Jilly Cooper. Gateway drug to great books.

Jilly Cooper is my universal panacea – whenever the sky looks like it’s falling in, I duck into one of her novels and shelter there for a while (rather than bolt off to tell the King like Henny Penny – the flight or fight instinct is not strong in me – I’m all about the hiding). I re-read Riders, Rivals, Polo, Imogen, Emily, Harriet, Octavian, even the lesser Jilly’s of Jump! Score! and Wicked! (Let the exclamation mark be a warning sign, though frankly, I would read my tax return if she’d written it and called it ‘HMRC!’) until I feel I can tackle whatever has sent me scuttling.

The comfort of Cooper has, of course, a lot to do with the way she writes within a conventional literary framework, rather than challenging it, and even when things look bleak for her characters, we know that the wheel of fortune will turn upwards again for them. Her language underpins this narrative certainty – things are larky, merry, jaunty – and one reads on, secure in the knowledge that the good will end happily and the bad unhappily, because, to quote Wilde, ‘that is what Fiction means’, at least in the cosy world of Cooper.

As a teenager, two authors kicked down the door to the magical, infinite riches offered by books: TS Eliot’s The Waste Land was a poem which came with a free gift of a literary education, a Grand Tour of Western Culture, books upon which all sorts of other books are built: Dante and Milton, Shakespeare and Spenser, The Bible and Baudelaire, Ovid and Virgil – an intellectual paradise. But Jilly Cooper took me to the books that nourish and sustain the soul – through her I discovered Nancy Mitford, Barbara Pym, Forever Amber, The Diary of A Provincial Lady, Cold Comfort Farm, Barbara Comyns, Mary Webb, Austen and Trollope. In her voice, in her characters and in her plots you sense the blissful influence of these writers, and if occasionally Cooper’s love for them seeps into her writing a little too literally – a character in Harriet, confronted with a bawling, teething child, suggests it should go to the dentist and Red Alderton, in Polo, is given to sporting brightly coloured jackets, piped with a contrasting braid, both of which echo Cedric in The Pursuit of Love – it’s more as a musician might use a sample than anything else, a reminder of her references, staking her claim to a particular literary tradition. 

But it’s not simply Cooper’s voice that led me down a primrose path of literary dalliance – she uses literary quotation to as a shortcut to describe character better than any other writer I can think of – sexy, temperamental, irresistible Rory Balniel is Young Lochinvar, you know Polo’s Luke Alderton is a thoroughly good egg because he reads poetry – Martin Fierro and Robert Frost’s ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening‘. Declan O’Hara, Rival’s charismatic, irascible, tragic-romantic hero’s great love is Yeats: he whispers to his faithless wife ‘there is grey in your hair, Young men no longer catch their breath, When you are passing‘ and the quote so cleverly captures the drama of their relationship, I had my head stuck in Yeat’s Collected Works for months afterwards. Cooper doesn’t only feed the quote habit of her male characters – literary women abound, and nor is literariness a universal indicator of goodness in a character – Helen, Rupert Campbell-Black’s first wife is given to earnest quoting as a sign both of her pretension and also a signifier of the mismatch in the relationship between her and Rupert, who believes reading anything other than Horse and Hound a monumental waste of time.

So, for thirty years, Cooper has sustained me, and brought me enormous pleasure, not only with her own books but with those to which she’s introduced me. If T.S Eliot and Jilly Cooper are my formative literary experiences, and if what you read can’t help but rub off onto what you write, then heaven help the Great Unfinished Novel …


“This is something of a kitchen sink novel; I threw in everything that terrifies me.” The Mandibles. Lionel Shriver

Lionel Shriver’s latest novel, The Mandibles; A Family, 2029-2947, shifts us from familiar Shriver territory, chronicling America’s bleak present, to a satire of an even bleaker future. The dollar is in meltdown, the debt mountain has collapsed, and the once wealthy Mandible family are as bankrupt as everyone else in the country and no longer cushioned  by the comfort of wealth. Like the US, they’re no one now they’re broke.

We narrowly dodged a bullet in 2008,” said Shriver when I talked to her at The Books That Built Me, “but it’s still whizzing round the planet: all those rotten mortgages are mostly still there, but mostly I’m concerned about sovereign debt. This is a novel that, among other things, is about the United States defaulting on its national debt. It doesn’t have a reproving effect on the country.

The Mandibles is a vast, highly entertaining family saga as well as a cautionary tale of economic armageddon, but it’s also about what we value – in particular, the value of the written word in a world where there are no printed books, where the internet has made everything available for free, and where, after the demise of newspapers, it’s impossible to trust what you read, piling another unnervingly prescient aspect to her dystopia. “I pretty much eliminated the written word in The Mandibles; that seemed dismal to me, not only because I like to read, but it would leave me out of a job. One of the things I’m really worried about is the end of professional journalism. I take it to an extreme in the novel, but it’s no longer an extreme when The Independent can no longer afford to put out a print edition and is now online only. One of the things that happens when a newspaper goes on line is that people don’t take it as seriously and [newspapers] can’t afford to take themselves as seriously because they can’t afford the staff to put out quality journalism, to do investigative journalism, and to fact check their own work. I’m actually much more worried about journalism in the near future than I am about literature – literature is an indulgence, a luxury, but I don’t feel that way about the newspaper I read every morning and it’s important to me that the information in it is true. We are starting to slide into a universe where you can believe whatever you want to believe and form your opinion first and then go out looking for information as back up, which you can always find because there is always someone else out there who feels the same way as you.”

One of the novel’s pivotal character is a writer – Nollie, a thinly veiled portrait of the artist. As Shriver says, “She’s obnoxious and opinionated and pushy and tactless. She’s been living in Europe – the main thing she brings back [to the US] is boxes and boxes of  her own books, so she’s obviously something of a narcissist as well. You’re never quite sure if she’s any good as a writer, either. I figured I’m old enough and I’ve written enough books that I earned the inside job.

For more about The Mandibles, and Lionel Shriver’s Books That Built Me, listen to the podcast

The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047 is published by The Borough Press


Anthony Quinn at the Books That Built Me

Anthony Quinn shares the books that inspire his writing at The Books That Built Me, 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]

3. Brideshead Revisited: The Sacred and Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder, Evelyn Waugh

“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.”

4. Middlemarch (Penguin Classics) Revised Edition by Eliot, George published by Penguin Classics (2003)

“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! 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.

Hanif Kureishi, In the Psychiatrists Chair

FullSizeRender (5)Between 1982 and 2001, Professor Anthony Clare, interviewed the great and the good for the BBC Radio Four programme, In the Psychiatrist’s Chair, gently probing and pulling away at their public selves to reveal their interior lives. They make fascinating listening and the marvellous BBC has them all available to download as podcasts here.

At Polly Samson’s Books That Built Me, we talked about the freedom Elena Ferrante ‘s anonymity gives her to write with coruscating honesty what are clearly very autobiographical novels. I was thinking about the line trodden by novelists who mine their own experience and past whilst listening to Hanif Kureishi’s In the Psychiatrists Chair, recorded in 1998.

After the publication of The Buddha of Suburbia,  his sister accused him in the Guardian of selling the family “down the line” with his portrait of their parents and grandparents. This is what Kureishi had to say:

“The past is only a playground: you can do there what you wish, you can say whatever you want, everyone has their own version. There’s no sense in which we can go back there and check. The past is something that we do things with: I make up stories about it. I mean there are a million version of my past that I could give to you – of anybody’s past – I think, what would it interest me to talk about today, what version would I prefer?…Our versions of the past are composed of wishes…”

Event: Anthony Quinn, Freya.

9781910702505 (1) (2)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

Buy Freya