IT’S NEVER TOO LATE TO START YOUR LIFE’S BIG ADVENTURE . . .
Albert Entwistle is a shy, socially awkward man who, until her death eighteen years ago, had looked after his demanding and ungrateful mother in his childhood home. Now, apart from Gracie, his beloved little cat, he lives there on his own; he’s made no changes to the house, in fact he’s seldom even been into his mother’s bedroom since she died. He’s been a postman since he left school at fifteen and loves the reliable routine it offers, finding immense comfort in the fact that each day will follow exactly the same pattern. He’s always kept himself to himself, just quietly getting on with his job and avoiding, as far as possible, any interaction with either his colleagues or the residents he delivers post to. It astonishes him that so many people seemed totally comfortable with sharing intimate information with all and sundry. That’s definitely not his way, the only way he’s got through life is by keeping to himself the experiences which have most affected him. But now, just three months before he reaches his sixty-fifth birthday, his manager has handed him a letter from Human Resources. It offers him congratulations ‘in advance of this special occasion’, the company’s thanks for his many years of loyal service and reminds him that Royal Mail has a policy of compulsory retirement at that age.
What is he going to do with the rest of his life? With no friends and nothing to look forward to, the prospect of a lonely future terrifies him. He realises that if he’s to find happiness, he needs to be honest about who he is and learn to ask for what he needs and, most important of all, he needs to find the courage to look for George, the boy he loved and betrayed fifty years ago but has never forgotten.
I don’t want to reveal too much about this delightful, poignant and thought-provoking story because I think much of its power lies in the reader joining Albert on his journey of self-discovery. Through his flashbacks I felt I was experiencing with him his re-living of the traumatic experiences of his youth which caused him to deny his sexual orientation and become so emotionally isolated and I felt engulfed by the profound sadness of his lingering shame about his betrayal of George. Then, as he begins to step out of his comfort zone, as he reaches out to people and begins to make friends, sharing his joys as his life started to become emotionally richer and happier. I delighted in seeing Albert blossom as he discovered that the more he reached out to other people, the more honest he was about himself, the more they seemed to like and accept him. Then, as he became more open, his discovery that he was not the only one to hide behind a defensive carapace, that other people too had fears and anxieties they were struggling with and that he could offer them support. I enjoyed the many richly-depicted characters who enriched Albert’s new life, loved the moments of gentle humour which ran through the story and the fact that it was set in Lancashire, county of my childhood, added a much appreciated dimension, particularly as the author included expressions which evoked some fond memories – just like Albert, my grandfather often said ‘hellfire’!
On one level this could be regarded as an overly-sentimental, easy to read, feel-good story about love and friendship and how it’s never too late to change and to take on new challenges. It could also, to some extent, be dismissed as being a tad unconvincing in its portrayal of characters whose personalities appear to change overnight – for instance, Albert ‘suddenly’ becoming so much more outgoing, fashionable and confident, a homophobic work colleague’s attitudes being immediately ‘transformed’ when Albert comes out as gay. On balance, for me such niggles were off-set by the fact that central to the story is an exploration of prejudice and harassment and a reminder of how life has, albeit painfully slowly at times, changed for gay men since the 1960s. Male homosexuality wasn’t decriminalised until 1967, but then that applied only to men over the age of twenty-one and it remained illegal for them to meet in public places. This meant that the police continued to raid bars and ‘cruising grounds’ for many more years – in fact more men were prosecuted during the seventies than in the sixties, with those who were convicted being placed on the sex offenders’ register.
In his introduction Matt Cain says that one of the things which inspired him to write this story was that he wanted to celebrate the way things have changed for the minority community of gay men, which fifty years ago was hated and vilified and is now widely celebrated and loved. ‘Acceptance of gay men has become a touchstone of British values within less than a decade, something that even the most optimistic commentators couldn’t have predicted.’ Although it would be naïve to believe that prejudice no longer exists, huge progress has been made in societal acceptance and I think his heart-warming story about Albert Entwistle captures some of this profound change.
The Secret Life of Albert Entwistle is a very sweet and heart-warming tale of love, secrets, regrets and forgiveness.
Review by Linda Hepworth
Published by Headline Review (Imprint of Headline Publishing Group) 27th May 2021
ISBN: 9781472275059 Hardback