Alan Hollinghurst – The Swimming Pool Library

A holiday away from home requires at there to be at least some attempt to find literature that is appropriate to the location, it is a tried and tested approach to reading. Admittedly, it is a plan that I have only successfully executed in one previous location – partially reading Hans Fallada’s excellent ‘Alone in Berlin’ (recently a somewhat less good film) whilst staying near Checkpoint Charlie.

imageAn ‘all-tinclusive’ hotel holiday in Menorca proved somewhat challenging subject matter, but thinking slightly laterally Alan Hollinghurst’s ‘The Swimming Pool Library’ seemed appropriate – a book picked up at the Greenwich and Blackheath Amnesty International second hand book sale last autumn.

The novel is set in the summer of 1983 for William Beckwith a 25 year-old feckless and work shy narcissist ‘riding high on sex and self-esteem – it was my time, my grande époque.’ He is living on the early inheritance from his grandfather when cruising for sex in a public lavatory, Will saves the life of Charles Nantwich, an 83-year-old gay peer.

Nantwich asks Will to look at his diaries with a view to writing a biography, this juxtaposes the past criminalisation of homosexuality with Will’s considerably different experiences of early 1980s London.

imageCleverly and wittily told, the narrative sometimes drifts off into almost Sebaldian diversions with a flawed but always engrossing narrator. It was certainly better than the only other novel of Hollinghurst’s that I had read before – ‘The Stranger’s Child’, which had rather put me off his work. It seemed a novel of its time, set before HIV/AIDS had become widespread and at a time when attitudes to gays much more hostile and coming out still hard for many.

Was it the best of my holiday reading? Sadly, not; that accolade goes to the subtly told tale of bereavement and developing a new life beyond just coping
Colm Tóibín’s delightful ‘Nora Webster.’

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The Beatles – Yellow Submarine

Until my early teens we had very little music in the house, we very much a Home Service, and its successor, Radio 4, household.  We didn’t have a record player or gramophone until I was around 8 or 9.  While a TV was bought just before I went to school in 1965, so I ‘didn’t feel left out’, I only remember being allowed to watch ‘educational’ programmes and certainly not music.

Austin A40 mkI

I don’t remember having listened to popular music before one of our regular trips to Cornwall; Mum originates from there.  It would have been the summer of 1966, we had gone down with my cousin from Canada – Mum was one of seven and four of her siblings were to emigrate to Canada; moving away was part of Cornish life – many of my grandparent’s generation had emigrated to Australia.  There were five of us in a tiny Austin A40 (picture Wikipedia Commons) with masses of pre-war suitcases, neatly wrapped in polythene on a roof rack that made the journey from Mansfield to Penzance in the days before motorways.  One of the brackets of the roof rack broke off around Cirencester in the Cotswolds and the rest of the journey was spent with my Mum, my cousin and myself (for short periods) holding onto the roof rack from the passenger side-clipped window.

Eleanor_rigby_single_usaWe stayed with my aunt; I think that she had moved to Penzance at that point from her previous home in Newlyn.  Unlike us, she had a record player and a radio in the car and bought singles – unsurprisingly she had bought The Beatles’ ‘Yellow Submarine’ which was a double A-side with ‘Eleanor Rigby’ – the former was played a lot more though.  I remember signing along and thinking it hilarious to change the words to ‘Jar of Vaseline’ and ‘Tub of Margarine’ – how the adults must have laughed.

As had been the case in previous visits, I was allowed to go in the car with my aunt.  Oddly, I associate ‘Yellow Submarine’ with rows in the car – they were something that never happened at home. By that stage, I think that she was with her second husband with whom she seemed to have had quite a volatile relationship, there seemed to be a row every time we got in the car. She had divorced a year or two before, her first husband had eventually and painfully ‘come out’ in days when homosexuality was still illegal.

Despite the early exposure to The Beatles, they were never a band I listened to much – I think that I only ever bought ‘I Saw Her Standing There’ and ‘Back in the USSR’ – the latter was oddly a song that was always played at parties of the group of friends that I was part of in the late 1970s, linked to a church youth club.  The reasons for it being ‘our song’ were never clear though.

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More recently, both A-sides featured in Beatles ‘sites’ seen in a visit to Liverpool – the former outside a community centre in Penny Lane where we were told on a bus tour that Lennon stayed and looked out at this bizarre yellow construction.  It was utter nonsense, of course, ‘facts’ for the gullible tourist, as the history of the song demonstrates.  The Eleanor Rigby bronze statue in Stanley Street is much more tasteful and genuine – designed and made by the entertainer Tommy Steele, who is a renowned sculpture artist as well – it wasn’t even mentioned on the tour bus commentary as the less than magical mystery tour strangely by-passed the area around The Cavern.