D.J. Taylor
Suzi Robinson, Frances Fyfield


It’s Wednesday, December 16, 2015. Note to self. Here is where I’ve got to with this project. Three chapters are written and several more are underway. Plus I’ve tried to make contact with Thomas McCarthy who I talked to on the night of the book launch in January 1987, and met a few months later.

So things are bubbling away nicely. I feel I’m really beginning to investigate ‘what happens to writers’. But before Christmas comes along and puts everything on hold, I’ve realized that I want to set one more plate spinning: D.J. Taylor.

In a very different way from Ian Rankin, he has become an important figure in the literary establishment. He hasn’t sold anything like as many books, but I’d say he’s made an equivalent impact. He writes anonymously for
Private Eye exposing the hypocrisies of the book trade and prominent authors. He has written a mountain of reviews over the last thirty years. Early in his career, around the time of PEN2, these were for obscure literary magazines but eventually he was reviewing for anyone and everyone, including the Spectator and the Sunday Times. Now he’s a regular contributor to the Guardian and the Independent on Sunday. In fact, of late he’s had two features in the latter, one a regular column called: ‘Life As We Know It’, which is up to its 86th instalment.


In 1989 he wrote a book for Bloomsbury called A Vain Conceit, British fiction in the 1980s. A few years later he came up with After the War, The Novel and England since 1945. And coming out in January 2016 is The Prose Factory: Literary Life in England since 1918. Taylor seems to be endlessly reading both new novels and older ones. Talk about burning the candle at both ends. He must never watch telly or chill out with mates. Just read, write, read and write.

He’s published lots of fiction as well. Amongst which are four novels in the 80s and 90s, which I’ve heard him describe as ‘minority interest’. And, since 2006, six historical novels, set in the Victorian era or the 1920s and 30s:
Kept, Ask Alice, At the Chime of a City Clock, Derby Day, Secondhand Daylight and The Windsor Faction.

The early fiction didn’t gain many readers. They were reviewed but didn’t sell. The recent novels have begun to find an audience. Allan Massie – the PEN editor - has done his bit by reviewing three of them in
The Scotsman. Derby Day has 25 customer reviews on Amazon, while At the Chime of a City Clock has 33. Not bad at all. But to put this in perspective, two of Ian Rankin’s recent books have got over a thousand reviews on Amazon.

D.J Taylor is a traditional man of letters. That’s what I admire about him. In 1996 he wrote a piece in
Panurge which was remarkably honest about how much he’d been writing over the previous ten years, what a struggle it had been to get the visibility he had done and how he had to support himself with a part-time job in the City of London. In short, the ups and downs of being passionate about reading and writing.

The essay comes in the last issue of that fine literary magazine. John Murray was its editor and he too supplied an essay in the final number, a coruscating diatribe against the publishing industry. Murray told his few readers that the mag was closing because he was receiving 4000 submissions per year (what proportion of them from D.J Taylor?) and that he couldn’t cope with this on the tiny level of subscription income and Arts Council funding the magazine had to run on. Moreover, his advice to any aspiring author (me, for example) was to have 500 copies of one’s novel printed privately, to travel round the country distributing 300 of them to public libraries and to stand on a street corner giving the rest of them away to bookish-looking strangers, ‘possibly with a free bar of chocolate or a tub of Cumberland Rum Butter, as a bribe for them to read the bloody thing.’


If the John Murray essay ends up a bit unhinged - though I took to heart its central message: that the publishing system was shot and that one had to find an alternative way to get your message across - the D.J. Taylor one, ‘Success’, starts off that way.

Taylor tells us that he was on the tube one day and noticed Enoch Powell sitting in a corner. For some reason he engaged him in conversation, a conversation that went extremely badly and at the end of which, standing on the platform at Victoria, Powell fixed his fellow traveller with a look that was not at all benevolent and remarked with an awful gravity, “I regret that when we began this conversation I did not take the opportunity to enquire your name.” David supplied it. “Mr Taylor,” Powell hissed back, “I wish you

The Panurge piece goes on to talk about what motivated David Taylor to put so much into writing. First, the Protestant work ethic, which he got from his parents. Second, young David became obsessed with the old-fashioned literary life – review-writing and book-compiling - and from an early age he saw himself as destined to end up as ‘a pixieish 80-year-old fondly regarding the shelf or so of volumes produced in the course of a hectic career’.

Starting to write so young, Taylor feels it was inevitable that he go through imitative phases. So there was the children’s historical phase (9-11), the Tolkein phase (12-15), and the Orwellian phase (16-19). Where did all the conceiving and scribbling come from? His parents weren’t into books. Taylor’s view, articulated in
Panurge, is that he found something intensely romantic and comforting in the idea of ‘being a writer’. And so in due course he found himself in the clichéd position of being a bright young graduate who didn’t have a clue what he wanted to do except ‘write’. The next and last imitative phase, centred on Simon Raven, produced a ‘drivelling Oxford novel’.


Taylor got a job working for a PR agency, and wrote books in his spare time. A few essay pieces for the Spectator. Then a regular reviewing job at The London Magazine. Then much more reviewing after Rupert Murdoch took on the traditional print unions and created the conditions whereby newspaper publishing took off in the computer era of the 1980s. Those same computers (well, different ones, connected to the internet) have bitten back more recently. Printed newspapers are now on the wane with ever-declining circulations, and I’m wondering how long David’s cushy little number at the Independent on Sunday will last. Though I’ve no doubt Taylor will find other outlets, as did GBS (George Bernard Shaw) who was as irrepressible in cultural journalism a few generations ago as DJT is now.

According to his website, David Taylor now lives with his novelist wife and three sons in Norwich, which is the county city of Norfolk where he grew up. The website also includes a contact form, so I send him a simple message telling him I’ve been commissioned to follow up what has happened to the writers that were featured in
PEN New Fiction 2. I don’t have to wait long for a reply, which reads:

‘Pen New Fiction II - that was a long time ago! Delighted to hear from you.’

David kindly lets me know what his email address is, and I spend an hour or so of the evening composing this:

Dear David,

Thanks for getting back to me about that most redundant of cultural artefacts,
PEN New Fiction II.

Sorry this is going to be quite a long email. I hope you can bear with it...

First, did you go to the launch event on Jan 21 1987? And if so do you recall whom you talked to and what your feelings were? 

I know it was a long time ago, but you may not have been blasé about launch events back in these days! (You may not be blasé about them now.) In the final issue of 
Panurge you tell the reader that in December '84 you'd got your first book deal, had been overcome with emotion and embarked on a long walk around the streets of South London. I don't suppose getting selected for PEN 2 had quite the same impact, but you may remember.


Back in 1987 I liked William New's Beckett-influenced piece, but he seems to have dropped off the literary circuit. Was there any story or stories in the volume that you had strong feelings about? I dare say you will have to go down to the basement or up into the loft of your house to remind yourself, and I will quite understand if you are too busy to do that. (No, surely you will have a LIBRARY!) Perhaps there wasn't as much 'experimental' writing in the Allan Massie edited volume as the Peter Ackroyd one (PEN1), which contains a mesmerising Angela Carter story.

Your own stories in the PEN anthologies seem to concern themselves in part with discontent about home town life, moving to a more exciting place and then reconciling yourself (or not) to being back home. I know you've mentioned that in terms of your own Norfolk/Oxford/London experience. Had you spent time in the States before writing the stories? If not, from where did you get the background details down to the dialogue?

In many ways, you've gone on to have an extremely successful career. I'm thinking of your visibility as a journalist over the years, your well thought of non-fiction books, your ambitious early novels and your more appreciated recent ones. I dare say you see your career in much more positive terms than you did in, say, 1996, when you wrote the refreshingly candid
Panurge essay I refer to above, a lovely complement to John Murray's eye-opening diatribe in the same issue which shares at least one line: "I am not joking." 

Actually, in that 1996 piece you mention the high of hearing your first novel was to be published and the low following the failure of your third. Anything comparably uplifting or sick-making in the last twenty years?

Do you still compile an annual round-up of your work done? If you do one this December for 2015 might I see it?


At present I am reading Great Eastern Land. I also have a copy of A Vain Conceit which is marked up from when I read it decades ago. And I have a fine hardback of your Orwell. Evelyn Waugh was the maestro that had an equivalent influence on me, a funny man rather than a moral one, which maybe says something about my personality, though I know you like Waugh as well. You and I did meet very briefly at another literary event, when my 'Visiting Mabel' blog had been shortlisted for the Orwell Prize for Blogs in 2011. I knew your face and that you'd written Bright Young Peopleso I mentioned that my book on Waugh was soon to be published by Beautiful Books. A crass bit of networking on my part, I suspect, but not so crass that you would remember it, and I'd be astonished if you did recall our brief exchange. Beautiful Books went bust and Harbour Books took up the work and published it in 2015. It contains photographs you won't have seen before and if you might like a copy do say so and one will be sent to you at whatever address you specify.

The Class of '87 (provisional title) is a project that I'm finding fascinating to research and write because the contributors of PEN Fiction II have gone on to have such varied histories and fortunes. Of course, there is no Class of ‘87 as such at present, but I may see if I can create a bit of team spirit. 

You may not have time to answer everything I've asked in this email. But if you can respond to anything at all it will be very useful to me and I'll be grateful.  

Seasons greetings. Don't be surprised if, travelling by tube in London over the holiday season, you feel a tap on the shoulder. Turning round you may find yourself face to face with the ghost of Enoch Powell or George Orwell who, fixing you with a look of pure benevolence, is likely to say: "Well done, Mr Taylor."

Best wishes, Duncan

Is that a bit sycophantic? Do I ask too many questions? Ian Rankin has not yet replied to the long email I sent him and so I’ve taken more trouble over this one.

Anyway, David will either answer or he won’t. In the meantime, let’s have a look at the story he submitted for the anthology, which is called ‘After Bathing at Baxter’s.’


It’s set in the USA. Susy is a sassy young woman of 24 who works in a deli owned by a Mr Rosati, who thinks the Italian food he would love to be making would be wasted on the locals. She has a mother (‘Mom’) who has a coarse lover. She herself has a dubious boyfriend called Artie Tripp who has been promising to make something of his life since he was sweet sixteen but had spent the last nine years working the forecourt of his father’s gas station.

One day, after a session in the swimming pool (after bathing at Baxter’s), Artie surprises Susy by turning up in a Cadillac and with a suitcase. He was going to get the hell out of their nowhere town. (‘I couldn’t take that shit from the old man any more.”) Was Susy coming with him? She sure was. Where were they going? Out East.

For weeks they travel, getting nearer New York. But when the day comes that Artie tells her how he came by the Cadillac and their spending money – by stealing a week’s takings from his father’s till, she is disillusioned. Meekly, he gives her the 20 dollars she asks for to get a Greyhound back to Tara City.

Back home she finds… what? Her employer is pleased to see her. Her mother and betrothed less so. The story ends: ‘Outside the rain rattled on the windows… Susy thought for the last time of Artie Tripp. framed in the doorway of Baxter’s, the gleaming Iowa cornfields, before turning to consider the more pressing details of Mom’s wedding suit, the expression on her face half fretful resignation, half dreamy content.’

David Taylor was brought up in sleepy Norfolk. After studying History at Oxford and finding a job in London, he eventually returned to the county of his birth. Yet the expression on the face that looks out from the home page of his website is not half fretful resignation, half dreamy content. It’s full-on confidence. A relaxed smile is underpinned by a rich inner life. That’s how it seems anyway. But we all know how many hundreds of scowling, fish-faced, loose-jawed blank-eyed photos it takes to come up with a single, entirely suitable, author’s photo.



Having told David I was reading Great Eastern Land, I decided I should get on with that. And so tonight I’ve finished the novel.

David Castell lives in some hot, dry eastern country, possibly India. His relations with his male servant , Caro, are ambiguous. What is not is that he’s writing a book.

Some of the chapters are set in Norfolk (a second great eastern land?) where David (Castell or Taylor) was brought up. Other chapters are set in Oxford where the Davids, real and make-believe, went to university.

There is plenty of literary allusion. Hints of Evelyn Waugh and a page where the fog of London at the beginning of
Bleak House is substituted by snow and Oxford. Is it done word for Dickens’ word? No, it’s done with a light touch.

Throughout most of the book, the three sections are kept apart. But things come together towards the end. A character introduced in David’s childhood plays a significant role while David is at Oxford. Suddenly things coalesce shortly after David comes down from Oxford to London. The key character becomes David’s father, who dies, and his father’s book,
History of Early East Anglia.

But in writing A History of Early East Anglia, David’s father has taken liberties with the truth, has made the story of his own family central to the story of the county. The significance being that his son has done the same thing in writing Great Eastern Land. Like father, like son? Tentative conclusion: escaping the patterns of the past is not so easy.

It’s midnight when I close the book. I get out of bed long enough to check my email, and see that an email came in from David Taylor at 21.36. It says:
‘This deserves a much longer reply than I can manage at the moment - just got back from London - so expect one tomorrow. Best David’



December 18, 2015. The book man keeps me waiting until late afternoon before the following pings in:

Dear Duncan,
Right, decks cleared so I can answer at the length yours deserved.
I did attend the launch of
Pen New Fiction II and remember it reasonably well. Talked in particular to Quartet's louche editorial director Stephen Pickles. I was going to say that I hob-nobbed with a girl called Suzi Robinson, whose story I liked, but I think in fact that we got in touch afterwards. My other recollection is that Quartet did the whole operation a bit shambolically and there weren't any jackets on the books. I also seem to recall payment being a bit tardy, the PEN money having mysteriously fallen through - something like that. I was very pleased to be included, though, and very happy to be asked to a publisher's party, not many of which I had hitherto attended at this early stage in my career. It was also memorable, I now remember, for the presence of Gary Armitage, since re-invented as 'Robert Edric', with whom - together with his agent Anthony Harwood - I repaired to the pub. There began a near 30-year friendship.
As for Baxter's, I had not previously been to the US. Like 'Dreams of Leaving' in the previous volume it was all entirely made up. It then, as you doubtless know, became the title story of a collection published ten years later.
Keen of you to have read the
Panurge piece. Seems dreadful that it should have appeared all of 20 years ago, shortly before the birth of a child who is now about to celebrate his 20th birthday. Plenty of highs (and lows) since then. Could not have foreseen the way in which the world of books would change, but still keeping afloat.
Alas, I don't really keep up with the list of work done. Couldn't begin to tell you what I did in 2015, though it certainly included 50 columns for the
Independent on Sunday, 52 imaginary character sketches ditto, about the same number of radio columns for the Tablet, various pieces for the Guardian, bi-weekly turn in Private Eye, sundry reviews for TLS, Spectator etc. Plus work on one book, now finished, out in January, and another out next October.


I don't, alas, recall meeting you at the Orwell bash but I did know about your Waugh book and in fact was looking at it with great interest in Hatchards yesterday. How has it done? Are you working on anything else? And where are the results of this fascinating project to appear?
Best David

What a helpful response. Now do I play it cool and think about the information that David has generously supplied? Or do I strike while the iron is hot? Oh, that’s such a strong image!

Dear David,

Thanks so much for your reply with all its useful info. Thanks in particular for beginning to tell me what you did in 2015! Forgive me for responding to some of your points so swiftly...

Suzi is the woman who went round getting signatures in her copy. What she's had published since is a 2014 book I'm reading now: 
The Best Ever Cat Food Formula which has been published through Amazon. Yes, her story in PEN 2 moved me when I read it this time around (it left me cold when I was a callow youth). Quartet never did pay us, blaming the Arts Council, and a couple of weeks ago when I presented his story to Ian Rankin for him to sign at a book signing event, the first thing he said was that he'd never been paid for his story!... This para alone might illustrate why the PEN project is fascinating me so much. One of our fellow contributors went on to be a special advisor to Gordon Brown. One is even... No I must keep schtum about him for now, but he has an incredible, ongoing story.

I'll be getting in touch with Gary in the new year. Your recollection will help with that. I will also write to Alan Massie at Thirladean House in the Borders. The last time I went down there it was to visit Abbotsford, an experience I'll never forget. A writer made it THAT BIG!!! Though of course JK Rowling has gone and made the same kind of global impact as Walter "two brains" Scott. If you have either Gary's or Allan's email addresses that might speed things up. But if it's not your practice to give out email addresses, don't worry, I should be able to contact them. Come to think of it, I could do with the email addresses of John Murray and David Almond too, as that might lead me to the lost William New who had a piece in
Panurge 7 under the name of J New. Tricky things, pseudonyms. 


I'm glad you've seen my Waugh book. Jeremy Beale (ex m.d. of the aforementioned Quartet) who runs a tiny publishing house, Harbour Books, wisely invested in top cover art. Result: Evelyn! has credibility and has been very well reviewed in Telegraph, Independent. Lit Rev and Irish Times. Plus Roger Lewis made it Book of the Week in The Daily Mail. Alas, no in-house engendered publicity to speak of, other than my own efforts, so sales from May to date a mere 400. No sales on Amazon this month. The book probably hasn't had enough visibility to be on anybody's list of top books of 2015… That's one of the things I admired about your Panurge essay, the giving out of crucial data so that people can see the way the world actually works (or doesn't).

It's Harbour that has commissioned the PEN project (actually, I'm not sure if commission is the word as the agreement will state that I am to get £500 on delivery and £500 on publication, as with the EW book). I could look for a bigger publisher, but I know Jeremy will make a good job of the production and there is something called loyalty (is there not?) and we might get word of mouth going on this new book as many of the contributors have connections of their own. Anyway, the project is a bit odd, and mainstream is wary of odd in my experience. 

One of the reasons I’ve embarked on this project is my partner’s insistence that I take a break from working on Evelyn Waugh. I like to think my Waugh website is an ambitious piece of (auto)biography whose structure is flexible and will be changing as I get closer to finishing it. Should you fancy trying a sample, there is a web
-page about Audrey Lucas which is full of new insights that I expect Phillip Eade will have feasted on in time for his own Evelyn Waugh biography coming out next April, bang on the 50-years-dead anniversary. (He was very generous about my Evelyn! in the Literary Review.) Or try the piece called ‘Scoop Revisited’ which is in the middle of the Piers Court section. And oh-my-goodness have I found out more about what was going on in Waugh's mind when he was in the middle of writing Vile Bodies. There are several essays exploring his perceived humiliation at the hands of She-Evelyn. I can't believe he ended up writing VB with such restraint. 


Last night, I finished Great Eastern Land, it has a lovely flow towards the end and suddenly there (in my mind) was David Castell's father at the centre of an enterprise not unlike David's: A Self-Referential History of Greater East Anglia. The ending resonates, especially since I'm travelling each day to see my father in hospital and have been doing so for weeks now.

Come to think of it, my mother loved the cynicism of
Private Eye and there is a box of them in the loft, covering the period 1989 to 2005 (say). Have you written 'What You Didn't Miss' throughout that time, or has your input varied over the years? Have you contributed to the wicked reviews as well? 

I'll buy the 
Independent this weekend as I believe you'll have a couple of pieces therein. The Saturday Guardian is the only daily/weekly paper we tend to read, because of its Review section, so it will make a change to read something else.

All best, Duncan


Perhaps that email is a little too intense. Certainly, David has not replied to it. On the other hand, his considered response to my first email was written on December 18 and surely the holiday period descended on the Norwich family man shortly thereafter.

I will read one of David Taylor’s recent historical novels, but not until I have my chapter on Gary Armitage/Robert Edric underway.

So what now? This I think:

Hi Suzi,

In the last few weeks I've been reading
The Angry Gods by Wendy Brandmark, Standing in Another man's Grave by Ian Rankin, Blind Date by Frances Fyfield, Great Eastern Land by D.J. Taylor and The Best Ever Cat Food Formula by yourself. I'm enjoying them all in their different ways.


DJ Taylor (David) said he'd met you at the launch - or shortly after - and that he liked your story in PEN New Fiction 2. Are you aware of his subsequent career? He has been prolific writer of fiction, non-fiction and journalism

You must have gone around getting signatures while the launch event took place. Did you then go off to a pub or restaurant with any of the contributors? DJ Taylor and GE Armitage (Robert Edric) went to one pub. I invited William New, Thomas McCarthy, Ralph Goldswain, Mansel Stimpson and Peter Parker to another, where David Welsh also made his way. So I know where half of the male contributors ended up, but don't yet know much about the women contributors' experience of the evening. Wendy Brandmark was hypnotized by a double-barreled name badge and seems to have put the whole experience out of her mind, and I'm waiting for Elaine Feinstein to get back to me. I'll contact more authors in the new year. If you can recall anything more, however insignificant, do please let me know.

Have you found the book with signatures yet? I feel a bit like Gizard and the cat food formula. Well, no, I do want the info, but I'm not willing to hurt any women, children or cats in order to get it!

Looking forward to hearing from you about the questions I've raised in my various emails.

Hope you're well.

Seasons greetings, Duncan

PS Did
Evelyn! arrive?

When did I write the above? I found a moment to ping it off on New Year’s Eve. A couple of days later I was delighted to receive this in response:

Hello Duncan,

Happy New Year!


I did receive Evelyn! And apologize for not acknowledging sooner.  My convalescence has not been going well and the doctors have put me on some heavy – opiate-based – painkillers that rendered me comatose throughout Christmas.  I have not been able to read anything for weeks but your book is on top of the pile of books on my bedside table waiting for the happy day when I can keep awake.

I have found that copy of the
PEN book with the signatures.  I will be happy to send it to you for the duration of the project.  Will post it next week.

I have a couple of memories of the launch party that may be of interest.  I remember talking to David Taylor and also Frances Fyfield.  

Now, as I recall, David had either published his first novel or was about to, at the time of the PEN launch.  We chatted for a short time.  He was doing some freelance copy writing at the time so we exchanged notes.  It was a means to an end for him and I don’t think he liked the work or the people.  He is very brilliant and very highbrow and so well read that I felt somewhat out of my depth.

I was very surprised to receive a month or so later, a handwritten letter from him saying how much he liked “Half-Day Closing”.  I called to thank him and he invited me round for tea.  Once again I struggled to keep up with a very literary discussion.  I remember that the floor of his living room was covered with rows of books; lots of review copies that he was planning to sell.

Secondly, Frances and I travelled home together as far as Highbury & Islington station and in that short time, managed to exchange a good deal of information about each other’s lives and loves in the way women do.  We were both at a crossroads in our respective careers.  She was still a solicitor and keen to escape what she called her “life of crime” and write full time.  She had published a great many romantic short stories in women’s magazines and was
, I think. working on her first detective novel.  She urged me to get on with my fiction but I was being seduced by some very flattering headhunters from advertising recruiters and also needed to find the deposit for my first flat.


I have read a couple of her novels and enjoyed them.  I also heard one of them serialized on Radio 4.

That is about all I can remember of that evening although I might remember more when I come off this medication. If I do
, I’ll let you know.

You asked me earlier about my experience of using Amazon Kindle/Createspace to self-publish.  It was not the breeze that Amazon promise it will be.  Formatting
, especially on Createspace was very frustrating and tricky and I had to get a highly computer-literate friend to help.  She managed to crack it eventually but had to do it on a PC.  I work on a Mac.

Another pitfall was discovering that in publishing on Amazon you are for tax purposes publishing in the USA.  The IRS take about 50% of the tiny amount you make after Amazon take its cut!

To avoid this, it is necessary to apply for a waiver as a non-Resident from the US Embassy in Grosvenor Square.  Of course, all the information about office hours on their website is out of date so I found myself one cold grey morning standing in line with a lot of migrant workers trying to get visas.  The line was patrolled by a couple of machine-gun-carrying, shaven-headed, gum-chewing soldiers who would have been right at home working for Gizard at GUZZLE!  It took three visits on different days to get it all sorted out but I now have the waiver.

I went with Amazon because I wanted to get the book into the public domain having been messed about by lit agents for over a year.  It was always the same story, initial enthusiasm followed by months of silence and a rejection letter saying “not for us”.  I got very depressed until a reunion in a pub in Covent Garden with a bunch of other copywriters cum novelists who had the same story to tell.

So I regard this as a “soft” launch and as soon as I am well enough will start sending the MS direct to publishers to see if I can get myself a deal.

Let me know if you have any more questions.


Meanwhile, all best wishes – Suzi

My God, Suzi is going to send me the book of books! I cannot wait. And by mentioning both David Taylor, whose chapter is written (for now at least), and Frances Fyfield - who I’m intrigued by and who I’ll try and contact next - I haven’t had to go to the trouble of paraphrasing or editing her letter. I’ve just been able to bung it into this chapter.

I suppose I’ve been using this technique quite a lot of late. On the one hand, the holiday period - and complications concerning my father’s health - has eaten up much of my thinking and writing time. On the other, I’ve been putting a lot of effort into my emails, and I feel my correspondents are doing the same. So why mess with the flow? If it works it works. And what works, as always, is style and structure.

Last word on D.J. Taylor to C.A.R. Hills. He has written to me again from Brixton, a letter full of more recollections of ‘the night of the party’ and more reflections about fellow contributors. All he’s got to go on is his memory and my letters; he does not have a copy of the book in his cell. In my last letter to him I mentioned I was writing about D. J. Taylor and his response reads as follows:

‘I slightly know D.J. Taylor although not as well as I would like to, because he is an author of some distinction and considerable affability (very elusive though). He lives in Norfolk I think with his wife and children, and in the old days I used to run into him sometimes at the London Library. One reads all the Journals in the reading room there, and I once saw him in that very room and he said that he had just been reading an article which I had published in the Contemporary Review about my dear friend Robert Rubens and he described it to me, holding up his arms, as “a sublime article”. You can imagine how my heart soared.’

I’ve now read the piece on Robert Rubens myself. It is sublime. And so there I will leave it for now. So many PEN hearts soaring as one!

Though that’s not quite right. I must bear in mind Suzi’s poor health and wish for that to improve by leaps and bounds. Let her heart soar too!



OK, I’ve written to Frances Fyfield via her agent. In reply FF writes:

Dear Duncan,
Cara forwarded your email, and I'm happy to help!
My memory of the 1987 Pen party, is blurred to say the least, although your email puts some of it back into focus, namely the fact that I was in a pub, clutching a book, feeling overwhelmed by the cleverness of others and definitely wearing the wrong clothes.  And drinking and talking too much.  Aspirations at that point?  To get home in one piece.
BUT, it was definitely the start of something BIG.

I phoned this evening, left message.  Perhaps best talk about what you want for this commission, before doing anything more.

I can't locate the Pen Anthology in my bookshelves at the moment.  I think my father pinched it.
Shall try and phone again. 
Best wishes, Frances F

At the end of her email is her phone number. I try that but without success.

Hi Frances,

Thanks for getting back to me.

I have
 a spare copy of the PEN volume that I could send you. In fact, the book I gave my parents, which has now come back to me for lack of interest. (I also have the copy I gave to an aunt of mine, who has died, and the one I gave my brother, who ticked the first three stories on the contents page and then seems to have given up on the class of 87.)

I think a lot of folk at the PEN launch were half-cut and/or intimidated. Perhaps it's good to be modest about oneself.


I'm enclosing a provisional introduction that might give you a better idea of the scope of the book.  

Looking forward to our chat. Not sure of my exact movements tomorrow but I should be here a lot of the time, certainly morning and evening.

Best wishes, Duncan

At 5.30pm the next day my phone rings and I’m talking to Frances. She is sitting in her house overlooking the sea in Deal, on the south coast of England. She reiterates that her copy of the PEN anthology was probably borrowed by her Glasgow-born father, who was proud of her achievement as a writer. Her mother wasn’t so pleased about the writing business. She’d encouraged Frances in her career as a solicitor, but, when Frances hit 30, her mother suddenly started to wonder when her grandchildren would appear.

We talk a bit more about family. About the expectations our parents have for us and how we, in the end, must take control of our own lives. Frances’s writing career, once she focused on it, it really took off. Can she remember how that felt? I can tell from the tone of her reply that it felt marvelous.

Throughout the Nineties, Frances Fyfield published a novel a year. Some featuring a London lawyer: Crown Prosecutor, Helen West. Some featuring Sarah Fortune, another London lawyer, though this one worked in a prestigious London firm. And some one-offs, for instance
Blind Date, which I’ve read and enjoyed.

Frances’s Helen West series has twice been adapted for television. Juliet Stevenson played the courtroom lawyer in
Trial by Fire (1999), while Amanda Burton, well known for starring in the long-running Silent Witness, later took on the role of Helen West in a successful British television series in 2002

“Did you become a bestseller because of the TV adaptations?”

“Well, no. People don’t tend to watch TV programs and then buy books. A poor adaptation hardly adds to book sales at all. Though, of course, the TV companies pay quite well.”


“You’ve got a website.”

“I don’t pay it much attention.”

“I think it was last updated in 2008 and you’ve published several books since then.”

“I don’t like that side of things.”

“I’m surprised that your publisher or agent don’t insist. I mean, I’m shocked they don’t do it for you.”

We go on talking and it feels to me like a useful conversation. But there is something bugging me that I can’t quite ask her this early in our relationship. And it’s this. Ian Rankin’s website is slick and bang up to date. In addition, Ian Rankin has almost 100,000 followers on Twitter, which is not something that Frances does at all. D J Taylor may only have 500-odd Twitter followers, but when he tweets the latest review of his book (
The Prose Factory is now out), and his followers in turn retweet, the word manages to get around.

I don’t think Frances Fyfield really plays the publicity game, which may explain why her last book, published in November 2015 has a single review on Amazon, while Ian Rankin’s book of similar vintage,
Even Dogs in the Wild, has hundreds.

Odd that. To become a bestselling author and then to let the bestsellerdom slip. It implies that Frances doesn’t care about certain aspects of success.

Hi Duncan,

Great to talk to you.

Address for book is below I shall treasure it and send it back.  And read it avidly.

I shall look at your website.


And, forgive my impertinence, but please do Google the Royal Literary Fund. It's a resource of information, as well as an institution designed to help real writers of not particularly commercial books, with a view to helping them to continue to write.

I hope your father rallies, and has some happiness, you too.  And I hope it stops B raining.
Best, Frances F

The mention of the Royal Literary Fund puts me in mind of C.A.R. Hills. Charles was a beneficiary of that a few years ago. He may even have used his R.L.F. money to fund his hit-man initiative.

Let me consult with Charles’s second letter in order to remind myself what he made of FF back in 1987:

‘I remember talking to Frances Fyfield at the party, a bright, hard, raven-haired woman who I think may have trained as a lawyer. She had some success with crime novels but much less than Ian Rankin. I read her story, but can recall very little about it.’

On the phone, Frances did not strike me as being hard. Warm is the four-letter word I’d use. But then thirty years have passed and some of us will have mellowed. As raven-black hair comes to incorporate silver, so a mind receptive to all that is happening in the world can turn itself from hard to warm.

I duly send off my parents’ no longer required copy of
PEN New Writing 2. After ten days I start to worry that the book might have got lost in the post, so I send her a reminder.

Dear Duncan,

I'm so sorry: I should have acknowledged safe receipt last week.  Yes, arrived safe, and I've read one or two of the stories.  Liked yours and Giles Gordon's.  I shall keep the book safe and scrawl in pencil only.

When do you want a response. ie do I have a few weeks?
All best, Frankie


A few weeks? Frankie can take all the time in the world, because an awful lot of things are happening in this January of 2016. Indeed, there is a danger that my PEN project will be swept aside by happenings outside my control.

But let’s not panic. Let’s think ‘boundaries’ and take things chapter by chapter. While I still can. In the meantime, here’s an image with which to finish this one:

It’s the night of the PEN party. Suzi and Frances are travelling home in the tube. David Taylor, Ian Rankin (no show without Rebus) and Charles (no show without Punch) have joined them and the five are talking and laughing together. Frances suggests that the evening may have been the start of something BIG. Suzi wishes aloud that they could receive a sign that this was indeed the case.

Suddenly they notice Enoch Powell sitting in a corner of the carriage. Full of themselves, the five tipsy writers engage the soberest of politicians in jolly conversation, a conversation that goes extremely badly and at the end of which, with the train stationary at King’s Cross and the doors about to open, Powell fixes his fellow travellers with a look that is not at all benevolent and remarks with an awful gravity, “I regret that when we began this conversation I did not take the opportunity to enquire your names.” Quick as a flash, David gets out a fountain pen and his copy of
PEN New Fiction 2, rings five names on the contents page, and hands the book over to their interlocutor along with the spoken words. “A gift from five emerging writers.”

Having glanced at the open page before closing the book and putting it into his briefcase, Powell hisses with venom: “As you perhaps know, I am a serving MP at Westminster. I represent the people of South Down, Northern Ireland. For decades my constituents have had their lives made miserable by an ongoing ethno-nationalist conflict known as The Troubles. I will be glad to take back to them this message – no doubt of acute relevance and achievable hope - from the
crème de la crème of aspiring English writers.”


His final words are delivered while apparently sneering at all five of them simultaneously. “Miss Robinson, Miss Fyfield, Mr Welsh, Mr Rankin, Mr Taylor. I wish you success.


I meant to leave it there, but that scene has me thinking about David Taylor again. I mean, the implication that a politician like Powell would think that he and the other young writers were too esoteric and self-concerned for his liking.

It reminds me that Taylor wrote a biography of that most political of writers, George Orwell. Yet how does Taylor begin the book? By mentioning in its opening paragraph that Orwell had calculated that if he lived to be seventy he would leave a shelf-full of books. I’d suggest that is spookily similar to Taylor’s vision of himself as a ‘pixieish 80-year-old’ considering a shelf-full of his own volumes. Orwell also calculated that the lifetime output for a prolific writer of boys’ school stories, would - were the pages laid end to end - have carpeted the best part of an acre. Inspired by this perspective, Taylor calculated that Orwell’s
oeuvre spread out sheet by sheet would occupy an area roughly the size of Norwich city centre. And I in turn calculate that Taylor’s oeuvre for the last thirty years would supply an ample second layer of paper for the middle of Norwich.

In case you think I am pointing out the absurdity of DJ Taylor’s vision of writers, defined purely by quantity of work, I should perhaps add that the people of Norwich, as they walk their book-lined streets are constantly referring to the fact that Big Brother is watching them, that they are hoping to steer clear of Room 101, and that all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.

Tough for Taylor to have to accept that pages from Penguin reprints of Orwell’s work keep covering his own just as soon as they are laid down. But it must come as some consolation when, just occasionally, someone stops him in the street of his home city and says something along the lines of: “Our very own Mr. Orwell. I wish you

PEN - Version 12

Next chapter