UK Writers Like A Challenge. Well, They Have One Now.

Reading & Writing


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.


8 comments on “UK Writers Like A Challenge. Well, They Have One Now.”

  1. John DLC says:

    I’m looking forward to ‘Munich’ and thought ‘Fatherland ‘ was a game-changer in terms of alternate-realities, albeit with a detective novel at its heart.
    If you were thinking of that type of thing Christopher maybe the slightly altered version of reality is the way forward?
    The Beatles still played in Germany it just happened to be Nazi Germany.

  2. Helen Martin says:

    Hayward’s pickled onions? My husband found them and now every second week our glass bottle box has a dozen of their bottles. Those passport lines “All Others”, that was us and we’re one of the old Dominions! The use of “the sick man of Europe” to describe the UK is a shock to those of us who learned that was Turkey. I watched Mr. Peretti (?) on the Cayman Islands last night and can imagine that would have been a good episode to raise British blood pressures, unfortunate with the NHS being cut back. All those millions will always end up somewhere else, but surely the British government could do something, especially as the people there don’t seem to benefit. Don’t even *suggest* there might be a second Trump term for heaven’s sake. One is more than bad enough.

    You could always do a thoroughly dystopian version of the future. Hurricane Margaret sweeps up the Atlantic during a drought, pushes the Thames back up its channel, drowns the lower reaches of the city and…. I don’t know whether it would have to happen during a waking dream of Arthur’s or not, but parliament would have to vacate its building. Awaken Big Ben to ring the alarm.

    We’ve got copper light just now from Washington State fire smoke and it is energy sapping. Back to reading Game of Thrones (more than half way through the third book)

  3. brooke says:

    You lost me… Gabriel Talent authored a “modern” novel???? Remember “Huckleberry Finn,” abused child who fakes his own “murder,” escapes with runaway slave and encounters the lawless territories as the country descends into civil war. Not to mention Clockwork O, Memoirs of a Survivor, and an enormous collection of other novels and stories from US, Canada and the UK. The only “modern” feature of Talent’s book may be the emphasis on control through psychological and sexual abuse which is definitely not new rather just talked about now.

    Also Talent is from far northwest where there has always been a tradition of “survivalist” mythology and mentality. for as long as I have been alive. He’s not saying anything new’ he’s borrowing in the same way B&M borrows from the history and myths of London.

    Whatever the politics, economics. technology changes or wars of the times, we read/write/create to explore the major forces of human life– eros and thanatos.

  4. Ken Mann says:

    Perhaps given the gloom of our developing actual dystopia and the certain sameiness of “isn’t everything awful?” fiction the way to go is to write a new utopia, pointing up our failures by contrasting it with how things could be.

  5. Steveb says:

    The EU system is very similar to19th Century China regional system and suffers from the same flaws. The same things that went wrong in that system will probably happen for Europe. Europe already fell technologically behind the US and China.
    History is still working itself out in Europe. People in England often forget and misunderstand this. The book Lemberg – Die vergessene Mitte Europas is really worth reading, if you can read German, I think.
    When authority disappears, it’s your neighbours you have to be scared of. Whether Yugoslavia, the Partition of India, Iraq, etc.
    So this is what I personally think should be thought about for Europe in the future.The question for a writer is how to dramatise such issues.

  6. Helen Martin says:

    History is still working itself out everywhere, but I think I see what you mean about Europe, Steve. They may have been desperate when the idea of a uniting Europe was broached and when it actually seemed to be working the delight was ecstatic, but perhaps it grew too quickly and developed intestinal problems. You can’t kill a good idea, though.

  7. JeffreyP says:

    Actually, 59.9%, not 87% of residents of London voted to remain. Over 40% voted to leave. Presumably these are not the ‘right’ kind of Londoners (live in the outer boroughs, have what you would call ‘traditional families’, and have parents and grandparents who were actually born in London) and their views should be dismissed.

  8. admin says:

    JeffreyP – I went from stats for Central London, not the ‘burbs, but you’re right to include them, especially now that ‘London’ seems to cover most of the South East. Although that 59.9% (over the regularly quoted 60%) feels like hair-splitting. The fact remains that credulous, ill-informed people were misled by lying politicians, while others with more data to hand (admittedly a complicated ask for anyone) knew they were being lied to.

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