Stuart Derrick reviews, Stoke Newington resident and Birkbeck College Lecturer, Jonathan Kemp’s first novel.
First time novelist Kemp’s book is an intriguing look at the homosexual experience through the prism of male prostitution over the past 100 years. Episodic in structure, it flits between the lives of three men living in London in different times.
Jack is a late Victorian guttersnipe turned male prostitute. He is rescued from a life of poverty and paternal violence when he is recruited by a Fagin-like character called Taylor, who runs a high society brothel.
Fast forward 50 years to Colin, a repressed homosexual who denies his sexuality until he is brought to accept it, and to realise his destiny as an artist through a relationship with male model, Gore.
The most contemporary character is David, a nihilistic runaway intent on a life of sex and drugs as a London rent boy.
According to the Stoke Newington author, Jack’s story was the basis for the book, with the other two added later. Its origin shows as the three tales only really knit together in a cursory way, when Jack and Gore appear as older men in Colin and David’s stories respectively.
This is a shame, as the three characters are engaging and the short chapters make London Triptych a real page turner. The men speak with voices that characterise their times. Jack has a fin de siècle, devil may care attitude that finds him an associate and lover of Oscar Wilde and his Bohemian set.
For Colin, the historical background is the repressive police clamp down on gay men in the Fifties, which leaves him fearful of his true nature being discovered and of his life being ruined.
David’s worries are of a different stripe – where to get his next client and how to keep the good times rolling. That is until he meets a fellow rent boy who he falls in love with.
Overall, London Triptych presents a fairly gloomy and partial picture of homosexual life. Relationships are one dimensional and solely about sex, the search for true love is doomed, and the prospect of disclosure or arrest never seems far away.
Ultimately it’s a world that many of us know little about, and Kemp’s historical research seems thorough. However, I was left slightly annoyed at the characterisation of these men as largely happy hookers and the idea, proposed several times that with our compromised lives and thwarted ambitions, we are all prostitutes really. It’s not an original point, and it’s a bit condescending in what is largely an enjoyable read.