I really liked the premise of this non-fiction work. Jeremy Atherton Lin explores, largely via memoir, the significance of the gay bar in the forging of the LGBTQ+ community, bringing with it a sense of belonging. At a time when bars and pubs and nightclubs have greatly diminished in number and where the survival of those left is threatened by extended lockdowns and coronavirus restrictions it is important that we recognise these venues as part of our LGBTQ+ history, our present and hopefully, our future.
The author focuses on those places he knows well beginning in more or less present day South London, moving to the Los Angeles of his college days, back to London where he meets his long-term partner, referred to as Famous Blue Raincoat, to San Francisco where the two set up home together returning to London once civil partnerships becomes legal here, with a brief sojourn to the bars of Blackpool.
This book is strongest when it is dealing with history. Initially, we are plunged graphically into the sleaze of the cruising bars in Vauxhall and then on to the Royal Vauxhall Tavern, an institution for generations, which does deserve its own thorough examination and the author does well to bring this extraordinary venue to life. I used to frequent it regularly over 30 years ago and memories and the unique feel of the place is evoked by Jeremy Atherton Lin’s writing.
The focus on all the bars is great, I enjoyed the author’s perception of them at the time when he was frequenting them. It is no fault of his, obviously, but you often get the sense that he has missed the boat, time-wise. The LA of his college days is a pale shadow of its heyday, ravaged by the decimation of the gay population through AIDS and in most of the other areas he is visiting places past their prime. This is due to chronology but in many ways it feels typical of the gay bar set-up, on a quiet night there will always be someone to tell you how busy it was the night before!
The author broadens his focus to encompass, well everything, and this is where the book slips for me. He has much to say about the gay experience and it is extremely worth saying but it’s a scattergun approach of digressions and the books loses the structure I was enjoying so much initially. It becomes a mish-mash of history, of gay culture, of memoir, of essay. I would have got more out of the memoir aspect if I felt I knew more about the author and Famous but I was kept very much at arm’s length, which for biography doesn’t work that well for me.
I do think that there is a tremendous book hidden in here with some extremely quotable passages which sum up the gay nightlife experience better than I’ve ever read. Here are a couple of examples:
“It dawned on me that many of the people we used to know to say hello to we never really knew. We just enjoyed recognizing faces.”
“Gays can relax in a gay bar, people will say, but I went out for the tension in the room.”
“We once flattered ourselves that all popular culture was subversively designed to amuse gay men. It’s become apparent gay men are there to make popular culture amusing to everybody else”.
And with February’s LGBT+ History Month just behind us he quotes Michael Warner from “The Trouble With Normal” (1999), which is another reminder why our stories still need to be told;
“In the queer world memory is very fragile. You don’t learn from your parents how the gay world is structured. So there’s not a whole lot of intergenerational transfer.”
I think that this is a significant work but for me it was a little overpowering in its structure, the many elements did not mesh as well as I had hoped, so it just misses out on being a book I would want to keep on my bookshelves. Just occasionally I wonder if I am too harsh in my judgements and that time will see a book linger in my memory, displaying a lasting power that I had not anticipated. This might be one such book where I could become convinced to revise my opinion. The audience for it is niche but that audience would certainly be drawn by Jeremy Atherton Lin’s attack and relish of his subject.
Gay Bar was published by Granta on 4th March 2021. Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.