The joy of Alex Comfort: 'The Joy of Sex was the anarchist manifesto that conquered 1970s suburbia, whose readers didn't know Kropotkin from Kermit the Frog - Matthew Sweet, The Guardian
When he went, there were sniggers. I heard them on the radio, at the reading out of a newspaper cutting: "Dr Alex Comfort, author of The Joy of Sex, has died – after a series of strokes." The laughter may not have surprised its object. In his last years in the nursing home before his death in 2000, Alex Comfort would ask interviewers to consider the enormous parade of books on his shelf: Authority and Delinquency; Art and Social Responsibility; Writings Against Power and Death; six novels and a handful of plays; volumes of poetry and travel writing; studies of political corruption, medical ethics, eastern philosophy; works on gerontology, on human evolution, on anarchism: a whole colony of Pelicans. "Unfortunately," he would say, indicating an illustrated coffee-table tome with the subtitle "A Gourmet Guide to Lovemaking", "people only know me for that one."
Comfort once contended that bloody-mindedness was the greatest human virtue. It was certainly the virtue by which he lived, and the reason he was able to pursue his parallel careers in literature and medicine. In 1935 he blew the fingers off his left hand while making fireworks to celebrate the Silver Jubilee of George V. His aunt, assuming that he would remain a lifelong invalid, wrote him a cheque for £50. His response was to go to
South America and compose a travelogue called The Silver River. In the preface he wrote: "I do not believe the fable that men read travel books to escape from reality: they read to escape into it, from a crazy wonderland of armaments, cant, political speeches at once insincere and illiterate, propaganda, and social injustice which the lunacy of humanity has constructed over a period of years." When it was published, Alex Comfort was 18.
For the last few months, in preparation for a radio documentary, I've been talking to Comfort's friends and relations and reading through the immense body of work that now lies in the shadow of The Joy of Sex – the poetry that ensured he was spoken of in the same breath as Auden and Spender; the drama about the mine-workers forced to dig a toxic element that irradiates their bones and turns them into vengeful monsters; the pamphlets arguing that peace in the atomic age can only be secured through public disobedience. They reveal an extraordinary consistency in the great seven-decade span of his intellectual life. Comfort's mistrust of political and military power, his anarchist faith in personal responsibility, his sense of a more honest life that might be lived beyond the limits of convention – these flow from The Silver River toThe Joy of Sex and beyond.
At school, he formed a peace corps in opposition to the army cadets. When war came, he registered as a conscientious objector. (Quite unnecessarily, as a left hand is required to operate a Bren gun.) During the war he risked public opprobrium and a ban by the BBC for condemning the men of Allied Bomber Command as "bloodthirsty fools" and suggesting that British pilots should stand trial for war crimes. In 1941, while still a student at
Cambridge, he published a novel, No Such Liberty, which drew provocative parallels between Nazi Germany and the British wartime state. Comfort's account of the indignities of the British internment system was largely accurate – though thanking the Cologne branch of the Hitler Youth in the novel's acknowledgments probably didn't aid his argument. Nor did it endear him to George Orwell, who reviewed the book and declared its author "objectively pro-Fascist".
Comfort's views during the second world war were out of tune with their moment. In peacetime, however, they resonated with a new generation of radicals – though he was not at ease with all the mores of the 1960s. In 1961, he calmly went to jail for his part in the anti-nuclear protests organised by the Committee of 100. (A fellow inmate, the peace campaigner Michael Randle, told me that Comfort was surprisingly willing to take part in the square-bashing session that began each day.) Comfort's son, Nicholas, remembers his father driving off with a homemade radio transmitter, sound-proofed with glue-soaked Weetabix, to broadcast anti-nuclear propaganda to the factory workers building Blue Streak missiles in
Stevenage. (The pirate station made the headlines when it bumped Kenneth Kendall off the BBC airwaves at Sunday teatime.)
Throughout the 1960s Comfort was a familiar face on television, booked to talk about the bomb, about the marginalisation of older people, about anarchism, about the alienating nature of modern life, and – increasingly – about the subject he would become identified with to the exclusion of all others. In 1963 – the year, of course, that sexual intercourse began – he caused uproar by suggesting that "chivalrous" 15-year-old boys always went out with a condom in their pocket. Nine years later, and with some nervousness, he published The Joy of Sex. It sold 12m copies.
Few authors are remembered on their own terms; some grow to hate the books for which they are most admired. There can be few whose life and work has suffered such a total eclipse as that experienced by Comfort. If he is recalled today, it is in association with that perennial 99p introductory offer on the back of the Sunday supplement, and that line-drawing of the couple with the straggly
Woodstock hair. The true nature of The Joy of Sex, though, was one that few noticed at the time and few have remarked on since. It was a book about personal responsibility and freedom from convention; a book founded on the idea that political and erotic repression shared a common pathology. The Joy of Sex was the anarchist manifesto that conquered 1970s suburbia – a radical text that found a place on the shelves of millions of readers who didn't know Kropotkin from Kermit the Frog.
Late in life, Comfort regretted that he was no longer regarded as a poet; that his name had become uncoupled from those of his less-forgotten contemporaries. It was partly his own fault. In middle age he had neglected poetry in favour of lectures, essays and TV. In his final years, however, reduced to typing with the thumb of his blasted left hand, Comfort returned to stanza, metre, rhyme. The message, though, remained the same. It is legible in his fiction, in his political writings, in his willingness to go to jail for his beliefs, in the diagrams on the glossy pages of The Joy of Sex. Unfortunately for Comfort, we know the sentiment better from his rival, WH Auden. "We must love one another, or die."
Image from article, with caption: Alex Comfort in January 1975. The Joy of Sex sold 12m copies worldwide.