English essay – Neil Barlett’s Skin Lane
HOW DOES NEIL BARTLETT’S NOVEL, SKIN LANE, CONTRIBUTE TO OUR UNDERSTANDING OF A HISTORY OF GAY LIFE IN BRITAIN?
Neil Bartlett’s novel Skin Lane is not a novel about gay life. It is not a novel about gay history. And it is not a novel about gay culture. In fact, Bartlett’s protagonist Mr F is almost constantly living outside history and culture, ignoring or failing to understand the events reported in The Evening Standard. Instead of making assumptions of or drawing conclusions about social movements or government legislation, the novel focuses on one man’s routines, neuroses and nightmares, and also his profession. Quite tellingly the novel never once uses the words “gay”, “queer” or “homosexual”, but makes thinly veiled references comparing the fur trade to gay life. However, it is not homosexuality that is explained via reference to the fur trade, but rather the fur trade is explained and revealed to us via allusions to homosexuality. Bartlett assumes a certain knowingness of the reader, and exploits this to highlight the low profile, the secrecy and the close-knit community of the fur trade. However, while Skin Lane does not increase our knowledge of life as a gay man in London in 1967, it does contribute to an appreciation of unknown histories, of those who don’t fit the grand historical narratives, and makes clear that then, as now, lived people struggling to know, describe and understand themselves.
It is inevitable that Bartlett’s 21st-century audience is going to be unfamiliar with the fur trade, and the simple fact is that this is a world that we as readers are not really involved with. Instead, it is a world that the author knows intimately and has access to, but we only become included when the author includes us. It is his descriptions, his voice, his direct addresses to the audience that tell us most about where we are, who we are dealing with and the environment in which this story takes place. Indeed, so complete is the author’s access to this world that he refers to actual historical evidence in his descriptions, such as the photograph taken in 1962. Our knowledge of the atmosphere of the world in which the entire British Fur Trade seems to operate is, of necessity, constructed by Bartlett, who calls it “a secret one”, one which “few outsiders had any idea of the outlandish transactions and transformations that made up its daily business” (p.32). We, the readers, assume the role of the outsiders, and it is Bartlett’s place to make us familiar with the goings on of Skin Lane.
The way he does this is often by alluding to things that readers would have knowledge of, or at the very least a sort of cultural awareness of. It is with this knowing wink that Bartlett describes the door of Mr. Schneider’s building:
Looking at that door, at the top of its flight of dark steps, I get the distinct impression that, as with certain other highly specialised businesses that the City still considers are best conducted well out of sight, it was expected that anyone who needed to seek out the services on offer on the Lane would already be in the trade; in the know. If they were a customer, they would certainly have been given directions – if not a personal recommendation. I’m sure you know the sort of thing. (p.33)
We do, indeed, know the sort of thing. But what is interesting is that, in the 21st century, these highly specialised businesses are not conducted nearly so out of sight, and thus Bartlett’s allusion to them is made all the more explicit.
The knowingness of the reader contrasts greatly with the general failure and indeed reluctance of Mr F to know much that is going on around him. However, it is more than simply a failure to know; instead, it is a failure to identify. Bartlett points out that, if Mr F had paid more attention to his Evening Standard on a particular July afternoon, he would have known to use “we” instead of “I” and would know that he was not suffering alone. Although on that particular day Mr F shares the experience of reading the lead article on page 12 and looking around the train to make sure no one had noticed a change in his face, he immediately decides that this story is not about him.
The most revealing thing about this passage is that Mr F has already decided that, really, the story is about him. Part One of the novel ends with Mr F speaking of his love “for the very first time”, and it would not be unrealistic of the reader to assume that this, finally, was Mr F realising that he is gay. However, this episode on the train could not show more clearly that Mr F feels his love is entirely his own, and none of anyone else’s business, thank you very much. In speaking his love, Mr F does not realise that he is gay – he realises that he is in love with Beauty.
Here, as throughout the novel, Mr F and Bartlett both consciously reject classification and labels when describing emotions and sexuality. Indeed, not once is Mr F’s lusting after Beauty attributed to sexuality. It is just another fact, much like Bartlett’s use of historical artefacts and his pedantry for the correct street names and descriptions of the part of London that concerns the story.
Bartlett’s historical accuracy with place names, and his assertion that he is personally in possession of Mr F’s books, letters, clothes and furniture, underlines this separation between what is immutable fact and what is conjecture. The street names have labels, the fur trade has very specific names and practices, but Mr F’s love and sexuality do not. They are not definable, they are not able to be lumped together under a general umbrella that might be used to “explain” his behaviour. Instead, Bartlett makes it abundantly clear that while there are things that can be known beyond doubt, there are other things that can never be known, and only really guessed at. As Bartlett himself says, people will look back and agree that everyone knew that exciting things were afoot in London in 1967, and that the excitement and “hubbub” could not possibly be mistaken for anything else. But the fact is that you can never truly know what each individual is thinking, feeling or doing. And, in reality, as Bartlett declares at the end of the novel, you never really know anything about anybody, other than the story you were told.