Monday, 8 May 2017

Radio 4 Open Book: Me on Money in Fiction

The other week I was delighted to take another turn as guest columnist for Radio 4's Open Book with Mariella Frostrup. The theme for my sermon was Money in Fiction - one of the true universal themes. Obviously there are a great many more fine novels, poems and stories on the subject than I could adduce within the slot, but I got a few of my favourites in, as one must. You can listen to the broadcast here by the boon of iPlayer: needless to say, it has a great deal more than me, including the bestselling Paula Hawkins and a discussion of the newly published 'lost' stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald. But here is the text of Me on Money:

In literary studies, there are two Jane Austens. One, the national treasure, whose romantic plots give us timeless tips on how to make a love-match; the other a clear-eyed analyst of Georgian England, famously acclaimed by Auden for her ability to “[r]eveal so frankly and with such sobriety/The economic basis of society.” Let’s face it – Mr Darcy holds many attractions for Elizabeth Bennett, but a really big one is his ten thousand pounds a year.

Given the centrality of money in our lives, it’s perhaps a wonder there aren’t more novels on the subject. You might say there’s not a lot of poetry in a banknote, or a bank statement. But in the abstract, money undoubtedly has lyrical power. [In his poem Money] Philip Larkin could make his bank balance sound like the Devil in his ear: ‘I am all you never had of goods and sex. / You could get them still by writing a few cheques.’ But Larkin knew that voice to be a siren call; and at heart we all know the finest things in life aren’t really for sale.

Of course, it was the “the love of money” that St Paul called “the root of all evil”: not the folding stuff itself, but what we project onto it. For me the most powerful treatment of this theme in fiction is Tolstoy's story The Forged Coupon. A feckless boy hungry for cash scribbles an extra digit onto a government bond of his father’s, then fobs it off for change on a shopkeeper, who, realising he’s been conned, fobs it off again on a firewood seller... and soon a man is in jail – evil begetting evil – dirty money corrupting or cursing everyone it touches. 

If you want a counterblast to Tolstoy’s moral vision – there’s the Russian-American ideologue Ayn Rand, and her influential novel Atlas Shrugged – in which the wealthy Francisco d'Anconia argues that money is actually ‘the barometer of a society's virtue’ – a guarantor that ‘men who wish to deal with one another must deal by trade and give value for value.’ That’s not a bad argument for the free market, though Rand spoils it by allowing Francisco to bang away uninterrupted for nearly ten pages.

You find a more artful defence of money in Emile Zola’s great ‘financial crisis’ novel L’Argent, first published in 1891. Its anti-hero, ruthless speculator Aristide Saccard, is a bankrupt who decides to make a new fortune in banking, using other people’s money. We may recognise the type. Yet, through the woman who falls for Saccard, Madame Caroline, Zola dramatises money’s dynamic properties – how speculation can stir the blood of a nation, how enterprise makes things happen. As Saccard’s son tells Madame Caroline, the banker ‘doesn’t love money like a miser. He wishes to make it gush forth on every side...’

In today’s fiction, bankers are not nearly so charismatic, or gushing. John Lanchester’s Capital, set in the wake of the Crash of 2008, shows us a workaday investment banker named Roger, totting up the ‘general hard-to-believe expensiveness of everything in London’, and realising ‘if he didn't get his million-pound bonus he was genuinely at risk of going broke.’ The predicament of being one missed pay-day away from ruin is one that a lot of us can identify with. But for people who are paid fortunes, we tend to be economical with our sympathies.

Charles Dickens understood this – part of why he remains, like Jane Austen, a national treasure. Dickens died a millionaire in today’s money, but he knew poverty. His father did time in debtors prison, inspiring Dickens, famously, to create Mr Micawber in David Copperfield. Micawber knows very well that a man making twenty pounds a year can be happy so long as he spends only nineteen and six – whereas to slip into the red, even by sixpence, is to risk misery. And for most of us still, I daresay, that is the meaning of money.

Sunday, 26 March 2017

The Knives: 'Most true-to-life govt novel I've read'

I've long admired the writing of Chris Deerin, former political editor of the Daily Record, Head of Comment at the Telegraph Media Group, Scottish Daily Mail columnist, now at Oxford's Blavatnik School of Government. So this tweet of his from midweek came as a great boon to me, since it seems to find something to commend in each of the elements from which I compounded the novel:

Me, Esquire: Walking a mile in Mourinho's Pradas

In the new Esquire I write at length on the subject of the superstar coaches currently scrapping away for the honour of leading their side to the Premier League title. To be honest, the scrap has a settled look – you have to expect Antonio Conte’s Chelsea to be champions. And, to be clear, I don’t especially care about any result in English football other than Newcastle United’s. But I’ve been enjoying the colour and ‘characterfulness’ of having all these big figures in English football. It’s also, as I say in the piece, a consequence of being an older fella with different sorts of identifications going on.

To me as for many, Pep Guardiola is a style icon, no argument – a model, for starters, in the correct address of male pattern baldness, from the luxuriant gleam of his shaven head to the impeccable tending of his stubble. Wardrobe-wise he goes mainly grey and black, as boys do, but his choices have fineness to them: close-fitting suits, the tie tucked into a cashmere v-neck or a button cardigan, topcoat accessorised with a chunky scarf.

I like the thinking aestheticism in Guardiola, too – the aura he derives from an umbilical link to arguably the coolest of all footballers, Johan Cruyff, who mentored him as a player at Barcelona. And I’ve marvelled a bit at his readiness to sideline Sergio Aguero, who has scored title-winning goals for City and would walk into any other side. So it saddens me a bit to have seen his refined approach beaten by some fairly backward English sides who favour hard tackles and long balls. This season Guardiola’s slight tendency to Rodin-Thinker-type poses has grown pronounced. His beard is suddenly greyer, and when his gleaming head goes down his eyes can appear very dark.

Not so Jurgen Klopp, who has shown himself to be refreshingly uninhibited in his fondness for a tall beer and a crafty cigarette. I was truly tickled to see Klopp asked at a press conference about the alcohol consumption of the modern player, the German replying rather ruefully that at Liverpool’s Christmas party he’d nearly had to force the beers down their necks of his boys.

So, yes, not so unalike, these superstar coaches and us.

Friday, 10 March 2017

Me in Esquire: The Pleasure Principle on the Page

The unexpurgated text of this piece is online here.

No Anais Nin, no Pauline Reage? No, just because it's a list of novels by Men Only. No Henry Miller, no Sade? Nope, I found them both to be a struggle, for differing reasons. 

Friday, 20 January 2017

BBC Radio 4 Open Book: 'Glad to be Unhappy'

The other week I was delighted to have another turn in the regular Column slot for BBC Radio 4's unmissable Open Book show with Mariella Frostrup.

It's a lovely opportunity for a writer to address some literary theme of their fancy with reference to current or recent events and one's own writing practice.

For a while at least you can listen to my latest effort on BBC I-Player here, between 10:03 and 14:05. My argument, as the producers pithily encapsulated it, was that 'unhappy books can help us have a Happy New Year.' And below is the text of my lesson.

* * *

"You must change your life. Don’t you think? That’s the customary message of New Year – that any pockets of dissatisfaction you’re carrying about your person are not just ‘winter blues’ – but, rather, – a reminder that the future is now; we have but one life; and the sands in the glass are running.

I imagine all of us who love books also look to them, at times, for help and advice – with our resolutions, our indecisions and predicaments. Every publishing year ends with the round-ups of ‘best new books.’ But come the New Year it’s usually old books that are on my mind – old and trusted friends I’ve come to count on.

In publishing terms, the notion of a book that’s ‘good for you’ is vested mainly in the non-fiction genre of ‘self-help’ – or ‘positive psychology’, since ‘the positive’ is what these books want to accentuate. I’ve never read Dr Thomas A. Harris’s I’m OK, You’re OK, or Susan Jeffers’ Feel the Fear and Do it. But that’s not to say they wouldn’t do me the power of good.

A few years ago the Reading Agency actually persuaded GPs to offer ‘books on prescription’: an approved set of self-help titles for people experiencing various mental health issues. Sometimes a bestseller addresses a similar readership: like Matt Haig’s Reasons to Stay Alive, a layperson’s testament to how the ordinary problem of depression might be confronted.

Of course, depression is not easily dispelled by an £8.99 paperback, however insightful. I suspect a lot of self-help titles are targeted not at sufferers per se so much as interested readers who want some idea of how to prepare themselves for the worst. But then, good fiction gives us that, too.

The Reading Agency also recommends a number of fictional works it describes as ‘mood-boosting’ and ‘uplifting’ – from Poldark to Winnie the Pooh. But what really makes a book ‘uplifting’? ‘The good ends happily, the bad unhappily’ – that’s the famous definition proposed by Oscar Wilde’s Miss Prism. But I was reminded of old Prism recently when a poet friend told me that he just can’t be bothered with ‘gloomy’ literature – that poetry, for him, is all about making clear that life is good and the world is beautiful. 

I do endorse those feelings; but there’s more than one way to relish what it means to be alive. A book that brings solace is not necessarily one that tries to tell us that everything’s OK. Kafka speaks to many when he writes that books, rather than cheering us up, ought to ‘wake us up with a blow to the head’ and ‘affect us like a disaster.’  

For the characters in my novels, things tend to end disastrously. If I’m honest, I plan it that way. Life is good, yes, but one or two of the ineluctable truths of life are tragic. And as a reader I feel braced – uplifted – when a book shows me that these things just have to be faced. ‘Death,’ as Saul Bellow writes in Humboldt's Gift, ‘is the dark backing a mirror needs if we are to see anything. 

We should all take our uplift where we can, whether it’s Bridget Jones or Jeeves and Wooster or whatever. But there’s a lot to be said, too, for the Kafkas and Becketts, the supposed merchants of gloom. I’m not saying that Waiting for Godot is a feel-good night out, but in the midst of its desolation is a huge moment of uplift, when Vladimir cries out: ‘Let us do something, while we have the chance!’ I accept that King Lear is widely felt to be a bleak sort of a play – all its wisest words coming too late to save the characters from their evil fates. But I can think of few more mood-boosting moments in literature than the stoicism of Cordelia when she’s facing the end. ‘We are not the first / Who, with best meaning, have incurr'd the worst. 

This is 2017, and it’s dark out there – cold, too – and it will be that way for a while. But we’ve faced it all before, and we’ll just have to face it again. On that score, the great books never lie to us."

Getting Started at the Faber Academy: January-April 2017

Pleasure to report, I will be sitting in as guest tutor for the Faber Academy's writing course in Getting Started: Beginners' Fiction, running on Tuesdays from January 24 to April 11 2017. The course is intended to be both playful and serious, an enquiry into what writing is and why we do it. Among the topics I will be exploring with the students are:
  •  What makes fiction worth our while?
  • How do you develop and shape an idea?
  • What does it mean to write about what you know?
  • What makes a reader care?
 As of this morning I believe there's still one place available on the course. It could be you?

The TLS enjoyed my Wodehouse book...

The New Year brought a lovely write-up of Highballs for Breakfast in the Times Literary Supplement, written by the Oxford scholar and editor of Wodehouse's correspondence Sophie Ratcliffe. The headline and the accompanying picture were very pleasing, too. But the following was, of course, the money passage for the book's editor:

Richard T. Kelly’s enjoyable book sources a wide range of Wodehouse’s writings on drinking, from his early journalism through to Blandings and Mr Mulliner... what stands out is the sheer joy of Wodehouse’s writing on this theme... a wonderfully cheering collection

Sunday, 4 December 2016

Judging the Northern Writers' Awards 2017

I'm pleased to be on judging service this year for the Northern Writers Awards established by New Writing North, through which £40,000 worth of funding is disbursed to writers at different stages of their careers. The Northern Echo was kind enough to write up last week's press launch, where Claire Malcolm, chief executive of New Writing North, noted: 'Last year we received more than 1,000 entries, so it is a very competitive process, but we know that winning an award can have a real and lasting impact on a writer’s career.' She's quite right. I've never won anything myself, but am glad to have got far enough in a career to be judging good endeavours of this sort, and I look forward to discovering some fine new writing as of early 2017.

Monday, 28 November 2016

The Knives: A Guardian Book of the Year 2016

The Knives: a New Statesman Book of the Year

Highballs for Breakfast: 'a splendid anthology'

Quite delightful to open up the Saturday Times recently and see that the lead Fiction review in the culture bit is one's own little edited volume of Wodehouse. Patrick Kidd was the reviewer with such advanced taste, and this is part of what he so kindly said:

"Alcohol goes with Wodehouse as eggs do with b, as the author might say. Some of his finest characters live on it, such as the Hon Galahad Threepwood, whose secret of eternal youth is to “keep the decanter circulating and never to go to bed before four in the morning”. Booze washes through his work, and Richard T Kelly has gathered from the cellar a splendid anthology of snippets and longer passages on alcohol. It is vintage Wodehouse in more ways than one."

Friday, 18 November 2016

P.G. Wodehouse: For Christmas, and Forever

This year - because certain times of year are special times - I took it on myself to take care of everybody’s literary Christmas gift needs, by way of a special little piece of publishing. It's called Highballs for Breakfast: The Very Best of P.G. Wodehouse on the Joys of a Good Stiff Drink

It is, in essence, a compendium of all the nailed-on funniest bits in Wodehouse’s colossal oeuvre that are to do with drinks, drinking and drinkers. It comes in a lush small-format hardback from Hutchinson Books, priced £9.99, and it’s out now. Be assured, it's only about 8% me, more like 92%-proof Wodehouse comedy gold. You don’t have to thank me, you're very welcome, be assured it was nothing but fun.

A common problem with authors who wrote well about alcohol – Scott Fitzgerald, say, or Charles Bukowski – is that often they were alcoholics, with all the misery that entails. Wodehouse, though, flies breezily free of such gloom. One of the great tonics of his famous comic writing is its sense that happiness may be reliably found through the ‘life-restoring fluid’ contained in ‘the magic bottle.’ And a tonic is what this book is meant to be - the gin or vodka component I leave to you.

The i newspaper had a little feature around the book last week, and the Mr Porter website has also given it generous coverage.

When in 1974 MGM released That's Entertainment!, an edited compilation of joyous life-enhancing extracts from the studio's library of great movie musicals, the lobby poster boasted the rather brilliant tagline: ‘Boy. Do we need it now.’ Here in 2016 that’s rather how I feel about my Wodehouse tome. Even more so than usually right now, a stiff drink and a laugh feel like badly-needed solaces, and I can see that being the case for the rest of the decade at least.

On the subject of Wodehouse’s general greatness as a writer: I came to him a little later in life than some, probably because of issues such as a base, brute class-bound prejudice toward books about people who have butlers. In truth it’s been writers of the left from Orwell to Christopher Hitchens and Alexander Cockburn who’ve probably done the most to spread Wodehouse’s renown around the houses and constituencies. Once I had properly read and digested works of the order of Right Ho Jeeves, Joy in the Morning and The Code of the Woosters, the scales were off my eyes for keeps. I now like to think I am playing my own minor role in spreading the good word about the great man.

N.B. Any aspiring writer can learn from Wodehouse – his craft and his practice provide models for more than just the comic forms. He noticed things, kept good notebooks, was powerfully curious in company, planned his works meticulously and then drafted and re-drafted them until all was well-minted and ringing. Above all, he persevered, overcame repeated rejection, poured his ideas into new bottles whenever he had to, and kept grafting hard right up to the blessed end.