Tales of the City - It Feels Like Home
Updated: Oct 27, 2019
As a teenager, desperate for anything that would help me make sense of who I was, I would spend hours hanging out in Waterstones pouring over new book releases - hoping I might find a novel that might speak to my nascent sexuality and that a stranger might chat me up as I flicked through the latest Bruce Chatwin. Neither of these things ever happened.
I loved literature but as at eighteen-year-old it was all about the A Level English Lit reading list and that meant Jane Austen, Arthur Miller and Bertolt Brecht, with a few battered Agatha Christie paperbacks on the side. I am sure Austen covers the whole gamut of human experience but something was missing for me.
And then I came across Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City. The book cover did not give much away but it was about to change my life.
With Tales of the City, I was suddenly transported into the heady world of San Francisco in the late 70s where a gay protagonist - yes a gay protagonist! - dreamt of love and went cruising at the 24/7 supermarket and the eccentric transsexual landlady of 28 Barbary Lane kept an eye on her ‘logical family’, sometimes sellotaping a joint to the front door for when someone needed it.
I loved the Tales of the City series immediately - these were people with jobs and lives and friends. It was matter-of-fact and ordinary. This was hugely significant for a teenager growing up in a time where tomb stones were falling over in public health advertisements and the legal age of consent was 21 and you could get beaten up for even looking at another man.
And I desperately wanted Michael ‘Mouse’ Tolliver to find love and be happy - and not to die of AIDS which was the common outcome for gay characters in books, film and TV back in the late 80s - because that was the reality then - but I didn't want that for Michael - because of course Michael’s story was my story too.
To this day, Michael’s ‘coming out’ letter ‘Dear Moma’ has helped countless people navigate their sexuality and their place in the world. You can watch Sir Ian Mckellen read it here:
Without doubt, it is one of the most powerful pieces of writing of the 20th Century. So it is no exaggeration to say Maupin’s books helped me find myself and continue to do so, whilst helping me learn to respect who I am, regardless of what other people thought. And I loved the idea of 28 Barbary Lane - a community of likeminded outsiders - a place of acceptance with a sense of belonging. I wanted this life so badly - where family was unconditional - and love was complicated - and sex came with a safe message but it was still sexy and romantic.
Fast forward 30 years - yikes - and Netflix have just released a new TV series of Tales of the City based on Maupin’s more recent books. Many of the old characters are back. Olympia Dukakis is of course Anna Madrigal and Laura Linney is Mary Ann Singleton. Murray Bartlett from the brilliant HBO series Looking plays Michael Tolliver - which is perfect casting. I love Ellen Page as Shawna, though a couple of the new characters are a little more tricky - Margot is slowly growing on me, the twins less so. Without giving anything away, Jen Richards is wonderful as the young Anna finding her way in the 1950s.
I am fiercely loyal to Tales of the City but like much in life, I have had to accept that time moves on and that it is not just my story any longer. The new series tackles the many different opinions of the LGBTQI community in a post AIDS, post literate, gender fluid, millennial San Francisco. It will not appeal to everyone, maybe that is the whole point.
But at the heart of Tales of the City is still a message which speaks across the generations. As Anna Madrigal says, ‘we’re still people ... flawed ... narcissistic and doing our best’. All the characters eventually find out, it is not about changing who you are, it is about finding who you are. Sometimes we need a place to do that, somewhere safe and secure, a community that nourishes us rather than takes from us. We all need to find our own 28 Barbary Lane.