Interview: Peter Hobbs

The author of The Short Day Dying, who unexpectedly became a writer during a long illness,

Peter Hobbs is a writer who understands how life can suddenly swerve off course. Fresh out of Oxford - a politics graduate with no literary ambitions - he was recruited by the Foreign Office and sent to Pakistan as a junior diplomat. But shortly after arriving he was taken seriously ill - a freak affliction he describes as "some kind of dysentery" complicated by a reaction to the anti-malarial drugs he'd been on.

For the next two years he was confined to his bed, and five years later he was still convalescing. His career, health and social life in freefall, he went through what he refers to as "a bleak period". To make it more bearable, he began writing stories.

Now a critically acclaimed novelist in his mid-thirties, he’s living life as he never intended. "I’ve been very fortunate, being able to find another thing I can do," he says, apparently now reconciled to the premature termination of his diplomatic career.

But his prolonged illness has, unsurprisingly, had an indelible mark on his writing which seems to have a unifying theme of suffering.

The narrator of The Short Day Dying (Hobbs’s Whitbread-shortlisted debut) is Charles Wenmoth, a Methodist lay preacher in 19th century Cornwall, who’s plagued by loneliness, grief, the uncertainties of faith and the inexorable passing of time.

It’s an echoing, hypnotic, brutally unsentimental narrative written, without commas, in language of stark elemental beauty.

Hobbs sidesteps praise for this book by talking about its ambivalent reception: "A couple of reviewers criticized the lack of irony, saying it needed an extra level of perspective, a slight change of genre - and at that point I felt I’d done something right; that if people thought a novel had to be written ironically, then it was very good to go against them. The idea that irony is necessary makes no sense to me at all."

But, he says, looking so directly at Wenmoth’s unhappiness did make the writing process fairly debilitating. "It’s a very claustrophobic mental world Wenmoth inhabits. The only way of writing the novel was to have him looking in a very straightforward, almost obsessional way at these questions about personal freedom and the passing of time. It took me three years to write, and I don’t think there was a single day when I felt confident about what I was doing. I was just very lucky that the novel was partly about doubt, so all my worries about the artistic endeavor could actually feed into it."

Hobbs tells me that one of his goals was "to show faith as seen from the inside" - reflecting, perhaps, the several generations of his family that have included preachers. He says he was determined not to write a novel about loss of faith.

But surely Wenmoth’s desire to ‘keep things from eternity’ is recognizably agnostic. Hobbs takes my interpretation seriously, but gently dissents: "I think it’s entirely within human nature to have contradictory fears and beliefs - and I think it’s very natural to fear mortality, whatever else you believe."

Hobbs becomes uncharacteristically vague when quizzed about his own religious beliefs. "I find it very difficult to talk about," he falters. And then, less hesitantly: "I certainly don’t think religion’s at all foolish."

We begin talking about his short story collection, I Could Ride All Day In My Cool Blue Train - out this month in a new paperback edition. The title comes from a story called Deep Blue Sea, which was anthologised in New Writing 13, and was the first thing I ever read by Hobbs.

A labyrinthine, self-reflexive story, its ailing narrator inhabits a futuristic, flooded world - ‘a town full of rain, a liquid city’ - in which he survives as a professional storyteller. It is, Hobbs says, ‘a very autobiographical story’, with its themes of physical degeneration and storytelling-as-redemption.

It also feels as though he is teasing his audience for wanting a happy ending.

"I think you need to be very cautious about sentimentality," he says. "It can be deeply manipulated… Storytellers need to be honest about human motivation and the consequences of events. It’s far too easy to lie, to offer false hope."

And perhaps that is what sets Hobbs apart. He writes the kind of fiction which reminds us that suffering cannot always be alleviated - sometimes it must be endured and ultimately can make us stronger.

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An English hero for the ages: Ian Botham at 60

Botham blends his sportsmanship and deep-seated passion for cricket with a lust for life.

Begging W H Auden’s pardon, it is possible both to honour and to value the vertical man, and in the case of Ian Botham, who turned 60 on 24 November, it is our bounden duty. No sportsman has given Britons so much to enjoy in the past half-century and no sportsman is loved more. Two decades after he retired from first-class cricket, his reputation as one of life’s champions remains unassailable.

No mere cricketer is he, either. Botham is a philanthropist, having raised more than £12m for various charities, notably Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research. In December, 30 years after his first walk from John o’Groats to Land’s End, he will set off again, in South Africa, where England are on tour. And he really does walk, too, not amble. As somebody who accompanied him on one of his dozen walks said: “You can’t keep up with him. The man is a phenomenon.”

Of all postwar sportsmen, only Bobby Charlton and, at a pinch, Henry Cooper come close to matching Botham’s enduring popularity. But Charlton, a shy man who was scarred by the Munich plane crash of 1958 (and may never have recovered from its emotional effects), has never comfortably occupied a public stage; and Cooper, being a boxer, had a solitary role. Botham, by contrast, spoke for England. Whenever he picked up his bat, or had a ball in his hand, he left spectators in no doubt.

Others have also spoken for England. Bobby Moore and Martin Johnson, captains respectively of England’s World Cup-winning football and rugby teams, were great players but did not reach out to people as naturally as Botham. Nick Faldo, Lester Piggott, Sebastian Coe and, to bring us up to date, Lewis Hamilton have beaten the best in the world, but they lacked those qualities that Botham displayed so freely. That is not to mark them down. They were, and are, champions. But Botham was born under a different star.

It was John Arlott, the great cricket commentator, who first spotted his uniqueness. Covering a match at Taunton in 1974, he asked the young colt to carry his bags up the rickety staircase to the press box, where Arlott, wearing his oenophile’s hat, pulled out a bottle of red wine and invited Botham to drink. Forty years later Botham is a discriminating wine drinker – and maker. Along with his friend and fellow England great Bob Willis, and their Australian wine­making pal Geoff Merrill, he has put his name to a notable Shiraz, “BMW”.

Arlott, with his nose for talent and good company, saw something in the young Botham that Brian Close, his captain at Somerset, was beginning to bring out. Later, Mike Brearley, as England captain, drew out something even more remarkable. As Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote, you’ve got to be carefully taught. And Botham, a fine team man as well as a supreme individual performer, has never withheld praise from those who enabled him to find his voice.

If sport reveals character, then cricket is the game that reveals it most clearly. In no other sport is the individual performance rooted so firmly in a team context. Every over brings a contest of skill and intelligence between batsman and bowler but only a team can win the match. “A cricketer,” as Arlott said, “is showing you something of himself all the time.”

Cricket also reveals national character more than any other sport. Football may be the most popular game in the world but cricket, and cricketers, tell us far more about England and Englishness. It is instructive, in this regard, to hear what Philippe Auclair, a French journalist and author long resident in London, has to say about Botham: “He is essentially an 18th-century Englishman.” In one! It’s not difficult to sense a kinship with Tom Jones, Fielding’s embodiment of 18th-century life, who began his journey, as readers may recall, in Somerset.

A country boy who played for Worcestershire after leaving Somerset, and who lives by choice in North Yorkshire, Botham is an old-fashioned Englishman. Although nobody has yet found him listening to the parson’s sermon, he is conservative with a small and upper-case C, a robust monarchist, handy with rod and gun, and happiest with a beaker in front of him. He represents (though he would never claim to be a representative) all those people who understand instinctively what England means, not in a narrow way, but through something that is in the blood.

Above all, he will be remembered for ever as the hero of 1981. Even now it takes some believing that Botham bowled and batted with such striking success that the Australians, who were one up after two Tests, were crushed. Some of us who were actually at Headingley for the famous third Test – thousands who claim to have been there were not – recall the odds of 500-1 on an England victory going up on the electronic scoreboard that Saturday evening.

Botham made 149 not out as England, following on, beat the Aussies by 18 runs. For three hours the country seemed to stop. In the next Test, at Edgbaston, Botham took five wickets for one run as Australia fell under his spell. Then, at Old Trafford, on a dank Saturday afternoon, he played the most memorable innings of his life and one of the greatest innings ever played by an Englishman: 118 magnificent, joyful runs. Joy: that’s the word. Botham brought joy into people’s lives.

Yet it was the final Test at the Oval, which ended in a draw, that brought from him a performance no less remarkable than those from before. He bowled 89 overs in that match, flat out, continuing to run in when others withdrew with injury. That was the team man coming to the fore. Little wonder his comrades thought the world of him.

Modest, loyal, respectful to opponents, grateful to all who have lent him a hand, and supported throughout a turbulent life by Kath, his rock of a wife, and their three children, this is a cricketing hero to rank with W G Grace, Jack Hobbs, Wally Hammond and Fred Trueman. A feature in the lives of all who saw him, and a very English hero. 

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State