Not Exactly, Minister Essay, Research Paper
Not exactly, MinisterNigel HawthorneStraight FaceHodder & Stoughton ?18.99, pp328Nigel Hawthorne’s friends have been surprised by the frank discussion in these memoirs of his sexuality. In life, he never mentioned it, unwilling to embarrass people with what he claimed was a non-issue. But what we get here is sexuality, not sex life; for all his openness, the book is remarkably discreet, mentioning only two lovers by name and a third (whom Hawthorne rejected after watching him eat) with a pseudonym.There is not a whisper here of the bedroom. He frequented gay clubs when he first arrived in London from South Africa, but didn’t like them much, although he did find the Rockingham ‘piss-elegant’: ‘It was perfectly usual for me to nurse a drink all evening and not address a word to a living soul. Usually, I left alone at closing time.’ And what if he wasn’t alone? We aren’t told.This was 1953, the year in which John Gielgud was arrested for cottaging and the time of the Lord Montagu scandal and ‘the whole closet was atremble as to who would be next on the list’. For personal safety, Hawthorne developed his ’straight face’, a semblance of heterosexuality that would see him through 40 years in the closet, until the public was finally past caring.At least he never developed an Identikit gay ‘personality’, like other actors of his generation, but one can’t help feeling that in steering this careful course between the closet and the cottage, he failed quite to find his identity. It is part of a general reluctance to come down off the fence, in both his attitude towards himself and to the world at large: ‘I can’t find it in me to apportion blame,’ he pleads.And so he forgives the Christian Brothers who beat and abused him at school, because now he can add up the bill at Tesco. He forgives a brother known as ‘the Gorilla’ who jumped him in an empty classroom, struggling to get his hand up his short trousers (it was apparently all Nigel could do not to wet himself with laughter), and he forgives his father, an emotional retard who would have screaming fits at his children if a morsel of food was left on their plates.When, years later, Nigel took his first boyfriend, described in the family as his ‘flatmate’, back home to Cape Town, his father also told him to finish his dinner. Bruce refused. ‘ “Nobody,” said my father, reddening in the face, “nobody in this house leaves a dirty plate.” “Well,” said Bruce lightly, “there’s got to be a first time.” ‘ Looking back at this encounter, Hawthorne notes merely: ‘I could see they were not destined to be great friends’.Hawthorne senior, a doctor who moved to South Africa from Coventry ‘for the sun’, was of a generation which found it easier to love dogs than people. In their home on the side of Table Mountain, they had a mongrel with an idiotic grin which his father called ‘Seldom’, ‘because you seldom saw another dog like him’. It’s the closest he came to affection or wit. Otherwise, he existed purely to embarrass his son.Hawthorne was in his forties by the time his father came to visit him in London. Nigel, Bruce, Mum and Dad were on the No 15 bus when on got a beautiful black woman who sat opposite them. Dr Hawthorne, flushed with booze and apartheid, couldn’t take his eyes off her. Eventually, using Nigel’s knee for support, he leant forward and blasted off ‘a stream of Swahili, or an approximate equivalent, complete with “clicks” ‘. The woman shot Nigel ‘a rather helpless, apologetic smile. Dad settled back in his seat and our journey continued. “She doesn’t understand me, Nigel,” he said, shaking his head sadly’. Even on his deathbed, his father was insolently self-interested, pushing Nigel aside so that he could see a pretty nurse passing across the ward.Throughout Hawthorne’s life, the phrases recur: ‘I stood aghast’; ‘It was so humiliating’; ‘I stood gawping at them in horror’. In a studio piece for children at the Young Vic in 1972, he asked his audience what their favourite smell was – toffee, fried sausages, the smell of salt in the sea air? ‘I really held the audience in the palm of my hand. “Dogshit,” came the reply.’ Some things which should be embarrassing strangely aren’t. He continued to be proud of a collaboration with Cat Stevens on a musical about the murder of the Russian royal family to be called Mind the Steppes.In the last years of his career, Hawthorne specialised in rather grand old men humbled by mortality – CS Lewis, George III, Lear. Before that, he was famous for a self-serving mandarin whose hubris repeatedly got the better of him in Yes, Minister. But Hawthorne was no grand old man; as he makes clear in these memoirs, he was closer to the characters in Lewis’s fiction, loitering in Narnia after he should really have grown up; closer to Queen Charlotte as he tended his obstreperous ex-lover through Aids; closer to Lear’s Fool, odd, vulnerable and charming. And no one, he claims, could have been less like Sir Humphrey.His goal in this book is to get behind the characters who made him famous. The problem is that, behind every noisy eccentric is, simply, an actor. Hawthorne is so determined to tear off the disguise that he takes some of himself with it.Yet it’s impossible not to like the man who emerges from this cautious, qualified account of a life half-lived. There’s an endearingly artless passage about loneliness in which he points out how difficult it is to shake off: ‘The more you try to be less lonely the more lonely you get. You scare people off because they can see you coming on too strong and run for cover.’ Unfortunately, he took the lesson about coming on too strong too seriously. This book could do with a bit more coming on strong; it’s too hesitant, too considered, too balanced.Only once does Hawthorne admit to any strong emotion. Rehearsing for Shadowlands opened an emotional can of worms, and all ‘the turbulence and frustration I had been storing away since I was a child erupted from me’. He cried for 20 minutes, but even in the midst of that outburst, the innate actor was taking mental notes, trying to remember how he was doing it. If only he could have done the same with his writing.Instead of going back and inhabiting the traumas and triumphs of the past, Hawthorne sees them all with the levelling effect of hindsight and leaves one wondering whether this really is all there was to him.