• Paul Burston

Lockdown Bookclub – Tales of the City

Updated: Apr 11


Since we went into lockdown I’ve been busy tidying my study, reorganising my bookshelves, rediscovering books I havent read in a while and generally doing everything I can to avoid writing.


My writing mojo appears to have gone AWOL, and while I’m also reading new books, there’s something comforting about rereading books from a time before our lives changed so dramatically.

Here are some of the books I’ve rediscovered. I hope you enjoy them. Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin (series)


I must have read these books a dozen times. I know Michael Tolliver’s Letter to Mama off by heart. I even used it as the template for my own coming out letter to my parents.

I was introduced to Tales of the City by my second gay flatmate Vaughan Williams in 1987. Like my previous flatmate Bryan, Vaughan was like an older gay brother and mentor. He introduced me to a lot of things – Fascinating Aida and Lily Savage, Stephen Sondheim and Nina Simone. He also introduced me to composer Richard Thomas, but that’s another story.

Vaughan loaned me the first Tales and I tore through it so quickly, I’d read all five available books within a week. Such was our devotion, we went to an author event for the release of Sure of You at a bookshop in Camden, where I had this copy signed.


Before discovering Tales, the only gay books Id read were those by John Rechy and Jean Genet. They were sexy and exciting but they didnt offer much in the way of hope. Their protagonists were outsiders and sexual outlaws. Nothing wrong with that, of course. But in my early 20s I needed to feel included. I didnt know at the time, but I was desperately searching for what Maupin calls logical family. And I found it – right here in these books.


Here, finally, was a tribe I felt I could belong to – male and female, black and white, gay and straight. Maupin’s were the first books I read where gay characters were presented as part of life’s rich tapestry. In fact, the first person we meet in Tales of the City isnt gay hero Michael but new arrival Mary Ann Singleton.


It didn’t matter to me that Maupin’s tales were set in a city called San Francisco and I lived in a city called London. They were – and still are – relatable and life affirming.

Vaughan died of AIDS in 1991 – the first of many friends who are no longer with us. It was due to him that I joined ACT-UP. Without him, Im pretty sure I wouldn’t be here today.

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