Thoughts on Hollinghrst's Line of Beauty

The adaptation of Alan Hollinghurst's brilliant "Line of Beauty" had only one small flaw: at the end of the first part of the book we are left with a blissfully happy Leo and Nick, its only well into the second chapter that we find out about their breakup, but in the TV adaptation its throw at us at the end of the first episode. For me the transition from the first to second part of the book was like being smacked with a brick as suddenly Nick goes from a relatively uncomplicated relationship with local authority worker Leo to multi-millionaire Wani Ouradi. But this is lost entirely on viewers - it makes the jump to Nick's later lifestyle far too simplistic.

On the other hand - the representation of the book's dramatic peak, Nick's dance with the Prime Minister, is a fantastic moment. Nick is not only cheeky, and in control, but swings the "iron lady" around the dance floor in a manner that underlines one of the book's basic premises - the illusion that Nick is accepted by the (Tory) establishment around him and that he is not just a powerless pawn who has happened into their world.

I think the entire novel opens up a real question into how real is the imagined "liberal" society in which we live? Certainly, for those working under section 28, it was a horrible restriction that even hit simple and not intentionally "promotional" activities such as putting library books with gay themes on the shelves. (Its awful now, looking back, to recall the extent to which this law was a weapon for the vindictive and malicious, though admittedly there is a legitimate debate questioning how much funding should minority communities get and from where should it come). A series like this would have been impossible back in the late 1980s, not only because of the relatively excplicit content, but quite simply because by showing it BBC would have broken the law.

There is a surprising silence about what has actually changed since the 1980s, and I suspect that Hollinghurst was so well aware of these he forgot to remind mainstream readers. These include section 28, the age of consent being 21, the heavy-handed enforcement of laws regarding gay sex (back as recently as the early 90s whilst at univerisity, I remember looking up one of the British legal annuals which told me that over 2000 men had been prosecuted under the notorious Sexual Offences Act which only just about decriminalised sex between men). One thing I remember particularly was that the very few Gay magazines which existed at the time (i.e. Gay Times, and Scene Out) only accepted ads from over 21s as they could have been prosecuted as an accessory if two men were prosecuted for one or both of them being underage. The Labouchre amendment dating back from the 19th century created the crime of "gross indecency", a legal term which was implied to cover virtually any intra-male sexual behavious. This was so vague that men were actually convicted for such crimes as kissing, and it created a climate of fear amongst gay men, and fear of gay men by straights.

Yet all of this is absent, not only from The Line of Beauty, but from all of Hollinghurst's works. Its a conspicuous absence considering that almost all of his characters indulge in cottaging and sex in public places. Straight society needs to be reminded of its complicity in ensuring that these laws stayed alive until only a few years ago, just in case the self-congratulatory mentality of a supposedly liberal society blinds itself to how bigoted and vindicitive it used to be.

The only obvious reminder of this - which to some extent probably resonates more to a noughties reader - is the belligerent racism spouted by many of the characters in Line of Beauty, conflicting with Nick's fondness for working class and ethnic men. It does make a suggestion - one which I strong believe - is that racism is the dividing line between tolerance and intolerance - and the biggest signifier of an intolerant individual is their attitude towards ethnic minorities (and presumably, immigrants of whatever colour or reason for arrival). The scary thing about this, is that if you follow the logical reasoning that tolerance began with a breakdown of racially based prejudice, does it not follow that a resurgance of this prejudice and its institutionalisation in fortress-type immigration laws, will eventually lead back intolerance (and eventual reversal of liberal laws) regarding women's rights, gay rights, disabled rights, etc? The question now is: is straight society too busy congratulating itself on its new-found liberalism to notice that things are going into reverse? And where will it stop?

One of the big problems of the less socially necessary aspects of the liberal movement - gay marriage, affirmative action, and state-sponsored abortion - is that they risk (and sometimes result in) alienating potential allies amongst the greater public and those in positions of power. Gay marriage was not an endpoint visualised by the gay rights movement - most simply wanted pairity on housing, pension rights, inheritance and tax. Marriage was a simplistic - and possibly inappropriate - response to these needs, just as affirmative action to a large extent fails to mitigate against disadvantage. One cannot help but wonder if these will indeed end up being the sword that the liberal agenda eventually falls on - or will we simply move on from them?


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