Many, many years ago – in the summer of 1989 to be exact – I read a book by Alan Hollinghurst called The Swimming Pool Library.
It was very controversial at the time, telling the story as it does of a promiscuous and posh young man as he navigates the gay world of early 80s London. Obviously there’s a bit more to the novel than that – there’s a lot about class in there and a clever literary device whereby the main character Will becomes the biographer of a much older man whose life parallels his own in many ways.
As you can probably tell from my familiarity with the ins and outs of the plot, I’m re-reading the book at the moment after finding a copy in this rather cool pop up bookshop place in Tufnell Park, where they let you take free books if you bring some of your own in. It’s run by the Green Party, who are also using it as a base for their campaigning for the London election.
Back to The Swimming Pool Library. I’m working quite a few hours at the college again and like to travel there by bus. It takes about ten minutes more than it does by tube and is infinitely more pleasant. It provides me with valuable thinking time – something that is in short supply in a crazy house full of young children. In my opinion there is nothing lovelier than sitting on the top deck of a London bus with a book of your choice. This week I have been reading The Swimming Pool Library. It is extremely well written and on the whole I am really enjoying it.
However, reading the book has provoked a certain anxiety in me this time round – forgive me if this makes me sound hideously petit bourgeois – and a touch Daily Mail . Every page seems to contain a graphic description of a sex act or a brace of throbbing, sexually aroused male members. It worries me that someone might be reading the book over my shoulder; fortunately the book has an extremely anodyne cover that does little to betray its content.
Have I become a middle aged prude? Please shoot me if this is true….
Reading the book also takes me back to a curious acquaintance of my younger days – let’s call him “Terry”. The summer I read the book (1989), I was in between my first and second year of university. I decided to get a job to earn some money and ended up working in the fairly uninspiring environment of a legal stationer on the edges of the City and the West End. The job however, turned out to be an absolute riot, thanks in no small part to an incredibly camp young man called Terry, who styled himself like Matt Goss out of Bros – all bleached blonde hair and ripped jeans and liked to dress up as Diana Ross.
Terry was a curious character who sometimes lived in the East End – possibly with his nan – and sometimes stayed with a man in Camden Town who went by the name of “Mayhem”. I never met “Mayhem”, but the way Terry described him made him sound quite sinister. In addition to his wages from the stationers, Terry also earned money as a “rent boy” – has anyone actually used that expression since the 80s? Doesn’t it sound hideously dated?
Even though I was a naive and impressionable young girl of 19, I was suspicious about Terry”s claims. Surely this was a load of old cobblers? However, one night he took me to his favourite pub, The Brief Encounter, next door to the English National Opera House. It was full of elderly men who all knew him and were desperate to buy him drinks if he sat on their knees. They were very posh, all dressed in suits and many of them wore wedding rings. It was very,very strange and made me feel extremely uncomfortable. Women were not welcome here. It was very much men only – a million miles away from the gay pubs and bars of Soho’s “gay village” I was to frequent in the 90s – either with gay or straight friends. More recently (but before we had the kids), my husband and I would often go for a late night drink in The Black Cap in Camden – there’s a lovely roof terrace and if you go there you’ll find yourself chatting to all sorts.
Nothing at all like the single sex gentleman’s club of The Brief Encounter.
Knowing Terry (and glimpsing inside his world) therefore made reading The Swimming Pool Library an even more intriguing (and disturbing) text. The protagonists are all upper class with a taste for rough – boys like Terry. Women are banished to the margins – referred to in passing but not given words to say or a real part to play. When I read the book in the late 80s I felt a whiff of misogyny – I am feeling this again reading the book in 2012. One passage in particular sticks in my mind (as I think it did back in the day). It’s an exchange between the narrator, the foppish William Beckwith and his elderly aristocratic chum Charles Nantwich, during lunch at an exclusive “gentleman’s club” (do we sense a theme a emerging). Charles asks William:
‘Do you like girls at all?’ he asked.
‘Yes, I like them quite a lot really,’ I insisted.
‘There are chaps who don’t care for them, you know. Simply can’t abide them. Can’t stand the sight of them, their titties and their big sit-upons, even the smell of them.’ He looked down the room to where Percy was dispensing Sanatogen to a striking likeness of the older Gladstone. ‘Andrews, for instance, cannot tolerate them.‘
In this passage, women are reduced to a list of rather unappealing body parts and although this view is attributed to a specific (and flawed character) there are no more positive representations of women to balance out this negative and depressing description. The book is amazingly bold in its representation of gay male sexuality but it has definite blind spots – misogyny and a hideous elitism. Incredibly wealthy and privileged characters – like William – play with, use and then discard poorer, less well educated or ethnic minority characters (again I am reminded of Terry perched on the knee of a pin striped solicitor back in the summer of 1989).
To sum up, The Swimming Pool Library is radical and brave in its unapologetic depiction of gay male sexuality – still as out there today is it was in the late 80s. However, the vicious snobbery that runs through the book leaves a bitter taste – far more disturbing than any of the rude bits. Reading it again also makes me wonder what happened to Terry (not his real name) – another colleague from the shop found me on Facebook and I’m glad to report that he seems happy and settled. I’d like to think Terry is OK too, but he was such a wild one. He had a very generic surname – Smith/Brown/Jones – something like that, which makes it harder to track him down even in the age of instant connection via social media. I would be genuinely intrigued to know what became of him.
Terry, if you’re reading this, here’s the one and only Miss Diana Ross: