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The Charioteer Anniversary Broadcast

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The BBC Radio 4 are broadcasting Mary Renault's 'The Charioteer' as the Book at Bedtime to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of this gay novel. If you cannot listen to it live you can catch up with it on the BBC IPlayer: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03j9np2

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I discovered Mary Renault as a teenager in the early seventies when The Persian Boy was first published--thank goodness for public libraries! I also found Fire from Heaven, the first of her three books about Alexander the Great. The Mask of Apollo, and The Charioteer soon followed, all before I graduated from high school. I learned that homosexuality was not a recent phenomenon, that people are that way by nature and not necessarily by choice, and that different societies in different eras have different ways of looking at ethics and morality and that modern ways of thinking sometimes devolve, instead of evolve--something we need to remember today as some elements of society seek to reverse gains many people have made in their search for freedom and self-respect. I was a conservative Republican Episcopalian at the time I found her, desperately trying to "free" myself of my "shameful" urges and to be a "good" boy. She helped plant the seeds of my growing realization of the way things really are and my rebellion against the coerced conformity of my family and society in Oklahoma and America as I grew older. Discovering Mary Renault was one of the most important moments in my life and one which I write of in Centennial Park.

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Ah, Mary Renault!

I first read her in 1956 when The Last of the Wine came out. I was still at school, doing classics, and it gave a better picture of life in 5th-century-BC Athens that any academic tome of the day; and I think than any published since. Far more important, it began to open my puzzled young eyes to the enigma of my sexuality, a topic which in those dark days simply could not be discussed with anyone. More important still, it led me on (or back) to The Charioteer (1953) which was necessarily (for those days) understated; but when you read between the lines . . . Thereafter, the day of publication of every new book of hers saw me waiting outside the bookshop at opening time. The Mask of Apollo is still I think my favourite, followed by the first two Alexander books.

Once I started writing on this sort of subject myself, she was often in my mind; above all in my long historical Ashes under Uricon, when I was constantly asking myself how she would have tackled it. My debt to her is beyond calculation. And not only was she a superb and mould-breaking writer, but by all accounts a lovely person. I never summoned up the courage to write to her. But for a great essay from one who did, it's well worth reading Daniel Mendelsohn, "The American Boy", in the New Yorker for 7 Jan 2013 (behind a paywall, but if you want to read it, let me know).

Bless her.

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