Sunday, 13 October 2013

Notes on Lagos (British Council/Through My Eyes)

Your correspondent in Lagos. (Photo by Sue Parkhill)
At the end of September I spent a week overseas teaching creative writing under the aegis of the British Council’s Literature department – my third such excursion for them, following previous adventures in Buenos Aires and Seoul. This time I dropped into Lagos, Nigeria, for a project entitled Through My Eyes.

It was my first visit to Africa, and thus not a bad baptism to begin with the most teeming city on the continent – a place, moreover, with a fast-growing reputation for high accomplishment in contemporary literature, thanks to works by the likes of Helon Habila, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Chris Abani, Teju Cole and others. Right now must be the most exciting ‘moment’ for Nigerian literature since the 1950s/60s heyday of Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka.

Before I set off, the rightly much-praised Teju Cole, with whom I share a publisher and indeed an editor, was kind enough to mark my card on things I might go and see locally. Other than that, I relied for guidance in Lagos through our hugely personable British Council host Fusi Olateru-Olagbegi and on my collaborator in the Through My Eyes project, the brilliant photographer Sue Parkhill, who was also new to Lagos if rather better travelled than me in Africa per se.

The idea behind Through My Eyes was that a group of young writers and photographers, selected on the strength of joint application, would work in their pairs to express through related text and image some poetic truths about the world around them. (Some of the texts and images they submitted in application to the course are collected in this link.) I must say that, having been thrilled to be invited to Lagos, I was fascinated by what I found there and really knocked out by the verve and accomplishment of the students. Their strong opinions and personalities will live with me.

Sue and I were based not on ‘the mainland’ of Lagos but rather, ‘the island’ – in Ikoyi, on the island’s eastern side, where one can observe some notably plush properties, among them the diplomatic quarters of the great nations. Said properties are notably well guarded from the street; but then large numbers of people in Ikoyi are living in compounds of one sort or another, even if the walls be made of concrete blocks, un-rendered and topped with razor wire, gated by reclaimed corrugated iron.

Conversely, as you drive about Lagos a lot of what you see has a somewhat ‘provisional’ feel: from shanty lean-tos to dilapidated structures that clearly didn’t work out, to hastily assembled things that someone thinks just might... Big new-build structures often overlook empty lots of barren land with makeshift barriers, as if a movie crew or some such travelling show were about to roll in and set up. But Ikoyi is, for sure, an aspirational part of Lagos to be living in. As for Banana Island in the nearby Lagos lagoon... Well, it need only be said that I carried the Lagos edition of Monopoly home to London as a gift for my children, who now understand that Banana Island is the spot in Lagos where you should build your hotels.

Shall we deal quickly with a few local-cultural stereotypes that I might have brought with me to Lagos, stuffed in my old kitbag, on the plane over?

1. I expect a lot of Europeans stepping out for the first time on an African evening take a moment to note the lushness of the skies, and feel the difference as thick, warm air settles on your shoulders and disparate aromas come and go in the space of a short walk. That air seems to bestow a botanical, vegetal quality on a lot of what you see: for an idle second you can imagine how easily nature – given six months or so – might reclaim any developed plot.

2. Traffic conditions in Lagos are to be viewed with concentration, good reflexes, and good humour as and when one can muster it. Anything else is a waste of time in a place where white lines are not considered to mean anything special.

3. ‘Welcome to Nigeria!’ was said to me by students sporting sardonic grins on more than one occasion – first, when I registered a shade too much surprise about an incidence of electrical power outage caused by generator failure. The locals have long since wearied of complaint on this matter. You have to buck up and get used to it in Lagos, so I did. (In fact I rather liked the low-level of generator hum you heard continuously in larger buildings. It even inspired me to tell my students – some of whom were curious about what might be the ‘ideal’ conditions for writing – about how Faulkner wrote much of As I Lay Dying while working as a night watchman in a power plant.)

4. The second ‘Welcome to Nigeria!’ came about after I’d had to press my hands to my old ears during a lunch break, since the lively exchange of views going on around me had risen very suddenly to a stunning cacophony. I gathered this was just one little distinctive facet of how Nigerians like to conduct an argument – robustly, in the best sense.

5. As a middle-aged guy with a bad back I really had to force myself not to look hard and repeatedly at all the young women swaying eloquently down the roadsides with large loads of goods balanced upon their heads. It is quite a thing, though. One of my students, who had a special interest in the issue of how Nigeria’s capital Abuja was constructed on the dispossession of tribal indigents, told the group of the Gbagys people, who buck this trend of head-carriage – indeed swear against it, using only their shoulders – since they consider the head to be exempt from such indignity as the seat of our higher faculties.

On our second day in writing class I ran an exercise that I always find useful, where the students and I spent 45 minutes or so perusing the morning paper from cover to cover, whereupon I asked them to tell me what, for each of them, was the authentic ‘front page story’ – i.e. which item in the paper, wherever it got printed, and whether large or small, felt to them like the best insight into what happened in Nigeria the previous day (and which could therefore offer good source material for a story...) The discussion we then fell into for an hour or more was probably the keenest of this sort that I’ve ever had the privilege to moderate.

If you follow the news in Lagos you are, for all sorts of reasons, quite likely to get angry – angrier even than those of us who routinely shout at Radio 4’s Today programme. One student in my group is the very capable host of a drive-time talk radio show, and national issues are certainly familiar and vexing to both her and her listeners: Nigerian democracy just does seem markedly at odds with the Nigerian demos. (Another cliché I had in my kitbag, once read in some or other journal, was one about there being ‘no middle class in Nigeria.’ That’s not strictly true, but a lot of Nigerians graft for very little or just about enough while the phenomenal proceeds of oil seem to course around within a golden circle. University teachers and resident doctors, I learned from the paper, were both on strike while I was in town.)

Teju Cole had told me to go to Bogobiri House, and that’s where Fusi took Sue and I, unbidden, on our first night in Lagos. Bogobiri is a terrific little hotel and arts venue with a weekly open-mic performance evening, called Taruwa, which happened to be celebrating its 6th birthday on the night we visited. I was introduced to Lydia Idakula Sobogun, who devised the whole thing.

And in the midst of some rambunctious emceeing and music and impressive ‘slam’ poetry, I watched a fellow named Icee paint a canvas from scratch, in about five minutes, using his fingers and a plate smeared with oils. (That’s it depicted above.) It reminded me, I must say, of how I can't seem to live without the religious in art, if not in life. And the painting sold in auction, for about £400, I think. But if I'd had a better grasp of how to ship stuff out of Nigeria I reckon it would be hanging on my wall right now.

On our penultimate day we went on a class trip for a highly diverting coach ride ‘downtown’ to the marina part of the island – it’s not a place for mooring yachts, mind you, it’s more interesting than that. There I saw a bit of the densely-packed urban tumult for which Lagos is renowned. (For instance: pavement cyclists in London always make me feel narked and aggressive, but they’re charmers next to Lagos’s keen pavement motorcyclists, who growl down the middle of the walkway shooting glares at pedestrians with their footling complaints.) I saw one or two things at the marina that I’d maybe rather not have seen. But I was struck by the commotion, for sure, and by evidence of bits and pieces of civic-municipal renewal. Fusi explained to me how a lot of menacing spaces under bridges and flyovers had been cleaned up and landscaped to move the hustlers along - much as has been done in King’s Cross and Times Square during my lifetime.

We moved on through the Balogun market area, down Broad Street and Breadfruit Street: a proper street hassle, hectic with market-stall and store-front commerce, vendors hailing you at every turn. Vehicle traffic was hindered, mercifully for our purpose, by a JCB stiffly shovelling pieces of the broken road into a pile. But again I had that sense of things in Lagos being very often improvised, tried out, to see what might pay dividends. It certainly felt as if every square yard in Lagos was getting used for some purpose, every little thing that one might pick up was being employed somehow...

Inevitably, this being the Big City, not all of its trade is done by the letter of the law. I became very curious to see the number of buildings around Lagos that were paint-daubed with the same angry message: ‘419-Beware-NOT For Sale’. It was explained to me that ‘419’ is the section of the Nigerian Criminal Code concerning fraud; and that it is, regrettably, not uncommon for a truly bold fraudster to advertise, offer and present for sale a large building of which he is not, in fact, the owner.

These sorts of everyday tales of the city are why - as has been observed by smarter heads than me - Lagos is a place that offers rich pickings for thematically ambitious writers. I certainly got the feeling it's producing the right kind of talent to harvest the crop.

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

In praise of a pervasive sense of evil - Gothic: The Dark Heart of Film (A BFI Compendium)

I have before me the newly published Gothic: The Dark Heart of Film (A BFI Compendium). It’s a remarkably handsome volume and, I’d have thought, a must-have for enthusiasts and students in this ever more ardently studied field. But then 'we are for the dark', as Shakespeare had the serving maid say to Cleopatra.

I contributed a chapter to the book (on Satanism and witchcraft, naturally) but it’s really not for that reason that I consider the work overall to be essential. I’m just a one-time gothic novelist, not truly a specialist in the discipline; however, inter alia, fellow contributors such as Guillermo del Toro, Marina Warner, Christopher Frayling, Kim Newman, Anne Billson, Mark Gatiss and Ramsey Campbell most eminently are. The richness and variety of this collection, expertly assembled by the BFI’s James Bell and superbly illustrated to boot, are to be savoured, in more than one sitting.

The book marks a BFI season that begins shortly and will run into 2014. A fine taster of what lies in store was offered at the end of August with a 'Monster Weekend' of special screenings in the forecourt of the British Museum: I went along to the first of these, the movie being Tourneur’s Night of the Demon, and thought it a really delighting occasion.

I notice that I’m using a lot of ‘pleasure-words’ in relation to the gothic here, which, funnily enough, is the spirit in which I wrote my chapter for the book. For a long time I more or less believed that the whole origin of the horror genre was quite aptly encapsulated by the ‘celebrated’ line from the Catholic Office of the Dead, ‘Timor mortis conturbat me’ (‘The fear of death disturbs me.’) Our mortality, and that of those whom we love, is after all the best if not the only thing in this world to be afraid of.

However, horror consumed as a cultural experience clearly has to offer pleasure of sorts too, even if a somewhat masochistic one. Horror might be said to indulge a certain phantasy about the existence of wickedness and depravity in the world: how it might indeed triumph over good, or how, at least, certain souls (deserving or not) could succumb to it. In the process, wickedness and depravity may be dressed up with certain superficially alluring aspects – and when it comes to such costuming, cinema is supreme among the arts. But at such a puppet show it’s easier to spot the strings.

There are many aspects of the gothic that have great powers to haunt and disturb and unnerve us, and gothic works that invoke devils and demons and necromancers (what I thumbnail in my essay for convenience as ‘the gothic occult’) are by no means excluded from that. Their particular powers, though, feel to me a tad reduced. The gothic occult is predicated on the existence of evil as a metaphysical force in the world: a thirsty evil, one that wants to keep its infection spreading. A really bleak gothic occult will propose a black pessimistic view of Man's Fate – that the material world belongs to Satan and goodness is unattainable, on this plane at least, etc. That all sounds scary enough on paper, and can be so on screen.

And yet this particular version (or explanation) of a metaphysical evil seems to me to require – how can I put it? – a more than usual bound into the suspension of disbelief. By contrast, the idea of a ‘ghost’ – where a ghost might come from, what it might look like, what its motives might be – seems to me endlessly recyclable and potentially mysterious, fit (if the mood is right) to inveigle itself even into our wide-awake rational thoughts. Ghosts appear to me as the absolute lifeblood of the gothic. But then to speak of devils, of Satan... of a personification of evil, an antagonist to some almighty king of the heavens, a figure at the head of a large hierarchical structure committed to humanity’s ultimate catastrophe – well, this is to confront the reader or viewer with a heftier (and consequently less nimble and persuasive) proposition. Having written a novel in the Faust mode I appreciate the size of the ask, and accept that one’s first duty under these conditions is to entertain.

The best, most persuasive work of fiction that I know of to imagine Satan’s immanence in our world is Norman Mailer’s The Castle in the Forest (which is also perhaps the most decidedly gothic title anyone could ever append to a novel.) If I can’t immediately tempt you to read it, please try this superb interview with Mailer about the novel, written up by Philip Weiss for the New York Observer. And do keep your eye on #bfigothic.

A footnote: when I was readying my Gothic compendium chapter for the presses with BFI editor James Bell I was not surprised and quite amused to hear from him that I ought to try to trim back on a rather prolix attempt I’d made to define exactly what constitutes the gothic in cinema. Apparently, more than one of my fellow contributors had fallen down the same dark well... and the effort is probably doomed, one has to say. There’s nothing exactly Gothic in cinema, but it’s generally agreed that we seem to know it when we see it, or feel it. Gothic is a visual style and a mood, an atmosphere, enhanced above all by production design – one of gloom, intrigue, dread, a pervasive sense of evil, which may well (but need not) materialize in outright horrors. In the case of the gothic occult, this production design tends to dark secret places where cabals gather and rituals occur, the solemn black mass and the orgiastic walpurgisnacht. And there you may also see the goat’s head and the horned man, the grimoire, the beckoning finger of Mephistopheles – all that...

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

The reaction to Judith Tebbutt's 'Long Walk Home'

Judith Tebbutt, July 2013. Photograph: Graeme Robertson

Since its publication by Faber in early July Judith Tebbutt’s A Long Walk Home - the writing of which I had the privilege of assisting Jude with - has spent a month in the Top 10 of the Sunday Times bestseller list and featured in a superb extracted reading by Penny Downie for Radio 4’s Book of the Week; while Judith herself gave a highly insightful interview to Kira Cochrane of the Guardian and also spoke with Dan Damon of the BBC World Service, whose broadcasts she'd followed keenly during her captivity. 

The reviews of the book, meanwhile, have been uniformly splendid and written with a notable empathy. Below is a selection:

A riveting tale of human fortitude… Not only is it an action-packed account of a kidnapping and hostage situation, it is also the story of how [Judith Tebbutt] triumphed psychologically against terror, semi-starvation and isolation… The result is a page-turner… Fast-paced though the action is, it is the psychological story that compels.’ Sian Griffiths, Sunday Times (£)

Exquisitely painful reading… Her account of learning to live in freedom without either her husband or her job (which she was obliged to give up, as the publicity surrounding her case made her too conspicuous to continue her highly sensitive work) is deeply affecting…. Extreme as her experiences of violence and privation were, it is the small details that are the most plangent in this account, co-written with Richard T Kelly: the freshly cooked samosas secretly passed to her by Amina, the pirates’ cook; the incongruously pretty sequins on the curtains of her prison and – most bitter of all – the loss of David’s wedding ring, stolen from his body before it was flown back to Britain… When she allows herself to express emotion, as in her final chapters on resuming what will never again be her ‘everyday’ life, it becomes clear what heroic self-control has been required to tell her story.’ Jane Shilling, New Statesman

Judith Tebbutt’s story is inspiring, and leaves you with the feeling that if this woman could show such fortitude, then so might we all… Her story of terror, despair and survival is as gripping as any thriller, yet told sparely, with no self-pity. It is a testament to the resilience of the individual spirit, but also the the strength of family love… Vivid and detailed enough to place you firmly in the shadow of this extraordinary woman… A book which is a passionate affirmation of life.’ Bel Mooney, Daily Mail

This unflinchingly honest memoir, written with Richard T Kelly, touches on Tebbutt's childhood in ‘a working-class northern household’, yearning for escape yet without high expectations of ‘being able to make my way in the world’; she defied the odds to do just that… With great emotional acuity, Tebbutt offers a raw insight into grief and the imaginative capacity to conjure loved ones absent through distance or death. Tebbutt's training as a social worker, dealing with vulnerable, violent people, proved vital in interacting with her captors, championing humanity in the most inhumane situation. Her survival strategies recall Mandela's disciplined prison regime in his memoir Long Walk to Freedom… This powerful book captures the urgency of telling even the darkest of stories, and evokes the power of resilience in adversity. ‘I have my freedom, so what am I going to do with it?’ asks Tebbutt. A book that begins with a horrific death becomes a clarion call to cherish whatever we might have left of life.’ Anita Sethi, Observer
A detailed, touching account, revealing not just how she coped but also her tenderness for her husband.’ Colin Freeman, Daily Telegraph

‘This above all is a story of human fortitude. Of how isolated, intimidated and almost starved, one brave middle-aged woman resolved to be a survivor.’ Gerard Henderson, Daily Express

‘This unfussy book gives her version, firmly… It is not, however, a self-aggrandising chronicle. Mrs Tebbutt is a wonderfully straightforward narrator (assisted by Richard T. Kelly) and the book rings true to her desire merely to tell ‘any future grandchildren’ how a person can survive adversity and grief.’ Libby Purves, The Times (£)

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Jude Tebbutt's 'Long Walk Home'

I will never forget the frozen moment on the evening of Sunday September 12 2011 when I learned that David Tebbutt, finance director at my publishers Faber and Faber, had been murdered while on holiday on an island in the Lamu archipelago off Kenya’s northern coast. It was a catastrophe of the kind no-one could anticipate, and that it should have befallen such a fine and decent person as David only compounded the shock felt by all who knew him.

Making matters immeasurably worse, the sorrows came ‘not single spies but in battalions’, with the news that David’s wife Jude had been abducted by the people responsible for his death. One could barely imagine what might follow. Gradually, over weeks, it became clear Jude had been transported into Somalia and that this was a kidnap for ransom - offering at least the hope of a process by which her release could be secured. Yet the violence of the offence, and the lawlessness of the terrain, made that hope seem a vulnerable one. We were not to know how Jude sustained herself in the meantime, as weeks in captivity turned to months.

Then in March 2012 came stunning, thankful news, as Jude’s freedom was successfully negotiated by her and David’s son Ollie, and she returned to the UK. Now she has written an account of her ordeal in A Long Walk Home: One Woman’s Story of Kidnap. Hostage, Loss and Survival. The making of the book was something Jude conceived of while still a prisoner in Somalia: it was a significant process both of coming-to-terms and of commemoration for her, as described here by Julian Loose, her editor at Faber.

Because of my association with Faber and my background in biography and journalism, also my having known David, I was asked to assist Jude in the writing of the book. This was a privilege for me in a dual sense, both in terms of the honouring of David’s memory and for the opportunity to know Jude better – for she is, in her remarkable personal qualities, a person deeply worth knowing. Being so closely acquainted with the contents of A Long Walk Home it would be invidious for me to proclaim its virtues, however I do think I have sufficient objectivity to say that the story Jude tells, and her reflections – not just on what she has endured but on the life she has known both before and after tragedy struck – will repay anyone’s investment of time richly.

You can get a very striking sense of A Long Walk Home from an excellent interview with Jude by Kira Cochrane in today’s Guardian, and also from the extracts currently being offered in a Radio 4 Book of the Week serialization, read by the actress Pennie Downie.

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Dickens 2012, Seoul/Incheon: "Behind every building, every facade, I can see there's a story..."

The British Council Korea made this lovely video compilation of their 'Dickens 2012' commemorations last March. It's mainly in Korean, of course, but there are a few snippets of me in preaching/teaching mode as the grateful Visiting Novelist amid this cherishable project of cultural exchange... I only wish they'd managed to capture the bit where I tried to explain to some young Korean writers why Incheon is so much like Newcastle...

Friday, 19 April 2013

What I saw with Doctor Forrest in Barcelona...

Photo by Clara Gabrielli
The special treat of seeing one of my books translated into a foreign language always gives me a unique commingled feeling of sophistication and idiocy: it is, after all, quite a thing to get to this age and see your name on the cover of a book you can’t read. 

My chief emotion in this case, though, is just huge gratitude that my gothic novel The Possessions of Doctor Forrest has been rendered into Spanish most elegantly (as Las posesiones del doctor Forrest) by Alba Editorial of Barcelona, as part of its Novela Negra imprint. The cover alone, with a shiny spot-finish on the sinuous serpent, is undoubtedly a thing of evil beauty. And this publication has renewed an association with Alba begun in 2001 when they also put out in Spanish my book on Dogme 95 (as El título de este libro es Dogma 95.)

I owe a huge thanks to Idoia Moll and the house of Alba for hosting me so generously in Barcelona last month to tie in with publication. I was interviewed by a number of journalists at Alba’s wonderful offices, where I admired the great range of their publishing, embracing both the best of the contemporary plus a great array of the classics; I toured the famous Gothic Quarter of Barcelona, which is everything that I heard it would be and more; and I signed books at the renowned Negra y Criminal bookstore. A great swathe of wall-space at Negra Y Criminal is generously decorated to record visits paid by some of the great names of crime and mystery fiction. (I was honoured, then, to take my turn at the time-honoured custom of posing in one of the shop’s branded tee-shirts.)

The longest and most detailed of the interviews I did was probably that with Begoña Corzo of La Vanguardia, for which we were accompanied by the photographer Clara Gabrielli. I really enjoyed our wide-ranging conversation, and am quite happy to have been described as a fellow of ‘muchas caras’, likewise to read that ‘como el doctor Jekyll, este inglés grandote y afable se ve poseído por personalidades intermitentes.’

The special pleasure for me of this interview was that we walked together to the headquarters of the Royal Academy of Medicine of Catalonia, originally the seat of the Reial Collegi de Cirurgìa de Barcelona (Royal College of Surgeons of Barcelona). We then conducted the bulk of our discussions in the rich, red and resplendent surroundings of its finely preserved 18th-century anatomical theatre, named the Sala Gimbernat after the great surgeon and anatomist Antoni de Gimbernat (1734–1790). The minute I walked through its doors, you can imagine, I was in a kind of heaven - and very happy to pose for Clara Gabrielli’s camera with my brow tilted and hands strategically placed on the marble dissecting table (as above.)

In the Sala Gimbernat of Barcelona's old surgical college, March 7 2013. Photo, Clara Gabrielli.
I must say all of the journalists I met in Barcelona was terrifically well-informed and very courteous and it was a pleasure to talk to them: Josep Lambies from Time Out Barcelona, whose write-up isn’t online; Albert Cano of La Opinion a Coruna, who I’m very pleased to say reported me as ‘culto y con capacidad para reírse de sí mismo’; Rosa Mora of El Pais, with whom I had a useful discussion about what Doctor Forrest has to say on public and private healthcare; and a woman from Regio 7 whose name now eludes me but who was most kind in the piece she wrote.

So I consider myself very fortunate - a writer's life is good indeed when one can be treated so well and with such warmth on account of having written a book about the guileful means by which the Deceiver exploits one man’s damnation so as multiply the sum of misery in the world... May I be so lucky again.

The Great Gatsby & Baz Luhrmann's green light

It’s rare indeed that I find myself quite so far ahead of the pop-cultural curve... but for anyone seeking insight into Baz Luhrmann’s new film version of The Great Gatsby in advance of its Cannes premiere, I can direct them to a long interview I did with Mr Luhrmann for the newly published Picador film tie-in edition of Fitzgerald’s novel.

The pilgrim will find much of interest in Luhrman's reflections, I feel – about the influence on the director of Francis Coppola and Joseph Conrad, also of a journey he took on the Trans-Siberian Railway; on Luhrmann’s compendious research into Fitzgerald’s world and that of the novel; on the bold structural choices he and Craig Pearce made for their screenplay; on his musical collaborator Jay-Z’s opinion of Jay Gatsby’s character; of what Gatsby has to say of its time and to ours; and more.

Our conversation was a privilege for me in more ways than one: on top of his creative accomplishments Mr Luhrmann is a hugely eloquent and engaging speaker, witty and charming, free of airs and, I should say, a gentleman, too. His movie is very keenly awaited, of course. But I’m very struck by what I’ve heard and seen, and I’m certainly wishing this Gatsby all the very best, old sport.

This is how our conversation wound round to its conclusion:

RTK: In their famous interview Alfred Hitchcock and Francois Truffaut agreed there was a problem about turning great books into films because the books were already masterpieces, made out of words, which pictures couldn’t emulate. Clearly, having made 'Romeo + Juliet' you’re happy to work with classic texts. But do you feel there is something about 'Gatsby' that you have to try to be ‘faithful’ to, to satisfy the book’s admirers? Or are you content to say to audiences, ‘This is the way I see it...’
Baz Luhrmann: Of course I hear that perspective. But there have been some pretty good cinematic goes made of some great books... There may be people out there with large pieces of wood counting down the days until the movie is out so they can come and hit me... ‘How dare you?’ And I understand that, and I don’t take it lightly. Nonetheless – I love the book too. And I always think great literature is there to be interpreted in many different ways, in different times and by different people – for example, I look forward to the next person who does a 'Romeo and Juliet' movie different to mine. To me, what defines greatness in literature, culture, of any kind, is that it’s able to move through time and geography, it can play in any country and continues to play in any era. And that’s true of 'The Great Gatsby'...

Another thing I must say about this Picador edition is that it’s quite a thrill for me to have some of my words – be they very simple ones – bound up between covers with those of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s and a novel that I, like millions of readers, think of as one of the most brilliantly achieved in English.

It has a special little nostalgia for me because I studied Gatsby for the A-Level English Lit paper I sat back in the summer of 1989. I have before me, in fact, the A-format Penguin paperback that was my text at the time: unusually zealously annotated with pencil-scribbles, a source of amusement to me today, for as long as no-one else gets to see them. I’m reminded, for one thing, that the 18-year-old Me was strongly persuaded of Wilde’s maxim that only shallow people fail to judge by appearances. I don’t think I would want such a judgement levied today – or not on myself, at any rate.

I would, though, stand by the pencilled ‘Genet!’ that I put beside Nick Carraway’s early description of Tom Buchanan’s ‘cruel body’, an interesting way for one guy to look at and describe another guy’s figure. Gatsby is often thought of, or remembered, as a romantic book, as a love story. And yet the ostensible love object, Daisy, is really not such a nice girl – unworthy of all the fuss, you might say. And so the ‘romance’, finally, lies more in Jay Gatsby’s outsized illusions about her and the world (for which he constructs his dazzling facade of a life, and then throws that life away.)

Or does it? Is the biggest romantic crush in the book actually the one Nick Carraway has on Gatsby, in whom he finds ‘something gorgeous’ (above and beyond his pink suit), even after all the shows of ostensible disapproval...? This theme of latency has been explored in more recent criticism of the novel, I believe. I don’t say I go along with it. I only note it.