Each of my novels seems to be a reaction to the one that came before it. After the tricksy, multi-layered narrative of A Touch of Love, I decided to write something simpler.
The story grew out of my experience of playing in a band called The Peer Group during the mid-1980s. The band was formed in 1985, when I was still studying at Warwick University. Most of the other members, however, were medical students at Guy’s Hospital in South London, so that was where our rehearsals usually took place. We began by playing mainly my own compositions, which tended to be tuneful, jazzy instrumentals in the vein associated with Canterbury-school bands like Caravan and Hatfield and the North. Gradually we moved in a more poppy direction, and ended up sounding (or trying to sound) a bit like Everything But The Girl or Prefab Sprout. Our most distinctive feature was the quirky, oblique lyrical content of the songs – all the words were written by our drummer, Ralph Pite, now the author of an excellent biography of Thomas Hardy among many other books.
In the late 90s I co-wrote the screenplay of a film adaptation, Five Seconds to Spare, which starred Max Beesley, Andy Serkis, Ray Winstone and Anastasia Hille. Despite this fine cast, in retrospect I can see that the film suffers from an imbalance between the musical background, the central love story and the murder mystery – the same problem that you find in the book, in fact.
My short story ‘V.O.’, contained in Loggerheads and Other Stories, is a sort of sequel to this novel, revisiting the hero, William, a few years later when he has become a well-known composer of film music.
This novel arose from the combination of two separate ideas. One was an idea for a dark comedy, about a man who falls so deeply in love with a gay woman that he is prepared to do anything to win her affection. The other was an idea for a story about a group of patients at a clinic for the treatment of sleep disorders. Eventually I realised I could combine these ideas, and that the link between them should be a building – a house, standing on the edge of a cliff beside the ocean, which in the first of the novel’s time-frames would be used as accommodation for a group of students, and in the second as a sleep clinic.
In the light of this, it might seem that The House of Sleep would be an obvious choice of title for the novel from the very beginning. In fact I had several other working titles. The first one was Dreams Wide Awake, after the tune by Phil Miller from the National Health album Of Queues and Cures. Then I thought of using Dreams So Real, which is the title of a beautiful song by Carla Bley, and would have been very appropriate for Sarah and her vivid narcoleptic delusions. Finally I decided to call it Somniloquy, after the poem near the end of the novel. It was my editor at Penguin who very sensibly decided that The House of Sleep was actually the best title. (Though of course it isn’t really mine – it’s ‘stolen’ from the book by Frank King.)
The sonnet at the end of the novel has been set to music by Danny Manners, and you can hear his version sung by Louis Philippe on the album 9th and 13th. You can listen to it here on Spotify.
The Rotters’ Club was never intended to be a stand-alone novel. It began life as an idea I’d had when I was still a schoolboy, and the plan was always to make it the first volume of an enormous roman fleuve along the lines of Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time. In fact, when I began to work seriously on this idea in 1997, my intention was to write six novels involving the same characters. The first one was provisionally entitled The Learning Curve, and the last one was always going to be called The Closed Circle. The idea was that the covers of each book should have an arc of a circle on them, and when you arranged the books into a rectangle, and put the covers together like the pieces of a jigsaw, a completed or ‘closed’ circle would be revealed.
Perhaps this plan was always too ambitious: in any case, I quickly decided that I would only write two of the projected sequence – volume one (now called The Rotters’ Club) and volume six. The Closed Circe is often referred to (including by me) as a ‘sequel’ to The Rotters’ Club, but a better phrase might be ‘companion piece’; or better still, ‘mirror image’. I don’t know, for instance, if many people have noticed that the two novels have exactly the same number of chapters, but in The Closed Circle they are numbered in reverse order; or that the last words of each of the three sections of The Rotters’ Club are also the titles of those sections, whereas in The Closed Circle, the same is true of the first words of each section. These were among a number of devices I used to ensure that the two novels ‘reflected’ each other as precisely as possible.
The Closed Circle originally ended with a chapter numbered ‘0’, which consisted solely of a cutting from a financial newspaper making clear that the quartet of businessmen known as the ‘Phoenix Four’, who seemed to have come to the rescue of the failing Longbridge factory, were in fact taking alarming sums of money out of it in the form of pensions and payments for themselves. (£42 million according to some reports.) This chapter was removed – slightly to my regret – because early readers of the novel found it too downbeat and pessimistic.
Things do not work out too well in The Closed Circle for Benjamin Trotter, my hero and alter ego. His misfortunes weighed on my mind in the years after publishing the book, and it was partly to give Benjamin some luckier breaks that I decided to revisit his character for my novel Middle England more than a decade later.
To the west of Newport in Shropshire lies a village called Cherrington. This was where my maternal grandparents retired in the 1960s, and where I spent some of the happiest times of my childhood.
After my grandfather died of lung cancer in 1985, I began to wonder how I could memorialise this Shropshire part of my family history in fiction. I conceived of a series of interlinked stories and novellas and novels which might have the general title An Easterly Wind. In the mid-1980s I made some early, very fragmentary notes towards this project: I imagined a novel which would begin with a family party, in the garden of a house on the outskirts of Birmingham, where the attention of the guests would be drawn to a young, fair-haired girl who would be blind, and whose relationship to the other family members would not at first be understood.
The idea was abandoned for a while as I worked on my other novels. Then, in 1990, I was commissioned to write a short story for a Christmas issue of the (now defunct) newspaper The Sunday Correspondent. I wrote a story called ‘Ivy and Her Nonsense’ which took place over Christmas in two Shropshire houses which were closely based on my grandparents’ and my great uncle’s. The paper’s literary editor didn’t like the story and it wasn’t published – at least not until 1995, when an expanded version appeared in a boxed set of ten short stories published to celebrate Penguin’s 60th anniversary. (It can now be read in the collection Loggerheads and Other Stories.) This story sowed the seeds for The Rain Before It Falls, by introducing the characters of Gill and her brother David, and the Christmas party which it describes is precisely revisited in the fifteenth section of the novel.
Apart from this, I’ve discussed the various sources of inspiration for The Rain Before It Falls many times in interviews. Among other things, of course, it is meant to be a sustained hommage to the novels of Rosamond Lehmann – the clue is in the main character’s name – which I first encountered in the 1980s, and which I’ve written about in this Guardian article.
The novel also owes a big debt of inspiration to Theo Travis, whose album of solo, multitracked flute improvisations Slow Life was playing on my iPod during much of the writing.
I wanted this novel to be, among other things, a sort of British ‘road movie’, finding narrative interest in a journey along the M40, the A5192 and the A74(M) – names which always sound so prosaic alongside their glamorous American counterparts like Highway 61 or Route 66. In this respect, Lindsay Anderson’s film O Lucky Man! was a big influence. I’ve always loved the way that film finds a kind of bleak visual poetry in Britain’s motorway network. I was also inspired by Henry Fielding’s two great picaresque novels, Joseph Andrews and Tom Jones, and the narrative energy they generate by sending their heroes on long journeys filled with random comic adventures.
As for my own hero, Maxwell Sim, I was hoping to make him a kind of Everyman, although I wonder now if such a thing is possible in today’s world, fractured as it is by the onset of identity politics. I wanted, at any rate, to make him as ordinary as possible: an ordinary man, doing an ordinary job in an ordinary town.
That, I suppose, is the real ambition of the novel: to find a kind of mystery and romance and strangeness at the heart of the deeply ordinary. I always hoped that this would give the book a universal appeal, despite its many specific references to British geography, and so it was very satisfying when the French director Michel Leclerc adapted it for the screen in 2015, relocating all the action to France, and succeeded in capturing the essence of the story. Jean-Pierre Bacri, although he bears no physical resemblance to my own image of the central character, was brilliant in the title role. You can see the trailer for the film here.
Following the financial crash of 2008, Britain elected a coalition government led by David Cameron and Nick Clegg, which instituted a punishing programme of austerity in order to reduce government borrowing. It was in this context, early in 2014 – as Britain’s wealthiest 1% seemed to be enjoying ever more comfortable lifestyles, while dependence upon food banks was also rising all over the country – that I decided it was time to revisit the world of my most overtly political novel, What a Carve Up!.
I couldn’t write a straightforward sequel to the book, however, for the simple reason that nearly all of the major characters (spoiler alert) had been killed in the final chapters. But I wanted to write something to show that the spiritual descendants of the corrupt, venal Winshaw family were alive and kicking in Britain today. I decided the best thing would be to retain the few surviving characters (notably Phoebe, the young artist from What a Carve Up!, and Hilary Winshaw’s daughter Josephine) and try to recapture the mode of horror-comedy that seemed to have worked in the earlier book. A day at the Beverley literary festival in the autumn of 2013 had ended in an atmospheric, somewhat eerie visit to Beverley Minster at dusk, and that gave me the inspiration for the novel’s opening pages.
In a piece published around this time for the London Review of Books, I’d expressed my growing disenchantment with comedy as a means of provoking political change. (You can read the piece here, or in my collection Marginal Notes, Doubtful Statements.) Satire, I was beginning to think, could still be effective but did not necessarily have to be funny. With Number 11, therefore, the idea was to make readers feel fearful and uneasy, rather than making them laugh. The book draws on memories of things that had scared me as a child, from Hitchcock’s Psycho to the stories of H G Wells. Formally, too, I decided to make the book not a simple, linear novel, but to construct it as a network of five, interlocking novellas, taking inspiration from the British horror-movie anthologies that had been so popular in the 60s and 70s: one of these, Tales that Witness Madness, provided the book with its subtitle.
As for the main title, I sat down to begin making notes for the book in the breakfast room of a hotel overlooking the Vieux Port in Marseille one Sunday morning and, knowing nothing about this novel-to-come except that it was to be my eleventh, I simply wrote the words ‘Number 11’ at the top of the page. And, since nothing better occurred to me during the months I spent writing it, the title stuck.
Following the publication of Number 11 in November 2015, I was uncertain what to write next. But seeing Richard Cameron’s stage adaptation of The Rotters’ Club at the Birmingham Rep a few months later made me start thinking once more about Benjamin Trotter and his schoolboy friends, who would now be approaching their mid-fifties. I liked the idea of writing about them again, but couldn’t think of a story strong enough. Then, on June 23rd, 2016, the British people voted to leave the European Union. I knew that I wanted to write something which would trace the undercurrents of anger and division leading up to this momentous decision, and it seemed inevitable that Benjamin, Doug, Lois et al should be the ones to help me in the task.
At the same time, I was aware that twelve years had gone by since publication of The Closed Circle, and there would not be too many readers who remembered the previous books well enough to be ready to plunge into a sequel. So I was determined to write Middle England in such a way that no prior knowledge of the characters was necessary.
In any case, I wanted to focus mainly on the younger characters: in particular Sophie, Benjamin’s niece, and her husband Ian. Telling the story of a young couple who disagree about almost everything but must nevertheless find a mode of living together seemed an obvious way to dramatise the fault-lines running through modern British society.
Unlike most of my previous novels, Middle England does not really have a ‘plot’: it merely follows the outlines of recent British history – beginning with the election of the coalition government in 2010, ending in the aftermath of the Brexit referendum – and finds parallels between all the major, landmark events and developments in the personal and family lives of its disparate characters. This made it an easier and more relaxed book to write than many of its predecessors, and I finished it quickly, in about ten months. Re-acquainting myself with Benjamin and the others was like meeting old friends after a long absence, and I hope that readers share the same feeling.
After The Dwarves of Death I knew that it was time to write a more ambitious novel. I jotted down some ideas for a novel about a travelling salesman driving the length and breadth of Britain’s motorway network – the story that would eventually become The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim – but this project didn’t take flight at the time. Instead, after more than a decade of Thatcherism in the UK, I thought it was a good moment to write a book about some of the changes it had imposed upon the country. By chance, the BBC had recently screened (for the first time in about twenty years) an old comedy film which I remembered seeing when I was a child. Its title was What a Carve Up, and after watching it again after more than two decades, the first thing I knew about my new novel was that I wanted to use this title.
I decided that I could borrow more from this film than just the title, though. It belongs to a sub-genre of movie which I particularly enjoyed when I was a young boy: comedy/horror films, centred around a creepy old house, where relatives are gathered for the reading of a will, there is a terrific thunderstorm outside, and a series of mysterious killings starts to take place. (Bob Hope, to name but one, used to specialise in this kind of film in the 1940s.) It occurred to me that I could take one such family and use them as a kind of metaphor for the British ruling establishment, whether they were involved in politics, finance, food production, culture or any other area of national life.
Despite having such a strong focus on British politics, What a Carve Up! was the first of my novels to reach an international audience. That title to which I was so attached proved to be a real headache for my overseas publishers, all the same. Almost nobody managed to come up with an exact version of the phrase, although I’m told that the Swedish attempt, Huggsexa, comes pretty close. My German publishers chose to call the book Allein mit Shirley, emphasising my hero’s erotic obsession with the actress Shirley Eaton. In fact the title even had to be ‘translated’ for American readers as well, and in the US the novel was renamed The Winshaw Legacy.
When What a Carve Up! was first published in 1994, Penguin had the idea of printing a special set of playing cards, based on the famous old English game Happy Families, but with cartoons of the Winshaw family instead of the familiar characters.
This novel can be read in a number of ways: as a traditional English ‘comic novel’ in the tradition of Henry Fielding, Michael Frayn and Kingsley Amis; as an hommage to British comedy films of the 1930s, 40s and 50s; as a parody of Cold War spy fiction; and as the latest chapter in an interlocking network of novels and short stories which I’ve been writing for the last two decades.
The story centres around a quiet, unassuming but handsome young civil servant, Thomas Foley, who is sent on a six-month assignment to Brussels, scene of the great World’s Fair of 1958. Expo 58 was an important historical event which still occupies a huge place in the collective memory of the Belgian people: the first such event after the Second World War, and a significant milestone in the reconciliation between the warring nations; the beginning of a closer co-operation between the European countries, shortly after the Treaty of Rome had been signed; and a landmark in the development of modern technology and architectural design. At the centre of it all was the Atomium which, since I first visited it in 2010, has become one of my favourite buildings in the world.
My imagination was sparked when a Belgian journalist told me how the American and Soviet pavilions had been placed almost side by side on the Expo site, a decision which he maintained was typical of the Belgian sense of humour. Of course, both countries were busy spying on each other at the time, and Expo 58 provided fertile ground for espionage. I set about devising a plot which would plunge the naive Thomas Foley into the thick of this treacherous situation, with the help of two British spooks who are clearly modelled on the characters of Charters and Caldicott from Hitchcock’s wonderful movie The Lady Vanishes – a personal favourite of mine.
Although Expo 58 was written as a standalone novel, its hero Thomas will be recognised by any readers who paid special attention to The Rain Before It Falls: he is the brother-in-law of Rosamond, the narrator of that story. The two books are therefore related, although they are completely different in tone. Thomas also appears (although he is not named) in my short stories ‘Ivy and Her Nonsense’ and ‘Pentatonic’, which can be read in the collection Loggerheads and Other Stories.
Out of all my published novels, the idea for this one probably goes back the furthest. Some time in 1977 or 1978, when I was still a schoolboy at King Edward’s School, Birmingham, I began to write a novel based on my experiences there. The title was Half Asleep; Half Awake, after the track composed by John Greaves on Henry Cow’s album Unrest. Really the only thing that survives from this original conception is the word Unrest, which Benjamin Trotter adopts as the title for his never-to-be-completed magnum opus in The Closed Circle.
I only wrote about fifty pages of this novel at the time, but what lodged in my head was the idea for a story set in a school, in which the school would serve as a kind of microcosm for British society as a whole – rather in the way that Lindsay Anderson had used the public school setting in his film If …
Twenty years later, when I finally came back to this idea, I decided to name the book after an album I used to love as a teenager: The Rotters’ Club, by Hatfield and the North, a band central to the so-called Canterbury scene of the 1970s. This led to my meeting, and becoming friends with, many of the musicians who had been involved in that movement – including John Greaves, thereby providing a connection to the book’s original title.
The Rotters’ Club has been adapted for BBC radio by Simon Littlefield, for BBC television by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, and for the stage by Richard Cameron. Richard Cameron’s version, staged at the Birmingham Rep in 2016, was a major inspiration for my novel Middle England.
To answer a question which comes up all the time, viz. ‘How autobiographical is the book?’, I can only say that all the background detail of the school and the Birmingham suburbs is taken from my own life, whereas all the main developments in the story are fictitious. It’s true that when I was a schoolboy I did, briefly, discover God when he answered a prayer that I made to him in the classroom, but the missing item that I needed so desperately was a piece of homework, not a pair of navy blue swimming trunks.