Giles Gordon
DJ Taylor, Ian Rankin,
C.A.R. Hills, J.W. New

The story that kicks off
PEN New Fiction 2 is ‘People who live near the Heath,’ by Giles Gordon.

Gordon had already made the transition from writer (six novels and three books of short stories) to literary agent by 1987. Allan Massie’s literary agent, as it happens; a top agent who went on to secure huge advances for several of his authors, notably Peter Ackroyd for his biography of Dickens, Vikram Seth for the Booker-winning
A Suitable Boy, and Seth again to the tune of £1.4 million for Two Lives. But in the PEN short story the protagonist is a lawyer who receives a phone call from a woman inviting him and his wife for lunch on Sunday, December the 15th. A lot of fuss is made about the date, partly because it’s shortly before Christmas when social diaries have to be closely consulted. But possibly the date is stressed because the deadline for submission of stories to PEN was Saturday, December the 14th. For sure, the story deals with - and probably was written in – December, 1985.

The whole story is about the telephone call, from one side of Hampstead Heath to the other, landline to landline, the only way calls could be made in those pre-mobile days. How it takes the protagonist a while to identify the caller as an older colleague, Eleanor, who he’s met occasionally but not for a year or so. How she teases him about having to behave responsibly in respect to his three children: “Lock them in the shed,” is her advice. How by the end of the call he has remembered Eleanor Donaldson more clearly, feels sorry for her, and knows that if he doesn’t turn up for lunch with her on the 15th, no-one will.


It’s a subtle tale, full of insight into busy people’s professional, domestic and social lives. It also reflects what Giles Gordon has said about his short stories. ‘I don't really think of our lives as having narrative meaning. I think any person's life is a series of isolated events that one remembers, like snapshots, nothing before or after.’

It’s a snapshot then. But lurking in the corner of the picture is another story that I’ve already alluded to, one that has narrative meaning in spades.

In the PEN story, the first-person protagonist (I think I can safely call him Giles Gordon) mentions that his youngest child is eleven. Sure enough, Hattie Gordon was born in February 1974. Giles also confirms for Eleanor that his middle child was a boy, and that he was away at boarding school but expected back home the weekend of the proposed lunch. This refers to one Gareth Gordon, whom I must introduce properly.

Gareth seems to have been a challenge to those around him from birth. Always fighting with his siblings, constantly looking to be in control of any situation, he made the lives of the rest of his family a misery. This was particularly hard for his mother, who saw herself as chiefly responsible for him. But the sister too found herself on the receiving end of tantrums and abuse, both physical and mental. If Hattie, four years younger than Gareth, so much as looked at her brother across the breakfast table, she would be kicked or punched. Their mother had to put a Corn Flakes box between them to keep the peace. A strategy that didn’t always work, chiefly because Gareth was usually looking for a fight, perhaps to distract himself from his own personal demons.

In 1983, two years before the PEN story, 13-year-old Gareth took his first overdose. In the aftermath of it his mother realized she couldn’t live with him any more – not all the time - and so he was enrolled at Arlington Hall, a school for ‘Disturbed Children’, in other words the boarding school mentioned in the story. Not that this removed Margaret Gordon’s problems altogether, as Gareth would threaten to throw himself out of the car on the journey to and from school, and all but succeeded in doing so.


During Giles’s conversation with Eleanor, her line: “Lock them up in the shed,” is repeated several times. Perhaps Giles Gordon used it so often because it struck a chord. No doubt the Gordons would have been quite glad to lock at least one of their children up in a shed. Why? Because Gareth would be at home for the Christmas holidays, and how they were to get through those long weeks without locking up their violent, destructive son may have been uppermost in their minds.

It all got too much for Giles’s wife, Margaret. In 1987, two years after the PEN story was written, the pair divorced and she moved out of the house, taking Hattie with her. Margaret was in such a disturbed state that living with her daughter didn’t work out
, and Hattie moved back to the house in St Ann’s Gardens, the Gordon family home to the south of Hampstead Heath where her father and Gareth still lived.

A year later Gareth finally moved out of the house to everyone’s relief. By this time there had been more suicide attempts, much more disturbance all round, and a normal adult life was already looking out of reach for the unfortunate young man

Margaret died of a rare illness in 1989, aged just 50, perhaps made ill by her continuing distress over her son.

A year later
, Giles Gordon married for the second time. In 1993, having not written anything that I’m aware of since the PEN story, he wrote a memoir of his life as a well-connected publisher, literary agent and theatre critic, called Aren’t We Due a Royalty Statement?

This restless, informed gossipy book barely touches on his personal or family life, but there is an anecdote in it that I’ll recount here. In 1984, the year before the PEN story was written, Giles Gordon had been out for the day with one of his clients, Prince Andrew, who had put together a book of photographs that he desired to present to the world. After their business had concluded, the Prince suggested that his chauffeur call round at Giles’s house to let him off. Giles felt he had to invite Prince Andrew and his bodyguard in for some refreshment, an invite that was gracefully accepted. Inside, the dog, Sniffy (mentioned by name in the biographical note at the back of PEN New Fiction, though in the story itself the dog’s name is Algy) gave energetic attentions to the Prince’s crotch, and several children came and stared at his royal highness. Apart from that, the meeting went off well enough. Until the royal party left the house only to find the street lined with young children waving Union Jacks, little Hattie having spread the royal word amongst all her friends.


That last paragraph justifies its place in this story as a bit of light relief. For the next thing that has to be said is that poor Gareth’s decomposing body was found in his flat in 1994. Hattie, aged 20, had now lost her mother and a brother.

By this time, Giles had just about had enough of London (despite Private Eye lunches, Spycatcher success, audiences with Prince Charles, dinners at the Garrick Club, first nights at West End theatres, etc.) and he moved to Edinburgh to set up a Scottish branch of Curtis and Brown, one of the world’s largest literary agencies. He moved north with his second wife and their three young children.

In 2003, in an attempt to come to terms with the loss of her mother and brother, Hattie wrote: the café after the pub after the funeral, a memoir concentrating on the deaths of her loved ones. Her father had advised her against going over the tragedies in this way, but when he came to read the manuscript he could only admire what his daughter had achieved.

An anecdote from that book should perhaps be slotted in here. Hattie was about the age she was in the PEN story. She was in the family house talking on the phone to a school friend (on the other side of the Heath?) when they heard the click of another phone receiver being lifted. The friend was alone in her house, what about Hattie? Hattie - emboldened by the presence of her friend’s voice - got to her feet and shouted downstairs for Gareth to put the phone down. Cue mayhem.

Gareth flew up the stairs, grabbed Hattie’s hair and brought her head banging down onto the floor. How dare she speak to him like that? Who the fuck did she think she was? Remembering the friend on the other end of the line, Gareth added: “And don’t you fucking dare tell her that I’ve hurt you. Because I haven’t.” Then he started crying, saying that his sister was lying if she said anything because he hadn’t touched her. Oh, dear. How demeaning not to be able to control your own selfish reflexes. How sad for everyone.


But not as sad as what happened next. Hattie’s book was published in October of 2003. Hattie’s relationship with her father had improved as a result of his reading the manuscript; they felt they were friends as well as family. Alas, Giles fell down outside his house in Edinburgh at the beginning of November and died of the resulting head injury a fortnight later.

In the PEN story, Giles declared himself to be in his mid-forties. He went on to say: ‘In twenty years’ time I would, I trust, have retired.’ Sorry, Giles, not retired, dead.

Perhaps the woman on the other end of the line, Eleanor, had been able to see into the future (or knew about Gareth) and was inviting Giles out to lunch out of some combination of pity and respect for him.

But it’s this that strikes me. Giles Gordon may have had difficulties in his life when he took that call in December 1985 – a disturbed son and a depressed wife for starters. But it was the socially isolated person on the other end of the phone he felt sorry for, not himself.

Allan Massie is likely to have been aware of the touching personal dimension to Gordon's short story. Perhaps that's what made him give it top slot in the anthology.


I need to say more about Giles Gordon, but in a different register. As a top literary agent in the 1980s and ‘90s he is a rare link between PEN Pals and the literary elite. Indeed, Giles Gordon is one point at which the class of ‘87 comes into contact with the all-conquering class of ‘83.

Aren’t We Due a Royalty Statement, Gordon mentions several of the writers in Granta’s list of Best Young Novelists from 1983. For instance, there are anecdotes about Salman Rushdie and Martin Amis.


In his role as literary agent, Gordon had turned down Rushdie’s first novel. The second novel was Midnight’s Children, which catapulted its author to fame in 1981, courtesy of another agent. It was in 1988, the year of The Satanic Verses controversy, that Gordon chose a story of Rushdie’s that appeared in the New Yorker to be reprinted in Best Short Stories, an annual book that Gordon co-edited from 1985 until 1995. After being complemented on his new pared-down style, a sardonic Rushdie informed Gordon that the story was one of the first he’d ever written and it had been rejected by everyone he’d submitted it to first time around, including the New Yorker.

The anecdote he tells of Martin Amis is also self-deprecating. In 1975, Gordon was congratulating himself on getting into print an anthology called Beyond the Words: Eleven Writers in Search of a New Fiction. It was intended to be a counter-blast to the beery neo-realism that had come to dominate literary fiction in Britain. Martin Amis was then an up and coming writer, who also wanted to ditch the old guard, but not in the way that Giles Gordon had in mind. In the pages of the New Statesman, Amis slaughtered the anthology in a page-long piece that also had a go at Giles Gordon’s second collection of short stories, Farewell, Fond Dreams. In the pages of Aren’t We Due a Royalty Statement, Gordon recalls how he nearly passed out on the street as he read Amis’s reviews. Farewell, fond dreams, indeed. Who knows, maybe it was a hatchet job by Amis on one of Gordon’s authors that caused his fatal fall years later. Moral: never read reviews while standing on stony ground.

There is an excellent article written by Stephen Moss that was first published in the
Guardian in August 2001 that Giles Gordon contributed a long quote to. The piece starts by announcing that Salman Rushdie and Ian McEwan both had books coming out that August and suggests that the pair will soak up a large proportion of the publicity available for literary novels that month. Moss suggests that the public only has room for about six named ‘Writers’ and that the Granta boys from 1983 supplied most of that number, writers who showed no sign of going away nearly twenty years on from their Granta coronation. (Now it’s 35 years on and they’re still occupying top rungs of the literary ladder.)


The Times used to describe Amis, Rushdie and McEwan as The Brotherhood. But Julian Barnes makes it the Big Four, surely. With Kazuo Ishigoru and William Boyd and several others coming into and going out of view. Moss wrote in 2001: “When this group emerged, they were genuinely exciting. They gave a new impetus to the literary novel. But they are now the old guard, and their continuing dominance and the media's obsession with them is blocking the emergence of new writers."

I guess that at any stage in the 1990s, C.A.R Hills, J.W. New, Wendy Brandmark, Bll Thompson, Ralph Goldswain and I, to name but six, would have been offering literary novels to publishers. (I know that in 1990, I was touting
Archie van Gogh, an exploration of a would-be creative genius, with all the misanthropy that goes with such sustained selfishness, written with an irony and a humour that was not a million miles away from what Martin Amis was filling his London trilogy with.) I needn’t have bothered; we needn’t have bothered. It might have helped if the rejection letters from editors had said: ‘This vacancy is already filled’.

Moss identified that the Granta boys were the first generation since the war that signaled an intention to be bold. Amis and Barnes in their literary journalism trashed the generation before them. I’d add that in the late 70s and early 80s there was huge appetite for change. James Kelman and Alasdair Gray were stirring things up in Scotland, while the Granta gang had a wide following throughout Britiain. Rushdie wrote big books about the Indian sub-continent. Amis not only wrote about big subjects – concentration camps and nuclear bombs – but exposed the selfishness of modern man in lacerating stream-of- consciousness prose that was filled with high octane black humour.

Subsequently, because of the growth in interest in all areas of culture, in particular contemporary art, genre writing and popular music, there was proportionally less interest in literary fiction after, say, 1990. With the class of ‘83 still publishing books on a regular basis there wasn’t much room for anyone else to muscle in on the available publicity. Will Self did, in the end, thanks to his original output and unusually forceful and media-savvy personality. But no-one from the class of ‘87 managed to break into the top rank. That is, except Ian Rankin who took advantage of the huge rise in public interest in crime writing. The class of ‘83 couldn’t fill all the positions available there, being more or less exclusively concerned with the literary canon. Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie and Martin Amis all have professorships and teach English. They don’t do crime (an exception is Night Train by Martin Amis). And nor do Julian Barnes, Kazuo Ishigoru or William Boyd.


As I said, the 2001 article includes a Giles Gordon quote. And it’s this:
"There is a structural problem facing budding literary novelists. Younger editors are just not interested in the post-Rushdie generation, and neither are their colleagues in sales and marketing. It is difficult for a literary novelist to get established now, even someone as well regarded as Lawrence Norfolk. It is hard for them to get a big reputation.”

Who is Lawrence Norfolk? A client of Giles Gordon in 2001. He was one of the co-editors of New Writing 8 in 1999 and I was told that the story I submitted for that anthology would have been accepted if it had just been up to him. He publishes a big, bold book every five to ten years. Perhaps it was Gordon’s death in 2003 that meant he didn’t publish a single book between 2000 and 2012.

Gordon continues: "Norfolk is treated as a bit of a freak -
outré and difficult to read. The early 80s generation were accepted immediately. They weren't treated as freaks; they received sympathetic support and turned out a body of work very quickly. Today's literary novelists don't get enough support from their publishers. If their first book isn't a hit, they will be dropped. They are not given time to build. These structural problems mean that people will stop writing literary fiction. I am appalled at the pressure placed on young agents to go for commercial writers. There has been a general dumbing down and lowering of standards. What passes for literary fiction now would not have constituted literary fiction 15 years ago."

Basically, it was (and is) a supply-demand problem. With the rise in interest in popular culture, and in multi-culturalism, there was less of a demand for British literary fiction. That demand was easily met by the supply of books by those writers that were already established. But just think if it had gone the other way. Just think if for another decade the post-war demand for ambitious literary fiction had continued to rise…


On the shelves of Waterstone’s bookshops in High Streets around the country, there might have stood three C.A,R. Hills volumes with matt black spines, collectively known as ‘Down and Out in South East London’. Or, as the shop might have promoted them: ‘Masochism and Misery from the Master of Misanthropy. Three for the price of two.’

Also available in the great London bookshops - Borders, Books etc, Dillons, Hatchards and Foyles - of this alternative 2000: four volumes of
Satires by J.W. New, marketed as a Juvenal for the new millenium. Satires 1, (100 pages), Satires 2, (200 pages), Satires 3, (300 pages), Satires 4, (400 pages). With Satires 5 (500 pages) eagerly awaited.

And in every branch of Waterstones from Land’s End to John O Groats, the branch manager chooses a ‘Satire of the Day’, leading to an endless series of portentous diary notes in broadsheet literary columns.

To make up the numbers of this New Brotherhood, I modestly suggest myself. In particular my creation,
The Casebook of Non-Sherlock Holmes, the manuscripts of which run to several volumes. What was the idea again? I should be able to find the preface somewhere on this computer. Yes, here it is:

‘Visual artists get in touch with a London-based writer. Can he help give these talented individuals a personal appreciation that will help gain them a wider audience? Can he take advantage of the unique opportunities for dialogue and experience to produce original creative work of his own? Can he conjoin his interests in art and books in a way that contributes to and illuminates contemporary life? Can he do all this without upsetting the artists, or himself, or the people who find themselves innocently caught up in the serious fun and games?

‘Each of the cases is a self-contained narrative, but all are linked by the writer’s desire to fully engage with his correspondents, by a willingness to do his own thing when the time seems right, and by certain recurring themes, notably identity, sexual ambiguity (“I want to ejaculate into Mother Earth.”) and laughter.


‘In the first case, the chemistry between artist and writer is the main issue. In the second and third - set in a country house and a fetish club, respectively - the artists open up exciting and intimidating territories for the writer to explore. Throughout the book, the writer is manoeuvred - or manoeuvres himself - into a position from where he is forced to re-assess fundamental human values.

‘The cases start with contemporary art but end up as fictions involving Sherlock Holmes and Watson. This allows the stories to veer from the intimate to the social overview, and from the present day to any date in history, seen from both now and from the end of the nineteenth century. In addition, the relationship between the naive/intuitive Watson and the over-analytical Holmes gives an opportunity for rich, ultimately self-lampooning comedy. To begin with Sherlock Holmes is in control. But the more flexible half of the partnership quickly grows in confidence, and by the end of the book Watson is running rings around the world’s most morally and aesthetically constrained private detective.

Sounds all right, eh? I was working on that material from 2001 to 2004, with two out of about a dozen novella-length cases being printed in small runs by art world publishers. Then, in 2005, Julian Barnes was shortlisted for the Booker Prize for his novel Arthur and George. Arthur being Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the original Sherlock and Watson stories. So, of course, I read the book, and found it quite incredibly leaden. It seemed to me that Barnes was bending over backwards to make the extraordinary achievement of Conan Doyle both ordinary and politically correct. The novel tells the tale of privileged, white Arthur and underprivileged George Edalji - poor myopic and of mixed race - who eventually meet, well on in their lives. Conan Doyle helps Edalji defeat a charge that has been brought against him, racism and corruption being endemic in the police force of Victorian times. Pass the oxygen mask, the boredom bucket and the spittoon.

Perhaps the book is not really so bad, and I was looking at it through a sense of personal embitterment. But, oh, the missed opportunity, I kept thinking as I knock-knock-knocked my head against its 400 pages. At least when
Sherlock came along on TV in 2010, created by Stephen Moffat and Mark Gatiss, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, the material had pace and pizzaz. Though postmodern is the p word that really applies. And it’s there in Puckloads in my Non-Sherlock files.


Where was I? Hypothesising C.A.R. Hills, J.W. New and Duncan McLaren as the literary elite that never was. Well, that’s enough of that.


Of course, one member of the class of ‘87 who really is up there with the cream of ‘83, is Ian Rankin.

Firstly, he is up there with them in terms of popularity. One way to assess this (the way I have easy access to) is the number of reviews on Amazon. Between August 2014 and November 2015, Ian Rankin, Salman Rushdie, Martin Amis, Julian Barnes and Ian McEwan all had books published. McEwan’s book,
The Childrens Act has most customer reviews (more than a thousand). Rankin’s Even Dogs in the Wild has the next most (several hundred). The Amis and the Barnes have 100 reviews each and the Rushdie trails in last with 20-odd.

Interestingly, if you go back to 1998. the year that Ian Rankin published
Black and Blue, you find the same story. In the case of Amis’s, Night Train, McEwan’s, Amsterdam (Booker winner), Barnes’s England, England (Booker shortlisted) and Rushdie’s, The Ground Between Her Feet, the review rankings are the same. McEwan has most, Rankin second. Barnes and Amis have the same and a lot fewer. With Rushdie again the least reviewed.

But what about literary ambition and status? Well, Rankin’s oeuvre is gaining in gravitas every year. The detective Rebus, still lives in the same street that Rankin lived in when he came up with the character. Rebus, like Rankin, is ageing in real time, allowing the picture of Edinburgh that the author paints – the picture of greed and selfishness, crime and the fight against it - to accumulate depth, as layer after layer of precisely researched and scrupulously imagined detail is added.


Ah, but Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan and Julian Barnes have taken on the big issues of the day. Sure, they have. It’s been expected of them. They’ve been given the opportunity, and, through the persistent application of talent, they’ve grasped said opportunity with both hands. But Rankin’s slow-burning achievement, made against the odds given his absence from the class of ‘83, now seems comparable to theirs.

In 2001 Melvyn Bragg interviewed Ian Rankin for an episode of ITV’s
The South Bank Show, which helped give gravitas to his ouevre. I haven’t seen that. However, ten years later, Alan Yentob also made the trip to Edinburgh to interview Ian Rankin for an episode of BBC’s Imagine, and I have watched that. The program includes a video diary that Rankin keeps while writing Standing in Another Man’s Grave, a valuable insight into his thought processes at all stages of the writing and revising of his novel.

I wonder if Amis, Barnes, Rushdie and McEwan have had both Bragg and Yentob make programs about them. I could research that but don’t think I’ll bother.

Instead, I’ve something else to investigate. There is another member of the class of ’87 who can be associated with the class of ’83. And that’s D.J. Taylor. Partly because he’s written so much about them.

The introduction to
The Prose Factory starts by telling the reader that Deborah Rogers was the literary agent of Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie and William Boyd. Taylor goes on to say on that first page: ‘A book-trade historian, seeking to explain the ‘success’ of a McEwan or a Rushdie in the 1980s would probably point to a number of factors quite beyond their talent as novelists: unprecedented media interest in what was then beginning to be known as the ‘literary novel’, stimulated by marketing initiatives and closely fought prize adjudications; a reconfiguration of the British publishing industry in which commentators frequently assumed that what the writer was thought to be earning was quite as important as what he or she wrote; and a reorganization and expansion of broadsheet newspapers which led to more space for arts coverage.’

400 pages later he comes close to saying the same thing, but it’s still worth quoting as it nails something I’ve been trying to say:


‘If the loosely affiliated group of novelists headed by Martin Amis (b. 1949), Salman Rushdie (b.1947), Ian McEwan (b. 1948) and Julian Barnes (b. 1946) became such a dominant force in the 1980s – a dominance that persisted into the 2000s and to some extent endures today – it was the result of a particular combination of cultural and economic factors, together with new ways of publicising books and a newfound concentration on the ‘literary novel’.

DJ Taylor has been writing eloquently about this for more than thirty years. In other words, when Taylor wrote
The Prose Factory he was revisiting some of the territory of A Vain Conceit, which came out in 1989. It’s prefaced by a quote from Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes, but it’s the other big three from ’83 that are given special attention. On a number of occasions Taylor implies his admiration for Midnight’s Children. He spends several pages going over Ian McEwan’s output in critical, largely approving detail, from his 1978 debut to The Child in Time (1987). And in the chapter called ‘Finding a Voice’ it’s the example of Martin Amis’s protagonist in Money that Taylor sees as an exhilarating way forward from the quagmire that British fiction had got bogged down in prior to the early 1980s.

Even before
A Vain Conceit, in the first edition of Panurge, which came out in late 1984, Taylor highlights the importance of these writers. Though there he does so more anecdotally and personally:

‘I can remember scouring Oxford in 1981 for a copy of
Midnight’s Children (then reprinting but earmarked as somebody’s Christmas present), the whole exercise – as the list of bookshops grew sparser and closing-time loomed – assuming the character of a knightly quest.’

The anecdote re Martin Amis centers on a Channel 4 program set up to discuss the Booker shortlisted novels. ‘The highlight of this was a spirited denunciation by Martin Amis of one of the judges on the grounds that she was ‘not a serious critic’. At this point one of the other panelist deposed that the judge in question had a First in English from Oxford. Immaterial, replied Amis, “he was still not a serious critic.” Taylor couldn’t help supposing that any ordinary person – that is anyone whose pulse failed to quicken at the hint of a metropolitan literary squabble – would have been switching off the TV in irritation at this point.


But maybe not. Maybe literary fiction was topical then in a way that contemporary art would be about ten years later, when the YBN had had been superceded in terms of ultimate cultural reference point by the YBA. In 1999, on the night of the announcement of the winner of the Turner Prize, a clearly pissed Tracey Emin took part in a televised debate where she was ludicrously and hilariously critical of other panelists. I lapped it up, as millions of other viewers no doubt did.

I dare say Tracey Emin will be one of the judges of the Booker Prize sooner or later. I just hope Martin Amis is on the shortlist that year and is asked what he thinks of Emin’s credentials. I can see the headline now: ‘YBN AMIS v YBA EMIN. Result: SHITSTORM’.


Giles Gordon didn’t just have male clients - such as Allan Massie, Peter Ackroyd, Vikram Seth and Lawrence Norfolk – the broad-minded soul represented women as well. In particular, among his clients were Sue Townsend, creator of Adrian Mole, and bestselling feminist, Fay Weldon. This anecdote comes courtesy of the latter.

Weldon was the chairman of the Booker Prize judges in 1983, and she reports in a
Guardian article of 2008 that the panel that year was split between awarding the prize to J.M. Coetzee (The Life and Times of Michael K) and Salman Rushdie (Shame).

As the chair, Weldon had the casting vote. She reports:
‘As a fervent feminist, and taking time to make up my mind, I made a joke: "I haven't got my husband here to help me decide." But one should never make jokes in the presence of the police, security or at a Booker Prize judging, and word got round that I meant it.’

She may not have had her husband there to help her, but she had Giles Gordon in close attendance, possibly whispering in her ear. This was the year that his son, Gareth, had taken his first overdose, so Gordon may have been a little distracted. Anyway, Weldon plumped for Coetzee, and Rushdie ‘was really annoyed’.


Weldon’s report goes on: ‘Then I had to deliver the customary chairperson's speech. After I sat down, the then president of the Publishers Association got to his feet, crossed the room and hit my agent Giles Gordon, second best thing to hitting me.’

Now that may seem an odd thing for the president of the Publishers’ Association to do, even if Weldon had used her speech to knock publishers for the bad deals they were in the habit of foisting on writers.

But maybe it seems less odd when it’s recalled that in
Midnight’s Children, which had already won him the Booker Prize, Salman Rushdie gave superpowers to all those Indians born precisely at midnight, 15 August, 1947, that is, at the exact same time that post-colonial India itself was born out of the British Empire. Rushdie himself was born within a month of this date and it seems just possible that his own relatively modest superpower was to be able to impose his will on certain individuals in particular circumstances. All he’d needed to do was to catch the director’s eye, his own hooded eyes then transmitted the message: “Knock the self-satisfied smirk off Giles Gordon’s face.”

Is it possible the expression one would wear when worrying about the behavior and future well-being of a close family member could be mistaken for a ‘self-satisfied smirk’? Well, possibly, if the person in question was trying to keep up appearances while feeling on display at an important professional occasion.

Anyway, the punch was thrown. The self-satisfied smirk, if that’s what it was, was well and truly knocked off poor Giles’s face at the same instant that a satanic grin lit up Salman’s. And once again a star of the class of ‘83 had humiliated a member of the class of ‘87.

“Twas ever thus,” as J.W.New would say. (Sorry, Jeff. Mixing you up with the prisoner Hills again.)


I’ve just done a timely thing. I’ve gone up to the loft and brought down my mother’s collection of Private Eye’s, sorted them into years (1990 to 2000 inclusive), and looked up the pages headed ‘Literary Review’.


I’ve known for a while that DJ Taylor contributed style parodies of contemporary writers to this page, but I now realize that he contributes a lot of the single reviews that dominate that page.

I should have realized as much when David told me that in 2015 he contributed a piece to
Private Eye every issue, as the parodies have always been just an occasional feature.

The annual piles of
Eyes now clutter my study, with certain issues on top, folded open at pages that have caught my attention. Yes, I’ve been through the lot. Collectively, what a contribution to the British cultural scene these pages make. Take a bow Mr Taylor!

In a May 1990 issue, there is a review of Ian McEwan’s
The Innocent, which suggests that this novel is very uneven. The good bits concern relations between people. As for the bad bits: ‘Here, as elsewhere in his fiction, the world beyond the bedroom door lies before you, splayed out and inert, curiously unrealized and (unlike the people within) undeflowered.’

Also on the page is a paragraph of gossip concerning Giles Gordon. I don’t know if DJ Taylor wrote that, whereas I’d be astonished if the astute and knowledgeaable piece on McEwan’s latest was anyone’s but his.

In 1991, Taylor took aim at Martin Amis’s
Time’s Arrow. His review starts gently, by suggesting:

‘One of the more edifying cultural sideshows of the past few years has been the spectacle of an earlier generation of literary
enfant terribles growing up in public… an urge to upset has transformed itself into an anxiety to please.

Alas, the book, which effectively reverses cause and effect all the way back to Auschwitz, doesn’t please Taylor:


‘Not a shred of human feeling, not a tremor from the finger pressing the rewind button on the giant cine-camera. Think about it. This is real life. Real people died here. As in Auden’s poem about Spain with the throwaway lines about the “necessary murder”, you get an impression – the image is from Orwell – of someone playing with fire who doesn’t even know that fire burns.’

If nothing else, it’s the Orwell reference that tells you this was written by DJ Taylor.

In June 1992,
Black Dogs. came out. Private Eye’s review begins:

‘Two years on from
The Innocent, Cape is giving Ian McEwan the Martin Amis treatment. For the uninitiated, the Martin Amis treatment consists of bulking out a 40,000 word novella – such an effort, this writing business – to maximal length, in this case 174 pages, so you can charge a wallet-lightening fourteen quid for it.’

Actually, Taylor’s review is not too critical, but it ends:

‘Examining the cragged, ageing visage that stares from the jacket, you are struck by how rapidly the whirligig of time brings in its revenges. Look back only a decade and a half and what were our bright young middle-aged novelists up to? Amis was writing his fine early novels; McEwan had just published
First Love, Last Rites. And what are they now, other than fodder for the Young Turks? Go on, boys, kick over the statues!’

Alas, Young Turks is not a reference to the Class of ’87, all of whose members are now at least 56 years old. We are of the generation that was submerged by the previous one. A note on dates here. Amis, Rushdie, Barnes and McEwan were born between 1945 and 1950, and are about 70 now. CAR Hills, JW New, Wendy Brandmark, Ian Rankin, DJ Taylor and myself were born ten years later, between 1955 and 1960. In 1983 the other lot were picked up for having written a novel. In 1987 we were ‘picked up’ by having a story selected. Which explains why a ten-year gap in reality is made to look like a four-year one.


Back to the Private Eyes which caught my eye, the ones that seem to have alternated between reviews of McEwan and Amis. Taylor starts his March 1995 review of The Information by going all nostalgic:

‘We go a long way back, Mart and me. We schmoozed together in the school library over
The Rachel Papers; we ogled the jacket photo of Dead Babies (those titles! Mart was always really fucking good at titles); we bought the New Statesman when Mart was its hoity-toity literary editor. And we stuck together, Mart and me, through the fireworks of Money, through the patchworks of its increasingly winded successors...”

Actually, I could quote the whole of this delectably lucid hatchet job. But it must do to quote the odd bit:

‘The Information, a long and (let it be whispered) rambling tale about a failed novelist who tries to lame a successful fellow-practitioner, will be a familiar read to long term devotees of the Mart oeuvre.’

But I can’t not quote the following paragraph, in which the reviewer seems to reverentially inhabit the same room as the novelist…

‘There Mart crouches under the crystal light before a sea of bowed heads. The voices hush as he bends to scribble a sentence, a corker, a real hooteroo, so funny in fact he lams himself on the back and shouts to let us know he’s done it. The thing about Mart’s writing (Thing? Quality? Dysfunction?) is that it draws attention to its own facility; everything else gets lost in the knuckle-whitening heart-stopper of Will Mart Pull It Off?’

I hop to another annual pile of
Eyes and see what the issue open on top displays. A review of Enduring Love by Ian McEwan. One of the paragraphs I’ve highlighted reads:

‘A wider question remains. What is it about that cluster of middle-aged male novelists – Ackroyd, Amis, Barnes, Swift and McEwan – who lent such lustre to the fiction scene a decade and a half ago? Why have they all so conspicuously blown it?’

Oh my God, DJT has gone too far. He has nailed his colours to the mast and they are not the colours of the class of ‘83. I curse that flag also. I too give it the finger. In fact, I give it the two fingers. And I look to DJT for more.



This scene is set in a pub in London not far from the offices of the New Statesman. I’m not quite sure of the date. It could be as early (or as late?) as 2003, because Giles Gordon is lying dead on the floor and ‘Solomon’ Rushdie is standing over him glaring down at the agent’s unmoving body.

At the long bar sit ‘Jules’ at one end and ‘Ian’ at the other. They are both taking notes. Not taking notes is a short man plonked down on a high barstool. He is wheezing into the open pages of the book he is reading:
What You Didn’t Miss, A Book of Literary Parodies. When was it published? 2012. Which tells us something or nothing.

“Jules, you might wanna listen to this,” says Mart. And he reads the whole of pages 6 and 7, in which a man and a woman are talking to each other over coffee, with many references to the man’s inane stamp collecting habit. Mart grins and chuckles his way through the parody of his former friend’s writing. “Fucking fine, eh Jules?”.

A few minutes pass in silence. Then: “Ian, my comrade in the macabre, listen up.”

McEwan gives every appearance of paying attention to the talking, smoking barfly.

“’What did Ian do to quench this unyielding desire to be
echt, to be original, to write the kind of book that would not have the knowing young critics rolling their eyes with boredom? Did he write a novel about one or two ordinary people living more or less believable lives far beyond the glare of the media or the international body politic? No, he decided to write a novel about climate change featuring a much-married Nobel Prize winner whose best days are behind him. He knew as he set about the task, that he should not have done it. At the same time the lure was irresistible….’”


Mart has a lung-clearing chortle at this point. Then he says: “Ha- fucking-ha. Better not read any more or I’ll be falling off this stool. Anyone know who the fuck DJ Taylor is? Any advance on Davinia Jerkoff?”

As Mart turns again to one after another of his customary companions (booze, fags, Jules and Ian) a woman walks into the bar. She not only walks into the bar she walks onto it. I say ‘she’, but it’s a certain middle-aged writer all Grayson Perry-ed up. Can he/she pull it off? Well, let’s see.

PEN Pal: “How do I look?”

Mart: “Babelocious,”

PEN Pal: “
Babelocious or babelicious?”

Mart: “I’ll do the wordplay.”

PEN Pal: (flashing fake tits and looking towards Solomon): “Jesus! If these don’t drag the animal to the party, I’ll freak. Period.”

Solomon (looking down at the body of Giles Gordon): “He rejected my first novel. His bitch rejected my third. He had to die.”

Mart: “This
chick on the bar. Is she trying to pull me off or what?”

Jules: “Who is she?”

Mart: “She’s the chick – the
fucking chick - who’s been eyeing my privates since she walked into the joint.”

Jules: “You don’t say.”

Mart: “She’s been eyeing your privates too.”

McEwan: “Has she been eyeing my privates?”

Mart: “Big-time.”

PEN Pal (insinuatingly): “Your Pa home?”


Mart: “Writing some asshole sermon is all. I guess we can all agree about that. So… Do we get to ball you on the bar or what?”

PEN Pal: “Just as soon as you write me one of them going backwards books, hon.”

Mart: “Sure. How far back do you want to go? Auschwitz? Everybody wants to go back to that hell-hole.”

PEN Pal: “Not that far back, hon. January 21, 1987.”

Mart: “What happened then?”

PEN Pal: “I went to a party.”

Mart: “The
fuck. No way you went to a party in 1987. You’re a BABE.”

PEN Pal: “I went to a party. I had a BALL! At least I think I did. And if there’s no writer in this room packing enough to take me back there to find out, then I guess I’d better try another bar.” (Exits.)

Mart: “Cocksuckification. She’s blown us out. The chick’s blown us out and henceforward we’re all fucked.”

Jules: “Henceforward. Isn’t that a CAR Hills expression?”

Mart: “Fucked is the word you need to pay maximum attention to from my last utterance.”

McEwan: “Fucked? We the Brotherhood?”

Mart: “Fuckarooed.”

After that, things quieten down in the bar. Why? Because everyone is reading
Let It Bleed by Ian Rankin. It may be set in Edinburgh rather than London or New York, but it has no difficulty in going global. The book begins with two young drug addicts throwing themselves off the Forth Bridge. It carries on with an ex-con blowing his head off in front of a district councilor. And it ends with Rebus going on a two-day bender, weighed down by the responsibility of how to do something about corruption that goes all the way to the top of the Scottish establishment.


Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, Salman Rushdie and Ian McEwan all Ian Rankin fans? Sure. Mart, Jools, Ian and Solomon all tucked up in bed at night with big smiles on their faces, knowing that Rebus was and is intent on making the world a better place for them and their loved ones.

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