UK Writers Like A Challenge. Well, They Have One Now.
I’ve always thought of myself as European but I’m not, of course. Bryant & May are only a very slight exaggeration of my relatives (although I have some German blood – ‘Like the royal family’, my mum said). I came from a solid middle-class if slightly desperate family who would have loved to go to the last night of the Proms.
Naturally as their eldest son grew up in media and started following the English rule of dropping French words into sentences they despaired of me ever getting in touch with my roots. They needn’t have worried. I might be in Europe a lot but you can bet I’ve got a few teabags on me. I may source my Mediterranean diet at local markets but I’ll still look for pickled onions, preferably Hayward’s.
Brexit has come to represent something that’s much larger than what it will ultimately be, which is a shuffling of papers that waters down every clause and pleases no-one. It has become a sort of traitors’ test on both sides. A litmus of Englishness that demands you love or leave the country.
A newspaper headline crystallised my thinking; ‘UK branded the sick man of Europe as Eurozone accelerates into prosperity’, a pitiable wallow of the kind so enjoyed by English newspapers. I thought, that’s how we love to see ourselves. Certainly the NHS is being throttled out of existence and we place in the mid-40s for cities with best life quality, but we never do anything radical enough to help ourselves.
Like 87% of the residents in our capital city I voted Remain. I don’t know many traditional English families and almost no-one in rural areas. Most of my friends are without children and work vicious hours to help pay for those who have less; Londoners are not unfeeling. I wrote the novel ‘Psychoville’, about those strange suburban people who will fawn over foreign royals while railing against ‘foreigners’. Londoners are expansive in their thinking, and misunderstood. But they are also hated for their ability to command higher wages.
Against this background I want to write a novel showing how such divisions affect our wellbeing. Such books are usually literary; the best I can think of is Jonathan Coe’s ‘What A Carve Up!’ which took a satirical scalpel to 80s Britain. But although I’m done with satire, I want the book to be populist. There’s no point in preaching, and especially not to the pre-converted. There can be no more depressing experience than to sit in one of our National Theatre’s unaffordable seats watching a play about how awful the Tories are.
The other problem; I have a backlog of books owing that will take three years to clear. Who knows where we’ll be by then? Out of Europe, into Trump’s second term, facing who knows what? This is the writer’s dilemma now.
In America, new writers like Gabriel Talent are getting attention for writing modern novels (even if, yet again, they’re about sexual abuse) Here, the excellent writer Robert Harris has pronounced the novel dead, rather foolishly to my mind. What he means is that TV commands more attention and the novel is therefore relatively less popular. Writers are either good or bad, whatever format they work in. The challenge now is to reflect today’s world in a way that involves readers. I notice that Harris tackles European subjects rather than risking a take on modern Britain. That says a lot.
And as I type this, Omar El Akkad’s novel ‘American War’ looks like being the state of the nation book we can’t write.