Vanessa Gebbie, The Coward’s Tale

I’m delighted to be hosting Vanessa Gebbie on my blog today. Her visit is part of a whirlwind tour of the blogosphere to coincide with the paperback publication of her extraordinary first novel, The Coward’s Tale (details of the complete tour here). As you may have noticed (see tagline at top right), this blog is mostly about books – I save my ranting and indiscretions for other places – but I wanted to say a few words about myself as an introduction to what Vanessa has to say below.

My partner Giuseppe and I became civil partners in the UK last month. We met almost 26 years ago and have lived together ever since, in Italy and England, so it wasn’t a particularly hasty decision. Our reasons for getting hitched after such a long engagement (although we never saw our relationship in those terms – it never struck either of us as incomplete or preliminary to something better) were practical: taxation, inheritance, hospital visiting; the kind of things that begin to matter when one passes 55. But the event was also – surprisingly for us both although less so for our friends – deeply touching and this set me thinking about the strange arc that had brought me from a childhood in which homosexuality was illegal – I was 14, and fully aware of my sexuality, when homosexual acts were finally, in part, decriminalised – to a late adulthood in which I could stand beside another man in the ceremonies room of a provincial town hall and repeat after a government official what were – to all legal intents and purposes – marriage vows. In Italy, of course, where we spend most of our time, these vows mean nothing, and even in the UK there’s an ongoing resistance that’s sustained by people who should know better, if only by their own estimation. Which makes what Vanessa has to say below even more pertinent. So I’ll waste no more time and hand you over to her straight away. It’s all yours, Vanessa!


 I am delighted to be perching on your illustrious blog today – thank you for the invitation.  And I bring with me a virtual Methuselah of bubbly and a vast bunch of roses – many heartfelt congratulations on your recent civil partnership with Giuseppe. I wish you a long and happy life together.

What think you then, of all the column inches filled with arguments for and against same-sex marriages? Don’t answer that – I can guess. I hope the negatives have not taken the edge off your celebrations. I guess you are probably just getting on with life, content that Popes and Archbishops are not speaking for you – as, increasingly they are not speaking for the majority of us – but they will go on pronouncing, sadly.

 I am female and have been married for over thirty five years to a bloke – but I have a considered view, so thanks for the opportunity to express it. It links nicely to a section of ‘The Coward’s Tale’, and I will give you a link to an early version of that section online, at the end.

I’ve just been reading some pronouncements from Pope Benedict against same-sex marriage.  I think these are direct quotes – if not they are paraphrases:

 “Marriage between a man and a woman must be preserved because it protects parents, children and the whole of society.”

“All our efforts in this area are ultimately concerned with the good of children, who have a fundamental right to grow up with a healthy understanding of sexuality and its proper place in human relationships.”

He may mean well, and is ‘just doing his job’, but coming hot on the heels of recent scandals which will not go away, his words ring hollow.

 “Marriage between a man and a woman must be preserved because it protects parents, children and the whole of society.” How so? Marriage had not protected either adults, children or society  at large from the damage perpetrated for decades by his employees however indirect he might like to say the employer/employee relationship is – and there is an argument that says they might not have damaged at all had they been allowed to express their sexual needs in a loving relationship.

“Children (…) have a fundamental right to grow up with a healthy understanding of sexuality.”

“ A healthy understanding of sexuality” would include a healthy understanding of all sexuality, wouldn’t it, not just one sub-section?  I remember hearing the writer Colm Toibin talking about times past in rural Ireland when young teenage blokes who weren’t attracted to girls would be told by their village priests that this was an indication that they were being called to the church.  No mention of the fact that this might be a perfectly normal thing, and what about boys? Perhaps because the priests didn’t know, or did know, and suppressed their own instinctive knowledge?

 He talks as if attraction to a person of the same sex is an illness. Goodness – I remember absolutely adoring an older girl when I was at school to the extent that I went weak at the knees when she walked by. In the Pope’s book, I should have been hospitalised. Or shot. 

 Jokes apart – the world is in enough of a mess, surely the churches can find better things to do than seek to prevent two human beings finding happiness and expressing their commitment to each other publicly? So much strife seems to be caused by exclusive religious posturing, doesn’t it? If you ain’t in my gang you ain’t going to heaven… Doesn’t that sound a little odd, these days? Can’t people be good human beings, and not seek to hurt each other, physically, emotionally, economically, and still ‘get to heaven’ if such exists? Don’t we need to recognise that an urge for companionship and fulfilment, sexual or otherwise, is a fundamental need? And if we are denied our basic needs, we are damaged. Rather as these poor priests who abuse do so partly because their job requires them to deny one of the most fundamental needs of all.

 In ‘The Coward’s Tale’, there is an old guy called Judah Jones. He is a window cleaner, an old man who still works hard, not able to retire despite his age, who pushes his bike and his ladders up and down the hilly streets of the town to make sure the people can see out of their houses. He lives alone, always has, and is desperately lonely. But Judah loves someone dearly, and has done for years. He loves a collier called Peter to the extent that when he sees him, he cannot speak, he has to hide, not walk past. He has wanted him for as long as he can remember. And has never done anything about it. Because the time and the place will not allow it.

 I felt desperately sad for this man, as I was writing him. He would have made a terrific partner, a terrific husband, a terrific wife. If times were different, he would have lived a more fulfilling life.  

 I make this point somewhere in his story: “If you have love to give it has to go somewhere, for it cannot go nowhere…” and so Judah Jones loves an image, on a window, in chapel. He cares for that image as if it was a person. He adores that image beyond reason. 

‘The Coward’s Tale’ is full of the tales of men whose lives are spoiled, held up, by issues caused by an incident that happened generations ago. And it is the same for Judah. His fixation with the window goes back… but perhaps I will let your readers follow the link to read his story as it was back in 2008, when it won a prize in the USA – before it was edited to become part of ‘The Coward’s Tale’.

 But back to religion with a small ‘r’, if we may. If we must. I have been asked why Judah’s story finishes as it does. My great writing buddy Andrew is gay, and he found it hard to accept this ending. My only answer is that all my main male characters are based on images we have come to associate with the twelve men we know as The Twelve Apostles. Judah is based on Judas. And whatever else happens in the story of Judas, the ultimate sadness for him as a human being is that he kills the thing he really loves.

 Looking back on this story, I can see that it does reflect what I believe, although it was not written with those beliefs as ink. If society does not allow each one of us to love as we need to, then we are causing not only personal pain but inflicting unnecessary and often lasting damage on ourselves as a community. 

 Thanks for letting me perch, Charles. 

And thank you for sharing your thoughts with us, Vanessa, not to mention the roses and champagne!

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6 Responses to Vanessa Gebbie, The Coward’s Tale

  1. dora says:

    What a wonderful interview! I agree that everyone has a rigjht to love whom they wish. Congratulations to Charles + Giuseppe. I hope one day the whole world will be of one mind on this issue.

    And thanks for including your short story Vanessa! I can’t wait to read it.


  2. Huge congratulations, Charles and Giuseppe. That two poeple love, care and are kind to each other matters – that is all that matters.

    This was a very moving post, and I’m going to go read the story now and get a tissue. Thank you, Vanessa and Charles.

  3. Catherine says:

    Yes champagne and roses to Charles and Giuseppe and Vanessa and her bloke. I can never get past the seven year point.
    Really energetic and heartfelt interview here, I loved it!
    Best, cat

  4. Sarah Kelen (Barry) says:

    What a beautifully written piece expressing what I am sure so many people feel: why can’t we just applaud and encourage genuine loving relationships that add so much to human existence. I’m afraid that I don’t know who any of you are – I was doing a Google search for Noel Coward, and this came up! Delightful to have two authors to discover – Vanessa Gebbie and Charles Lambert. Does Giuseppe write too? Just off to Florence for a first visit, so it sounds as though Charles would make good holiday reading.

    Best wishes


    • How lovely to get your comment, Sarah! And how clever of Noel Coward to lead you to us… No Giuseppe doesn’t write (he paints, though, and very well), but he’d be delighted if you read one of my novels (or, indeed, Vanessa’s) while you’re in Florence. I’m sure you’ll have a wonderful time there. If you have time, take a walk over the river to the square of Santo Spirito and its environs – I think you’ll like it.

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