Douglas Stuart had a very specific idea for the front jacket image of his first book.
“Oftentimes in queer literature, the queer character on the cover is seen alone, solo, or maybe looking a little bit downcast,” says the author of Shuggie Bain, the 2020 debut novel that roared, winning the Booker Prize and critical accolades galore. “And that’s even the case with Shuggie Bain – here’s a little boy who’s literally being crucified. That’s the symbolism of him, alone in this landscape.”
Indeed, that image of a lad climbing on what looks like a clothes drying pole, shot by photographer Jez Coulson in a Glasgow housing scheme circa 1987, is popularly known as Crucified in Easterhouse or Easterhouse Crucifixion.
For his second novel, Young Mungo, though, Stuart had (obviously) a different story to tell and a different cover image in mind: Wolfgang Tillmans’ 2002 photograph The Cock (Kiss), an up-close-and-personal shot of two men kissing in a London club. “Beyond chuffed to finally reveal the UK cover of Young Mungo,” Stuart tweeted last month. “Thank you to the incredible artist #wolfgangtillmans for allowing me to use his iconic photograph – I am humbled by his generosity.”
“Young Mungo isn’t about that isolation,” Stuart, 45, tells me. “It’s about two young lads in Glasgow finding each other and clinging to each other. It’s a queer image… that pushes away the isolation.”
Without wishing to give the game away on a book not out for another three months, the abridged plot summary is: “Protestant Mungo and Catholic James live in the hyper-masculine and violently sectarian world of Glasgow’s housing estates. They should be sworn enemies if they’re to be seen as men at all… As they begin to fall in love… Mungo must work hard to hide his true self… especially from his elder brother Hamish, a local gang leader with a brutal reputation to uphold.”
“[The photograph] speaks to me of love and embrace,” continues the New York-based Scotsman. “First of all, there’s sexual desire there because of the kiss. But the way that one lad is cradling the other lad’s head is incredibly tender. There’s a moment of care there. It reminds me a lot of Renaissance paintings, or religious iconography where someone is being held.”
The Cock (Kiss) is one of the most resonant and beloved photographs in Tillmans’ huge portfolio. The Turner Prize-winning German photographer, 53, is these days based in Berlin. But 20 years ago he was living in London and shooting for style magazines, including THE FACE, with a special interest in youth and club cultures.
The photograph was shot in a central London club called The Ghetto, which was located behind legendary music venue The Astoria (demolished in 2009 to make way for a Crossrail transport hub), in a now-gone block that led to Soho Square. It was home to storied indie/electroclash night Nag Nag Nag on a Wednesday and gay night The Cock on a Friday. The former was named after the Cabaret Voltaire song; the latter, Tillmans thinks, was named after New York City’s infamous East Village hole-in-the-wall gay bar.
“When I go out, I usually don’t take pictures on a regular basis,” says the photographer. “But on the other hand, I always have a small camera on me. So occasionally [back then], when I felt in the mood, in the moment, I took a picture if something felt so amazing, or so wild or so special.”
He loves the “universal” nature of the scene – a kiss and the idea of “passion that we all hope to experience, [which] is quite infectious”. But to Tillmans, there’s also the resonance of specificity: “You can see every pore and every hair, and the blushing skin. And it’s so disarming. It’s a picture that people can look at and think: this is good and this can’t be wrong.”
That sentiment feeds into a broader feeling: a club, a scene, like The Cock needs to be documented.
“This is not normal in the way that this could happen on any street corner around the world – in not every place in the world can a gay club night happen. Not everywhere can be as wild as this,” he explains. “So my approach to nightlife photography is that it is also there as a document to say: ‘We exist. We are here.’ And also for the future: once this has been recorded, this cannot be written out of the history books.”
Still, at the time, the history books – or Booker Prize follow-up books – weren’t at the forefront of his mind. The Cock (Kiss) “happened when I was myself partying. And there’s a short moment, maybe 15 minutes, where I suddenly go into photography mode, and then I just bounce through the place… So it happened so quickly that I don’t quite remember [the specifics] because I was in the midst of the flow.”
Equally, Tillmans wanted to respect the vibe of The Ghetto’s Friday night.
“I don’t like to be ‘the photographer in the club’. There is an element of understanding and agreement on a night like that, [where] lots of people were regulars. So it was not planned at all. And I’ve never taken a photograph of a kiss as intense and as authentic ever again!”
Adding to the specialness of the moment was that, for most of the intervening two decades, the two subjects remained anonymous. Tillmans had asked around to see if anyone knew these boys, but with no success.
“Then, about two years ago, a guy wrote to me. He could credibly show me his jacket [that matched the one in the photograph]. He was very sweet, and said he just wanted to reach out and say ‘hi’. I made him a print. I think he lives in Nepal now.”
Even before Douglas Stuart – and Stuart Wilson at his publishers Picador, who designed both the author’s novels’ covers – used The Cock (Kiss) for Young Mungo, the photograph had endured quite the afterlife. When it was shown at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington DC in 2006 as part of the artist’s first major US retrospective, a homophobic visitor slashed the image with a key.
Ten years later, in 2016, after 49 people were murdered at gay nightclub Pulse in Orlando, Florida, the mass shooter’s father told reporters that his son had been enraged by the sight of two men kissing. By way of reply, social media users in their thousands posted images of men kissing, with The Cock (Kiss) being one of the most frequently used.
“It’s come to be an incredibly defiant image in the queer community, because of the reaction it’s had,” says Stuart. “I know about the violence it evoked at Hirshhorn, I know about the Pulse nightclub [response]. That violence was part of what I wanted to capture in the book. The lads at the heart of the story are two 15-year-olds, incredibly innocent, and all they do is share their first kiss. But that is met by such violence.
“I found that was echoed in this image and, when I was writing the book, I knew this is what I wanted to put on the cover. I never dared dream that Wolfgang would ever allow me to do that, because it was such an iconic image. But it was on every single one of my [mood] boards, and whenever I would get stuck and think ‘what am I trying to achieve with this book?’, [I remembered] it was about the very honest tenderness of that first kiss and the violent reaction.”
For Tillmans, for all the accolades in a glittering artistic career – and for all the requests over the last 20 years to use The Cock (Kiss) – he’s honoured that his work is adorning the cover of one of the most eagerly anticipated books of 2022.
“A novel is a great place for art because it has hundreds of pages and no pictures, but it evokes so many pictures in the reader’s head. So for a good book designer – or the author – to choose one image is a [great] thing. I feel honoured and proud that this artwork, the novel, can be connected to this one visual. I think we all know this experience, of holding very dearly the cover of a book that we love.”
For the author, meanwhile, the use of Wolfgang Tillmans’ image was about doing justice to his story, and his protagonists, in the simplest, most direct way possible.
“I didn’t want the book to be about first love, first kiss, the violence you meet for being queer, and then the cover to not show that. Mungo and James are being so incredibly brave with their love in Glasgow at that time and I wanted me, as the author, to answer that bravery with the image that I chose.”
Douglas Stuart admits that he was also thinking about himself at that age, an isolated teenager in a city and class and culture that barely allowed for the possibility of queerness.
“If I’d have seen this on the landscape when I was 15, it would have changed everything for me. It’d have been a beacon in the dark. How much less lonely I would have felt.
“But at the end of the day, for me, it’s also an incredibly ordinary thing,” he concludes. “Here are two lads sharing a kiss. What could be more normal than that?”
Young Mungo (Picador) is published on 14th April