My life: Frequently Unasked Questions
When and where were you born?
5th February 1948 on a farm in Suffolk.
What kind of childhood did you have?
My father was in the army, and so we moved house every two years or so and childhood friendships tended to be short-lived. The one constant in the lives of my brother Philip and myself were ponies. I remember the names and personalities of the ponies and horses who were part of my childhood far more vividly than those of friends.
Even after I went to prep school, holidays were dominated by show-jumping, gymkhanas, hunter trials, hunting, schooling and, later, point-to-pointing.
You were at boarding-school from an early age. Has the experience scarred you for life?
My brother Philip and I were taught by a governess Miss Curtis until I was seven when I was sent to Hawtreys, a grim preparatory school, now mercifully defunct. The place certainly had its full complement of odd and occasionally unpleasant men traditionally associated with prep schools in those days, but I can’t honestly say that Hawtreys, or the rather dreary Wellington College where I spent my teenage years, scarred me. In fact, it was the boredom of life at Wellington that drove me, out of desperation, into playing the guitar.
To everyone’s surprise – and to Wellington’s credit – I was offered a place to read English at Trinity College, Cambridge. I spent most of my three years at Cambridge riding racehorses – something I greatly regret – and emerged with a mediocre degree.
What could you do with a bad degree in English?
Not much. My obsession with racing continued until my mid-twenties when it petered out in futility. I then went to Paris and worked in two bookshops. The first was a little shop called Shakespeare & Co, which was – and is – a famous gathering-place for people who dreamed of being writers, or wanted to meet, talk to or sleep with writers. When I needed to earn some money, I went to work in a much smarter bookshop called Galignani. I sold books to various famous people who were living in Paris at the time – Orson Welles, Marlene Dietrich, Graham Greene and the Duke of Windsor. In 1972, I returned to London and got a job in book publishing. I worked, first as a salesman, then an editor, ending up as editorial director of a paperback imprint.
While in publishing, I began to write a satirical column under deep cover for the book trade magazine Publishing News. The persona I inhabited was a nightmarishly yobbish, snobby, randy ambitious paperback editor called Jonty Lejeune who was fictional presence in real events (an idea stolen from Auberon Waugh’s diary in Private Eye).
I left to become a writer full-time on 11th March 1983.
That was a bit late, wasn’t it? You were 35 by then.
I envy those who have the courage and the confidence to try to make it as a professional author in their twenties. It took me a long time to realise that anyone could make a living from writing stories, least of all me. When I became an editor, I met writers and saw that it was not such an extraordinary thing.
I wrote my Jonty Lejeune columns, and then began to get up early to write short stories. I waited until the worst possible time – when I had two young children and a mortgage – than made the jump.
You seem to have written under a number of pseudonyms. Were you embarrassed by what you were writing?
My writing names have included: Jonty Lejeune, Harvey Porlock, Talbot Church ‘The Man the Royals Trust’ (with Willie Donaldson), Paul Kinnell, Norah Lentil, Oleg Bitov and James Riddell.
Embarrassment was one of several motives. In the case of Harvey Porlock, I was writing, sometimes caustically, about powerful people, I thought that if my identity was known, it could do me harm professionally. Quite soon it was, and it did. The books I wrote with Willie Donaldson, as Talbot Church, Oleg Bitov or Eric Cantona, needed to be written in disguise – the pseudonym was part of the joke.
I suppose you had better give us a brief guided tour to your career. Just the edited highlights, if you will.
In my early years as a writer, I would write almost anything to remain solvent. I did some ghosting, wrote a number of comedy books, sometimes under pseudonym. I edited a very successful book written by Ben Elton, Rik Mayall and Lisa Mayer based on the brilliant sitcom The Young Ones.
Between 1998 and 2012, I wrote a weekly – often twice-weekly opinion column – for the Independent, for whom I still wrote until it went online-only in 2016. In 2006, I wrote the biography of a fascinating man – and my good friend – Willie Donaldson, which was published under the catchy title You Cannot Live As I Have Lived and Not End Up Like This: The Thoroughly Disgraceful Life and Times of Willie Donaldson.
The 21st century was well under way by the time I started to write my owns songs for the guitar and began to perform them wherever people would listen. Two CDs of my songs have been released Lovely Little Games (2012) and Sometimes Your Face Don’t Fit (2016).
In 2013, my fifth novel The Twyning, a story of war between rats and humans, was published in the UK (US publication is by Candlewick Press in 2014). Yours, E.R : a Regal Correspondence – also published in 2013 – imagines the letters of Her Majesty the Queen written to a former private secretary between the London Olympics and the birth of Prince George.
In June 2016, Andersen Press published Racing Manhattan, a novel for young readers set in the world of modern flat-racing. Candlewick Press will publish in the US in 2017.
And your songs?
I have played the guitar since I was in my teens, and have played gigs, solo and in duos and trios, since the 1980s.
Over the past ten years, I have been writing and performing my own songs – for me, it’s an important new way of telling stories and expressing how I feel and think. I have played at festivals and in folk clubs across the country. I have released two CDs of my songs – in 2012, there was Lovely Little Games, and then in 2016 Sometimes Your Face Don’t Fit came out.
In 2013, I took a show based on my songs and stories to the Edinburgh Fringe. It was called My Village and Other Aliens.
I am also part of a trio called Something Happened which plays music from the past 100 years or so – everything from obscure 1920s songs to Gillian Welch to Caro Emerald . We (my musical partners are singer Tracey Baldwin, guitarist David Brown) have a riotously eclectic repertoire which covers bluegrass, jazz, folk, western swing and pop – anything that gets our feet tapping or makes us laugh
Could we have some smutty, intimate details about your life, please?
No. My partner in life is Angela Sykes. I have two adult children Xan and Alice from my marriage to Caroline Soper, now one of my best friends, and have two grandchildren, Otto and Winnie.
Home is an ex-goose hatchery on the Norfolk/Suffolk border, which Angela and I converted in 2002 while we lived in a tiny caravan in a nearby field.
Do you now live a life of quiet contentment, or are you still unattractively eaten up by personal ambition?
Like most – probably all – writers, I have never quite got where I wanted to go. Whether I’m writing a novel, a song or a story, what pushes me forward is the conviction that I haven’t yet been able to do what I want to do – that it’s still ahead of me.