Tourist in Bohemia a novel by Elizabeth McKellar

Readers’ comments:
pacy, racy and really engaging...
very funny but sad too...
original... a straight woman observes the gay scene... the fag-hag’s tale told with sharp-eyed sympathy

The author

Elizabeth McKellar

I have been advised that this is where I encourage people to assume that I would write an interesting book. I can see that I must resist the temptation to write myself into an exotic and colourful personality. I’ll start with my only-childhood in South America. This was a kind of repro English suburbia with sun and servants interspersed with bouts of cloud-cuckoo Scotland on Burns’ night. I had the sort of repressive, emotionally dry parenting to be expected from very respectable, upwardly mobile ex-pats in the 50s. My main memory is of boredom and a longing for companionship. Books helped to fill the void — specially those that featured friendship and homecoming — The Wind in the Willows, The Secret Garden, The Borrowers, Oliver Twist, (I had comic-strip versions of Dickens). I was sent to boarding school in England. I was an unpopular child. Boredom was replaced by rage and the curse of a posh accent. There were holidays parked on elderly maiden aunts in rural Scotland and on another (spinster but not so maiden) aunt in Yorkshire. The socially insecure way of life of these hardworking, impoverished yet warm and cheerful women was completely different to anything I had known. I think this was the beginning of my conscious resistance to the assumptions of my upbringing.

I wanted to go to art college but on my father’s insistence I had to attend a sort of finishing school cum secretarial college. I was hopeless. All the same, I began to enjoy life — it was London in 1968 and I was 18. I shared a flat in Kensington with other Hoorays till I went to university to read English. I was an undistinguished student but I remember it as a very positive experience of being in mixed company of my own age and from all walks of life who talked. For once being a girl and a mouthy swot was alright. It was a time of catching up on sexual relationships, of going to rock concerts, of lying about in the long grass and of smoky midnight discussions.

After graduation, I migrated with my then boyfriend to Sheffield where I took odd jobs to put myself through four years of art school. Mouthy girl swot southerner not alright. But I acquired a degree in Painting and a love of the Dales and real ale. By now I was nearly thirty and I’d sold one painting and had one claim to fame — I’d borrowed lipstick from my fellow shop-assistant Phil Oakey before he and The Human League shot to stardom without me.

I sat, partnerless and jobless in my rented bedsit and tried not to panic. I was rescued by a chance introduction to someone who needed an art history teacher for just one hour a week at a London art school. ‘I can do that!’ I said, crossing my fingers. I moved to London, signed-on and fell into the world described in Tourist in Bohemia. By dint of saying ‘yes!’ to everything I blagged my way into a part-time lecturing career at various London art schools. Once I’d mastered the job enough to suppress the feeling that I was about to be exposed as a mountebank — I enjoyed it, massively. Researching art history, giving lectures, getting students to talk about about pictures and supervising their essays felt like something I could do well at last. I love pictures — I’ll go anywhere to look at paintings. Best of all, I liked the students and their laughter at my jokes had a redeeming effect on my character.

During the 1980’s I moved to Cambridge with my husband-to-be and had two children. My attention was absorbed by my children, by having to earn a living and soon by the terrible fate that began to overtake many of my gay friends and some of my students.

Over the next decade or so my work transferred from London to lecturing in Cambridge on modern and contemporary art and running private groups.

For some time I had been writing short stories and a comic Christmas round robin — a satire on the genre. Friends began to encourage me to write more. I did this till a literary friend suggested that the short story form was constraining me (probably his nice way of telling me I hadn’t mastered the form) and I should go on and write a novel. I began Tourist in Bohemia in 1998 and worked on it consistently for three years and finished before 9/11 changed the world again.

Since then I have written a comic novel called Swimming Along in High-Heeled Shoes. I was amused by the idea of writing in the persona of a man-mad, very attractive middle-aged woman, Belinda, who is extraordinarily dim (or is she?) but whose gay friend Juno is very sharp indeed. Belinda never seems to know what is going on though her many husbands die in ridiculous circumstances, leaving her ever wealthier and thus able to finance Juno’s ‘save the planet’ projects. I’m looking for an illustrator with a satirical and covertly lubricious line like Ronald Searle’s.

Now Tourist in Bohemia is out, another literary novel is forming — starting in South America — or perhaps it is a short story? We’ll see.