Philip Hensher: A big gay waltz to the music of time

Philip Hensher talks to Suzi Feay about his work, which straddles many eras

Suzi Feay
Sunday 29 June 2014 15:52
‘Bauhaus tried to change society at the same time that dark forces were also trying to transform society ... in the end, the ones designing teapots won,’ says Hensher
‘Bauhaus tried to change society at the same time that dark forces were also trying to transform society ... in the end, the ones designing teapots won,’ says Hensher

Oh dear. I sound like a Man Booker judge in a problem year as I express my delight to Philip Hensher that, although his new novel The Emperor Waltz checks in at more than 600 pages, it isn’t daunting at all.

You could even say it “zips along”, despite a complex structure that takes us from 1922 to 1989 via 1972, AD203, 1933 and the present day. There’s even a passage in which a waspish writer called Phil lies in hospital with a bad foot, trying to wangle a room with a river view. But in essence there are two main interwoven stories; that of a group of eager art students at the Bauhaus, and the setting up of a gay bookshop in London in the late 1970s.

Hensher’s previous novels have been equally substantial; and you can add to the mass of his fiction the erudite journalism that flows frequently from his pen. Yet he insists that he doesn’t write particularly quickly. “It’s my ninth novel so I’ve worked out very efficient working habits by now. I get up in the morning and I write for three hours and I do that pretty well every day. I might have one day off a week, or maybe not. And in three hours you can write 800- 1200 words. But also most novelists are just …” He leans forward and whispers: “Terribly lazy!”

After a hearty laugh he qualifies this. “A lot of novelists have children – let’s be fair to them! But if you don’t have children and you don’t really do a lot of other things like …” – deep breath – “watching fucking football, it’s amazing how much time you have. It’s not so much work to write a novel.”

He doesn’t go overboard on research, either. “It’s my main principle in life not to do any research for things but to write about stuff that you actually know about anyway. I felt very familiar with all this material. There are a couple of things that I had to look up, but not many.”

Before seeing a way to hitch the two narratives, it seemed as though the gay bookshop novel and the Bauhaus novel were going to be two separate entities. “Years ago I was walking past Gay’s The Word bookshop with a friend who remembers me saying, ‘Somebody ought to write a novel about that.’

“And that moment [between the wars] really fascinates me; Bauhaus tried to transform society at the same time that these forces of darkness were also trying to transform society, and in the end the ones who concentrated on designing teapots won out.”

So how did the two strands come together? “I just thought there was something that they had in common, which was really how people’s minds are changed and how ideas spread in society. They start with a small coterie, a little group of outsiders. It’s not one person having one idea, it’s always a small group who try to persuade people … or don’t try to persuade people, but their ideas spread anyway.”

The Big Gay Bookshop, while sharing some characteristics with Gay’s The Word (GTW), is a fictional establishment. “The story of Gay’s The Word is an important one, but the whole thing is a live and kicking enterprise, so I just thought I’d take the initial date and play around and write my own story. But I hope people, if they want to buy this book, will go to Gay’s The Word and get it there!” Rather in the manner that a book referred to simply as “the swimming pool novel” transforms the Big Gay Bookshop’s fortunes, it being the only place readers can get hold of Alan Hollinghurst’s breakout title.

Hensher has tremendous fun with the earnest types who hold endless political meetings at the bookshop, and see no reason for it actually to make any money at all. More serious is the police raid on the premises, searching for “pornographic” items, based on an infamous incident at GTW in the early 1980s. “You know one of the books they confiscated in the raid was [by] Armistead Maupin?” Hensher says, aghast. “They really did wear [rubber] gloves to take the books away,” citing a fear of catching Aids.

“It was brutal. But it is an example of how minds change: 30 years on, people now would find it absolutely unbelievable that the police could be interested in confiscating Armistead Maupin.”

During the London riots a few years ago, Gay’s The Word was the only shop in the street to have its windows broken. Some leftist apologists were heard to claim that a gay bookshop could be seen as justifiable “provocation” to poor, disenfranchised youth. Has the Left lost the plot on homophobia?

Hensher replies hotly: “The Left never had the plot. There are large parts of the Left that hate gay people. They can’t see why it’s part of their mission in life, and I don’t know why anyone ever thought any different. The relationships between sexual liberation and gay liberation and the wider radical movement are very complicated and difficult to pin down which is why it’s a fascinating area.” On the other hand, he goes on: “It is one of the weird things that the Tory party knows all about gays; they love them. There’s this whole generation of gays who went into politics because they loved Mrs Thatcher! There’s a lot more out gay MPs in the Tory party these days than in the Labour Party.”

In The Emperor Waltz, Hensher’s Germanophilia, so evident in other novels, reaches new heights. “I feel as though the world’s caught up with me,” he says with a touch of pride. “I was the only person who liked Germany 20 years ago. Germany was always described as an utterly boring place, why would anyone go there – now everybody goes to Berlin for the weekend. Angela Merkel is so wonderful. What is it about them?” He looks dreamily off into the distance. “In a way I don’t want to analyse it. What is it that speaks to me when I get off the plane in Berlin? It’s a sort of … feeling at home. I’m the only person in the world that really thinks Germans have a fantastic sense of humour – isn’t that weird?”

He’s quick to point out, however, that his books haven’t been translated into German for 15 years. This adoration is one-sided, then? “It’s totally one-sided! I don’t know what more I need to do to be taken to the heart of the German nation but whatever it is, I’m clearly not doing it.”

Extract: The Emperor Waltz by Philip Hensher, 4th Estate, £18.99

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