Paul Burston: Gay London's Jane Austen

A fearless chronicler of modern gay life in all its glory and grotesqueness: Paul Burston explains why he is neither an Alan Hollinghurst or a Jackie Collins
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The Independent Culture

The normally ebullient Paul Burston greets me at his south London flat looking slightly irritated. He's just read a patronising piece about his new novel, The Gay Divorcee, in a gay paper snootily announcing, "He's no Alan Hollinghurst". There can be few more annoying things than being criticised for not being something you hadn't set out to be in the first place.

"I like Alan Hollinghurst's work, and Michael Arditti's, and Neil Bartlett's. But I think there should be a place for stuff that isn't literary as well!" he protests. There is, he points out, no Gay Men's Press any more, no publishing house dedicated to gay books, which makes it difficult for gay writers to be published and heard. He even set up his own literary salon, Polari, to promote gay writing, because, after publishing four non-fiction books and a couple of well-received novels, he had never been invited to a mainstream literary festival.

"There is this perception, which I hope is incorrect, that the average reader doesn't want to read about contemporary gay life. To me, that's surreal, when you think how popular Queer As Folk was. And yet gay stories by and large just don't get published, or if they do, they tend to be the more literary ones. I think if something is literary, that gives it an alibi for existing. Or if it's safely historical. So if it's lesbians in Victorian England, it's okay. I'm not knocking [Sarah Waters]!" he says quickly, "but one of the reasons why authors who write literary or historical fiction which happens to be gay get more attention is because their work is less threatening to the reader."

Burston's four novels, in contrast, have been up-to-the-minute, unashamedly commercial and absolutely in-yer-face. Two of the central characters in The Gay Divorcee, Carl and Martin, are "as close as two gay men could be without a tube of KY between them". The characters do drugs, blog, bitch, drink to excess and sleep around. It's like chick lit, but for gay men (and the women who love them). Er... dick lit?

"Fag lit," laughs Burston. "Everyone just assumes that because I'm gay, all my favourite writers are gay, and they're not at all. One of my proper favourite writers by far – I literally wait for each book – is Marian Keyes. I adore her books. 'Chick lit' is a label used by snooty literary types as if something's rubbish, and her books are way above that. They have all the qualities of literature, they're just written in an accessible way. Her books are as much of an influence on me as anything gay."

After a difficult childhood in Bridgend in Wales, Burston came to London in the mid-1980s to study English and drama. But "other boys were telling me aged five that I was a poof – or a 'tog', as they used to say. I associated my hometown with everything I hated. There was no bookshop, everything revolved around the rugby club and if you didn't play rugby, you were nothing. I was bullied and I couldn't wait to get away."

He paints a bleak picture of gay life in the Thatcherite 1980s, when he became a vociferous Act-Up activist and a friend of Derek Jarman. Gay marriage was unthinkable, Aids was cutting a swath through the community and Section 28 was on the horizon. "It was so grim then, and the idea of a gay community was really essential to one's sense of self-worth, so you clung to it. Everything was very politicised then. Now we've gone from being a gay community to being a gay market to sell designer pants to."

As the editor of Time Out's Gay section for more than a decade and a half, Burston is still campaigning, and last year won a Stonewall award for his tireless journalism. His latest crusades concern HIV, shockingly on the rise, the dark, druggy side of the club scene, and a recent spate of murders of gay men.

No one's better placed to write about London's gay scene, and all his London-set books are acidly satirical and mocking as much as celebratory. He has certainly been there. "I've been an observer, I've been a participant – I've been a DJ for heaven's sake! I've seen it from so many different angles, the culture of the gay scene and how ridiculous it all is."

Phil, the lead character in Gay Divorcee, comes to London from Bridgend to make it big as a Soho club owner. He's all set to marry the gorgeous, much younger Ashley, a promiscuous DJ, but there's one thing he has to fix first – he got married as a misfit teenage goth. They broke up, he came out, but they never actually got around to getting a divorce. And Ashley is livid to hear it.

What makes the book really special is the sensitive treatment of Hazel, Phil's wife, whose story takes up almost half of the book. Being gay isn't presented as somehow more noble or authentic than being straight, and one character's whiff of misogyny is firmly presented as reprehensible.

"There's a great myth surrounding homosexuality that there's this coming-out moment and everything before that was false, and everything after that is true," Burston muses. "As you get older, you realise that's very simplistic, and that many of the relationships, many of the bonds, many of the lessons that were learned while in the closet are just as valid when you're out as they were then."

The story is based on a friend who made that journey from straight to gay marriage (without, however, any of the comical problems Burston heaps upon his protagonist). "I thought about what would have happened to me had I not run away from Bridgend. We all assume gay people just flee to the metropolis; they don't always. A lot of people still don't have those choices. They don't have the education or maybe the will to go and live in a big city. So 20 years ago when the story begins, I think it's perfectly conceivable that somebody could kid themselves that actually, no, they could be straight. I mean, I had sexual experiences with women when I was young; even when I was at college."

The Gay Divorcee is filled with the trappings of well-to-do gay life. No one just slaps on a moisturiser when they can grab a bottle of Clinique's Skin Supplies for Men. One ridiculously buff couple are known as "Abercrombie and Bitch". And is there really such a thing as "Aussiebum" briefs? "Yes, AussieBum Wonderjocks. Go into [gay shop] Prowler, you'll see them! Go and fondle a bundle!"

The fact that the books are satirical is lost on some critics. "Some people don't read very deeply, do they? So if you're talking about superficiality, then you're being superficial; or if you're looking at a shallow world, then your book is shallow. That's just nonsense. I'm basically writing about social etiquette and how people relate to each other – all those age-old themes."

You're the Jane Austen of contemporary gay London! I gasp."The gay Jane Austen – yes, I like that. I'd rather that than the Jackie Collins." Serious for a moment, he adds, "I still have this push-and-pull thing with the gay scene. There's a part of me that absolutely loves the freedom and the hedonism. But there's another part that finds the degree to which some people – not all, by any means – take it really alarming. The problems are never talked about – it's happy-clappy, we're all gay and proud and it's fabulous... So I'm ambivalent. But I'm not by any means a puritan. I've had my share of mad late nights and partying that went on all weekend and stuff like that, but now I see it for what it is – it's just escapism, pure and simple."

Each book has a different theme, and this one, he concludes thoughtfully, is family. "Though certain newspapers may want to say otherwise, the reality is, we're all part of families. This idea that somehow gay people exist separately from families, that we're a separate breed, that we live apart..." With the mark of Cain on your foreheads... "And our AussieBum Wonderjock briefs on! Well, I don't buy it."

The extract

The Gay Divorcee, By Paul Burston (Sphere £11.99)

'... At Costa Cafe the Brazilians were out in force, talking loudly over their skinny lattes and waiting for their mobiles to ring... Every week there seemed to be more of them... Soon you'd need a Brazilian passport just to enter Soho, and everyone would be forced to speak Portuguese... and live on coffee and black beans'

Polari Supernatural Night with Paul Magrs is on 17 June at the Freedom Bar, 66 Wardour St, London W1