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These occasional encounters between Harriet Harman and William Hague at PMQs make you wish Gordon Brown would go on holiday more often. It’s like watching a brainless sitcom in the middle of endless news bulletins, or seeing the clowns wander in halfway through a Shakespearean tragedy.

Reliably, today’s joust was high on comedy factor and low on substance. William enjoyed himself; Harriet was cross. This unchanging formula is the basis of every episode. While – like Men Behaving Badly – it starts to get rather worn after a while, you can always be guaranteed a few juvenile laughs.

Things picked up where they left off last time, with Hague asking about the Working Capital Scheme. The scheme is essentially a bit of PR tat which was kicked out by the Labour spin machine last year and forgotten about, making it a useful thorn for the Tories to wiggle once in a while. Harman doggedly refused to answer the question, reeling out the textbook ‘do-nothing party’ riposte with such passion you get the impression she actually believes it’s a useful response.

As usual Hague landed a couple of funny blows, at one point painting a picture of Gordon Brown unpacking his Speedos on a South American beach and pointing out that “inheritance must preoccupy the niece of the Countess of Longford” when Harman brought up tax. You just know there are plenty of Labour backbenchers tittering along with these kinds of jibes.

The fact that these exchanges of puerility are such a welcome break from the usual Brown/Cameron drudgery does say something about the level of national debate, though. When Chuka Ummuna came to talk to our City class a month ago he was all for scrapping PMQs and replacing it with something more likely to fire useful discussion. At the time I dismissed this as nonsense. But in the long term there has to be a more constructive way than this.

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.”