diary of old and new books #7

Box Hill

Title: Box Hill Author: Adam Mars-Jones Publisher: Fitzcarraldo Editions Years elapsed: 1 Representative quote:  ‘if this was some sort of commune, then I was part of what it shared in common. All for one, and Colin for everybody’

Work day. Therapy: feel like i’ve hit a wall or like I am repeatedly hitting against the same wall. There’s clearly something important behind it, who am I to attempt to peer over it or tear it down? Meetings, research, fish tacos, CMS refresher. I find I am a bit worn down by the end of the day despite not having moved much. Laundry and dishes seem to endlessly accrue, no matter how many times either the washing machine or dishwasher run. I scrap the LPA documents and do them again digitally. Government web portals should be prescribed for those zopiclone fails. Try to find out when as an unpaid carer I can get my jab. I do a few hours of French and feel I’ve begun to hit my stride with it. I have started taking the iron I am supposed to take for my anaemia and find I no longer feel like sleeping all day. Hate that this works so quickly. I read only one book this week. The book I read is Adam Mars-Jones’ Box Hill. I haven’t read much of his writing outside the LRB, but once had a nice chat over wine with him and his partner at some thing or another at the LRB Bookshop. I find myself constantly trying to push this memory away as I read, since it brings to mind other memories of meeting people, of having a nice time around other people.

Box Hill is a strange little reminiscence novel. It’s a book about nostalgia, ageing and loss, about finding oneself stuck in one place, getting out, and getting stuck in another. Told from the point of view of a tube driver named Colin, the book recounts an encounter with a disquieting biker named Ray, who Colin sucks off beneath a tree and then moves in with for six years. His main source of insecurity around the new arrangement is not the speed at which it came to be, but his own discomfort in his body. He is ‘short and fat and tired of being bullied’, he is clumsy—as their meet cute, Colin trips over Ray’s size 12 shoes—and he kind of bungles the fellatio. Ray on the other hand is ‘tasty’, his smile is beautiful, and his sweat is an elixir. Once installed at Ray’s Hampton flat, Colin becomes a sort of houseboy to Ray. He is prohibited from sitting on the sofa or sleeping in the bed but he cooks their meals and, after licking them, dutifully cleans and polishes Ray’s boots. The book is full of details like the spit smeared boot: zips on bike leathers ‘purr’ because they’re regularly rubbed over with a candle end to keep them lubricated as they separate or unite. These details of the asymmetrical relationship and its textures would be hot, if the D/s set up it posed as wasn’t so obviously non-consensual. For six years Ray barely communicates with him. On poker nights, he curls naked under the table with a book and intermittently doles out blowjobs to club members. In one part Colin recalls being taken to a pub on a leash. To my mind at least, being treated like an unruly dog is only hot when the enthusiasm’s mutual which, from the off, it clearly isn’t. Ray simply (and absolutely) confirms Colin’s deeply held belief that nobody else would have him. Despite the post-1967 suppression of public manifestations of gay life and the drudgery of teenage life in suburbia, there is a kind of understandable bittersweet nostalgia at the book’s core. Looking back at 1976—at the biking subculture he was unwittingly caught up in, at his parents’ old fashioned and poorly stocked chemists where he briefly worked, at a time when people were still called Marjorie and Ivy, and at parks that didn’t yet have wild areas—Colin misses it a bit. From his vantage point in 1999, 1975 just looks a bit simpler and each these things holds its own distinct charm as a relic from a pre-Aids world. I find by the end that I long to know more about 1999 Colin, this sub-surface tube driver who wants to teach a class about Romanesque Architecture at the Workers’ Education Association but can’t quite attract the requisite six students. The book doesn’t really remind me of much else, but I think that says more about my decade-long fiction lacuna than it does provide any ruling on the book’s ‘originality’. It is good, though, with some outstanding moments of observation, historical detail, and physical humour. I probably won’t read it again, but I’m glad I did.