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Maggie, George, and Alan: out British novelist Alan Hollinghurst won a top prize writing about Thatcher's England--which, he tells Charles Kaiser, is not such a far cry from Bush's America.

Alan Hollinghurst is the author of four novels, beginning with The Swimming-Pool Library in 1988. His latest, The Line of Beauty, won the Man Booker Prize, the most important U.K. fiction award, in 2004. Compared favorably by many critics to the novels of Henry James, The Line of Beauty chronicles the life of Nick Guest, a gay Oxford graduate living in the home of a high-flying Tory MP serving in Margaret Thatcher's government in London in the 1980s. Hollinghurst was teaching undergraduates at Princeton this fall when he won the prize.

Hollinghurst spoke to Advocate columnist Charles Kaiser about Thatcher then, Bush now, and gay life on both sides of the Atlantic.

The Advocate: What was your own view of Mrs. Thatcher?

Hollinghurst: It was a terrible time on almost all fronts. I suppose her main antigay action was Clause 28, which was passed in 1988. Local authorities were prohibited [by that law] from spending money on anything which "promoted homosexuality"--which is actually an amazingly Thatcherite view of sexuality: that you could promote it. If you got Saatchi & Saatchi or someone to do an advertisement, it might really catch on! I remember when that was, because it was just the time The Swimming-Pool Library was coming out, and it was held up as an example of the kind of book that you might no longer be able to buy for a public library. The talk about it actually rather helped my book when it crone out.

The [Tony] Blair government vowed to repeal [Clause 28], but they had a lot of trouble getting the repeal through the [House of] Lords. It was finally done last year. In fact, no action was ever brought against a local authority, because of the fantastically inept wording of the law.

Did the Thatcher government use gay bashing the way the Bush administration used gay marriage--to energize their base or pander to prejudice?

It was nothing comparable, really. I mean, what happened in America was staggering--the spectacle of an election which really has been won by manipulating sentiment about gay marriage. I don't suppose Bush himself could care less about it. It's just a cynical exploitation of bigotry. It's a staggering thing--getting enough people to vote against giving a minority of the population certain rights. There wasn't that sort of mobilization of antigay feeling when Thatcher was prime minister, though such feelings certainly informed their initial reactions to the AIDS epidemic.

Is there any difference between the way gay people are treated at universities here and in Britain?

The attitude is very tight-on at Princeton. We had something called Gay Jeans Day the other day, and anyone wearing jeans was thought to be supporting the gay cause. One of my students was rather disconcerted when he discovered he was unwittingly supporting it! And a lot of the students came to class with T-shirts reading GAY? FINE BY ME.

The change in attitudes over the last 20 years is absolutely enormous. And it is largely a generational tiring. It's true I live in a great metropolis [London], so I don't have the same view I would have living in a remote town, but everywhere there's been a beneficial shift in attitudes--which is why it's even more sickening when you see the things that are happening now in the U.S. Changes which have evolved over quite a short period might be reversed in a short period. Is there an uneasy feeling here?

Yes--especially for me, since the theme of my last book [The Gay Metropolis] was that gay liberation was made possible by the triumph of science over religion. And now we seem to be marching briskly backward.

We don't go in for extremism quite so much in Britain. Thank God for Britain's ties to Europe.

Religion is pretty much irrelevant to politics in Europe.

Well, England is sort of the most irreligious country in the Western world. It might be a little different in Italy.

Has the world changed enough between The Swimming-Pool Library and The Line of Beauty so that the critics could distinguish between a time gay novel and a fine novel?

The critics? Yes. I would want to distinguish between the "Gay Sex Wins Booker" coverage of the prize in the fall and the critical reception of the book when it came out in the spring, which was the best that any of my books has had. The homophobic note of disapproval, masked by boredom, was only really struck in one of the reviews.
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Title Annotation:Books; interview of Alan Hollinghurst
Author:Kaiser, Charles
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Article Type:Interview
Date:Jan 18, 2005
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