Recently I did a defensive driving course on an ancient speedway in Melbourne’s suburbs. Defensive driving is pretty straightforward really: it teaches you to brake, hard. We practiced slamming on the brakes at a moment’s notice at speeds from 40km/h to 100km/h. It was exciting, and everything felt much faster than being on the road. But what happens if you hit a puddle of water — or a patch of oil — one of us asked? “You put on some music and wait until you regain control,” our instructor told us. There’s nothing you can do if you don’t have control. So you might as well sit back.
I was reminded of this experience while reading Box Hill, Adam Mars-Jones’s taught (and supple as leather), menacing and thoroughly poignant novel about a young man who loves a biker. It seems to be about the pleasures and perils of control, and of having it taken away. Colin, a fat, self-loathing young man from Surrey, goes to Box Hill on his eighteenth birthday in 1975 to look at the bikers he is so enamoured with. It’s there he literally trips over Ray, in his late twenties, resting against a tree. Ray in his leathers is perfection. I can’t do any better than Colin; he was “tasty”. It takes only moments for Ray to get his cock out, and it takes a similarly short space of time for Ray to take Colin home and have him move in with him. But there are rules. Colin is only allowed in Ray’s house before nine in the morning and after six in the evening. He’s not allowed in the bed, and has to sit on the floor while Ray reads on the couch. He licks his boots and services Ray’s friends at his weekend poker nights. “In a strange way he freed my choices,” Colin says, “Though he seemed to take them away”.
What seems superficially to be a dom-sub relationship turns out to be merely abusive. It’s not clear if the rules between them are never spoken, or if Colin is evading putting them into words; it’s only clear that there are rules. We rarely see the two of them speak to each other. The sex between them is similarly withheld, except for details that pierce the narrative, such as Colin’s devastating confession about their first night together, “What began as a rough seduction ended as, well, rape”.
“Some things can’t be consented to,” Colin says moments later, and later still, as he reflects from his forties, “I could never have loved someone who was only ever good to me. That was true before I met him and it’s still true now.” I think that what Box Hill does is concentrate those electrifying feelings of discovering freedom and intimacy, discovering what it means for someone else to be able to give us what we want, and equally show how those feelings can be exploited. That focusing simplifies and brings into sharp relief the dynamics that are present in other relationships, perhaps especially the vanilla ones. “Sooner or later I was going to have to respond to excitement and danger,” Colin says of the question posed by Ray, and his answer has enduring consequences.
But maybe Colin’s relationship with Ray is really a feint. Subtitled “a story of low self-esteem”, perhaps I’m missing the point by being distracted by all the sweat and leather. Unfolding in the background, sketched in really, is the story of Colin and his family, his pharmacist parents and his sisters. On the same day he meets Ray his mother is in hospital recovering from cervical polyps. Even though the condition is non-life threatening, the stay causes a rupture in Colin’s family, and his father never recovers, becoming in his own way as tyrannical as Ray towards Colin. Colin is smart but drops out of school at fifteen due to bullying. Although satisfied with his “work life” as a train driver, “not a vocation, maybe not what everyone would call a career”, he can’t help but compare himself to others and find himself wanting. Maybe it’s that Colin, stifled by the jacket of straight life, finds freedom in the appearance queer control.
Box Hill often seems to be a tragedy, but its narrator defies the term with his voice sweet and sad, often funny, occasionally commanding. It’s wonderfully, British-ly, nostalgic, as Colin wonders at the changes that have happened in his lifetime from imported bikes to Horse Guards that lack to poise and self-control of the good ol’ days, and most poignantly the AIDS epidemic. The story spills out from its setting, the ancient, box woodland of its title. Not noted by Colin, who is also briefly a trainee gardener, is that box, Buxus sempervirens, is one of the most common plants used in topiary. But here on the hill the trees grow into their wild and organic shapes. “You have to be cruel to be kind,” says a sign in front of heavily pruned trees in a different garden, a cheerful aphorism that becomes almost abject in this novel. Box was venerated by the Romans, and is perhaps the hardest of European timbers; none of these facts are stated in this novel, but they feel deeply present. What Colin does mention are its leaves:
ovate, entire, smooth, thick, coriaceous and dark green. I looked that up. It sounds like a poem you can’t quite get the sense out of.
Coriaceous, it turns out, means leathery. The box’s leaves are a suitable instruction for how to read this little novel, get swept up in the poetry, puzzle over its sense.
Gay rating: 5/5 for queer relationships, themes, and explicit queer sex.