My Life In Books – Phil Mews

Where to begin? The task of choosing eight books that have had an impact on me is a wonderful and challenging one. Right now, these are my chosen eight.

Hard Times, Charles Dickens

At fourteen, I was already well acquainted with Dickens having read Great Expectations, A Christmas Carol and Oliver Twist but there was something about Hard Times that has remained with me throughout my adult life. Set in a fictional northern industrial town, Hard Times is a tale of downtrodden workers caught in the drudgery of back-breaking work governed by the strict utilitarian Thomas Gradgrind and the heartless factory owner Josiah Bounderby. There are flickers of light and pleasure in this dark world and despite the attempts of the overseers to stamp out any pleasure in the lives of ordinary people, this novel is an important statement on Victorian society.

The Swimming Pool Library, Alan Hollinghurst

By the time that I was twenty-three, I had lost my love of reading, that was until I discovered this book. Still in the closet, having a novel featuring gay characters in my possession filled me with fear and excitement in equal measure. I read this entire book behind a locked door in my student digs and when I wasn’t reading, I had it safely stashed under my mattress.

The Swimming Pool Library tells the tale of William Beckwith who spends his time cruising London for intimate encounters with men. After saving the life of “queer peer” Lord Nantwich in a public convenience, William agrees to write Nantwich’s biography and in the process of trawling through his diaries, he uncovers tragic stories of twentieth-century gay repression.

Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury

I read the novel Fahrenheit 451 after falling in love as a teen with Francois Truffaut’s 1966 film adaptation. Set in a dystopian future where books are banned, a fireman’s role is to burn the books which are seen as the cause of unhappiness and discord. Guy Montag is one such fireman and after daring to secretly read his first book, there is no going back. His eyes have been opened and as such, he finds himself an enemy of the state rather than one who upholds it.

Tales Of The City, Armistead Maupin

Set in a group of apartments in 1970s San Francisco, these books follow the lives of the tenants, overseen by landlady Mrs Madrigal, the most unconventional of mother figures. Whilst Maupin populates these books with an array of LGBT characters, they are given equal footing to their straight counterparts. Maupin cleverly crafts his novels with multiple characters and plots, all intricately woven together and the result is a series of deliciously addictive books.

On a personal note, so affected was I by reading this book, I decided that I had to live an honest and authentic life and subsequently came out as gay to my loved ones. I was lucky enough many years later to meet Armistead Maupin in person and to have the opportunity to personally thank him for his writing and its positive impact on my life.

Maurice, E.M. Forster

For me, choosing a favourite E.M. Forster novel is impossible. By singling out Maurice as one of my ‘eight books’, I’m shining a light on the repression of homosexual writers throughout the twentieth century and tragically into modern day society. Originally written in 1913, Maurice tells the story of upper-class Maurice Hall from his schooldays and through his years at university and beyond.

Sadly, for Forster, Maurice was only finally published in 1971, a year after the author’s death. Whilst I adore the book, when reading it I find myself feeling melancholic when I think of the years of repression in our society that prevented this novel’s publication decades earlier.

The Lady In The Van, Alan Bennett

From his Talking Heads monologues to his volumes of diaries and memoirs, Bennett has presented the world with a treasure trove of dry, witty observations of English life whilst touching consistently on the themes of the ordinary and social injustice.

The Lady In The Van is an incredibly observant and honest piece of work telling the mostly true story of Miss Shepherd, an elderly woman who lived in a dilapidated van on Bennett’s driveway in Camden for fifteen years. As the story develops, Bennett discovers that Miss Shepherd was once an accomplished concert pianist who had twice attempted to become a nun and was committed to an institution. It’s a modern-day classic.

Twelve Days Of Christmas, Trisha Ashley

The Twelve Days Of Christmas by Trisha Ashley is a wonderful and unashamedly cosy read, very much in the Chick Lit genre. After reading this book for the first time, I fell in love with the story and subsequently other books by this talented author. I’ve read this book most Christmases, much in the way we dig out the Christmas films every December. The story has warmed my heart and when I was going through the heartache of a bereavement, it was there to comfort me and give me a great big hug. As a result of reaching out to the author, she generously responded and in the ensuing years, Trisha Ashley has guided me and as a result, I got a publishing deal for my first book Orphan Boys. I have a lot to thank Trisha Ashley for, both personally and professionally as an author and this lovely book is where it all started.

Goodbye To Berlin, Christopher Isherwood

Set in Berlin in the 1930s as the Nazis tightened their grip on Germany, Goodbye to Berlin is a powerful insight into the decadent world of cabaret clubs and gay society when Berlin was the gay capital of the world. I read this many years ago and the book, along with its themes have stayed with me ever since and led me to fall in love with this most wonderful city, in particular, the Schoneberg area of Berlin in which it is set.