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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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times