He photographed the birth of London’s 1970s punk explosion, he survived the hedonism of London’s drug-fuelled 80s gay club scene when friends died of Aids, and he has been face-to-face with Britain’s most notorious gay serial killer.
But today Peter Paul Hartnett – a London-Irishman known professionally as just ‘Hartnett’ – finds the quiet life of the North is ideal as he combines his multiple roles as a busy photographer, poet, author and respected authority on the darker side of male sexuality.
He lives ‘just a spit’ – his own choice of phrase – from the Bronte Parsonage in Haworth where the three literary sisters penned their way to worldwide fame and spawned an entire tourist industry for Yorkshire. It’s a world away from the darker side of city life that Hartnett has explored and chronicled. His writings have been described as “a creative tumult, a powerful clash of the desirable and the unacceptable.”
“As a writer, I tackle taboo subjects,” he says. “I’m drawn to write about subjects that many writers would run from. I blame it on the Benedictines who educated me in West London, at a school that’s now notorious for one sex scandal after another.
“One of the areas of gay life that I cover is online dating and the risks that holds, because I believe there are many sexual predators operating online with a variety of fake profiles and
user names, and that can be a kind of sexual stalking that many turn a blind eye to.”
Hartnett’s writings also cover gay clubland and the risk of using drugs to enhance sexual pleasure, such as methamphetamine – ‘Tina’ in gay terminology – and the trend for ‘slamming’ or injecting drugs.
Hartnett will host an open and frank discussion of such subjects in a Q and A session when he launches his second hardback print collection of poetry, three men, in tears and will read extracts from it on Friday August 25 at 2pm, at The People’s History Museum in Manchester, one of many Manchester Pride events.
As a teenager, Hartnett toted his little Kodak Instamatic camera, and later a Polaroid, around London, photographing the bizarre garb and abandoned behaviour of club goers. He became friends with the likes of Boy George, Steve Strange and the notorious performance artist and
Taboo Club boss Leigh Bowery, who died aged just 33 of an Aids-related illness.
Hartnett describes himself as a survivor of this culture of drink, drugs and unrestricted sex. “I always took care of myself, I always protected myself, and so I’m now 59, I’m fine and dandy, I’m healthy, I’ve got a lovely home in a converted brewery and I’ve got a new book out.”
The forthcoming book, three men, in tears is in three sections – Court 2, Court 5 and Court 7 – and is a collection of poetry which reflects the mindset of three sexual predators, based on their crimes and the disclosures that they made. “It’s quite a cruel cut-and-paste of what’s raw and real within contemporary life.”
“Hartnett has corresponded with Nilsen over 10 years”
Hartnett’s research has involved the crimes and motives of Dennis Nilsen, the Scots-born loner who admitted killing at least 15 gay men and boys he lured to his North London homes between 1978 and 1983. He murdered them by strangling or drowning, performed perverted
rituals with the corpses and dismembered and burned or flushed the remains.
Hartnett has corresponded with Nilsen over 10 years, and once got special clearance to interview him at Whitemoor high security prison, gaining important insights into his crimes. Hartnett has even used some of Nilsen’s artwork from prison to illustrate ten of his book covers. But did it feel that he was interviewing a monster?
“I think the most unsettling aspect of meeting him at Whitemoor Prison was the fact that I’d actually seen him out and about in London, on the gay scene. To say that he looked incredibly normal would be putting it mildly. He looked like the kind of person who might have a little dog called Bleep back home, and in fact he did.” Hartnett has lived in Haworth for nearly 10 years, and before that he lived in Colne, Lancs, where he set his first novel Sixteen, a tale about teenage pals who are manipulated and exploited as they pursue pop fame.
He travels the world on fashion photography assignments, but is happy to return to the North. “The good thing about living up north and working elsewhere is that I can come back with photographs or with material having interviewed people and covered certain subjects, and I can come back to the North West where I’ve got time and space and peace and quiet to process it. When you’re living in a metropolis like London you’re so overwhelmed with everything that’s going on. In the North the pace of life is better.”
Three men, in tears is published by Autopsy, £10 hardback. To see PP Hartnett’s work, visit hartnett.uk.com.