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Tony Parsons: Why I Write

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"We all have multiple identities," says Tony Parsons when I ask him whether he feels more of an Englishman or a Londoner, "but I certainly feel like I'm both. But I also feel British. I have Irish blood on my mum's side and, a bit further back, Scottish blood on my dad's. So I have never been what I would call a strident Englishman. I feel like a London Brit."

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Parsons' writing career has been a long and successful one. Since the publication of The Kids [1976], his steady output has seen him attain a solid position within Britain's literary establishment. After having found mainstream success with the multi-million selling Man and Boy (1999), Parsons' literary offerings have resonated with the reading public, but when did he first realise that writing was what he wanted to do?

"I loved stories as a child," he says. "My mum read to me all the time and I could read before I started school. I dreamed of making a living from writing. That is still my plan, in fact."

In his new novel Catching The Sun, Parsons tells the story of the Finn family who leave behind a life of struggle in the UK to journey to Phuket. Is the novel too critical of the daily grind facing modern Britons? 'I think the novel gets it about right. There are a lot of people out there now - like Tom in the book - who are working hard and obeying all the rules, and just can't get the life they want for themselves. I wanted the book to be drenched in sunshine. I didn't see it as being a critique of the UK. But I got to thinking about my dad, and how we nearly moved to Australia when I was 10, and how let down he felt that the country had not done enough for the men who fought in World War 2.'

So perhaps politics informs his work at some level. "I think I'm a patriot more than a political animal,' he says. 'Politicians are charming on a personal level, but I fear that Cameron, Clegg and Miliband do not have enough real world experience. I care about politics because I care about my country and my children's future, but I am not a great tribal tub-thumper, so nobody automatically gets my support."

Parsons is no fan of London mayoral jousters, Boris and Ken. "I lived on the same street as Boris for many years and I like him personally, but I am suspicious of anyone who is that ambitious. He didn't do much when the riots broke out in 2011. Posing with a broom wasn't quite the adequate response. I can live happily without either of them. But as London generates so much wealth for the country, I think the Lord Mayor's role is important."

Discussing the UK's economic woes, Parsons is scathing. "Our industrial base was run down by Thatcher,' he says. 'We have got into this mess because I think we have depended too much on the financial sector and forgotten that cars, planes and ships were once made in the UK. The Germans are doing better because they still make great things that the world wants to buy."

Is the Euro crisis a cause for long-term concern? "I hate the EU with a passion. That little blue flag turns my stomach. I despise losing freedoms for which better men than I fought and died. It was a political experiment that is being undone by economic reality. The tragedy is the EU is condemning generations of young Italians, Irish, Greeks and Spanish to poverty."

Britain, I suggest, still too keenly feels the loss of Empire and is suffering from an identity crisis in terms of its standing in the world. "I think having a father who fought in World War 2 means more to me than the loss of Empire. The war felt very close to me and still does. My father defined my idea of what it means to be a man and the war was the defining experience of his life."

Parsons, I tell him, represents a type of Englishman who has never been fully at ease at home and has always looked abroad for inspiration. Does England have, as Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, 'a secret vigour'? "That's true, but I think it's a national characteristic of ours to look to the sea. Quite literally. My father was in the Royal Navy before he was a Commando, as was my grandfather who fought at the Battle of Jutland in World War 1. This is a tiny little island full of curious, creative and fearless people." A people who shouldn't stand for mediocrity in the arts? "I think when you become an old git like me you know the difference between the good stuff and the second rate. That's the problem. If you grow up with Muhammad Ali, Jack Kerouac and The Clash then it's tough settling for second best.

"People now have more things, but are less happy," he adds. "When I was at the NME I didn't know anyone who owned a TV, let alone a car, but we could watch great bands seven nights a week for nothing, so it didn't matter. The people I knew just wanted to pursue their dreams of being writers, musicians or photographers. It didn't matter if they lived in a squat or wore secondhand clothes."

With his dream realised and his fingers flying over his keyboard, how does he maintain his writing stamina? "I start writing early in the day and finish early. I write all morning - 1,000 words. I write a weekly column for the Daily Mirror and a monthly column for GQ - but it works out at the same 1,000 words.

"In the afternoon I do some kind of physical exercise - boxing for around four hours a week, yoga for a couple of hours. When I am not travelling, my life revolves around writing, family and training.

"As I get older I become more aware of time running out - I only have a certain number of books left in me - so I'm determined to get better. Not to be as good as Dickens or Philip Roth, but to be as good as I can be. I think about writing as much as actually doing it.' And who is the best chronicler of Britain alive today? 'I think Peter Ackroyd writes about this country better than anyone else - in both his fiction and non-fiction."

Having won the British Book of the Year Award 2001 for Man and Boy, is Parsons mindful of literary prizes? 'Prizes are nice, but they don't change very much. They don't make you a better, or even richer, writer. They are never going to give me the Man Booker because they wouldn't give it to any popular novelist. Literary prizes like that go to people who sell books that people buy, but don't read - with the exception of Ian McEwan. I think people read his books,' he says.

'I think the greatest threat to any writer is him imagining that the world is waiting to read his stuff, because the world is not. As a writer, you have to earn the right to be read, and then you have to fight to keep every reader. Every reader is a blessing. Many writers forget that and it makes for sloppy work.'

But if everyone is writing and no one is reading, what of the future? 'I fear that there is a kind of cultural apartheid growing,' says Parsons. 'Some children are growing up surrounded by books, immersed in Kindles and iPads, having their imaginations nurtured - and some children can't write very well and have never known the joy that books and writing can bring.

"I came from quite a poor working class background. My dad was a greengrocer and my mum a dinner lady. There was never any money, but they were creative people who loved music, books and culture and they passed that on to me. My daughter is 10 and she has grown up with JK Rowling and Gerald Durrell - she will read all her life. But there are too many children who are shut off from all that."

But he hesitates from painting too black a vision for Britain. "This is the most creative country in the world," he says with a smile. "On every level, from bands to writers to artists, and every child should be made aware of that...whatever postcode they come from."

© Jason Holmes 2012 / jantholmes@yahoo.co.uk / @JasonAHolmes
Photograph by David Leveson
Catching The Sun by Tony Parsons is published by HarperCollins.

www.harpercollins.co.uk

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