Archives: Works

Mr Wilder and Me

I discovered Billy Wilder’s films in the late 1970s, when I was a teenager. But the first film of his that I saw (on television) was not one of his acknowledged masterpieces – such as Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard or Some Like It Hot – but The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, his reimagining of the great detective’s personal life, which had been a commercial and critical flop.

I’ve written elsewhere about how my love for this film developed into a full-blown obsession. And of course it led me to watch all of Wilder’s other films, and to find out as much as I could about his life: his formative years in Vienna and Berlin, his flight from Nazi Germany in 1933, his transition from Hollywood screenwriter to Hollywood director. I became fascinated, in particular, by his meticulous, craftsmanlike approach to screenwriting, the formal solidity of his plots, the elegance of his narrative structures. Before the age of video recorders, I recorded his films off the television onto audio cassette and listened to them in bed at night, absorbing the rhythms of his dialogue. His influence on my development as a writer was much greater than that of any novelist.

So I have always wanted to write a book about Billy Wilder. But there are already several good biographies. And besides, while writing Like a Fiery Elephant, my biography of BS Johnson, the thought had stolen over me, more than once, that it might have been a better idea to write a novel about him instead. I might have got closer to him that way; perhaps even written something more truthful. And so I finally arrived at the idea that my book about Wilder should be a work of fiction, albeit based on real events.

The real event I chose to focus on was the making of Fedora, Wilder’s penultimate film – one of his most rarely-viewed, and one of his most puzzling. I knew that it had not been an altogether happy experience, either for Wilder himself or for his co-writer IAL Diamond (who is also an important figure in my book). So because I didn’t want this to be a bitter novel, a story of failure and disappointment, I decided to narrate it through the eyes of a completely invented character – a young Greek woman called Calista, who is taken on as an interpreter during Fedora’s location shoot, and who is full of optimism and starry-eyed wonder at being admitted into the world of Hollywood filmmaking.

I wanted to write a novel about the nature of creativity, and how it changes as you grow older. About the relationship between America and Europe. About the love between two professional colleagues (Wilder and Diamond) who in many ways are closer to each other than they are to their wives. About the most intense forms of personal grief, how you deal with them and how they find their way into your art. Above all, I hope it will be a novel that will make its readers want to watch Billy Wilder films again.

Loggerheads and Other Stories

Loggerheads and Other Stories is a collection of all my short stories written prior to 2013. In the UK it is available only as a Kindle e-book. Essentially it is an expansion of the collection 9th and 13th which Penguin published in 2005. It contains seven stories:

9th and 13th




Ivy and Her Nonsense


Rotary Park

The stories ‘9th and 13th’ and ‘Pentatonic’ were written to be performed to music by Danny Manners, and in my view this is the best way to experience them. You can hear ‘9th and 13th’ on Spotify here, and buy ‘Pentatonic’ as an audiobook here.

Since compiling Loggerheads I have written one more short story, ‘Canadians Can’t Flirt’, collected in the Henry James-inspired anthology Tales From A Master’s Notebook (Vintage, 2018). This story introduces the characters of Lionel Hampshire (a prizewinning British novelist) and the journalist Hermione Dawes, both of whom reappear in Middle England. 

The Italian print edition of Loggerheads, Disaccordi imperfetti, also contains the autobiographical essay ‘Diary of an Obsession’, an account of my lifelong relationship with the Billy Wilder film The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. (Which can also be read here.) The French edition is much shorter: it contains ‘Diary of an Obsession’ but omits ‘Loggerheads’, ‘Leiden’, ‘Pentatonic’ and ‘Rotary Park’.

Marginal Notes, Doubtful Statements: Non-fiction, 1990-2013

Marginal Notes, Doubtful Statements is a collection of essays, interviews and journalism which in the UK is available only as a Kindle e-book. It contains some of my earliest journalism from The Wire magazine, when I was commissioned to interview musicians like Brian Eno and Steve Reich, as well as essays about most of my favourite writers and film directors. The full contents are as follows:

Marginal Notes

Henry Fielding: Tom Jones / Jonathan Swift: Gulliver’s Travels / Laurence Sterne and BS Johnson / Alasdair Gray (I): 1982, Janine / Billy Wilder (I): Diary of an Obsession / The Canterbury Scene / Interviewing Brian Eno / Interviewing Steve Reich / Frederic Tuten: Tintin in the New World / Interviewing William Gaddis / NF Simpson / Kenneth Williams / Jacques Tati / David Nobbs: The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin / Virago Modern Classics / Rosamond Lehmann: Dusty Answer / Rosamond Lehmann: The Echoing Grove / Billy Wilder (II) / Hitchcock and Disney / Film adaptations / Bill Forsyth: Comfort and Joy / John  Davis / Lindsay Anderson: Britannia Hospital /  ‘State of the Nation’ Novels / Alasdair Gray (II): Old Men in Love / Stefano Benni: Margherita Dolce Vita / Louis Paul Boon: Chapel Road.

Doubtful Statements

Why I Write / Shropshire / Cambridge / Music and Me / Memories of the 1980s / What a Carve Up! / Interviewed (I): by Philip Tew / The Paradox of Satire (I) / The Paradox of Satire (II) / New Labour / London / Bromsgrove / Filming The Rotters’ Club / Writing the Contemporary / Interviewed (II): by François Gallix and Vanessa Guignery / Where I Write / Christmas in Tromso / Through Switzerland by Train / Say Hi to the Rivers and the Mountains / Interviewed (III): by Roberto Bertinetti / The Death of Margaret Thatcher / The Tolkien Lecture, 2012: Doubtful Statements.

(The French print edition is shorter and omits some of these items. It also contains an introduction by Vanessa Guignery.)



The Broken Mirror

Back in the summer of 1983, I had a few months to spare between finishing my degree at Cambridge and beginning my PhD at Warwick. The only thing I remember about that summer is that I spent much of it writing a novel for children called Fragment of a Glass. It wasn’t a very original piece of work: basically just an imitation of CS Lewis’s Narnia series. Four children staying at their grandparents’ house during the summer holidays find their way into a parallel world and have a number of fantastic adventures there.

A few years ago I dug the manuscript out of storage to see if it was suitable for reading aloud to my own children. I could see that it didn’t work, as a whole, but there were things about it that I liked. I liked the way that (even though it was quite a short book) the children grew up during the course of the narrative: they started out at the age of about eight or nine, and by the end of their story they were in their late teens. It seemed that I’d been trying to capture something about what it was like to grow up, leaving your childhood and your youthful fantasies behind.

The other thing I liked was the central narrative device: the children find a fragment of broken mirror which reflects a world other than the one they are living in. In my original novel I groped towards the possibility of using this as a metaphor for the child’s imagination, but didn’t really develop the idea.

And so I decided to salvage these two aspects of the original book, and weave them into a shorter, more compact story. From the beginning, I knew that I wanted it to be an illustrated book, and I didn’t have to look far before finding the perfect artist as a collaborator: during a visit to Naples I discussed the project with my friend Chiara Coccorese, and she immediately offered to work with me on the story. It was a true collaboration in the sense that she drew some of her pictures even before I had written the relevant section of the text, and so I took my inspiration for those parts of the story directly from her images. You can see a couple of her beautiful illustrations here and here.

The book was published in Italian first of all, and didn’t appear in the UK until the crowdfunding publisher Unbound agreed to take it on in 2017. Much had changed in Britain (and the rest of the world) in the intervening five years, so I re-wrote the second half of the book completely to give it a darker mood. But the story still ends on a note of gentle optimism.

The Story of Gulliver

In the autumn of 2010 I was invited to give a talk in Turin, to students of the Scuola Holden, the creative writing school set up there by Alessandro Baricco. During the course of my visit, one of the directors of the school, Marta Trucco, told me about a project they had rececently undertaken: a series of books called Save the Story. The idea had been Alessandro Baricco’s, and it was quite simple: to commission a number of writers from Italy (Umberto Eco, Stefano Benni) and elsewhere (Dave Eggers, Ali Smith) to re-tell one of their favourite works of classic literature as a children’s story.

Behind the project was the slightly elegaic feeling that some of the greatest, most primal and archetypal stories in world literature were in danger of slipping out of the collective memory. Baricco’s idea was that these narratives could be re-invented as bedtime stories, each one of which could be read aloud, over a period of a week or so, to children of perhaps eight or nine.

I was delighted to take part in the project, and even more delighted that no one had already bagged one of my favourite works from the eighteenth century: Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. I set to work and wrote my version in the first few weeks of 2011.

Gulliver’s Travels is unusual among the classics of English-language literature in that it already has a second life as a children’s book. I was given one of these abridgements myself when I was about ten years old,  but only managed to read the first few pages. I knew there was an intriguing story to be found in there somewhere, about a mariner who gets shipwrecked in a land of giants and a land of little people, but no attempt had been made to make Swift’s language more accessible for children: at the time I found it unreadably dry and difficult.

A few years later, in my late teens, I was beginning to develop a taste for eighteenth-century literature, especially anything in a comic or satirical vein. That was when I read Gulliver’s Travels properly for the first time, and realised, of course, that it was one of the greatest satires not just of its time, but of any era.

For my re-telling, I was determined to keep all four sections of the narrative: many children’s versions of Gulliver only retain the first and second, but the third (mainly concerned with the flying island of Laputa) is hilarious, and the fourth (Gulliver’s visit to the land of the Yahoos and the talking horses) is where you find the book’s dark, merciless heart. And since Swift leaves us with such a sense of profound and aching ambiguity about where humankind should be placed on the spectrum between animalistic savagery and sublime rationality, I felt it right that my version should end not with a statement, but with a question.

I wasn’t familiar with the work of Sara Oddi before she supplied her illustrations, but I think they are wonderful: a perfect match between text and image.

Humphrey Bogart: Take It And Like It

In the early 1990s most of my energy was devoted to writing What a Carve Up!, while also doing some arts journalism – mainly for the GuardianThe Wire and the Sunday Times. I had no advance (or contract) for the novel, and the journalism was not especially well-paid, so money was a problem. It was therefore a great blessing when Bloomsbury approached me to write a book about Humphrey Bogart for what seemed to me quite a generous flat fee.

The brief was very simple. A picture researcher, Juliet Brightmore, had assembled a collection of some 200 photographs, and I was to write a 30,000-word text to go with them, tracing the story of Bogart’s life and adding some critical assessment of the films. Not all the films were easy to see, as this was in the days before streaming video or even DVDs. I managed to buy about a dozen of Bogart’s films on VHS, viewed some more on a Steenbeck machine at the BFI in Stephen Street, London, caught a few more on television and either wrote about the others from memory or never saw them at all. The writing and research took about three months altogether.

It’s not a book with which I feel a strong personal connection – even the subtitle, Take It and Like It, was dreamed up not by me but by the editor, David Reynolds – but it was a vital commission, at the time, which enabled me to continue with the writing of What a Carve Up!.

James Stewart: Leading Man

Following healthy sales of my Humphrey Bogart biography, Bloomsbury thought a sequel might be worthwhile. We vacillated briefly between Cary Grant and James Stewart as potential subjects, before opting for the latter. The brief was the same: a picture researcher put together a large collection of photographs, and I had to weave a short critical biography around them. This time I was delighted by the choice of actor as it gave me the opportunity to write at some length about Stewart’s films with Alfred Hitchcock, and also to discuss one of my all-time favourite films, Ernst Lubitsch’s The Shop Around The Corner.

Despite his famous conservatism, Stewart had always struck me as a complex and introverted actor, whose career dramatises the neurosis and violence at the heart of American values rather than offering a simple celebration of them. I tried to pursue this line of argument by reference to films such as It’s A Wonderful Life (which I’ve never liked), HarveyBroken Arrow and of course Rear Window and Vertigo. My thesis has not been to everyone’s taste and over the years the book has received some flak from American Jimmy Stewart fans. Nonetheless, I put more of myself into this book than the Humphrey Bogart one, even though the primary objective was the same: to support myself financially during the closing stages of writing What a Carve Up!.

Like A Fiery Elephant: The Story of B.S. Johnson

The circumstances which led me to write this book are fully explained in the introduction. Essentially, I was fascinated by the figure of BS Johnson ever since I first glimpsed him – when I was thirteen years old – presenting a television film he had made just two or three weeks before he took his own life in October 1973. I subsequently discovered his novels when I was a postgrad student at Warwick University, and realised at once that I had chanced upon a writer who was going to be immensely important to me.

For those unfamiliar with his work, Johnson was a supremely inventive and innovative British writer who published seven novels between 1963-1973. I was commissioned to write his biography in 1995, by Peter Straus who was then an editor at Picador. We secured the co-operation of Johnson’s estate, and his widow Virginia generously allowed me complete access to his massive archive of letters, diaries, manuscripts and notebooks, which had been sitting unread at her house for more than twenty years.

Because Johnson had a relatively short life (he committed suicide at the age of 40), I naively thought that writing his biography would be a simple task, one which could be completed in a couple of years and slotted in comfortably between periods of work on The Rotters’ Club. Instead, it proved a long and demanding project. I quickly realised that Johnson – a big man, in both physique and personality – had squeezed a huge amount of living into his forty years; more than many people manage in twice that time. It soon became apparent too, that it wasn’t enough to simply sketch the outline of his life and work: the very nature of his writing meant that this would have to be an ambitious and wide-ranging book, addressing the fundamental motives and contradictions at the heart of all literary activity.

The TV film which sparked my youthful fascination for BS Johnson was called Fat Man On A Beach, and can be seen on the bfi DVD of his film work which you can buy here.

The Accidental Woman

I started writing this novel in September 1984 and finished it in the early summer of 1985. At the time I was a postgraduate student at Warwick University, writing a thesis on the use of intrusive narration in Fielding’s novels. No doubt this partly explains why the novel has such an intrusive narrator, but there were two more important influences on the book: B S Johnson’s Christie Malry’s Own Double Entry (which I had only just discovered), and the early novels of Samuel Beckett. Calling my heroine ‘Maria’ was meant to be a delibrate hommage to Beckett’s ‘M’ characters – Murphy, Molloy, Malone. In fact the novel was originally entitled Maria, but my then editor at Duckworth, Colin Haycraft, advised against this title, saying that it was uncommercial. When I came up with The Accidental Woman instead, he liked it because he thought I was deliberately pastiching Iris Murdoch’s An Accidental Man – a novel which I’d never read. (And still haven’t.)

It was Colin Haycraft’s wife, Anna, who was responsible for getting me published in the first place. Her own novels,  published under the pseudonym Alice Thomas Ellis, were extremely popular at the time, although many of them have sadly gone out of print since her death in 2005. She was also the fiction editor for Duckworth and, sensing some affinities between her books and mine, I sent the manuscript to her on spec (I didn’t have an agent back then) after it had been rejected by about fifteen other publishers. To my amazement she read it, liked it and told her husband to publish it. Which he did. That first Duckworth edition was not exactly a runaway success, selling a grand total of 273 copies in hardback. But, even though I was so young when I wrote The Accidental Woman – so young that it now feels like the work of a different person altogether – it pleases me that the book is still attracting readers more than thirty years later.

There is now also an audiobook version, beautifully read by Sophie Ward.

A Touch of Love

Before The Accidental Woman I had attempted to write two highly autobiographical novels. The first of these, The Sunset Bell, was completed in the early 1980s but never published. The second, Paul’s Dance, was abandoned after I had written about 100,000 words. The Accidental Woman, with its female protagonist and deliberately experimental approach, was written as a conscious reaction against these two books.

With A Touch of Love, though, I returned to the autobiographical mode. The main character, Robin, is identifiably a version of myself, and some of the other characters are also based on friends and acquaintances from my time at Warwick University.

Besides the main narrative, the novel also contains four interleaved short stories, and the reasons for this technique were entirely practical. I was still an unpublished writer when I began work on the book, and after all the rejections I had received for The Sunset Bell and The Accidental Woman, I was beginning to despair of ever getting a novel published at all. I thought that if I also wrote four self-contained short stories to be included within the main narrative, I might be able to get them published separately in a small literary magazine like Stand or the London Magazine. Half way through the writing of the book, though, The Accidental Woman was accepted by Duckworth, who indicated that they would also take A Touch of Love, so I abandoned the idea of publishing any of it separately. The idea of incorporating four separate short stories into a novel recurs in The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim.

Anna Haycraft at Duckworth didn’t like A Touch of Love as much as she had liked the previous novel. For one thing, she didn’t care for my working title, which was The SeparatistNumerous variations were tried (such as In The Absence of Friends) until I remembered being struck by the phrase ‘a touch of love’ while reading Simone Weil’s Gravity and Grace. As you can see from the cover gallery below, this title has led some publishers to market the novel as being more romantic than it really is.

Originally the whole of the first section of A Touch of Love (‘The Meeting of Minds’) was written in the first person, from the point of view of Robin’s friend Ted. Anna also objected to this idea, and asked me to change it to a conventional third-person narrative, which I did. The original (first-person) version, which I re-read not long ago, has a very different – much darker – tone and atmosphere.

Like The Accidental Woman, A Touch of Love sold only about three hundred copies in hardback. The remaining copies were pulped, making it one of the most difficult of my editions to find on the second-hand market.