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Wednesday 08 October 2008


Book Reviews: Fallowell, Bennett and Clary

Posted in: Books
By Jay Bennie - 26th February 2008

After reading and hearing all the recent outrage over the supposedly viciously anti-New Zealand comments in gay Brit writer Duncan Fallowell's new book Going As Far As I Can, and then actually reading the book, it's clear to me that Fallowell understands us far better than some might wish to believe.

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Going As Far As I Can, by Duncan Fallowell. Allen & Unwin, 2008 $35
Taking advantage of a small inheritance, Fallowell decided to travel to the country geographically furthest from his homeland. New Zealand just happened to be the last bit of the world colonised by the British; a remarkable theatrical tour by Brit actors Lawrence Olivier and Vivien Leigh processed through our main centres at the time Fallowell was born; and the writer was pining for something to counteract the pressures and disconnections of modern Britain. These influences all came together in his decision to spend time here searching out some much needed balm for his restless, unsatisfied soul.

Going As Far As I Can isn't a travel guide, and it isn't just a critique of New Zealand either, although it contains elements of both. Much more rewarding that either of those genres, it's a personal reflection on experiences and observations made by one man for whom this country, while reassuringly english-speaking and with enough western comforts to make the clearly aesthetic Fallowell feel a little bit at home, would be a challenge to his spirit. He observes himself and his acquaintances here and in Britain with the same clear and probably twinkling eye he uses to size up his experiences of New Zealand.

He's not squeamish either, his elderly homosexual urges bubble to the surface in the most likely and unlikely of places. He hires a rent boy in Christchurch and their friendship apparently manages to transcend the initial commercial arrangement. He regularly feels his sap rising in the company of a variety of probably straight kiwi chaps, and takes a fancy to repeatedly lurking in the dark basement labyrinth of an Auckland adult shop.

Fallowell travels the length and breadth of the country at a leisurely pace, wines and dines with some of New Zealand's most interesting artistic and architectural thinkers and observes the work and influences of some of our worst. He sits in splendid isolation in some of our remotest and wildest scenic locales. One minute he's observing the splendours of Central Otago, the next he's sizing up the physique of a comely waiter. He has clearly done his homework about many aspects of our cultural history, certainly he is informed enough to spot the flaws inherent in our more recently PC-blighted cultural machinations.

Along the way he finds his antidote to life in Britain, realises that it's not exactly as he expected it to be, but acknowledges it is in some ways better. He heads home satisfied and, I think, reassured.

Despite the manufactured media outrage over his criticism of our habit of destroying significant chunks of our gracious urban heritage (his thoughts on the historic beauty of the ornate and decaying old St. James Theatre in Auckland should be required reading for every city council planner and urban developer), it's clear that Fallowell has summed up New Zealand and New Zealanders rather well.

Going As Far As I Can is a great read... witty, literate, insightful, spry and a tad sly. What a shame Fallowell and gay NZ writer and Auckland Civic Theatre rescuer Peter Wells never spent a few hours together.
What a damned shame that some New Zealanders proved their personal and cultural immaturity by shouting shrilly that someone from the other side of the world fails to act, think and be just like us and doesn't find us perfect in every way.
And what on earth is the significance of Fallowell's final short paragraph?


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The Uncommon Reader, by Alan Bennett. Allen & Unwin, 2007 $29.99
While I'm in a reviewing frame of mind, two other books by gay British authors, with gay content, have caught my eye in recent months.


Alan Bennett, that quintessentially obsessive and prim English author, has crafted a bijou little gem in The Uncommon Reader. QE2, guided by a spotty gay youth on the palace staff, starts reading, at first out of a misplaced sense of duty, then out of simple pleasure. Her neurons start sparking, her horizons broaden, and her official duties begin to take second place to a good read. She begins to display an level of intelligence and intuition not consistently associated with royal bloodlines.

The Uncommon Reader is a gently subversive little novel, just 123 small pages long, warm, funny and revealing.


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Murder Most Fab, by Julian Clary. Ebury Press, 2007 $37
As far as I am aware Murder Most Fab is Julian Clary's first serious literary effort and it's quite a good first outing. Clary was one of the early presenters of that niche of high camp hybrid TV programming more recently inhabited by the likes of Graeme Norton, Jimmy Carr, and Rove McManus. He climbed the peak of chat/gameshow fame in the 80s and presumably knows what he's talking about in this noir tale of the lengths to which some people will go to keep sucking on the addictive teat of celebrity.

Slow to start, Murder Most Fab soon draws you in with its promise of inevitable and spectacular retribution for all concerned. Shame its ending is too manufactured, too rapid, and too glib.

Jay Bennie - 26th February 2008