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Philip Roth: ‘It was my good luck that happiness didn’t matter to me….’

When I'm feeling disheartened by the fiction I've been reading (it happens), I reach for something by Philip Roth. He never lets me down. It's not that his books are all masterpieces of the order of Sabbath's Theater or The Counterlife, but that, even when he misfired (Our Gang, the Nixon satire, or the disastrous all-dialogue Deception), he was still worth reading. Even in his flaws, he was open, generous and interesting. I Married a Communist was, in my opinion, derailed in the writing by the publication of his ex-wife Claire Bloom's memoir  - derailed by the author's personal rage. All the same, it contains a rumination by his character Leo on the difference between literature and politics which has always stayed with me: ‘Politics is the great generaliser, and literature the great particulizer, and not only are they in an inverse relationship to one another  -  they are in...

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Falling apart again, never wanted to…

It was when the Independent lost its best columnist Christina Patterson that I knew I no longer felt at home at the paper. By 'lost', I mean 'fired'. Christina had been there for ten years and at the time was writing two columns a week plus an interview or profile. For me, a freelance Independent columnist and reader, she came to exemplify what it was about the  paper that that made it different from its rivals. She was, and is,  an independent spirit - her own woman in every word she writes. While her personal voice and experience resonates through her pieces she avoids, unlike many other columnists, obstructing the view by plonking herself centre-stage. Another unusual thing: she is never politically predictable. Reading her Independent  articles, one had a sense of a person, a kindred spirit,  thinking aloud, rather than haranguing. And her prose is clear, funny, and heartfelt. God knows why...

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When Will Met Matthew

The question was where to play Will Self. He would be a dominant presence in central defence, of course, but what we needed was a goal-scorer. As player-manager, I saw him in the role of the traditional centre-forward  -  a big lad in the number 9 shirt who could wind up the opposition and knew where the goal was. If we could just persuade Selfy to play for us, Geography wouldn't know what hit them. The year was 1994. I was reaching the end of a six-month semester as Creative Writing Fellow at the University of East Anglia. One of my duties was to work with students on the famous MA course in creative writing, run by Malcolm Bradbury and Rose Tremain. When not in a seminar room discussing metafiction, interiority and the unreliable narrator, I would sometimes play football with the would-be novelists. There was a a rough-and-ready all-weather...

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Underhand, oversexed, foul-mouthed and crude

Like many placid, slightly dull people, I have often been secretly jealous of those whose dramatic car-crash lives is the subject of endless concern and interest among their friends. It has taken until now for me to come out of the dull closet and try to sound interesting with this new song - my Song from the Van #4. https://youtu.be/8Zw6_1ueosE

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Before gender confusion became really confusing, there was Boy2Girl

This is the happy day when a new UK edition of my book Boy2Girl is published by Andersen Press. It is probably the story that gave me most fun when I was writing it. It was written at a time of change in my life, 15 years ago. I was living in a small caravan while, in the next field, builders were converting an old goose hatchery into what, all being well, would be the house where my partner Angela and I would live. I was managing the project as well as earning a living as writer, and so my days had a definite routine. At eight, I would talk to Vic Beales, the brilliant builder whose team was working on the house. Then I would drive for ten minutes to the home of my friends the Buckleys where, in a small industrial unit next to their house, I wrote...

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Enter Pervy John – songs From the van #3

I wrote 'My Village' one autumn a few years back. It was, I think, provoked by the idea that the great city-dwelling majority of the population were given a distorted view of life in the country  - one that was half Midsomer Murders  and half Springwatch. I wanted to tell the truth. Of course, I did nothing of the kind. My song quickly went off the rails. It now hovers  - rather oddly, some might think  - between satire and sentimentality. I've recently discovered that it is part of a musical tradition. In 1951, the great Tom Lehrer  released 'My Home Town'. Then Paddy Roberts had a go ten years later with 'Our Little Village'.  Less, comically there was Paul Simon's 'My Little Town' in 1975. None of them, though, had a chicken shit smell in the air, a club for swingers and swappers run by Daphne and Jim, or Pervy John....

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Meeting the squire of Levington Park, JP Donleavy

The news that JP Donleavy  - author, playwright, litigant and squire  - died earlier this week has reminded me of one of the more peculiar meetings I had while researching a biography of our mutual friend Willie Donaldson in 2006. Donleavy's early novels, The Ginger Man, The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B and The Onion Eaters, had been a revelation to me when I read them in my early twenties. He was one of a small group of writers  (Frederick Exley was another)  who reminded me that fiction could be wild, subversive, sexy, skittish  - and serious. They showed me that writing could be fun. After three years of reading English at Cambridge, that was an eye-opener to me. JP Donleavy - 'Mike' to his friends - had worked with Willie Donaldson when Willie was a producer in the 1960s. With his friend Lord Dynevor, Willie put on the play...

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Songs from the van #2: Disappear

Here's a song written on a February day, and it has a distinctly February-ish message. Luckily spring came along just in time and, now that autumn is here, it feels positively jaunty... https://youtu.be/VqVUfwvrFtM

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Introducing… Songs From the Van

Recently, I've taken to writing songs in a field. There, well away from human habitation, I'm lucky enough to have an old gypsy caravan (or, to be less romantic and more accurate, an old road-workers' wagon). It is not the last word in comfort but, vibe-wise, it can't be beaten. It's isolated. When I work in the house, there is always the sense that, beyond a wall, there might someone =- perhaps an innocent passer-by, wincing as a gurgle and warble and curse and thrash my guitar. Even Ruby the dog, once photographed duetting with me on the van, has recently decided that keeping me company is too great a test of her loyalty. In a fit of egotism, I took a camera to my new workplace last week and filmed myself singing a couple of songs. Even when you finish a song, it never quite there until it has...

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We’re with stupid – the seductive lure of idiocy on the left and the right

Soon after the death of Fidel Castro, I pointed out somewhere online that, for all its brave resistance to the crude might of the United States, the Cuban regime did have the unpleasant habit of locking up those who disagreed with it.  Kangaroo courts had sentenced writers, academics, teachers and librarians for up to 28 years in jail for the crime of arguing for democracy. This was an awkward truth for those who see global politics in terms of good guys and bad guys.  Surely, to any person of liberal sensibility, Fidel was one of the good guys. Could it really be true that he was sending writers to rot in jail? Amnesty and PEN International could produce all the evidence they wanted but still, it just felt wrong. Perhaps that was why Cuba's most vocal champions, from Ken Livingstone to Oliver Stone, could never bring themselves to condemn this...

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