An evocation of gay life, this is the first novel Neil Bartlett wrote. In a dark corner of the best bar in the city, two lovers fall into each other’s arms. The bar has been called many names, but it is now known simply as The Bar. Its proprietor is the aging, still glamorous Madame. Its clientele is gay. The two who fall in love are Boy, a beautiful nineteen-year-old, and the handsome, forty-something “Older Man” referred to as “O” by the regulars of The Bar. This is the story of Boy’s and O’s courtship and marriage, of Madame’s role in the affair, and of the man called “Father,” who threatens to come between them.
Cruising is described painstakingly, as is the former Oasis Club and its regulars, including the chain-smoking, gravelly-voiced Flo, in Bristol.
The Boy appears at 19, a young man looking for something. For him, the search is quite literal: he walks the city looking for something, looking for a place he belongs. He knows what he wants, but he doesn’t yet know where to find it. In this, he is like every young gay man who leaves home and comes to the big city, having left his history behind him. O is another archetype: in his 40s, he has a history, one known in any detail, it seems, only to Mother; his question is whether he has a future.
Many of our group felt that the author wrote with great intimacy towards the reader yet also with a strange detachment from the characters. Despite its great energy, ther is a sense of emptiness.
The mugging scenes were realistic and well written yet lacking in emotion. Is this because the author is primarily someone who works with actors on a stage where what you see is what communicates, not what you read.
I didn’t like aspects of violence in the key relationship, S & M., dominance. It took the romance away. Nor do I like drag,
Some reviewers point to literary allusions but I can’t see any (though they are listed at the end), nor did I see the relevance of quotations from the Book of Common Prayer. And he could have quoted the collect about ‘God who seest us amidst so many and great dangers’ with the queer-bashing that tolls like bell throughout the novel.
Surely, by the 1990s, terms like ‘nigger’and ‘Jew’ weren’t in use.
It was rare to have a happy ending in those days.
Interview with the author GAY TIMES OCTOBER 90
Bartlett’s first novel Ready to Catch Him Should He Fall (Serpent’s Tail, £8.99) has just been published and it is no exaggeration to say that it stands head-and-shoulders above any British or American gay novel to have appeared in several years. Ready to Catch Him Should He Fall is (to use a journalistic cliché) a searingly honest evocation of gay life, cultures and rituals; it is tender, brutal, explicit, erotic and moving — set in a nameless but eternal city and with a time-scale that can only be defined as fluid. The novel centres on the relationships between ‘Boy’ (a young man seeking experience), ‘0’ (his older lover), and ‘Mother (their protector); and their love and care for each other and of the other inhabitants of The Bar, the locus of their interactions. Above all, this enormously impressive and exciting novel — a fictional debut of staggering assurance and ability — reveals the depths of Bartlett’s commitment to our history, our present and our future
London in the same way as in Who Was That Man? It is London, but it continually changes its shape. You could turn a corner or open a door and suddenly you’re in a city that you don’t quite recognise.
PETER: And the book is not set in any recognisable time . . .
NEIL: It clearly is set now, or the action of the story takes place now, except the people keep describing it as ‘Well, of course, in those days, when this happened, life was like this’. But there are very strong elements of previous periods of gay life. I
mean, it goes into — not exactly time-slips — but without being able to say exactly
where and when it happens you are in a different era of the city’s life. Going back to the late 19th Century, but also the 1940s, 50s, 60s, 70s.
The book is a return to a lot of very deeply held beliefs. Things very deep inside me which are to do with my life and my parents and the way I was brought up,
and my family, and that’s why the book is dedicated to my two grandmothers. Out of respect for them and the part that the world they represent has played in my life.
PETER: The book does seem to have a certain religious and ritual feel to it . . .
NEIL: It’s not intentional. It’s probably a reflection of how deeply it is in me.
Intellectually it wasn’t planned and I surprised myself with that aspect of it. I think
in a sense that some ritual is being enacted, and clearly the ritual is the standard narrative of love: love, courtship, marriage, child. (I did have the Book of
Common Prayer open on my desk the whole time I was writing the novel). I’m not religious now and I don’t go to church, but, like anyone who is brought up with it,
I know my way around the Book of Common Prayer and the idea that the book can have services and ceremonies in it for every occasion of your life. Of course, the fact of the matter is that as a gay man I don’t suppose that the Book of Common Prayer in a literal or obvious way has a ceremony in it for any occasion.
That’s exactly the contradiction that the novel is about— so having no ceremonies of our own, we invent new ones.
PETER: The sex in Ready to Catch Him seems to be or become sacramental . . .
NEIL: Of course! Sex is! But what happens is like we say we are inventing new sounds but of course you can’t. There are shapes of desire and of love — because
love has a shape — they aren’t abstract energy. The shape of love must be informed, either positively or negatively, by the traditions that are deeply inside you, whether you like them or not.
Now I’m not being fatalistic about it and saying therefore that you are inescapably conditioned to see ourselves as surrogate heterosexuals doomed to re-enact the rituals of that conditioning. And that process operates both positively and negatively throughout the book — it glorifies the images; it makes glorious the loves that are being described.
I have an image of the artist as being someone who is conductor of or a receptor for my culture — and things are going through me which are larger than myself. I am using the language, I am talking about incidents and images which don’t belong to me. On a literal level there is so much in that book which is inspired by the quality of other parts of the history of gay writing. But also in a larger sense, like with the character of Mother, where already four people have told me that they know who she is. They’ve said “Oh it’s great that you’ve put her in the book, but you’re too young, how did you possibly know about her?” and then they tell me about either a woman or a drag queen that they knew about who was exactly like her. So clearly in creating that figure — for instance and in Boy and 0 as well — I’m using images of people that don’t just belong to me but are part of gay culture or the scene.
RICHARD SMITH: What you have done in Ready To Catch Him — and what you did in Who Was That Man? — was put that history and that sense of continuity together in a form that is assimilable by the most people . . .
NEIL: Yes, but it has a very odd effect, that detail, because it must be read so completely differently by people who don’t know — and yet it has a very real effect for both of those people . .
One of the things I try and do when I’m writing is to be able to talk about a dress or a club and have some sense of tangibility. That it isn’t just some vague throwback to those days. That it was real, and it’s as real as your memories as a homosexual. So I do that terrible thing of phoning people up at 11 o’clock at night and saying “What make-up would she have worn in 1954” and “Does pan-stick have an hyphen?” Because if one of those things is wrong then I feel I let people down. It’s so disrespectful to talk about these things and get it wrong.
RICHARD: It’s very strange in gay fiction to find someone so affectionate about the gay scene . . .
NEIL: Well, it’s fantasy that I have. But in the same way that the book is a sequence of fantasy events. It’s wishful thinking on my part, the idea that the bar could somehow be a place where there are relationships as deep as the relationships in the book. But of course I think it happens, I have been in places and seen men looking after each other — and that’s what we’re talking about.
In 1985 I was in Toronto and I was hanging out with a bunch of four men who shared a flat and were known as The Family (and their names actually appear in the book). There was this great weekend where one of The Family had split up with his boyfriend and the other two decided that this was a mistake and that they should get back together again. They spent the whole weekend on the ‘phone and in the bars, bringing these two guys back together again. And at the end of the weekend there was this fabulous tear-stained scene on the Sunday night and they kissed in the bar. One of them was the barman and the other guy jumped across the bar and kissed him — and everyone in the bar applauded. Everyone knew what was going on. And I was very young and very stoned and very in awe of these terrific men. I just thought that was the most marvellous thing. That a man should do that.
PETER: I’ve propounded in print several times that homosexual life is — certainly potentially — far richer and far more sustaining than heterosexual life because heterosexual life looks inward whereas gay life can be far more outward looking . . .
NEIL: I think it’s very important to talk about how very many different ways of doing it there are, in the same way as there are very many different ways of doing heterosexual relationships. I don’t think it breaks down as a dichotomy. But the vast majority of gay people are raised by families. That’s what we know about. It’s the beginning of our lives. So I think the hunger to claim that life-bond of deep relationships is profound. So I think that’s where all that energy in the book comes from — the desire for that.
RICHARD: The narrator often appears as this whinging character . . . Do you ever feel distanced as an artist, an observer, from other gay men?
NEIL: Well, it’s funny. I don’t think the narrator is particularly distanced. Sure, of course I do feel distanced at times, but doesn’t everyone? Everyone feels that they’re looking at things from the outside. No. That’s not true. I’m evading the question. Yes. I sometimes feel that I am so aware of the complications of any given situation that I’m incapable of being . . . I’m very conscious that if I’m in a bar I’m always reading everyone’s stories. I’m obsessive when it comes to making things mean
something. And so, often, I’ll find myself in a place, watching and listening and thinking rather than . . It’s because of my job, as an artist I don’t have a sense of work and leisure time. The gay world, what you’d call the scene, is about leisure time. As an entertainer I make things that people consume in their leisure time books and performances — so that gives me a very unusual relationship to that culture. If I’m in a pub I’m quite likely to be sitting there thinking ‘I wonder what is the film or book that this lot could come and see’. So immediately they’re ‘them’ because I’m in a relationship to ‘them’ in so far as I make things that they consume. I sell and they buy. I think that’s a useful way of describing my position. An outsider.
It’s a bit of a problem when someone beautiful comes up to you and says “Hello” and you think ‘Oh!’ and you look at them and then they say “I’ve just read your book.” And you think ‘Yes. Yes. Later. Let’s talk about it much later — like over breakfast!’ That’s very odd. When you’re writing a book there is something peculiarly frightening about putting what you really think about life down on paper. And when it’s finished, someone you don’t know (and you don’t even know they’re doing it) can pick it up and open it and think they know what you know about life.
Being held responsible for one’s work is sometimes very hard! And you mustn’t think about that whilst you’re making it, ’cause if you do; forget it! Your hands freeze . . .
RICHARD: Don’t you think straight people are going to find the book rather baffling?
NEIL: Well, people say that but . . . Jeanette Winterson gets asked the same thing and says “I never had any trouble understanding Wuthering Heights.” That’s the good answer. Books are about other people’s lives. I don’t know. I think the book will be castigated for being baffling. They’ll say “Who could possibly be interested in what a few men do in a bar late at night?” There’s nothing you can do about that. It’s certainly not a book written to please people. Sometimes you want to write something that’s going to be totally in-penetrable to anybody but your immediate peers.
PETER: Couldn’t that cause people to level at you the accusation that you suffer from a ghetto mentality?
NEIL: The idea of a ghetto mentality, is a joke in this country . . . If there were a ghetto here I’d go and live in it.
You know you get people saying “Does being gay influence your work?” I just look them in the face and say “Oh, no, not at all.” It has become a redundant question to me, finally, which is great because I’ve had enough of that question. If someone can’t see that I am as much a gay artist when I am producing a play written three hundred years ago about an eighteen year old girl as I am when I’m doing a cock-sucking scene in the new book, then’ I give up. My work is a sufficient answer to that question.
“But do go back and amend my description of Boy so that he is, some way, if you see what I mean, your type. Make him fit the bill; imagine for him the attributes that you require.”
” O was always at Madame’s right hand, though never intimate with her. “By sheer force of will power,”
`the kind of wanting which extends beyond the night into the day.”
`will always be handsome. And Boy will always be beautiful, I think.”
After six nights in a row with 0, Boy spent the seventh night on his own; he went to his own place. He slept immediately and deeply, and then got up at six am to turn the television on and make the tea ready for when the man he lived with got in from work. They had their tea, then Boy went back into the living room to watch the breakfast television, which was sport, and -then the–ptio-ne-rang. t was 0, calling Boy up for the very first time.
The man took the call in the kitchen.
He was surprised, since for all Boy’s nights out, during which, as the man correctly assumed, Boy had sex with many different men, he never received visits, calls or letters from the men he had been sleeping with. The man did not think that Boy ever gave his address or phone number to anyone. He wondered sometimes if Boy even told people what his real name was.
And now there was someone on the phone saying, Is Boy there?
The man dried his hands and took the phone through to Boy, then walked back into the kitchen. Then he heard Boy say ‘Yes’, and then he heard the TV change; Boy had got up and turned it over to a boxing match, which was something Boy never usually watched. Wanting very much to hear (because he was sure that this was a lover calling, from the voice), the man used the boxing match as an excuse, and he came and stood in the kitchen doorway with a wet plate and the cloth in his hands, and looked at the television. And on the screen was a blackhaired, whiteskinned, nineteen-year-old boxer. His lip was split, and he was bleeding.
What had happened was that 0 had been at home, not sleeping, thinking about Boy at six in the morning, and he had called up and said, ‘Are you watching TV,’ to which Boy had replied, as the man had heard ‘Yes,’ and then 0 had told Boy to turn over to the boxing; he’d just said, ‘Get up and change to the third channel. I’m watching it, and I want you to watch it too. It makes me think of you.’
Though it was so strange and cryptic, Boy understood this call, because he began to understand now that there are different kinds of wanting someone. He thought, there is wanting to go to bed with someone, which is really just an erection; and there is the kind of wanting which extends beyond the night into the day, the kind where you spend all day waiting, sometimes several days. Sometimes you are waiting for a phone-call–and sometimes for a touch. You think about the person all the time, I think about you all the time, that’s what you say. And you begin to say things that don’t make any sense to people who don’t know what’s going on between you, but you know that the other person, to who what you’ve said is really addressed Will know what you mean even, even though he may not actually be there.
And also, as he watched the Boxer on the television, Boy began to think that there are two kindsof sex; the kind of sex where you say do this, do that, or you manoeuvre yourself into position for a particular kind of pleasure; and then there is the other kind of sex, where you want to say, do anything. Do anything you want to me, you can do anything you want, I give you entire permission over me. This feeling and especially those words cannot actually be. spoken, because the words are too shaming; but for the men I know and for myself certainly I know that it usually comes out as fuck me, please fuck me, though that may not be exactly what you mean. I mean it is not necessarily about wanting to be actually fucked this feeling. It’s more to do with the way my women friends use the word ‘fucked’, when they say I fucked him, or I didn’t want to fuck him — for us it still means I literally fucked him, he got fucked by me. What I mean is, sometimes you are on top of him, you have the back of his neck in your teeth, and you still find yourself wanting to say to him, fuck me, go on, go on, even though you are on top of him.
This is all so hard to tell someone, so you try to do it with your body. When you see a man bury his face in his pillow, he is doing it to avoid saying all this; to escape from the words he hears himself wanting to say, to silence himself, because he knows that your face is just six inches from his but still he cannot look at you or say what he means.
You noticed this when 0 and Boy were out together. They were always very close to each other, but would never seem able to look one another in the eye, as if afraid of some terrible blush. They avoided each other’s eyes in different ways: 0 would stare away as if checking some man across The Bar; Boy would often as not still look down ail the floor as had always been his habit, as if he were indeed living up to his name, as if he were indeed some young and inexperienced Boy who 0 had just fucked into the ground. As if he was unused to having his body turn on him and shame him by admitting that it wanted these things to happen to it. As if reluctant to acknowledge it in public that it was indeed his body and not someone else’s body that had done those things the night before or the afternoon before. As if he was not responsible for his actions. As if suddenly he might be able to help himself and suddenly right there in the middle of The Bar he would say out loud: Fuck me. Please fuck me, take this body of mine right down into the deep with you, pull me under the earth, drag me under the sea; pinion my arms, put your mouth over mine and pull me under these heavy waves I’m feeling, drown me.
When 0 put down the phone at the end of his first call, he did not know how to say goodbye, to Boy; he did not know what name to use. He would remember this later, this not knowing what to call him. Boy or Darling or whatever. One night, later in their affair, 0 woke up in the middle of one of his long and noisy dreams and lay there for a long time looking at Boy’s face as he slept. And then, very deliberately, as if this was what he had decided, 0 said, very quietly, but very definitely, out loud, baby.
This time there was no knife, they just got him on the floor and it was just a fist which had come down on the man’s face again and again. And it happened just two streets away from The Bar. He came into The Bar with blood everywhere. He was trying not to cry, and he kept on saying I’m shocked, I’m just a bit shocked that’s all. He wasn’t as badly hurt as he looked, actually, but it was enough to make us all think at least twice.
People say to me that I must be keeping a list of all the attacks I hear about. They say it’s morbid, they say what are you trying to prove anyway. They say why do you have to talk about that just now. They say to me, how many of them do there have to be before you think you’ve got enough on your list. They say when are you going to stop it, and I say, when am I going to stop it, when am I — it was the second night they were in the bar together after their week of absence I remember. When the man had had his face washed (by Stella) and been given a drink, and one of the barmen had called for a taxi, Mother got right up and got on the stage and told Gary she was ready for her song now. She did her own intro. And if ever I thought it, that was the time I thought that Mother knew what she was singing about.
First she dedicated her song that night to the man who was bleeding (he was still in The Bar, the taxi hadn’t come yet), and then to the ‘ men who had brought their fists down on his face just two streets from her Bar. Then she went on and dedicated her song to all those men here tonight who are still hunting, all of those who are unhappy in love, all of those who are putting up with second best, all of those who are not getting what they want. Don’t waste another night, she said; if there is somebody here you want then go right up and tell him about it, you just tell him, because he may not be here tomorrow night. If you want him to beat you, then you ask him; if you want him to stop beating you, then tell him. If you want him to take you home, go right up now and ask him, sure he will.
She then proceeded to recite a bitter list of all the failed marriages which we had in our midst or knew of. She named the names of all the broken, hearts. She dedicated her song to all the boys who had really regretted doing it, all the men who had ever said, naming no names, it took ten years of my life, and now I can truly say that I never want to even talk to him again, never to see him. And then, just when people were looking genuinely shocked by what she’d said — remember that this man, who we all knew, was still sitting there with the blood just washed off his face, as if to remind us that she wasn’t joking — then she said, don’t be scared boys.
She said, don’t waste any time, Boys, because you don’t have any to waste.
She looked right at 0 and Boy when she said this and it was as if she was trying to scare them in particular, even as if she was trying to frighten them away from each other, as if she was saying, to them, and to all of us, this is what you have to go through, right?
She said, I want you to listen to this song very carefully tonight. I want you to ndte that I am not singing just ‘take my back, because it’s my best feature’ (in the mirror we could see her beautiful strong back in the low cut of the dress, and of course we could see ourselves too). I am not singing ‘Take my body’. I am not singing ‘Take my head and my heart and all my bad habits but by the way I’m sorry that you have to put up with all that but they’re just part of the package you see.’ I am not saying take me on my good days. I am not saying take me like I look tonight and pretend that’s all you’ve got to take. I am saying take me when there’s blood on my face. What I am saying most specificially is take all of me — and here of course Gary began the melody on the piano and we all smiled and then she sang, sang her song, and believe me we did all listen to the words that night, we knew that the man who had been attacked was there, and we knew that 0 and Boy were standing shoulder to shoulder in our midst, we saw them in the centre of the mirror, saw ourselves standing beside them and standing by them and give me a drink now because I had such hopes of a lover of my own on the evening and here I am.
Give me a drink. You know I have always wanted to get married, not for always, but just for once in my life I wanted to live out my love for a man like they did. I suppose you think I mean I want to walk down the aisle in white with my friends watching, but that’s not it, that’s not what this feeling is to do with. Or not all of it, because of course I would love to do that. But that’s easy to laugh at. What I want is to hold his hand in public. And what I want then is to hold his hand in front of the television for several evenings a week, and if you don’t understand that, and if you don’t know what that feeling is, if you don’t know what it’s like that then you know nothing, nothing, nothing.
I mean, Gary says you dream about marriage the same way you dream about someone coming down your throat; it’s not something you’re going to actually do, not these days, but that doesn’t mean you don’t dream about it. It doesn’t mean you can’t actually almost feel what it would feel like.
O held onto him, but Boy said, don’t try to stop me from crying. Boy said, I am not crying because he’s dead. I am crying for the life he led. And it isn’t my fault and it wasn’t his fault but I wish there was somebody to blame, if he wasn’t to blame then who was to blame, who was it, oh I want to hurt them, I want to hurt them, I want to hurt them.”