Gary Armitage
Ian Rankin, D.J. Taylor


Gary Armitage is the one contributor that has not responded to my initial email enquiry. I’m fairly sure Antony Harwood will have forwarded my message, he being the agent who’d been speaking to Gary and D.J.Taylor during the PEN New Fiction 2 launch event. So what should I do?

Perhaps I’ll drop Antony another line, just to confirm that he acted on his intention, but first I’ll get started on what I have to say. G.E. Armitage’s story, ‘The End of the War in Vietnam’ is placed second in the anthology’s running order, between the stories written by Giles Gordon and Ian Rankin, both of whom had an association with the book's editor.

The story concerns the end of a marriage, the woman walking out on the male narrator in the summer of 1973 or ‘74, when he was 45, the marriage having lasted sixteen years. Not that those figures are laid out on a plate for the reader. They have to be pulled together from different parts of the narrative.

Thinking about my email to Gary Armitage, perhaps by asking him if the story - with all its precise dates - was autobiographical, I risked bringing to light the author’s guilt about an important relationship of his own. Could that explain why he hasn’t got back to me? Oh well, if I must carry on alone, so be it.


Before the PEN anthology came out, Gary had already published two novels under his own name and two under the name Robert Edric. Subsequently he’s more or less published a book a year under that second name. That’s 25 novels in 28 years; nine novels in the last ten years. Which puts him in the constantly writing, constantly being published category that only four other writers of the 32 contributors are in. Let’s run through their names once more: Ian Rankin, Elaine Feinstein, Frances Fyfield and D.J. Taylor.

Gary Armitage/Robert Edric has had noticeable support from the two regular reviewers connected with
PEN New Fiction 2. That’s Allan Massie and D.J. Taylor. Indeed, I’m now going to investigate the depth of this support.

Concentrating on the last ten years, this is what the PEN pair has had to say…

DJ Taylor reviewed Edric’s 2006 novel,
Gathering the Water in The Guardian. The review begins:

‘While each of Robert Edric's 16 novels - 18 if you count the two early ones issued under his baptismal name of G.E. Armitage - has produced a flurry of critical fan-waving, not one, you suspect, has gladdened his accountant's heart or pushed his faintly reclusive figure in the direction of a mass audience. In fact, 20 years into a fertile career, Edric is showing all the signs of descending into that absolutely fatal bookworld slough, the category of the "writer's writer" - one of those thoughtful, abstruse and overlooked novelists who, while warmly regarded by their peers, might, from the angle of the Waterstone's fiction buyer, just as well be writing in Sanskrit.’

Which just goes to show that when you dig down into success you can find failure! Not that Taylor’s review is disloyal to the friend he made on the night of the PEN party. The review ends: ‘Booker judges take note.’ And in fact this novel was long-listed for the Booker prize in 2006.

Allan Massie also reviewed the book in
The Scotsman. The review kicks off:


‘ROBERT EDRIC HAS WON the James Tait Black prize and been runner-up, with different novels, for The Guardian Fiction Prize and the W H Smith Literary Award. Publishing his first novel some 20 years ago, he has been well, even glowingly, reviewed. Yet I suspect that he has always been a writer more admired by the critics than commercially successful. If so, this may be why he turned aside from the straight, or literary, novel for a time to write three crime novels set in Hull (The Song Cycle Trilogy). Gathering the Water represents a return to his earlier manner: spare, hard-edged, without flourishes.’

Those two reviews have quite a lot in common then. Basically, they suggest that Edric is not so much a commercial writer as an exemplary one.

In 2007 Edric published
The Kingdom of Ashes. In The Guardian, D.J. Taylor had this to say in an article critical of the Booker long-list: ‘Among conspicuous absentees, it's a shame that no one could be persuaded of the merits of Adam Thorpe's wonderful Between Each Breath or Robert Edric's The Kingdom of Ashes.

While in The Scotsman, Massie wrote a similar article critical of the Booker shortlist, saying why he would have included the following book:

‘The Kingdom of Ashes (Doubleday, 16.99) by Robert Edric is set in the devastated Germany of 1945. Edric has always met with more critical respect than popular acclaim, perhaps because he is an uncompromising writer who never pretends that life is either easy or always agreeable. He poses searching moral questions that cannot have a definitive answer. His narrative, here as in other novels, is exploratory. But the evocation of a ruined land is riveting.’

Allan Massie and D.J. Taylor again singing from the same hymn sheet:

‘Hark the Edric angels sing,
"Glory to the PEN-born King!”

Not sure if that hits the right note. Never mind, I’ll be going through this manuscript again before publication. (Many, many times.)


In 2008, the annual Edric production was In Zodiac Light, Which Allan Massie again reviewed in The Scotsman:

‘ROBERT EDRIC'S LAST NOVEL, The Kingdom of Ashes, was set in Germany immediately after the Second World War. The setting for In Zodiac Light is the City of London Mental Hospital in Dartford on the Thames Estuary after the Great War. Both novels are concerned with the casualties of war; both feature a well-meaning narrator thwarted by harshly insensitive officials, principally occupied with advancing their careers. Both novels are very well written – Edric is a novelist of exemplary rigour, whose books regularly win prizes. He seems to shun publicity. He is less well-known than many whose achievement scarcely matches his, perhaps because he lives in Humberside and does not frequent London literary circles.’

Well, he did frequent a London literary circle on the night of the PEN party in January, 1987. I just wish he would get in touch and tell me how much he enjoyed talking to D.J. Taylor who has gone on to be such a supportive friend.

Edric didn’t publish in 2009, but in 2010 came up with
Salvage. Taylor reviewed it favourably, again in The Guardian. First para:

‘Experienced Robert Edric-fanciers – that brave, exotic cadre – may note the resemblances between Salvage and Gathering the Waters (2006). The hero of that earlier novel was a Victorian surveyor charged with turning a Northern valley into a municipal reservoir. Edric's latest protagonist is a 22nd-century civil servant sent to assess a beleaguered town's suitability for "redevelopment". A quarter-millennium apart, themes recur: wary incomer; suspicious onlookers; threatened livelihoods; the sense of mighty dissatisfactions boiling beneath the surface.’

Very nice for Robert Edric to have his life’s work introduced like that. While in
The Scotsman, Massie’s review of Salvage ends:

‘Edric's novels have now been praised by reviewers for some 20 years. Some have won prizes, others been short-listed or long-listed, and yet he is one who has never been fully given his due. This is partly because he is not a comfortable writer; his novels are usually bleak. There is no sentimentality in them. He never flatters his readers. Nor does he make things easy for them. He is disturbing, because he is always aware of the power of moral and political corruption, but he is wonderfully satisfying because he tells it how it is. To my mind, he is a far finer novelist than the fashionable figures who have dominated the English literary world for the last 20 years.’


Are Massie and Taylor trying to outdo each other in the Edric-praising stakes? Does Massie’s ‘far finer novelist’ top Taylor’s ‘brave exotic cadre’? There can surely be no question that they are both ‘experienced Robert Edric-fanciers’.

In 2011, Edric came up with
The London Satyr. Cue Taylor in The Guardian:

‘The curious thing about Robert Edric's historical novels is how un- or even anti-historical they are. Most writers, set to work on the London pornography trade of the 1890s, would be falling over themselves to offer lubricious details from late-Victorian gazetteers, but apart from a glance or two at hansom cabs, gas-jet lighting and Ellen Terry-era dress styles, The London Satyr could have been set virtually anywhere. Sir Henry Irving gets several walk-ons, and there is a pointed little role for his theatrical sidekick Bram Stoker, but in general the period garnish is kept resolutely at bay.’

Come 2012, Edric’s gift to his loyal readers was
The Devil’s Beat. Loyal Edric-fanciers, Massie and Taylor, passed on this one.

Which takes us up to 2013 and
The Monster’s Lament. Here’s what Taylor had to say, now writing in The Independent:

‘There comes a moment in practically every Robert Edric novel when the setting (Victorian Cumberland, African jungle, dystopian future) melts away and some elemental human dilemmas begin to declare themselves… Once again Edric has defied the limitations with which his novels crawl to produce a wonderfully edgy piece of war-time noir.’

Sanctuary appeared in 2014 and it was Allan Massie’s turn to be starstruck:


ROBERT EDRIC is one of the most remarkable novelists writing today. He is a demanding writer, one who doesn’t repeat himself and who requires close attention from his readers. The effort is rewarding. His style is laconic, often abrupt, and the world he portrays is usually bleak. The cold wind of the north blows through his fiction. Sanctuary is, however, more immediately accessible than some of his fiction. The subject is well-suited to his talents, Narrated in the first person, it is the story of the last months of Branwell Brontë, a story of promise never fulfilled, of a life that is generally seen to have been wasted, a tale of self-destruction.’

For some reason, the name ‘C.A.R. Hills’ went through my mind there. But let me read on:

‘Branwell had talent, charm and intelligence, but made nothing of his life… When the novel begins, he is back at the parsonage in disgrace, having failed at everything – his job on the railways, his literary career, his work as a tutor… His life now seems aimless. He frequents public-houses with friends who have likewise gone astray, and has debts everywhere… He has occasion for shame, and feels ashamed; and yet, even in the deepest moments of humiliation, he retains a gallant and tattered dignity.’

Yes, that brings the Beast of Brixton to mind, but Charles can still turn around his life once he gets out of prison. And here at PEN Pals HQ we truly hope that he will.

Neither Taylor nor Massie reviewed the Edric that came out in 2015,
Field Service. Which means that altogether Massie and Taylor each reviewed five of Edric’s last nine books. On average, over one review per book in a national daily: that’s pretty good support from the old PEN network. I say that partly because the total numbers of customer reviews on Amazon for these books, as of February 2016, is, in chronological order: 6 (for the 2006 novel, Gathering the Water), 10, 4, 4, 7, 47 (for The Devil’s Beat, the reading public always keen on books about demonic possession, though it’s a novel that Massie and Taylor remained silent about), 5, 16 and 11.

From a couple of months ago, I’ve known that I had to read at least one Robert Edric novel. I will read the Branwell Brontë at some stage, but it’s
Gathering the Water that struck me as something I particularly wanted to look at when I was reading D.J. Taylor’s review.


I began the novel in December, reading some chapters aloud to my father in hospital. I thought Dad would like the book, narrated as it is by a Victorian man of dignity, humanity, kindness, wisdom and high principle, someone whom wise, kind, objective Dad could relate to. And so it proved.

Mr Weightman has a difficult job on his hands. A huge dam is being built in a Yorkshire Valley and he is on hand – for months on end - to supervise the rising of the waters and the clearing of the valley’s inhabitants. Thus he is stuck between a rock (the locals who resent the loss of their landscape and homes) and a hard place (the board that have appointed him to look after their investment).

Weightman strikes up a friendship with a local widow in her fifties, Mary Latimer, who is at the end of her tether. They have both lost their spouses, and Mary has returned to her childhood home to look after her deranged sister, Martha. Martha is doomed to end up in an asylum, and Mary’s shame at this means that by the end of the book she will be found floating dead in the reservoir. Indeed, the narrator has to remove Mary’s body from the water with the aid of an iron hook that he has to stick into her decomposing corpse in order to gain the necessary purchase to move her. My God, the ending is grim. Most of the chapters, whether they involve the weather, the locals, the board, the sheep, the crows, the rising water, the lowering of Weightman’s morale, are grim. Indeed, as Allan Massie dryly says in one of his reviews: ‘Edric does grim better than any other novelist’.

I’d really like to communicate with the author of
Gathering the Water, so I try writing to D,J, Taylor:

Dear David,

Of the 20 or so author-contributors I've approached, Gary Armitage is the only one I haven't heard back from. I'll be writing an admiring piece about his work in any case, but it would round things off to have a little personal input from him. He is probably the author who has gained most from the PEN2 publication, as ever since then both Allan Massie and yourself have - quite rightly - championed his work through reviews in the national press.


I have just asked Antony Harwood if he remembered to forward my original email approach, but I expect he did. Perhaps Gary isn't keen on publicity. I know you've been friends with him since the night of the PEN party and I just wondered if you had any thoughts on this. 

All best, Duncan

To which the reply, which comes the next day, is that when David mentioned to Gary I would be in touch, our fellow contributor was intrigued by the project and not at all averse to talking with me.

A subsequent email from David contains the information that Gary’s wife sent two emails to me some weeks ago, but obviously they hadn’t arrived. He supplies me with Gary’s phone number and so at 11.15am (I’ve read that Gary writes in the morning from 8 until 11), I give him a call.

“Is that Gary?”

“Is that Duncan?”

Gary apologizes for the email cock-up. He tells me he works in a cave with a skull in one hand and a candle in the other and that the floor of the cave is covered with his own excreta and empty wine bottles.

When I can get a word in, I ask: “Would that be the skull of Mary Latimer?”

And so we are off and running.

What can Gary remember of the PEN launch? He can remember that he was never paid his £100, or whatever. Interesting that three of the most regularly published authors, himself, D.J. Taylor and Ian Rankin, recall that particular detail. Perhaps it implies a certain professionalism. Gary further recalls that the book was published by Quartet, which he had the feeling often used to complain about being short of money. Yet Quartet’s owner, Naim Attallah, was personally associated with lavish publishing parties where bevies of rubber-clad beauties were on hand to top up glasses.


Gary had long hair in these days. He remembers meeting David Taylor around that time but couldn’t be sure it was at the PEN event. Well, David has already told me that it was at the PEN party that a 30-year friendship with Gary began.

I remind Gary that at this point in his career he had published two novels under his actual name and two under the pen name of Robert Edric. Gary has a lot to say for himself, so once I’ve got a question out that’s all I have to do for ten minutes other than note down what he tells me. Within two days, back in 1984 or 1985, he got acceptance letters from Secker & Warburg and Andre Deutsch for two different novels. Deutsch weren’t very keen on the name G.E. Armitage, so Gary took his middle name (Edric) and coupled it with a name he’d always liked (Robert).

Robert Edric: the chosen one.

After publishing two books with each publisher, it took longer to get a fifth novel published. Antony Harwood eventually placed
The Lunar Eclipse with Heinemann. Jonathan Cape also published one novel, again under the name Robert Edric, which Gary had come to prefer. He went through many different publishing houses until ending up with Doubleday, who for fifteen years have published his books in hardback, and Black Swan, who follow up with a paperback ten months later.

Gary tells me that he has never made any royalties on a book. In other words, his advance always exceeds what he would have made simply on the numbers of books sold. He doesn’t want to give the impression that these advances are large. Typically, they amount to £3,000, half of which is paid on delivery of manuscript and half on publication. He also tells me that he doesn’t know how many copies are sold of each of his titles. And wasn’t aware that one of his books,
The Devil’s Beat, has many more customer reviews on Amazon than his other titles.


Fascinating facts about this chosen one’s writing life come thick and fast. He is married to a teacher whose income is enough to support them both, hence his relative indifference to sales. He lets the school year dictate his writing process, beginning a book in September, taking a long Christmas break, and then finishing a book by May. Always working just for those three hours in the morning, when he blasts out the chapters, and later on in the writing year hones down and re-orders the material.

The pencil is his main writing tool, not the computer. Hence his lack of interest in emailing. Nor does he have a website. I ask if his agent or publisher has ever asked him – or offered to make him – a website, and he tells me that they haven’t. Gary has been happily working away in his cave for more than thirty years now. His pencil, skull and candle system works fine for him. And if it ain’t broke then no-one should be talking about fixing it.

I tell Gary that I’ve read
Gathering the Water and found it remorseless - in a good way. He tells me that it wasn’t until he’d finished the first draft that he brought in the Mary and Martha Latimer characters, realizing that his narrator should have at least one person that he would repeatedly seek out and talk to. And I tell him that after reading the book for the first time I then went through it again, searching out the bits about Weightman and the Latimers in order to piece together their whole compelling story.

Our conversation skims over DH Lawrence (Gary admires the man rather than the books), Thomas Hardy (who by the end of his writing career was a right old
miserabilist, whereas Gary reckons himself to be pretty chipper, however bleak his books are), and Ted Hughes. Every time Weightman leaves his house in the doomed valley it’s to have a chat with Ted’s crow, or so it struck me this morning when I was thinking about Gathering the Water prior to making this call.

Back to the
PEN 2 volume. His story is not autobiographical, he assures me. Gary, who was born in 1955 was only about 29 when he wrote ‘The End of the War in Viet Nam’, having studied Geography at Hull University and followed that up with a PhD on landscape appreciation. He did not have the life experience of the 45-year-old salesman in the story. However, he did have a fascination with black- and-white TV coverage of the end of the Vietnam war. And the reconciliation scene between American pilot and glamorous wife, including the freeze-frame moment of coming togetherness that the story ends with, was something that had stuck in his mind, until he came across the image again, in a large book on the Vietnam war by Stanley Karnow.


I ask if Gary had had any contact with Allan Massie before PEN New Fiction 2 was published. The answer is no.

I ask, in view of all the positive reviews that have been put Gary’s way over the years, if Gary has met or talked to Allan Massie since. Again the answer is no. He is grateful that Allan Massie likes his work, but he doesn’t think it would help to communicate that to the reviewer. Indeed, it might create some self-consciousness on the reviewer’s part. I agree that if you’ve sold something you don’t need to keep selling it, though personally I do have a bad habit of upping the

As we wind down the call, Gary asks if there will be a launch of my book in Perthshire. If so he will be there, as long as there are rubber-clad beauties to hand out the canapés. I tell him that I’ll be disappointed if there isn’t a
PEN PALS book launch on G-Wing of Brixton Prison, though I can’t promise to satisfy his rubber fetish.

At some stage when we were talking, Gary mentioned the importance of the cinematic to his muse. Just as ‘The End of the War in Viet Nam’ ends, for ironic reasons, with the author conjuring up the dramatic scene of a man and a woman in each other’s arms, so the end of
Gathering the Water ends with a visual description that could be described as cinematic. To quote the penultimate paragraph:

‘And so where all of this is most real to me, where my heart beats its wildest in anticipation of what is to happen next, I stand and watch as the drowned woman comes level with the top of the dam, as she rises above it and looks directly at me, as she raises her arm to point to me, and then as she slowly opens her mouth to call out to me that she is saved and that I am her savior, but where instead of the words there comes only more of the same dark water pouring like bile from her lips.’


As I said earlier, I think it’s Mary Latimer’s skull that Gary keeps to hand in his writer’s cave. But having said that, I expect my reading of Sanctuary is going to propose that it’s just as likely to be that of Branwell Brontë.


The phone rings.

Who could that be?

It’s Gary Armitage. To let me know that my thank-you letter in respect of the signed copy of
The Monster’s Lament that he sent me got to his cave all right.

I think he must have been thinking over our last phone call, because, though he was open to my enquiries then, he seems even more ready to communicate now.

He was brought up in a working class environment, a house that was two-up and two-down and full of family. He listened to a lot of music as a teenager, and had favourite bands. He read comics as a child, in particular the
Commando magazines, but didn’t pass on to books until he went to university. He would characterize his early years as ‘blundering’.

His choice of university was restricted because he failed maths ‘O’ Level, and in fact all his science exams. After studying Geography at Hull University and writing a doctoral thesis on ‘landscape, structure and space in the Victorian novel’, he turned to fiction writing, amazed that you didn’t have to prove that what you were writing was in some way true.

I interrupt in order to fill in some detail. At university Gary read widely, often choosing books by their cover from the shelves of the on-campus Waterstone’s. Jack Kerouac, J.B. Priestly, John Steinbeck… Yes, he read widely of whatever caught his eye, and I know from our last conversation that he still reads widely.


In researching his PhD, Gary reckons he read hundreds of Victorian novels. But when he completed his thesis, it felt like he may have come to the end of his time in academia, because he was beginning to enjoy writing his own fiction.

He’d enjoyed the academic year and soon adopted a new annual cycle. This kind of structure seems important to him. Gary doesn’t enjoy the writing process per se. But he values the fact that he’s moving towards a worthwhile end point. He often feels bogged down and clueless when writing the first draft of a story. But he has faith in his system and his time-rich structure: he knows from his experience of thirty years in a row that things will work out. All of which reminds me of Ian Rankin’s sense of panic before he begins a new novel.

I use the word ‘mission’ while we’re talking, but Gary shies away from that. He feels that he doesn’t really know what he’s doing. There is no overall vision that he’s aware of, no ‘scheme of things’. Instead, he believes in the power of his subconscious or unconscious. Apparently, Ali Smith said something similar to this on
Desert Island Discs the other week.

Gary Armitage tells me that he feels unfulfilled if he doesn’t spend his day writing. That echoes how I feel. He also admits he writes out of habit and inertia. His books are a combination of compulsion and accident, so much so that he feels there should be a word that conveys just that. He sometimes feels he would like to sit in a therapist’s office and encourage the therapist to come up with an explanation as to why he, Gary Armitage, has devoted his life to writing. In any case, Gary loves the writing life, so why should he stop?


Gary goes on to admit that he doesn’t really know whether his blasé attitude to what he calls his lack of success (a thirty-year stream of published novels is not my idea of failure) is sincere, or whether it is a defense mechanism. Deep down, he has this fear that something could go wrong at any time. Perhaps he is right to feel vulnerable. If his editor at Doubleday or his long-term agent were to get fed up with Gary’s lukewarm sales performance, then he might struggle to find another publishing outfit. After all, he’s turned sixty and the literary world has changed beyond all recognition.

The distinguished author (for that’s what he unquestionably is) goes on to tell me that invites to literary festivals come perhaps once every three years. No more than that. He was invited to the Edinburgh Literary Festival once, but that’s in August, the only month his wife is entirely free from her teaching commitments and so it’s when they go on holiday. I surmise that even if Ian Rankin, an Edinburgh Festival regular, had been on hand to interview him, Gary wouldn’t have been tempted to accept the invite.

Gary tells me that a close friend once told him that if a writer doesn’t have a website, a blog and a Twitter account then he’s nobody these days. He or she is invisible.

Gary’s reply to that was oblique: “Where are the best times to be had?” And the friend was forced to admit that the best times were to be had in Gary’s cave.

“There is a disconnect,” Gary suggests, enigmatically. But he obviously intends to explain what he means. I feel I am about to be granted an important insight in to ‘what happens to writers’.

Alas, in self-consciously thinking this, I lose track of what Gary’s actually saying. I soon realize that all I have are my scribbled notes. Which is to say: ‘private existence’ and ‘sucks up and swallows’.

I should think harder about what Gary has tried to tell me… ‘Private existence’, on the one hand. That’s what’s needed to come up with an original thought, an authentic piece of writing. ‘Sucked up and swallowed’, on the other. That suggests the disappearance of the private existence once the public gets hold of you; the disappearance of the condition in which you could come up with an original thought/book.


Gary doesn’t want to be sucked up and swallowed. I don’t want to be sucked up and swallowed. Because we both know what it will lead to once the public has digested all that we have to offer. Shat out and flushed away.

How then to connect the disconnect? I suspect Ian Rankin has the key to that. He isolates himself for several months while writing a book. In other words he knows the caveman routine of which Gary speaks.

The rest of the year, Rankin is sociable, curious, a great self-publicist. He seeks out other people, be they readers or artists in their own right. And people seek out him at public events and on Twitter.

Private existence goes to the wall for those months. But no way is he sucked up and swallowed. Ian Rankin does his share of sucking up and swallowing. He feeds on human offerings.

And once he’s finished feeding he’s ready to digest his meal. In solitude.


There is a bit of research concerning Ian Rankin that I think I should slip in here.

I came across a new little book of his when I was in a library in Glasgow recently. Called
The Travelling Companion, it was published in March 2016 in the UK by Head of Zeus. I sat down and read the book in an hour.

It concerns Ronald Hastie, born in 1960. The story is set in 1982 when Hastie was 22 and due to start work on a PhD on Robert Louis Stevenson when he returned to Edinburgh at the end of the summer.

Now these ages and dates deliberately echo Ian Rankin’s own biography, though the writer that Rankin’s PhD was going to be about was, of course, Muriel Spark.


Ronald Hastie is working in a bookshop in Paris, a bright young man who regularly gets calls from Charlotte, the girlfriend in Edinburgh whom he has not yet slept with. One day he’s told by the shop’s owner to pay a visit to a regular customer who has got some valuable books to sell.

In the Parisian flat of the mysterious collector, Hastie is invited to drink red wine, which goes to poor Ronald’s head. But he gets very excited when he comes to realise that the collector is offering for sale nothing less than the first draft of
Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde as well as the manuscript of The Travelling Companion, which was a work of Stevenson’s that he refers to in his correspondence but which was never published.

The suggestion is that Stevenson’s
The Travelling Companion was a book that concerned prostitutes, one of whom RLS was with as he travelled through Europe. While reading this manuscript, Hastie becomes aware of the existence of Alice, a Parisian he takes to be a street walker who has links to the book collector.

As Hastie gets to know and be attracted to Alice, he is drip-fed pages from
Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. The young scot is excited to see that the first draft of the novel is set in Edinburgh rather than London. And that in its pages Edward Hyde is called Edwin Hythe, the name of a man that RLS was friends with when they were students together, a dissolute individual who went on to murder a woman. It also becomes apparent that in the first draft Hyde doesn’t trample over a young girl, he murders a prostitute.

As the story unfolds, Ronald Hastie begins to fall apart. He stops washing or changing his clothes, takes to drinking alcohol in a big way, and becomes obnoxious to bookshop employees and customers alike. The implication is that the first taste of wine at the book collector’s has set him on the road to ruin.

Disturbed by the lack of phone calls home, girlfriend Charlotte turns up in Paris. Bad move. Hastie comes across her strangled body in her hotel bedroom and pursues Alice, who he thinks must have been responsible for the murder, through the city streets.


Hastie ends up at the premises of the book collector who reveals to him that he, Ronald Hastie, is the direct descendant of Edwin Hythe, on his mother’s side, and suggests that he’s inherited his ancestor’s evil nature. Hastie clubs the old man to death in much the same way that Edward Hyde does for an elderly gentleman in the published version of Dr Jekyll andf Mr Hyde.

The book, narrated from the beginning by Ronald Hastie, ends: ‘I noticed the fresh spattering of bright red blood on my shirt, so began to rip at it, throwing it from me until I stood half naked in the middle of the road, the sirens drawing closer. I stretched out both arms, angled my head to the heavens, and roared.’

So what is this strange little book? First, Ian Rankin shows a biographer’s interest in his fellow Edinburgh writer, Robert Louis Stevenson. Second, it suggests (via dates and ages given on the first page) a link between Dr Jekyll’s personality and his own. And it leaves the reader wondering if Ian Rankin’s life might have turned out differently if he hadn’t kept a certain side of his nature securely buttoned up.

In the summer of 1982, Ian Rankin may have been tempted to throw away his respectable, middle-class intellectual future. Instead, he returned from the continent to Edinburgh, began his study of Muriel Spark and started to write short stories.

When Ian Rankin wrote to me recently, I suspect he was wearing Dr Jekyll’s hat: ‘
As to what made me a bestseller. Luck, attitude, persistence, learning from mistakes, honing the craft, a bit more luck and more persistence, word of mouth and winning the Gold Dagger eventually.’

If Rankin had chosen to take off Jekyll’s hat and don Hyde’s topper, he might have come up with something like this: ‘As for what made me the man I am today. Sex, drink, not giving a toss what anyone else thinks. More sex, more drink and finally extreme bone-crunching violence.’

Part of the discipline of writing is knowing when to let go. Ten years ago Ian Rankin fronted a documentary on Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and at the end of that he suggests that John Rebus is his own Edward Hyde. In other words, Rebus goes out and about the streets of Edinburgh doing things that Ian Rankin would be too timid to do.


It follows that when Ian Rankin answered my question about what made him a bestseller, he missed out one important thing: ‘Find the Hyde within. And let the bastard out.’

Recently the title of Ian Rankin’s next book was announced on his website. It’s
Rather Be the Devil. I will be reading it.


Having mentioned Ian Rankin and Gary Armitage in the same chapter, I realise I need to make more of the juxtaposition.

Both describe themselves as having been born into working class homes with music being a main interest in teenage years.

Both went to university, obtained good degrees and went on to do PhDs concerned with literature. (I wonder if
Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde was one of the Victorian novels that Gary read, and if so whether the ‘landscape, structure and space’ of that particular novel fascinated him, as it did me, and no doubt did Ian Rankin.)

Both began to write their own prize-winning fiction while engaged on those PhDs.

Both had published two novels in time for that to be mentioned in the biographical notes at the back of
PEN New Fiction 2.

Both have gone on to write and publish approximately a book a year over the last 30 years.

The parting of the ways came in 1998, when, on the publishing of Rankin’s eighth novel, in his words ‘the intensity and sales went up to another level’. Up until then, Rankin and family had been scraping by on his income. Now, due to sales of the suddenly–in-demand Rebus back list, Rankin was earning £100,000 a year.


By this transformative year of 1998, Rankin had published three non-Rebus novels and eight Rebus books. What had Gary Armitage achieved by then?

Well, there is no easy way to find out. As I’ve already mentioned, Gary does not have a website where this kind of information would be there to ensure the hooked reader of a new Robert Edric title would be given the wider picture and an enticing choice of further reading.

A Season of Peace (1985) was followed by Across the Autumn Grass, (1986), both under the name of Gary Armitage. Meanwhile, as Gary explained to me, Andre Deutsch published two books under the Robert Edric pen-name; Winter Garden (1985) and A New Ice Age (1986).

Any clues as to what these books were about? As there seems to be nothing on the web on the books published under Armitage’s own name, we must make do with their evocative titles.

The review of
Winter Garden by Robert Edric in Publishers Weekly says this:

In this grim, slow-moving first novel, set in a seedy British resort town, the residents of a guest house eke out a living entertaining the winter population at the town's only theater. The boarders regard each other with mutual animosity, their lives at the guesthouse only a shade more tolerable than their jobs as performers. The end result is a relentlessly oppressive novel with a totally bleak view of life.

Next is a review of the follow-up Edric title, A New Ice Age, again courtesy of Publishers Weekly:

Edric's short second novel leaves us wondering whether his account of hopeless, alienated lives that fall victim to ""progress'' is an allegory for the fate of all of us. While a small London area is flattened to make way for a redevelopment project, the seedy lodgers in Mrs. D.'s ramshackle house stand firm only because they cannot face the shock of moving. Becoming survivors by slothful default, their insistence on fantasy over reality is accentuated through the murderous dreams of the narrator, and his deliberate inability to distinguish between the real and imaginary nightmares in his life. If a little obscure in its theme, this well-written book flashes with dry, ironic humor.


These two books would seem to have something in common. A small group separated from the rest of society, its individuals put under the microscope by the author.

What next?
A Lunar Eclipse was published in 1989. In Contemporary British Novelists by Nick Rennison, he summarises the novel as follows: ‘A concisely moving study of death and bereavement in which its central character struggles to cope with the loss of her husband and the persistence of past experience.’

Perhaps that novel is a rest from the study of a particular group. But Nick Rennison’s book then goes on to pull together the next three Edric novels in the following way: ‘Edric’s developing mastery of the historical novel and his ability to place his characters convincingly in varying historical and geographical locations were seen in three novels published in the early 1990s. In the Days of the American Museum (1990) examined in Edric’s characteristically cool and measured prose, the bizarre lives of the ‘freaks’ on show in the New York exhibition of P. T. Barnum. In the larger world beyond the museum the Civil War is tearing the nation apart, but Edric focuses on the interactions of Barnum’s human exhibits.

Another gruesome group put under the microscope.

The Earth Made Glass (1994) also looks at a group of people turned in on themselves. Set in a Lancashire village in the late Seventeenth Century, it recreates the circumstances surrounding a woman’s death. Into the xenophobic isolation of the small community comes an outsider, a church dignitary, who is drawn into investigating events thirty years previously. Despite their very different settings the books share an interest in the ways in which groups of people who define themselves in opposition to others react to the impingement of external events.

That bit about the dignitary who is drawn into investigating events thirty years previously rings a bell. A tolling I may come back to very soon.


‘Sandwiched between these two was another story of people in isolation, The Broken Lands (1992), based on the true story of the Franklin expedition of the 1840s. In his journey into the Arctic in search of the fabled Northwest Passage and in his mysterious disappearance, together with his men, Sir John Franklin became one of the great tragic heroes of the Victorian era. In his novel, Edric, unlike many other modern writers who look back to the nineteenth century, is uninterested in scoring points by revealing feet of clay or highlighting hypocrisies with a knowing irony. The heroism of Franklin and his men, although seen from a perspective unavailable to the explorer’s contemporaries, is not radically undermined. Instead we see men gradually destroyed by their own necessarily blinkered assumptions about the world and by an unforgiving natural environment in which the moral values of the society from which they come cannot save them. the ice which tarps them and the landscape in which they make their harrowing and ultimately futile journey back towards civilization are brilliantly evoked in a book which follows with convincing realism, their inexorable decline.’

I’m beginning to wonder what Robert Edric would make of a certain other ‘group’ from a specific time and place. Let’s try something.

Robert Edric’s The Broken PENs (2047), is based on the true story of the people who contributed to a short story anthology in 1987 who were brought together again 30 years later by one of their number. In Duncan McLaren’s journey into the outer margins of the literary world in the company of the bestselling Ian Rankin, and the fabled CAR Hills, and in his mysterious disappearance, together with his 32 co-contributors, McLaren became one of the great tragic heroes of the postmodern era. In his novel, Edric, unlike many other modern writers who look back to the 1980s, is uninterested in scoring points by revealing feet of clay or highlighting hypocrisies with a knowing irony. The heroism of McLaren and his men (and women), although seen from a perspective unavailable to McLaren’s contemporaries, is not radically undermined. Instead we see men and women gradually destroyed by their own necessarily blinkered assumptions about the literary world and by an unforgiving cultural environment in which the moral values of the society from which they come cannot save them. The oblivion which traps them and the inhospitable landscape in which they make their harrowing and ultimately futile journey back towards civilization are brilliantly evoked in a book which follows with convincing realism, their inexorable decline.’


Rennison goes on to say about another early Edric:

Desolate Heaven (1997) reflects the continuing fascination many contemporary novelists feel for the physical and emotional devastation wrought by the First World War but, unlike Sebastian Faulks or Pat Barker, Edric makes no attempt to tackle battles and bloodshed directly. His story is set in a Swiss Mountain resort in 1919. Elizabeth Mortlake is staying in a hotel in the town, together with her sister-in-law, who has been widowed by the war and traumatised by grief. The resort is home to many others suffering the long term effects of the war. There is a hospital for the wounded on the outskirts of town and Elizabeth regularly sees those whose lives have been altered beyond recognition by the war. She also meets another emotionally scarred veteran, Jameson, employed as a dealer in rare books and manuscripts and haunted by a sense of responsibility for Hunter, a shell-shock victim housed in the hospital and awaiting a possible court martial. As Edric’s narrative, centred on the ambiguous relationship between Elizabeth and Jameson, slowly unfolds, the legacy of war and violence hangs over all the book’s characters.

OK let’s give that a PEN2 makeover:

Desolate Heaven (2017) reflects the continuing fascination many contemporary novelists feel for the physical and emotional devastation wrought by the call to write. Edric’s story is set in a Swiss Mountain resort in 1919. Jeff New is staying in a hotel in the town, where every day he writes another ‘Satire’. The resort is home to many others suffering the long-term effects of being unable to find a suitable publishing outlet. There is a hospital for the wounded on the outskirts of town and New regularly sees those whose lives have been altered beyond recognition by neglect. He also meets another emotionally scarred veteran, Duncan McLaren, employed as a dealer in rare books and manuscripts and haunted by a sense of responsibility for C.A.R. Hills, a shell-shock victim, showing remarkable resilience, housed in the hospital and awaiting a possible court martial. As Edric’s narrative, centred on the ambiguous relationship between New, Hills and McLaren, slowly unfolds, the legacy of failure and ignominy hangs over all the book’s characters.’


This is beginning to intrigue me. I must find an online review of the 1995 book Elysium.

OK. Here is one in a different Nick Rennison book, Bloomsbury Good Reading Guide:

‘Elysium is another of Edric’s rich explorations of the clash of cultures in imperial history, set in a nineteenth century Tasmania where the indigenous population is about to be wiped out. Told as a mosaic of short scenes narrated by different voices and moving backwards and forwards in time, the book focuses on William Lanne. mockingly nicknamed ‘King Billy’ by the colonists, who becomes the last full-blooded aboriginal man. Caught between his own culture and a triumphalist imperialism whose victory he recognizes as inevitable, Lanne is a sympathetic character. His oppressors, from soldiers indulging in mindless violence to the scientist Fairfax, who sees him only as an exhibit in some ethnographical museum to be measured and classified, are united only in their refusal to see him as fully human.’

By which I take it that Rennison means:

‘Elysium is another of Edric’s rich explorations of the clash of cultures in imperial history, set in a twentieth century Britain where short story writers are about to become extinct. Told as a mosaic of short scenes narrated by different voices and moving backwards and forwards in time, the book focuses on CAR Hills, mockingly nicknamed ‘The Beast of Brixton’ by the press, who becomes the last full-blooded man of letters. Caught between his own culture and a triumphalist populism whose victory he recognizes as inevitable, Hills is a sympathetic character. His oppressors, from fellow essayists who bury their heads in the sand to the scientist McLaren, who sees him only as an exhibit in some ethnographical museum to be measured and classified, are united only in their refusal to see him as fully human.’

I hope I’ve made my point. That most of Robert Edric’s early books have something in common with my own current enterprise.


Mind you, some of them could be related to Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde as well. Stevenson brings together a ‘group’ of well-to-do professional men in Victorian times. Mr Utterson, the lawyer. Doctors Jekyll and Lanyon. A respectable business man called Enfield. And the distinguished old gentleman, Sir Danvers Carew, that Hyde, who is thought of as Henry Jeky’ll’s ‘favourite’, beats to death. All men. What on earth is going on? Stevenson tells us in a very indirect way, mentioning that Jekyll has certain vices. Robert Edric might have tackled the homophobia felt by Victorian homosexuals head-on. Giving us a Branwell Bronté-style interior monologue laying bear his selfishness, his obsessive desires and his inadequacy. And what about Fairfax in Elysium, measuring up William Lanne, the aboriginal Tasmanian? Don’t tell me there’s not a Dr Jekyll and a Mr Hyde in Fairfax’s make-up.

I’ve now been through Robert Edric’s output from the year of PEN2 to Rankin’s breakthrough year. What about the Edric novels published after 1998 and before 2006? (Given that via reviews by Allan Massie and DJ Taylor I have said something about the books from 2006 onwards.)

Well, I am going to leave these for another time. Perhaps one day I’ll construct the website that I strongly feel Robert Edric needs to ensure his solid achievement doesn’t disappear without trace. Not being from the much better resourced class of ’83, Robert Edric does not have a superstructure of reviews and interviews sustaining his life’s work.

As Mary Whipple said in 2002, in one of only two customer reviews of
Elysium (1994) on the Amazon site: ‘So powerful that it will take your breath away, this finely crafted novel deserves to be resurrected from the oblivion in which it now resides.’

I know it seems churlish to complain about the fact that DJ Taylor does not even mention Robert Edric in the 500 pages of
The Prose Factory, given that he has managed to review so many of Edric’s novels in broadsheets. But I feel I have to flag up the former fact, because a mention or two in The Prose Factory, where the names of Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes and Salman Rushdie regularly crop up, would surely have helped keep Robert Edric’s name in the canon.


In fact, I take back my churlish note. For didn’t Taylor mention Edric in his Private Eye piece in 1999 when he listed his own Booker shortlist? Let me find the issue in question. I remember that the cover showed Tony Blair and Gordon Blair. Here it is:

Blair: “I want three terms.”
Brown: “How about vain, shallow and treacherous."

The relevant part of the piece says: ‘Meanwhile Bookworm’s alternative list is as follows: Carol Birch’s
Come Back Paddy Riley. Melvyn Bragg’s The Soldier’s Return. Robert Edric’s The Sword Cabinet.

How do I know this column was the work of DJ Taylor. Well, in the
Independent’s round-up of Books of the Year at the end of 1999, Taylor again chooses the Carol Birch and the Robert Edric.

So well done DJT. Using his anonymous column in
Private Eye to put down Martin Amis and Ian McEwan from time to time, and to boost the likes of Robert Edric whenever he got the glimmer of a chance.

As for me, I must put more contributors to PEN2 under the microscope. Some day I want a reviewer of
PEN Pals to say: ‘No one does “putting his fellow writers under the microscope” better than McLaren’. And I don’t care if the reviewer in question is Allan Massie, DJ Taylor, Nick Rennison or Robert Edric himself.

But it’s the Dr Jekyll in me who works with a microscope. The Mr Hyde in Ian Rankin does not. Let’s give the last word to him, that day in 1999 when he received a royalty statement which made it clear that his crime writing had hit the jackpot: ‘I notice the fresh spattering of bright red blood on my shirt, so begin to rip at it, throwing it from me until I stand half naked in the middle of the road alongside Martin Amis and Salman Rushdie, the sirens drawing closer. I stretch out both arms, angle my head to the heavens, and roar.’


And he's been roaring ever since. Leaving the rest of us for dead.

pen pals - Version 2

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