Warwick Collins: Gents
Since the early nineties, it seems Warwick Collins’ writing career has gone largely unnoticed: most of his novels are out of print and Google 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 visit.
Ez Murphy, to support his family, has started a new job in an underground London toilet owned by the local council. His colleagues, like himself, are West Indian men: Jason, a Rastafarian, and manager, Reynolds. It all starts well, Ez filling buckets with disinfectant and swinging his mop back and forth over the toilet’s floors, happy scrubbing away until he spots two men exit the same cubicle “curiously like a magic trick – two rabbits from the same hat”.
It seems these toilets are renowned in this area for the practice known as cottaging and the many complaints received forces the council, represented by Mrs Steerhouse, to demand that the three cleaners do something about it otherwise the toilets will have to close. And, as they come up with methods to purge the men they nickname “reptiles” the problem comes back to bite them, forcing a Catch-22 situation.
While the bulk of Gents is set within the limited milieu of a public toilet, Collins’ descriptions are varied enough to ensure they have enough personality of their own without being claustrophobic, whether it be their “flowing, bouncy light” or the sounds within:
It was possible to tell from the sound alone which cubicle had opened or closed. The doors of the seventeen cubicles were like a musical scale. Each hollow space they enclosed had a different frequency. The flushing of the cistern in cubicle three had a different sound from cubicle eleven. Sometimes he could tell the mass or weight of the individual occupying a cubicle by the shape of slight sounds within enclosed space, the click of a belt buckle, the slide of trousers, the sigh of peace.
And it’s not just the toilet that has a personality. The main trio are exceptionally well drawn, most of their character shining out through Collins’ ear for the West Indian voice, capturing the rhythm without slipping into caricature:
Reynolds returned and leaned back against the table. He smiled, then seemed content to subside into patois again. “Him no dog – like cat, man. Call, him come in own time.
Each of the three has their own take on the casual sex happening in the toilets. While Ez is bewildered by it, Jason believes it’s the sin of “Whitey”, the white man, and Reynolds is more practical in just wanting to stamp it out. Thus Collins uses the men to tackle the subject of prejudice, with sidelines into religion, family, and careers. And he does it with a layer of humour spread over the lightest of prose.
At 172 widely spaced pages, Gents is a novel that is perfect for reading over a single sitting. So enjoyable is it, that its chapters fly by, but its true strength is in its subtlety – it gets its ideas across without shouting, and does so in style. That it went out of print is a shame; that it’s back in print is certainly more than a public convenience.
September 14, 2007