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Books: Ordinary people come out of the shadows

D J Taylor salutes a writer who showed that gay fiction belongs in pit villages as well as trendy nightclubs; The Scarlet Boy by Tom Wakefield with Patrick Gale Serpent's Tail, pounds 8.99, 185p
Tom Wakefield came late to authorship and did not publish a novel until he was in his forties. But in the two decades before his death in 1996, he wrote over a dozen books, including the autobiographical Forties Child (1980) and Mates (1983) - which, whatever the eclat of the Hollinghursts and Mars-Joneses, has some claims to be regarded as the gay English novel of the past 25 years.

Wakefield was not exclusively a "gay novelist", although the re-inventions of literary history will probably mean that this is how he is best remembered. The distinction of his writing about homosexual relationships was the resolute ordinariness of the subject matter. The spangled existences lived out by the stars of much modern US gay fiction have already passed into cliche. Mates, in contrast, is simply the story of two men who meet while doing National Service in the 1950s and live with each other until death parts them.

Emphasising the mundane surfaces of Wakefield's characters and settings does not perhaps do justice to the imaginative colour he brought to these lives. The Scarlet Boy, a sequel to Forties Child left unfinished at his death and unobtrusively rounded off by his friend Patrick Gale, maintains this stylistic treatment. An "ordinary" life in a Yorkshire pit village of the 1950s is irradiated by Wakefield's whimsical eye for detail and comic possibility.

Much of this attaches to Edward, Wakefield's alter ego. He is superannuated from primary school to become the village's first entrant to the local grammar. His bumptious self-possession, as he negotiates with parents (indulgent father, costive mum) and teachers, and feels the first stirrings of sexuality, is neatly and amusingly handled. Even the customary musings over genitalia have a kind of tongue-in-cheek quality.

It would be wrong to make too many claims for The Scarlet Boy; but Patrick Gale's mimicry of his friend's style seems spot-on, and the result is a fine valedictory tribute to a writer of whom much more fuss could have been made in his own lifetime.