Peter Parker
C.A.R. Hills, J.W. New
D.J. Taylor, Mansel Stimpson

Time to introduce Peter Parker who Charles was telling me about as early as mid-December.

According to well-networked of Brixton, Peter Parker and Christopher Potter were a ‘literary power couple’ when he first met them in the mid 1980s. In fact, they were the editor and publisher respectively of both
The Reader’s Companion to Twentieth Century Writers and The Reader’s Companion to Twentieth Century Novels.

Charles’s December letter goes on to say: ‘In 1986, after I had lost a pretty unpleasant job, they offered me work on their compendiums, and that and the dole and work in a dodgy bookshop kept me busy for quite a happy and productive decade. After the modest commercial success of Isherwood, which took him 12 years to produce, Peter is currently completing a volume on the cultural impact of A.E. Houseman provisionally called Far Country. Once again, I am in touch with Peter, but he did not remember having been in PEN New Fiction 2.

In his next letter to me, written on the 9th of January, Charles returns to the subject:


I phoned Peter again yesterday and he did in fact remember having been in PEN New Fiction 2 (I had confused him in my previous phone call because I thought it was PEN New Fiction 1 he had been in) and he says he would be pleased to hear from you. He did, however, mention that he is very busy completing his latest book, so that he may initially acknowledge your email and come to fuller discussion later.

To this I responded:

‘Thanks for the contact details of both Mansel and Peter. I will be getting in touch with them, but I’ve got five chapters on the go just now – with correspondence flying this way and that - so will wait until things settle down a bit before dropping them a line.’

The next letter from Charles ends:

‘I owe both Peter and Christopher an awful lot for having used me on the Reader’s Companions. Over ten years, I wrote about 300 of the lives of writers. We were well paid and the whole thing was an absolute ball. I got the work when they invited me to afternoon tea at a house, not their own, near my flat in Clapham on a day in 1986 only about two weeks after I had lost the unpleasant job I have previously mentioned. There was a piano in the house, and Christopher played, and was almost of concert standard. I myself tried the old piano, and my version of Schumann’s Träumerei, from his Scenes of Childhood, was not entirely without credit. We were more friendly with each other on that distant afternoon than we were ever to be again or had been before.

Do you know the poem by Eichendorff?

“Die Jahre wie die Wolken gehn

und lassen mich hier einsam stehn...”

“The years go by like the clouds,
and leave me here standing alone.”

Well, not quite, now I’m one of the PEN pals Two!

Love, Charles

Charles’s next letter was written on Saturday, January 30th, the day my father died. It contains the following paragraphs


I now realize that the time around the party of 21st January, the days of 1986 and 1987, were among the happier times. In the earlier part of 1986, when I worked as an editor/clerk at the London office of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, I was very unhappy and used to feel myself growing older every morning I ascended the escalator in my shabby coat at Great Portland Street tube. My immediate boss Charles Mosley, who has since died, chose to break the news that I was being made redundant, in mid-August 1986, by taking me out for lunch to a restaurant called “La Vie en Rose”. I think it was a cruel joke on his part, but I later included the details in my novel David’s Music and I think that very morning I had received the news that I was in PEN New Fiction 2, and he had to pretend, amid his chagrin at my success, that he saw this as a very hopeful sign for me!

And really Charles Mosley had made me so happy to lose that humiliating, dreary and hated job. Two weeks later, as I recounted, Peter and Christopher gave me the work on the reference books. I celebrated by going on a very pleasant 10-day holiday to Greece, and coming to Athens for the first time felt strangely like returning to a place that had always been home. Back in London, and discovering that writing a brief biography of a writer really is money for jam. I was to sing “A writer a day keeps the taxman away!” I used to get up late, get the 77 or 77a bus to Clapham Junction, lunch very cheaply at the Batttersea Arts Centre (small mixed salad 95p, coffee 55p, total price for lunch £1.50, water on tap), go to Lavender Hill Library to research the writer with the splendid reference books to hand there in these days, go to the Gateway Supermarket to buy a reduced-price packet meal and a bottle of pop, write up the writer on my return to the flat, and the rest of the evening was mine, for friends or my own devices, and dreams of what
PEN New Fiction 2 might do for me.

Well, times darken, then they lighten again, and though I don’t want to create false hope, I have a strange feeling that
PEN Pals Two might just do it for you. I shall certainly read all the stories, yours included, with an attention I never gave them before, since a rich meaning has been added to the humble volume.

In February, I finally wrote to Peter Parker. It’s basically the same email that went to others, but slightly more expansive since I felt, due to Charles’s introductory remarks, that I already knew him a little:


Dear Peter,

I've been commissioned to research and write a book about the subsequent writing lives of those who contributed to the short story anthology
PEN New Fiction 2.

The book was launched on January 21, 1987. I know you attended that distant and obscure literary event. Do you remember anything about it? Who you talked to or what your thoughts were? I think we exchanged a few words that evening as you are one of the eight contributors whose name I've underlined in the copy I bought at the launch. I definitely did talk to Christopher (Potter) for I can still recall my discomfort when he said to me "so you wouldn't be interested in your novel being published by Fourth Estate, then?" What twisted thing had I said in order to communicate the exact opposite of what I'd intended?

What did you think of your PEN2 story then, and what now? It would be good to read what your literary aspirations were back in the '80s and how those have changed over the years. I know you spent a few years writing a biography of J.R. Ackerley, which suggests a deep interest in the literary world, and a big chunk of time writing a life of Christopher Isherwood. In some ways, this parallels my own writing career as I spent a few years writing about Enid Blyton and then a longer time investigating the life of Evelyn Waugh. Although my book on Waugh came out in the spring of last year, my investigation continues and an online biography is gathering momentum
. I've taken a break from that project in order to concentrate on this PEN book, which may be called The Class of '87 or PEN PALS.

I was wondering who was responsible for the Evelyn Waugh entries in your Reader's Companion to the Twentieth Century Novel. When I wrote to our fellow PEN2 contributor C.A.R. Hills, I facetiously mentioned Paul Pennyfeather's incarceration in Decline and Fall and he obviously knew what I was talking about. I wonder if Charles was as useful to you when you were putting together your Companions as he has been to me re PEN PALS 2 (as he prefers to call it). Charles has an excellent memory, possesses an intimate knowledge of the literary scene as was, and is always a fine writer, even on prison notepaper. You may know that his pseudonym in PEN New Fiction 2 is David Welsh.


My hope is to communicate with every contributor that I can find contact details for, and it looks as if I may achieve this. I intend to be as positive as I can about all the writers I discuss in What Happens to Writers (another possible title). You and I share an interest in books and the urge to communicate through the written word. That is a strong bond. Ackerley, Blyton, Isherwood and Waugh: what an extraordinary if unlikely literary team they would have made!

I do hope that you have a copy of the PEN anthology to hand and that you'll feel able to get in touch. 

Best wishes, Duncan McLaren

A reply to that came the same day:

Dear Duncan,

Many thanks for your email. This is just to say, very quickly, that I am in the final throes of revising my new book on A.E. Housman with a deadline at the end of this month. Assuming you are in no immediate hurry, perhaps I could turn my attention to this in March? I fear I remember very little about the launch party, but I did keep a diary then and it is possible that I may have written about it – if I can find the diary.

I look forward to communicating properly in a few weeks’ time.

All best, Peter
Actually, the delay suited me too.

Dear Peter,

I'm hoping to complete the first draft of this book by about the end of March, so to be in touch again next month would be ideal. Thanks.


I see you went to school in Wimborne. Perhaps you wrote the entry for Decline and Fall in the Reader's Companion to the 20th Century Novel and that's why its first sentence states that the book was largely written in a Dorset pub. I visited the Barley Mow while writing Evelyn! and have particularly happy memories of the trip and the resulting chapter.

Good luck with finishing off your book on Housman and I look forward to communicating with you in the first month of spring.

Best wishes, Duncan

And with Peter safely parked I got on with the subjects that dominate earlier chapters of this book.


It’s pretty close to the beginning of spring when Peter Parker gets back in touch. Though still a wintery time for me, just two months since Dad died.

Dear Duncan,

The Housman is off my desk, thank God. Though there are still source notes and bibliography to do but I thought I should grab the chance to reply to your questions while I can.

The first and I fear disappointing thing is that I found a diary which stops two weeks short of the launch. I am fairly sure there is another diary somewhere, but I think it was begun
 at the point I moved from handwriting to a word processor – well, an Amstrad, which barely counted. Somewhere I must have a print-out from that, but as yet I have not located it – and I am afraid I have no recollection whatsoever of the party. 


That is tantalizing information. To have Mansel Stimpson’s diary entry to add to my own and other contributors’ memories has been such a bonus. To have a biographer’s diary entry would add yet more insights, I’m sure.

Indeed, I would not have been able to tell you what story was published in the anthology – perhaps because two other stories had been published in the volumes that preceded this venture, New Stories, published by the Arts Council in conjunction with English PEN. I do recall that it was at the launch of New Stories 7 (1982) that I first met Francis King, which eventually led to my (a) joining PEN and (b) writing the Ackerley biography. And I remember the launch of New Stories 8  because it was edited by Karl Miller, who had taught me at UCL, and at the party he said to me: ‘Had I known that story was by you I wouldn’t have chosen it’. I think what he meant was that people might have assumed nepotism, though of course the stories were all submitted anonymously. The other memorable thing about that party was that I met Harry Hoff, otherwise William Cooper, who dragged me off to a pub after the party where we both got very drunk. And indeed, in my copy of that book is the invitation to the launch with Harry’s name and phone number and some kind of arrangement: ‘Provisionally Tuesday 10 June Savile Club 6.45’.  Well, that is all by the way, though it may amuse you to know that the invitation, typed on headed PEN paper has had to have the ‘8’ of the book’s title altered by hand from whatever was first typed, which strikes me as wholly characteristic of that organization at the time. 

It would have been ‘7’ that had been first typed, I expect. In the typewriter era, people (I’m specifically thinking of accountants) would often take a previous year’s original document and change what little information (perhaps a number or a date) actually needed to be changed, rather than re-type the whole thing. Of course, occasionally something that needed to be changed would be carelessly overlooked.

The error wouldn’t have happened again. There wasn’t a New Stories 9. New Stories 8 appeared in 1983. Then Hutchinson finished its involvement as publishers and Quartet took over. PEN New Fiction 1 appeared in 1984, and PEN New Fiction 2, after a two-year gap, in 1987.


I have to confess that not only did I not know which story had appeared in New Fiction 2, but that even the title did not immediately identify it to me.  To be perfectly honest, I had not even remembered that this particular story had been published and certainly haven’t read it since 1987.   Re-reading it after all these years has been a curious experience. Although I had no real recollection of how the story would unfurl, as I read it I could remember individual sentences and how pleased with some of them I had been at the time. And some of them still please me – indeed, the story was much better than I had imagined it would be. Elsewhere there are things I’d have either cut or done differently - though less than I’d have imagined. To my surprise, I find that I am rather proud of it and feel that I can be so because I cannot imagine writing it now and, although as I say I can feel myself back into making individual sentences, I feel very detached from it, as if it were written by somebody else - as perhaps it was. 

Interesting point. Do I feel that my own PEN2 story, ‘A Business Meeting’, was effectively written by someone else? The sentences are much shorter and simpler than those I now employ. But I recognize my voice all right. Perhaps this is because I’ve self-consciously followed my progress as a person and a writer.

What now strikes me is that it has very little plot and that it is about people as unlike me, either then or now, as it is possible to imagine. I think, though am not absolutely sure, that this may have started out as a much more plotty and fantastical story about a childless middle–aged woman who looks out of the window to find a small boy or girl in her garden who somehow becomes hers – not a foundling but something much more mysterious. I think that I got nowhere with this, but while writing it became interested in the relationship between this woman and her husband, and so the story becomes one of a marriage. I am not sure why this interested me: why was a gay man in his early thirties writing about a failed but enduring marriage? I should perhaps add that the couple in the story are also not in the least like anyone I know or knew, particularly not my parents, who were farmers in Herefordshire  – though my late father, not a reader of fiction, told me that he recognized the man’s slippers (p 56)  as his own, as indeed they were


Peter’s father, though not a reader of fiction, was following his son’s progress as a writer. And I suspect my own father, upon reading ‘A Business Meeting’, came to more fully understand why his son was not cut out to be an accountant.

So where did this suburban couple come from?  I have absolutely no idea, and SW12 was not anywhere I had ever been – though I do recall working as a freelance for someone who lived in that postcode, which I knew included Wandsworth Common. I still have never been to Wandsworth Common and have no idea what houses in the area really look like and I may have this one all wrong architecturally. 

Another thing that strikes me now is that all three of the stories I had in PEN anthologies were about people much older than I was when I wrote them, though the other two have a back-story set in schools. 

Just to be clear, Peter had stories included in 1982’s New Stories 7, 1983’s New Stories 8 and 1987’s PEN New Fiction 2.

Another thing I remember was the nice coincidence that about ten years before Alan Massie selected my story for the book, he had written a very good review for the Scotsman of a play I had done on the Edinburgh Fringe, though I don’t imagine he made the connection.

I was of course delighted to have the story selected, though I fear I may have been a little blasé by this point, simply because it was the third time. I can’t remember
 whether I had submitted a story for New Fiction 1, but I see that I had by this time had three further stories published in magazines. Along with the stories that had won the Gay News short story competition and come second in the Wandsworth All-London Literary Competition, I almost had enough material for a collection. I think I still felt at that point that I would write more fiction, although I had already published my first book, The Old Lieand was at work on Ackerley and so was evidently concentrating on non-fiction. I would have another story published in Critical Quarterly (of all places) in 1990, so must still have been writing the occasional fiction then. The reasons for not writing any more were I think partly financial – I was being paid now to write non-fiction, not only books but reviews in various newspapers and magazines – and partly because I wasn’t sure I could sustain a story at novel length. It is perhaps telling that this story is very much without a plot as such.    


That paragraph shows self-awareness. Peter has been pragmatic in life. Both about what he could offer the world and what the world could offer him.

Yes, I wrote all the entries for Waugh in the Reader’s Companions – and indeed much else, either providing original copy or having to so substantially rewrite the copy of others (though not that of all the contributors) that I am probably responsible for around 70% of the final text. Charles was one of the most reliable of the contributors. It was this mammoth undertaking that led to me being recruited to the Dictionary of National Biography.  

I hope this answers your questions, but if not let me know.

All best, Peter  

I’ve been a little distracted while reading what should have been a thoroughly absorbing letter. For a couple of reasons, I could hear my father’s voice in the background, reciting A.E. Housman. And I can no longer ignore it:

Say, lad, have you things to do?
Quick then, while your day's at prime.
Quick, and if 'tis work for two,
Here am I, man: now's your time.

Perhaps, while Dad was ill but still alive, I should have been researching a project about him. He who had been a good friend to me all my life. It may be thirty years since the PEN publication, but it’s been almost as long since my mother and father moved to this house in Blairgowrie. Couldn’t I have asked him about that era in those last months?

Dad took early retirement when he was 63. And Mum kept diaries for the first twenty years of their time together here. Couldn’t I have turned Dad’s memories and Mum’s diary entries into a book that did justice to
their class, their lives?


Send me now, and I shall go;
Call me, I shall hear you call;
Use me ere they lay me low
Where a man's no use at all;

Instead, I embarked on the PEN PALS project, which Dad couldn’t really get involved with, not being a literary person as such. Intelligent and wise, yes. Bookish like Peter and me, no.

Ere the wholesome flesh decay,
And the willing nerve be numb,
And the lips lack breath to say,
"No, my lad, I cannot come."

Call me sentimental but I’m finding this tough. But what can I do? I’m committed to PEN PALS now. Besides, I’ve got great material to hand.

Hi Peter,

Glad you've got the Housman off your desk. Hope it slips out into the world with some style.

Too bad about the diary. Do let me know if the print-out turns up.

Your questions about your PEN2 story are exactly the ones I had, so I'm delighted with your answers!

Interesting that the lure of writing commissioned non-fiction took you away from writing fiction. I'm surprised that such an obscure literary figure as Ackerley (forgive me) warranted much of an advance. Or was Ackerley just a way into biography for you? I wasn't commissioned to write either of the biographies I got involved with. It just felt natural to use my style of writing, a blend of fiction and non-fiction, to tackle my interest in other writers' creativity. 


Having now corresponded with 24 of the 32 PEN2 contributors, I'm trying to set up a few short meetings for when I'm in London from Wednesday March 16 to Wednesday March 23. My first chat, on Thursday, will be at the home of Elaine Feinstein, because she's in her mid-eighties and not as mobile as she once was. My last, on Tuesday, will be with Charles at Brixton, because, as you know, he is there at Her Majesty's pleasure. If you happen to be in London in between those times and would be free to talk for an hour, I'd value that. Do suggest a venue, perhaps even one that has some meaning for you as a writer.

Best wishes, Duncan

PS I'm looking forward to systematically reading all your Waugh entries in the Reader's Companions to see if I can detect any special interest/bias/blind spots. Unrewarding work, I know, but someone's got to do it.

Having pinged this off, I turn again to A Shropshire Lad, some of which my father knew by heart, as he did so many poems and songs:

‘When I was one-and-twenty
I heard a wise man say,
"Give crowns and pounds and guineas
But not your heart away;
Give pearls away and rubies
But keep your fancy free."
But I was one-and-twenty,
No use to talk to me.’

A thought comes to me. I wonder if Housman crops up in Peter Parker’s earlier works.

I pick up
Ackerley, which was published in 1989, just two years after the PEN2 party, when Peter was 32. The book is ‘For CHRISTOPHER’. But is this Christopher Potter, who I met at the launch of PEN 2? Or is it Christopher Moore, the teacher who first introduced Peter to Ackerley’s books? The Acknowledgements goes on to answer this by saying: ‘Far above and beyond the call of duty, Christopher Potter read the manuscript at several stages and put up with a great deal whilst I was writing it. This book is for him.’


The index gives four page references to Housman, which I follow up immediately. It’s the first one that is substantial. Ackerley had an affair with a sailor called Albert. And in memory of it, he wrote a poem called ‘The Jacket’ in the style of A.E. Housman. In the poem, Ackerley is addressing Albert, at least in his mind’s eye. He talks of meeting Albert’s brother who had been wearing a jacket, now old, which, when new, had been a gift from Ackerley to Albert. I find the poem extremely moving. Why? Some association with my father and a jacket I helped him into shortly before he died.

Once I’ve cleared my mind of Dad, I pick up the massive tome called
Isherwood, which is dedicated ‘To R.P.W.’, and flick to its acknowledgements. These start by saying that a fellow schoolboy, Nick Barnes, introduced Peter to Isherwood by suggesting that he might enjoy a book called Mr Norris Changes Trains. And the acknowledgements end by stating ‘It seems appropriate to dedicate a book that is so much concerned with old and enduring friendships to someone I have known longer than either of us care to calculate. I met Richard Walker at school and he has been part of my life ever since. This book is for him.’

But what about Christopher Potter? Though the book is not dedicated to him, he receives heartfelt praise. To say more would risk being intrusive.

There are no references to Housman in
Isherwood’s index. So nothing to distract me from making this point: Peter Parker and D J Taylor are two Pen 2 contributors who have something important in common. They have both taken a ‘top-down’ approach to writing about English literature and they have put an immense amount of time and energy into doing so.

What do I mean? Both have produced full-length biographies of established authors (from the one, Thackeray and Orwell, from the other, Ackerley and Isherwood). Moreover, Taylor has three times written books giving an overview of English literature in the Twentieth Century (
A Vain Conceit: British fiction in the 1980s… After the War: The Novel and England since 1945… The Prose Factory: Literary Life in England since 1918) while Parker has overseen two massive projects: The Reader's Companion to the Twentieth-Century Novel and The Reader's Companion to Twentieth-Century Writers.


When researching the hidden history and under-achievement of J.W. New, I identified that he, C.A.R.Hills and I have a state school to Oxbridge background and have become, well… outsiders and oddities. D.J.Taylor and Peter Parker went to good public schools and the best of universities (Oxford and U.C.L). And when I say they went to good public schools, I know what that means from reading about Evelyn Waugh’s schooldays at Lancing College via his precocious diary. It means debating societies and school magazines. It means teachers, who are themselves published, taking an interest in the first intellectual stirrings of their charges and encouraging them in productive directions.

I was at university before someone recommended a particular book to me. Before that, when I was a 16-year-old, sitting about a mile from our English teacher, as the whole class sat reading in sullen silence from a poetry anthology that included five poems by Ted Hughes that I thought were mysterious and – possibly - marvelous, the last thing I felt able to do was put up my hand and register my interest. Not with such a dispirited teacher in charge. Not with the mindset of some of the other adolescent males in that classroom.

And so, years later, with huge blind spots in my literary education, it’s not a top-down approach I’m able to take but a bottom-up one. I’m writing about the 32 contributors to
PEN New Fiction 2, trying to give them equal consideration, without accepting status handed down to me from the powers that be, which now include D.J. Taylor and Peter Parker. The book you have in your hand, dear reader, is the Steerpike guide to English Literature. And thank you Jonathan McDowell for introducing me to Gormenghast when we were walking the quadrangle at Downing College, Cambridge.

Actually, I need to take this class analysis a bit further. I’ve come to realize that all sixteen of the male authors that Allan Massie selected for the anthology were or became middle class. What about the 90% of males who left school without going to university, as the figure was in my day? With respect to Allan Massie, that is a huge omission.


To be fair, the editor does say in his introduction: ‘Selecting stories for such an anthology is a tricky business, ultimately an expression of personal taste refined, one hopes, by experience.’ Unfortunately, that all too possibly translates as: ‘Selecting stories for such an anthology is a tricky business, ultimately an expression of personal taste refined, one hopes, by Glenalmond College and Cambridge University.’

Let me spell it out. As well as David Taylor and Peter Parker five other male PEN2 contributors went to public schools. Giles Gordon, Mansel Stimpson, Bill Thompson, Peter Whitebrook and Jonathan Steffen.

As well as Jeff, Charles and I, four others went from state school to university. That’s Dan Corry, Gary Armitage, John Bainbridge and Ian Rankin.

So that’s fourteen of the male contributors accounted for. The other two, Ralph Goldswain and Robert Mullen, were raised abroad, where they were well educated and eventually became teachers. Working class? I think not.

What’s surprising about this, is that there was a rise in ‘everyman’ writing in the early 1980s that I was very much aware of at the time. In 1984, in Scotland, Alasdair Gray published
Lanark and James Kelman published The Bus Conductor Hines. These books were such a breath of fresh air, or so it seemed to me. Their realism and relevance inspired young people in Scotland to read, think about their own experience, and to write about their own lives.

Allan Massie selected no male who had left state school at sixteen or eighteen. That is, he selected no-one who had early and rough experience of life and then turned to writing to express their disquiet/anger/rage/wonder. And, I repeat, I think of that as an unfortunate omission.

Actually, Ian Rankin does have working class roots in Fife. But by going to university and embarking on a PhD on Muriel Spark, I'm deducing he upwardly mobiled.


I should also say that Bill Thompson went to a public school in Ireland and didn’t go on to university. And Mansel Stimpson left his public school, Eastbourne College, at 18, and became an articled clerk at the firm of solicitors with whom he qualified. But, having met Bill, and having talked to Mansel at length on the phone, there is no way that I would call them anything other than individuals who have been given space and time to think, which is one definition of middle class.

And I should definitely say that certain of the writers have stepped outside the class system altogether. Charles, who seems to have been fully accepted by the cons of Brixton and Belmarsh jails, is not so much middle class as a mass of contradictions. Though again, at an important time in his life, he was given the time and space to think. Middle class equals resource rich. You don’t have to be born into a middle class household, but you probably have to attain it by your teenage years. You don’t have to remain middle class in your forties and fifties, but I’m not sure there are better options.

I would love to be able to trace one or two of the working class writers whose work was rejected by the editor of
PEN New Fiction 2, and I may try and do so. But how should I go about this?

Well, sticking with Scotland, in 1994 - a year after the enormous success of
Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh – an imprint of Canongate called Rebel Inc was emboldened to publish an anthology, edited by Kevin Williamson, called Children of Albion Rovers. Its contributors were working class Scots.

This was an important book. At least I remember thinking that at the time. In 2000, Steve Redhead wrote a follow-up, containing interviews with most of these counter culture writers, and from that I learned that most of the young, thoughtful working class guys of that generation were influenced by popular music and football fanzines. And not, by and large, by the highbrow novels that certain public schoolboys were assiduously reading.

I feel I should write to Alasdair Gray, James Kelman, Irvine Welsh, Kevin Williamson and Gordon Legge. Or whichever of them I can obtain contact details from the web.

A day later I’ve been able to put it this way to Kevin Williamson:


In all there were about 30 PEN/British Council/Arts Council anthologies published from 1976 until 2007. The first few came out in the New Stories series but ultimately the volumes were called New WritingEver come across them? They were an important outlet for British writers, or at least they should have been. However, the majority of those publicly funded books lacked working class input (though Alasdair Gray does appear in a couple of the later volumes) and I want to kick that around a bit. Perhaps the counter culture omission left the door open for you at Rebel Inc? I'd be interested to know your thoughts on this.

I've just written to Gordon Legge as well, in the hope that he might have had work rejected by Allan Massie! I really enjoyed reading his contribution to
Children of Albion Rovers, which for me illustrates the importance of a shared culture in the survival of individuals. I have asked Gordon if he has anything to say about public/personal success and failure as a writer, which is what my book is effectively about. Let's hope he replies. I'd also be highly motivated to think about anything you have to say about this.

Best wishes, Duncan McLaren

Perhaps I’ve left it too late to make contact with what should have been my class. What do I mean by this? Well, I went to grammar school, which separated me from much of my generation at 11-years- old. Then our family moved to England, I kept doing well at school and suddenly there I was at Cambridge University studying Geography, a subject in which I had little real interest. No way back, though. And, I now realize, no way forward.

Upon leaving university, I made the joke choice of training to be a chartered accountant. During the training I had nothing but contempt for the material ambitions of almost all the other trainees. Once qualified, I immediately gave up the career trajectory but made myself available for highly paid accountancy work during three months of the year, leaving me free to write in the rest of the time.

But who was I writing for? Having been removed from my own peer group, having failed to find a new cohort, I was writing for myself. Hence a book about rejecting the world of work called
Tunnel Vision. Which didn’t find a publisher. And a book following the lonely furrow of Vincent van Gogh, called Archie van Gogh. Which didn’t even come close to finding a publisher.


After ten years of writing, having published just the one short story in PEN New Fiction 2, I stumbled across the urban working class output of Irvine Welsh and the rest of the Children of Albion Rovers. They all seemed to admire David Bowie and punk, as I did, but their writing was obsessed by music in general. Football was another continual reference, and I’d long ago – and deliberately - lost touch with that tribal aesthetic. Also, I felt distant from the drug and dance scene that this new generation was talking about. What the hell was ecstasy if it wasn’t the joy of drinking five pints at the end of a week wasted on a temp accountancy assignment?

Though I read them all, I didn’t actually spend too long with the new Scottish street writers, because, as I imply, while attracted by the sense of rebellion, I couldn’t quite commit to their version of it.

However, I remember being at the Royal Festival Hall when Irvine Welsh did a reading from his book of novellas called
The Acid House. The story was called ‘The Granton Star Cause’ and its protagonist was a working class guy called Boab who lost his place on the football team, lost his digs at home, lost his girlfriend and lost his job, all in the one day. The person to blame for such personal devastation was God, who talked to Boab in the pub in just as strong a Scottish accent as poor Boab employed. Read deadpan, the story came across with such chutzpah, such charisma, that the young professional audience in the middle of hip London were pissing themselves from the word go. Welsh stood there in complete control. As I looked around, I could see that everyone was both laughing and looking amazed. I knew what they were thinking because I was thinking it too: ‘This is stupendous… so funny… so on-the-side-of yet ripping-the-piss-out-of - this self-interested, ordinary guy…

After the reading I was first up at the desk where Irvine Welsh had sat down to sign books. I tried to express my admiration. I don’t think he was listening. He simply asked me what my name was and wrote it down on the book he then signed. Have I still got that book? Surely I have.


Perhaps it’s not too late. Maybe I can still square the circle AND get back to base. A basecamp of my own! Accordingly, I dash off another email to Kevin Williamson:

I’ve been trying to imagine any of your stories from Children of Albion Rovers in Allan Massie’s PEN New Fiction 2. But it can’t be done.

On the other hand, I’ve been trying to imagine my own story from the PEN anthology, ‘A Business Meeting’, within the covers of your follow-up collection, Rovers Return. Maybe it’s just wishful thinking, but I find that it fits.

I suppose this means that at 58 years-old one can still change one’s cultural loyalties.



Oh, the irony. While waiting for replies from Kevin Williamson or Gordon Legge, both DJ Taylor and Peter Parker have been in touch.

David simply wrote to tell me that he’d seen my name in the index of Philip Eade’s new book on Evelyn Waugh, which had prompted him to enquire if I’d got a publishing date yet for

Nice of him to ask. In replying, I take the opportunity to point out a few school truths. He responds that I may have an inflated idea of his educational background. Norwich School, where he went in the 1970s, was a socially mixed direct grant school whose funding was then taken away by the Labour government, whereupon it subsequently re-invented itself as an independent establishment.

But he’s missing the point. It’s not who pays for the elite education, it’s the transformative effect of having had one. So I write again asking the following questions: ‘What was your experience of Norwich School especially in regard to literature? Was there a debating society or a school magazine? Was there a well-stocked library? Did you have teachers that inspired you and even guided your early interest in reading and writing?’


His reply complicates things slightly, as I feared it might:

‘Norwich School had an excellent library, with all the Anthony Powells. There was also a debating society, of which I was secretary. But I always maintain that, as one who studied History at university, and despite attentions of nice English master named Chris Rowe, I pretty much discovered 'English' by myself - all down to finding copies of A Clergyman's Daughter and Decline and Fall on the family bookshelf and going on from there. No one interested in books and such among contemporaries at school.’

David Taylor found Decline and Fall on a family bookshelf. I found it in my local branch of W.H. Smith and, if I’ve got this right, Peter Parker went to school close to the pub where Evelyn Waugh wrote his comic masterpiece.

This brings to mind the Gordon Legge story that fronts
Children of Albion Rovers. In ’Pop Life’, three working class guys share a passionate – nay obsessional – interest in popular music. They meet every month and talk about nothing else. When one of them has an accident at work and falls into a coma, he is only brought back to life when first a tape of his favorite records is played to him and then his two pals have a sparky discussion about the pros and cons of those favorite records.

I couldn’t have been part of any such discussion, I just don’t know enough about contemporary music. However, with my books on Evelyn Waugh and Enid Blyton, together with my reading of 20
th Century fiction, it’s just possible I could make up a threesome with DJ Taylor and Peter Parker.

Say I was in a coma. David and Peter would visit me in hospital taking turns to read from
The Reader’s Companion to the Twentieth Century Novel and The Prose Factory. But the important bit would be their animated exchange of views about various books, especially the novels of Evelyn Waugh. And when I awoke from my coma, perhaps I would say something along the lines of what Gordon Legge’s character says on the last page of his story: “I just had this crazy dream about you pair. Going on and on about Paul Pennyfeather. Havering the biggest pile of gobshite I’ve ever heard.”


In other words, I’m backtracking like mad. Goodbye once again, Irvine Welsh and Gordon Legge. Maybe things could have worked out between us in a parallel universe. (And don’t worry, J.W. New and C.A.R. Hills, DJ Taylor and Peter Parker haven’t really displaced you from my own golden triangle.)

I return to Peter’s latest email, which is in response to mine asking if I might meet him when I come to London. He begins with an update on where he stands with his Housman book…

Dear Duncan,

Off my desk for only a moment: the copy-edited text thumps back on to it this afternoon. It has to be returned within a fortnight, so the week after that would suit me all right for a chat. On the Tuesday I have to meet someone from English PEN to discuss this year’s Ackerley prize, so either before or after lunch that day would suit me well. 

Please give my very best to Elaine, with whom I served for some years on the Council of the RSL. Another link for you between contributors? 

All best, Peter   

The Ackerley Prize, what’s that? The PEN website that tells me that the sister of J.R. Ackerley set up an annual prize for memoirs or autobiography using the royalties that come from her brother’s books. Peter Parker has been chair of judges, at least since 2011, for on the PEN site there is a video of him giving a speech from a balcony at PEN HQ that year.

In 2013, as Chair of the Judges, Parker said in a statement: ‘Memoirs seemed to be thinner on the ground than usual in 2013, and the judges called in only 24 titles.  That said, we have ended up with a very strong shortlist of four very different books, taking us into family secrets on the remote Yorkshire moors, a disastrously unravelling marriage on the South Coast, the touching relationship between a boy and his feckless Jamaican father in Luton, and struggles with a religious vocation in Newark, Boston, Glasgow and Edinburgh. What all four books have in common is what the judges are always looking for: a startling frankness and writing of a very high quality.’


Sounds good. Maybe I’ll get the prize some year. Was my Personal Delivery called in by the judges back in 1998? I’d like to think it should have been.

Back to Peter’s email. What is this about Elaine and himself having been on the Council of the RSL?

That’s a reference to the fact that Peter was once on the Council of the Royal Society of Literature. The dozen or so members of this Council have a fixed term of office of five years. Clearly Elaine and Peter’s terms must have overlapped. In all, Elaine has been a Fellow since 1981 and Peter since 1997.

How does one become a Fellow of the RSL? The existing Fellows (about 500 in all), propose new ones twice a year. Writers have to be nominated by a Fellow then elected by the Council.

So if C.A.R. Hills was to be nominated by Peter Parker (or Elaine Feinstein), Charles would have to hope there was enough support for an ex-PEN editor (and an ex-con) from the present Council.

Who are amongst those 500 Fellows? JK Rowling is, but Will Self isn’t. A. S. Byatt is, and so is Jeanette Winterson,

But what about the Class of ’83? Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie and Ian McEwan have been members of the RLS since that very year. Julian Barnes is not a member. Presumably he wouldn’t be associated with any club that would have Martin Amis as a member.

On a Scottish note, Alasdair Gray, James Kelman and Irvine Welsh, three of the contemporary Scottish writers I make time for, are not Fellows. Perhaps there is a political, by which I mean a conservative, dimension to the Society. After all, it’s a Royal Society, based in London with honorary members the Duke of Kent and Prince Charles.

So what about the chances of our own ‘royal’ Charles getting elected? (The reason I’m focusing on him, is because the switch from Brixton Prison to Somerset House is irresistible.) As I say, that depends on support from the existing Council. But let’s check to see how many PEN Pals he would have as mates if he were elected.


Ian Rankin isn’t a Fellow. Val Warner (see a subsequent chapter) is. Elaine Feinstein is a Fellow, as mentioned above, but Frances Fyfield, to my surprise, isn’t. Perhaps both Ian and Frances have been overlooked because they are crime writers. The RSL takes high literature seriously.

DJ Taylor is a Fellow. Connie Bensley isn’t. Nor is Robert Edric, not even under his real name. Giles Gordon was a Fellow before he died. Allan Massie is a Fellow now and has been since 1982.

Just as I’m thinking that Charles does have a slim chance of at least being proposed as a Fellow, I remember that to be eligible you have to have published two full-length works of literary merit. Charles may have written several such works, but I don’t think any are published. The short story in
New Writing 2 and the pieces in Prospect show potential, but are certainly not ‘full length’.

In the meantime, I’ve written again to Peter Parker without bothering to carefully read over what I’ve actually said, so involved am I with the material. No doubt there will be clues to what I’ve written in Peter’s reply:

First he chides me about the RSL, informing me that there are many anti-establishment or left wing writers who are fellows. For instance, Edward Upward, who is not only a Fellow but accepted the Society’s Benson Medal.

Edward Upward? I turn to Parker’s
Companion to Twentieth Century Writers, and learn: ‘He received a conventional middle-class education at Repton and Corpus Christi College, Cambridge…. It was at Repton he met Christopher Isherwood, who he was to remain close friends with…’

Once I’ve read the fascinating entry in full, I turn to the very short biographical note for Upward at the back of the
Companion to the Twentieth Century Novel, which puts things most succinctly: ‘He joined the Communist Party in 1934 and was the most politically committed of the Auden Generation.’


OK, but of course Edward Upward would have been a member of the RSL. He went to a top public school and Oxbridge, for goodness sake! Though I have to bear in mind that subsequent to his education he seems to have spent his life writing against his own class. He was over 100 before he was elected a Fellow. Too old to tell them to stuff the Benson Medal up their RSL?

Anyway, back to Peter’s latest. He tells me that part of the point of his
Reader’s Companions was to draw people’s attention to neglected and under-rated writers and that part of his intention with his other work has been to rescue writers from obscurity, for example G.F Green.

G.F. Green? He was also educated at Repton and Cambridge. However, his father was an iron-founder and Green’s stories of working class life were much admired by Christopher Isherwood, amongst others. I have to say that the summary of Green’s novel, In the Making, about the experience of falling into the orbit of a fellow schoolboy, makes the book look enticing. But I have to say also that the repetition of a public school-Cambridge-Isherwood pattern leaves me cold in the context of social inclusion.

In order to ‘draw people’s attention to neglected and underrated writers who were very much not part of the so-called literary establishment’, I can think of other places to look than amongst the alumni of certain public schools and Oxbridge colleges.

However, I have come to accept that if you were raised in such an environment, it becomes difficult to look outside it for community and inspiration. Evelyn Waugh’s diary tells us that when he was at Lancing College, his friend, Hugh Molson was asked if he was interested in politics. The youngster’s answer: “preternaturally so”, earned him the nickname ‘Preters’. Waugh would remain very loyal to his Lancing friends and, in particular, to the Oxford friends of his gilded youth.

Peter Parker’s recent email refers to his schooling. He doesn’t think that his school was particularly ‘good’, but acknowledges that it did have a debating society, a school magazine and was in general encouraging of literary aspiration.


In this connection, Peter mentions DJ Taylor. I’m glad he does because it reminds me that when I was researching the latter’s Private Eye pieces with particular reference to the Class of ’83, I noted in passing that he’d reviewed PP’s Reader’s Companion to Twentieth Century Writers. Although ostensibly anonymous, I’m sure the review was by our fellow PEN2 contributor, because it discussed the entry for Alec Waugh, brother of DJT’s much-admired Evelyn. And it commented that the entry for the obscure Brigid Brophy was about twice as long as that for Anthony Powell, another of DJT’s heroes. Moreover, I mentioned the review in an email to David and he did not deny being its author, though he did point out that one of the other reviews I’d attributed to him was not in fact his. The Reader’s Companion review goes on to say:

‘It is dramatically clear that for the purposes of being included here no writer is as absolutely OK as a gay one. Firbank and Forster get yards of space, and why not? But how to explain the profuse and admiring coverage afforded to marginal and mostly forgotten novelists such as C.H.B Kitchin, T.C. Worsley and Jocelyn Brooke? Inverts to a man, my dears?’

Well, I don’t mind that. It wasn’t until 1967 that it was legal for men to have sex with each other in the UK. So let Peter Parker make a special effort to include gay men in a list of twentieth century writers: they had something to write about. Likewise, I’ve made sure that the three gay male contributors to PEN2 each have a chapter to themselves. Take a bow, Peter, Parker, Mansel Stimpson and C.A.R.Hills.

But as their entries in PP’s
Reader’s Companion show, C.H.B. Kitchin was educated at Clifton and Exeter College, Oxford; T.C. Worsley was educated at Marlborough and St John’s College, Cambridge; and Jocelyn Brooke was educated at Bedales and Worcester College, Oxford. I doubt if Peter Parker sees himself as a class warrior. But to my mind that’s what he is. Actually, I don’t mean ‘class warrior’ so much as ‘class champion’. But then, is that not what I am, zeroing in on another elite, that is on the state school to Oxbridge literary outsiders, as I have done, at least briefly, in these pages?


We all live our one-and-only lives, and it’s surely this that we are compelled to celebrate.

Long live all 32 PEN pals! Or rather: long live the gloriously underachieving state school triumvirate! Which is another way of saying: long live me.

What happens to writers? The last couple of pages have been another attempt to answer that question. They get off on themselves.


Charles helps bring me back down to earth. In response to a letter of mine concerning the thrust of this chapter, he writes:

‘It is a very neat question who exactly is advantaged or disadvantaged. For instance, although you did not go to a public school, the fact that you were at Cambridge, and live in a large house in a no doubt delightful town in Scotland, and do not have to work for a living, does tend to cast a strange light on your claims to be a working-class hero. Also, although my own feelings for Peter Parker are ambiguous, I suspect that your current treatment of him is fundamentally unfair. Your letter gives the impression that you say little about him as a writer and treat him almost entirely as an example of class privilege. Because you are a fellow biographer, and are published by a small publisher, the average reader will have no difficulty in identifying this as sour grapes.’

Peter Parker also thinks my treatment of him is unfair. A new email (which I respect him for taking the trouble to write; it would be far easier for him to wash his hands of this exchange) accepts that his biographical subjects, Christopher Isherwood and J.R. Ackerley, were products of public school and Oxbridge, but what interested PP about them was that they turned against their background, aligning themselves with the left wing. Indeed, Isherwood emigrated to America to escape class-bound England.


Peter also points out that his first book, The Old Lie, which I haven’t read, is critical of the public school ethos that created the officer class of the First World War. (Yes, but does that not mean that the public school boys should have been encouraged to go on to be leading writers and politicians instead of officers?!)

Another of Parker’s books that I haven’t got round to reading,
The Last Veteran, is about Harry Patch who left school at fourteen to be apprenticed to a plumber, a job he returned to after the First World War. Parker feels he ‘champions’ Patch in the book, and that the latter is clearly not the product of privilege.

Damn, Harry Patch! Isn’t it typical that my ‘class champion’ hypothesis be undermined by a mere plumber’s mate who was surely nick-named ‘Cabbage’ by his fellow cannon fodder.

Back to Charles’s letter: ‘
The whole class issue in Britain has become so complex, and everyone's need to be prolier than thou is so intense, that I personally feel you would be better treating the whole thing as a sort of refined joke, albeit with serious undertones.’

I thought that was exactly what I had been doing! Anyway, Charles is right to remind me that Peter Parker, in this context, is first and foremost, a PEN Pal, so I lose no time in ordering both a copy of his soon to be published book on Housman, and a copy of The Last Veteran, at the very great risk that one or other of them will make me eat my sarcasm.


Before Charles’s timely intervention, this chapter was in danger of becoming an investigation of writers and class. It needs to be rounded off with some remarks about gender, sexual orientation and the writing life.

By the time I’ve completed part one of this book, I reckon a maximum of four of the sixteen women contributors to PEN2 will have chapters to themselves, whereas all three of the gay men will have.


This skewed stat is largely the result of so many of the women contributors having either disappeared completely or not having pursued writing careers. Peter Parker, Mansel Stimpson and C.A.R.Hills would seem to have combined a feeling of entitlement, as men in a patriarchal society, with their contrasting experience of disempowerment as gay men, to supercharge their efforts. Platform plus mission leads to visibility and message. Think of all those books that Parker has written about in his Reader’s Companions. All those films that Stimpson has reviewed in Film Review. And remember those manuscripts in Sainsbury’s plastic bags that Hills has squirreled away in a friend’s flat in London. That oversimplifies things (Stimpson says he is not competitive and was reviewing films compulsively long before he knew he was gay). But let it stand.

The three are all justly proud of their mental faculties. Parker with his encyclopaedic knowledge of English literature. Stimpson with his cinematic erudition. And Hills, the schoolboy prodigy turned Brixton brainbox.

However, Parker, Stimpson and Hills are not the same in terms of status and cultural clout, they occupy three distinct tiers. Parker is a successful writer, well connected with publishers, journalists and the literary world in general. Stimpson, though a well-known film reviewer, struggled to get his memoir published, the book being picked up by a small publisher thirty years after it was written. And Charles’s manuscripts are not just unpublished, they are vulnerable to disappearance, though I believe that electronic copies exist of some of the books he wrote in the 90s.

Hills and Parker were already friends when Hills introduced Stimpson to Parker on January 21, 1987. Parker was able to recommend a literary agent to Stimpson that night, even though nothing came of it, presumably.

What’s sadder is that Charles (I can’t keep calling him ‘Hills’, not when I’m getting a letter a fortnight from him signed ‘Love, Charles’) has the feeling that Parker could have helped get his own writing career established.


Now as we know, Parker commissioned Charles to work on the Reader’s Companions and that bought time for Charles. However, Charles needed more than that, we all do, and feels that Parker, who helped rescue the reputations of many obscure gay writers via the pages of his Reader’s Companions, could have provided him with an entrée into the world of publishing. Could he? Is it that easy? Well, let’s remember that his partner, Christopher Potter, was the literary director of Fourth Estate, an important independent publisher at the time. Fourth Estate commissioned the Reader’s Companions and had an enterprising fiction list in the 1990s and beyond, just when an enterprising fiction list was exactly what Charles was looking for in respect of David’s Music, Lorne Park and The Track.

But that’s hardly fair. Peter Parker has the right to support, or not support, whoever he likes, and I suspect his support for Charles went well beyond using him in the Reader’s Companions. It’s just that Charles will have forgotten about it, or discounted it, in his obsessive desire to succeed in his chosen vocation.

If Peter wasn’t able or willing to champion Charles beyond a certain point, we have to bear in mind the role played by the latter in his own fate. He has admitted (when talking about his relations with Alan Hollinghurst) that when he respects someone he cannot resist bringing pressure to bear on that person. Not the way to keep friends who might influence people, I would have thought.

Peter Parker, C.A.R.Hills and Mansel Stimpson. Brought together within the pages of
PEN New Fiction 2 by Allan Massie, to reveal to the alert reader different gay sensibilities and potential. Brought together in the pages of PEN Pals to showcase both solid achievement and, in one case, a still largely untapped talent.


PEN - Version 14PEN - Version 12PEN - Version 14

Next chapter