At The Cross (Book Blog)

I found word of Jon Rose’s At The Cross while reading Garry Wotherspoon’s Gay Sydney: A History, and thought it was an interesting find: Published in 1961, Wotherspoon writes that the book captures ‘camp life’ in Sydney’s King’s Cross, home of ‘perverts’ and outsiders,  during the 1940s. The novel’s protagonist, Jon Rose (Supposedly a fictionalised version of the book’s author) travels with an adult couple, Eris and Barry, to Sydney, under the pretence that he is seventeen, and thus not eligible to go to war, and Eris and Barry’s children. However, after a lover’s dispute, in which both of the couple have sexual designs on Jon but will not “Share him” (Rose, pp. 13) he must navigate life in the Cross on his own, eventually renting a room from Bella, an ageing and friendly sex worker.

Wotherspoon notes that Rose uses the defensive ‘I am a camera’ role favoured by other homosexual writers in the latter half of the 20th century (Wotherspoon, pp. 58.) That is, Rose does not indicate the sexual preferences of his main character, and rather than being an agent in the illicit sexual practises that surround him in the Cross, he is an observer. After my own reading of the book, I’d suggest that Wotherspoon’s reading is a little reductive. There is a self-conscious self-censorship to the queerness of Rose. Everything alluding to sex is vague and allusory, hidden just as much by Rose’s observer status as his naivety. He often notices that non-gendered ‘people’ look at him ‘in a nice way,’ (Rose, pp. 13) and at one point, mentions a brief affair with a lover whose gender is never stated, and who is never mentioned again. Given that the book was written in the Sixties, it is not surprising that an author would have to defend himself in this way.

The book was published in England, and the author’s only other book, ‘Peppercorn Days,’ seems to be missing from any records. While ‘At The Cross’ appears in The Penguin Book of Gay Australian Writing, references to it elsewhere seem non-existent. I theorise that Jon Rose may a pseudonym, as no biographical details seem to be available anywhere.

The writing itself is bland and unadorned, with Jon’s misadventures while he pursues a stable income and a home, as well as his dream of being a singer, holding not much interest. However, it does function well as a fascinating portrait into queer existence in a time when it was not an appropriate conversation topic, for instance, during the scenes about the ‘drag balls.’ One example of what I’m talking about here is when the centrepiece party is subject to a police raid. Lady Melba — A drag queen named after Dame Nellie Melba — has an altercation with a police officer:

“Come on down, you poffta.’ (Note: Actual spelling) Melba put her hand on her hip and said ‘Just supposing you come up and get me you big bull.’ The copper was furious and started yelling ‘I told you to get down off there, you great bastard, I’ll bash you black and blue when you do.’ Melba wagged her lorgnette saying “Oh you great big impetuous dream boy, why don’t you come up to Momma?’

The cop glared and bellowed “You’re no Momma, you’ll never even be a Poppa.’ Melba flashed back “Really darling, I know you’re upset, but that’s no way to speak to a dame—“ The copper, still trying to get over bodies, almost shrieked “Dame! Dame? You’re no dame you, you big pervert.” Melba yelled back “and you’re no gent, and I’ll bet you’re bloody lousy in bed as well.” And that second a tremendous gale of screams rent the air, as twenty-five show girls, getting dressed backstage, started to get an inkling of what was happening in front.” (Rose, pp. 103)

Long before ‘transgender’ entered mainstream discourse, we have multiple accounts of ‘men’ using parties such as these to embody female identities, and vice versa:

“Half the theatre and the radio world seemed to be there, as well as quite a few people who, one would have thought from listening to their usual comments on life and people, would sooner have been found dead in the nearest gutter than be seen at such a degenerate ‘do.’ Amongst other games was trying to use the lavatories: If I went to the gents’ what seemed like a host of hair-arranging girls shrieked all as one, ‘try the ladies’,’ and a lot of gentlemen yelled — wonderful chaos.’ (Rose, pp. 99)

However, aside from the parties, which offer historical insight into the lives of queer people, not much happens. The presence of the war overseas gradually permeates the book with the increasing references to American soldiers and mentions of Jon’s oncoming eligibility for the draft. Eventually, he is involved in a scandal at a shop he works at involving false currency, before he is sent to a prison before a boy’s home before returning to Melbourne, where, before long, a police detective has tracked him down and he is found to be dodging the draft. All of this is presented vaguely and without segue, leading to a lot of confusion during my reading. However, reading the book was worthwhile, as, as mentioned before, I was able to find an accurate, if crudely wrought, image of a time and place that mainstream history has brushed over.

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