When was your summer of love? I think everyone has one – that first hot season when you realise that you can actually do all that stuff you spent your early teenage years reading about. Mine was 1989. I had a summer job at Shell on the Southbank, just finished my second year at Glasgow University, a total science geek – right down to my Tesco anorak and blue cord trousers – it was my first time away from home alone and I was 19 of your earth years old. While other denizens of ConservativeHome (probably) spent that time luxuriating in the unstoppability of the Thatcher revolution, I spent it searching out, ahem, intimacies with a seemingly endless round of older straight-looking men, all over west London, without any idea of why I was doing what I was doing. One man in particular held me in his sway, and explained to me why I was behaving thus. I was so taken with this man that I begged a bookshop in Covent Garden to give me his publicity poster, and stuck it on the wall of my Hammersmith bedsit, where I spent my non-active evenings pouring over his first and greatest novel – The Swimming Pool Library. There’s a line in an Iris Murdoch novel, I think it’s A Fairly Honourable Defeat, where she says something like "it is possible to fall in love with a statue". I was in love with my picture of Alan Hollinghurst (for it was he) – his cool and calculating gaze saw right through me and all my nascent desires, which he dissected in inordinate detail in the pages of The Swimming Pool Library. If he hadn’t been a literary genius, he would surely have been a surgeon, such is the precise and unflinchingly taxonomic quality of his writing.
I am not a Jamesian scholar – I’m a statistician – but every review of Hollinghurst dwells on his similarity to Henry James, in particular those about The Line Of Beauty, which began its televisual treatment tonight on BBC2 (probably the first Andrew Davies adaption which has toned down the sex). I think (in my amateurish way) that the Henry James brigade might be onto something, though perhaps not for the reasons intended (and they may just have been lazy: the protagonist of The Line Of Beauty is, unlike myself, a Jamesian scholar). If James is about the conflict that happens when New America/Money meets Old Europe/Class, then Hollinghurst is all about the conflict that happens when New Sexual Liberation meets Old British Repression. Who wins, in his Freudian writings – the untrammelled force of the id, with its insatiable desire for sexual power? Or the superego, with its understanding that to get what you want requires a degree of surface compromise?
There is an analogy that can be drawn between the forceful sexual desires that became visible in the 1980s, and the impact of Thatcherism on the country: both were about the individual asserting their right to be seen as they themselves determined; the skilled working classes were no more going to be defined by the homes that the Left told them to be grateful for, than were gay men and women going to be defined by decades of limp caricature. It’s possible to see the rampant, forbidden sex in Hollinghurst’s work as a metaphor for the unabashed individualism that came to be identified with Thatcherism. I believe he intends this; it certainly intrigues me.
Anyway. Hollinghurst continues to write sparingly and beautifully. In
The Line Of Beauty (a Booker Prize nomination in 2004), young Nick
Guest (more Dickens than James in that choice of surname), spends
1983-1987 living with a Tory MP and his family – initially attracted to
the son, he is then left looking after the psychologically damaged
sister of the household. Nick is played by Dan Stevens as the epitome
of that type of pre-Raphaelite feminine male beauty beloved by the
Victorian pederast (not my type, you gather), and his character moves
as a disingenuous and somewhat disconnected observer of the ups and
downs of what we are invited to view as the archetypal Tory family.
Nick’s meant to be gauche, I think, but I find him irritating: a bit of
a cipher, and the TV adaption makes it all the cruder (every scene
seems to produce another stereotype, from the blimpish Tory, to the
cabbie with a heart of gold). Along the way Nick falls in love with,
and is dumped by, a black working-class council worker, and then takes
up with a coke-snorting millionaire (new money). Stop reading now if
you don’t know the ending: both his lovers die of AIDS, though Nick is
left richer as a consequence. I think there’s a (fairly heavy-handed)
moral about the 80s here.
One clunker in Episode 1: at a family gathering, we await the arrival
of "The President of the Board of Trade". I don’t believe this title
was resurrected until the 1990s by Heseltine in Major’s government. Do
you know, I always hate reviewers that make small and irrelevant points
like that. But there you go.
This is not my favourite Hollinghurst novel, and not one I would
recommend a new reader to start with. I don’t think it touches The
Swimming Pool Library, or The Folding Star (where the sexual
objectification that Will practises in the former reaches its logical
conclusion: the subject of the narrator’s obsession is literally erased
by it). As a Tory who knows other Tories – rather than as a Guardian
reader who knows other Guardian readers – I found the caricatures of
80s Conservatives just that: caricatures. At one stage in the novel,
the MP appears on Question Time, "and while [he] boomingly deplored the
statement [that he was too rich to care about ordinary people] you
could see it sinking and settling in his flushed features as a kind of
acclaim". A red-faced, self-satisfied Tory MP, who cares about Europe
because he has a second home in France? Hmmm. I found the televised
representations of the characters, perhaps necessarily, even more
crudely drawn (the Tory MP’s daughter is a self-harmer: she cuts
herself. Tory cuts, geddit?).
The most vibrant scene in Episode 1 occurs when Nick visits the family
of Leo (his lover) and discusses a picture of Christ with Leo’s mother.
I am sure the cliches of black religiosity are just as hackneyed as the
cliches of Tory bumptiousness, but at least the scene was well-acted
None of this is to understate Hollinghurst’s genius – this review is
definitely in the "cat may look at a king" mould. He is a genius, and
only a handful of others can match his descriptive power about motive,
or capacity for encapsulating the spirit of an age in written form. His
is not a Jonathan Coe-type "everything about Thatcher was awful" rant:
as you read about Nick you will so taken back to that period (our
period, let’s be honest) that you may find yourself breathless. And
nostalgic for the can-do optimism of Britain in a period of growth and
flux (at 19, I was in an identical state). Hovering over it all, in the
book anyway, is the thought of Thatcher, the idea of Thatcher.
Characters endlessly repeat "I was hoping the Prime Minister might join
us this evening", something mutatis mutandis you often hear on the
pages of ConservativeHome. (La Thatch finally appears at a party to
dance with Nick.)
The hardest pill for the Left to swallow (and some on the Right, to
judge by the multiple postings that follow whenever ToryDiary mentions
homosexuality) may be this: that the delivery of liberation (not
equality: liberation) of gay men and women was engendered not by the
fiat of a well-meaning socialist administration, but was instead the
unintended consequence of the woman who focused almost entirely on the
economics of government. Thatcher, in emancipating the working class
from a subservient role (through surely the largest redistribution of
wealth ever enacted: the right to buy), also unleashed an individualism
which, among other things, manifested itself as a generation of men and
women who refused to abide by the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell rule of the
closet. Even when they don’t know they’re doing it, writers such as
Hollinghurst inadvertently pay homage to the liberation theology of
(If I wanted to push the Thatcher-as-usurper theory, I would tell you
my thoughts on the denouement of The Swimming Pool Library, where
aristocratic Will witnesses the ultimate assertion of the new class
order. But I won’t spoil it for you).
I checked out my unfavourable view of Episode 1 with Mr Keith, guvnor
of this parish. He was still a bit put out that we missed the end of
the Arsenal-Barcelona game (a crime in this borough) for the sake of
ConservativeHome: "predictable, boring" was his verdict. I can’t
disagree with that view of the television series. But don’t let that
deter you from Alan Hollinghurst’s novels. The Master, indeed.