The Hippopotamus By Stephen Fry (1994). A review by John Cook

The Hippopotamus

I enjoy Stephen Fry in TV bite-sized doses as a compere or narrator and especially as an impassioned debater. He always has something to say, most times interesting and usually erudite. Like a number of such ebullient personalities, he can lead to overdosing at times and he comes perilously close in the opening of this novel. That stage is overwhelmingly devoted to the sometime poet and appropriately sacked theatre critic, Ted Wallace, either narrating direct to the reader or writing incredibly long letters to character Jane who has set him off on an investigatory expedition to a modern country house.

An important aside here … this tale novel has been made into a film being released at this moment. Ted, who is an amalgam of Fry and Kingsley Amis is played by Roger Allam and editor Rupert Keynes by the tasty Russell Tovey along with some eye candy young men including the cast of an homerotic Titus Andronicus (!) – I look forward to it. Tim McInnerny plays the role of Oliver Mills, a typical lecherous old queen and defrocked priest, who always wants one more conquest and has the dreary habit of using rhyming slang to the point of tedium – ‘Amanda Amazement’ – one of my pet hates. On the other hand, I do enjoy a good limerick and here Fry obliges with one for ted

There was an old lecher named Ted

Who was known to be useless in bed

When parting a bush

He’d fumble and push

And screw the poor mattress instead.’

The time gap between the writing and filming is indicative of the book’s mixed reception. It is composed of a number of elements that clearly arise from Fry’s interests and background. There is the lengthy Amis-like blustering vituperation that dominates initially and returns regularly (often with laugh-out-loud material). You can visualize and hear Fry enunciate every acid syllable. There is the grudging use of a computer to explain away Ted’s epistolary extravagance (Fry is a technophile). There is the quite extended reference to anti-Semitism and its familial sequelae (Fry has had this experience from his Jewish mother’s background and, in 2005, discovering the desecration of his great grandfather’s grave). Central to the development of the investigation (it is only just a narrative) are Fry’s views on religion, hucksterism and science.

So, there is a vaguely Agatha Christie investigation taking place largely in a modern luxurious country house with all the consumptory (made that up) delights Ted enjoys (he does his best thinking in a warm bath with a good scotch). The characters are vintage country house and county society but with lots of poking fun and some interesting denouments (I’m having a Fry attack). The nature of what is being investigated is initially unclear but emerges (for me) as an hilarious secret with a very sexual component involving both humans and livestock. Its nature is revealed to the reader in a scene that may defeat filming (I shall see) and to the unknowing house guests in a typical Agatha Christie conclusion.

Not the greatest novel of its type but with much to enjoy especially if your thinking is partly in tune with Fry. It brought back memories to me of at least one person who could well have lived the role of Ted to a T. Patchy but finally enjoyable.

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Theft by Finding By David Sedaris (2017). A review by John Cook

Theft by Finding

I am a sucker for a long term diary, my favourite to date (apart from Pepys) being the four volume edition from Australian artist Donald Friend. Diaries are of particular interest if the writer is already known, if they have lived in an environment very unlike my own and especially if they cover a long term overview of change and growth. Sedaris’ output certainly fills the bill. His actual diaries commence in 1977 with a youthful Sedaris and continue through 156 (!) volumes. Two collections of extracts have been released. This is the first to 2002, the second covers 2003 to 2016.

Each diarist has their own approach which tells the reader as much about themselves as the content they produce. It is impossible to read these entries without hearing Sedaris (if you have heard him either live or on video), visualising his diminutive size (Santa’s elf and gay boy voice) as he responds to the often alarming situations in which he finds himself and his quirky but mostly truthful responses and observations. It is that wryness that appeals so strongly to those who read him and those who fall about laughing at the oddest yet ordinary things that he encounters.

Rather like Billy Connolly, Sedaris mines his past and present extensively and these selected entries expose so much of himself, his struggles and key values that is interesting, intriguing, amusing and warming by turns. Like Billy he uses very simple and direct language always with a ‘sting’ in the tail.

I found his earliest years of struggle (and joys) with his long-suffering family, sexuality and vocation to be the most rewarding, full of moments of real insight. I have no experience of the world of gritty makeshift poverty through which he travelled in his early years before finding his earliest direction as an artist and eventually as a writer (and observationist) and I thank him for putting it on display candidly yet with those wonderful flashes of humour.

So many people probably had similar daily experiences in the cheapest of cheap local eatery (the IHOP) yet he sees, hears and records what is by turns harsh, viscous, racist, criminal, thoughtful or charming. He is a perceptive observer of himself amid humanity.

His later progression after reaching New York is still interesting as he continues his odd-jobbing (even when not really needed). There is that same ability to see the only-too-obvious yet ignored aspects of life, people and situations as he studies and uses his French in Paris and the Normandy retreat he shares with his long-term partner painter Hugh Hamrick.

I am a great fan of Jessye Norman, the truly great American mezzo now largely an occasional recitalist. I can never forget her singing the Marseillaise in the Place de la Concorde on July 14, 1989. It was a grand and patriotic occasion. Sedaris, however, focuses on her participation in ‘God Bless America’ at a memorial service for 9/11 in Paris when he heard ‘an average devastated woman, rather than an opera star’. Oh to have been there and experienced it.

I will now have to find the time to read the second volume of entries which will clearly be in different contexts again but hopefully with that same wonderful ‘elfish’ capacity for unearthing human irony.

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The Hardest Thing by James Lear (2013). A review by John Cook

The Hardest Thing

 

James Lear is, of course, the ‘erotic fiction’ writing pseudonym of Rupert Smith – Man’s World (2010) and Interlude (2014) both of which are workmanlike novels with some gay sex (Man’s World especially). I can only guess why Smith maintains the different names though there is probably a financial reason involved. In any case, this is the only one of his ‘Lear’ output I have read. I would not classify it as pornography as it is well written with interesting character development and a worthwhile plot that maintains interest except for a (perhaps) weak conclusion.

Yes, there is sex and plenty of it – exclusively gay. It is quite well done and uninhibited without giving the reader the feeling that they are responding to gratuitous stimulation but rather following one man’s fairly constant interest and arousal (something we either experience or remember with pleasure).

There is a plot line and it happily exploits a number of well-known gay themes including older/younger (though not exclusively so), military, gangster, crime and fraud, a road chase, S&M and blighted love with plenty of lust.

The main character is a cashiered US Marine Major Dan Stagg (got to love that name) who was tried for sexual misconduct with another Marine other ranks Sergeant. This Will was to be the love of his life but was cut short by a sniper’s bullet. Dan fits the bill physically (definitely) mentally (lost and looking for love and redemption) and of whose military training we are constantly reminded as he analyses the situations into which he wanders (or is enticed by his sizable libido). To say that Dan sees sexual possibilities in just about everything is an understatement and he certainly doesn’t present as conventional long-term commitment material.

He encounters a young man (Stirling McMahon amongst his other monikers) with a dubious background and all the appearances that Dan initially dislikes. However, the machinations of the plot cause him to see the desirable young as a potential life partner though there are difficulties and dangers that have to be experienced and endured before this emerges as a possibility.

My one very weak caveat with this yarn (as it is with much porn) is the tendency for the amazing availability of sex possibilities constantly to be found in all sorts of places and persons. There is probably nothing wrong with this as it is almost certainly a fantasy dream for a lot of gay men, and what is wrong with a spot of fantasy realisation?

There is a follow-on title to this, so I may let my curiosity and libido lead me further astray to ’Straight Up: A Dan Stagg Novel ‘.

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The Fatal Tree by Jake Arnott (2017). A review by John Cook

The Fatal Tree

 

I have always very much enjoyed Arnott’s past output focussing, as it does, on the criminal underworld of the 1960s and 70s (think Kray brothers). Titles include ‘The Long Firm’ (TV drama also) ‘He Kills Coppers’, ‘truecrime’ and ‘Johnny Come Home’. He is an out bisexual and his oeuvre includes ‘The Devil’s Paintbrush’ which includes an encounter between Gen Sir Hector MacDonald and the wicked Aleister Crowley. His writing is tight, the characterisations exact and his story telling engrossing while at times, very very black. The ‘crim’ titles are, however, a well researched exploration of those times and the world that surrounded all levels of criminality, both quality and underclass. He does not shy from homosexual issues.

In this most recent book, he has taken a huge leap back into the past to the 18thC but centres on the same criminal underworld. In doing so, he has endeared himself to me, but in two aspects may have offered some readers too much of a challenge. First, many readers do not come with much knowledge of criminal life in the 1700’s and certainly not at the level of organisation that created ‘as you will’ links of convenience between formal criminal justice, the heaving criminal underworld and the grey area of the ‘thief-taker’. Add into this the focus of public hanging of felons and the associated industry of pamphleteering and you have a fine old potential stew – not to mention the ‘molly houses’ frequented by gay men. Second, what complicates matters is that Arnott uses throughout the criminal argot of the time which found its way into ‘flash’ talk which via transportation and direct cockney influences informed much of Australian slang.

I confess to a long interest in Australian slang and its origins (I chased up a slang dictionary in my High School days – it might have been Sidney Baker) and I have at least 4 convict ancestors sentenced in the 1700s. The most relevant would be Ann Carey who was tried at Norwich on August 3, 1789, convicted and sentenced to transportation for seven years for stealing a variety of manchester goods. I found the slang a little off-putting initially but only occasionally had recourse to the glossary as I fell into its rhythm. Likewise I found myself identifying my GGGG Grandmother with the central female character of the book.

The fatal tree is, of course, the gallows at Tyburn from which three men, women or youths could be dispatched at a time. Anyone conversant with those times will be aware the activities and processes that surrounded executions with all the public activities included. One of these was the publication of small printed works that might touch on the life of the condemned, their crimes and any confession and remorse offered. The sale of these might be crucial to ensure a decent burial and avoiding being ‘anatomised’ by ‘doctors’. I couldn’t help thinking of how elements of this persist in modern print and video ‘journalism’.

One of the main characters who literally speaks to the reader is Billy Archer who hopes to become a true literary figure. He mixes John Gay who will write ‘The Beggar’s Opera’ which will morph into the Threepenny Opera and is the foundation of much 20thC writing and film which features underworld life.

Another key character is Edgeworth Bess or Elizabethan Lyon who is the classic young country girl who falls at the hands (?) of the heedless young country gent and who has to flee to the city (London, known at Romeville) where she has to find her way and love wherever she can. Her great love, stammering Jack Sheppard, is temporarily successful as a thief and serial escapee but must eventually meet his fate (which he hopes to avoid) while Bess follows in the footsteps of my ancestor.

There is no strong centrally developed narrative here though there is enough episodic action to keep interest up as to the fate of various characters. This is made a little more difficult by the regular shifts in narration from Bess to Billy. There is a homosexual strand involving the usual blighted search after a loving relationship which comes to its own bitter end.

If you have read any of Henry Fielding especially ‘Moll Flanders’ or ‘The Life and Death of Jonathon Wild, the Great’ you will be at least part prepared for this read.

I enjoyed this book very much as a continuation of Arnott’s themed output garnished with the colour (and smell) of a different (yet very similar) time.

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Depends What you Mean by Extremist by John Safran (2017). A review by John Cook

Depends What You Mean by Extremist

It would seem that John Safran has been around for a long time (1997 actually) and keeps on popping into consciousness with his various films/videos/TV shows. I, for one, watch what he has to say as much to enjoy his quirky manner and directions of inquiry as for great depth – though depth is often present when he follows a line such as racism in America and reporting on the death of Richard Barrett in ‘Race Relations’ and some of the musings of the ‘Sunday Night Safran’ on Triple J with Father Bob Maguire.

If there is an indication of his increasing maturity it has to be this book. Safran takes on the confusion and puzzlement most people feel when presented a daily diet of extremist doings whether they be right wing ‘patriots’, jihadis, islamaphobes, ant-Semitics, Q Society or anarchists. He has the background, skills and experiences that enable him to move from group to group plying his usual slightly fey, inoffensive, ‘matey’? manner that enables him to get close to people normally seen as cardboard thin media stereotypes and prod gently into their background, behaviours and ultimate goals.

The confusion, I for one, experience in trying to get a grip on these groups is partly reflected in the early stages of this book as Safran meets extremist individuals and begins to burrow into their awareness. Some of these people vary from the foolishly ignorant through closed-mindedness into petty actions (ranging from public affray through to the infamous ‘tinny terrorists’) on to the genuinely dangerous and suicidally angry.

Safran manages to extract some common features from many of these individuals that focus not always on a particular issue so much as a felt need that shifts from one focus to another such as moving from Asian migration to Islamic migration. I see it in two senses. One is a driving need to be right – to have found ‘the answers’ and ‘the cure’. The other is when those answers are matched by a fear that those answers might actually be wrong and in need of modification or re-direction or admission or error. It is clear to me that the most dangerous of these individuals are those who are fundamentally most fearful, defensive and angry in this sense.

Safran sets his investigation against a mostly Melbourne setting (understandably) that it is remarkable for its very ordinariness and suburban and urban) feel. I enjoyed the story of the pig roast at the Cronulla riot ‘commemoration’ that few enough attended while no one seemed to have any idea how long the roast might take though the sausages were OK.

This is vintage Safran with a weird mixture of the serious, thoughtful, comic and bizarre that might encourage some deeper thought and consideration by readers genuinely interested in investigating this contemporary phenomenon that is a pointer towards changes and instability in so many Western nations – viz Hansonism and Trumpism.

Where else are going to find two extracts like the following ..

Del (a Palestinian woman working somewhat covertly in Melbourne Jewish bakery) tells me her aunty is wrapped in a paradox of her own. She’s convinced that her doctor, who is Jewish, is trying to poison her ’She’s going on and on and on. And I’m like, “Why do you see him if you think he’s poisoning you?” And she goes, “Jews are the best doctors.”

How could anyone who grew up with Mad magazine think that ISIS is a good idea?’

 

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Arctic Summer by Damon Galgut (2013). A review by John Cook

Arctic Summer

 

Damon Galgut must have sensed Forster’s morbid alienation in taking on the task of a fictionalised biography of that author and highlights it by giving it the title of his unfinished novel of the same title. I confess I am not a great fan of Forster and have found ‘Passage to India’ the work that most typifies his (for me) tiresome hesitancy.

Oddly, I found so much more to enjoy in Galgut’s work. Yes, there is the some of the sense of painful apartness and indecision that typifies his Indian novel but Galgut manages to make Forster’s position somewhat clearer and certainly fleshes out in more interesting detail his hoped-for Indian lover Syed Ross Masood and lavishes time and energy on the bizarre and odd life he experienced at the court of the Maharajah of Dewas, Tukojirao III. All along, the inequalities of social life and sexual life for an Imperial Brit are made clear and become one of the foundations of Forster’s relationship problems. This is an interesting insight as well as a reading of the changes working their way through the emerging Indian nation at that time. Fascinating stuff – especially in the differing standards applied to his sex life in the palace with the barber. Even the tiresome Marabar caves are presented in a more interesting and understandable light.

A far more complete and engaging section of the book traces his relationship with the Egyptian tram driver Mohammed el-Adl and life in Alexandria. Once again, Galgut manages to put more colourful flesh on the bones of this doomed relationship which Forster pursued for 17 long years in the face of a mixture of love, acceptance, indifference and veiled extortion. I enjoyed the introduction and use of the poet C. V. Cavafy as something of a foil for Forster’s experiences. Whatever you can say about Forster he was always loyal to his relationships however illusory they might be. He certainly was consistent after finding his long term relationship back in England with his police constable Bob Buckingham on similar terms of sharing with another. All this reinforces our awareness of how difficult it was any gay man to create and maintain a relationship in Forster’s time, though some certainly managed it.

Once again, typical of his time, the network of financial imperatives, the impact of relatives and social requirements is highlighted in his relationship with his mother – once again loving yet claustrophobic and smothering. It makes it understandable why India might look attractive. On the other hand, Forster was free to use his energies in other literary and teaching directions and he certainly made his contribution in those respects.

For me, an enjoyable read that may have drawn me more toward an understanding of Forster.

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A Second Harvest by Eli Easton (2016). A review by John Cook

A Second Harvest

The blurb had me interested in this book as it is set in a largely Mennonite/Amish community. Like most I have a degree of familiarity with this Anabaptist line of Christianity which manifests in a variety of forms ranging from fairly conventional fundamentalism to (very) determined separatism. I also had a work acquaintance from the part of the US where we usually associate with these sects (they do live elsewhere though, especially Canada in the case of the Mennonites) and he spoke of living with such communities. I also treasure my copy of the Mennonite piano concerto by Victor Davies which I regularly enjoy.

Much of the novel is a fairly convention tale – another May/December – Daddy/Boy scenario. The interest has to lie in what brings together the unlikely pair (David the older mixed dairy farmer and the ‘fierce’? party boy Christie. This is handled reasonably with David somewhat isolated and searching and Christie somewhat traumatised and redirected by an inheritance to the Lancaster county location. I cannot say the same thing for some of the plot devices which practically scream what their relevance might be – the collection of National Geographics and that jammed drawer!

It is clear what is going to happen and where the emotional hotspots are going to be – the gradual emergence of feelings and their ultimate outcome in sex and a loving relationship in a new environment (the sex is well done by this prolific female author of gay romance). There will be conflict with the local religious and general community (‘that talk’ and a bashing) and family (a daughter who is growing more outside the community and a son who is digging himself deep into the confines of fundamentalist Christianity) and it all eventuates.

The thing I found a bit out of balance was the heavy emphasis on the cooking and all those meals. While I enjoyed (vicariously) hearing about all that food (and food is the fuel of love) it seemed a bit too much and didn’t always square with this fierce party boy who just happened to have a relevant background and those recipes of dear old Aunty.

I feel that we got too much of some things in the novel and not enough of others. I am sure that the calving experience was great for bonding (and came from the immediate background and daily life of the author who lives in rural Pennsylvania) but I felt that I really wanted more from the interior of both characters. They were a little thin though not so much as the cardboard cut-out wannabe wife and Minister in training son.

Enough carping. For a basic gay romance, it is quite competently done and certainly an enjoyable read – I did like the sex.

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