February 2, 2007

Warwick Collins: Gents

Posted in Collins Warwick at 8:25 am by John Self

Warwick Collins is the author of a couple of superior (I gather) 18th century pastiche novels, The Rationalist and The Marriage of Souls. Those two form part of a trilogy which, so far as I can tell, has yet to be completed, though the second volume was published in 1999. But he has come to my attention for a novella entitled Gents – you can read an extract on the Amazon page – first published in 1997, and which was recommended by Scott Pack recently on his blog.

It tells the story of Ezekiel Murphy, known as Ez, a Jamaican man living in London, who gets a job in an underground public toilet. Two other West Indians, Jason and Mr Reynolds, work there, and the three while away their time mopping and polishing and replacing cakes of disinfectant. Collins imbues the toilets with an otherworldly air, full of resonant silences and “flowing, bouncing light.”

The plot comes from Ez’s discovery that the toilets are used by men for more than one kind of relief. And scenes of illicit encounters have never been dispatched with greater economy:

When Ez looked again there were two pairs of shoes in the nearest cubicle, facing each other. As he watched, one pair of shoes turned the other way.

And so Ez, Jason and Mr Reynolds come under pressure from the council to reduce the amount of ‘cottaging’ in the toilets, otherwise they will be closed down. But when they do, this brings the problem back from another angle.

It’s impossible to summarise how brilliantly Collins evokes the underground world of the men, and the laconic poetry (and I do mean poetry) with which he imbues their actions and contemplations. In 140 pages of wide type with lots of dialogue, he brings a Fetherlite touch to thoughts of sin, racism, prejudice, family, society and sex. He has some sort of negative witchcraft going on whereby the fewer words he uses, the more powerful and evocative the dialogue and descriptions become. I have quite genuinely begun seeing my workplace toilets (all white reflective tiles and shuddering pipes, just like the ones in Gents) in a new light since reading it.

Gents is one of those rare little gems, like Ben Rice’s Pobby & Dingan, that punches so far above its weight that it will effortlessly knock you out.

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10 Comments »

  1. marc joynes said,

    the ‘shelves’ review on warwick collins’s gents is so spot on. gents is a brilliant modern classic from the hand of a literary master. ‘punching’ way above his weight is a special attribute of warwick collins and ‘the rationalist’ is another superbly written masterpiece that should definately be on your ‘book-pod’ favourites when apple get round to it!

  2. John Self said,

    Thanks Marc – I’m certainly keeping an eye (or an i, if it’s Apple we’re talking…) out for Mr C’s other works.

  3. [...] in Collins Warwick at 9:13 pm by John Self I was delighted by Warwick Collins’ slim novel Gents recently, and so I leapt at the chance to discover some of his more substantial fare.  Prominent [...]

  4. Stewart said,

    Out of interest, why have you used a picture of some urinals rather than the cover of the book? And I see The Friday Project are putting it back in print as of next month.

  5. John Self said,

    Simply because I couldn’t find a decent-quality image of the existing cover (a Phoenix paperback). I’ll probably replace it with the Friday Project cover when it comes out. And anyone who picks up the new edition will find a quote from this review on the back cover!

  6. [...] by The Friday Night Project. I must admit this is a surprising choice but the good John Self thinks highly of it and anything that is being re-released by a smallish press has to have something about it [...]

  7. [...] returns scant information on him. Last year I read a favourable review of his 1997 novel, Gents, on Asylum and, now that The Friday Project has republished it, I decided it was about time I paid a [...]

  8. [...] John Self’s Review [...]

  9. [...] my previous encounters with Warwick Collins, early last year. I read his recently reissued novella Gents and his 1993 novel The Rationalist. You can catch up using those links, and then catch up further [...]

  10. […] Warwick Collins, Gents. “Brings a Fetherlite touch to thoughts of sin, racism, prejudice, family, society and […]


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