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Geoff Dyer: “There should be an annual festival devoted to me”

Geoff Dyer likes to take down “dim-witted academics”. So what happened when he turned up at a conference on . . . Geoff Dyer?

In Geoff Dyer’s sixth book, Out of Sheer Rage, the narrator – who may be a representative of the author, a fictional persona, or a mixture of the two – is preparing to speak at an academic conference in Denmark. More exactly, he is failing to prepare. He has come down with what he calls “a virulent strain of the flu”. When he eventually arrives at the podium, clutching no more than a few scribbled notes, he begins to improvise, deconstructing the subject of his scholarly paper: “D H Lawrence and Englishness”.

“Let’s think about the two parts of this, uh, statement,” he says, alarmed to realise that people have started to take notes. “Do we mean he was a writer who was English? Or that he was an Englishman who wrote? Or both? And even when we concentrate on just one of these two terms we discover that that too is made up of two parts: English and man.” He continues to parse his thesis – that Lawrence is a problematic figure about whom it is difficult to say very much – for another 40 minutes or so, during which time his nose starts bleeding. Eventually he sits down, humiliated, coughing up blood in an attempt to provoke sympathy from a group of people he has spent a great deal of energy deriding and despising – those murderers of literature, academics.

And so I couldn’t help but smile on a recent, drizzly afternoon when an earnest, hyper-intelligent historian from Queen Mary, University of London, concluded a lecture entitled “What Colour Was the 1990s?” – an echo of Dyer’s debut novel, The Colour of Memory (1989) – by putting his head in his hands and confessing: “I suppose I don’t know what I mean by the 1990s. I don’t know what I mean by colour.”

It was a brave and welcome admission. I had no idea what he meant either. The lecture was the eighth in a day-long series of talks being given at the first international conference dedicated to the work of the English writer Geoff Dyer, held on 11 July at Birkbeck, University of London. It was a happy occasion, only complicated slightly by the fact that Dyer himself was seated in the back row throughout the day, taking notes with a yellow pencil on a floppy white pad. The main problem was one of etiquette. “When speaking about the work, use Dyer,” urged Dr Bianca Leggett, the convenor of the conference, in her opening remarks. “When speaking about the man in the room, use Geoff.”

For the next eight hours a series of professors and researchers took their turn in front of the audience to systematically abuse this rule. One speaker, whose paper focused on a great but unfinished opera by the name of Roggerio, felt no need to mention him at all. All the while Geoff sat silently, taking notes. “It’s the only time I’ve ever been in any kind of seminar where I have been unquestionably the leading authority on the subject,” he said later. “I’ve got so much to say, I can hardly wait.”

I first met the man in the room ten days earlier at an art fair in Chelsea, where he was chairing a discussion with the Hackney-based photographer Tom Hunter. There was champagne before the event, which I sipped while reading about Thomas Piketty in a complimentary issue of Vanity Fair. I was glad to see Dyer, who is 56, looking well, after hearing about his ischaemic stroke earlier in the year, which had temporarily impaired his vision. “I’m absolutely fine,” he told me, thanks to statins and “cutting down on pastries”. I asked him how he was feeling about the upcoming conference, especially given his protest in Out of Sheer Rage (1997) that the hallmark of academic criticism is that: “It kills everything it touches.”

“You have to bear in mind that book came out a long time ago,” he said, heading for the exit to make it home in time to watch the World Cup. “They are not ex cathedra truths, they are circumstantial.”

As one of a handful of non-academics attending the conference, I rolled my eyes when, after turning down a name-tag, an academic told me he respected my Dyer-esque refusal to be labelled. “Is it going to be like this all day?” I asked. I rolled them again every time a word like “polymorphous”, “interstitial” or “syllogistic” was deployed in attempt to pin down the genre-smashing nature of the Dyer canon – a total of 14 books made up of memoir, fiction, essays, criticism and travel writing, often within the same volume.

“One of the great privileges of my life was growing up in a house without books,” Dyer told me, three days before the conference in the study of his book-filled flat in Lad­broke Grove, west London (“We’re a no-shoe household, so wear your favourite socks,” he warned me in advance). “When I finally discovered them it was so totally transformative. This is my life’s work here, all these,” he said, pointing to the shelves.

Geoff’s mother, Phyllis “Mary” Dyer, was a school dinner lady; his father, Arthur “John” Dyer, a sheet-metal worker. (Both of them died in 2011.) As a student he progressed without great difficulty through Cheltenham Grammar School to Corpus Christi College, Oxford, where his disillusionment with academia took root. “Contrary to popular belief Oxford has the highest concentration of dull-witted, stupid, narrow-minded people anywhere in the British Isles,” he wrote in Out of Sheer Rage, complaining of the “dimwit academics shovelling away at their research, digging the graves of literature”.

While this Bernhardian rant may have been trotted out for comic value, Dyer’s distaste is genuine. “There’s something awful about Oxford, I think. It’s such a little ghetto. My own trajectory has been so opposed to the standard path of education in this country, which is always moving towards finer and finer specialism. The paradox is that the ability came from that Oxford way of being taught – ie, not being taught but finding out everything for yourself.”

If the ability came from Oxford, the confidence to use it came from John Berger, the painter-turned-polymath – and art critic at the New Statesman in the 1950s – who became a kind of mentor to Dyer and the subject of his first book, Ways of Telling (1987). This combination of the autodidact’s mania for learning coupled with Berger’s insistent refusal to delineate fact from fiction produced books including But Beautiful (1991), a retelling or improvisation upon the lives of jazz legends, and The Missing of the Somme (1994), an extended essay, with all the deviation readers have come to expect from Dyer’s work, on the cultural memory of the First World War.

These examples typify his approach to non-fiction: gorging on a specific subject for a year or two then moving on. “The person doing the learning is the person writing the book as much as the person reading it,” he wrote in his 2005 book about photography, The Ongoing Moment.

That these early books did not sell particularly well may not come as a surprise. “This is exactly how you do not go about establishing a successful literary career, or a brand,” Dyer said in the Q&A that concluded the conference. It did, however, remove any pressure to please an existing audience – “Because there was none!” – allowing him to follow the digressive course of his curiosity and build a reputation over time. “Lawrence said that one sheds one’s sickness in books,” he writes in the final pages of Out of Sheer Rage. “I would say one sheds one’s interest.” The same holds true for his most recently published book, a record of two weeks spent as writer in residence on board a US navy aircraft carrier: the USS George H W Bush.

Another Great Day at Sea (2014) immerses the reader in a disciplined, martial, rubber-and-steel universe where deviation from the chain of command is unthinkable and “lessons are written in blood”. “It’s not necessarily a dangerous business,” explains one pilot (nicknamed “Disney”), “just terribly unforgiving of mistakes.” It is arguably the occupation most opposed to Dyer’s: physical, regimented, with terrible food.

“I was definitely conscious of that when I signed up,” he told me. “You join up to the military and that’s the last free decision you ever have to make, whereas in the writing life all you’re doing is making decisions, about one word or another. As I wrote in the book, ‘It’s a self-discipline which is almost indistinguishable from self-indulgence.’ Those two ways of living mirrored each other quite nicely, I think.”

It’s also the place where his admiration for all things American shows most clearly. The writer in his “cranial” helmet and “float coat” appears every bit as doltish, charming and naive as Louis Theroux in his early documentaries, only without the whiff of contempt. Dyer really does admire Americans – their dependable manners, commitment to liberty and overwhelmingly can-do attitude. If anything highlights the gap that has opened up between Dyer and Berger since they first met for a Marxism Today interview in 1984, it is Dyer’s refusal to argue with anyone on the ship. “I am not a confident debater,” he says in his defence.

Another thing he claims not to be is a reporter. He describes himself as a tourist: “a marine anthropologist whose data was so thoroughly and distortingly mixed up with the means of obtaining it that it probably had no value as data”. He avoids winding up on a British ship, fearing “the accents, the audible symptoms of the top-to-bottom, toff-to-prole hierarchy that is so clearly manifest in the British military”. His love of America, where he and his wife, the Saatchi Art curator Rebecca Wilson, now spend most of their time, away from the toxicity of class and British negativity, is not new.

“A key part of my formation as a writer is that I didn’t read people like Evelyn Waugh until later on,” he said. “I decided as a protest I would never read Kingsley Amis, because he was always saying he was never going to read people like Saul Bellow and Joseph Heller, who I read instead.” Amis is a surprising omission given that his debut novel Lucky Jim (1954) contains, in Jim Dixon’s “Merrie England” speech, the best-known conference parody in literature.

Which brings us to the question that most intrigued delegates at the inaugural Geoff Dyer conference, that of “Geoff Dyer and Englishness”. One participant argued his work was un-English; another, the University of East Anglia’s Jonathan Gibbs, praised him for “putting on page the shivering rage that never comes out at the world”, a symptom of “weapons-grade Englishness”, while a French audience member stated that though she loved his books, her English friend couldn’t stand them. The English friend happened to be sitting next to her and began shaking his head in Dyer’s direction, eyes wide in alarm. They all agreed that the essence, whatever it was, lay in his “vinegary” sense of humour.

Dyer answered with a quote from Lawrence’s letters: “English in the teeth of all the world, even in the teeth of England,” suggesting that hating England was perhaps every bit as English as identifying with it. Maybe more so.

At the end of the day Dyer conceded that he might have misconstrued the masochistic impulses of academia, happily proposing the inauguration of “an annual, weekly, not conference but festival devoted to me”. Afterwards we all disappeared to the pub, which everybody knows is the real purpose of these intellectual get-togethers: to share a room with people who harbour the same obsessions you do, then drink them under the table. So what next for Geoff? Ironically, teaching. In the past few years he has taught non-fiction workshops and reading courses (“This isn’t a course, it’s just a book group,” one student objected) at Iowa and Columbia universities and will move on to Austin, Texas, next year.

“Teaching is great: I enjoy the sort of parasitic, vampiric relationship I have with the students. One problem, though, is they all want to write memoirs,” he says. His own reading these days is mostly “straight-down-the-line history books”, thousand-page tomes by Pulitzer-winners such as Taylor Branch and Richard Rhodes.

“I’m one of the people who seem to have licensed the ‘I’m meant to write about this book but I’m just going to write how I got stoned instead’ essay – but it only works for certain subjects. It has to lead you into a deeper appreciation of the subject than could have been attained in a more direct way. It’s like those legal highs,” he said. “Some of them can get you pretty messed up. Really they ought to be proscribed.”

Geoff Dyer is a judge for the 2014 Goldsmiths Prize for Fiction, in association with the New Statesman

Portrait by Eva Vermandel for New Statesman

Philip Maughan is Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double 2014

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide