GENTS BY WARWICK COLLINS

Gents 2We did this book as long ago as May 2006 and a review of it is here.

An old friend recently gave me a slightly different slant on it and has given me permission to publish his review.

 `DARK POETRY’: GENTS BY WARWICK COLLINS (1997) Adrian Risdon

Gents is the sort of novella I should have read when first it was published (the year Diana died and when I first moved to Winchester). John Heath-Stubbs used to say that Soho pubs were his second university (after Oxford); my own second university (after Cambridge) was cottage culture — now almost extinct. There it was I learned the social skills my strange upbringing denied me. But Warwick Collins’s brilliant idea was to examine a cottage, not from the point of view of cottagers, but rather from the perspective of three West Indian cleaners whose daily task it is to maintain hygiene.

Collins’s hero, Ezra Murphy, represents the author (his initials, reversed, spell “me”). Ez and wife Martha attend a Seventh Day Adventist church; he and his boss Josiah Reynolds – known throughout simply as ‘Reynolds’ – share Biblical forenames. Jason, third of this triumvirate, is a Rasta with two wives and (unless I blinked at the wrong moment) no given surname at all. “Flawed and holy” Jason sees cottaging as a white man’s problem (he’s considerably put out when he catches a black man at it):

`Whitey cold’, Jason said. ‘Cold inside.’ He began to utter the dark poetry in his soul. ‘ Colder than reptile (Jason’s word for cottagers). Don’ have no emotions. Come to de Gents for de sex wid another reptile. Don’ come for de wife, don’ want family, maybe don’ even want de other man. Come. Afterward go.’

Into this strangely ritualized all-male world enters Mrs Steerhouse (or Whitehouse?) from the council. At first she wants the cottagers out; but this results in lower takings which in turn lead to Jason’s departure — the council can no longer afford to pay him ­leaving Reynolds and Ez to reinvent the loo as a cottager-friendly (and very profit­able) facility. Behind all this, of course, is that two-faced decade the 1980’s, which inflicted Section 28 on us all whilst countenancing gay pubs and clubs on the basis that “if it works financially, it’s O.K.”

I’ve a confession to make. I’d never heard of Warwick Collins until I read his recent obituary in the Lymington Advertiser. This twice startled me. First, he was my own age (64) when he died. Furthermore, he’d apparently been my exact contemporary at The King’s School, Canterbury (1960-65). Yet I’d no memory whatever of him. It turned out he was on the Science side and a day-boy, whereas I’d been Arts and a boarder. That to some extent explains it, though (as co-editor of the school magazine) I’d have expected to recall his contributions. What a shame we never met — neither in Kent nor Hampshire! We could have compared notes about those formative (in my case closetedly deformative) years. As I acted a lot in school plays, he’d surely have recognized me on one of my many recent trips to Lymington. But he wouldn’t have welcomed appraisals like this one: “he refused” his publisher remarked “to be edited”.

He’d have hated me jibbing at his repeated use of “adjacent to” — though I’d have had nothing but praise for the way he links “adjacent” to Jason, suggesting that these three loo-cleaners are too intelligent for the jobs they’re obliged to do. Every Jobcentre advisor ought to be forced to read Gents; and all Birth Registrars should note that, if parents wish their sons not to end up ‘cantankerous buggers’ like Warwick Collins, they shouldn’t foist on their offspring initials like W.C.

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