Books


Inspired by my interview with up-and-coming author Joe Dunthorne this week, I decided to make an audio slideshow layering his comments over some images of Village Underground where he works. He talks about writing Submarine, his first novel, and why he doesn’t draw much literary inspiration from Shoreditch.

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This week I met Joe Dunthorne, the hotly tipped young author whose debut novel Submarine has been nominated for multiple awards. He talks about Shoreditch, Shakespeare and why he likes working on top of a massage parlour.

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Joe Dunthorne has just got back from a tour of Somerset’s hippy communes. Sitting in the converted London Underground train that serves as his workshop high above Great Eastern Street, he tucks his blond hair behind his ears and laughs.

 

“I went to one that was just amazing,” he enthuses. “They had their own orchard, their own cider press, their own steam powered log cutter for chopping wood. There was a group of kids running about making mud pies, wearing beautiful flouncy dresses. It was idyllic.”

 

Dunthorne’s own working environment is no less remarkable. Bolted to the roof of a Shoreditch massage parlour, his carriage forms one of five trains that have been brightly painted and renovated as artists’ studios. In the next car along a team of tailors cut and stitch clothes destined for Hoxton’s expensive boutiques. Further down the carriage, a couple of actors quietly pore over stage directions for tomorrow night’s performance.

 

Tales of apple bobbing with tie-dyed west country folk are Dunthorne’s way of explaining, with characteristic modesty, that he is researching material for his second novel. At the age of 27 he is already an award-winning author – his first book, Submarine, won the University of East Anglia Curtis Brown Prize – and with his forthcoming opus taking shape and an anthology of poems in the pipeline he is quickly becoming Hackney’s hottest literary property.

 

When asked how it feels to be showered with plaudits and compared to JD Salinger by the Observer, Dunthorne smiles and raises his eyebrows in slight bemusement.

 

joe-2“It feels great,” he begins. “It’s very exciting, but it’s incredibly… not strange, exactly – it’s just that everything seems a surprise. When I was starting out all I wanted to be able to do was to write for a living in any format. It just so happens that I managed to do the exact thing I most wanted to do, and I feel blessed and lucky about it all.”

 

Submarine was written while Dunthorne was finishing a masters in creative writing at UEA. It traces the fortunes of Oliver Tait, “a typically sex-obsessed 15-year-old-boy who lives in his own world”, as he goes a mission to save his parents’ marriage and lose his virginity. The ensuing cocktail of adulterous capoeira instructors and pimply coming-

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of-age humour caught the attention of an agent, who swiftly bagged Dunthorne a book deal.

 

“I wish I’d had a bit more of a struggle, to add texture to my writing journey,” Dunthorne says. “But it all happened very quickly so it involved very little hermitage or anything like that, and very little impoverishment – although I was impoverished when I was writing the book as a student, so I suppose I can say that.”

 

The deal rescued Dunthorne from a job “in the world’s most depressing call centre in Norwich” and tugged him into the heart of London’s writing scene. Despite his initial reluctance to settle down in the capital, within weeks he found himself living on one of the loudest streets in Hackney.

 

“My main concern about moving to London was I didn’t want to go through the process of finding a house,” Dunthorne remembers. “I was really scared of it. I just thought, ‘God, I can’t handle this huge city with all its possible places to live and all its traps.

 

“And then my mate rang me up and said ‘We’ve got this room, it’s £400 a month, it’s in Shoreditch’. So I turned up and lived there for two years.”

 

In those years Dunthorne has clearly become a fizzing dynamo of activity. Last week he performed a stand-up poetry skit at the trendy South of the Border bar to celebrate the discovery of Shakespeare’s first playhouse. His brief was to remix a Shakespeare play with a Hackney twist, resulting in the unforgettable image of King Lear howling drunkenly on his hands and knees outside the Brick Lane bagel shop at three in the morning. Dunthorne also runs his own monthly night, Homework, at Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club with a few other likeminded bards.

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Among his other escapades he has managed to get half his new book finished. As-yet untitled, the novel centres around a Welsh family who start up a commune.

 

“Basically, the other has a visitation from a voice on high and believes the world’s going to end,” Dunthorne grins. “It’s about how they deal with that.”

 

Is it going to be have the same Adrian Mole laughs as Submarine?

 

“It’s not as funny, no. If I can put a joke in I’ll put a joke in because I always think ‘Why would I not put a joke in’, but the voice doesn’t carry jokes in the way Submarine did. I’d say this one is a bit more witty than funny. It’s a bit toned down.”

 

At the end of the carriage the actors are still puzzling over their lines. Dunthorne nods to them. The sense of community aboard the tube helps keep his morale up when his workload gets heavy, he remarks.

 

“You get to speak to people, you get to say good morning and drink tea in the sunshine and chat and stuff, which I think is really important.” he says. “I’m not convinced how well I would flourish in the shed at the bottom of the garden.”

rootsgrowdeep

 Someone once remarked that if John Smith was Labour’s old oak when he died in 1994, Tony Blair was its cucumber.

A lower middle class Scotsman by birth he was an Islingtonian by ambition, and a Tory in all but name.

His political apprenticeship was brief, his rise to power swift, and his roots in the Labour movement at best shallow.

Blair turned his amorphous appeal into an election-winning machine.

It’s become fashionable for commentators to talk about the resurgent tribalism of Labour politics lately. Alastair Campbell is a war-painted believer who will stick with the party through hell and high water, G2 tells us today. The Times’ Rachel Sylvester compares Labour to a dysfunctional family muddling its way through an awkward reunion.

Maybe tribalism is an epithet better suited to Labour than Conservatism, with the party’s heritage sunk in memories of miners’ marches and the grit of industrial Manchester. But the question of roots is just as telling.

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On Sunday Dave invited Andrew Marr, and millions of prying eyes across the nation, into his living room. Inevitably within a few days the Guardian had zoomed in on his bookshelf and produced a reading list for aspiring Tory leaders. Among a spattering of modern political tomes and novels – Campbell’s diaries made the cut, as did David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas – Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s August 1914 was the only pre-1990 book on Cameron’s shelves.

A mind uncluttered by the fripperies of culture clearly has its advantages – look at Tony Blair’s ascent to office – but a few roots and a bit of historical context aren’t to be sniffed at either – look at Tony Blair’s subdued exit 10 years on.

Dave was special adviser to Norman Lamont during Black Wednesday, an experience he doesn’t like to bring up too often. His rise through the Tory ranks since then has been smooth and accomplished. It’s unfortunate for him he’s not fighting the 1997 election, when that and the gift of the gab was all anyone really needed to win.

I saw him shoot a televised Q&A at the offices of the Manchester Evening News last week. His performance was decent, but it struck me he’s been in opposition for almost four years now – longer than Blair had to wait. The problem is that even good PR is time limited. There’s only so long a campaign can run without any really substance behind it. ‘Change’ is a great abstract noun, but the days when the public would indiscriminately plump for that are gone, as John McCain’s vapid incantations in the US proved.

Cameron could do with bringing some roots into the shadow cabinet. The question on everyone’s lips has clearly been whether he will bring in Kenneth Clarke and shift out George Osborne, although Cameron insists Osborne is essential to the next election campaign and a lot of Tory pundits worry Clarke would reopen the European question that’s scarred the party so deeply in the past.

Cameron faces some tough decisions in the next few months. In the meantime, he could do with a trip to Waterstones.

taperecorder1Today The Guardian published some tasty titbits from Hugo Young’s forthcoming compendium of off-the-record briefings.

Every time he unofficially interviewed a political mover or shaker, Young noted down his impressions and the highlights of the conversation. A couple of morsels:

He is a man who is lightweight as a butterfly, skimming along the surface… He does lack gravitas, terribly so.

That was his rather damning verdict on Tony Blair. And:

I have seldom seen a less healthy-looking man. But he also has the sharpest mind, deeply engaged by the whole spectrum of issues… He just does not know how to distract himself from the problems of state and come down to the level of humanity.

Recognise him?

Funnily enough, because Young died in 2003 and no-one was quite sure whether he intended his background notes to be printed or not, every person mentioned in the book had to consent to their publication.

I often wonder whether politicians read their bad press, but in this case they must have had to. It must have made for a few dreary afternoons.