Kitchen Venom – Philip Hensher

KV(We have not discussed this in the group but it was a ‘spin off’ from one of our meetings and this review is in a personal capacity.)

What an interesting way to start a book – with a funeral. You get introduced to all the characters but they are all (or mostly) on their best behaviour so you know that you have more to learn about them and what they’re really like: They ended with the professional choices of the professional undertaker, the grand official sorrow of the priest from a church no one ever went to. He accepted solicitude and regret gracefully. When the Secretary of State came, John, too, was flattered, and he could not suppress the thought that Helena would have been delighted at this man turning up at her funeral, who for seven years had never man­aged to get to one of her parties.

Like most modern books, the story jumps about.

There’s a scene set in the notorious ‘Brief Encounter’ bar: Later on they went to bed together. The man gave him a false name and telephone number afterwards. Louis gave him his real name and a false telephone number, since he did not like him one bit, had fucked him out of politeness and did not want to be troubled by part-time heterosexuals. The man left in time for Louis to have dinner on his own before going to bed.

Who else entitles a chapter: Have you ever been fucked?

I never knew that sartorial manners required: keep double-cuffed shirts for double-breasted suits,’ Henry said. ‘That’s a very nice suit, but I think you probably ought to wear a single-cuffed shirt with it. The shirt looks more perhaps formal than the suit.’

I had to look up ‘Zooty clothes’.

Surely it doesn’t take a day and a half to clear the air of cigarette smoke.

There is an observant take on hospital routine: ‘You see, they come round at six-thirty in the morning, and you have to choose what you want for lunch and for supper. Lunch is at twelve noon, and supper is at five-thirty. And of course by then you’ve quite forgotten what you ordered, partly because it’s so long, and partly because I’m completely gaga, and it’s far too late to change what you thought might be nice at the crack of dawn.’

……how like life it is. You get asked what you’re going to want when you’re almost bound to make the wrong decision, and then you’re stuck with it. When the trolley lady comes round in the end, you might fancy the sole, but you’re stuck with the sausage sandwich. Or perhaps you could only really manage a small salad, but you have to get through an enormous beef stew.

I would have thought that the author would have known better than to have written ‘bored of’ when he meant ‘bored with’. It wasn’t in direct speech.

There is clearly a waste of space in the Palace of Westminster. Literally, many rooms where nobody enters or even knows about. Also people who have little or no work to do but are paid handsomely every month.

There is also a lot of hot air: Mem­bers; their lack of hygiene; their badly cut suits; the halitotic stew of their breath.

I greatly enjoyed someone describing Mrs. Thatcher as an ‘old cow’.

It is said that the author’s career as a full-time novelist was launched with a scandal that saw him sacked as a House of Commons clerk after writing this novel – he gave an interview for a gay magazine in which he described Members of the House of Commons as ugly. In the story, one member is described as a lunatic and in the voting on the fate of the prime minister, most are shown as not knowing what they were doing and simply relying on the Tory party whips to tell them how to vote. He describes his sacking after the publication of Kitchen Venom as “one of the happiest moments of my life. It was bliss”, although he acknowledges that he “wasn’t exactly starting from scratch when I lost my job”.

Some say that Kitchen Venom foreshadows Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty, especially its portrayal of the coldness underlying the relationships.

No spoilers but the ending is in very lyrical prose.

Quotations

Kitchen venom; a place nourishment was produced, and a place from which poison could come.

When he had bought the flat, he had considered that it would be good for him to have a lodger. It would give him a certain amount of income, and it would introduce him to a large circle of people whom he would otherwise not meet. He therefore informed a telephone service for homosexuals in London that he was looking for a lodger. The prospective lodgers who had visited him were three. The first was a man who propositioned him before he had been shown the whole flat.

Never before had people lived on the streets of London; never before had people been asked for money; never before had people asked for money.

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