January 2006


After a year I finally bought myself a £10 matinee ticket and went to see this Alan Bennet play at the National.

Strange, I’d always rather figured Alan Bennet as a sort of grannyish writer (quite unfairly) who wrote about teapot warmers and antimacassars in the Dales. I don’t quite know where this image came from. After all he was one of those brilliant types from Beyond The Fringe back in the day. I suppose it was the way he looks and the rather disarming Yorkshire pur of him.

I was browsing in the National bookshop, thumbing through his diaries and found this comment about Holman Hunt’s famous picture of Jesus, The Shadow of Death:

” It’s not at all plain what Jesus is supposed to be doing, apart from casting the appropriate shadow; I suppose he’s meant to be stretching after a hard day’s work, but it hardly looks like that. What always used to puzzle me as a child was that apart from the hair on his head Jesus (I mean not merely this Jesus, but any Jesus) never had a stitch of hair anywhere else. Never a whisper of hair on that always angular chest; God seemed to have sent his only begotten son into the world with no hair whatsoever under his arms. This rang a bell with me , though, because I was a late developer and at 15 was longing for puberty. So Jesus’ pose here is exactly how I felt, crucified on the wall-bars during PE, displaying to my much more hirsute classmates my still unsullied armpits.”

How acidly sweet and seditiously English, I thought. Perhaps he’s not such a granny after all…

And the play was a revelation on the Bennet front. He’s quite a radical old bird – lots of judicious f-ing and blinding and more than a vial-full of political acid. I believe it’s playing on Broadway, it’s got a few more sold-out weeks at the National and there’s a feature film with the original cast coming out in October – so the clerk in the bookstore proudly informed me.

It has particular resonance with me as a gay man who went to an all boy’s school but everyone I know who’ve seen it – gay, straight, married, parent, grandparent – have loved it, so I guess it’s not too niche.

I don’t want to give away the story but it’s about a group of 17 year boys who, amongst other things, are studying to go up to pass the Oxbridge entrance exam. What’s masterful and rather radical about it is the way Bennet charmingly robs us of all our usual stereotypes about schooling. Especially in the current British climate – where the Press is having one of its cyclic fits about school teachers having affairs with underaged pupils – it’s so refreshing to see a play where all the boys are completely aware of their sexuality, completely able to manipulate the adults around them using it, and completely at ease discussing it with each other. (Whether or not that is strictly accurate is perhaps another debate…)

The sexual maturity is just one strand in a very rich theatrical swatch – but it struck me forcibly because I’m convinced a great part of live performance’s power comes from a sort of sexual charge that crackles loudly or softly across the proscenium arch.

We all can fancy film actors (pace Jake Gyllenhall) but the real presence of an attractive actor – and I use that word in its non-gender specific form – less than 30 feet away, is uniquely intoxicating.

I used to think this somehow diluted the “purity” of the art experience. Surely, fancying the pants of the hunky actor playing Petruchio in a Berlin production of the Taming of the Shrew shouldn’t colour my sober appreciation of Shakespeare’s work. Now I realise that “Shakespeare” doesn’t exist except by means of actors – hunky or not – up there, doing the do.

Similar, the power of The History Boys, undoubtably comes from my identification with the lovestruck gay student, Posener, and my immediate and bitter-sweet crush on the object of his affection in the play. Coming out of the theatre into the crisp, January night along the Thames, I was keenly aware of being smitten in love with the actor (Dominic Cooper)and/or his character(Dakin). Except – unlike my school boy crushes which laid waste to my soul and life for years at a stretch – this was healing up nicely by the time I got to Waterloo bridge.

I guess it’s an age thing partly but also a growing confidence in my own taste. From about 13 to 30, I cared so painfully for what other people thought about everything. About books and plays and films and the weather and most acutely: about me. In the last few years, I’ve been getting giddy on the freedom of liking what I want and savouring the fact that I like it, whatever the reason. It could because it reminds me of a summer holiday on Hayling Island, or it’s a peculiar delight I have in emerald moss or because my schoolboy crush crinkled his eyes like that. I’ve mentioned it before: self-validating joy.

Hurrah for that, hurrah for Mr. Bennet and hurrah for the History Boys – real and fictional.

Back from a 2 week trip to Toronto and Miami. While I was away a young guy living on my street was stabbed to death walking home one night. There is a heart-breaking tree half-way down the road, bound up with flowers and messages. It make me cold and sad each time I walk past it.

As with everything, it gets woven into a tissue of other thoughts and impressions. My thoughts about America. My thoughts about Canada. Bret Easton Ellis’ Lunar Park. Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain. New loves. Sudden deaths.

Bret Easton Ellis is a genius.

Despite the vituperation poured on American Psycho when it was published in 1991, he is without doubt the most significant American writer of the last 20 years. American Psycho is a horrifying masterpiece underpinned by a horrified morality. It’s Swift on steroids. Lulling the reader into the same nitrogen-chilled detached irony that spawns the monstrous Patrick Bateman. It’s studded with hideously beautiful poetry. Glamorama, which came out 7 years later, was more lose around the seams (a quality I enjoy) but no less brilliant. Now comes Lunar Park.

I’d say it wasn’t as great as the last 2 books. It strikes me as a companion piece. But it’s brilliant nonetheless. In vintage Ellis style it’s an unthinkable hybrid: part memoir, part Steven King. It splits out of its own seams by constantly referring to “Bret Easton Ellis” as a real person, even as you suspect that the ‘biography’ you’re being fed is not quite accurate. Even checking the facts on the Internet leads you to several bogus site Ellis has had constructed to continue the fiction of the book. The eerie web movie that features in the book is even viewable on the lunarpark.com website.

It’s a bundle of incommensurate shards which splinter under the polished surface of his prose and provoke the reader considerably. It’s too well written to be a joke. Its themes of fathers and sons and memory and trauma are too heady to be reduced to cynical ashes. Although, it’s a page-long meditation on ashes over water that closes the book so memorably. As Ellis says somewhere in the book, the one thing he can do is write a great ending.

Brokeback Mountain. It was interesting seeing the movie in the US where it seems to have unleashed a powerful underswell of liberality under the conservative crust represented by Alito’s nomination to the Supreme Court. Despite all the hysterical right-wing screeching about a “gay plot” in Hollywood, most people I met loved the movie because it’s a great movie. People just seemed to ignore the screeching and watch the film.

It’s a heartbreaking love story. And having just read the Proulx short story, I like the movie more and more. Proulx is delightfully unsentimental about her characters. They realize the sad fixity of the society they live where if you can’t fix it you just have to stand it. No frills. In the book, Ennis’ quality of “one who worked with livestock” makes him simply acquainted with the “blood, milk and baby shit” of life.

But I do differ from those who see this as a breakthrough gay movie. It’s wonderful that a movie with 2 gay characters so handsomely performed can sweep up so many Golden Globes and (presumably) Oscars, but please don’t tell me how comforting it is to see gay men portrayed as “normal”. The humans in this film are tragic not normal. Their love is stymied. The end up dead or alone. These are not positive attributes of gay life and it’s a masochistic gay man that claims these tragic figures as role models.

This is not to belittle the breath-taking beauty and sadness of the film. I swoon just seeing Jake Gyllenhall – let alone seeing him in love and broken-hearted. But I’m alarmed by the number of emails I get from men claiming the film as an emotional template for their lives. Othello is a great play but not a good way to conduct your love life.

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