Friday, 16 June 2017

On The Knives for the Guardian's Paperback Writer

Pleased to see how this piece turned out, describing the genesis and gestation of The Knives from the back-of-an-envelope stage when I was calling it 'Homeland.' It's a terrific slot that the Guardian offers to authors to say a little of their process on the occasion of a book going into paperback. And it's a great song, too.

On the title of the piece: I wouldn't do Mrs May's job today for all the Jie in Changxing.

On the extract chosen: I suppose I could claim a little prescience on this one - '‘a Tory government’, yes, but by a gnat’s whisker and no more, propped up by deals cut with Ulstermen' - except that I had governments past fully in mind here. We're encouraged to think that what's happening today is unprecedented, unique, and how things are going to be from now on. But all our lives have been lived before us.

The Knives in the Guardian's Best of Westminster

I’m honoured to have made the cut for this Guardian Books list of the Top 10 books about Westminster politics, as selected by the novelist and ex-BBC reporter Terri Stiatsny. 

Having had a go at a similar list in the past I know it would be a hard thing to get to a Top 20 without resorting to filler material, i.e. the great many books that depict democratically elected politicians as venal, craven, thieving scum, which is to speak of books that don’t have much to do with life itself – since, as Senator Silas Radcliffe, anti-hero of Henry Adams’ Democracy, puts it, ‘No representative government can long be much better or much worse than the society it represents.’

So, a thoroughly agreeable thing for me to rubbing shoulders with Hilary Mantel, House of Cards, James Graham’s This House, and the Alans Clark and Hollinghurst...

Extract from The Knives on the Faber site

Over on Faber's website you can read this extract taken from the prologue of The Knives. It finds the protagonist David Blaylock circa 1993 as a young platoon commander in the British Army's share of support for the UN peacekeeping effort - or 'Protection Force'/UNPROFOR - during the Bosnian War.

If your subject is moral quagmires in politics, and mine surely was, then this was an obvious place in our recent European history at which to begin. How was anyone meant to keep peace in Bosnia in 1993 while the territory was being assailed under a preconceived agreement between the assailants (and supposed rivals), Tudjman's Croatia and Milosevic's Serbia, against whom UNPROFOR were not permitted to raise a hand in reproach?

It was hardly surprising that the Muslim population of Bosnia felt a dire need for military assistance in the shape of 'irregulars' - though the shape these volunteer fighters took, as dramatised in the extract, had a grim aspect all of its own.

Thursday, 15 June 2017

'Spokesperson for the Doomed': a Backlisted podcast on the oral history of Warren Zevon

My Zevon collection, or a cross-section...

A few notes as background to my contribution to this podcast about Crystal Zevon's 'oral history' biography of her ex-husband the songwriter Warren Zevon,entitled I'll Sleep When I'm Dead, which she compiled at his express request following his death from cancer in 2003. The host is the superb Backlisted site run by Andy Miller and John Mitchinson, an invaluable resource for all lovers of good books young and old (and by that I mean both listeners and books...)

1. Zevon was, in Bruce Springsteen’s view and mine, 'one of the great American songwriters.'  Listen to anything of his and you will quickly pick up on the bite, erudition and humour of someone who understood the secret badness of the world and could still make it sound uncommonly elegant.

2. If you’ve never listened to Zevon previously you can start with this top ten that I compiled as a Spotify playlist. Full disclosure: the inclusion of Werewolves of London is rather a sop to it being his Greatest Hit – if headed to a desert island I would prefer Renegade from the Mr Bad Example album. I’d take Werewolves, though, were it Zevon’s live version circa 1980 in which he would re-jig the lyrics to name-check Mailer’s Executioner’s Song and Brian De Palma’s movie Dressed to Kill, wearing his cultural smarts proudly in the manner for which we loved him.

3. The reason I heard that live tape, and umpteen other such rarities, was thanks to a woman called Diane Berger who ran one of the internet’s early WZ fanpages under the moniker of zevonfan1, and who sent me all sorts of dubbed copies in the mail from the US circa 1996 – great generosity born of shared enthusiasm.

4. If I’m a little less of a Zevon fan today than I was then, it’s because I have never quite gotten over reading Crystal Zevon's book. Anyone who teaches Creative Writing and has recourse to the canon of great American short stories will know that sinking feeling when for the umpteenth time while stood before a group of undergraduates you are forced to observe, ‘Of course his life and work were greatly affected by his addiction to alcohol...’ Thus Fitzgerald, Cheever, Carver et al. And thus Zevon.

5. I had known Zevon was a very bad drunk during his lowest personal ebb, and yet his extraordinary gift for a rueful love song and the melancholy beauty of his turn of phrase tended me to see him as a man who had been more often ill-used than using, more hurt than hurting. Well, Crystal's book sure turned my head round on that score, notably from the point where she first describes Warren punching her in the face... She forgave him, at length and over time, and of course the credit and debit sides must be carefully balanced by those who weren't there. But still, talk about a nail in the coffin of the myth of the romantic troubadour. Goodbye to All That, as they say.

6. I’ve written two oral histories myself: Alan Clarke and Sean Penn: His Life and Times. The form demands a subject who’s lively, who inspires the telling of tales, even – or especially – contradictory ones. It can be useful if that subject was a bit of a hellraiser - though raising hell can get wearying to read about, just as it can be to observe, and even to participate in. Crystal Zevon’s book arguably has a shade too much of Zevon’s worst behaviour. Regarding the work, while it’s great on the 1970s period which its author knows intimately, and on where Zevon’s songs came from at that time, it’s a little less satisfying about the body of work from 1987-2002, which I think includes most of his best stuff.

7. A confession: I’ve never really listened much to The Wind, the album that Zevon made at great speed with assorted collaborators in the period between his cancer diagnosis and his death. As artists sometimes do, he tried to direct the way he went out, to set-design his final curtain; but his work had always been coloured by the black wisdom that everybody’s headed for a hole in the ground.To wit, this observation from a 2003 interview in the New York Times:

8. Favourite Zevon lyrics? Too many to mention. But the following staves just seem to me an unusually brilliant run to have inserted in a pop song: namely Porcelain Monkey, which is about the life of Elvis Presley, a subject Zevon characteristically dismissed as ‘a very sad story, and not an interesting sad story.’ Zevon, in fact, made plain that in 1977 he was more upset by Robert Lowell’s passing than by Presley’s. But to which of those two gentlemen can Zevon’s accomplishment be more usefully compared?

From a shotgun shack singing Pentecostal hymns,
Through the wrought iron gates, to the TV room,
He had a little world, it was smaller than your hand,
It's a rockabilly ride from the glitter to the gloom.
Left behind by the latest trends,
Eating fried chicken with his regicidal friends,
That's how the story ends,
With a porcelain monkey...

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Knives on tour: Felixstowe Bookfest, Sat. July 1

This event - in the Orwell Hotel, aptly - is now booking. Come along, it'll be lively.

Knives on tour: Stoke Newington LitFest 2017

There are a lot of literary festivals in the firmament these days, and London has a big share in them, but there seems to be a good consensus that Stoke Newington offers one of the liveliest and most enthusiastically attended. I made my second visit there the other week - the first was in 2011 for The Possessions of Doctor Forrest - and this time I was debating the dangerously hot topic of whether our political life is stranger than fiction, the recent material for such a debate amounting to as much as any of us could reasonably process.

I was talking Knives, of course, and in very good company being on the Stokey platform with Jonathan Freedland, the accomplished Guardian journalist who writes thrillers under the nom de plume of Sam Bourne; and Terri Stiatsny, an ex-BBC reporter who now specialises in prize-winning fiction derived from real-world political events, and who graciously did the chairing of the event though, obviously, we all three of us had things to say about what we do and why. Jonathan's new book isn't actually out yet but imagines a conspiracy against a Trump-like US president. Terri's latest, Conflicts of Interest, is in paperback now.

The Knives, out for the night, at City Lit Talks Back

The City Literary Institute ('City Lit') in London's Covent Garden is one of the nation's great institutions for adult education, and I've been pleased to teach various short courses in Creative Writing there over recent years.

They also do a grand job of making a regular platform for their students to present work in a very public forum: namely the big Tottenham Court Road branch of Waterstone's, which plays host to a monthly City Lit Talks Back where tutors and learners alike can get up to read whatever they've been working on.

I took a turn there myself a few weeks ago, in a slot kindly created for me so as to mark the paperback publication of The Knives. I enjoyed myself, generally as a listener, and specifically when an MP's assistant told me she was buying a copy of the novel as he'd been told it was brilliant. But by whom? I'm still hoping for a chance to speak in the Commons, you see, even if it's only a meeting room...

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.