Lines of Beauty. October 2017.

Dear Rowley,

In the week that Phillip Pullman returns to the world of his Dark Materials trilogy with the first of a new series, I do find it heartening that, as a reader, I still await new novels by favourite authors with all the excitement of a teenager with an Internet alert for Ariana Grande tickets.

I would have bought the Pullman in Hatchards had the hardback edition of Alan Hollinghurst’s sixth novel, The Sparsholt Affair, not cruised me with such ruthless success. I’ve been a devotee of Hollinghurst since 1988 when he published his debut The Swimming Pool Library.

For the time, the novel was so graphically gay that the ripe sexual content obscured the beauty of the prose. I know because I went back to The Swimming Pool Library as soon as I’d finished The Sparsholt Affair. Central character Will is as I remembered feral, dirty, amoral and predatory. The difference today is that this language is all over the Internet and has lost the power to shock and thrill… more’s the pity.

The Swimming Pool Library does introduce themes that repeat in Hollinghurst’s work and draw comparisons with Henry James and E. M. Forster. The plotting turns on a scandal buried in living history before homosexuality was partially decriminalised in the UK in 1967. The interplay between several generations of gay men explores universal facets of the human condition: the power of art, ageing and a wistful envy for the past or present.

Hollinghurts’s The Line of Beauty won the Man Booker Prize in 2004 and stands among the great novels about 1980s London. Like The Swimming Pool LibraryThe Line of Beauty stays in the present and is seen entirely through the perspective of protagonist Nick Guest.

Nick is an outsider like the narrator of The Great Gatsby of the same name. Unlike Gatsby, Nick’s actions have profound consequences on the privileged family he gatecrashes. The Line of Beauty relishes gay sex with the same earthy enjoyment as The Swimming Pool Library but, unlike the former, there are more rounded heterosexual characters not least the bi-polar daughter Cat.

So is The Sparsholt Affair Booker material? Like its predecessor The Stranger’s Child (2011), Sparsholt share a narrative structure of five chronological sections beginning in the 1920s idyll of Evelyn Waugh novels and progressing to the present. Each novel pivots on a gay encounter or scandal that runs like a DNA code through the generations.

We never know when one section closes where or with whom Hollinghurst will take up the story. In the case of The Sparsholt Affair the central character we follow is David, a muscular, bisexual gilded youth at Oxford for a term in the 1920s. It is his genes that we follow in The Sparsholt Affair and he who holds (and keeps) the secret of the Sparsholt Affair of 1966 that made him a marked man.

I would agree with the criticism of a great friend who read The Stranger’s Child and complained that every male character – boy to man – is either gay, bisexual or more than happy to give it a go. The same is true of Sparsholt but my only crit is that the gays grow less likeable with each new generation in a Hollinghurst novel.

I did devour Sparsholt and surprised myself for enjoying the plot twist when David Sparsholt’s daughter is introduced and we get an echo of Henry James’s What Maisie Knew that sees adult failings through a child’s eyes. Disappointing though was the cat-and-mouse game about the nature of the actual Sparsholt Affair (David, an MP, rent boys, film) that is never elucidated.

The Sparsholt Affair is practically PG compared to The Swimming Pool Library and The Line of Beauty. So, though I agree with the critics that one can appreciate the golden prose all the more minus the graphic smut, I must say I miss it. Perhaps if the affair itself had been described we could have had at least a section that was true blue.

Alan Hollinghurst does seem to have an open goal when it comes to contemporary literary fiction with strong gay themes. Pre-1967 we had any number of literary lions who were homosexual and wrote with those themes and codes in fiction however deeply buried. Funnily enough, I find E. M. Forster’s Maurice as erotic as The Line of Beauty but there we are…

But it is fair to say that American novelists have made a much greater strides in gay fiction compared to the Brits: Truman Capote, James Baldwin, Michael Cunningham, Edmund White and honorary Yank Christopher Isherwood. We seem to do rather better with the ladies such as Sarah Walters and Jeanette Winterson.

I don’t think I have a ‘state of the nation’ novel like The Line of Beauty in me but I do think there’s room for a London Tales of the City like Armistead Maupin’s marvellous series of San Francisco gay novels. But in order to write comedy you’ve got to get happy and for me that’s a work in progress. Until next time…

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Casting Couch. October 2017.

Dear Rowley,

The case against movie mogul Harvey Weinstein alleging multiple counts of sexual harassment, assault and rape over a thirty-year period is as morally murky as it is complex. We know, for example, that predatory men were at large as far back as the birth of Hollywood.

In 1921 Fatty Arbuckle was charged but acquitted of raping and murdering starlet Virginia Rappe. Charlie Chaplin was famously fond of the under sixteens as was Errol Flynn who was put on trial for raping a brace of school-age girls. In addition to his high-profile romances with Jean Harlow, Katharine Hepburn and Rita Hayworth, Howard Hughes went through starlets like disposable tissues.

The rise of the studio system placed men such as Daryl Zanuck (20th Century Fox), Harry Cohen (Columbia) and Jack Warner (Warner Bros) in a position to ‘audition’ a woman a day on the casting couch in their offices. These men were at the top of the food chain.

Marilyn Monroe described the bottom-feeding ‘I’ll make you a star’ sleaze balls in LA so well in her posthumously published 1974 memoir My Story. ‘I met them all. Phoniness and failure were all of them. Some were vicious and crooked. But they were as near to the movies as you could get. So you sat with them, listening to their lies and schemes. And you saw Hollywood with their eyes – an overcrowded brothel’.

In the wake of the Weinstein scandal, Marilyn’s name has been resurrected as the poster girl for the Hollywood casting couch in the 1950s. Actually, she wasn’t. At the beginning of her career, Marilyn had the fortune to capture the heart of a super agent called Johnny Hyde who wanted to marry her. He died but not before getting her roles in The Asphalt Jungle and All About Eve.

As Marilyn writes in My Story, 20th Century Fox studio head Daryl Zanuck actively disliked her and sidelined her until the sheer volume of fan mail became too much to ignore. With her star on the rise after making Niagara, a 1949 nude calendar shoot emerged in 1952 and threatened to torpedo her career.

Marilyn Monroe turned it around saying there were other ways for a girl to make $50 in Hollywood but she chose to pose. When asked what she had on, MM replied ‘the radio’. Later in life she’d say ‘I’ve been on a calendar but never on time’ as a quip about her chronic lateness. Within a year, Marilyn had made Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and she was too valuable a property to 20th Century Fox to be mauled by anyone including Zanuck.

Fade out and cut to 2017. It has emerged that the whole of Hollywood knew about Harvey Weinstein’s predatory behaviour. After the initial deathly silence from movie land’s A-list actresses – all of whom have a lot to thank Weinstein for and did in countless Oscar acceptance speeches – condemnation has rained down on Weinstein. He appears to have been the Jimmy Savile of La-La-Land.

The Weinstein scandal proves to me that the only crime in Hollywood is to get caught. Harvey Weinstein got away with treating vulnerable teenage actresses like room service for three decades: exposing himself, demanding massages and even allegedly stalking and raping the unwilling. To reiterate, Hollywood knew this. Agents knew this. Aspiring actresses surely knew this or should have been warned.

It seems evident that sex has always oiled the wheels of movie-making and that for every lady who is now pointing the finger at Weinstein, there are many more actors and actresses who exchanged their ‘affections’ for fame and the last thing they want is for the past to catch-up on them. I suspect Weinstein has been thrown to the dogs to put them off sniffing around elsewhere.

Weinstein has not covered himself in glory playing the ‘sex addict’ card that no-one is buying and packing himself off to a costly rehab facility where he can pad around in a gaping dressing gown to his heart’s content. He’s already asked for forgiveness and second chances despite claiming he has done no wrong. So, in short, f*** him. He’s made his bed and he’ll have to lie in it.

I am not so impressed by Weinstein’s co-producing brother who claims to have been completely in the dark about his brother’s abuses of power. Really? And as for Weinstein’s beautiful fashion-designing wife! Well, Georgina, what first attracted you to obese, lecherous walrus Harvey the multi-million dollar Hollywood producer? He turned her brand Marchese from zero to hero with his contacts and now she’s walked. Who was using who?

A clip has been published on YouTube with all the actors and actresses thanking Harvey Weinstein profusely for producing their award-winning films. Equally, there are hundreds of photographs of Uncle Harvey being hugged by actresses from Jennifer Laurence to Meryl Streep.

It does seem conclusive that there’s far too much smoke for there not to be fire. BAFTA and the Academy have already expelled Weinstein. Comedian James Corden has been booed at an AMFar dinner for making jokes about Uncle Harvey and the witch hunt on Twitter suggests he will regret his lapse of taste.

But I do smell a fug of mendacity in Hollywood over the Harvey Weinstein scandal. They knew. They all knew and kept quiet to protect careers and promote movies. Weinstein was a fox in a chicken coop given free range. One sometimes wonders whether silent witnesses aren’t as responsible to the women abused as the abusers.

 

 

 

 

 

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Fine and Dandy? October 2017.

Dear Rowley,

The other day, I had the privilege to view pieces tailored by Henry Poole & Co in the Museum of London archive. We saw the black velvet tunic Sir Henry Irving wore to play King Charles I and identified a pair of peacock blue breeches as belonging to the entourage of the Khedive of Egypt. What I didn’t know was how vast the collection of garments with royal provenance that is kept in the Museum of London.

Our guide curator Timothy Long brought-up the anachronistic slash-sleeved tunic King George IV wore to his coronation. the purple and gold coat King Edward VII wore to his and a complete ivory silk costume worn by King Charles X of France; the last of the Bourbon monarchs. Tim also showed us a blue double-breasted Regency tailcoat with the most extravagant round stand collars.

For costume historians, a garment contemporary to George ‘Beau’ Brummell is something of a Holy Grail. Like that other great fashion leader Marie Antoinette, only scraps of the Beau’s wardrobe survive. Unlike the French queen, no full-length oil painting exists of Brummell in his pomp so we have to make do with amateur sketches and word-of-mouth to judge how influential the definitive dandy was on men’s tailoring.

No author can touch Brummell after Ian Kelly’s masterful biography and Nick Foulkes made a marvellous job of bringing fellow dandy the Count D’Orsay back to life. I haven’t read the latest tome on the subject, The Dandy at Dusk, but do know that dandies past rarely if ever come to a good end. Perhaps it is something to do with paying so much attention to appearance to fend off further inquiry. I surmise it is much the same with obsessive gym-goers and drag queens.

I rather bridle at being called a dandy though that’s rather hypocritical considering I agreed to be photographed for Rose and Natty’s first tome I Am Dandy. I’m not, as it happens, though have lived a vaguely Brummelesque life that has taught me all style and no substance does not a happy fellow make. Maybe this is why I redirected my attention towards history and finding precedents for the sometimes bewildering mores of modern fashion.

Forgive the pensive mood. It always comes over me, as t’were, when approaching a birthday. Don’t know about you, Rowley, but I am increasingly less interested in what people do – including myself – and more in what they are for. It’s a big question to ask. I think one has to be more than decorative, don’t you?

A talent to amuse is not only admirable but vital. Being able to please yourself and others is evidently the goal. I’m proud of my books but must admit looking at an author such as Alan Hollinghurst who produces a book every couple of years with green eyes. I also suspect that if I’d put a grain of the effort into relationships that I did with my books I’d be husband of the year.

I suppose what keeps writers going is the pursuit of the book that they’re going to be remembered for. In a way not achieving that yet is a blessing. There are few professions where you wake-up each morning and are faced with a blank page. You have to write the story and you’re damned lucky if someone wants to buy it.

As it happens I think writers always make much better friends than lovers. It’s probably time to accept that fact, buy a Cavalier King Charles spaniel and a loyalty card for  Men at Play. I find it inadvisable to try to live up to other people’s expectations and fatal to try and live up to one’s own if they aren’t realistic.

When you don’t like the things that life is showing you, some people lift the elbow. Others take to Class A. Yet more pop happy pills which is much the same thing. Then avoiding the issue becomes the issue. I can recall the Wicked Witch of the West End saying to me many years ago in Florence ‘I don’t know which Devil you’ve done a deal with’ in response to my being fresh-faced after an epic night on the sauce at Pitti Uomo.

Well, taking a leaf from Kate Bush’s book I’m making a deal with the Gods this coming week. If Jewellery for Gentlemen gets the funding to launch in style I’m going to mend a few ways and give it what my dear friend Scott calls ‘a red hot steaming go’.

Vanity alone means that I can no longer carouse  all night and wake-up with no visible effects. To paraphrase RuPaul, ‘if you can’t take care of yourself, how the hell you gonna take care of anybody else?’

Doing the birthday MOT, I’ve spent  decade in Bloomsbury Towers writing my socks off and I must say life away from Bloomsbury Square would be unthinkable. I have much more to be grateful for than to complain not least friends and family who have been with me through all the highs and lows.

I am still young enough to turn a few heads at the Wheeltappers & Shunters Social Club of a Friday night and do believe the project I was born to write is not yet written. Anyway, enough navel gazing. We’re 99% there on the layouts for Jewellery for Gentlemen and it promises to be a cracker. The Wedding Gallery opens its doors to the press on the 30th of October. Tomorrow is another day and a Merry Christmas to all our readers.

As Sondheim’s saying goes of the three ages of man, ‘First you are young, then you are middle-aged, then you’re fabulous’. Until next time…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Rivalry. October 2017.

Dear Rowley,

The Anne Boleyn license to print money continues apace with Alison Weir’s ‘factional’ novel Anne Boleyn: A King’s Obsession available in all good bookshops. Weir is a historian and has tackled the Six Wives previously in a work of non-fiction. Despite the subject being exhausted without the discovery of a lost caché of letters under the floorboards at Hever Castle, Tudor fanatics such as I continue to buy anything branded AB.

What to make of A King’s Obsession? The facts of Anne Boleyn’s life -as few as they are following the attempt to erase her from history after her death in 1536 – have been laid out like a game of patience that many authors have tried to solve. Weir risks some audacious leaps from fact-to-fact such as Anne’s sister Mary being raped by both King François of France and King Henry VIII. Oh no they didn’t!

History remembers Mary Boleyn as a courtesan who took to her work like a swan to a lake. It largely remembers Anne Boleyn as a bewitching contradiction. Here is a woman who championed the new religion but was branded a witch. The Lady held-off Henry VIII’s affections for years before she was in reach of the crown but was relentlessly taunted in the street as the ‘king’s whore’.

Anne Boleyn has to have a strong voice and I don’t think Alison Weir gave her sufficient intelligence to stitch-up an obsessed Henry VIII like a kipper. For a start, the dialogue in A King’s Obsession makes TV’s The Tudors sound like Wittgenstein in comparison. We have Henry VIII addressing Anne with ‘Darling, give me a chance’ and Anne saying of Cromwell ‘well, he’ll have to get over it’. I half expected her to call the prosecuting council ‘H8ers’.

When Hilary Mantel weighed-in to the Anne Boleyn canon with Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, her reading of character, sublime prose and subtle plotting made her books the definitive fictional account of Anne’s rise and fall. Her story is cleverly seen thorough the eyes of Thomas Cromwell leaving other authors an open goal to elucidate Anne’s motivation. Weir’s Anne is never entirely convincing as a power player not least in her secret love for Henry Norris.

Whereas I found Mantel’s humanising of Tudor history entirely plausible, I was constantly thinking ‘really?’ at the words and thoughts Weir put into Anne’s mouth and head respectively. An Anne in love with Henry Norris is a conceit that comes in handy to draw one of Henry VIII’s closest friends into the plot to dethrone her. But I suspect Anne’s heart was far too hardened to be touched by a courtier once the crown was secured in 1533.

Alison Weir’s Anne does not display the brilliance of a player in Tudor politics. She seems to be carried along rather than leading from the front. I believe that Hilary Mantel nailed it when she portrayed Anne being as dispassionate and strategic as a chess master. Anne Boleyn overcame a relatively lowly birth, limited beauty and the might of church and state to become Queen of England. Anne was exceptional in every way.

A nation’s religion was changed for Anne Boleyn to take her place next to Henry VIII. She was the only one of his six wives to be given a coronation in her own right though at the time the king did think she had his son in her belly. Queen Anne was also named Regent in the absence of King Henry which could have changed history had Henry died in the jousting accident of January 1536.

It is a tantalising thought that, had Henry died and Anne not miscarried of a son in January 1536, the lady could have ruled England as Regent for sixteen years. Of course it was not to be. Anne’s fall took a matter of days for Cromwell to orchestrate leading to what is acknowledged today as a judicial murder. Queen Anne was removed for her failure to bear a son and heir.

I will be intrigued to see how Alison Weir handles Jane Seymour. I have always maintained just by looking at Holbein the Younger’s portrait of Jane that the meek milksop reputation was entirely fraudulent. Hilary Mantel does more than suggest that Jane Seymour knew precisely what she was doing when she turned against Queen Anne and accepted the affections of the king.

The Holbein portrait of Jane is not flattering. It shows a woman with eyes and muzzle like a pit bull terrier and determined, pursed lips. Lest we forget, when the once-hated Queen Anne was in the Tower of London, citizens were penning lewd rhymes about Henry and Jane’s unseemly courtship in the shadow of the scaffold. I would love to see Weir go in on Jane Seymour as an ambitious, morally questionable opportunist.

It turned out that Queen Anne’s reign was longer than Queen Jane’s who died in 1537 giving birth to the future King Edward VI. Jane’s triumph was but a whisper in history whereas Anne Boleyn changed the course of the nation’s religion. As a symbol not only of radical religion but also immorality Anne Boleyn was controversial to her contemporaries. She did not go quietly.

The lion’s share of information about Anne Boleyn is gleaned from reports of her trial for treason, witchcraft and adultery: ergo it looks back on her life through the prism of presumed guilt. Personally I don’t see any historian giving enough credence to Anne’s championing of the new religion. Why else but religious fervour would make her put her head into the lion’s mouth?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Survival Instinct. October 2017.

Dear Rowley,

Fasten your seatbelt, this is going to be a bumpy ride for anyone under thirty. Am I the only person with a few miles on the clock who is fed the fuck up with ageism? I read that the BBC is hiring Millennials to teach the old in the TV industry how to relate to the young. Who, in the name of Joan Bakewell, dreamed that one up? I should think Armando Iannucci’s quill is quivering with anticipation to write the parody sitcom.

I am ‘So Over’ Millennials being the sole focus of media, politics, popular culture and pornography. For centuries the elders of any tribe were respected and listened to. Today it seems that the entire focus is on the kindergarten. I do not believe that youth is wasted on the young. It is glorious to be young. But it is also a position of insecurity and a need to make checks and balances with people who have been there, done that and can offer sage advice.

There was a snippet on Twitter today about the editor of gay magazine Attitude who was told his book about growing up inspired by Madonna was too gay and irrelevant anyway because Madonna was an old woman of no interest to Millennials. Really? Isn’t that as offensive as saying an artist is too black?

I know gay life is a breeze now and that when teens come out they are greeted with applause, streamers and balloons. When I came out I was told I would never be happy and that I would probably die of AIDS. It wasn’t that long ago in the grand scheme of things. Madonna was a profound reference point. She was a lady who was telling us it was OK to be gay when the majority considered physical or mental abuse the natural response.

I am watching Madonna’s Rebel Heart tour tonight on DVD. She is now 59. I could not have done what she does in a live show in my twenties. This gorgeous woman produces shows that make all the pygmies of pop weep with despair. She is the Queen of Pop. End of story.

Every time I see Madonna perform she gives me life. She’s on my side, she is a consummate professional and alway exceeds expectations. I love her music because I grew up with it but also because she makes me keep up with the 21st century. I don’t give a hot damn what Madonna has to do to keep looking beautiful. She is beautiful.

I think Madonna has done more for gay rights than Harvey Milk. She is fearless and she gives us all hope that love is love wherever it happens to alight. I have experienced true love only twice and  neither actually matured into a relationship. But like Madonna I keep questing. The love quest is one of the major reasons to keep alive and keep trying.

Apropos this, my Mother and Father celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary this month. Can you imagine? Fifty years together. It is such a tribute to them and their level of tolerance and affection. I am too old now to celebrate a 50th with anyone and that says a lot. But it also says a lot about the older generation. They knew how to persevere and make it work.

It is churlish to condescend to younger people but, then again, I find it soul destroying that they condescend to us. The worst tyranny is computers. Just because we were brought-up before the techno age, it seems that we are held ransom by techies who can code and plumb the depths of the Dark Web.

Well, let’s seek some perspective here. Older people have brains, experience and memory. We don’t need to Google the date of Queen Victoria’s birth. We know where New Orleans is without Google maps. We are aware how much or little cash is in our bank accounts without an iPhone alert.

The techno revolution has made young people arrogant and complacent. They have information but no knowledge. To be an intelligent human being you have to retain facts not just look them up every time you forget. We also saw a world when entertainment meant Sinatra, Liza or Ella not Miley, Bieber or some dumb rapper.

The BBC might want to consider lionising people with experience rather than making them feel like they don’t have the wherewithal to keep up with the world we live in. Old to me is pure gold and youth in need of fashioning through the flames of experience. When I watch Madonna in her late fifties dominating a stadium I think ‘good for us’.

I sincerely hope Madonna tours again and continues to be the top earner for stadium shows. If she goes into her 60s like Boadecia then there is hope for the rest of us. She is a force of nature and a woman who has inspired me all my life. Madonna has kept the faith with me and I keep the faith with her.

 

 

 

 

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