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‘Once readers were hooked I could say what I wanted and not get fired’

VETERAN author and gay activist Armistead Maupin is touring the UK discussing his life, work and the popularity of his hit Tales Of The City books. It is also an opportunity for Armistead, 75, husband Christopher, and their Labradoodle Philo to see the sights of their new country — having swapped life in San Francisco for London back in April.

It was a surprise move since Armistead was so synonymous with his former home that Quentin Crisp once introduced him as ‘the man who invented San Francisco’.

‘The move was, in part, provoked by the mad man who is running the United States now,’ says Armistead. ‘When we set foot here we felt a sense of relief — not to be attached to a country that is increasingly racist, misogynistic and gun crazy.

‘San Francisco is in my heart permanently but I don’t need to be there in order to love it. And it’s exhilarating to be in a new place — especially one of the great cultural capitals of the world,’ he says.

When Armistead first arrived he stayed with actor Sir Ian McKellen while looking for a home. ‘Ian took us to see Maggie Smith at The Bridge Theatre and we went backstage. I thought I had landed in heaven,’ he laughs.

He also took an unexpectedly showbiz trip to Bolton to attend McKellen’s surprise birthday party. ‘Folks from Ian’s life went up on the train, including Derek Jacobi.

‘It was my first time in Bolton. We visited Ian’s old school. I’d been given the impression it was a wretched workhouse out of Dickens. It was much nicer than I had imagined,’ he laughs.

‘He calls me his “gay godfather”,’ says Armistead of his long-running friendship with McKellen. ‘We had a talk way back about why he should come out of the closet. I’m happy to take that “godfather” title but he became my hero with what he’s done with his career and activism.’

Armistead is looking forward to exploring the country — with a different host interviewing him at each venue. Activist Peter Tatchell does the honours in Brighton while world-renowned fantasy author Neil Gaiman mans the decks in London. The pair are old pals. ‘We met at a conference and hit it off,’ explains Armistead. ‘He was a fan of Tales… and I was a fan of his writing, especially his Sandman series.’

Armistead started Tales Of The City in the mid-1970s with a weekly newspaper column — an unusual foray into fiction for a newspaper at that time. The series — about the adventures of a house-share full of social misfits and their transgender landlady — soon built up a loyal audience in the San Francisco Chronicle, but the proprietors were concerned about the gay and lesbian characters in the material.

City girls: Laura Linney and Olympia Dukakis star in Armistead Maupin’s Tales Of The City

‘They thought they were getting a nice story about a new girl in town. I just didn’t tell them who the new girl was,’ laughs Armistead.

‘Once I got readers hooked on the serial I had the power to say what I wanted to say without the paper firing me,’ he laughs. ‘The column stopped for two weeks so I could catch my breath and they had 20,000 letters saying “Where is it? I’m cancelling my subscription if you don’t bring it back’’.’

The columns spawned the successful Tales Of The City novels, six of which appeared until 1989, returning in 2007 for three more.

The books are perennially popular and have recently been turned into a Netflix TV series. ‘The books were trivialised at the time. Now people recognise they were a literary component of a revolution. That was my intention,’ says Armistead.

‘They reached straight people but at the same time they emboldened gay people to claim their lives.’

Armistead Maupin tours the UK until November 11,