Friday, 19 August 2016

Philip Collins on The Knives (Times): 'Best political novel since Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty'

I count myself immensely fortunate to have provided a stimulus for this superb piece of writing by Philip Collins in today's Times on politics and the history of its depiction in the novel. His range is terrific, passionate and erudite, and I'm very much in sympathy with the thrust of his arguments, but honoured above all to be discussed approvingly in such company.

An extract:

'A new novel, The Knives by Richard T Kelly, tells the topical story of David Blaylock, an ambitious home secretary trying not to be buried by immigration and terrorism. It is an unusual book because, unlike most novels in which politics features, Kelly manages to tell a story that is dramatic and, at the same time, faithful to the facts about British politics.This is a remarkably rare feat in English letters.'

Edinburgh Book Festival 2016: Happy Days

I've had a lot of fine times in Edinburgh but this week's visit was the best, no doubt about it. Beautiful summer weather, for one, and it lasted until the morning of my departure when things took a turn back toward the dreich city we know and love. Above all, though, the events were fascinating, the company great, the sense of literary community hugely lively. The Festival Bookshop was even stocking my entire oeuvre, which I've never before seen all in one place outside of my bedroom.

My spot of Tuesday night chairing with Ian Rankin was great fun and surprisingly simple, just because Ian is a hugely assured and at-ease performer, with an audience of readers who are avidly interested in the minutiae of his work. In a world exclusive he read some manuscript pages from the forthcoming Rebus, Rather Be The Devil, which takes its title, to my delight, from John Martyn.

The R4 Open Book panel at EIBF, snapped by Jose Machado
Wednesday was a huge engrossing morning, beginning with a special recording for BBC Radio 4's Open Book, a symposium on the novel, politics and our times, with my friend and fellow Faber novelist Ben Markovits, winner of this year's James Tait Black Prize for fiction; the Festival's hugely impressive director Nick Barley; our emcee Mariella Frostrup; the recent winner of the 'Arabic Booker' Raja Alem; and your correspondent. My thanks to Kirsten Locke, Nicola Holloway and Di Spiers at Open Book for inviting me. Do listen in this Sunday August 21, 1600.

Mark Lawson, me, & Val McDermid (by Phoebe Grigor)
And on Wednesday evening I shared an author event in the Spiegeltent with Mark Lawson, who spoke feelingly and with impressive candour about the personal experiences that shaped his recent novel The Allegations. I chatted away about The Knives, and found the capacity crowd very engaged and encouraging. To my joy a French gentleman in the crowd (himself a novelist, as he revealed to me in the signing tent later) asked me to expound about Dostoyevsky.

Mark and I had the benefit of being chaired by Val McDermid, literary royalty in the locality and elsewhere, and I was quite stunned by the generosity of how fastidiously Val had prepared for the discussion, taking great care in the choice of questions and conversational linkages. A star, for sure.

The Knives reviewed by James Kidd: 'Epic political thriller... a mix of Robert Harris and Tom Wolfe'

I'm really pleased by this write-up from the literary critic and journalist James Kidd that appeared today in the South China Morning Post. Couldn't be happier, for one, to be mentioned in the same breath as two of the major proponents of the popular novel of current affairs... But I'm also really gratified by the way James Kidd has synopsised the novel's plot - the elements he's drawn attention to, and his indication of why they might be there.

For example, it's terrific that this short but detailed review winds round to the following conclusion:

'The Knives rings bells on almost every page: anyone curious about Brexit might want to read about the 'Free Briton Brigade'. The end is a shocker and, tragically, only too believable.'

The Knives reviewed for Metro by Claire Allfree: 'Pacy, propulsive, highly absorbing'.

Claire Allfree is a literary reviewer who wrote a very thoughtful and welcome appreciation of my first novel Crusaders for London's Metro back in 2008. You remember these sorts of things, I can tell you.

I'm very pleased that Claire has now also written on The Knives and found this book to be of merit, too, in a 4-star write-up for the same paper - under what I have to say is a really top-notch headline for a piece on a Westminster novel: 'The Whipping Boy.'

These are the choice bits:

'Richard T Kelly's propulsive new Westminster-set novel... fluently written... highly absorbing...  Pacy novel that captures the fast-moving pressures of government...'

Sunday, 14 August 2016

The Knives & me at Edinburgh Book Festival 2016

The 2016 edition of the Edinburgh International Book Festival is now afoot, and I’m calling in next week. It’s a brilliant festival that offers a splendid time for authors: the set-up in Charlotte Square is really handsome and well-organised, the team first-rate, the hospitality lovely, and they draw terrific crowds of curious book lovers. I’m very grateful to have had invitations to present all of my novels there, this year no exception – my thanks to the festival’s first-rate director Nick Barley.

I have a hand in three different events this time round:

On Tuesday night I will be handling emcee duties for Ian Rankin’s event framed round the paperback of his most recent Rebus bestseller, Even Dogs in the Wild. That’s from 8:15pm - 9:15pm in the Baillie Gifford Main Theatre.

On Wednesday morning I’m a guest for a special recording of BBC Radio 4’s Open Book with Mariella Frostrup, involving Nick Barley and the novelist Raja Alem. I’ll be delivering Open Book’s regular author’s column, a piece I’ve written specially on depictions of politicians in fiction. That’s from 10:00am - 11:00am, again in the Baillie Gifford.

On Wednesday evening I will be discussing The Knives, and Mark Lawson his new novel The Allegations, in an authors event chaired by Val McDermid. Mark’s book is a reflection on real events, and the Festival brochure asks: ‘With such sensitive social contexts involved, what personal risks did the authors take in approaching the material?’ That event is 7:00pm - 8:00pm in The Spiegeltent, tickets £8.00 or £6.00.

So maybe I’ll see you there, do say hello, et cetera.

Saturday, 13 August 2016

The Knives reviewed in the Financial Times: 'Thrilling in the truest sense.'

Dan Mitchell's art for the FT review of The Knives
This weekend's Financial Times brought a great boon: a very gratifying review of The Knives by the critic and author Erica Wagner, who clearly read the book as closely as any novelist could hope for and was also kind enough to name-check my earlier novel Crusaders (2008).

The FT also allotted a generous space and positioning to Wagner's piece and illustrated it with a drawing by Dan Mitchell that very adroitly projects the menace suggested in the titling of the review: Ministry of Fear.

Some choice extracts:

'The current political climate, with reality giving fiction a run for its money, is one in which the jaded reader might be hard to impress. Which makes Richard T Kelly’s The Knives all the more admirable... This is a sharp and engaging tale...Kelly makes lives the reader can believe in. Novels are thrilling in the truest sense when they feel as if they are built of flesh and blood; it’s Kelly’s success in doing so that makes his final twist of the knife even more shocking.'

Friday, 12 August 2016

The Knives: a Prospect podcast with Sameer Rahim

Follow this link for the audio of a 20-minute conversation I had last week at the London offices of Prospect magazine with their Arts & Books editor Sameer Rahim. For me it was very engrossing. 

Sameer's Twitter avatar is a picture of Joseph Conrad, which would be a fine thing to do at any time; but if you should cross his path at any point then the tale of why he chose Conrad at this particular moment is well worth the telling.

This is the billing on the Prospect site:

In Prospect’s latest podcast, the novelist Richard T. Kelly discusses a Conservative Home Secretary struggling to cope with a multitude of problems: terrorism, civil liberties, immigration and human rights. But Kelly isn’t talking about the former Home Secretary Theresa May; he’s talking about David Blaylock, the protagonist of his new political thriller The Knives. Through Blaylock, Kelly explores the difficulties of being a politician in the 21st century: the knives are out for you, always.

Thursday, 11 August 2016

The Knives makes The Evening Standard's Londoner's Diary: 'A big year in politics'

The Evening Standard has been a fixture of the intra-London commute for so long now that I can remember it before it was distributed for free. Around town you can certainly feel the presence of the 900,000 or so copies that go out these days. So it was a thrill to see The Knives covered yesterday in the Diary pages, a space usually reserved for Great & Good: aristocrats, moguls, beloved entertainers, and senior politicians. It's on the back of the last category, I guess, that me and my novel rode in. My thanks to Robbie Griffiths of the ES for picking up on the story.

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

Esquire reviews The Knives: 'A finely honed slice of modern political drama'

I'm delighted that the September issue of Esquire now on stands finds room in its cultural highlights section for a write-up on The Knives. One thing that's always lively, surprising and educational about reading reviews of your own stuff (and in a good way, I mean) is seeing how the reviewer selects from and synopsises the book's narrative. Very deftly done in this case, and with no little wit.

This is the critical conclusion the review comes to, which is very gratifying:

'What Kelly... has done so well is to craft an exciting novel set in the political arena... it grips from the off. This book could not also be more timely, with the threat to MPs' personal safety and radicalisation on British soil as alive on these pages as they are in tomorrow's headlines.'

Monday, 8 August 2016

Nick Cohen on The Knives (Observer): 'The best novel about modern politics I have read in years'.

The shrewdest observation I've ever heard said about reviews comes, if I remember right, from Roman Polanski, to the effect that if you decide to believe whatever good write-ups you're lucky enough to get then you have to believe the non-good ones, too, since there's no substantive difference that anyone can point to.

And fair play to that, but obviously one's attention tends in certain directions and not others. Nick Cohen, political writer for the Observer and the Spectator and Standpoint, author of (inter alia) What's Left? and You Can't Read The Book, reviewed The Knives for last Sunday's Observer, and I couldn't have wished for more in appreciation of the novel - in particular his assertion that it is 'the best novel about modern politics I have read in years.'

The Knives launched at Daunts Cheapside 04.08.2016

My kind of shopfront
The independent Daunts chain of bookshops is a huge boon to London and its readers and writers. If we don't have as many booksellers as we might wish in London (compared, say, to coffeehouses, where the product is hardly cheaper though its use-value is cursory), then these ones that we have are to be prized.

The City is a zone of London where the habitues could always do with some edifying reading to keep their eyes above the horizon, and that's what Daunts Cheapside offers. Like every iteration of Daunts I've seen, it's well-stocked and adroitly-staffed and all about good books.

Editor Lee Brackstone addresses the room
That's where Faber & Faber and I went to launch The Knives last Thursday night, the night of the day of the novel's publication. It was a lovely crowd, on a heady August evening when people not already off on their holidays could have been excused for choosing the pub instead. The pub, in any case, is where we ended up, but not before the speeches and toasts that are customary to wetting a book's head.

Edna O'Brien dispenses the wisdom
Obviously when you write for a living you have writerly friends, but I would hope to be forgiven for singling out the attendance of one author to whom the rest of us are naturally inclined to bend the knee in this day and age. Edna O'Brien's literary production has been enjoying a tremendous resurgence at Faber and Faber where she, like me and a good few other fortunate souls, draws on the editorial support of Lee Brackstone. So I was delighted when Edna dropped into my do, as indeed was everybody else in the room.

Tuesday, 2 August 2016

A few things about The Knives

1. My novel The Knives is published this Thursday, August 4. I first began thinking about its subject in late 2009, and wrote a fledgling version as a prospective short-form Channel 4 drama. My interest had been stirred by some of the very public political/moral dilemmas facing the then-Labour Home Secretary Alan Johnson. That interest deepened when I read David Blunkett’s lengthy and detailed published diaries. I wondered what it would mean to discharge such duties - to walk a mile in those shoes, imaginatively.

2. I began to plot out a long-form story about a flawed man doing a legendarily difficult job, mired in crises both professional and personal – a Home Secretary with no home of his own. Since governments come and go, and since a writer's job is to make things tough for one's characters, I soon knew that my protagonist had to be a working class Conservative, in a north of England constituency, who had served in the army. By 2010 I had a title for the piece, Homeland, but I was just too slow out of the blocks on that score.

3. Research proper on the novel, both from written sources and by going to people and places directly, went on from 2011 right up to 2015. In real life, and for all that the job is considered a poisoned chalice or gilded coffin, Theresa May endured as Home Secretary throughout those years – right up to her recent promotion. Her discharging of duties at Marsham Street was of obvious interest to me, as it has been to journalists on the Westminster beat, and never more so than now. (Andrew Rawnsley’s piece on May and her circle of advisors in last week’s Observer is a very good and insightful place for newcomers to start.)
4. The Knives, though, is fiction. It’s not based or modelled on anyone, it’s no roman a clef. It does, though, aspire through a story to offer some plausible dramatic scenarios and imaginative truths about arguably the hardest office in politics - and its complex relation to this nation of ours and her citizenry.

5. The novel is dubbed a ‘political thriller’, essentially for shorthand purposes. I would see it as a drama that’s intended to grip: a Scandinavian boxset of a novel, if you like, with multiple concurrent plotlines and themes. I would be really pleased if admirers of the TV series Borgen found it of interest. Like my first novel Crusaders, The Knives tries to address some national themes of public interest, in a dramatic manner. Like Crusaders, it’s in the last act that the thriller elements coalesce - the clock begins to tick for the central character, and the train drives down one track to the denouement.

6. I guess there’s a certain timeliness in a novel about a Tory Home Secretary who's widely fancied to become Prime Minister appearing at this moment – amid a year of politics that has been more interesting than many of us would have liked. The book perhaps foreshadows a few things that have become reality. In at least one regard I wish they hadn’t.

7. In a time of political tumult and crisis, like this one in which we’re currently enveloped, people who read a lot can be forgiven for losing their heads in angst and dread; and fiction has a hard fight to show it’s more useful for what ails us than Twitter. But it’s a worthwhile fight, nonetheless. Of course there is a living to be had from arguing that whatever’s happening today is the definitive episode in human history. But it isn’t. Ecclesiastes got that dead right.

8. The EU referendum result defenestrated a Prime Minister and cleared out more than one of his self-styled successors. The ambitions of Cameron, Johnson and Gove, and the popular failure of the case for Britain to remain in the EU, have been shut down, shuttered and bolted: the narrative of those events has already been well told in journalism, and no doubt there will be a non-fiction book or two to follow.

9. Still, our oft-maligned political system managed to propel the most capable candidate into Cameron’s place, once the blatant hoodwinkers had fallen away. The aftermath of that referendum vote, however, will be long and painful, and will define the premiership of Theresa May. The problems that faced her as Home Secretary over six years – inter alia, levels of immigration, varieties of alienation in England’s regions, forms of English nationalism, concern for England’s identity and the threat of 'domestic extremism' in various forms – have, I think, a fair bit to do with why England voted as it did on June 23. The Knives is certainly much preoccupied with such matters. My fictional Home Secretary David Blaylock has his (invented) Westminster constituency on Teesside, where all areas voted to leave the EU by over 60%.

10. In terms of government, such deep-rooted and persistent problems appear to be the burden of the Conservative Party, since Labour has, for the time being, abandoned the business of real politics. And the troubles are not going away – we will reckon with them for years to come. Fiction, I believe, has a part to play in the reckoning, and I wrote a piece for the Guardian last week on how novelists have borne witness to politics down the years – as ‘unacknowledged legislators’, if you like - certainly as watchmen, interpreters and dramatists of our predicaments.

Friday, 29 July 2016

'The Knives' is nigh

Five or so years in the making, my third novel is finally out next Thursday. I'm due to have a piece in tomorrow's Guardian Review about politics and fiction, and after that we will see what kind of coverage may come.... 
In the meantime this pre-publication response to the novel from Alastair Campbell is one I wear with pride:
'A gripping read from start to finish. A rich, multi-layered account of the complexities of modern government where personal, political and cultural realities mean simple choices are hard to come by.'

For sure I will be at the Edinburgh Book Festival on August 17 for an event with Mark Lawson chaired by none other than Val McDermid, and I will be on BBC Radio 4's Open Book to discuss some of the issues around The Knives on August 21. A podcast I'm doing with the estimable Prospect magazine will also be available from the 21st. Next week there will be an extract from the book and a prize giveaway on the Mr. Hyde website, plus a blog post by me on Foyles' site. 
All this and more once The Knives are out, as they say...

Friday, 10 June 2016

Esquire (July 2016) now on stands: George Best

I haven't written about football at any great length since this, about Zinedine Zidane in 2006, but I'm pleased to report that I have another long piece about another truly great player - George Best - in the new Esquire. The Best essay is rather more concerned with class and culture and money and celebrity in the UK over the last 50 years than it is with what goes on inside the mind of a true master when he's out in the middle of the park - which was and is my interest in the great Zidane. But Best's gifts have been well examined, I have to say, and remain available to the eyes of newcomers on tape. What has happened to the national game in light of socio-economic changes in wider British society still has work to be done on it, in my view, and I will have more to say on that myself in a new book next year.

In footballing terms, though, there's just one thing I'd want to add to what's printed in Esquire, related to this notion of a comparison between supreme athlete and megastar musician that has advanced with the more the former receives in remuneration and adulation. The performance anxiety of a footballer ought really to exceed that of any rock star: the crowd is tougher, plus there’s an opposition whose job is to stop you playing. But Best relished adversity. In the European Cup Final of 1968 against Benfica, he was targeted, fouled, and repeatedly felled – a lesser man might have been psyched out of the game. Instead Best scored a crucial goal that put Man United on the way to their first European trophy. Not just a pretty face, to put it mildly.

Ken Adam's Imaginary Architecture

To BFI South Bank last week for a superb tribute to the late great production designer Ken Adam, he of numerous Bond films, Barry Lyndon, Dr Strangelove, etc.  The Broccoli family/EON Films, I believe, put the whole thing together; Chris Frayling emceed it fluently, and a very fine array of speakers paid tribute in-between some well-crafted clip montages.

Adam had quite some twentieth-century life experience before cinema. A German Jew who fled Berlin perforce in the 1930s, he served with valour in the RAF (the story is here), and one of the most memorable tributes on the night came from a current senior officer in 609 Squadron.

Among a few paeans delivered on film – Roger Moore was dryly funny, I must say – the most thought-provoking was perhaps from Lord Foster, who sounded truly enthused about the notion of an alternative history of architecture, based on the influence of buildings that were never actually built – or, rather, fabricated only temporarily, on a sound stage, as imaginative space for scrutiny by a camera lens. Any film-goer can name a favourite edifice in this regard, a space they would love to have inhabited or visited, except that it lives only in cinema. (Apparently Adam’s widow Laetitia would get quite emotional come the day of shooting day on any given Bond picture when an action sequence called for some glorious set of her husband’s to be blown to bits.)

I explored my own passion for production design in my long biographical study of Ferdinando Scarfiotti, and pictures that he designed as diverse as The Conformist and Scarface still work that sort of wish-you-were-there enchantment on viewers.

Alan Bennett, who became friends with Adam in the filming of his Madness of King George, attended the tribute in person and spoke intriguingly of a unique feeling he’d had and professed to not quite understand – namely that knowing Adam had made him feel part of a ‘European culture’. I briefly thought this might herald some reference to the EU referendum, but Bennett left the sentiment there, and it resonated. When the lights came out and I wandered out with the filmmaker friend who’d invited me long, we shared a few wistful thoughts of the ‘they don’t make them like they used to’ variety, related both to movies and to people. There’s an obvious aesthetic to the old movie world of built sets and spaces dressed for celluloid, one that gains lustre as more and more films are very evidently made by computers. And there’s no point being overly nostalgic for the sorts of costs that the old studio-style model necessitated.

But cinema is the supreme time-based art form, and so many pleasures, even of a melancholy variety, derive from that very truth.

A still-neglected piece of Adam finery (fine work, indeed, from the whole cast and crew) is Pennies From Heaven (1981). This is the sort of thing I’m talking about.