Author: ajay_admin


What’s less relevant than yesterday’s news? My byline still appears intermittently in Scottish publications, but I haven’t called myself a journalist for many years. The oldest of these pieces were written in the 1990s. Some of their subjects have since died, others’ fortunes have fallen. So why this selection of newspaper articles?

The interviews with writers and the book reviews are, in a sense, timeless. It may be necessary to market novels as little parcels of zeitgeist, but most writers are in it for the long haul. The same goes for other kinds of artist. Which leaves the snapshots of Scottish life – foxhunters, call girls, mill lasses, etc – and the interviews with political figures. Most of these portraits have been overtaken by events. On the other hand, hindsight throws up the odd delicious irony. And they’re still a good read: a tribute to the generous time I was given to research them, the generous column inches I was allotted to fill, and the intelligence expected of me in return. I offer them as examples of an ambitious type of journalism on the verge of extinction in an industry that, sadly, seems to be heading the same way.

Making a Solo Voyage

August 12, 2002

Interviewing Jenny Diski is a bit like getting to know someone in reverse. You start by reading her books and journalism, full of the funny-sore self-analysis women go in for once they have taken the decision to become lifelong friends. Then you actually meet her, spend a couple of hours in her home and, on leaving, feel it would be presumptuous to reach out and shake her hand.

I knew it would be like this, of course. I’d read Stranger on a Train, her memoir of two rail trips across America – though the real journey is into Diski’s personal heart of darkness. She could have stayed home and written essentially the same book, albeit without the gigolos, missionaries, transvestites, models and drunks. Both journeys were packed with incident. She was propositioned four times, twice with lifelong commitment in mind. Her train hit a car, killing two of its passengers. Yet the biggest drama in the book is a paranoid fantasy inside her own head: a kidnapping which never happened and was never likely to, but which had her utterly terrified. The trigger? Accepting an invitation from an acquaintance she met on the train, and spending five days at her home in Albuquerque.

“I’d stopped moving, meeting and withdrawing from people,” she writes. “Just five days, not even a week, and I was beside myself with terror that I was trapped, that I would never get away from people … To be staying in a house with a family was to be engaged in a way that I found nearly intolerable, actually dangerous.”

Intimacy problems are a cliche of the 21st century. We all know someone who has trouble with commitment, we’ve seen the talk shows and the episodes of Ally McBeal. But Jenny Diski is in another league. She calls it “separateness” and, one way or another, it has furnished her life’s work. Not that you’d guess it, meeting her socially. She can do parties, engaging conversation, laughter – then she’ll come home and go to bed for two days, stricken with self-disgust. She’s the perfect interviewee: candid, humorous, relentlessly intelligent, highly likeable. But not warm.

Diski lives in Cambridge, but really she’s a Hampstead intellectual. She tries to get away with the label “Hampstead frock-shopper” instead, but concedes: “I’m a sort of liberal lefty wet human being who thinks things ought to be quite nice in the world.” There’s more to her qualifications than that. Not every liberal lefty has Diski’s hyper-articulate fluency. Not every liberal lefty has written eight novels, a book of short stories, two book-length memoirs, a collection of essays, and contributes regularly to the London Review of Books. Not every liberal lefty had Doris Lessing as a foster mother and lived in a household where RD Laing was a regular dinner guest. “We were all sent round to the Tavvy,” she says at one point, referring to Hamsptead’s famous centre of Freudian analysis, the Tavistock Institute, in the careless way that Glaswegians speak of “the Co”.

But that was in her teenage years. What came first was much less comfortable.

She was the only child of a Jewish couple in the East End of London. Her father, whom she loved, was a black-marketeer during and after the war. Later he made a living by seducing women who had money. A real con-man, she assures me, matter-of-factly: “He’d gone to prison at some time.” Her voice rises into the register of wonder. “He had an office.” When reviewing Diski’s early life, it’s the touches of normality which surprise.

She would lie awake at night, listening to her parents’ screaming matches, hearing knives being taken out of the drawer. When she was 11 her father walked out for the last time. Diski was left with her mother, whom she hated. Though hate may be too weak a word. “I only have a kind of monster mother, really. I’ve done that thing: trying to think about the good things about her. She had a story she used to tell me, she had a joke – only one, but she had a joke. She was terribly concerned about me, as it were …” She gives up. “I find it so hard to really accept anything positive about her.”

She must have had all sorts of nice qualities, but her daughter just can’t imagine them. A couple of people who met her have told Diski they found her completely terrifying and crazed. “She was really quite unpleasant to me.” “Unpleasant” means ranting and raving, a woman with a history of mental instability who blamed her many disappointments on her daughter and told her she was just like her father: bad through and through. “But what I knew, and I’m talking about six or seven years old, was that I wasn’t bad. I had this little place,” she points to a spot in her solar plexus, “it was a little nugget and I could dive down and check it out and it wasn’t bad, it was good.” Kids have these funny little things, she shrugs. By the time she was 11 or 12, this secret kernel of goodness was gone. “I resolved then to be what I was supposed to be, I guess.”

It’s hard to say which is the more upsetting: this vignette of the 11-year-old brainwashed into “badness”, or the Ken Loach drama of the mad mother who, on being deserted by her husband, refused to claim social security because it smacked of the workhouse. They ended up in an empty flat with one bed and one chair, everything else having been taken by the bailiffs. The mother was not capable of resolving the situation, so the daughter took action. “I freaked out and they sent the social workers in.” She got what she wanted: away from mum. Having a high IQ, she was sent to a progressive co-educational boarding school.

Being bad wasn’t all bad, it was also exciting – climbing out of her dormitory in the middle of the night, going to parties, drinking poteen – but it led, predictably, to expulsion. She went to live with her father and his new lover. They too threw her out. She ended up, at the age of 15, in a psychiatric hospital, not because she was mentally ill, but because nobody knew what to do with her.

Being in the bin was fun in a way, she says. She’d go for her sessions with the shrink and they’d sit in silence. “He’d say ‘have you got anything to tell me?’ and I’d say ‘no’.” Out of the blue, she was fostered by Doris Lessing, whose son had been a fellow pupil at the boarding school. It should have been happy-ever-after, but the very randomness of the rescue was a source of stress. On the ward she had experienced for the first time a qualified sense of belonging. Plucked out of hospital, she suffered from survivor guilt. In 1966 her father died unexpectedly. She left school without sitting her A-levels, went to live in a bedsit and spiralled into depression. Her late-adolescence is a harrowing chronicle of drug-taking (with and without prescription), spells in and out of psychiatric hospital, and suicide attempts.

And then the drugs and the madness came to an end. “I just decided that I probably ought not to spend the rest of my life being a nutcase – though it was a close decision,” she says. She took a secretarial course, found she resented making tea for her male bosses, retrained as a teacher alongside Ken Livingstone, taught, got married, had a baby …

Hang on, what about her terror of being trapped, the conviction that she can only truly be herself in solitude? “I wasn’t brilliantly good at being married,” she admits. They bought a house and turned it into two flats: Roger lived upstairs, she lived downstairs. “As marriages go, it was well-organised.” Then they separated, amicably, and cared for their daughter Chloe on a two weeks-on, two weeks-off basis. Diski always had time to herself. “Had we stayed together it would have been catastrophic,” she says. “My solution to life is to get divorced.”

Her first novel Nothing Natural, about a sado-masochistic sexual affair, was published in 1986. It was a mildly scandalous success. The critic Anthony Thwaite called it “the most revolting book I’ve ever read” and she was banned by the Islington-based feminist magazine Sisterwrite, but mostly the novel was well-received as a timely exploration of a taboo subject. She received a few salacious enquiries as to whether it was autobiographical – which it was, in the sense that its central character had profound difficulties with love and trust. Isolation, emotional emptiness, fear of intimacy, a fragmented or non-existent sense of self: these are Diski’s perennial themes. In Like Mother she used the disturbing conceit of a baby born without a brain, a child its mother christens Nony, short for “Nonentity”. The novel, which recycles much of Diski’s angry childhood, is a bleak, blackly humorous work. Or at least the first 50 pages are. I started reading it after meeting Diski, went to bed, had nightmares, woke up, threw up, and have not been able to touch the book since.

I can imagine the author’s sardonic reaction to this news. Even as she places the most painful material on the page, she remains at one remove from it, a dry, often ironic voice. “I write cold,” she said once. And at times she reads cold but, at her visceral best, the reader can only wonder “why isn’t she screaming?”

The answer is, occasionally she does, but never unreservedly. Not long ago she was watching the movie Now Voyager, in which Bette Davis plays the ugly duckling daughter of a monster mother. Diski started crying. It’s a three-hankie movie anyway, but her weeping went over the score. “Suddenly I was completely distorted with tears. I couldn’t stop. It was another sort of crying altogether,” she recalls. “I suppose you’d like to think that something very deep was being touched in me about deprivation and madness, but what was also being touched might have been something very sentimental and corny.”

She was brought up in a welter of hysterical emotion. “My mother was a kind of joke hysteric, so presumably I withdrew and became a critic. ‘This is a cheap shot’ I’d think, as she said ‘you should have been strangled at birth’.” She’s allergic to easy feelings, what she calls “banality”. Or else she’s so susceptible that she never drops her guard.

Maybe the critic in her senses her interviewer’s latent sentimental streak, for she starts to argue against the line of her own book: it’s not so awful, not fitting in. Separateness has its consolations. “Maybe in the end I’m so narcissistic that I prefer my own lack of belonging. That’s where I belong: my own exclusive club.” Even if it means not trusting others? “People are immensely dangerous, they walk away, say no, betray. There’s part of me that says that’s true, and another part that says ‘what a nuisance it is that I think like that, but there it is’.”

But recent events suggest there is also a third, less resigned part of her. Within the last two years she has uprooted herself from London to be nearer the poet and Cambridge don Ian Patterson. She couldn’t quite bring herself to move in with him, but she did buy a house directly across the street. Does this not indicate a radical change of heart? She is quick to stamp on the idea. “I don’t think I’ve changed since I was three-years-old – I might have a bigger vocabulary, but not much bigger. I just think I’m me with the added anxiety of having a relationship. I worry all the time: I think it can’t be right not to have days and days and days when I don’t see anybody, but it’s remarkably easy.”

Let’s leave her there. I’m corny enough to prefer a happy ending and – who knows? – somewhere under her hardboiled, hyper-articulate, critical exterior, maybe Jenny Diski is too.

Courtesy of Scotsman Publications

Identity Parade

Scottish Review of Books
Vol 3, issue 4, 2007

Jackie Kay is one of those autobiographical writers whose work can also be read as a biography of the times. Race and nationality; blood and belonging; how it feels to be black and lesbian in a land as white and narrow as Scotland can be; what it means to grow up in a country where “Angela Davis is the only female person/ I’ve seen (except for a nurse on TV)/ who looks like me”: these are her themes – and our themes too, of course. Who should know better than the Scots that we are all defined by what we class as “other”?

Darling brings together Kay’s four adult collections (five poems excepted), a taster of each of her four children’s collections including the brand-new Red Cherry Red, and 14 new poems: a life’s work in more ways than one. Kay’s readers know all about her black Nigerian father, the white Highland mother who gave her up shortly after birth, her adoption by white Glaswegian Communists, her sexuality, her son, the break-up of her long-term relationship with poet Carol Ann Duffy. Even when she is not taking the raw material of her life and turning it into poetry (or fiction or drama or journalism), there is a sense in which her work remains autobiographical. As a child with no memory of birth mother or father and no contact with Africa, she forged an identity out of fantasy and conjecture and those few black faces bobbing in the soup of popular culture. As a poet, she often seems to be engaged in an extension of the same project: the construction of a personal mythology through the charting of experiences not marked on the majority’s map.

From the start Kay showed a ventriloquist’s ability to bring widely diverse characters to life on the page. The Adoption Papers (1991), her first collection, gave voice to the birth-mother she had never met, and created a series of sibling “others”: gay miner, transvestite, Aids sufferer, a child born to a lesbian couple by donor sperm. Other Lovers (1993) and Off Colour (1998) added to this family, inter alios, a gastarbeiter; a 13-year-old slave; a black pickpocket transported to Australia; a “Hottentot Venus” exhibited to the crowds in 19th century Europe; and Joy Gardner, the black woman who died at the hands of police in 1993 while her five-year-old son looked on. These works sing with the clear notes of justified anger, but Kay’s more richly interesting poems – to this white reader, at least – address the distorting effects of racist culture on everyone in its dominion, black and white, and explore the play between idealisation of her black roots and self-doubt in the poet herself. Other Lovers contained several poems-as-blues lyrics in the style of Bessie Smith, a key influence on Kay’s childhood. Kay’s Bessie is both inspirational heroine, routing the Ku Klux Klan, and helpless collaborator: “A minstrel… /A clown. An aunt jemima” (Blues). In a parallel poem, the painful Gone With the Wind (painful, certainly, for anyone who’s met Kay and responded to her warmth), she renounces her own smile, overwritten as it is by the reminder of Scarlet O’Hara’s beaming black servant.

Translated to a Scottish context, this ambivalence about her own identity, the awareness that how others see her is inescapably part of who she is, is compounded by further layers of belonging and exclusion. Writing in the accents of working class Scotland, she is at once accessing her own voice and conjuring that of the white population who will never see her as one of their own. The magnificently thrawn old women she brings to life in a series of funny-sore poems and stories are both victims and oppressors. In the delicious Maw Broon visits a Therapist, the cartoon matriarch complains about life as a caricature. Where It Hurts delivers an ebulliently comprehensive summary of national ills, ending with the prognosis “a fucking great fucking big death”. But there’s no comic sweetener to My Grandmother, the poem chosen to preface Darling, with its chilling line “There’ll be no darkie baby in this house”. As Somebody Else concludes, “It’s no laughing matter going about the place/ all the time being somebody else:/ people mistake you; you mistake yourself.”

But to characterise Kay solely as a channeller of multi-cultural ironies is to ignore twinned themes that have become ever more important in her work: love and loss. Read cover to cover, Darling represents a level of intimate disclosure normally experienced only with one’s best friends. But Kay’s is and always has been a wholly unneurotic voice, capable of simultaneously inhabiting a feeling and examining it with absolute clarity. Her second collection of short stories, Wish I Was Here (2006) amounted to an encyclopaedia of separation. Her fourth poetry collection, Life Mask (2005), explored the same territory to ask what becomes of the self when the defining relationship of adult life ends? Inspired by the experience of having her head cast in bronze, the mask poems offer a more inward, colourblind take on personal identity, with the various masks, heads and facsimiles (plaster, bronze, wax, rubber, pencil drawing) marking stages on the journey from grieving to transformation. In Mid Life Mask, “my face splits, fresh skin under the hard white/ …the light/ in the dark sky is cracking through;/ a new woman is out and about. Watch out.” In the 14 new poems which conclude this selected works, Kay seems poised to make good this prophecy. There are poems of erotic and emotional renewal; a love poem to her son; and hints that she may be stepping away from identity, the shifting ground she has mined so productively in the past. It will be fascinating to see what she does next.

Darling, Bloodaxe, £9.95; Red Cherry Red, Bloomsbury, £6.99.

Applause, applause – ‘Personality’ by Andrew O’Hagan

March 29, 2003

There are good novelists who pay the bills with bad journalism and, more commonly, good journalists who churn out mediocre novels, but a must-read journalist whose fictional debut makes the Booker shortlist is a rare creature indeed. Andrew O’Hagan has made the combination work for him, bringing a novelist’s depth of field to his reportage and a deadline man’s taste for actuality to his fiction.

His second novel features an anorexic Scottish child star of the 1970s bearing unignorable similarities to Lena Zavaroni. At first glance she’s an unlikely subject. In an article for the London Review of Books in January, O’Hagan put his hyper-articulate boot into the celebrity memoir genre with its “hummable, weepable, narcissistic self-pity.” But Zavaroni’s journey through famousness was an entirely different order of drama, he insisted: “a properly personal disaster that involved a notion of community and a post-war idea of domestic life, leisure and the good society.”

O’Hagan has a fondness for the big themes: the failures of municipal socialism, the rural crisis, the decline of community, Scottish victimology. His trademark approach as both journalist and novelist is to move from the personal to a panoramic sweep of landscape, history, culture and national character. Without pushing the analogy with Zavaroni too far, there was a touch of the child prodigy about his widely-acclaimed first book, The Missing (1995), and much of the journalism which followed: a precocious assurance which called to mind those tweed-jacketed teenagers who win standing ovations at Tory conference. He was 25 when The Missing came out and already a high stylist and phrase-maker, moving effortlessly between muscular certainty and poetic lament. But this verbal brilliance was a mixed blessing. The words took flight and his argument followed, leaving the thorny, muddied ground far behind; his sentences rang, but did not always ring true.

His debut novel Our Fathers (1999) was, to quote the paperback blurb, “a story of love and landscape, of nationality and strong drink, of Catholic faith and the end of the old left,” which touched all the bases in a way that must have felt more ground-breaking to the Booker judging panel than to a Scottish readership. In many ways it was a classic first novel: clogged with evocation; desperate to say everything there was to be said in the world; too self-referential to fully engage the reader’s emotions, despite its sentimental lyricism. But for all its immaturities, it was a big book with the courage to look beyond the neurotically narrow ambitions of too much British fiction.

If Personality sets its sights a little lower, it is a more reader-friendly novel, more attentive to the nuts and bolts of narrative structure. The virtuoso passages, with their swirling, dizzying accumulations of words, are used more sparingly and to correspondingly greater effect. The story opens in Rothesay in 1977. Maria Tambini, groomed for stardom since infancy, leads the Jubilee pageant, guised as Mary Queen of Scots. Children conjure 1,000 years of history in crepe paper, glitter and glue. Doting mothers hover with tissues and cameras. O’Hagan encourages us to smile at the scene, but his Rothesay (like his Scotland) is a community unhealthily in thrall to the past. Old men reminisce about the superior quality of chips in the 1940s, Rosa Tambini schools her 13-year-old daughter in the songs of Deanna Durbin and Doris Day, and an unacknowledged wartime tragedy casts its corrosive shadow over three generations of Tambini women.

O’Hagan brings a deft touch to the melodrama of Maria’s home life with its mixed messages and double binds. Rosa Tambini spends her life cleaning and crying, stuffing sweets into her daughter and reminding her that no-one likes a pudgy wee lassie, insisting “I only want the best for you” and then accusing the child of selfishness. Personality can be read as a Laingian parable of dysfunctional families and the divided self, or a feminist case history in the school of Susie Orbach, or a saga tracing the interplay of history and personal destiny, but it is most strikingly a meditation on the Scottish immigrant experience.

Rothesay is a burgh of couthy racism; it’s nice to be nice, but it’s not so very long since the night in 1940 when the townsfolk ran amok, smashing the Italian cafes. The Tambinis get by on repression and the relentless drive to better themselves. Two phrases echo through these early chapters: “holding your head up”, and its terrible other, “letting yourself down”. It’s a sort of emotional anorexia, this concern with appearances at the expense of feeling, and in Maria the metaphor becomes flesh – or rather, the lack of it. Every room is a stage for her. Even alone, she has learned to “create a look on her face”. She has Personality, but no spontaneous self. All the significant characters in the book have chapters written as internal monologues. Not Maria. She has no voice, except the voice that sings other people’s songs. We see her, as she sees herself, from the outside. Meanwhile the chorus of brooding, resentful, self-obsessed voices around her takes on a nightmarish dissonance.

When Maria moves to London to make it in show business, this dissonance is amplified. We meet Hughie Green, a dressing-room philosopher just intelligent enough to hear the hollow echo in his own sincerity, and Les Dawson, a backstage performer trapped in a loop of facetiously lugubrious monologue. O’Hagan is good on this cheesily ersatz world of crooners, hoofers and gag men, and if the reader can’t quite believe that these characters live and breathe, well, that’s pretty much the point.

We see Maria learning to tilt her head and bite her bottom lip as she laughs at remarks she doesn’t understand, practising her smile until she’s crying with exhaustion. The gulf between the face in the mirror and whatever lurks within becomes full-blown dissociation. Weakened by anorexia, she is overwhelmed by a feeling she thinks of as “static” or “greyness” or, in a metaphor borrowed from the television, the medium of her fame, “interference”. It’s her inner life.

Eating disorder is a daunting subject for a male novelist, territory the girls (Janice Galloway, Lucy Ellmann, Candia McWilliam et al) have long since claimed as their own. Wisely, O’Hagan rations his descriptions of the subjective experience, preferring to record Maria’s behaviour. There are diet pills and laxatives and sick bags and drawers full of sweet wrappers and crumpled paper tissues. She cooks banquets of superfluous food but eats nothing; tears a strip off the skin of a peach and licks the exposed flesh, then cleanses herself with glass after glass of water.

Two-thirds of the way through the novel, its inspired premise, that the protagonist is the one character who lacks an inner self, becomes a burden. There’s only so much dissociation a reader – or for that matter, a writer – can take. After a chapter revealing the source of the Tambini family’s misery, a tragedy at once personal and world historical, the novel’s centre of gravity shifts. Henceforth the dominant point of view is that of Michael Aigas: a bookish native of Rothesay living in London, such an all-round good egg it’s difficult to understand his attraction to Maria’s damaged goods. (His first job after leaving university, working on a magazine for blind ex-servicemen, just happens to have been O’Hagan’s first step on the journalistic ladder too.) Eventually Michael will redeem Maria, putting her back in touch with her own physicality and taking her to Rome, where her various splits (mind/body, Scots/Italian, child/woman, person/impersonator) can be healed.

Personality is not a flawless book. Occasionally O’Hagan shows his old tendency to over-egg the pudding. The stalker subplot would have been better excised, and a few scenes – like the one where Maria mashes pages torn from celebrity magazines in the blender and eats the tasteless pulp – creak under the weight of their own symbolism. Vividly painted as the Rothesay GP Dr Jagannadham and his gloriously foul-mouthed daughter Kalpana are, there’s an abiding suspicion that they have been created as a politically correct counterpoint to the dysfunctional Italians. Nevertheless, this is a resonant, queasily-compelling work of fiction; a complex, intelligent study of personal disintegration.

Where the novel disappoints is in the final few pages: a relatively minor failing, but necessarily one that casts a shadow over the rest of the book. My first reaction to the happy ending was a consternated second reading to see whether these events could possibly represent the hallucinations of a starving mind. They can’t. But having rendered Maria’s psychopathology so convincingly, O’Hagan makes it very difficult to believe in a cure. In the concluding lines of the novel – Maria’s only internal monologue – O’Hagan slips into lyrical mode. “There will always be the words to other people’s songs, but Michael is here now, and I am here… our mouths open to catch the air and to say what we want to say, to speak now, to speak out loud…”

The words ring, but it is a mark of how O’Hagan has matured as a writer that musicality is no longer enough.

Courtesy of Scotsman Publications

The Atkinson Diet

Scottish Review of Books
Vol 2, issue 3, 2006

Emotionally Weird (2000), Kate Atkinson’s third novel, boasts several suspicious deaths. An English lecturer offed by falling volumes of the shorter Oxford English dictionary; a “harmless wee wifie” who may or may not have met a natural end at an old folks’ home; three murders by drowning (one matricide, one corpse in a silver lamé evening dress and one discovered on a fishmonger’s slab with a lemon in its mouth); a student who overdoses after aborting her lecturer’s baby; and a dog-loving American who takes a fatal plunge over the banisters in an unseemly tussle over a Weimaraner. Mercifully, the latter two exits are subsequently reversed: the first after protests from Nora, the audience of this story-within-a-story; the second when Effie, the storyteller, sets fire to a page from a novel-in-progress (a story within the story-within-a-story) which spookily describes the tragic sequence of events.

In the light of all this, Atkinson’s decision to turn to crime-writing in Case Histories (2004), and her latest novel, One Good Turn, seems at once an obvious progression and a move of some artistic risk.

Atkinson has always played games with genre, flirting with historical fiction, family saga, sword and sorcery, doctor-nurse romance, fairytale, BS Johnsonesque experiment and classical myth. Emotionally Weird contains five works-in-progress, each a pastiche of a different kind of writing, one of them a detective novel that Effie produces for Martha, her university creative writing tutor. An unhappy choice: “the least reputable genre there was, according to Martha (‘Why? Why? Why?’) and I had to pretend to her that crimewriting was a postmodern kind of thing these days, but I could tell that she wasn’t convinced.”

Martha’s scepticism is understandable. For all the ingenious variation of contemporary crime fiction, certain rules are non-negotiable. The certifiably dead do not walk again. Characters do not take awaydays in different centuries. They do not get kidnapped by Artemis, or turn out to be Neptune’s miscegenated spawn. They do not remember life in their mother’s womb. These conditions alone would seem to impose intolerable constraints on Atkinson’s imagination.

Her Whitbread-winning debut, Behind the Scenes at the Museum (1995), which begins with Ruby Lennox recounting her conception, established Atkinson’s distinctive voice: frivolous, playful, unmistakeably feminine, mixing pawky social realism with flights of comic absurdity, cutting through the froth with sudden poignancy, marshalling weighty ideas with a feather-light touch. Few contemporary writers manage to be so sunny and at the same time so dark. In Behind the Scenes at the Museum Ruby discovers that she has been blamed all her life for drowning the twin she never knew she had. Human Croquet (1997) concludes with the end of the world. In A Temporal Anomaly, one of the stories in Not the End of the World (2002), Hades’ chariot overtakes a woman motorist on the M9. She lives as a ghost, invisible to her family, until, for no apparent reason, corporeality is restored. Then it happens again. Atkinson’s books are filled with absent mothers (even when physically present), lost children, family secrets, twins, doppelgangers, unlikely coincidences, out-of-body experiences and dizzying leaps forward or backwards in time. Frivolous she may be, but the frivolity coexists with a flurry of existential panic. The breezy cruelty of Atkinsonland, the grotesque accidents that are at once unpredictable and part of some almost-discernible pattern, echoes Muriel Spark. (Not for nothing is the hero of her two most recent novels given the surname Brodie, we surmise.) But where Spark’s pattern is Catholicism, Atkinson offers us a sort of collective unconscious: a whimsical soup of echoing thoughts and fancies, literary and Biblical quotations and punning gobbets of popular culture swilling around in her characters’ heads. It’s a device which manages to be both anti-naturalistic and slyly reminiscent of lived experience.

Case Histories can be read as an attempt at a postmodern kind of crime novel: a flagrant exercise in pastiche, with the cliches of the genre (televisual and literary) turning up like so many broad winks to the reader. Broadest of these is the battered private eye who acquires another bruise every time we meet him. Jackson Brodie is our old friend the middle-aged, chain-smoking, chivalrous loser. He is tortured by tooth-ache, punched by his ex-wife and the man who has cuckolded him, hit over the head with a gun; his brakes fail; his only child is removed to the other side of the world; and his house explodes “just like that”. At the end of the novel, in an equally preposterous reversal of fortune, he inherits two million pounds from an elderly South African cat-lover called Binky. As one hackneyed and/or ludicrous event follows another “just like that”, Atkinson seems to be teasing her readers: “you swallowed that one? OK, how about this?” And the remarkable fact is that we do swallow it, whether she’s writing a realist crime novel or a time-travelling fable, because the sheer cheek of her narrative twists and turns is sweetened by a relentless accretion of human detail so that even the most self-conscious of readers succumb, suspending their disbelief.

Case Histories interweaves three mysteries, a vanished toddler, a murdered teenage daughter and a domestic manslaughter, with the back-story of Jackson’s own family tragedy. By the end of the book three out of the four deaths are solved, without feeling resolved. There is no easy correlation between technical guilt and moral responsibility, “whodunnit?” remains a debatable point. In the case of the vanished toddler accidentally smothered by an older sister, ultimate blame seems to lie with the sexually-abusing father. But with the stabbed teenager and the axe-murdered husband, the chains of causality are disconcertingly arbitrary. Meanwhile the lack of any identifiable culprit in the rape and murder of Jackson’s sister creates a vacuum that his brother is compelled to fill, blaming himself for not giving her a lift that night, and committing suicide in remorse. Throughout the novel, Atkinson’s focus is less on the crimes than on their repercussions: what it means to live in a world where such terrible things happen. The principal characters are haunted by the impossibility of protecting the people they love: Theo, who arrives too late to save his eighteen-year-old daughter; Jackson, doomed to imagine the sexual violence that might be visited on eight-year-old Marlee; his brother tormented by Niamh’s murder; Amelia’s and Julia’s lives overshadowed by their little sister’s disappearance 35 years before. Undoubtedly, crime is a straitjacket for a writer of Atkinson’s heterodox gifts, but in Case Histories there’s a calculated trade-off: those vertiginous imaginative leaps in exchange for a sustained emotional intensity.

With her second excursion into crime she takes a different tack. One Good Turn is as dexterously plotted as one would expect but, instead of three intricately-overlapping but essentially separate stories, all the loose ends lead back to a single Mister Big. The action begins with a road rage attack in Edinburgh during the Festival, an incident witnessed by five hitherto unconnected characters: Jackson, now sleeping with Julia and living the life of the idle rich but as luckless as ever; Martin, a writer of “old-fashioned soft-boiled crime” novels featuring a gung-ho amateur sleuth called Nina Riley; Gloria, the put-upon wife of a corrupt property tycoon about to be taken down by the fraud squad; Archie, 14-year-old son of newly-promoted Detective Inspector Louise Monroe; and Archie’s schoolfriend Hamish. Before long the developer is in intensive care hovering between life and death, a contract killer roams the streets of Edinburgh, a Russian dominatrix is chumming-up to Gloria, a has-been comedian is beaten to death in the writer’s flat, a beautiful corpse floats in the Firth of Forth, and Jackson has acquired a police record.

Where Case Histories is choked with family love and loss, One Good Turn is subtitled “a jolly murder mystery”. This doesn’t preclude some meaty themes – the amorality of the underdog; the blurred line between symbiotic exchange and exploitation in our dealings with eastern European migrant labour – but the novel seems less dark than anything she has written. Despite a couple of ludic accidents, a doppelganger and some comic-cruel twists of fate, this doesn’t feel quite like Atkinsonland. Her trademark nerviness is oddly muted. The characters are less emotionally overwrought. Without Marlee to worry about, Jackson is not nearly as heart-wrenching as he was in Case Histories. Louise’s exasperated tenderness for her teenage son and her half-acknowledged courtship with Jackson are deftly done, but the novel’s most touching moment is the death of her cat.

The most vulnerable character is also the least appealing: Martin the crimewriter. As fictional challenges go, he’s a beezer: a complete nonentity. The most memorable fact about him – that he was once a monk – is a publicist’s fabrication, but his efforts to put the record straight convince no one. Like Jackson, he’s a stock character made flesh through sharply-observed detail: the sort of man who downloads ‘Birdsong’ as his ringtone and is “pleasantly surprised by how authentic it sounded”. We all know a Martin, and go out of our way to avoid him. Ultimately Atkinson is just too good at establishing his nullity for us to enjoy so many pages in his company, bearing witness to his bloodless domestic fantasies and his longing to write a serious, intelligent (ie non-crime) novel: “Not Nina Riley obviously – linear narratives were as much as she could cope with – but rather something with intellectual cachet (something good).”

Second time around, the in-jokes about crime writing seem less witty, maybe even a little sore. There are more broad winks to the reader – the beatings Jackson collects; the criminal headquarters which vanishes without trace; and the comic climax, when the baddie’s brain seems to grind to a halt “from the effort of trying to work out why all the people he wanted to kill were in the same room together” – but the metafictional games feel tired, as if the limitations of the genre have begun to cramp her style. There is much to enjoy: most notably Tatiana, the feminist dominatrix; and Gloria, lifelong stooge of her monstrous husband, belatedly discovering what it means to hold power in a relationship. Atkinson is incapable of writing an unenjoyable novel, but One Good Turn may delight new readers more than it satisfies longstanding admirers. Overall it reads like that least postmodern of literary forms, the crime sequel.

Candid confessions cut from glass – Candia McWilliam

May 30, 1993

Every reading she gives, there’s one. Tonight’s asks a mangled question involving class and ”congruence” and sincerity. If the meaning is opaque, the message is unmistakeable: you’re posh, you write fancy, your feelings aren’t real. The supreme wordsmith of her generation says nothing. It’s the organiser of the evening who leaps in with an answer, while Candia McWilliam lets that great sweep of hair fall over her burning face and rocks on her chair like a child.

She dwells in the attics of language, dusting off forgotten treasures for everyday speech, dishing up life on great-grandmother’s best china. Not everyone likes it. Some suspect she’s ritzing them, putting them down; to others it’s affectation, setting herself up. It doesn’t occur to them that the rococo vocabulary might be integral, the only alternative to that silent, rocking child.

Next morning, taking tea in the grand old Caledonian, she’s a strange mix of glamour and self-effacement, a shrinking peony who says she yearns for invisibility. Pretty futile if you’re six feet tall with long, winter-blonde hair.

Ironically for a woman whose second novel satirised the ethos of the ‘pink penny dreadfuls’, McWilliam tends to attract the perfumed in a journalist’s pen. She’s head-to-toe in Marks and Spencer, she laughs, but they always seem to have her ”swathed in the rarest of cashmeres”. This is tantamount to a challenge to list split ends and smudged mascara but, in truth, I’m as susceptible as the next hack. She hates what she sees in the mirror, disparaging her appearance with very funny one-liners which are entirely groundless and almost entirely meant.

The voice is deep Oxbridge, at once clipped and drawling, deadpan-droll. Jewelled sentences fall, small miracles of metaphor and construction, from her lips. She knows the accent irritates, and it’s terrible when people dislike you, but to change it would ”whiff of falsity”, so it stays. Having laboured to shed mine, I can only admire her guts.

How to address the question of class and Candia McWilliam? If you simply sort the world into the posh and the rest of us, there’s no question that she’s in the former camp; beyond that the ground gets slippery.

Her Edinburgh childhood was genteel but unconventional, impoverished-bohemian. At boarding school she was all but adopted by her best friend’s father, Lord Strathcona. At Cambridge she felt so out of things she acquired a cat for company. On leaving, she worked in the comparatively classless fields of journalism and advertising, then married an aristo, had two children, and divorced. She won’t talk about the marriage, but reading between the lines of A Little Stranger, with its Dutch narrator observing the alien rituals of her husband’s country estate, I’d guess she didn’t feel to the manor born.

She’s now married to a don at Oxford, a Parsee, who teaches 17th century English literature, but she’s quick to dissociate herself from the academic set. Those cleverly-constructed comedies of manners and menace A Case of Knives and A Little Stranger have made her a fashionable name in literary London but she doesn’t run with the Groucho pack either. She’s too bright to be a social snob, and too bright not to be an intellectual one. (Discovering that the Cally possesses an ‘entresol’ makes her day). The group with which she feels most affinity is women.

She puts it down to domestic solidarity, her homebound life as ”Mrs Average”, juggling the novel she hopes to deliver by September with the demands of husband and small child, but there’s more to it than that. Women feel safe. And Candia McWilliam doesn’t.

”In common with many large people I’m rather timid and jumpy. I don’t like unpleasantness. You know how people love a row? It scares me. I hate raised voices.” Then there’s her preoccupation with sudden violence, the smiler with the knife. ”I’m scared of sudden movements, I’m scared of things happening, and I believe that that fear brings things on. It’s a catalyst.”

Aggression is a feeling she’s never experienced. What, not even the satisfactions of righteous anger? She looks faintly sick. ”Not with reference to myself. I don’t want to be in a position of righteous anger: tabloid emotions.”

Her impulses are quite different. ”I always want to give people a good time. I’ve got a naturally conciliatory bent which is entirely instinctive – my intellect isn’t so conciliatory. I’m a pleaser; it’s a sort of female tic.”

If she’s coming across as human Horlicks, don’t be fooled. Behind those girlish compliments and the flattering adjustments of rapport she misses nothing. She has a cruelly amusing wit when she chooses to share it, but as often her face will assume its absent look and you know she’s passing judgement in camera.

It’s not an unprecedented paradox, astringent mind and emollient temperament, formidable powers and fearful insecurity, but Candia McWilliam is an extreme example of the type.

Her selflessness takes her beyond the bounds of good breeding into the possibility of psychopathology or cant. Recalling the hostile questioner at the bookshop reading, she says her chief concern was that he might hurt those members of her family sitting in the audience. And her own feelings? ”Shouldn’t come into it.”

Asked to describe herself, she shies like a foal. ”I’ve no notion what I’m like. I’m tall… I simply couldn’t. I describe other people.” We move on to other matters but a few minutes later a thought strikes her. ”Perhaps I can’t tell you what I’m like because I didn’t know my mother.”

She was an only child, and an unhappy one. She felt fat, ugly and profoundly unlovable; guilty, too, which meant forever running round trying to make things better. She was a prodigious writer of letters and enterer of competitions, largely for the sake of the return post. If there were fewer than the specified 72 mints in a packet of Matchmakers she’d write to the manufacturers. ”I remember writing to the Bunty saying that my dog could lay the table.” Her face takes on the mock-serious expression she must use for her own children’s peccadilloes. ”I reckon that the people who ran the Bunty realised this wasn’t true.”

Her father, Colin McWilliam, spent his days saving Scottish buildings. Her mother was a talented woman of thwarted glamour, encumbered by housewifery and her solid child. This, at any rate, is her daughter’s view, expressed in the current issue of Granta magazine.

As a piece of writing it has everything you’d expect: acute observation, detail you can smell off the page, language so gloriously chewy it makes you want to laugh out loud, and a certain gothic feel, the shadow of doom. It describes Candia McWilliam’s nine-year-old life until the day her mother committed suicide.

I mention the distress of discovering that it wasn’t fiction, and all at once we’re playing out a scene of high social comedy, the bereaved daughter full of compunction for upsetting a stranger with her mother’s death.

”I’m sorry you were distressed.”

”Don’t worry about me; I was distressed for you.”

She seems surprised by this idea.

”I find it very usual, suicide.”

She has friends whose parents killed themselves; it has its consolations. ”They use it as a sort of sugared lollipop to comfort themselves: the thought that if it all goes wrong they can always do that. But I think it’s very unlikely that I will. That much distress, that early, is in an awful way an excellent property to sustain people when in later life they get their pain.”

Her mother’s death gave her both steel and emotional suppleness. She worries about friends who’ve come this far without calamity, even wondering if she should innoculate her children with measured doses of harm.

However usual suicide may be, there’s something strikingly unusual about this particular tragedy: she has never attempted to ascertain the details. She knows more than she’s telling me, but that still leaves plenty unexplained.

She respects her mother’s choice. ”It’s what she wanted – if it’s so that she died in that way, which was never established.” She corrects herself. ”I’m sure it was established, but I’ve never known, and I’ve never wanted to bother anyone.”

Writing the memoir for Granta filtered into her dream life, disturbing concentric circles of memory, but the idea of digging up the truth appals her. ”That’s like hurting other people’s teeth: why do that? I didn’t want to hurt anyone living. It’s not sort of acknowledged in the very few people I know of my parents’ world. We never discussed my mother’s life after she died, and I love my stepmother. I didn’t want to make things at all edgy.”

Incredulity hangs over the tea table. She smiles. ”I believe in repression. Really. And self-control and good behaviour and jokes.”

She’s a psychoanalyst’s picnic but she’s simply not interested, regarding ”all this self-revelation stuff” with grave disapproval. Unknowability, of people and future events, is a recurring theme in her work. Delving into the unconscious belongs in the same bracket of vulgar fads as entresols, tabloid emotions, and ‘style’ sections in the Sunday press: the banal, reductive consensus of contemporary culture.

She prefers to put her faith in the accumulated weight of civilisation, the freedoms of formal structure, traditional ways. Her thoughts are a teeming, threatening canvas, by Bosch, perhaps, or Richard Dadd. The great thing about fiction is the way it processes the details forcing themselves on her attention. As a child she was susceptible to the allure of hospitals, wards full of crises that could be resolved. She loves the illusion of calm, like sailing on tractable seas. Or writing a novel. ”Ordering things, sorting things out: perhaps I should work at Benetton.”

Her father died in 1989. She didn’t get to his funeral. The awful thing was that it was funny, she says, then says that it wasn’t funny at all. A freak blizzard diverted their plane from Edinburgh to Glasgow, they hired a car but the driver managed to take the wrong turning. She remembers the willpower she needed not to cry, and staring out of the window, and passing Falkland Palace or some such building with a crown steeple.

”All the landscape was black and white and I saw a black horse run across a field. It was like a print, but animated. All the time I was looking at the countryside; it was the only thing that stopped me from howling like a dog. And then my husband said: ‘Colin was always very elusive’.” She gives a smile that threatens to tear her face. ”The real by-product is that, of course, I don’t believe he’s dead. Arriving at Turnhouse the other day, I expected to see him.”

It’s not the last thing Candia McWilliam says, but the story, with its moral of what happens to emotion denied formal observance, stays with me long after the gossip and the jokes. Hard to say why, exactly: something to do with the pathos of the tale and the consummate art of the telling. The man at the public reading might not find them congruent, but it’s the way that she feels.

Courtesy of Scotsman Publications

Digressions of a master strategist – Alasdair Gray

October 4, 2003

Some things they always mention in interviews with Alasdair Gray. His voice, with its alarming changes in pitch and accent. The Loonytoons laugh (hee hee hee). The flyaway hair and glinting spectacles. The woebegone sexual confessions. That beard. No-one disputes the miracle of the books and paintings, but their creator is presented as an innocent abroad, two parts mad professor to one part idiot savant.

I’ve contributed to the legend myself. Eleven years ago I spent several hours alone with him, researching a newspaper profile. The next evening in a Glasgow restaurant I heard my name spoken in conversation and turned to find Gray dining at a nearby table. Naturally I went over to say hello, and was greeted with a politely blank stare. Although he was talking about the interview, he had no idea who I was.

His press coverage tends to be fond and admiring, but also a touch condescending. “Protective” is the kindest way of putting it. Well, you have to look after poor Alasdair, since he’s so patently incapable of looking after himself. An understandable response to someone so thoroughly unconventional, but about as wide of the mark as you can get.

Something they don’t always mention in interviews with Alasdair Gray. Two hours into the encounter, when he has still not answered your first question, you find yourself losing the will to live. There are digressions on his plans for a historical anthology of popular political songs, the 18ft long mural he is painting in the former Bible Training Institute in Glasgow’s west end, Jane Eyre’s and Mr Rochester’s chances of marital happiness, the Disruption in the Church of Scotland, the excellence of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, the financial anxieties of a 68-year-old writer likely to predecease a younger wife… We’ll end the list there but, believe me, I could go on.

Faced with this torrent of words, all you can do is submit and be swept along, who knows where? Alasdair Gray is in many ways a likeable man, but this is not the foible of a charming eccentric. Behind the verbal tics, the sorrys and quacks, the interruption of one digression with another twice as long, is an inexorable will. In all his domestic partnerships, he says, it was the woman who kicked him out because he was selfish. “By which I mean I gave them everything I could see they wanted, if I had it, but all the time I was planning to write and paint things. This meant I could retire into a world of inner space in which I was perfectly happy without them, and some of them resented that, but there was nothing to be done about it.”

It’s not only wives and lovers who have had to bend to this will. Take the example of his last work, The Book of Prefaces, published in 2000. Canongate originally commissioned it, giving him an advance of £1,000. But it proved a larger enterprise than he had anticipated and the advance was spent years before the anthology was anywhere near completion. He offered it to Bloomsbury, if they paid him a monthly stipend of £1,000 with another £600 a month for his secretary, over three years. Then he had to write A History Maker for Canongate because Bloomsbury had gazumped them. Then he “took a holiday” to design a mural, which meant he was a year late with the illustrations for the prefaces. Deciding he needed a patron, he approached the British Council for advice. They referred him to a firm who helped theatre companies with fundraising. Gray was appalled.

“I was at the bloody end of it, thinking I’ve to submit to an examination. I’ve to write a letter saying ‘please will you?’ and they’ll ask to see me and I’ll have to explain who I am and what I’ve done and what my project is and what my mission statement is. I thought, the process of applying for patronage is going to stop me working on this bloody book for another five or six months until I get the money.”

Instead, he approached a Glasgow publican, Colin Beattie, offering him a portrait in the book (alongside the portraits of his secretaries, research assistants, typesetters etc – Gray is admirably scrupulous that way). In exchange, the writer wanted £7,500 in the form of seven post-dated cheques which could be paid into his bank account at monthly intervals. The request, left in writing at the Lismore Bar on Dumbarton Road, stated: “I’d rather beg from somebody I know than from total strangers.” Next day, when Gray and his wife Morag returned from shopping, they found an envelope on the mat containing seven post-dated cheques. “I thought ‘my God, dear me, how strange’.”

Strange? Actually, it seems a rather typical Alasdair Gray story. The impression of chaos. The disregard for the irritating rules by which the rest of the world has to live. The canny circumvention of his own irresponsibility (those post-dated cheques). And the end result: an impossibly ambitious project brought to fruition, with the bonus of two additional works of art. The mad professor turns out to be a master at getting his own way.

For which his readers should be thankful.

We’re sitting in his huge living-room-cum-studio in Glasgow’s west end. A couple of comfortably battered armchairs have been drawn up to the ancient, noisy, coal-effect electric fire. On the easel in the bay window sits a plasterboard panel painted the blue of the night sky with a yolk-yellow moon (preparation for the mural). Bewildered by the sheer profusion of detail – the wall of books, Gray’s paintings end-to-end above the picture rail – it is easy to miss the telling fact that this space is highly ordered. Morag is always complaining about him tidying things away.

Order and chaos: it’s a recurring dichotomy in Gray’s life and work. Or, perhaps, two sides of the same coin. However prolix he may be in conversation, as a writer he is a paragon of concision. “I rewrite extensively, knowing that the sheer boredom of repetition will force me to find ways of shortening it,” he says cheerfully. To third parties – such as the typesetters and assistants he employs – this can seem like eliminating work only to do it all over again; “to me it’s been a necessary path by which you’ve got on to the true path.”

With Lanark, the book widely acknowledged as his masterpiece (though he prefers his second novel, 1982 Janine) the necessary path took 28 years. The Book of Prefaces took him 15 years. His latest short story collection, The Ends of Our Tethers, contains two fictionalised accounts of incidents described to him 30 years ago. His next work of fiction, a trilogy of novellas entitled Men in Love, will (when he gets round to it) be based on television plays he wrote in the 1960s and 1970s. A lesser writer might be suspected of running out of things to say and having to recycle old material but, with Gray, who knows? A 40-year gestation period is not impossible.

There have been times when he felt he’d run out of ideas, when all he could do was tidy things up, answer correspondence, and pay his debts. So far, inspiration – or its close relation, financial exigency – has always pulled him out of the rut. But the hard truth is that working on the sort of timescale Gray seems to prefer is becoming less and less feasible. Earlier this year he fell prey to a general lassitude. He could do what was expected of him as professor of creative writing at Glasgow University, and write in spurts, but it was increasingly difficult to goad himself into action. He started spending the odd day in bed. Two of his fingers siezed up. He was sent to a neurologist who told him he’d suffered a stroke caused by cholesterol in the bloodstream. A few days later he had what he thought was indigestion but turned out to be an angina attack.

The Ends of Our Tethers (to quote its back cover blurb) “shows us the high jinks of many folk in the last stages of physical, moral, and social decrepitude”. He insists mortality is no more of a preoccupation now than it ever was. Lanark concludes with the eponymous hero an old man about to die the next day. Bella dies at the end of Poor Things. All the same, it’s hard not to be struck by the image on the cover of the new book: a naked man with grey hair and Gray’s beard resisting the tug of two ropes. At the other end of each rope is a death’s head.

He’s not afraid of dying, he says. “I’m afraid of pain, I’m very afraid of being hurt, but I don’t think dying necessarily involves pain. Carlisle once said that [he drops into a stentorian voice] ‘nearly everybody will be carried out of this world on a fiery pain chariot’ but actually they’ve got quite good drugs nowadays for that. The only thing that’s depressing about death is if you haven’t had a very full life experience and death cheats you of opportunities you want to have had.”

He seems to have few worries on that front. Artistically, “I’ve been very lucky because I’ve managed to do all the things I’ve wanted to do.” And he reached the apex of his career as a Scot two years ago when he became a professor at Glasgow University. (This is said facetiously, but I get the feeling it’s more than half meant.) When the end does come, he’d like it to be by a stroke. “It seems to be quite a good death.” Both his father and his aunt died that way.

“The Christians keep saying it but I think they’re quite right: one ought to be continually preparing for dying. It doesn’t seem to me a shocking thing. It does mean you know there’s a limit to your time and the things you can do with it. I would really like to die while I was engaged on a job, actually doing it and therefore leaving it unfinished.”

Given his track record, this seems more than likely. Fortunately, all the indications are that his demise is still some way off. After giving up the day job, and losing a stone on his new diet (“no salt or sugar or poultry and greatly reduced alcohol”), he’s been told he may go on for another ten years, or even more. He has a refreshed sense of starting anew, he says, and is now spending 40 hours a week clambering over scaffolding at the former Bible Training Institute, which Colin Beattie is converting into a bar-café-performance space.

Gray is justly regarded as a national treasure. He has written comic fiction, science fiction, fantasy, sexual fantasy, Victorian pastiche, plays, poetry, polemic… but whatever genre he tackles, his voice is unmistakable. At once whimsical and serious, deadpan and emotional. No-one writes quite like Alasdair Gray. The closest counterpart is probably his artwork, with its distinct forms and clear contrasts and, for all that, its ambiguity. But then, as the man himself says, “I believe we are, at the profoundest level of all, quite unfathomable to each other”.

Courtesy of Scotsman Publications

Kelman gets a sense of humour

June 3, 2004

Let us consider James Kelman. Not the real one, the other one. The growler, “literary savage” and purveyor of “crap”. Mister f***ing up to high doh, sworn foe of RP and English cultural imperialism. A one-man mission to fill the shelves of our public libraries with drunks, down-and-outs and breadline desperation… It’s a complicated thing, a public image. A combination of selective truth, willful misunderstanding, projection, intimidation, and juvenile humour. In the early 1990s The Other James Kelman was a great addition to that consolation prize of the stateless nation, the national comedy. It was mostly a media in-joke, but it trickled down to the streets.

We meet in a vegetarian cafe in Glasgow, a middle-class sort of place if you believe to be working class is to subsist on a diet of saturated fats and stewed tea, but he hates that sort of pigeonholing. He shakes my hand warmly. For a time we shared the same publisher. He’s always been open and supportive with me, gentle is the word that comes to mind. And the funny thing is, despite this, the questions I’ve prepared are tailored to someone else, a prickly character who’ll challenge the elitist assumptions behind my every word. I’ve spent hours steeped in his press cuttings: I’m primed to meet The Other James Kelman.

We’re here to talk about the new novel, his sixth. He’s no stranger to literary awards, having won the Cheltenham Prize, the James Tait Black Memorial Prize and the Booker. You Have to be Careful in the Land of the Free reads like another winner. It’s a pub crawl in the company of Jeremiah Brown, ex-barman, ex-security guard, ex of Glasgow, now living in the US. Jeremiah has a runaway tongue, a roving eye, a broken heart, the self-sabotaging/life-affirming streak often found in Kelman’s characters, and the precarious immigration status of a Red Card (third class).

The book began as a short story 12 years ago. It wasn’t even set in America, but there was a life about the character that hasn’t changed. Three years ago everything clicked. “It was much more straightforward for me than other novels, even in terms of time: it’s not one I’ve been working on for years.”

But straightforward is not the same as effortless. Tell him that Jeremiah’s voice really takes flight and he’ll pull a rueful grin. “It’s a difficult thing for me to do, to take flight. It takes a lot of bloody work.” The challenge was to be dramatic within the inherently undramatic structure of a first-person narrative recalling past events. Discussing the difficulties, he alludes to Goethe, Kafka, Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner, Cézanne and Gertrude Stein. “These are the perennial problems for artists: time and movement.”

Abroad, Kelman is recognised as a writer of world stature, a 21st century Modern (though he grimaces at such labels) whose work connects with that of Beckett, Joyce, Kafka and Camus among others. In the UK, his decision to write in the language of the Glasgow working class has occasionally led to him being mistaken for a one-draft wonder, a “savage” with a dictaphone and the gift of the gab. These days he can smile about it.

Some will see You Have to Be Careful… as a post-9/11 book, with its depiction of an America phobic about foreigners and national security. It can also be read as a satire on capitalism and class and the way authority divides and rules. But ask the author about this and he balks, steering the conversation back to the difficulties of the literary form.

It’s easy to get the wrong idea about Jim Kelman. To look at his libertarian socialist convictions and see the fiction as an extension of his political campaigning. The truth is more subtle. There are explicitly political dimensions to his writing, in the literary language he has forged and in the way he sees the world. Translated Accounts, a difficult and harrowing novel written in the voices of the tortured and oppressed, was a blatantly political book. But he is first and foremost an Artist, and refers to himself as such. When he’s writing, his commitment is to the work.

IT WAS THE ROW over How Late It Was, How Late winning the Booker Prize in 1994 which established The Other James Kelman as a UK-wide figure. Two of the judging panel disagreed with the decision: journalist Simon Jenkins, who made the “illiterate savage” remark, and Rabbi Julia Neuberger (“frankly, it’s crap”). Others climbed on the bandwagon. Kelman used the winner’s speech to mount a fierce defence of his right to use the language of his class and culture, pointing out the fine line between elitism and racism. To the casual television viewer he appeared to be biting the hand that had just given him the highest literary honour in the land.

The affair didn’t dent his confidence, he says, but it damaged his ability to earn. “It’s like taking away your living: I’ve a literary reputation, but people don’t think you can sell books. None of the peripheral stuff ever comes your way. You stop getting invitations, I’ve never been asked on a radio panel in my life. I don’t know what it is, whether they think I’d be swearing…”

His face creases into a grin as he launches into an impression of The Other James Kelman turning the airwaves blue, and I laugh, but it’s compromised laughter. It’s too simple to dismiss his notorious doppelganger as purely a media phantasm. He played a part in creating it. You only have to read his polemic: given a choice between cock-up and conspiracy theories (or between what used to be called “the system” and individual deliberate acts of censorship), he’s generally plumped for the latter, and sometimes he’s been wrong.

Reading through past interviews it’s clear that many of those sent to question him have been little short of terrified. The first few paragraphs pass in a swoon of relief that he’s not biting the heads off babies (middle-class English ones, of course). He has various theories about why this might be. His own defensiveness, built up over years of attacks, showing itself in body language and force of argument. The intimidating effect of his commitment to the work. (“At what point does it become a single-track mind or a pathology?”) But also attitudes the interviewers brought to the table: university-educated unease at meeting a novelist accustomed to doing manual work, a tendency to confuse him with his characters…

There was a time when he refused to be interviewed by the Scottish press. “The reviews were fine: it’s the other constant attacks. You become a kind of Aunt Sally figure. You’re trotted out in these stupid articles about so-called Scottish culture and literature, whether it’s myself or Tom Leonard or Irvine Welsh… you get kind of sick of it.” Yet here he is, talking to The Scotsman? “This hostility and stuff is part of your working experience, you have to develop ways of handling it.”

At this point I should mention the most striking feature of his new novel: it’s a rollicking good read, his most enjoyable book to date. He’s always been a funny writer, though the laughter was mostly dark. You Have to be Careful... has its share of gallows humour, but there’s exuberance too, a comic gusto in the language, whether he’s bemoaning the uselessness of American toilet paper or exposing nature documentaries as right-wing propaganda tracts. To the author it has the feel of a first novel. “It’s allowed me to have some fun with invention, have some fun with the politics. That’s been good to do. Some of the things the character says are kind of outrageous politically – ‘outrageous’ isnae the right word: fairly overtly political. It’s not a typical Scottish novel in that sense.” To have that humour and playfulness you need to feel confident and relaxed, he says. “Scotland’s a fairly dreich place these days. Devolution has scuppered so many people’s hopes. It’s kind of deadened it, seeing the timidity of the politicians, seeing the lickspittle nature: it’s turned a lot of people off.”

Fun, playful, relaxed: something has happened to Kelman over recent years. He resists the suggestion that it’s the sunnier attitude to life in the States, where he spent three years teaching at the University of Texas, but he doesn’t reject the idea that he’s mellowed. A couple of times in the past I’ve seen him wound up: bitterly, laceratingly enraged. There’s none of that today. Even when I try to trigger it. He says he’s still angry – “there’s a lot to be angry about” – but even when he’s lambasting the intellectually debased nature of Scottish politics or the way we kowtow to English literary mediocrity, that rueful smile is never far away.

SO WHAT’S changed him? Some of it may be down to age but, with any artist, the crucial factor is the work. “I’m not a believer in the idea of the Great American Novel, the Great Scottish Novel: that to me is real nonsense. The only thing that matters is the body of work. Once you get into that way of thinking you don’t panic so much about when you get a novel out, what age are you, what age are your contemporaries that you see as rivals. You get to things in your own time. As long as you work at your art as consistently as you can, as regularly and seriously as you can, you’ll get to things.”

The change of scene also helped. “It was really nice and natural to be away from Scotland,” he says. He feels comfortable in America: one of his brothers has lived there 40 years and his wife, Marie, has family in Canada. He didn’t have to worry about scraping a living, and he was treated as a writer. “In parts of Scotland we get treated as writers, but often the burden of proof is still on us.” He doesn’t want any kind of special privileges, but nor does he want to have to prove it all the time: “You get reviewed as if it’s your first book, here. The fact that I’ve published 12 books counts for nothing.”

Coming back was a mistake. He was offered a chair in creative writing at Glasgow University, in a job-share with Alasdair Gray and Tom Leonard, but the post wasn’t what he expected. Various reasons, he says. A major part of the problem seems to have been the burden of administration that fell on his shoulders. (“Why get us names in to do all this clerical work?”) He quit last July. The birth of his first grandchild makes returning to Texas less attractive as an option. “But financially I will have to look for something to do.”

For much of his life Kelman has juggled three jobs: whatever was bringing in the money at the time, writing and campaigning. He worked for Clydeside Action on Asbestos, was involved in the Stephen Lawrence Family Campaign, chaired the People’s Tribunal on Racial Violence and Harassment in Hounslow, and has given time to many other causes in the UK, while speaking out for imprisoned and censored writers worldwide. But these days he’s not politically active.

“I don’t know if it’s the energy or what it is: I don’t feel any need. I’m kind of happy with the work I’m doing. I don’t have any time for anything else, and I don’t feel it’s an absence.” He’s coming up to 58: there are only so many years left to accomplish everything he wants to as a writer. He’s taking care of himself these days: not smoking, drinking less. Moderation is the new watchword. “I’m trying to get into that mellow condition that happens in middle age. You want to stay as fit as you can. I do kind of fancy being able to carry on working.”

Courtesy of Scotsman Publications

Dr Black and Mr Blue – Ian Rankin

November 23, 2002

The writer sits propped over his second cup of coffee in a steamy-windowed café, wondering why he spends his days creating killers and psychopaths. “Where do the stories come from? Where does the interest in the stories come from? The stuff must be there inside my head. Even though most of the starting points of the books are true stories, why am I interested in those stories?” It’s around this point that your reporter realises her presence is pretty much superfluous: Ian Rankin is interviewing himself.

He knows the form: a few vividly-turned biographical anecdotes; the odd reference to his Friday night sessions in Detective Inspector John Rebus’s local, the Oxford Bar; a bit of chat about the fans (today it’s the pilgrims who came all the way from Norway only to discover that the author was in Helsinki)… He leans across the table, making eye contact: candid, intelligent, so unaffectedly likeable that I don’t mind him taking over my job: the dream interviewee.

We’re here to talk about Ian Rankin’s Evil Thoughts, a three-part series he’s made for Channel 4. The title and the moodily noirish opening credits suggest a man plumbing the sinister depths of his own psyche, but on screen Rankin comes across as an innocent. It’s hard to believe he’s ever had an evil thought in his life. His idiolect has a Sunday school ring: “wickedness”, “hellish”, “demons”, “God bless him”, “good for the soul”. Yes, he’s a crime writer, but of the tasteful school, not one of those sickos who put their readers through page after page of lovingly detailed violence.

And yet Rankin insists there is little difference between himself – or anyone else – and the people we brand “evil”. I’m not convinced by this; it sounds like woolly cant clogging his Old Testament instincts. So Rankin spends much of the morning trying to persuade me that he has the makings of a serial killer. All the time he was filming he kept seeing parallels, he says. Murderers are only acting out the fantasies of the “normal” population. “All of us have thought at some time or other ‘I wish you were dead’ and for fairly banal things. Yesterday I took Jack [his elder son] and a pal to the tennis courts. There were kids letting off bangers in the play park. In my head I could see myself going up and smacking them over the head with a bit of lead pipe because that’s a quick way of stopping them doing it.

“If somebody came along and killed one of my kids and was caught and put in jail money would change hands to make sure they were stabbed to death at the earliest opportunity…” He asks himself the obvious question before I can open my mouth. “In real life would that happen? It’d happen in my head, but in real life I have the slow-burn liberal response. Would I want to meet them? Almost certainly not, but they would die 100 deaths on paper.”

Nevertheless, given the right (or wrong) circumstances, he’s sure he could commit unspeakable acts. In 1942, in central Poland, a German reserve police battalion – ordinary men, not career Nazis – was told to round up 1,800 Jews, export the strongest males to labour camps and massacre the rest. Anyone who objected was excused from duty, but only 12 out of 500 declined. “Speaking as someone who’s made a life and a living out of not standing out from the crowd, I probably would have gone along with the herd.”

Killing humans is only an extension of killing animals, he says. As a 17-year-old student he worked in a chicken hatchery. Newborn female chicks were fattened for sale; newborn males, which fattened less efficiently, were put in a dustbin and gassed. “I stuck my arm in this dustbin. It was such an intriguing thing: you lifted the lid on this bright yellow fluffy mass. It was the fact that they were still warm that got to me.” It didn’t stop him eating chicken.

“After working eight hours, sweating buckets, these chicks just stopped having any meaning as living things. If one got trapped under the wheels of these huge wheely things – you’d see it lying there with its leg hanging off – you’d just get the heel of your welly, stick it on its neck and crush it. There was a casualness about it which rubbed off on the people who worked there. You did become very blasé about life and death.”

This then is Rankin’s model of evil: chicken-killing writ large, the ordinariness of atrocity. Muriel Spark says we all have the capacity for both good and evil; he thinks so too. “I’ve had road rage. I lived in London for four years. When I started I was a nice placid driver, at the end I was jumping out of the car, thumping people’s cars, kicking people’s cars…” (Fortunately the other drivers were too scared to get out of their vehicles so he never found out whether he was capable of inflicting more personal damage.) “That’s what environment will do for you.”

People who have killed talk of a red mist, as if they’re possessed by some external force. He’s known that feeling. “I’ve got a temper that hasn’t often been tested, but the few times it has it’s scared the shit out of me. The few times I’ve got very angry you do get that sense of the red mist descending.”

Less separates the law-abiding citizen from the murderer – even the mass murderer – than we care to admit, he insists. “Serial killers are very, very like you and me. It comes back to the idea of possession. A lot of serial killers, 99 per cent of them, appear to be normal. They are normal. They open doors for old ladies, give up their seats on the bus, and for a short time something just goes. They change into this ruthless killing machine. Once they’ve done that it’s like their demons have been exorcised and they can go back to being ordinary folk for a while.”

But there is one exception to Rankin’s forgiving theory, a figure who scares the daylights out of him: Moors murderer Ian Brady. “Ian Brady is the one individual in this whole enterprise who I’d happily describe as evil: unrelenting, unchanging, sociopathic, psychopathic, manipulative and just rotten to the core.”

Without consulting Rankin, the television researchers got in touch with Brady’s mother and Brady sent word back that Mr Rankin was to contact him directly. Rankin said no. It’s a surprising decision for a crime writer – turning his back on all that material – but he had no doubts. He knew Brady’s book, The Gates of Janus: “one of the most revolting texts I’d ever read, which purports to be a handbook for the authorities to help them catch serial killers, but is actually a wallowing, an apologia, and attempts to seduce the reader into siding with this man, using a crackpot philosophy from Nietzsche.”

But if he’d already digested Brady’s ideas on paper, what more was there to fear? “A book is much easier to handle, I could put it aside and go downstairs and play with the kids. If you’re sitting face-to-face with the guy you can’t close him out for the hour or two hours you’re sitting with him. Writers are fairly amenable to letting people get inside their heads. Brady was one voice I didn’t want inside my head. There are these unthinkables which, once you think them, they never leave. A guy in London in the 1980s told me about thalidomide porn movies. I’d be happy never to imagine that, but as soon as he said the words, bing! they existed, and there was no escaping it. Sometimes the unthinkable should remain unthought.”

Is he unusually susceptible to the influence of others, I ask – but I already know the answer. I’ve profiled many writers, but Rankin is the only one who’s started behaving like an interviewer. “If you put me with a strong personality, within a few hours or days – say people I’ve worked with – I’d be mimicking their speech patterns and physical gestures subconsciously, so I’m kind of porous.”

It’s the ideal quality for a writer who needs a limitless supply of characters, but it’s a gift that comes at some personal cost. Particularly when the writer’s theme is moral corruption. I don’t believe for a minute that Ian Rankin could turn serial killer, even if he spent ten years in Ian Brady’s company, but I’m beginning to understand how it seems possible to him. He has always kept reality at arm’s length. He doesn’t know why. “I didn’t grow up in an abusive home. My parents were as loving to me as two parents could possibly be. But from an early age I drew into myself and into this interior fantasy world and into a dark place.” He still spends a lot of time there, only these days he gets paid for it. He manages his dealings with the outside world through role play. The Ian Rankin who collected his OBE from Edinburgh’s Lord Provost is not the Ian Rankin who takes his kids ten-pin bowling or the Ian Rankin who goes to the Oxford Bar on Friday nights and tells dirty jokes with his pals.

But there must be a core self? “There is a core me but he’s a pretty sad individual, I think. He likes being on his own listening to Seventies rock music and reading comic books. He’s not a very interesting character, and he doesn’t come out very often.”So he’s Ian Rankin age 13? “To the present day, probably.”

Does this core self have to be alone? The question seems to annoy him. “Writers don’t become writers because they’re gregarious individuals who enjoy the company of others. You become a writer because you enjoy that sense of isolation and a fantasy world. Very much like serial killers. Very much like a psychopath.”

It’s nearly mid-day. He suggests we stroll around the corner to his home. While I’m putting on my coat he arranges our accumulated cups and saucers in a row on the café table. Is he going to return them to the counter? “Just lining them up,” he says.

The moment we step inside his front door Ian Rankin, dream interviewee, vanishes. He makes edgy excuses for the hall carpet and the lack of books in the huge front room, then segregates himself in the armchair in the corner. No more eye contact. He’s fidgety, getting up to remove a stray leaf from the fireplace, stooping to retrieve a toy from under the settee, sitting down again, flicking through a magazine, standing up and staring out of the window. Too late I realise I should never have subjected the porous Mr Rankin to the unguessable influences of home.

In fairness, he has reason to be touchy about exposing his house to prying eyes. More than one interviewer has passed censorious comment in print. Similarly, they tend to disapprove of a 42-year-old millionaire dressing like a student on his beam ends. It’s true that the baggy-arsed jeans, scuffed trainers and bob-a-job haircut sit oddly with the £1.3 million deal signed for his next two books and the four months of the year he spends crossing the globe on promotional tours like a literary Robbie Williams. But Rankin is not your typical superstar wordsmith.

Four years ago I asked him to talk to a library-based writers’ group in Renfrewshire. The fee was £80, which he accepted gladly. The event was advertised, but I expected at most a handful of the general public. By the end of the evening there was standing room only. He had no idea so many people would turn up. For years he had been producing a book every six months, selling modestly, rated by reviewers but barely making a living. He has recently learned that his publishers were thinking of dropping him. Then Black and Blue came out, winning the coveted Gold Dagger award, and suddenly his novels were walking off the shelves. He’s now Britain’s top-selling crime writer, translated into 21 languages, shifting a million books a year.

There was no huge publicity push. The award probably helped, but what really turned him into a publishing sensation was word of mouth: satisfied readers recommending him to friends and neighbours and returning to the bookshop for more. Talking to Rankin’s fans – and they’re not hard to find; it seems everyone in the UK is reading a Rebus novel – there’s a striking intimacy in the way they relate to the books. They believe in the anti-glamour of Rankin’s Edinburgh: not the knockabout Grand Guignol of Irvine Welsh’s city, but a recognisable, feet-on-the-ground place where bad things happen. It makes sense that these fictions would be written by an unassuming, feet-on-the-ground guy.

He regards Black and Blue as his best novel, and certainly it represented an exponential leap in his writerly powers. Rankin attributes this to the birth of his second child in France in 1995. It took the Rankins six months to discover that their blond-haired, blue-eyed son was not a normal, healthy baby. Kit has Angelman’s, a condition which used to be called “Happy Puppet Syndrome”. The impact this has had on Rankin’s life – never mind his art – is incalculable. At one point I ask him if he has had any personal experience of evil. None, he replies. “Unless you mean having a son born with a severe disability.”

“For me it’s one of the great ironies that the books started to get good around the time Kit was being diagnosed, I think as a way of dealing with it,” he says. “I could give a lot of the frustration and the anger and everything else I felt to Rebus. It was a kind of escapism. I couldn’t control what was happening in the real world but I could control absolutely what was happening in the fictional world.”

As with many porous people, the real world seems “chaotic” and “disorganised” to him. (Even those coffee cups.) He writes books to impose a pattern, and he looks for such consoling patterns in his own life too. He can reel off a list of uncanny coincidences in his past, though some – like his friend Joe Rebus (met after he named the detective) who lives on Rankin Avenue – are actually puns: words-turned-talismans to temper too much reality. Words are important to him. After Kit was diagnosed the family returned to Edinburgh and had to explain his condition to a GP who had never heard of Angelman’s. “It’s a microdeletion of chromosome number 15…” Rankin said. The doctor was surprised to hear this coming out of a layman’s mouth, but Rankin has always processed his terrors through language.

Rebus started out markedly different from his creator: years older, hard-line in many of his attitudes, not university-educated (Rankin, with his abandoned doctoral thesis, his allusions to George Steiner and T S Eliot, is the most erudite of crime writers). But the two shared certain characteristics. “There’s all this stuff to do with not fitting in. Rebus doesn’t fit in and I never felt as I was growing up that I fitted in anywhere: living in a rough working-class village, sitting in your bedroom writing poetry. When I went out there was no way I’d tell anyone, the gang on the street corner would have beaten me to a pulp. I had to pretend to be someone else. All that stuff goes into Rebus’s character.”

Thirteen books on, writer and written have started to converge. Rankin is even porous to his own fictional creation, and has to write short stories between novels to get Rebus out of his head. The oft-repeated line is that he uses Rebus to exorcise his demons, but what does this mean? What demons? For once his elegant powers of expression falter. “Things which linger in our heads to remind us of things we wish hadn’t happened.”

His mother died when he was 19. He was a first year student at Edinburgh University, coming back to Cardenden every weekend. “There’d be a bed and a commode in the living room and she’d lie there not doing very much, and you’d sit there not doing very much, and it was heartbreaking. My father had already lost one wife; here he was losing my mum, in her late fifties. It was terribly hard on him. It was grim, no getting past it.” Rebus too lost his parents fairly young, he remarks; in fact on the very first page of the first Rebus book he is visiting his father’s grave. “I’m sure a psychiatrist could read a lot into that. My dad died when I was 29. Losing both parents before you’re 30 is rather bad luck.”

Abruptly he gets up and stands by the window with his back to me, making a clicking sound with his mouth. “I’ve had too much coffee this morning,” he says. “I feel a bit shaky.” Jocularly I express the hope that he’s not having a panic attack, and in the ensuing silence I realise that’s exactly what is happening.

He knows how to control these attacks – take time off, eat less salt, cut back on caffeine – but they’re still a feature of his life. Mostly triggered by coffee and worrying about a book. The danger points are before he starts a new novel, and halfway through, when he becomes convinced it’s the worst thing he’s ever written. Though he’s not always consciously worried when he takes an attack. Sometimes it starts in his sleep. “Suddenly waking up in sheer terror with your heart going, hyperventilating, feeling you’re going to have a heart attack and going to die. Or an incredible adrenaline rush. Or the feeling something incredibly bad is going to happen to you.”

His first experience was when he was living in London in the late-1980s. In 1990 he moved to rural France with his wife Miranda to make a go of it as a full-time writer. He left the pressures of the city behind, but not the panic attacks. Part of the problem was the isolation, he says. He didn’t speak French, so he was on tenterhooks the whole time in case anyone spoke to him and he was revealed as a “foreign idiot”. He and Miranda had left fairly well-paid jobs in London, there was no safety net other than his writing. They were living in a dilapidated farmhouse three miles from the nearest village, 30 miles from a cinema or bookshop. “We were in each other’s pockets, never out of each other’s sight for six years. It’s amazing that the relationship survived.”

In France he couldn’t use language to process his terrors – other than through his writing, which was part of the problem. If there’s one thing worse than being porous, it’s being porous and having no-one around to get inside your head. No wonder he had the panics. But he dealt with them, in his own fashion. “The only way I could get rid of them was driving around country roads at high speed, screaming.”

And that’s the image which stays with me long after I leave him. There’s no reason to believe Ian Rankin the screamer is any more true than Ian Rankin the attentive charmer I met in the café, of course. Orphan, literary superstar, superannuated student, protective father, intellectual pundit on BBC2’s Late Review, fantasist, loner, one of the guys at the Oxford Bar, potential serial killer: he’s all of these. And none.

Courtesy of Scotsman Publications

Born to be a Spy – John le Carré


July 11, 1993

You spend a day with a man who once paid the rent as a spy and denied it for decades, a professional fabulist whose inventions are so persuasive that they’ve been taken up by the trade he affects to describe, a faker so long in the business of supplying falsehood it doesn’t even occur to him to sign his real name. And what do you feel walking away from such a man? Absolute trust.

John le Carré is very good at what he does.

To meet him is truly to enter his world. A lunchtime signing session in a London bookstore proves a cocktail of international glamour and domestic seediness. Highlights include the American thoroughbred blonde and her nervy, defiant eye-contact, the spinster of some parish with her yellowing newspaper clippings and camcorder, the cad who claims to have had a lot of fun with the novelist’s sister back in the Sixties, the retired spook and Oxford chum in his buffer’s blazer, and the Arab siren who may or may not be the London mistress of the octogenarian tycoon. So, you think: he doesn’t make them up after all.

Standing slightly apart from the crush is an awkward figure in a tweed jacket, collar turned up in the punishing heat of a Piccadilly July, who has been hovering for at least half an hour, reading an atlas. The author singles him out with a flicker of the eyes and later remarks that he’s a familiar type: the watcher who can’t join in, a would-be writer eaten up with envy. ”Those are the people that kill you.”

And then we have the man with the Mont Blanc in his hand, sitting underneath a portrait of the Queen, a character at least as exotic as the tycoon, his mistress, the spy or the assassin. David Cornwell, alias John le Carré: 61 years old, tall, handsome in the particular way of Englishmen-about-town in the 1950s, raconteur, mimic, all-weather conversationalist, a chap who dresses his authority in a solicitous door-opening, let me carry this courtesy. In short, a charm artist. The quintessential Englishman. Or is it all too good to be true?

Gliding through London in the chauffeur-driven Jaguar, he points out the landmarks: his father’s club where as a would-be louche teenager he sketched caricatures for a fiver; the Ritz lounge where James Mason held court while filming an adaptation of one of his books; the Aeroflot offices which used to be solid KGB, to the misfortune of innocents who tried to buy air tickets there; Shepherd Market, once all spies and whores and safe houses; the new MI5 offices and, just along the road, the old headquarters now occupied by Kroll, specialists in financial and corporate information-gathering.

He’s touring the bookshops to push his latest thriller; not that it needs too much help. The Night Manager is currently topping the best-seller lists, having gone on sale a week before the new Jeffrey Archer, Honour Among Thieves. Of course le Carré is loud in his condemnation of publishing as a horse race, and insists he doesn’t see himself as in competition with Archer, but the rest of the world is not so high minded.

Store managers greet him with the news that he’s outselling Jeffrey by 20 to one; sales directors smirk at the most peculiar postponement of Lord Archer’s publication date (the book is already in the shops). Catching sight of a magazine with you-know-who’s puss on the cover, le Carré’s publicist tactfully turns it face down.

In one sense the comparison is invidious. Archer writes pot-boilers, pacy but stylistically challenged. le Carré is a classier act altogether, the subject of no fewer than seven critical tomes. Sceptics may dismiss him as a beach-read for Club class fliers, but admirers maintain the books will stand as chronicles of their time long after the vogueish scribblings of the Granta set have been forgotten.

The charmer shrugs this off as a pointless debate, he’s happy being all things to all men, but he clearly harbours serious purposes as a writer. The latest book is an indictment of contemporary England (le Carré’s UK is forever England), a country where the Cold War’s lofty ideological smokescreen has cleared to reveal corruption, materialism and moral bankruptcy. Here we meet Jonathan Pine, flawed hero and hotel night manager, who is recruited by the British secret service to infiltrate the world of Dicky Roper, an old Etonian arms trader doing dirty deals with the South American drug cartels.

As ever with le Carré the plot is meticulously researched, chockful of army acronyms and intelligence jargon and state-of-the-art weaponry, the sort of detail which makes him a godsend of a gift for difficult uncles at Christmas. But there’s another level beyond the leather-tooled, Old Spice masculinity, a secret narrative running underneath the plot. For those who can crack the code, a powerful emotional drama is being played out.

“Maybe it’s a story of patricide,” he says.

We’re in the garden of his house deep in pastoral London: a suburb of leafy winding streets with wildflowers in grass verges, where people enjoy the simple village pleasures only serious wealth can buy. It’s a long way from the cocaine warehouses and jungle training camps of The Night Manager, but then the heart of the novel is much closer to home.

“That feeling when Jonathan is trying to get at Roper, to put blood on his dinner jacket, to say ‘Tell me you kill, tell me you’re bad…’ The number of times I wanted to say that to my father: ‘You’re so bloody glib.’ He didn’t give…” his voice drops to a church whisper ”…a fuck, and his great strength and his great weakness was his fearful emptiness.”

le Carré owes his father everything. He made him, not just bringing the boy into the world but turning him into a spy and, in so doing, supplying his two great themes as a novelist. Quite a patrimony, but not a free gift. le Carré is still paying.

Cornwell père was a conman, a wellspring of outrageous scams and impossible enterprises, a 49-carat fraudster who seldom had a penny to his name but, in between prison sentences in Jakarta, Hong Kong, Zurich and the UK, lived like a millionaire. A character of great colour and charm, he brought life to any party but sucked it out of those unlucky enough to be close to him.

Since his mother ran off with an estate agent when le Carré was six, Ronnie Cornwell dominated his life. A man so oversized, he once wrote, ”that your only resort as his child was to subterfuge and deceit”. Nothing could be taken for granted; home and ”family” changed constantly as his father worked his way through an endless succession of ”lovelies”. Sent to boarding school from the age of five, the boy David never knew where he’d be from one holiday to the next.

It was a migrant, introverted childhood, friendless too. Even today he doesn’t keep friends for long. The world was what he held in his head, everything else was enemy territory. It was the perfect training for a spy.

His father made them feel they were God’s elect just by being his children. It must be a difficult delusion to give up.

”We thought conventional people were bores and in a way they are,” he admits, with a surprising lapse in charm. ”But they’re wonderful too,” he adds quickly. ”They bother about their neighbours, all those things.”

Whatever its traumas, parts of his childhood were very funny: Monte Carlo, St Moritz, the racehorses, the crazy world of a black marketeer in the 1940s. There was the time his father promised everyone a cricket bat signed by the British and Australian test teams and then had to send six chorus girls round to the Aussies’ hotel; they returned next morning with 50 signed bats. Another year, in late December, he bought up the capital’s unsold Christmas crackers cheap and, 11 months later, invited the street traders of London to collect them from his Mayfair offices. Park Lane was jammed with barrows, the police were not best pleased.

When le Carré grew up and became a successful writer he too became a potential victim of these dodgy schemes. His father was always pressuring him to ”invest” huge sums of money and bitterly resented his steadfast refusal to do so. His son was prepared to buy him a house, providing he retained the deeds, and to meet his grocery bills, but Ronnie declined the offer and continued to burn at the ingratitude of his progeny. When the author failed to mention him in a television interview, be threatened to sue both his son and LWT.

In the end le Carré couldn’t bear to see him anymore, although fate did intervene. The last time they bumped into each other was at the Savoy, where Cornwell senior was entertaining. He was pushing 70, still broke, still living like a lord, still refusing to face reality. Really rather funny, his son says.

Was he an evil man? le Carré looks wary. Evil suggests self-awareness or malice. ”Bad in his effects, certainly, but his capacity for self-delusion was so great that I think he had no sense of his own evil. Self-justification, certainly: you could never get him to admit that he’d done anything wrong.” But isn’t that how evil usually conducts itself? Yes, he agrees, it is.

The social services would class le Carré as an abused child. He prefers other terms, but it amounts to much the same thing. ”It’s the experience of everybody who feels abandoned as a child that they feel guilty about it,” he says. ”I think that’s very normal.”

But recognising this tendency is not the same as escaping it. The guilt remains. At one point it even drove him to a Franciscan monastery where he contemplated becoming a monk. The best therapy is writing, he says, working it out through fiction.

A Perfect Spy, the most obviously autobiographical of his books, is the one which comes closest and consequently his favourite; it was also the most difficult to write. He made several false starts, hating what he identified as their whingeing tone until finally he found a device to make the story work. ”I conceived the notion of making the son much more dreadful than the father.”

There’s something very sad about an abandoned child who writes a book to exorcise personal daemons, and ends up by compounding his own sense of loathsomeness. Wasn’t it a real act of self-betrayal? The novelist shrugs. ”You don’t mind about that as long as you get it right.”

You emerge from an experience like that crippled, he says, and it’s a mixture of whom you meet and your own make-up that determines whether you go to the good or the bad or just become ultra-orthodox. On the positive side, it’s not as if he’s scarred to the core. How could he be? There isn’t one.

”You haven’t much centre, but I don’t think artists do have,” he says. ”Even if you knew who you were when you began writing, the act of repeated experiments with your own personality, through the making of fiction, destroys the centre of you in some ways.”

Sadly for both man and novelist, there was no equal and opposite female influence on le Carré’s early life. He remembers finding the various lovelies intensely irritating. The family’s migrant lifestyle meant that he and his brother, the Daily Telegraph journalist Rupert Cornwell, were unusually late in acquiring girlfriends. He didn’t know his half-sister, the actress Charlotte Cornwell, until later still. And his mother was long gone, having elected not to take her sons when she absconded with the estate agent, on the grounds that her husband would have come after them. ”A bizarre notion of motherhood” he remarks.

At the age of 21, le Carré went to some lengths to trace her and they met on the platform at Ipswich railway station. It was an awkward encounter. He didn’t know whether to kiss her or hug her or shake her hand. ”The only memory I could muster was of her ironing and wearing a pink angora pullover, to which she replied that she never ironed and never had a pink angora pullover, so it must have been a nanny.”

He stayed a few days, listening to her talk about his father, until he could bear it no longer and cut short his visit in guilty relief.

It all seems highly relevant to le Carré’s oft-remarked difficulties with girls. As fictional characters, that is. He doesn’t seem under any significant handicap in person. While far too much of a gent to discuss his romantic career, he will admit that he hasn’t led a tidy life. I can well believe it. He exudes that lethal quality, susceptibility, combined with the habit of treating women as if they were fine china which used to be known as chivalry. It’s a novel experience for those of us the sunny side of 40, and enjoyable in its way, but there’s also something unnerving about it, like being handed an unfamiliar passport.

He has been married twice. His first, Ann, served as secretarial back-up to his studies, helping him gain a first at Oxford. His current wife Jane types his manuscripts, handles correspondence and contracts with agents and publishers and generally keeps the wheels running smoothly. It seems somehow inevitable that he should have four sons.

If this sounds like a feminist charge sheet. I’m doing him a disservice. He detests the chaps with their ”Conservative party, backbench, locker-room talk”. Think of him as a double agent, a mole in the testosterone establishment, undercover, but definitely a subversive. The Queen and Stalin hang side by side in his downstairs loo.

At prep school he was beaten for small boys’ untidiness, and found that the only revenge was to learn not to cry. There followed public school, with its ethos of ”muscular Christianity”, a lonely year at university in Switzerland, and the male-dominated life of an Oxford college, where he did his first junior grade information-gathering.

His first job was teaching at Eton, which he loathed for its snobbery and the chappish homoeroticism which flourished there, the widespread sense that girls ”weren’t quite real”. Forty years on, despite his patrician manner and friends in high places at home and abroad, le Carré still feels like an infiltrator in the establishment.

In the course of our tour of London bookshops he is snubbed by a tubby but otherwise unremarkable bookseller who insists that five copies of The Night Manager should meet their demand. le Carré’s smile never slips, but back in the Jag he constructs a complete social profile of the man out of nothing more than a vaguely familiar face: former spook, none too bright, probably the son of a brewery magnate, supplementing his pension with a salary of seven grand a year, almost certainly an old Etonian. The episode clearly rankles, and over the next couple of hours he returns to this character again and again. It’s an entertaining party trick, but beneath the comedy, he’s playing for real.

It’s more than 30 years since le Carré turned his back on the espionage business, but he’s probably exercised more influence since leaving than during the period he was on the payroll. He’s been accused of painting a distorted picture of the service, making recruitment harder, but there are also reports of seasoned professionals adopting the jargon he invented and trying to behave like Smiley. ”Probably both are true.”

While he won’t talk about his espionage experience in detail, he’s anxious to nail his ”idiotic” reputation as a superspy. He was an agent runner in Germany, and a pretty junior one, he insists. There was only one attempt to turn him, by the Czechs, and that was so incompetent he can’t be sure he read the signs correctly. Most of the time it was just boring. He once told Graham Greene he found the reports so dull that he was mightily tempted to juice them up a little and Greene replied blithely, ”I used to fabulate here, there and everywhere.”

These days he leads a much more exciting life than ever he did in MI5 or MI6, travelling all over the world to research his novels. The Night Manager had him hobnobbing with the illegal arms dealers of Columbia. ”It took me back to my papa.”

Intelligence work is a form of clandestine journalism, he remarks disconcertingly: the way everything is interesting, the insights, the nerves. ”You’re conducting a conversation and making quite different findings in your own mind, and then one day a sort of cafard sets in, a weariness of the spirit. You lose your innocence, you recognise people’s tricks and evasions and self-glorifications, and you see them as your own.”

It’s absurd, he muses, this misconception that spies are coldly ruthless. You get deeply emotionally involved. So many people in the secret world work for personal loyalty: I’ll tell you something because I like you. ”It’s because you build up some sort of relationship of trust. And then there’s the other side of your head…”

Did he leave out of self-disgust? He nods. ”Self-disgust, the misuse of charm. I gave it to Jose in The Little Drummer Girl: his charm. He looks at it in the mirror and sees it as a wrecker’s light. It’s the making people do things they shouldn’t be doing.”

le Carré believes that espionage is a metaphor for human relations: the endless interplay of love and loyalty and betrayal, the conspiracies and deceptions of workplace and home. Well, maybe. On the other hand, maybe it’s just a metaphor for John le Carré.

Courtesy of Scotsman Publications