The Bexhill Missile Crisis
224 pages • Paradise Press • February 26, 2014 [PB]
Tim Bennett-Goodman reviews
National Service was where he first entered the shadowy world of men who lived two lives: the uncouth camaraderie of the barracks and the furtive fraternity of off-duty encounters in parks and public toilets. Sexual frontiers were approached and briefly crossed, but of necessity everything had to be hurried, there was little satisfaction beyond release and relief.
Set in that apocalyptic week in October 1962 known to history as the ‘Cuban Missile Crisis’, The Bexhill Missile Crisis examines the far-reaching impact of that dangerous period when the Cold War became red hot. This was five years before male homosexuality in England was partially decriminalized, which made all male sexual encounters illicit and fraught with danger. At the start of the Swinging ‘60s, the strains began to show at every level of English society, though they had yet to burst out into open social unrest. All that came later.
Philip Larkin’s observed that “sexual intercourse began between the end of the Chatterley ban and the Beatles’ first LP.” By Larkin’s reckoning this would make the earth-moving event 1963 but in his author’s note Gee thinks 1962 would be nearer the mark. I do rather wonder if Gee is suggesting that sex and death somehow became inextricably linked in the 1960s as a result of the Crisis. It had certainly been so during the Second World War and there must have been a strong incentive to party like there was no tomorrow if it seemed all too likely that there would be no tomorrow.
As with The Dropout, Gee’s previous novel, The Bexhill Missile Crisis is set on the south coast. The central relationship is that between Andrew Rutherford and Evelyn Hunter (a female Evelyn in this case), which starts out as platonic and ends up as something else. Andrew is twelve years younger than Evelyn, who is respectably married to a stolid London jeweller, Sidney. It is the untimely coincidence of Sidney’s absence in Amsterdam on a diamond-buying trip, and the looming Missile Crisis that leads Evelyn, increasingly panicked, to agree to accompanying Andrew on his visit to Laurence, a wealthy, urbane hotelier as well as Andrew’s former lover.
Laurence lives with his teenage daughter, Sarah, in a mock-Tudor mansion in Sussex. Country house parties have been the staple of English novels ever since Jane Austen. They provide a convenient literary device for introducing disparate characters who might never meet socially in any other context, and who are thrown together in a remote location affording no escape. Gee follows this time-honoured tradition and does so with considerable poise.
It is whilst driving down the narrow Sussex lanes in an increasingly agitated state that Evelyn runs into (literally and metaphorically) the two youngsters, Malcolm and Pilgrim, who will go on to wreak havoc and upset the already fragile equilibrium around them. As Malcolm is taken into hospital and Pilgrim installed in the empty flat above the garage of Laurence’s house, one grows to wondering whether this was really an accident or in some strange way a premeditated collision on the part of the two boys. Certainly, Evelyn ends up referring to the enigmatically named Pilgrim as “The Horseman of the Apocalypse” – and not without good cause as it transpires.
The scene is thus set for a series of reunions, dalliances and misalliances in which teenage sexual experimentation and sexually ambiguous adult liaisons, new and renewed, end in an inflammatory denouement. The deus ex machina is the young duo, Pilgrim and Malcolm, who become the pivotal catalyst for a series of sexual awakenings in the other house guests.
I’m actually not quite sure what to make of this pair of misfits. As a plot device I can see they are perhaps meant to personify the rebellious, sexualised youth of a time in which the nascent ‘teenager’ of the post-War era finally came of age as a social phenomenon. Gee uses terms such as ‘devil’ and ‘disciple’, ‘demon’ and ‘acolyte’ to describe the uncouth, priapic Pilgrim and his younger, mute sidekick. Are we to take them as being emblematic of ‘feral’ youth, as forces of nature, or metaphysically as evil sprites? There are certainly scenes in which Pilgrim and Malcolm could be seen as succubus and incubus. Their impish unpredictability and unexplained appearance, disappearance and reappearance, seemingly always as harbingers of some catastrophic event, may be intended to make us seriously consider the latter possibility. It is their final disappearance as if into thin air that sets the seal on an almost magic-realist theme in the novel which, though intriguing, I found difficult to reconcile with the rest of the piece. Perhaps it would have benefitted from further development.
Be that as it may, Pilgrim, though too brutish and uncaring to be a Mellors, in his sexually predatory behaviour and raw, lower-class, elemental way, evokes something Lawrentian. This may be signalled in one of Gee’s leading protagonists being called Laurence. There was undoubtedly a revival of interest in DH Lawrence in the 1960s, culminating in the 1969 film Women in Love, so the female orgasm which Andrew discusses with Evelyn seems in tune with Mellors’ and Connie’s physical relationship. However, I’m not entirely convinced by the discussion about bisexuality that ensues between Andrew and his boyhood friend and lover, David, which strikes me as possibly belonging to a later era.
There is more than a nod to Lady Chatterley’s Lover, but there are also scenes which come perilously close to Cold Comfort Farm, which I cannot think was Gee’s conscious intention. This makes for a rather disjointed read in places, lending the novel a slightly unfocused feel overall. Whilst certainly no Curate’s Egg (the parts are all perfectly good in themselves), the whole is somehow less satisfying than the parts. Though puzzling, this was not too distracting and very far from disappointing – I genuinely enjoyed the novel, with these few caveats.
In parenthesis, it is worth considering that at around the same time as The Bexhill Missile Crisis is set, a real-life country house drama was playing itself out at Cliveden in Buckinghamshire, again with Cold War connotations. This scandalous saga of politicians, prostitutes, pimps and peers – with spies thrown in for added spice – became notorious as The Profumo Affair. Despite these elements amounting to ‘truth stranger than fiction’, it seems to me that it takes a fictionalisation to properly explore the underlying zeitgeist inherent in such events and this is what Gee sets out to do. But, then, as a fiction reviewer, I would say that, wouldn’t I?