The 80s were a scream - as long as you weren't alive

6th January 2006 at 00:00
You'd think that winning prizes would sell books, but it didn't seem to work for Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty. Despite winning a Man Booker and getting strong reviews, this novel about a promiscuous young gay man living with an ambitious Tory MP in Thatcher's London remained stubbornly glued to the shelves of the Harrogate bookshop where I used to work. I think our town was not so much prudish as indifferent.

We're in Middle England, the bit of the country that politicians brawl over: prosperous but not loaded, settled but not conservative, educated but not intellectual. It's a tolerant place, but probably because there's a lack of anything to be intolerant about. We had a gay bar a couple of years ago ("DV8", because txt spk was still daring and innovative), but it closed down for lack of interest. We could, quite easily, be the market town in which Hollinghurst's protagonist Nick Guest is raised, where the gin and tonics seem embarrassingly small to his MP friends and "being sort of the art adviser on a non-existent magazine was as obscure and unsatisfactory as being gay". While it's plausible that the local primary schools will soon teach the alphabet Islington-style, where "N is for nanny, K is for kiwi fruit", here coke is for drinking, not snorting, and cottaging is a holiday in the Lake District. Why would you want to read a drifting social satire about aesthetes with Aids when Dan Brown is on offer at three-for-two?

Or maybe it's an age thing; unlike our customers, a few of my friends really enjoyed the book, and I've decided to analyse it for the personal study module of A2 English. Though it's not exactly Jane Austen ("Why Mr Darcy, this really is the most exquisite charlie!"), it's full of the timeless themes that sixth-form essays depend on - marriage, class, morality and beauty - without ever making an "issue" out of them. I thought it was bit like a modern Brideshead Revisited, with Tatler magazine, asset-stripping, and those shirts where the collar is a different colour to the body. Hollinghurst's picture of the Eighties feels precise and subtle, steering away from a Spitting Image caricature and, like his scalpel-sharp dissection of dinner parties chatter ("Oh, God, darling, you smell like a tart's parlour"), it can cut fairly close. "The economy's in ruins, no one's got a job, and we just don't care; it's bliss," says a civil servant.

The narrative is sandwiched between the 1983 and 1987 elections, so it's just outside the lifetime of today's sixth-formers. Reading it is a way of understanding territory we feel is almost ours but which we never knew.

If you were barely born in 1987, then retrospectively watching this delicate universe cavort and collapse on itself is good fun. The young Tories are conceited, but there's something attractive in their icy pretentiousness and Nick's consuming obsession with "beauty". Perhaps, though, if you were alive in the 1980s and Arthur Scargill means more than vintage clothing, watching this clan snort and muse and hold piano recitals "just like Beethoven and Mozart would have done" isn't all that entertaining. "I lived under Thatcher," said my bookshop manager. "I don't particularly wish to read a novel about her." For us, mass unemployment and nuclear chess-games are just motifs, like Ultravox and mullets, in a loose cultural collage. We like Thatcher nostalgia because we can share in the loathing with none of the fear.

There is obviously a gap between the watery lives of this hungry, insecure elite and the reader, but they remain absorbing, mostly because Hollinghurst's writing is so prickly and thick. Maybe it failed to find an audience outside the sixth-form because it would have induced either fist-biting embarrassment of self-recognition or, more likely, indifference towards the Brittle Young Things among a 40-plus readership. "Which is a bit of a bugger really, because it's a bloody good read, darling."

Matthew Holehouse is a Year 13 student at Harrogate grammar school

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