London ball

Neil Bartlett’s Critic’s Address Book – Thoughts on Gay Life in London | fiction

NOTeil Bartlett is the gay writer of a gay writer. Also a director and playwright, he is much admired for his novels which evoke a sexy and illusory London, including Skin Lane, selected by Costa.. In its 1990 debut Ready to Catch Him Should He Fall, a heady romance centered around an east London bar in the 1980s, the fear of bloody hits is as palpable as the thrills of lust. In one passage, Sybarite men from previous centuries join in the fun like fabulous ghosts. This transhistoric staging is a strange strategy to fight against a secret and censored past: for Bartlett, there can be no gay ancestry without storytelling.

In the tender and curious Address Book, domestic spaces inform about life experiences, which become subject to the vagaries of memory. Seven discrete chapters, each titled with an address in or near London, are delivered, like a monologue, by seven different narrators. The book opens during the Covid pandemic. Andrew, a doctor, is packing his bags for a move when he comes across a phone number that reminds him that he was a keen teenager and the tanned man who gave him a blowjob that blackmailed him. Orgasm is not the only epiphany. In his memory, the man smiled wholeheartedly at the boy, who had only known before that cruising came with grimaces. After exchanging names, the boy realizes, “None of the other men I’ve met ever made me admit that the boy watching and the boy with my name are the same person.

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Mature Andrew says, “We all have places we need to revisit… to remember how we got from here to here.” Through Bartlett, the habitats of others reveal how we came to be not only as individuals, but also socially. The historical contrast and continuum becomes more explicit over two chapters located in the same apartment on the top floor of Clerkenwell Road. In the previous scenario, which takes place in 1891, a teacher divulges his feverish plan to photograph a local Italian boy in the pose of a military saint. Bartlett’s prose – flamboyant, like mustache, and sprinkled on the other hand (“Well, the imagination has its own dark chemistry, doesn’t it?”) – is well suited to the Victorian period. He depicts the rolling streets of “il Quartiere” as bustling with immigrant piano makers, ice cream parlors and mosaic cutters. Young workers strut like peacocks, their secrets hidden in plain sight. The professor qualifies his story: “I do not speak for living ears; I speak to those who will come after me.

In 1987, the tenant of the apartment was a regular at Heaven with an acid tongue. He probably doesn’t know anything about his predecessor, but inherited the social stigma and shame, not only of sin, but of AIDS. As he struggles to fall asleep, passing ambulances cast color on his ceiling; he casually imagines a light show on a dance floor. He recently bought an expensive double mattress to upset an arrogant saleswoman from Tottenham Court Road, sort of Margaret Thatcher from the mattress department. Faced with his disapproval – and perhaps his own delusion – he is one of many gay men dehumanized by panic and persecution at the hands of authorities and vigilantes. In the shop, homophobia is a pernicious banality amid oppressive and heteronormative bedroom displays.

In the final chapter, a man who has lost his husband comes undone in their Worthing cottage facing the sea. He now resides in an unwelcome and mocking silence. The widower confides: “When your husband dies, there is no security anywhere. Not in the street; neither in the sun, nor anywhere. These stories demystify the “safe as a home” axiom, revealing that the domestic sphere is as precarious as anywhere else. But Bartlett keeps the wonder alive in her characters and spaces, so that while dwellings may not guarantee total refuge, they continually provide revelation.

Jeremy Atherton Lin’s Gay bar: why we went out is published by Granta. Neil Bartlett’s Address Book is published by Inkandescent (£ 9.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy from guardbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.