En route book review #4

Cairns Airport: you need free wireless. I’ve been spoiled with free LAN connections in every hotel room in Japan (which is just utterly brilliant) and now, Cairns, you force me to write this post offline? Tsk. And while
you’re at it, do something about the humidity. 25 degrees before 7am
is no way to run a town. Or my hair.

So you want (maybe) to know about book number four in my random list? Well, it was Alan Hollinghurst’s debut, The Swimming Pool Library, clearly reissued in
matching jackets when The Line of Beauty won the Booker, and picked up free from the February Bookswap.

It is… hmm. I suspect its impact is significantly lessened these days. Published in 1988, it was (according to the many blurbs splashed across it) one of the first novels to truly depict gay life. I’m sure at the time the tale of a do-nothing toff graphically shagging his way through London was properly groundbreaking, and it’s undoubtedly a good thing that just over 20 years later I can read it and idly wonder when the cock descriptions are going to stop and the plot begin. Yes, even I, with my self-declared lack of interest in storyline, was starting to chafe at the seemingly aimless meandering. But aimless meandering is fine when accompanied by character development, of which there is precious little. As I’ve said, I don’t think that was Hollinghurst’s
point when he wrote it – I guess he wanted to get something out
into the world about male on male lust that wasn’t all AIDS and death
and Oscar Wilde.

I was rather pleased to be reading the book in a country where knowledge of English is still quite limited – otherwise there’s absolutely no way I’d whip it out in public (listen, you spend four days reading The Swimming Pool
Library and see if you remain immune to double entendres). If I
complained about the lack of sex in The Chapel at the End of the
World, I made up for it here. Public school fumblings, quick
pick-ups, glimpsed erections on public transport, proudly paraded
erections in changing room showers, rough sex, tender sex, sex with
strangers, sex with friends, an awful lot of obsessive sex with black
men, licking, sucking, grappling, ramming. If the characters never
got bored of having sex, I certainly started to get bored of reading
about it. It’s good sex writing, but too much of anything becomes
tedious after a while. And while my knowledge of penises is now considerably
broadened (fnar; oh dear lord, what has happened to me?) I am rather
at a loss to know quite how to put such semi-encyclopaedic knowledge to use.

The writing is
excellent, mind. Lighter than I recall The Line of Beauty being, and
with some wonderful descriptions of the capital that delight my
Londonist soul. I leave you with two of my favourites.

Entering the smoking room I felt like an intruder in a film, who has coshed an orderly and, disguised in his coat, enters a top-secret establishment, in this case a home for people kept artificially alive. Sunk in leather armchairs… men of quite fantastic seniority were sleeping or preparing to sleep. The impression was of grey whiskers and very old-fashioned cuts of suiting, watch-chains and heavy handmade shoes that would certainly see their wearers out.


I did so regret it was the Central Line I used most. I couldn’t get any kind of purchase on it. It had neither the old-fashioned open-air quality of the District Line, where rain misted the tracks as one waited, nor the grimy profundity of the Northern Line, nor the Piccadilly’s ingenious, civilised connexiveness. For much of its length it was a great bleak drain, and though some of its stops – Holland Park, St Paul’s, Bethnal Green – were historic enough, they were offset on my daily journeys by the ringing emptiness of Lancaster Gate and Marble Arch, and the trash and racket of Tottenham Court Road, where I got out. Somewhere, I knew, the line had ghost stations, but I had given up looking out for their unlit platforms and perhaps, in a flash from the rails, the signboards and good-humoured advertisements of an abandoned decade.


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