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.

David Beckham: his life, times, right foot & torso

Beckham: part of the body of work
The British edition of Esquire magazine has just celebrated its 25th birthday, and may it see many more. It's a lovely publication to write for, and I am proud to be associated with it. For its special anniversary issue Esquire commissioned 25 portraits of British men who have been especially influential in the public life and culture of the nation across those two-and-a-half decades. The whole exercise will repay your time but I recommend especially the issue's centre-piece, a long interview with Tony Blair by Esquire editor Alex Bilmes.

My brief was to write on David Beckham, who has certainly, in a cultural sense, bestrode the times through which he's lived. The full piece is online here. I describe him as 'the world's foremost metrosexual' whose 'great fame really has less to do with football than any famous footballer you could name.' Possibly these thoughts have occurred to you, too?

On a footballing level, though, I would draw attention to my brief but pointed analysis of the key items in Beckham's his portfolio of skills; and my assessment of his performances in major tournaments for the national side, a matter on which his diehard admirers seem rarely to want to consider the full evidence.

Thursday, 13 October 2016

The Knives out at Durham Book Festival 2016


The Durham Book Festival is very dear to me, just as Durham is, and I have nothing but happy memories of appearances at the Festival in 2011 (with both The Possessions of Doctor Forrest and my pamphlet What's Left for the North East?) and 2014 (for my study of social housing, Our House, Your Home.) Coming up to the Town Hall this year to present The Knives was just as much of a pleasure; and I had the good fortune of sharing the bill with the poet Sean O'Brien, who was there with his recently published novel Once Assembled Here Again.

James Smith from Durham University was our considerate emcee. Sean read with great verve, and I did my best to follow him. There is, as it happens, some interesting thematic congruence between our two books.  A young writer named Eloise Pearson was at the session and wrote it up graciously afterward for the Cuckoo Review site, which you can read here

Knives 'extremely readable & thought-provoking'

Gladdened by this very interesting write-up of The Knives on the Nudge book site, from reviewer Cathy Boyle:
'An extremely readable and thought-provoking book that I would recommend to anyone with even the slightest interest in the workings of Westminster... it lays out many of the problems our country faces today... as well as showing us how honest and well-meaning people can be adversely affected by political life... there is plenty of tension as you find yourself gritting your teeth at the injustices of the world [David] Blaylock inhabits. The book is by no means an advert for the political classes but it may make you think a little differently about the people in power and what a thankless task they face'

Thursday, 6 October 2016

This NZ Life: The Knives "will have you hooked"

My new favourite magazine is the New Zealand-based This NZ Life, which ran a lovely write-up of The Knives the other week. I can only assume the reviewer, Miranda Spary, took the trouble to position, light and shoot the image of the product, seen right, that accompanies the text. Terrific, at any rate. These are the words I savoured, of course:
'The magic of this read is the richness of its characters – they’re all so alive, cleverly portrayed with an accuracy that calls to mind the drama enacted in real-life Britain lately. The book has been a massive hit in the UK, and whether you’re interested in politics or not, its mysteries will have you hooked and keep you guessing to the very last page – you won’t see the ending coming.'

Church-Going & Book-Talking in Dulwich

Look right and there's Alan Johnson talking to me about his latest memoir The Long and Winding Road, at All Saints Church in Dulwich on the night of Thursday September 29. Churches are grand places to hold literary talks: the acoustics are tremendous, of course, but there's a tenor as well as a timbre that the location loans to you. Larkin put it most finely on why even the non-believer feels some instinctual piety upon crossing the threshold:
'Since someone will forever be surprising / A hunger in himself to be more serious / And gravitating with it to this ground / Which he once heard was proper to grow wise in.'
Johnson's new book is as engaging and well observed as the first two, the difference being that it finds him in the tangle of thorns that is professional politics rather than the worlds of childhood and workaday employment that were the grist of This Boy and then Please Mr Postman. But obviously he and I had plenty to talk about; and on the side he could not have been kinder on the subject of how he was getting on with The Knives.

Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Alan Johnson, MP and memoirist, in conversation with me in Dulwich on September 29 2016

Rated by certain wise heads as the Prime Minister we ought to have had circa 2009, Alan Johnson has won an alternative and arguably more gratifying distinction for himself as a bestselling and prize-winning memoirist. Following This Boy and Please, Mr Postman, he is poised to publish a third volume of life studies entitled The Long and Winding Road, this one carrying his story into the echelons of trade union leadership, election as a Labour MP and a number of stints as government minister. Johnson will be discussing his life and works with me in a special event organised by Dulwich Books at 7pm on September 29, at All Saints Church on Lovelace Road, West Dulwich.

There's a good piece in today's Financial Times by Robert Shrimley, in which Johnson is compared with the former Sunderland South MP Chris Mullin, who has also turned his hand to writing with distinction and who, like Johnson, manages the feat of being a politician who is a recognisable human being. Shrimsley credits Johnson with 'the common touch; an easy manner that belies his intelligence and his hard upbringing.' He goes on to argue:

'At a time when the public is increasingly alienated from the archetypal politician, especially those who seem to have spent their entire life in political activity, the need for able, moderate leaders with a demonstrable human touch has never been more pressing.'

I do take issue with the grounds of this so-called public 'alienation'; and I don't think politicians need to beg for their characters if they didn't happen to come from a tough and unpromising background. It's a fact, moreover, that people with the most obvious human qualities still might struggle with those aspects of political leadership that call for something of the devil's work. And it's quite clear that Alan Johnson, for his own perfectly good reasons, never really wanted to take a crack at the job of leading Labour. Still, however forlornly, I rather wish that he had - just because the road not taken might have been one of the several that could have steered us clear of our present wreckage.