Review: Simon A Decline and Fall of the English Landed Gentry by Nick Heddle

1957. Gorgeous, 23-year-old Simon heir to a peerage, meets and falls in love with a Cumbrian sheep farmer, disappointing his parents and flying in the face of the social mores of a period when gay relationships risked a life prison sentence. Told from the perspective of his lover who acts as narrator throughout, the story encompasses their relationship over a fifty year period spanning their first meeting, when post-war optimism is fast being replaced by decay, to 2007 when the couple can finally validate their relationship publicly in a Civil Partnership ceremony. In between we are treated to a cast of delightful characters Simon s myopic and hidebound parents determined to see their son married to a rich, eligible debutante; Harry, his younger brother, the spare , who also turns out to be gay and the riotous drunken fortune-teller Madame Claire Voyante, who takes great delight in informing Simon of the skeletons in the family closet. Simon: a Decline and Fall of the English Landed Gentry is an imaginative, enjoyable, but also poignant and touching novel. Set against the last gasp of a decaying old world and the first caterwauls of the new, it paints a portrait of an England which is in some ways in decline, and which in others is an improvement but remains, above all, the deeply erotic saga of an enduring love which lasts for over fifty years.

I reviewed Mr Heddle’s other novel, His Master’s Lover, and was singularly unimpressed so I approached this book (which I had bought from Amazon, in case the FBI is watching) with some trepidation.

However, although it shares many of the problems of that novel, it’s actually a  better read I was pleased to find.

The story is told in two alternating sections, flashbacks to the past, when the narrator first meets Simon, set in 1957 and onwards, and one in the narrators present day, starting from 2001.  Simon arrives at the narrator’s house (he’s never named) one day when the narrator’s wife is away on a visit, and the narrator is instantly attracted to him. He’s deeply closeted, almost the point of fooling himself, and thought that a marriage would take away all those feelings he’d been having. However his marriage is not working out at all.

Naturally enough–for Heddle’s writing–you know that the main protagonists are going to get busy with the sexxing almost instantly and there’s no disappointment here.  Personally I would have preferred a gentle courtship–or even one lasting a day or two, especially considering that the narrator isn’t fully happy or even fully aware that he’s homosexual/bisexual at this point, but that’s not to be.  Simon bizarrely takes all of his clothes off (even before he’s told anyone his name) and the two of them are at it like rabbits in no time at all.  This is part of my dissatisfaction of the book–at no point was I convinced that either man really loved each other.  Oh yes, they said it, they said it all the time ad nauseam, but it seemed all to based on sex.  It’s because the narrator is so good at sex that Simon loves him, and what keeps him loving him.  It’s very “tell” not “show” – and there were very few instances where anyone did anything that convinced me that this was love and not just a 50 year lust-affair.

The story is, in some way, a potted gay history of a sort.  The Wolfenden Report had just been held in committee and recommendations that homosexuality should be decriminalised had been put in place. The story covers this, as well as the Windscale disaster, which leads Simon to build a water powered turbine on the farm.  As with Heddle’s previous work, Simon is beleaguered with many of the same problems that His Master’s Lover suffered from, one of the most annoying is the Dan Brown-esque obsession with telling us every single detail of national news in  conversation and the narrator’s thought.   Yes, you’ve done the research, Mr Heddle, I applaud that, but you need to learn that sometimes less is more.

There’s also a huge amount of OKHomo to contend with, as with his first book.  This is set in the Lake District, in the 1950’s.  A hard enough place to farm, even today, and filled with farmer more rugged and taciturn than anything even seen in Herriot’s vet books.  To have everyone in the village accepting of the gay couple living openly together, fondling and kissing each other in the pub, (even once to the point of ejaculation) is errant bilge.  No-one causes any problems for the husband, not even the wife, who left him.  Somehow he had an amazingly quick divorce, too, which is entirely impossible.  He’d had have to have waited five years and use desertion as his proof.  There’s no way (as is actually suggested that he do) that Simon could put himself forward as “the other man,” and it’s this level of idiocy that marks Heddle’s work down, when he’s clearly done a lot of research on other matters.  Simon’s brother loves the idea of their relationship and even wants to watch them at it, and finally his mother gives it the seal of approval.  It’s all very jolly.

I have to say that “the wife is a bitch” trope didn’t work for me either. Simon met the wife once, and he’s constantly bitching about her throughout the book, when I have to say, I think she behaved a lot better than she need have done, in 1957.

I’ll mention the sex, not because I think that all gay books should necessarily have sex in them, but this marks itself as a “deeply erotic novel”, which I’m sad to say, it really isn’t.  The sex scenes are vague, very short and consist basically of a lot of shouting of dialogue like “Oh yes, fuck me harder, oh yes, I’m coming,” which is not erotic at all.  There’s no description, no depth of sensation and if you wanted a one-handed read, which you’d be right in thinking this is, you’d be disappointed.

There are some really odd things in the book: a peculiar old fortune teller called Madam Clair Voyante, who, for the life of me I cannot see the point of; a repeated plot line used in His Master’s Lover of a treasure trove that fizzled out and went nowhere and many plot based editing errors such as a car pulling up in one chapter, but in the next, it hasn’t arrived yet.

It’s a shame, because I have to be honest, this is a much better book than His Master’s Lover.  I put the blame on the fact that it’s published by a Vanity Press and despite their assurances that editing is important to them, it’s clear to me that it’s not.  Granted there are few typos that I noted, but in the hands of a real editor, this book could have been quite good.  It needed the bloated dialogue reduced, the Dan Browning taken out and the OKHomo squashed at source.

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