Book Review: The Novels of Simon Astaire: Private Privilege, And You Are…?, Mr Coles
(Each book published by Quartet Books)
Reviewed by Sam Burcher
Simon Astaire’s loosely woven trilogy of novels is an attempt to free himself from his past and become a respected writer. No longer content to manage the lives of other people, he has come a long way from being the best friend of Sting, the squire of Tara Palmer-Tomkinson and Ulrika Jonsson, and the personal manager of Princess Michael of Kent.
By his own admission, Astaire began writing because his therapist suggested it after they hit upon the fact that he had been so emotionally unavailable in his relationships. This is something that he relates directly to the experience of being sent away from home at a very young age to Harrow School.
The first two books, Private Privilege, And You Are…?, are his rites of passage, whilst Mr Coles is an extension of that exploration and written with extraordinary darkness.
In Private Privilege, Astaire’s alma mater is thinly veiled as Montgomery House, and it is through this medium that I found myself vicariously returning to a world of Sunday exeats, black tails and boaters, and bumpy rides on the Metropolitan line to Harrow-on-the-Hill, on London’s outermost margins, for Speech Day.
Reading this book has helped me to understand what happened to my brother Julien during his time at Harrow, which was concurrent with the story told here. Astaire’s peripatetic take has undoubtedly demystified some of my private perceptions of public school education.
The books central character Samuel Alexander, note the initials match the author’s, is sent away from home at 13 to begin a life at Montgomery House. From day one he is greeted with an oppressive regime of fagging, toshing, and bullying by older boys as the norm. Calculated acts of rebellion such as graffiti, theft, truancy, and drug taking intensify to arson and even suicide, all of which are hushed up by the school.
In empowering Sam in whichever ways he can against this dysfunctional backdrop, Astaire is giving a respectful nod to Lindsay Anderson’s powerful film, If, which is about a schoolboy lead revolution in a public school. From this forms surreal images of the shape shifting and shamanic psyche of a schoolboy torn from his roots and situated in a conditional culture where loneliness and abandonment reign and, fortunately, Matron is the only succor.
The task of raising public consciousness about the sticky subject of adolescent boys from an insider’s view of an ‘establishment’ institution is a tricky one. But the author manages it by using a literary camera obscura that allows him to entertain, whilst asking questions that go beyond mere survival.
Astaire’s second novel, And You Are…?, follows seamlessly and swiftly on the heels of Private Privilege. Sam, the central character, has graduated with dishonour from his emotionally deprived public school, and is ready and willing to face the challenges of young adulthood.
A former agent to stars, Astaire draws deeply on his own experience of Hollywood to entertain us. He cleverly plays with time to measure just the right amount of reverie for the grand days of a Hollywood past to balance the book’s present. Indeed, this mix of fact and fiction acts as a powerful stimulus to the reader’s imagination.
There are plenty of laughs, as well as an eclectic coterie of friends, acquaintances, a snake and Telly Savalas. On the other hand, the emotional darkness of the first novel remains. Only this time, the grief of a boy’s separation from everything that is familiar to him is disguised as the death of his older brother. His grief finds company with the lonely Hollywood actors, who despite their fame, drink alone at the bar. Perhaps no one is as lonely as the stars.
The second novel demands a second love affair, which comes in the form of the free-spirited February, who is the conduit for the author’s detailed and sensuous descriptions of nature. She is the muse guiding the juxtaposition between the smog on the Scaletrix streets of Los Angeles and the scented forests high above the Hollywood hills. Such attention to the natural world would make the Pre-Raphaelites proud.
As I read this book one afternoon at Kentish Town station, I couldn’t help but notice a railway worker flapping a pretty grey and white pigeon off the opposite platform. After much wafting with the lid of a large cardboard box she succeeded. I had just got to the part in the book where Sam is imagining his own death during lovemaking with his first love. I was reading about death, thinking about death and suddenly death was imminent. I looked up from my reading.
A shrill whistle meant that the worker had not finished tormenting the pigeon, which was now perched upon the track. Its body convulsed with the electric current as the 18.30 to St Albans collided into it. In one motion, the bird fell to its own little death and as the train departed there was no sign of it. I dared to believe that the pigeon had flown away like an angel, or a Magi. Then, from beyond the track, I saw a white wing rise once, twice, and then no more. A railway worker looking on flashed me a cynical smile as he made towards the opposite platform with a pair of plastic litter pickers at the ready.
This book has strange ways of connecting with the reader through different mediums. As with the previous novel, music is used as a channel. So too is food, place and smell. But it is the celebration and the tribulations of youth in search of identity that connect you to its core. Ultimately, Sam’s story is about the ambitions, with sensitive limits, of a boy who will not be broken by systems that don’t always care, be it the public school system, or Hollywood.
Mr Coles is Astaire’s third novel, published this year. It picks up the theme of private school, this time from the perspective of a teacher in a boys’ prep school in Norfolk. But this is no ordinary teacher; this is Mr Coles, pederast and fantasist. Written in the first person narrative it takes the reader intimately into the lurid depths of the daily machinations of an alcoholic child sexual abuser.
Lyrically beautiful, tighter and more multi-textural than the previous two novels, it is a compelling read rather than a comfortable one. A book of two halves, we fast forward twenty years after Mr Coles has tricked the family of his most desired pupil into being invited to their summer retreat in Cannes, and is eventually found out. But who tells?
Comparisons can be made to Thomas Mann’s novella and film, Death in Venice. However, Mr Coles is not merely a voyeur. His sweaty desires are actualized and when not in the act, he is a lone predator prowling the dormitories sniffing the sheets of little boys.
The three novels demonstrate just how successful Astaire has been in his stated mission. All three books have enjoyed critical and commercial success. Private Privilege is a bestseller and Astaire has recently adapted Mr Coles into a screenplay for a film which begins shooting in Norfolk, in the East of England, early next year. He has also received a lot of feedback from Old Harrovians who similarly found it hard to commit to a relationship or communicate with their partners. Although equally, he has also heard from those who said their time at Harrow was very happy and the best start to life they could have had.