: Denis Lemon
Saturday 23 July 1994
I NEVER met Denis Lemon, writes James Kirkup. But in the early Seventies I found his editing of Gay News original, brave and professional. I first got in touch with him when I was living in New York, where the liberated and liberating sexual climate released in me a long sequence of homosensual poems. The only place likely to accept them in Britain was Gay News, so I started sending them there. Among them was the poem that caused such an unnecessary uproar, 'The Love that Dares to Speak its Name', and which I disowned long ago. It was part of the sequence I called, in homage to Picasso, 'My Blue Period'.
This involved me in some correspondence with Lemon, whose letters were funny, affectionate and perceptive. One of the last poems he accepted was 'Gay Nursery Rhyme' - based on 'Gay go up and gay go down / To ring the bells of London Town'. But when the storm broke over our heads, I begged Lemon not to print it, and he sent a sympathetic letter of agreement.
By this time, I was concluding negotiations on a contract for a teaching post in Kyoto and I returned to Europe to make preparations for my departure. I wrote to Denis Lemon asking him how I could be of help, but received no reply. I wrote to his staff at the newspaper, but got no answer. Then I received a disturbing letter from Marion Boyars, who informed me of something I had not known: I would not be allowed to defend myself in court.
The date for my return to Japan was put off again and again as I tried to get to the bottom of Gay News's mysterious silence. I wrote several letters outlining my position to Boyars, who without asking my permission sent them to the Observer, which published them. I finally left for Japan. I had done all I could to help.
Francis King, like many others, misunderstood my attitude. In his inventive autobiography Yesterday Came Suddenly (1993) there are many inaccuracies about me. Even worse, he suggests that I am a coward: 'Since Denis Lemon was a friend of mine, since I felt sorry for him, cruelly isolated by Kirkup's refusal to return to England to defend his own poem', he agreed to John Mortimer's request to give evidence - which he was of course unable to do, as I could have told him. He continues: 'It was a great relief when the judge ruled that literary merit was irrelevant in the case.' But there was no relief for me, pursued by avalanches of hate mail, some of it from so-called 'gays' and 'Christians'. In the end, I gave up opening my letters, and drowned a great bundle of them in the Inland Sea, along with piles of unread press-cuttings.
When the case was over, I again wrote to Lemon expressing my sympathy and again offering him my support, but there was no reply from him, though I got one from his assistants, who declared that my letters in the Observer had been magnificent - I had written to Boyars that 'blasphemy, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder' - and that they had been a great help and consolation to everyone concerned. I now realise that Lemon was advised not to write to me by his lawyers.
I deeply regret the trouble I caused him and his newspaper, and mourn the passing of someone I should have liked to know better, but was prevented from doing so. He was gifted, witty and courageous.
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