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Queer Book Nook – The Swimming Pool Library

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While watching the new season of Heartstopper, I couldn’t help but notice a particular book Charlie is holding while in a Parisian book store – The Swimming-Pool Library by Alan Hollinghurst. This really stood out to me as significant, both in terms of the issues Heartstopper deals with and also with the general attitude modern society has towards the lGBTQ+ community. Therefore, it seemed only right that I focused on this book for the book nook this month.

The Swimming-Pool library is set in the 1980s around the gay liberation movement but before the AIDS crisis. The story is told from the point of view of William Beckwith, a white, titled, and privileged young gay man. He doesn’t have any formal job, and instead lives off the estate his elderly grandfather, Viscount Beckwith, has bestowed upon him. This easy access to money coupled with the freedom his status provides allows him to spend his time having casual sex and going to his favourite club, the Corinthian. This isn’t a nightclub, but more of a leisure club. Will often goes there to swim, and the changing room where gay men meet to have sex is where the novel gets its title from. While cruising in a toilet within a park in London, Will encounters a group of older men, one of whom has a heart attack. While the others panic, Will takes action and saves the man’s life. Later on, Will meets the old man at The Corinthian and finds out he’s Lord Charles Nantwich. Will finds out about Charles’ life and is asked to write the old man’s biography. While reading Nantwich’s diaries from his youth, Will discovers the truth of his family history, that Charles was caught soliciting gay sex and was made an example of by Will’s uncle who was a prominent politician at the time. This information forces Will to look closely at himself and, in the end, he finds his identity shaken. 

The main theme within this book is homophobia and how things haven’t really changed throughout the years. The novel goes as far back as Charles’ life growing up in the 20s until the novel’s present day of 1983, and displays many instances of homophobia throughout that time period. From Charles being closetted and unable to accept himself as a young gay man, to Charles suffering from internalised homophobia, to finally accepting himself and being arrested and sentenced to prison for being gay, this novel serves to show that society hasn’t changed, not really. It seems to be the same homophobia but with different fashion trends. 

One example of this would be Charles’s experience in prison. When Will reads Charles’ diaries to write his biography, he finds out Charles was arrested on charges of endangering public decency and was sent to prison for this. This is very similar to what happened to Patrick in My Policeman, a novel and recent movie, where Patrick, played by David Dawson, is outed for being gay and sent to prison. While Patrick is in prison, he’s the victim of continuous ridicule and physical abuse. This experience altered Patrick’s life and he never fully recovered from the experience. Notably, we find out about Patrick’s experiences via his diaries. It’s very unnerving that the experience Charles has in his youth in the 50s is the same as what we see Patrick go through in My Policeman. 

Additionally, the novel has parallels to Heartsopper itself, since there are themes in both of homophobic bullying, coming out, and navigating school. In The Swimming-Pool Library, we learn of Charles’ teen years attending an all boys school, where he suffered some homophobic bullying which he internalised and also a sexual assault, followed by a loving relationship with strong moral character who helped him to heal somewhat. This is very similar to what Charlie goes through with Ben and Nick. Ben bounces between kissing Charlie and gaslighting him, making him doubt his self worth and right to happiness. However, it’s not until Nick interrupts an attempted sexual assault on Charlie that we realise the extent of what Ben has been putting Charlie through in the moments we don’t get to see off screen. 

If we look at how far things have come from the novel’s present in the 1980s to today in 2023, we can see that things are a lot more accepting, but still nowhere near what they need to be. Interestingly, the parallels to Heartstopper and My Policeman aren’t the only ones. Within the book itself, there are references to other prominent gay figures, books, and art. For example, while Will is on the train, he reads ‘Valmouth,’ a book about homophobia and class issues. 

Another interesting reference to LGBTQ+ arts would be when Will and his friend James go to the opera to see Billy Budd, which is based on a novel of the same name. The novel is about a young seaman and his homoeroic relationship with the first mate of the ship. After refusing to bow to the pressure of the first mate, Billy ends up sentenced to death, a victim of another person’s agenda for control and power. This has parallels with both Patrick being a victim of Marion’s agenda in My Policeman and also of how Charlie was Ben’s victim in Heartstopper.

I find it difficult to believe it’s an accident that this book was held up by Charlie in season 2 of Heartstopper, when Charlie is finally beginning to open up and work through everything Ben and his friends had put him through.  As much as Will isn’t the most likeable character, I don’t think he’s meant to appeal to the reader. He’s meant to embody the spirit that was believed to surround the gay scene at this time, where the majority people were thought to be solely concerned with hooking up and hedonistic interactions. Society saw gay culture as pleasure seeking, wreckless, fickle, and without any substance, and that is what Hollinghurst gives us in Will’s character. Nowadays, LGBTQ+ issues are becoming more mainstream, and although we still  have a long way to go, it’s important we acknowledge the distance travelled and the journey of those who have suffered before us. As Louis likes to point out, it’s all just a copy of a copy of a copy. 

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