Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Shelley Harris - On life, writing and why she'd rather be an Ugly Sister than a Dame.

BRITAIN is not a grown up country. We still live with our parents. Sometimes we sulk in our bedroom while hoping that mum and dad will still let us use the car. Even though, actually, it is our car, our house, our everything. We buy the food, pay for the holidays, every goddam thing . Somehow our parents have tricked us into thinking that they are still the boss of us even though they haven't worked for years, weren't really around while we were growing up and are busy spending our inheritance on yachts, helicopters, high grade class A drugs and parties for their sleazy mates.

 Britain will never be a grown up country while we have Kings and Queens. I'm sure the individuals royals are mostly very nice and I agree that the version of Celebrity Big Brother they star in isn't quite as tacky as the Ch 5 version. On the other hand it's been going longer and costs a whole lot more.  But in fact I feel a bit sorry for the royal family. So let's set them free. let's give them the vote and the right to call themselves Mr and Mrs Windsor. Let's let them grow up and then maybe we can all grow up too.

There's a big royal jamboree coming up this summer but I bet it won't have the impact of the one we all remember: The Silver Jubilee. I was at school. I got a mug. We were all crocodiled out of Park Wood Middle School to see her progress up Brickhill Drive in the royal range rover. We waved plastic flags. Curlew Crescent didn't have a street party but lots of other streets did. They partied like it was VE day or like it was 1895 and Good Queen Vicky was on the throne.

 This is the background of Shelley Harris' book Jubilee which has just come out and which the critics are raving about (The Guardian said that they loved this book and were already impatient for the next one). It's a lovely book, and she's a lovely, warm, thoughtful and witty writer. And she's also - not quite - British. Which means she has a shot at being more grown up than the rest of us. 

Anyway I asked her some impertinent questions and she replied...

Shelley, Give me your autobiography in exactly 50 words (not 51, not 49...)

Born in Cape Town to a British father and South African mother, emigrated because of their opposition to Apartheid and grew up in Buckinghamshire. Read rampantly, did a series of more (journalist, teacher) or less (envelope-stuffer, mystery shopper) writing-related jobs. Lived in Paris, hatched a couple of kids, wrote Jubilee.

Why should I read Jubilee?

Jubilee is about an iconic photograph of a Silver Jubilee street party in 1977. At the centre of the image is Satish Patel: newcomer, outsider, keeper of secrets. When a reunion is planned, those secrets threaten to emerge, throwing Satish’s life off-course. So you might read it because there are mysteries at its heart, revealed as the book delves deeper into the events of Jubilee day. 

Or you might read it because it’s steeped in memories of that time. There tend to be a lot of clich├ęs about the seventies (Abba / flares), but I was interested in the complexities of the decade, the contradictions it contained. The National Front was on the rise, but Britishness was being redefined by a remarkable cohort of immigrants from Idi Amin’s Uganda; Rod Stewart was officially no. 1 on Jubilee day but in all probability,  God Save The Queen sold more; Union Jacks were everywhere, but we’d never tug our forelocks in quite the same way again.

How autobiographical is it?

In terms of its location, there’s a strong autobiographical element; Jubilee is set in the village I came to when we settled in Britain. The party takes place in my childhood street, and Satish lives in my family home. So the memories of growing up in that place and time – and of being an outsider there – are my own. But I really wanted the resemblance to finish there: Satish has a different gender, a different ethnicity, and is emotionally repressed in a way I can only aspire to.

Also - let’s be honest about this - Satish is just more interesting than me. I wanted to explore how we become British, a process which was uneven in my case, but would have been much more dramatic for him. Diversity is in our DNA, yet the Silver Jubilee presented nationhood in the most homogenous terms. I wondered: what if you were Asian and newly-British in 1977, at the conjunction of nationalistic fervour and assumptive racism? What would it be like to put on a Union Jack hat and celebrate that very selective version of what it means to be British?

How do you think the coming diamond jubilee will compare with the silver jubilee?

I always think of Andrew Collins, in Where Did It All Go Right: ‘It’s difficult to convey to people how royal the nation was in 1977…As I write this it is the Queen’s Golden Jubilee year and I feel I am in good company not giving a fuck.’ As of 2002, he was spot-on, and I still don’t think we’ll ever return to those days of unquestioning fealty. Having said that, the public response to William & Kate’s wedding last year took me by surprise. I never thought I’d be predicting this, but I think there’s a new upsurge of interest in the Royal Family. 

Just writing that makes me feel depressed. I fear that it is, however, true.

Would you accept an honour from the Queen - an OBE or an MBE? 

Well I’m no monarchist (and not much of an Empire-builder, either) so that might be a little tricky for me. A friend of mine told me about being in one of Buckingham Palace’s smaller kitchens, and seeing the tea sets the Queen uses – a different one for each day of the week, apparently. So I might ask her if we could just have a cuppa and a chat instead. 

Would you become a Dame?

Only if they let me be an Ugly Sister.

What are you working on now?

I’m writing my second novel, which will also be with Weidenfeld and Nicolson. It concerns a very ordinary woman who has a midlife crisis, and does something absolutely extraordinary in response to it.

Who - in life or in writing - do you admire and why?

I’ll do writing please, Steve. Sarah Waters because she is always utterly gripping, and her prose is fabulous; I will buy her on publication day, every single time. Then there’s Jane Harris, because she’s made me jealous with each of her books: The Observations is a masterclass in how to convey a character’s voice, and Gillespie and I builds with this incredible delicate subtlety – such restraint! I’d also have to mention Jon McGregor, whose If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things is the book I’d most like to have written. 

And finally, Michael Chabon because I think he’s a bona fide genius – so good I’m not even jealous of him. (I rave in detail about him here, if you’re interested: 

Hopes for the future?

Other than the health and happiness of my loved ones, what I’d most like is a long-term career in writing. I’d like to be able to develop my craft beyond the second novel, and get better and better – as good as I can possibly be. 

Recommend something...

With pleasure. As well as the cracking writers listed above, the one volume I’d like to put into everyone’s hand is the collected prose of Woody Allen. People obviously know his films, and some may have heard recordings of his stand-up (‘I shot a moose, upstate New York…’). But his prose is brilliant, and has seen me through many a long, dark night of the soul. Here, you can find his parody of Yeats (‘Civilization is shaped like a / Circle and repeats itself, while / O’ Leary’s head is shaped like / A trapezoid’), and read the memoirs of Hitler’s barber (‘After the Allied invasion, Hitler developed dry, unruly hair’).

Tell me something I don't know...

I know all the words to all the very worst songs of the eighties – and I’m no slouch at the seventies, either.  I know the full libretto of Tell Me On A Sunday, and recently delivered a flawless Where Do You Go To, My Lovely? a full twenty years after last hearing it.

Jubilee is published by Weidenfield and Nicholson and out now...

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