“To this frank, penetrating analysis of naked human relationships, where a pregnant girl cannot marry the man her father loves, Royston Ellis brings all the qualities which riveted readers of The Flesh Merchants.”
Ah, the 60s! It was a golden era when repression and freedom were mixed in just the right amounts to afford a real sense of liberation. It was it was a time when you really could kick against the pricks, and when there really were pricks to kick against. It was the days when being essentially juvenile, selfish and self-absorbed seemed like a radical act. How things change!
This is a novel about dropping out, turning your back on “the Grey Generation” and following your heart, all the things you ever wanted and denied yourself. It tells the story of Arthur Darby, a law clerk in City in his late fifties, who falls for a young man he meets on the train home one evening. Andrew is a young graduate in his first job, but finding the conventional life stultifying. They bond over their dissatisfaction. It's not just Arthur's story – though it's mostly his – it's Andrew's story, too. They're both of them coming out and understanding their sexuality, facing the big decision of whether to knuckle under to the Grey Generation's rules and expectations or to follow their real feelings.
However, it's something of a disappointment given the lurid exploitation novel promised by the back-cover blurb and the naked lady on the front.
For a start, the whole idea of gayness has lost pretty much all of its power to shock, at least among the 21st century, post-liberated society I swim around in. I can remember a time when it was still somewhat subversive, when people like my mother thought that having a gay friend was taking some kind of a principled (and deliciously daring) stand. In fairness, my parents were young people before it was all legalised – before novels like The Rush At The End could even be published – and their own journey of accepting was probably somewhat different from people of my generation.
For me, and people of my age, it was just one of a range of post-60s liberal positions that was assumed, a set that included being anti-nuclear weapons and anti-war in general, pro-women's rights, anti-racist and pro-legalisation of drugs. None of these has been fully achieved in the thirty years since I started thinking about this stuff, but at the same time none of them are quite the contested ground they were.
Racism, certainly, was still a fairly popular stance when I was growing up. It's hard to imagine that it was actually debated, as if there was any doubt about right and wrong in the matter, but it was. It's now the soul preserve of the most marginalised or the hopelessly deranged and evil, and even the National Front (or whatever Nick Griffin's lot call themselves these days) try and distance themselves from the idea of prejudice and position themselves as a positive stance on English nationalism (and no, I don't buy it either).
Similarly, being against anti-gay prejudice is a nowadays a pretty mainstream stance. Far from being an exotic feature of one's social circle, gay friends are now entirely unexceptional. I even know gay D&D fans. As a consequence, all the raging against an unfair world the horrible fate that awaits those exposed as homosexualists looks more like a historical curiosity now than the the urgent agenda it might havce looked in 1967. This is not to say that homophobia doesn't still exist, and make life miserable for gay men and women everywhere (the developing world, in particular) but there's not much to expose any more in the middle class English world where you can buy gay porn on the high street.
This book isn't entirely about the misery of coming out though. When Arthur is finally exposed, his work is fine with it – providing he's discrete, of course – and his wife urges them to stay together and invite Andrew to live with them (Amy Darby is a bit wet, to say the least; she's pushed around by her daughter and husband and I was disappointed she wasn't given a bit more backbone at any point). However, Arthur rejects all this and elects instead to move to Ibiza and open a gay bar.
It is an act of genuinely dropping out, leaving bourgeois life behind, but then again the nature of acceptable bourgeois options has changed alot. From today's perspective, Arthur's Ibizan idyll is not so much a a flight to bohemia but rather the sort of lifestyle change that might be featured in Channel 4 lifestyle show of the Place in the Sun variety.
Despite the promises of the cover and the blurb, there's very little enjoyable sleazy camp here. It's all a bit earnest, to be honest, although there are a few feints at the type sensationalism I was hoping for. The novel opens with Arthur – somewhat bizarrely, given what comes later – engaging in a little tube-train frottage with a mini-skirted lovely, perhaps inserted at the start to draw in anyone scanning the first few pages in the book shop. Later, Andrew takes LSD and we get a bit of painful “I'm so out of it!” writing, and a freaked out hippy chick taking her kit off (she turns out to be Arthur's daughter, in a coincidence that betrays the novel's roots in moralistic melodrama, albeit the moralising is thoroughly topsy-turvied from the genre's origins).
The best bit of sordidness occurs fairly early on when Andrew visits Wendells, “a kind of country club for with-it youngsters”, with his hipster flat mate. It's a deliciously kitsch happening, with rock music, a far out dance floor in the basement with a stream running through (called “the Womb”) and clandestine groping in the shadows. “The Beatles, the Rolling Stones and all the popular folk heroes of the sixties visited Wendells from time to time,” we're told.
Even here, though, the author gets all serious on us. Far from being a flesh pit, it's sensibly run as a healthy release for energetic youngsters. “The police were said to look favourably on this phenomenal fun palace of the sixties. At least it provided an outlet for youthful energy which it was acknowledged was needed. … Real club activities took place under the supervision of trained youth officials.” Come on, that's not what we came to hear! And what the hell is a “youth official” anyway?
Fortunately, despite the presence of trained youth officials, Andrew picks up a bird and drives her to an isolated spot to have his way with her across the bonnet of this flatmate's “souped up mini”. This almost had the kind of pornographic thrill I was hoping for from The Rush At The End, but Ellis plays it a bit coy in the sex scenes, even with his protagonists' monumental and life changing experiences.
Maybe if I was a different kind of guy, I might have found some illicit pleasure in the story of Arthur and Andrew. Not inclined to find it thrilling, though, it read more like an issues-led drama than the sordid exploration of forbidden passion I hoped for.
I'd really love to write that sort of book, actually, if there was still a market for it. Not outright porn, that's kind of boring, but a something about suburban lust, the thrills and decadence going on just out of reach of the man on platform at Waterloo. Do they still publish those sorts of book? Sadly, I don't think they do.
I suppose the problem is that it would be trivially easy for moderately prosperous middle aged types to actually live that kind of life. It'd be fairly easy for me to track that kind of life down for real, if I wasn't too fussy. Perhaps the idea of running off with some lithe dolly bird (my equivalent of an Andrew) is less of an appealing fantasy these days because it hardly looks like an act of rebellion any more. Leaving my job and young family looks like the coward's way out to me, whichever way my libido leads me.
If I was in real psychic pain, I wouldn't hesitate to make changes to my life, and my friends and loved ones would likely support me if I did. But I'm not in any real psychic pain. I just suffer from the same muted malaise that afflicts us all. What would I be running from and to? Sure, my life is tedious, hateful and absurd, but a lithe dolly bird won't change any of that.
And I certainly don't have enough money to open a gay bar in Ibiza. Maybe that's part of it: the kind of dropping out that Arthur experiences requires a certain level of material wealth that I don't have. Just getting by still takes up most of my attention, and even at my relatively advanced age I'm still fighting hard just to get the things I want - I haven't had enough of them yet to get bored of them and throw them all away.
Or maybe I'm just dead inside. If so, I'm happy enough with that, and I'm sure the rest of me will follow in due course.
On another note, wikipedia reveals some interesting information about Royston Ellis (he also has his own website). He was a youthful poet, and something of beat generation pioneer in the UK, although British 50s bohemia has always seems like a rather genteel affair to me, not really much like the neurotic, obsessive and semi-criminal scene in America. Still, Ellis was an early fan of the Mersey sound and a friend of The Beatles, and apparently the inspiration of the song Paperback Writer.
Well, he got his wish!