Tough Love

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

And the winner is

Alan Hollinghurst has won the Booker Prize for his latest novel, The Line of Beauty.

Now this surprised us when we rolled in last night half-cut and put Radio 4 on (Alcazar was a bit much to cope with at 12.30am on a schoolnight, and the Marianne Faithfull torch songs too maudlin). We were rooting for David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas on the basis of his previous novels being rather ace.

In fact, much as we always say “Ugh, the Booker. Does anybody actually read the novels they pick or do they just put them on their bookshelves and base their dinner party conversations on them on the synopses on Amazon?” we might actually buy this one. It’s certainly nice to see Alan Hollinghurst seemingly return to form after a dodgy-ish third novel, The Spell, which was widely criticised for being lycra thin in substance if not execution.

For those not in the know, Hollinghurst is one of the seminal (seminal?) figures in British gay literature. His first novel, The Swimming Pool Library, was greeted with a storm of publicity and controversy when it was published in the late 80s. An ambiguous, occasionally amoral story about the exploits of a gay aristocrat in the last halcyon days before AIDS hit London, it hit the shelves just in time for the worst of the epidemic and the Section 28 furore.

Widely (and rightly) acclaimed at the time, it helped kick-start the sub-genre of literary gay writing in the UK (we’re less happy with some of his inheritors but let’s leave it there). It also positioned Hollinghurst as a writer somewhere between the French tradition of writing filth with a literary bent (see Genet) and the far-more buttoned-up, observation led world of the traditional English novel.

And Lord, wasn’t The Swimming Pool Library a bit dirty? Certainly not the kind of thing you can read on the bus comfortably, though we did anyway and had to think of Nicholas Witchell when our stop approached. As a novel, it’s also an effective eye-opener on the pre-AIDS gay mindset, as well as a good starting point for anyone interested in learning more about the history of British bumming.

After this, Hollinghurst seemed to take a fair few years over his second book, a far more muted affair than its predecessor, The Folding Star. And although it was listed for the 1994 Booker, it’s easy to see where the author has been overtaken in parts by the dreaded ‘second novel syndrome’. Here the conscious urge to get away from the kind of narrative voice that made The Swimming Pool Library such a success makes a far more amorphous, sometimes directionless result.

Essentially the story of a mid-30s gay man in Belgium’s obsession for his seventeen year old pupil, The Folding Star is a rewarding read, but one which can upset and unsettle along the way. Not in the least because the narrator’s ‘chicken’ love carried worrying moral overtones which the novel never really deals with. Its very structure, which aims for a degree of the same circularity Hollinghurst achieved in The Swimming Pool Library, also makes it read like a series of dying falls rather than climaxes. Perhaps in the end it’s appropriate that it should have been named after a line in one of Milton’s quieter pastoral poems.

So now (skidding quickly over The Spell, which is rubbish) we have The Line of Beauty, where Hollinghurst returns to a depiction of the Thatcherite era of the type that earned him his first praise. Only here he looks at the age with 20:20 hindsight, taking a more satirical view – apparently. It definitely looks interesting, though we’re curious to know whether the hesitancy Hollinghurst has acquired over the years (age, wisdom or too much time spent alone in front of Microsoft Word) will have affected the directness of his writing again.

Benefit of the doubt it is then, but only in paperback.

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Health health health darling

We wasted £3+ of our hard-earned (well, PR, so that statement's a moot point in some quarters) cash on this last night

And it wasn’t just for the buff specimen on the cover either, though if they were to offer him free with a discount subscription it might make us get our credit card out. We bought it for the health hints and tips – honest.

Now we don’t like magazines as a rule. We know how these things work, and frankly you as a reader come way down a magazine’s list of priorities somewhere behind the advertisers, the publisher’s bank balance and the journo’s freebie hit-rate. This means the latest ‘must-have’ product is usually best described as the latest ‘one they handed round to everyone in the office except the tea lady’.

However, if like us you go to the gym and are a bit too chickenshit to ask the instructors there for help, these things should be a lifeline. Especially since they always splash lines like ‘Get a Six Pack using two bits of wire and a spoon!’ over the front page. Lies. Open them, however up and what do you find?

1) At least 33% of the content is made up of adverts for products like Jaguars, chronometer watches and flash designer suits which only City Bankers or consumer-credit junkies could ever afford

2) Eating plans that would reduce any normal individual to tears of boredom within hours. (Precisely how much is a ‘cup of green beans’ anyway, and ‘water-packed tuna’?)

3) Sound-bites such as ‘less sugar, more raw almonds’.

Then, once you have flicked past the lifestyle pages, the bits giving hints and tips to make ‘her scream with pleasure’ (do they realise how many gym-goers are puffs? Perhaps there’s a gap in the market), you may just find the exercise pages. And dearie me, if they don’t read like the Hayne’s manual for an obscure Eastern European hatchback. They make working your dorsals sound more complex than changing a carburetor.

So we’re no further forward then. Consequently we may well be reduced to trapping that cute instructor we’ve been secretly lusting over behind the lat pulldown and asking if he’ll help us with our glutes. Whether we’ll accomplish this without blushing or accidentally phrasing the request as “Can you help me tighten up my arse?” is another matter entirely, however.

Friday, October 01, 2004

Places to go . . . people to see

We’ve been doing our level best to lead a double life at the moment. Basically this amounts to alternating between Alcazar and Radio 4 (the station, not the band) in the kitchen and trying to keep up with the trendy kids.

Which is why we’ve spent the last two Friday nights here and here, as part of our time-honoured tradition of only catching onto something (sometimes it’s loafers, other times electro) just as the moment is starting to pass. And a jolly good time we had nevertheless, even though the fact that we danced hardest to Annie, Jentina and Girls Aloud of all the songs played at either night proves that our Rubbish Gay pop-love continues unabated.

(We were there, but we didn't hear The Libertines. Blame the offer on Carling)

Nevertheless, we did manage to see a rather good band at Club Suicide. Kinky Disco, a Brighton-based girl-singer, male knob twiddler (no sniggering at the back) duo, are what we like to think as the missing link between Yazoo and The Rapture.

There is something unmistakably retro about watching a band whose thing consists of woman singing/shouting, bloke standing there doing an impression of the one with no eyes from the Pet Shop Boys, but this works. This could have something to do with the fact that, along with the Candi Staton samples, Kinky Disco have a few good songs up their sleeve. We even heard and liked them despite the criminally bad acoustic in Charlie’s, Club Suicide’s delightful venue of choice. (We *heart* it for its failings: the social club wallpaper, Chinese Elvis impersonator barman and the dodgy toilet attendants with the handsoap, but you can never – no matter what – hear the lyrics.)

Namuka Bay, with the aforementioned Candi sample, is a great electro pop song, as is Run Away. They even get away with basically changing the lyrics to House of Jealous Lovers and calling it Shake It Up. And, apart from one anonymous trip-housey track which sounds a bit like Olive (remember them?) and a Richard X-esque ‘experiment’, their CD (available here), Pleasures Unknown is jolly good too.

Oh, and just in case the Joy Division reference is putting you off, they sound nothing like them, and clearly own no Tindersticks records either. This can only be a good thing to our ears.

Of course, now the fact we're being sentenced to a month in Hemel Hempstead for work means we shall miss Pink Grease next week, but you can't have everything. Well, you can try but your room service bill will end up huge and be rejected by the company credit card.