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Camping at a high altitude

THE FREDDIE MERCURY STORY by David Bret Robson, L16.95, pp. 207

In a small way Freddie Mercury added to the gaiety of nations. Alive, he was a fairly delightful disgrace. He was the first rock musician to take seriously the opportunities offered by live performance for pornographic display. Others before him had had a go, but had allowed themselves to be distracted, often by much lesser attractions such as smashing things up on stage. But Freddie did not go in for this kind of loutishness. He stuck, as it were, to his guns, forever dreaming up more and more ways of using his microphone as a phallus.

In his early days, as David Bret relates in his sympathetic if inept biography, Freddie was a camp thing flouncing around in velvet and chiffon, his trousers outrageously tight. And camp, in the Susan Sontag sense, is probably the key element. From his faintly silly, Puckish, made-up name onwards, Mercury was a performer out to tease, shock and ultimately charm his audience with various extravagant versions of himself. He might cavort with the microphone between his legs or wriggle his bottom at the fans, but the glint in his eye, the suggestion that this was just an experimental way of being outrageous rather than an actual outrage meant that audiences were simply charmed.

He also had the classic camp toughness, the `show-must-go-on' insistence on his own idea of himself that no amount of opposition could defeat. He was not especially handsome and, by today's standards of gym-manufactured musculature, not especially sexy, but he did not allow this to stand in his way. It would appear that this same quality of shameless defiance sustained him as he was dying of Aids.

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Certainly by comparison with the hardbitten, pretty schoolboy pop-idols of today or the ghastly, yobbish Oasis, Freddie Mercury is a more endearing and more complex figure. It is a pity that a better book could not have been written about him. David Bret means well, wanting to defend his subject against the tabloid attacks (`Sex-fiend punished by Aids' that kind of thing) that have been rife since his death. Sadly he lacks both the taste and curiosity to do so effectively. Wanting us to believe that Freddie was a brilliant wit ( a quality that does not necessarily go hand in hand with brilliant campness), the best example he can produce is of the musician addressing Sid Vicious as `Mr Ferocious'.

For most of the time Bret will simply puzzle the reader. Of course a certain amount of contradiction is only to be expected in a camp showman, but some attempt at interpretation or even acknowledgment that there are contradictions would have been welcome. Freddie periodically proclaimed himself the loneliest person in the world, as wildly famous people have an unfortunate habit of doing. Yet he appears to have had both a boyfriend and a girlfriend (neither of whom, it is safe to assume, have had much contact with Bret) and to have combined this with some pretty delirious promiscuity. There were also temper tantrums, when the priceless Japanese vases would go flying. Plainly the diagnosis is not, as certain malicious factions would have it, abject misery or even devilishness. Unhelpful as Bret is, he does give one tiny shred of evidence for another view. An anonymous source describing a sexual encounter with the star reveals a shocking lack of seriousness. There were frequent breaks to perform little sketches or even to go on tours of the house. It would be cheering to believe that Freddie was as camp at home as he was on stage.

Finally, in Orlova's Tchaikovsky: A SelfPortrait (1990) (she was born long after his death), she claims that Vassily Bertenson, one of his doctors, told her he had committed suicide; although according to Olga Tchaikovskaya, the composer's sister-inlaw, he was poisoned by Bertenson, acting on imperial instructions. These tales may be wildly different and all based on hearsay, but they do encourage the idea that there is no smoke without a fire. The fire, the common denominator, is, of course, homosexuality.

Eighty years before, in 1812, when weather conditions forced Napoleon to quit Russia, he did leave behind the Napoleonic Code: in it buggery ('muzhelozhstvo') was declared illegal. However, Russia was nothing if not an elitist society; the Napoleonic Code was for the use of the rich, not to be used at their expense. Homosexuals, at least among the privileged class, were common enough; the higher they were in society, the more brazen they were. Many flaunted their aberration publicly, notwithstanding complaints from the Church. One of the most notorious, Grand Duke Sergei, Alexander III's brother, who was married to a granddaughter of Queen Victoria, told his wife `to choose a "husband" from her entourage'. Nevertheless, as Poznansky tells, not a single prominent individual was ever prosecuted; which makes the situation among Russian aristocrats sound not unlike an old tag directed against English public school boys - `they are all queer unless otherwise proven'.


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