Monday 14 July 2008


NOTE: I've been asked a couple of times what it meant to be the 'books editor' of a magazine called Petrolhead, which I was for the magazine's five issues back in 1998. It meant I had a column called 'Head Food' aimed at readers whose reading habits I couldn't even guess at; accordingly, sometimes my choice of books was somewhat restricted. As was the space: the books page occupied about the same proportion of the magazine that the plastic Jesus on the dashboard does of a 16 wheeler. I had to first write and then cut fiercely, lest Petrolhead have to reduce the size of the pictures of motors and models. Within those constraints I did have the freedom to write as I wished, and even occasionally to choose my books, so the following appeared in Petrolhead, issue 5, and remains the only time, to my knowledge, Chris Ryan and Alan Hollinghurst have ever been linked together in a review. Interestingly, both books were assigned to me by the editor; Ryan was an obvious choice, but the logic behind her insistence Hollinghurst would be right up a Petrolhead reader's alley, so to speak, escaped me. The reviews ran separately, with the Ryan immediately following the Hollinghurst; I've knitted them into one for this piece. Remember, this is a blast from the past, written in 1998......were I writing it now I'd point out that Hollinghurst had invented Sex & The City, only set in the country, with gay men playing gay men, instead of Sarah Jessica Parker & Co. playing gay men....

THE SPELL by Alan Hollinghurst (Chatto & Windus £15.99)
THE KREMLIN DEVICE by Chris Ryan (Century £15.99)

Robin, an architect in his late 40s, lives in Dorset with Julian, an unemployed “actor”. Julian’s ex, Alex, a 30-something civil servant, comes for a visit. He falls in love with Danny, Robin’s 22 year old son. Danny is into clubbing, drugs, and casual sex. Everyone (but Alex) sleeps with Terry, the local rent boy. The Spell is designed like a comedy of manners, but manners in this case are subservient to what Hollinghurst calls “the undertow of sex”, and that limits his range, because every action, every character, every word is defined almost solely by sexuality. In that sense, for all Hollinghurst’s literary reputation, this is a Sex and Shopping novel, with an all-male cast, and even the shopping is mostly for sex. It's Jackie Collins in drag with big words.

So it comes as a relief to discover at bottom a Theme. Behind, as it were, the sex, shopping, and, uh, sex, The Spell is really about the spreading of the generation gap, and how changing times condition men to deal with their aging sexuality. The most touching scene in the book involves a Scrabble game between Robin and Julian. This is the “spell” of the title: Robin’s “exasperate” met by Julian’s “gents”, and Robin shying away from using “temporise”: the whole novel in a tiled nutshell.

On the other hand, since Chris Ryan prefers acronyms to homonyms, there are fewer big-word scores in his SAS Scrabble, but there is far more homo-eroticism in Ryan’s descriptions of SAS men at war than in all of Hollinghurst's oeuvre. The Kremlin Device follows SAS man Geordie Sharp and his Howling Commandos as they head to Russia to help their former Soviet enemies deal with everyone's new enemy, the Russian mafia. Just to prove you can’t trust Brits, while they’re in the neighbourhood they plant their own nuclear bomb underneath the Kremlin, and drive around Moscow with another Controlled Nuclear Device (CND) just long enough to have it stolen by the Chechens, which is mighty convenient for the plot.

It’s not so much James Bond as male bond. To use Ryanese, it’s a BONA: 'Boys Own' Novel with Acronyms. It’s written with all the flair of a consumer report on lawnmowers, a style pitched somewhere between a rugby club bar and the business class lounge at Dusseldorf airport. Not that Ryan lacks a sense of humour. CND the abbreviation for a bomb? In a few years Jeffrey Archer will probably use that one.

So: after the SAS lose the CND to the phony GAI, they set up a Grosny FOB. But GPS finds the CND in W1 (Marble Arch no less) so PDQ it's back to GBR in the UK. A quick EMOE saves the GLC (London), so Sharp gets R&R back in the USSR with the lady KGB who’s got nice T&A. But he can’t fool her (or us) for long, and soon it's SOS to the SAS and he’s returned to his 'unit', all those macho guys pointing their big guns at each other and looking down the barrels in testosteroned bliss.

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