A dazzling homage to 60s gay counterculture

Neil Bartlett






Man-Eating Typewriter Richard Milward WHITE RABBIT ,£25 This bold chunk of fiction comes garlanded with the promise that it is written in Polari, the historical cant of British gay male society. This turns out to be not quite true – Polari was only ever a vocabulary, rather than a full language – but it certainly indicates where we’re heading; back to the late 1960s, when Polari had its heyday, and far out into the choppy waters of linguistic transgression. The largest part of the book is taken up with what purports to be a typescript of the “anarcho-surrealist” memoirs of one Raymond Novak. The tersest summary of Novak’s literary stylings might be to say that Julian and Sandy, those Polari-dishing stars of Round the Horne , meet Bataille and Breton – and lose. Other antecedents include the slang that Anthony Burgess invented for the droogs of A Clockwork Orange, and the pottymouthed wordplay of Jarry’s Père Ubu. As if this wasn’t already more than enough, the deadpan footnotes that frame Novak’s memoir give the reader to understand that it is being received in instalments by the staff of Glass Eye Press, a Fitzrovian publisher of under-the-counter filth whose back catalogue would make Joe Orton blush. Even by their low standards, this particular offering is a bit much. In particular, Novak promises that his life narrative is about to climax in a crime so spectacular that it will make him as famous as Charles Manson. To his potential publishers, this sounds like a lucrative tie-in; for the reader, it operates as an early warning of just how tasteless things will soon become. Novak begins with his mother, the deliciously monikered Madam Ovary. She is a hanger-on amid the cafes of the Parisian Left Bank; after a dodgy war, she crosses the Channel to raise the infant Raymond on a Stepney bombsite. Orphaned by a collapsing house, Raymond does time as the foster child of some blackly comic aristos before escaping abroad via the merchant navy, among whose sea queens he picks up his Polari. Dope-inflected escapades in Tangier and Gibraltar are followed by a return to swinging London, where he cashes in on his talent for outrage by opening an avant-garde boutique. A detour back to Paris in time for May 68 climaxes in a jaw-dropping encounter with a dead policeman’s truncheon, and then it’s back to London for some anti-Vietnam war rallies and nights on Hampstead Heath. In short, a personal history of postwar counterculture, with no trope left unturned. As Novak’s autobiographical outrages escalate, the staff of Glass Eye Press realise that whoever is committing them to paper seems to know all of them personally, and that the threat of an impending atrocity is for real. As the screws of the plot tighten, even the titular typewriter begins to play a role; co-opted into acting as proofreader, the reader is obliged to keep track of the typographical eccentricities that will lead to the identification not only of Novak, but of his vengeful ghost writer. It’s in this final conjunction of title and plot that Milward reveals the method in his exuberantly offensive madness. Beneath the surreal image of an aberrant and desiring typewriter lurks a very exact simile of how this text actually operates. Its hijinks are there in order to seduce us into considering the radical proposition that writing’s true and instinctive task may be to derange life, rather than report it; that once let off the hook of good taste, writing may have an innate affinity with all the bits of life that bourgeois capitalism can’t quite stomach: the gleeful, the carnal, the excessive and the violent. If all that metafictional malarkey sounds way too clever for its own good, rest assured that Richard Milward, also known for Apples and Ten Storey Love Song, writes like a demon, and produces that rarest of all things on the modern fiction bookshelf: a genuinely exhilarating entertainment. The linguistic invention borders on the dazzling, the potted social history drops its names with wit and verve, and the whole thing is both laugh-out-loud funny and authentically disgusting. I’m lucky enough to live in a household where much of the queer slang that peppers this narrative is still in regular use. While I recognise that not many readers will begin the book with that particular advantage, I’d nonetheless heartily advise you to give it a go. Not only will you be both challenged and amused, you will have usefully broadened your vocabulary. Nanti polari? Fear not, my children; dive in, and enjoy. To buy a copy for £21.75 go to guardianbookshop.com