Photograph by Joseph Lynn.
Originally published in 1977, They: A Sequence of Unease was unlike any of the English writer and editor Kay Dick’s previous novels. These – published between the late 1940s and the early 1960s – are Proustian tales of romantic or familial attachments in urbane European settings. They, by comparison, is an eerie dystopia in which maundering bands of violent Luddites roam the country destroying art in all its forms, from books to musical instruments, and punishing those artists or craftspeople who refuse to abide by this largely inexplicable, terrifying mob-rule.
Dick wrote the novel after a period of intense bereavement and suffering. Her long-term relationship with the novelist Kathleen Farrell – with whom she’d lived for over two decades in London’s Hampstead – had broken down; this was followed by an affair with a married woman who subsequently killed herself, after which Dick attempted suicide herself.
These experiences all appear to have been funneled into They in a variety of different guises. The novel is suffused with loss and grief – people mysteriously disappear, others are forcibly taken, their livelihoods and talents are suddenly forbidden them, some reappear having undergone shadowy reprogramming. (The novel carries a copyright credit referencing a 1975 Sunday Times article called Coping with Grief that described a new psychiatric treatment for bereavement in which emotions are ‘burnt out’ of the sufferer.) But Dick’s prose style had also undergone a significant transformation: here it’s pared-down, stripped back, unsentimental and muscular.
They can be interpreted in many ways – as a straightforward satire, a sequence of vividly-drawn nightmares, even as a metaphor for artistic struggle – but what comes across most potently is the plea Dick seems to be making for individual and artistic freedoms. As she writes in her book Friends and Friendship (1974), a series of interviews with literary friends of hers, published just three years before They: ‘it is an extremely courageous act to be a writer, painter, composer, because you are out on your own, in limbo, totally unprotected, not much encouraged, driven only by some inner conviction and strength, and the discipline is yours alone.’
They is a grim portrait of a world ruled by the most draconian censorship, but it forces us to think about some of the bowdlerization we’re witnessing here in the UK today in the fields of both art and culture.
Notably though, it’s not just artistic sensibility that’s perceived as a threat in the novel. People who are single are looked on suspiciously. ‘Non-conformity is an illness. We’re possible sources of contagion’, one characters says ominously. ‘We’re offered opportunities to […] integrate.’ As Eli Cugini wrote in Xtra Magazine, ‘the book’s paranoia feels very queer: the collective is always watching you, taking books off your shelves, punishing expression that goes ‘beyond the accepted limit’.’ Dick’s decision to neither name nor assign a gender to her narrator only adds to the novel’s queer sensibility. In a 1968 interview with the Guardian, she describes the ‘overall tone’ of the personal relationships in her novels as always being bisexual – which is how she herself identifies. Although attracted to both men and women, she explains that there is ‘something extra’ – ‘this love, this emotion’ – in her relationships with the latter. But she is in any case uninterested in binaries. ‘I have certain prejudices and one of them is that I cannot bear apartheid of any kind – class, colour or sex’, she continues. ‘Gender is of no bloody account.’
While some critics responded well to the novel on its initial publication – the Sunday Telegraph, for example, applauded its ‘underlying air of menace’ – for the most part it was greeted with a degree of confusion, and damned with the faintest of praise. As ‘a fantasy sprouting from some collective menopausal spasm in the national unconsciousness, They has a certain nagging, nudging, low-voltage power’, admitted the Sunday Times grudgingly. Sales were poor, and it had fallen out of print before the end of the decade.
The novel’s recent international reissue has been a different story. Intrigued by something I read about Dick, I hunted down a copy of the novel back in early 2020, writing about it in my Re-Covered column for the Paris Review that August. Coincidentally, that very same summer, the literary agent Becky Brown, who specializes in the estates of dead authors, found a copy in a secondhand bookshop. We both agreed that we’d stumbled across something special, and Brown put her skills to good use tracking down Dick’s estate, then swiftly selling the book in multiple territories.
The early copies of Faber’s new UK edition elicited incredible responses from some of our best contemporary writers. ‘A masterpiece of creeping dread’, declared Emily St. John Mandel, while Edna O’Brien praised Dick’s writing as possessing ‘the signature of an enchantress’. Claire- Louise Bennett called They ‘a masterwork of English pastoral horror: eerie and bewitching’. ‘Lush, hypnotic, compulsive’, declared Eimear McBride, ‘a reminder of where groupthink leads’.
Timing, it appears, is everything. As Sam Knight surmised writing about the book’s rediscovery in The New Yorker: ‘It has taken global misfortune and some sliding towards the abyss for They to speak fully and be heard.’
As Knight elaborates, it isn’t just that the novel itself seems so timely – ‘creepily prescient’, as the doyenne of speculative fiction, Margaret Atwood, put it when she tweeted about the novel’s reissue – there’s the added allure of Dick herself; a talented, queer trailblazer who’s every bit as exciting an anomaly as her novel is. A woman way ahead of her time. Born to an illegitimate mother in London in 1915, and educated in establishments in both England and Switzerland, at the age of 26, Dick became the first woman director in English publishing, at P. S. King & Son.
Later she was the editor of The Windmill (under the pen name Edward Lane), a short- lived but acclaimed literary periodical: it was she who commissioned and then published, in the magazine in 1946, Orwell’s now famous essay in defence of P. G. Wodehouse, and she and Orwell were close friends.
Clearly no shrinking violet, she spent her youth frequenting the gay bars and cafes of London’s Soho, in which she and her bisexual friend Tony gadded about together, both wearing cloaks and carrying walking sticks. (In later life she was rarely seen without her elegant cigarette holder in hand and sporting a dashing eye glass – according to friends, she never allowed anyone to call it a monocle.) ‘I ran to the artists and writers we’d now call the Alternative Society’, she recalled in the mid-1980s: ‘We were very politically motivated, the Spanish Civil War was our Mecca.’ A woman who bucked the trend, broke with all manner of traditions and lived life on her own terms, Dick never married, nor did she have children. Instead, long before the term ‘chosen family’ had entered the collective cultural lexicon, she was someone whose friends were by far the most important people in her life. And this sentiment creeps into They too. The novel doesn’t just remind us of the value of art and culture, it’s also a fictional exposition of this impassioned cry from Friends and Friendship, for what Dick most holds dear: ‘I shall never wish to stop reading the books I love, looking at paintings, listening to music, and, more than that, I should wish to know my friends forever.’
Anyone who knew her admits that Dick could certainly be bolshy, but first and foremost she was extremely loyal and generous with her time, attention, and her money too – on the rare occasions that she had any. She was especially lavish on all fronts when it came to meeting young people. ‘She encouraged almost every youngster she ever met to write’, recalls the journalist Roy Greenslade, who was her friend and neighbour for many years in Brighton, ‘lauding their efforts to the skies in public, while offering helpful criticism in private’.
And even though Dick died in 2001, at the age of 86, this care and encouragement extends to the present day. Any author who receives the royalties they’re due for the free loan of their books through the UK public library system owes her a debt of gratitude. Alongside her good friends Brigid Brophy and Maureen Duffy, she was one of a dedicated cohort of writers whose tireless campaigning saw the Public Lending Rights Bill passed in 1979. As such, it couldn’t be more fitting to see They performed in the iconic John Rylands Library. Dick knew that libraries are sacred places; and not only because of the worlds one can access through the books that they house. As a shared public space where everyone is welcome, they’re not just where people go to read, they also provide somewhere for people to meet, to write, and to reflect. As the narrator writes in the opening episode of They: ‘Karr and I sat in the library, which was also a way of loving.’