Pin It
James Cahill c Darren Wheeler colour
James CahillPhotography by Darren Wheeler

James Cahill’s Debut Book Is a Thrilling Trip Inside London’s 90s Art Scene

Tiepolo Blue fuses the old-world academia of Cambridge with the iconoclastic spirit of the YBAs in 90s London – as seen through the eyes of the book’s protagonist, a queer professor named Don

Lead ImageJames CahillPhotography by Darren Wheeler

In James Cahill’s first novel, Tiepolo Blue, art is something life-affirming – as well as, for some within its pages, ultimately life-destroying. Tracing a tumultuous summer in the life of a Cambridge don (named, in a pointed instance of nominative determinism, Don, and whose specialism is the florid work of the 18th-century Venetian painter Tiepolo), this cosseted existence within the world of academia is thrown into chaos with the arrival of a radical piece of assemblage art by a YBA in the quad of his college. Soon finding himself transported from his previous life and plunged into the heady heights of 1990s gay London, Don undergoes a process of transformation and awakening that is as revelatory as it is self-destructive. 

The novel is plumbed from Cahill’s own experiences in both the academic world – he read classics and English at Oxford as an undergraduate before completing an MA in contemporary art at the Courtauld Institute and eventually a PhD in classics at Cambridge – as well as the contemporary art scene in London, where he spent a long stint working for the cutting-edge gallerist Sadie Coles. “I suppose that clash or that tension between two ways of seeing, is something I’ve always been interested in,” says Cahill. “So I think that the different layers of my own experience were all coming together in that story.”

But the book also speaks to Cahill’s keen interest in the queer elders that surrounded him at these elite academic institutions, whose inner lives had often been stifled by its arcane attitudes and social dictums – and then goes on to imagine how they would fare if they were drawn out of their shell and into the more colourful corners of 90s gay life. Here, Cahill speaks to AnOther about the genesis of his move into fiction, how he approached the book’s distinctive exploration of sexuality, and why queer characters have every right to be flawed too. 

Liam Hess: Was there a specific eureka moment where the idea for the book came to you? 

James Cahill: I think the main character came to me before anything else. Before I had a setting or a timeframe or a plot, I had a sense of a certain kind of man who has been brilliantly successful in academic terms, but whose success or brilliance have also been a kind of straightjacket. He’s been very much defined by – but also imprisoned within – this institutional world, and he operates entirely within this rarefied academic community. Because, of course, I’d observed people exactly like that in the kind of institutions or elite university settings that I spent some time in. You do see people like this, and at Peterhouse [the college at which Don lives and works] – in particular during the 1980s and 1990s, which was a bit before my time – it was famous for having had this particularly eccentric clique of dons who operated as a kind of micro world, or a community within a community. So I think just spending time in Cambridge, I began to sort of develop a sense of that as an introductory setting. But it was first and foremost this sense of the main character, and an idea of what it would be like for that kind of man, a man who has been so defined by the academic world that he lives within, to break out of that into a new existence.

LH: In the public discourse, it can feel like there’s a consensus that a university education is some kind of essential step to fully realising your potential in the world, but clearly, at institutions like Oxford and Cambridge, it can also really kneecap their development as human beings.  

JC: I think that’s right, and I think it becomes a sort of cocoon in my novel for this man. This small, closed, recondite community is his entire world – he’s never even particularly physically moved beyond it. And I think that probably was much more the case in the fairly recent past of this novel, in the 90s. The kind of world I presented there at the beginning of the story, that Cambridge society, is like the vestige of something from earlier in the 20th century. I was interested also in the 90s as a moment of transition in British society, between an older world and something more open and modern, which is what he moves towards later in the story. But yeah, it’s absolutely a cocoon and the kind of place that people do get stuck or trapped in, even if it doesn't feel like a trap, necessarily.

LH: The attitudes to sexuality in the book, particularly those of Val, Don’s mentor, feel like they exist in another time too. 

JC: That’s also something I observed directly. It’s partly a generational thing. With Don, I think I was interested in presenting somebody who’s somewhat caught between two generations, or even two entire worlds. If you compare him to the two other main characters in the novel, on the one hand, you’ve got his older friends, that mentor figure Valentine, who is, in a strange way, kind of pre-gay, in that he’s got no shame or qualms particularly about being homosexual. But at the same time, he claims not to understand what the word gay means or what the identity is that goes with that. There’s this sort of circumlocutory reticence, or this covert approach to one’s own queerness, which I think was quite typical of a certain generation and a certain social class in the 20th century. 

But then on the other hand in the novel, you’ve got Ben, the younger guy, who has almost moved past this gay identity again into something that’s more fluid and indefinable, because at various moments you don’t really know what Ben’s sexuality or sexual desires even are. It’s not clear, because perhaps he doesn’t feel the need to announce them or define them for people. But Don is in between these two characters, both in terms of his generation and his sensibility. I think for him, finding a gay identity and being able to name what he is is very much about this larger epiphany, this larger awakening and reassessment of his life and this process of looking at the world in new ways. Because all the way through, he’s always known what his desires are, but they’ve been dormant or unrealised – or unrealisable – until he goes to London and has this kind of midlife, gay coming of age.

“Artists were doing it for themselves and not waiting for galleries to pick them up, they were just going out and holding their own shows. There was this energy and this feeling that anything was possible” – James Cahill

LH: I found Don pretty insufferable at the beginning of the book, but by the end, I began to feel a kind of empathy, or at least a sense of pity, towards him. How did your relationship with that character change over the course of writing the book? 

JC: I’m glad to hear that, because it’s the kind of response I want people to have. I’ve always been interested in characters in fiction who are to some extent disagreeable or difficult, or hard to empathise with, if not impossible to. But you know, his character has been sort of cauterised or damaged by some of his experiences, or lack of experience. Is it just this fatal inexperience of love or life or the world has turned him into quite an objectionable kind of man. And again, I’ve observed people like this in the past. I wasn’t basing it on anybody in particular. But there is intended to be a progressive shift in terms of how you respond to him, because he also is shifting in terms of his perspective on life. He’s undergoing this gradual shedding of all of his old illusions, and all the beliefs or values that have defined him in the past. He’s having this epiphany, which is also this quite catastrophic unravelling; he’s sort of letting go of everything that has mattered to him, everything that’s defined him, even his dignity. It’s almost this radical kind of liberation. But in the course of that, I think that there should be more space for empathy with him, or some sort of emotional connection. That was the idea.

LH: Your knowledge of art history is lightly woven through the book, although it never feels overbearing. How did you approach that while making sure it didn’t feel like a treatise? That it still felt novelistic?

JC: I tried very hard to make sure it never felt overly academic or tedious, even if, in a way, you’re given to understand that is the exact kind of approach to art history that Don himself perhaps has. But for good reason, there isn’t an episode in the novel where you’re subjected to one of his seminars or lectures. Instead of that, I wanted art to be a force in the story, almost like another character. Rather than being something that requires disquisition and analysis in an academic way, art is actually playing a role, it has a sort of agency in the story. Which is why, at the very beginning, you have – seemingly from nowhere – this contemporary installation arrive, which produces this violent, visceral, hostile reaction in the main character. From the very opening pages, art is something which has this kind of propulsive force or this energy about it. Whether it was something from the 18th century or something contemporary, I wanted it to have this propulsive or catalysing role in the story, so that it’s not simply something to be looked at, or dissected or distilled, but something which will be producing reactions and propelling events.

“It was before social media, so those bars and clubs – places like Heaven, where Don ends up on his wild night out – they had a particularly important role in terms of finding that identity and being able to express it and meet other people who shared it” – James Cahill

LH: Was there a specific reason you decided to set the book in 90s London? It certainly feels like it was a turning point, both in art history and gay life continuing to enter the public view. 

JC: I mean, I first discovered the Soho gay scene when I was about 17, which would have been around 2002. So it’s a little bit after the time period of the novel. But I do think there was a special mood or a special energy in the air at that time, in the 90s. New levels of equality were being achieved with the age of consent being equalised and the fight against Section 28. Gay visibility had been building up obviously for several decades, but it was expressible in ways that it hadn’t been in the past. And also, it was before social media, so those bars and clubs – places like Heaven, where Don ends up on his wild night out – they had a particularly important role in terms of finding that identity and being able to express it and meet other people who shared it. That’s the epiphany he has, he’s just a little older – in his early forties, rather than 17. It’s like this sort of delayed moment of adolescence. 

I think the nature of the gay scene at that time was was an important reason for setting it in the 90s, but also, there was what was happening in the art world at that time, with this explosive new art scene, and this generation of artists coming out of Goldsmiths College with that spirit of experimentalism. Artists were doing it for themselves and not waiting for galleries to pick them up, they were just going out and holding their own shows. There was this energy and this feeling that anything was possible. I think for a lot of people, it really felt like the birth of something. Even though it was the end of the 20th century, it was also this moment of a kind of beginning. I was always interested in the idea of writing a fin-de-siècle novel for the 20th century, that moment of transition between the end of one world and the beginning of another, which is, of course, in a societal way, like a mirror image of what’s going on internally with that main character.

LH: There’s a lot of discussion around the idea of what gay representation in culture should mean in terms of presenting characters of all stripes, good and bad, likeable and despicable, and also around the nature of happy endings. Obviously a lot of the gay characters in the book are fairly difficult people, and I wouldn’t exactly describe the book’s denoument as especially cheery either. 

JC: I think it’s a really interesting debate. But I do think it’s vital that queer characters can be flawed and that they don’t have to be one-sided or idealised, certainly. Like I mentioned before, I’ve always been naturally more drawn to flawed characters, and neither Don or Val are beyond redemption to me. They both have redeeming, appealing, even seductive qualities, and that’s important too. But I want to be able to explore what it means to have defects and to live with those. I think a vital component of many people’s experience, whether they’re queer or not, is the pain of having to face yourself, and that's something I’m very interested in exploring. In many ways, this isn’t a coming of age story, although it plays with that trope. It’s a story of awakening and liberation, and living in the most intense possible way, in which Don sheds all of his old illusions, all of his old beliefs and values. In a way, what it shows you is that his former life, whatever that was – those years in the Peterhouse where he experienced a great level of success – they were their own kind of stasis or death or failure. It’s an interesting theme for me, because it’s so vital to the realism of the story that those flaws can be explored, that the things about them that repel as well as attract can be explored. I think all of that is vital to producing something authentic, ultimately.

Tiepolo Blue by James Cahill is published by Hodder & Stoughton and is out on June 9.