Someone once described my first novel Bad Patches as a “punk existentialist” novel. I thought this an apt description. Written in the early Eighties, when punk was still alive and kicking in the UK (“Anarchy In”), the central character, Dave Green, is abrasive, abusive, resentful, unpleasant to be around, and generally repellent—though not without a certain rough charm. He wants to make it in modern England as an artist, but is condemned to be either unemployed or working in an off-license in Earl’s Court (where I used to live). He drinks a lot, chases girls, and says nasty things about his friends (Mick, in particular, a big violent lad, perpetually drunk). But he is also an existentialist of sorts: a stranger in an alien world, uncertain of his values, but above all authentic. Oh, he is authentic all right, authentic to a fault. Dave speaks his mind, he acts freely and with abandon, he doesn’t sugarcoat it. He is an artist, after all—a believer in the truth, no matter how ugly. He is brutally honest, a Johnny Rotten of the art world (and off-license). He belongs with the characters in the TV sit-com “The Young Ones” (a parody of the earlier Cliff Richards pop song of that name). The novel itself is a comedy, though certainly of the wincing and whining kind. It is of its time, politically and philosophically. John-Paul Sartre meets Rik Mayall: nausea and nastiness (but you have to laugh).
My second novel, The Space Trap, written in the early Nineties, is very different. The central character, Alan Swift, is a dull dad working in an insurance office. He lives in his imagination and dreams of escape. There is nothing punk about him (post-punk, you might say). He is persecuted by his humdrum environment: the moths that invade his flat, the shattered windscreen, the annoying co-workers, the demanding and unsympathetic wife (as he sees it). He’s gotta get outta this place. His world resembles that of the British TV series The Office, which came along several years later. Like David Brent, who also works in a dull office but lives in his imagination, Alan Swift is subject to unconscious forces he cannot control. As it happens, Ricky Gervais studied philosophy at University College London, where I used to teach, but he came along just after I had left. I have often wondered if he read my novel, because the office I describe is remarkably like the one he created. But in my novel Alan does escape to the world of his imagination—he moves to New York, leaving his family behind and not telling them he is going. I used to call this novel a Kantian soap opera: not punk existentialist but working stiff psychoanalytic (Kantian because of the emphasis on the inescapability of space). It also is a comedy, though gentler than Bad Patches, more sad-sentimental and domestic-depressing (but you have to laugh).