Philip Hensher is his name and though he is a clerk, he is not of the bank-teller, Croydon-dweller persuasion. He is an intensely sophisticated writer, a critic of discernment and exquisite sensibility, who reviews opera for the Mail on Sunday and premier-league Italian fiction for the Spectator. His first novel, Other Lulus (1994), featured the author's dissertation-level of knowledge about the composer Alban Berg; he has also written the libretto for an opera called Powder Her Face, about the hapless late Margaret Duchess of Argyll, which was staged at Cheltenham and London's Almeida Theatre and is due to show up on Radio 3. He is not, by nature or disposition, a blower of whistles about Parliamentary pulchritude or Commons closet-hoppers. All he has done is write a second novel called Kitchen Venom (published next week by Hamish Hamilton) about rent boys, Commons clerks and murder, followed it up with some indiscreet remarks to a gay magazine, got sacked and caused a blaze of instant scandalabra in the tabloid press.
A large, mildly threatening figure with a permanently curled upper lip and the cropped hair of a professional assassin, Hensher confesses to being shaken by the media's attention. "It's been awful, really awful. I've given up reading the newspapers. The Evening Standard ran a diary story about me in which every detail was wrong." His voice rose. "I have not been having an affair with an MP - or with anyone in the House of Commons, come to that. I have no state secrets. There is nothing to find out about me". Mr Hensher is too modest. There is plenty to find out about the way he feels towards Parliament, sexuality and literature.
The clerk's tale begins in London, where he was born, and ends there with his recent dismissal from the Palace of Westminster. In between were years of academic study, at both Oxford (where he read English at Lady Margaret Hall) and Cambridge (PhD on 18th-century satire) and then the only job he has ever held. For five and a half years, since he left Cambridge, he has been a Commons clerk, defined by the modest title, growing into this mild, not-quite-civil-service role but harbouring an instinct to subvert that was timed, eventually, to break out.
"What's fascinating about the job," he says in his raspingly laconic way, "is that you're physically very close to these people, to ministers and the PM, but you still know nothing about them. The work itself is not without influence. I started on the Energy Committee. Clerks get the witnesses to come and give evidence, and write the questions the ministers are supposed to ask. In my experience, most of what ends up in print - the actual form of words - is the work of the clerk."
Fired by the experience of seeing his words in print, Hensher took the opportunity offered by the committee's disbandment after the last election in 1992, and wrote his first novel, whose baroque musical sophistications were greeted with delight by the more knowing strain of reviewers.
Did he find the House an invigorating environment to work in? "It's a sex-obsessed kind of place, in that way that libraries are - you know, a lot of people shut in together for hours on end with nothing else to think about. A lot of the reason for Mrs Thatcher's success, for instance, was that a lot of people were sexually fascinated by her. There's a slightly artificial hothouse atmosphere, in which the sexual side is very much exaggerated. People readily become obsessed with members who are even remotely good looking or attractive. Some nice-looking, if un-stunning, women like Virginia Bottomley or Harriet Harman become much more attractive. Whether it's got something to do with the sexuality of power, I don't know."
At all events, it got Hensher writing again. By the time he started Kitchen Venom, he had got a new position in the Journals Office, which keeps the minutes of whatever decisions ("votes and proceedings") the House may have come to. Tantalisingly, he set much of the novel in the same office and made the central character, John, a Clerk of the Journals and homosexual like himself. Long exposure to the Journals Office had rendered it, in Hensher's mind, as a large and potent metaphor of human behaviour. "They kept the minutes of the House, which was called the Journal of the House. Everything needs its minutes to be kept. Everything needs to be reduced from what occurs to what it means. We are human, and we cannot write down what happened, not everything that happened. We can only write down the significance of the events, in the end; we can only write down, and record, the decisions that are come to."
No real-life MPs feature in the pages, although Mrs Thatcher appears at several points to be narrating John's story. "I set myself a technical task of not naming any MPs or offering hints about who people are. It's not supposed to be a roman a clef ..." A weary look passes over his face. He is a little fed up having to explain these things, to point out that he is not offering a gay retread of Edwina Currie's A Parliamentary Affair. "I really set out to write the most serious novel I possibly could. Parliament's always treated in this bonkbuster fashion. I felt I had an opportunity to write about it in a different way ... I felt I had a sort of duty."
The book's first half concerns John's relationship with a rent boy, Giacomo, whom he kills in a classically motiveless acte gratuite; the second narrative thread concerns John's two daughters and their obsessive entanglement with the same man, Henry. The novel is written with a nervy, formal elegance couched somewhere between the work of Brigid Brophy and Hensher's friend Alan Hollinghurst, of Swimming Pool Library fame, although the gay sex scenes are handled with less muck-sweat-provoking explicitness.
Characteristically, Hensher manages to align the Fall of Thatcher (who appears, at certain times, to be narrating the novel) with the rent boy's murder. "When people commit murders, they very rarely plan them, it's very much a spur-of-the-moment thing. It struck me that Mrs Thatcher's downfall was like that. You could have said the Tory revolt was all about Europe or some other big issue - but what really sparked it off was Geoffrey Howe's public denunciation in the chamber. And when it happened, it was all over very quickly, like an unpremeditated killing."
What happened next was an apparently unpremeditated professional suicide. Hensher gave an interview to Attitude, a sort of gay Loaded magazine, full of cor-phwoarrr articles on the likely sexual orientation and well- hungness of male celebrities. Interviewed by the magazine's pert Etonian literary editor, Roger Clarke, Hensher obligingly spilt some modest beans. How many gay MPs are there? "About 60. Slight bias to the Tories, because a lot of poofs adore Mrs Thatcher ..." Which MP did he fancy most? "I've a bit of a strange thing for Gordon Brown. It's the shagged-out look I like." Michael Portillo? "His torso goes down to his knees and he has these little legs ..." And to cap it all: "Generally MPs are unusually ugly. Look at John Gummer and David Mellor".
That did it. Summoned to the Clerk of the House's office, he was told his bon mots were "unacceptable" - "and I saw no reason in arguing". He was sacked, effective immediately. Clear your desk. Leave now. Get cracking. "And no one's ever been sacked from there before, as far as I know. I went outside and felt weirdly exhilarated."
So had he planned to get himself fired? "No, I didn't set out to get myself fired. I knew when I was writing the book that it would be extremely difficult to go on working there, but I was quite unhappy a lot of the time. I suppose I thought of the book as a long resignation note ... " he mused. "The article itself wasn't enough to get me sacked. But by then the book had got around the more literary clerks. And it wasn't, surprisingly, the rent boys that bothered them - it was the smaller details, about the clerks sitting round composing lists of the 20 stupidest MPs in the House. It was just too galling to have someone say that Commons life is full of people playing stupid games. But then the point of the book is the interplay between ordinary human beings and the jobs they occupy."
So the clerk's tale ends with a new beginning for Hensher, a good, serious and properly fledged novelist at 31 who has had to endure seeing his new book caught up in gay-romp-storm headlines and tabloid impertinence. Has it been a cautionary tale? He laughed. "Oh no. You always regret not having done things far more than having done things. If this story has a moral, it's just: Go For It."
In this extract from Philip Hensher's novel 'Kitchen Venom', John, the House of Commons clerk, has made a lunchtime visit to Giacomo, the male prostitute he will eventually kill.
Afterwards, that luxurious, sexy word. Afterwards, he left the flat, and stretched as he stood inside the hallway. The fogged street looked new, as if it didn't want to unwrap itself just yet. He had to make two telephone calls. He paused to button his coat before he shut the door behind him. It was only when leaving Giacomo's flat that he ever wondered if it was more natural to wait for a second, or to leave quickly. But he wondered every time he left Giacomo. A distinguished 55-year-old (hunchback) newly widowed public man. The Clerk of Journals in the House of Commons. What could be more anonymous, more distinguished? Perhaps he was visiting a friend's son for lunch, in this street in Earl's Court. The parking here was, naturally, fiendishly difficult, and he had, naturally, been obliged to leave his car some streets away. Not wanting, either, to drive too far in the weather. He walked for a while before hunger nudged him. He thought all the time about the two telephone calls he ought to make. No telephone box was in sight. He went into a pub, thinking to have something to eat, and to telephone ...
John looked at his watch. It was just 12. It was the hour his secretary had lunch, but none of the other clerks would be having lunch for an hour or an hour and a half. Good. He needed to catch them to tell them - he hadn't mentioned he was going out - that he was on his way back ...
John ordered a pint of beer and a beef sandwich. As the barman leant forward to write down beef sandwich, on the doubled raffle tickets of his pad, he caught his own eye in the mirror behind the bar. Pale, pudgy, slack-mouth cripple, he thought; a look of fear in the eyes. He shut his mouth. He thought about his mouth, exploring the furred warm cavities and sudden odd softnesses of Giacomo, whose name he had just learnt. It did not occur to him that Giacomo might have told him another false name, and he was right not to doubt him. His bristled jaw, the odd hard skin at the edges of his hands and feet, his secret pinks and blushes. Unasked for, the word sated came to mind. He dismissed it.
(In other parts of the same city, north or south or east, his two daughters, his colleagues; lines of electricity and thought connected them.)
He left his pint of beer on the bar and went to the payphone at the back of the pub. He was unable to remember any telephone numbers in his office, and rang his own. It rang five times before anyone answered it.
"John here," John said. "Who's that?"
"Louis," the voice said.
"Oh yes," John said. "Hello there. Getting on all right, are you?"
"Oh yes," Louis said.
"Look," John said. "I've been a bit held up here. In this meeting. I should be back quite soon. Has anything come up?"
"No," Louis said. "I don't think so. Hang on."
"I only wanted to know if the clerk had telephoned. I was supposed - " John said, but found himself talking to an abandoned telephone. He put some more money in. "Hello. Hello."
"Hello," Louis said. Just as he did so, the barman dropped a glass on the wooden floor, breaking it. The barman's friend let out a brief violent shout of laughter. "What was that?"
"Oh, nothing," John said. "I'll be back soon. Before one, anyway." He went back to his pint of beer and sat drinking it, thinking, as he always did on leaving Giacomo, of decay and death, of ageing and corruption and beauty. He thought about Louis, who had just become a clerk, and how he was young and fine and fat, and would grow old in the service of the House of Commons, and nothing would change for him, just as nothing had changed for John, except that ruination would come upon him. John sat with his thoughts of decay, and waited for the meat, and the bread, and the other customers to arrive.Reuse content