Listen to Anthony Quinn discuss the books that inspired his work with Helen Brocklebank at The Club At Cafe Royal, 12th April 2016.
Listen to Anthony Quinn discuss the books that inspired his work with Helen Brocklebank at The Club At Cafe Royal, 12th April 2016.
“I didn’t become a novelist until I was forty-one. I never had an ambition to write [fiction] until I was about forty,” said Anthony Quinn at The Books That Built Me earlier this week, “It was possibly because I thought by then I could do it. Until then I’d been a journalist for twenty years, and a journalist is a sprinter whereas trying to write a novel is like going out on a really long run. It’s more pleasurable than you think.”
Anthony’s first book, The Rescue Man, won the Author’s Club Best First Novel Award in 2009 – since then, he has published five novels, of which the latest is Freya. Over a glass of Bollinger, we talked about six of the books that have helped build his considerable writing muscle.
The Books That Built Anthony Quinn
1.The Compleet Molesworth, Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle – now available as ‘Molesworth (Penguin Modern Classics)
“When I was a kid, I wasn’t a great reader. I loved The Beatles, I loved football and I loved drawing most of all. I noticed on my mum’s shelf a book called ‘Down with Skool’ by Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle and I thought these amazing spindly gothic illustrations were magical and so I spent my whole time just copying Searle’s pictures. It wasn’t until three of four yeas later that I started reading them [the Molesworth books]. I’d never been to public school and I didn’t know anyone who’d been to public school but as soon as I’d read Molesworth, I knew exactly what a public school was. I could smell what a public school was: chalk, boys farts and wet socks. It was evoked in those spindly lines but also in the terrific, parodic, clever language.”
2. Raffles: The Amateur Cracksman, E.W. Hornung
“This is the first proper grown up book I read. I was twelve years old and on holiday in Ilfracombe and I was transported by it. The Raffles stories are by a man called E.W.Hornung, Arthur Conan-Doyle’s brother in law, and they’re the B-side of Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson. Raffles lived in Albany: he was three things – a Mayfair man-about-town, the finest slow bowler English cricket had ever seen and by night he robbed the hostesses of Mayfair of their spoons. And their jewels. He’s the amateur cracksman….I always had ideas above my station: I grew up in Liverpool in a very lower middle class family but Raffles just transported me: I wanted to wear topper and tails, to smoke Sullivan cigarettes in the Burlington Arcade, to have a set of rooms at Albany and generally to swan around Mayfair as a man of leisure and as a dandy. I got the cigarettes in the end….. I put a character in Freya called Nat Fane into Albany, so that was the next best thing… he’s the spiritual heir of Raffles.”
[if Anthony Quinn could only keep one book of the six, he’d keep Raffles]
“I remember reading Brideshead and it was the first novel where I actively slowed down my reading because I couldn’t bear it to end. It was one of those books that completely bewitched and enchanted me. I wasn’t prepared for it really: I suppose it was the first serious English novels I’d read. I started it in ’81. I was seventeen. Two things happened – I was applying to Oxford and the famous ITV serial came out in the Christmas of ’81, just when I’d applied. Those Oxford passages [in Bridehead] still seem to me beautiful and magical and the whole first section is called Et In Arcadia Ego which as any fule kno [q.v.Molesworth] means ‘I too was in Paradise’…it’s a real Innocence and Experience book.”
“It has such intelligence and depth and complexity: it is a wonderful distillation of everything that’s great in the Victorian novel. It’s a unique book to me: this is the book that made me think the novel was the great form….I am totally in awe of [Middlemarch]: you know that you’ll never ever come near it as a writer, and yet it’s a shining beacon to you too.”
5. New Grub Street (Vintage Classics), George Gissing
“There are some writers you seem to wait your whole life for: it’s the discovery of a writer whose voice you instantly identify with, and you feel lucky when you do, and for me George Gissing is that writer. This is just one of the great novels about money and marriage in lower middle class Victorian London but it’s an absolutely unsurpassed novel about creativity, about writing, about how to earn a living from writing…. It was a hot topic then and it’s an even hotter topic now. “
6. In A Summer Season (VMC), Elizabeth Taylor
“This lovely salon that Helen has invited me to is called The Books That Built Me but what we all know about builders is that they never quite finish the job and I never consider myself – as a reader or a writer – the finished article. I hoe that I will still be reading new stuff, discovering new stuff and he writer who I feel so grateful for discovering in the last three years is Elizabeth Taylor….She is one of these writers who, as soon as you read her, you realise you’re absolutely in the hands of a master. It’s no exaggeration to say that this woman is a modern Jane Austen…just because your canvas is small and your milieu is small it doesn’t mean to say you’re going to write a small book.”
I asked Tony what he felt Elizabeth Taylor had taught him as a writer. He quoted from one of her earlier books: A View of the Harbour –
“I’m not a great writer, whatever I do, someone else has done it before and better. In ten years time, no one will remember this book. The libraries will have sold all of their grubby copies of it second hand and the rest will have fallen to pieces, gone to dust. And even if I were one of the great ones, who, in the long run, cares? People walk about the streets and it is all the same to them if the novels of Henry James or Jane Austen were never written. They could not easily care less. No one asks us to write. If we stop, who will implore us to go on?”
Me, I said, me! I will implore you to go on, as will all the guests you’ve captivated this evening. If you haven’t yet discovered Tony’s work, try the first chapter of Freya (you can read it by clicking Freya 1st chapter)- spend just a few minutes in the worlds he so cleverly conjures and I challenge you not to implore him to go on writing too.
[You can buy Freya by clicking the underscored link.]
With thanks to Tatler and to Prestat for supporting the salon and to the Club at Cafe Royal for hosting The Books That Built Me – the Cafe Royal is a fabled literary destination; it has played host to the great and the good of British writing since Oscar Wilde managed to get a writ served on him there, and crops up in countless novels, not to mention its walk on part in Raffles, Brideshead Revisited, New Grub Street, and Tony Quinn’s Curtain Call and Freya.
“‘Reality,’ sa Molesworth 2, ‘is so unspeakably sordid it make me shudder.'”
Nigel Molesworth, the schoolboy ‘author’ of Down with Skool!, How to be Topp, Whizz for Atomms, and Back In the Jug Agane (collected as The Compleet Molesworth), is the creation of Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle. Molesworth is a pupil at St.Custards, an appalling prep school – “it smell of chalk Latin books skool ink foopball boots and birdseed” – run by Grimes (“Headmasters are always very ferce and keep thousands of KANES chiz moan drone. With these they hound and persecute all boys who are super like sir galahad.” )and other masters (or ‘beaks’). Sigismond the mad maths master is a particular favourite.
Molesworth considers Fotherington-Thomas a weedy-wet and a swot: as his brother, Molesworth 2, says “‘i diskard him.’”
“‘And wot,’ sa Grimes, ‘wot hav we all been reading in the hols?’
Tremble tremble moan drone, i hav read nothing but red the redskin and Guide to the Pools. i hav also sat with my mouth open looking at lassie, wonder horse ect on t.v. How to escape? But i hav made a plan.
‘fotherington-tomas, sa GRIMES, ‘wot hav you read?’
‘Ivanhoethe vicar of wakefieldwuthering heights treasureislandvanity fairwestwardhothewaterbabies and -‘
‘That is enuff. Good boy. And molesworth?’
He grin horribly.
‘What hav you read, molesworth?’
gulp gulp a rat in a trap.
‘Proust, sir. A grate fr. writer. The book in question was swan’s way.’
‘Gorblimey. Wot did you think of it, eh?’
‘The style was exquisite, sir, and the characterisation superb. The long evocative passages-‘
‘SILENCE!,’ thunder GRIMES. ‘There is no such book, impertinent boy. I shall hav to teach you culture the hard way. Report for the kane after prayers.’
Chiz chiz to think i hav learned all that by hart. It’s not fair they get you every way.”
One may assume from Lissa Evan’s letter below that, if Molesworth was faking the Proust, he was better acquainted with Madame Bovary…
Lissa, a previous guest at The Books That Built Me, won a competition with her letter from Molesworth to Mme Bovary – the competition was to imagine a love letter between two unlikely fictional characters. Molesworth attracts many fans; Lissa, this month’s Books That Built Me guest, Anthony Quinn, June’s guest, Emma Beddington, Charlotte Mendelson, all of us introduced to his delights by fathers who had discovered him in the fifties when It was first published. I couldn’t induce Trefusis Minor to read Molesworth, and nor could my father. I would be interested to know if his appeal survives into a third or fourth generation: The Compleet Molesworth is out of print. Anyway, he still makes me chortle: earlier, re-reading Back in the Jug Agane I was helpless with mirth, and kept muttering ‘chiz chiz’ and ‘hello clouds hello sky’ much to the collective bemusement of the Trefusii.
For more on Molesworth, this LRB piece is very good.
With thanks to Lissa Evans for allowing me to include her brilliant Bovary/Molesworth letter. Her latest book, Crooked Heart, is a delight.
Alex Peake-Tomkinson and Helen Brocklebank discuss Anthony Quinn’s fifth novel, Freya, over breakfast, and ask whether literary prizes still matter.
Kingsley Amis called her “one of the best English novelists born in this century“, Elizabeth Jane Howard envied “any reader coming to her for the first time”, Antonia Fraser called her “one of the most underrated writers of the 20th century”. David Baddiel (Taylor has an eclectic fan base) described her as “the missing link between Jane Austen and John Updike“. My Virago edition of In a Summer Season describes Elizabeth Taylor as ‘quietly distinguished’. Whenever one hears about Taylor, her talent is often qualified by ‘quiet’ or ‘hidden’ – perhaps it’s because she writes about comfortable, middle-class lives, but beneath the polite surface seethes passion, anger, betrayals. They are funny and savage; as Rachel Cooke, another of her fans, says “For her characters, as for their author, propriety is a survival mechanism, a way of keeping the show on the road.”
In a Summer Season is the story of Kate Heron, affluent and charming, married for the second time to a younger man, Dermot, in whom the Protestant work ethic is not strong, and who often likes to get in a second pre-lunch drink whilst he thinks no one is looking. It seems a mismatch to the idle gossipers in the pub, and to Kate’s daughter, Lou, who can’t see that, although unconventional, their marriage is a happy one. On a short break in the Cotswolds they “gave rise to much conjecture in bar parlours where they sat drinking alone, not talking much, though clearly intent upon each other. a strangely matched pair, it was thought. The difference in their ages puzzled the country people, who were convinced -by their too positive happiness – of something illicit between them.” Their love arms them against the world until it is disrupted when an old friend of Kate comes back into their lives.
Nicola Beauman, of Persephone Books, has written a tremendously well-researched biography of Taylor, but perhaps start with her novels: Sleeping Beauty or Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont join In a Summer Season as three of her best.
Raffles and his partner in crime, Bunny Manders are gentlemen thieves. Raffles is clever, raffish, has a set in the Albany and plays excellent cricket. By night they execute daring jewel robberies and live well and unrepentantly on the proceeds.
Hornung’s brother in law was Arthur Conan Doyle and in many respects Raffles and Bunny are an inversion of Holmes and Watson. They commit audacious crimes yet never quite act in a way unbecoming to gentlemen, maintaining their own moral code.
Anthony Quinn has chosen Raffles as one of his Books That Built Me: both Curtain Call and Freya, his two most recent novels, are both quite preoccupied by a bohemian, glamorous criminal underclass lurking underneath the polish of Mayfair society – I’m looking forward to exploring the connection.
Join me at the Café Royal on 12th April to discuss Raffles and other favourite novels with Anthony Quinn. Tickets are £30 (+eventbrite fees) and include a copy of Freya by Anthony Quinn, a glass of Bollinger, a treat from Prestat and a six month subscription to Tatler.
Download all the Raffles adventures on kindle Here
April’s guest at The Books That Built Me is Anthony Quinn. He’s the author of several highly acclaimed novels and was for a number of years the film critic for The Independent. I fell in love with Curtain Call, to which Freya is a kind of sequel, when I discovered it last year – imagine a murder mystery penned by Evelyn Waugh and you have a sense of the pleasure of Quinn’s writing. He has chosen marvellous books to talk about and I can’t wait for his Books That Built Me on 12th April.
The eponymous Freya first appears, aged twelve, in Anthony Quinn’s 2015 novel, Curtain Call as the independent, spirited daughter of society painter Stephen Holdaway. She’s a memorable if peripheral character in Curtain Call, and as Quinn says, she stayed with him, and as he began to write the follow up to Curtain Call, she took the book over to the extent that it became her story.
Freya is a book about life immediately after the war when things were changing for women, but not changing fast enough. Five years after the events of Curtain Call, as Freya opens, it’s V.E. Day: in the melee of the celebrations, Freya meets a young woman called Nancy, and their stories entwine over the next twenty years.
You can read the first chapter by clicking the link below – if you like it as much as I do, then come to hear Anthony Quinn talk about Freya and the books that have inspired him: each ticket includes a hardback copy of Freya to take home which Anthony will sign at the salon.
Read Freya 1st chapter