What do you do with a well-written, engaging, enjoyable book whose main character’s life experience runs counter to not only yours but that of nearly every queer person you’ve ever met? That’s my only problem with Simon Smalley’s memoir, That Boy of Yours Wants Looking At.
Growing up in Nottingham in the late Sixties/early Seventies was a rough go economically for Smalley’s parents and his five siblings, but his father, Sid, had a decent job as an industrial photographer who did weddings and the like on the side. Smalley’s recollections are quite detailed, almost as if he’d been taking notes on his childhood, but Smalley explains this by way of a short introduction to the book where he states he has hyperthymesia, or an ability to recount his experiences with exhaustive detail. And there’s no question that it’s served him well here. He seems to have no difficulty recalling entire conversations verbatim.
As a boy, Smalley made no attempt to hide or disguise his rejection of traditionally masculine toys such as footballs or soccer paraphernalia or cowboy outfits. Smalley’s preferred Christmas and birthday presents were toy sewing and washing machines, velvet, jewelly baubles, and similar items that would have gotten me and most of the queer men I know thrown out of the house. Smalley’s parents, however, willingly indulged him despite, one assumes from the title, the opinions of others. His siblings may have been confused by him, but they were ultimately supportive.
After his mother, Betty, died, I held my breath, convinced that his father would put a halt to such nonsense and attempt to turn him away from velvet and lace, but I was wrong. He encouraged the boy’s love of androgynous glam rockers like Marc Bolan, David Bowie, and the like. No whim went unsatisfied when it came to haircuts, clothes, or music. Needless to say, coming from a father whose sole advice regarding life and sexuality was: “Never hit a woman in the breasts or the crotch,” I was stunned.
So, what’s wrong with a childhood without relentlessly toxic masculinity? Absolutely nothing. But it’s so far removed from my own experience and that of so many men of my generation, it’s jaw-dropping. And for me, it was narrative-stopping at times. I occasionally had to put the book down and wonder how such treatment would have made my life easier. But your reaction may be different. A good friend of mine also read it, and when I mentioned this issue, he said, “I know, but I decided not to let it bother me.”
The point, however, is a minor one, mostly overridden by Smalley’s excellent writing and ability to keep his readers’ attention. Perhaps it’s even a case of jealousy on my part. Again, you might feel differently. Either way, you’ll find much to like in That Boy of Yours Wants Looking At. It’s witty, wise, and totally affirming. Let his parents serve as an example rather than an exception.
© 2022 Jerry L. Wheeler