Monday Book: Sex in the suburbs - and the BBC

FORTYSOMETHING BY NIGEL WILLIAMS, VIKING, pounds 15.99

I THINK I have been seeing Nigel Williams hovering around painfully fashionable Crouch End. A terribly pallid figure, with a marked resemblance to the comic novelist and BBC producer, has been sighted trying to pick a path through north London's cafe society. It may not be the man in person but some wraith or apparition. By Williams's own testament, the suburbs of London are full of strangeness, and doppelganger novelists would fit into his vision of the city's weird edges.

Harrowed by fear and wonder at the sight of this pasty presence, I have taken to hanging around the streets of Wimbledon - his home turf. No sign of the strangely pale writer there. No sign, either, of the SW19 described in his works. Williams has devoted his fictional life to these far from mean streets, but they fail to live up to his vision. I haunt the Common and the windmill but I see no Mr and Mrs Plonkers. I wander through Crooked Billet but there are no Linda Haddocks, no Snozzers, no Porkers.

Not the faintest hint of "The Nazi who escaped Justice" or the Twenty- fourth Imam of the Wimbledon Dharjees comes to my senses. All I see are expensively dressed second wives talking on mobile phones to their au pairs. Can he see a madness in the suburbs undetectable to the rest of us? Could he, and what joy it would be if he were, be looking to find that same rich seam in fashionable Crouch End? What joy if he were!

This latest report from the unhinged suburbs, comes from the fevered diary of the self-obsessed, fortysomething actor Paul Slippery.

Slippery plays the part of a doctor in a BBC radio soap called General Practice. Management reform blows through the corridors of Broadcasting House and it seems that Slippery's character, if not the whole soap itself, is for the chop. Desperate to survive, Slippery spies on the higher layers of the corporation's management. This is a sexually ambivalent crew. Indeed, many of them are awaiting a sex change - waiting, as it were, for their own special chop.

Back in Wimbledon, the sexual boundaries are equally blurred. Is Slippery's wife - the big, muscular, tanned Estelle - having a lesbian relationship, or an affair with a dwarf called Hamish? Are there any heterosexual teachers at his son's school? Is Porker over the road getting it?

A consignment of Lovejuice and assorted goods arrive from a sex products firm in Wolverhampton. Like some ageing Puck, Slippery administers them to the wrong people, at the same time monkeying around with the hormone tablets of his sexually transmuting BBC bosses.

Slippery himself claims to be suffering from a condition known, at least to him, as Prynne's disease. Named, no doubt, after the repressive 17th- century puritan, it leaves its victims unable to recall when they last had intercourse. Slippery's three rampant sons are quite free of the complaint and the woodwork of 52 Mafeking Road groans often to the rhythm of the Slippery boys.

Meanwhile, a sex-unto-death woman stalks Slippery's oldest friends. Every so often, the hope rises in Slippery's breast that one of the strong-minded women who stride the streets of SW19 will offer him congress. But what with the misapplications of Lovejuice and its antidote, not to mention his own slippery nature and unprepossessing appearance, the chances are slim.

Slippery tries to show his love for his family by preparing them elaborate, yet disgusting, meals garnered from the four corners of the earth - even though Mrs Slippery is on a turnips-only diet and his sons would survive happily on alcohol and assorted seafood goujons.

Surprisingly - and this is a trick Williams always pulls off - the high farce and low comedy is interspersed with moments of real love and tenderness. Amongst his frequent diary bulletins, written urgently and often from places of hiding, Slippery reveals a disarming depth of feeling for his overwhelming wife and randy sons. The book careers along at its own mad, funny pace as Slippery tries to get laid, save his career, get the right people to fall in love with each other and survive to his 50th birthday.

Its a fine, funny, deranged piece of work that reads as if it has been written at furious pace. As with so many English comic novels, sexual fear and frisson, and particularly fear of the female, supply the laughs.

No wonder that Williams looks as white as a ghost.

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