John Vane: London fiction – The Swimming-Pool library

John Vane: London fiction – The Swimming-Pool library

Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty, published in 2004, might be my very favourite novel – a gorgeously-written, dazzlingly evocative story of a young gay man’s journey from comparative innocence to perilous decadence set primarily in the prosperous part of the Notting Hill of the 1980s in the context of Margaret Thatcher’s years in power, conspicuous consumption and the looming catastrophe of AIDs. It captures a London just getting round to emerging from decades of decline into a new age of garish growth. I re-read bits of it frequently.

The Swimming-Pool Library, Hollinghurst’s first novel, published in 1988, is set in the same period but it is nothing like as good. I can’t decide whether to think of it as gay art or posh smut. The sex in The Line of Beauty is explicit and sometimes, shall we say, quite specialised, but its depiction is integral to the story and realisation of key characters in it. With The Swimming-Pool Library, it’s often a case of another page, another penis, with the plot sometimes feeling as if it serves the function of a fig leaf.

Even so, when young, idle rich, beautiful hero William Beckwith isn’t having sex, having sex, having sex, having sex, having sex or having sex, Hollinghurst shades in an unofficial London of half-out male homosexual mores and haunts, locations ranging from the gyms, pools and showers of the Corinthian Club (“the Corry”) on Great Russell Street to funny old members’ clubs with multi-tasking waiters, to the public toilet cottages of famous parks and squares. And there are moments of arresting, chaste description, such as this about the Central line:

‘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 ingenuousness, 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.’  

Part of the story concerns Will’s platonic relationship with an elderly lord, who gives him access to his private papers and asks him to be his biographer. The diaries of the lord, name of Charles, provide a parallel portrait of London gay life from an earlier era. A white man obsessed with black men, we follow His Lordship on the pull down Charing Cross Road, tempting a black US serviceman into the very same Corry, and later ravishing him with great gusto. Charles is also a raconteur:

‘”It’s always gone on, of course,’ Charles recalled. “We had little private bars, sex clubs really in Soho before the war, very secret. And my Uncle Edmund had fantastic tales of places and sort of gay societies in Regent’s Park – a century ago now, before Oscar Wilde and all that – with beautiful working boys dressed as girls and wha-have-you. Uncle Ned was a character…oh, it was unbelievably sexy – much more so than nowadays. I’m not against Gay Lib and all that, of course, but it has taken a lot of the fun out of it, a lot of the frisson. I think the 1880s must have been an ideal time, with brothels full of off-duty soldiers, and luscious young dukes chasing after barrow boys.”

The world in one city, as they say. You can order The Swimming-Pool Library from my favourite independent bookshop, Pages of Hackney. You can get my London novel Frightgeist from there too. Follow me on X/Twitter.

Categories: Culture, John Vane's London Stories

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