This weekend the Isle Of Wight, where I live, is due to celebrate its first ever Gay Pride event. These take place now all over the UK and apparently the Isle Of Wight represented the largest population without one so it is undoubtedly time to put that right. It will also be the first place in the world to have it set mainly on the beach with the hovercraft (Hovertravel being one of the main sponsors of the day) going backwards and forwards ferrying the acts from the mainland. 5000 people have registered to take part in the event which made national news when it saw the rapid departure of the island’s long-standing Conservative MP who made bigoted comments when addressing a group of sixth formers. One of the pupils, Esther Poucher, posted his remarks on social media and achieved what many islanders and some in his own party had tried to do for years in forcing his resignation.
The message for this year’s Isle Of Wight Pride is “#Love Wins” and it is perhaps appropriate that I have been reading this novel in the run-up to the event by gay writer and journalist Rupert Smith.
What’s the gender opposite of chick-lit? Dick-Lit inevitably springs to mind and has no doubt already been termed and it is an appropriate tag for this novel which is Smith’s sixth out of the eight books he has written under his own name. He has also published nine racier novels under the name James Lear and a couple of novels aimed at the commercial female market (Chick-Lit then) as Rupert James. I have read his 2006 “Service Wash” which mixed soap opera with murder. That was okay, this is better.
The front cover has a recommendation from Sarah Waters, a novelist who I care enough about to get me at least considering a book’s purchase. What we have here is literary fiction, with a gay emphasis and here with a historical element.
There are two narratives, one, a present day tale of London life from gym bunny Robert precariously balancing work, drink, drugs, friends and shopping, the other beginning with conscription to National Service in 1957. Robert’s account is written as a blog and the second narrator Michael’s as a secret diary as it reveals information that could lead to his ruin at a time when homosexuality was illegal. With Robert everything is out in the open, with Michael everything is hidden. Sixty years have made quite a difference. As one older character tells Robert towards the end;
“You think you invented it, don’t you? But you didn’t. You just bought it. You had it all handed to you on a plate and you never stopped to wonder who put it there. Your generation seems to have lost the ability to love or to care or to fight for change or to do anything other than fuck each other and shop.”
This is really Smith’s attempt to address this generation. We’ve come on so far with equality and yet is the current state of play so great after all? Robert and his friends have their freedom but are there lives any richer or are they any less lonely? There’s a new set of problems and issues which are restricting happiness. I began this novel really enjoying the tale of Robert’s shallow existence. It was laugh out loud funny in that “Absolutely Fabulous” way. Smith is actually quite strong with the humour throughout. I felt quite disappointed when the National Service sequence began but I was soon drawn into Michael’s attraction to cocky muscleman Mervyn Wright. The two narratives interlink nicely and the whole thing remains enjoyable throughout. There used to be a lot more of this type of fiction around with independent publishers such as the Gay Men’s Press putting out work of variable quality and the last thirty years or so have given us some great gay themed novels (Alan Hollinghurst, Armistead Maupin, Sarah Waters, Neil Bartlett, Michael Carson, Graeme Aitken are amongst those who can take a bow here) but nowadays, either this market is not reading as much or there is not such a need for this type of fiction. It seems much harder to find in the real book world. (LGBTQIA publishing is still flourishing as E-books). I think this book would most likely appeal to a gay male audience but Smith’s handling of his range of characters and his recreation of two differing points of time would please a wider readership.
Man’s World was published by Arcadia in 2010.