Fully booked: fans queue outside Waterstones on Piccadilly for a book-signing. Photo: Getty
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Eyes on the prize: a brilliant satire of the Booker set

A novel about those writers who attract fans so ardent that the work is never enough.

Francis Plug: How to Be a Public Author 
Paul Ewen
Galley Beggar Press, 297pp, £11

The role of novelists has changed immeasurably. They once existed to provide truth and insight into human existence, but the actual writing part now appears secondary. Instead, today’s writer is expected to be a plugged-in social networker, a raconteur who can put middle-class posteriors on folding seats at festivals and win entirely arbitrary prizes funded by investment and communications companies. Often they are paid solely in cheap, warm wine and tiny morsels of food.

New independent publisher Galley Beggar Press understands the absurdity of basing a business on personalities and trend-guessing, having achieved unexpected success recently with Eimear McBride’s debut, A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, an experimental novel previously rejected by major publishing houses. Perhaps this is what has drawn Galley Beggar to Francis Plug, Paul Ewen’s hilarious account of the lonely lives of authors. It is a novel about those writers who attract fans so ardent that the work is never enough; those who insist on “following Mickey Mouse back to the changing rooms to smell the sweat of the red-faced puppeteer”.

If you have ever spent a summer directing furtive punters to the towering pile of 50 Shades of Grey – not because you work in a bookshop but because you are doing signings of your own – then you’ll know how soul-destroying such promotional obligations can be. So I’ve been told.

With the deliberately dull title of London Pub Reviews, the London-based New Zealander Paul Ewen’s debut novel was a collection of outlandish vignettes by a totally unreliable narrator. In the new book Ewen cranks up his deadpan satirical style through one Francis Plug, and catches a vast array of contemporary Booker prizewinners in his firing line. Plug is a memorable and disturbing comic creation, a perpetually drunk and deluded gardener with zero social skills. He lives alone; he loves whisky. Sometimes he carries with him excrement collected from the Mall (“special delivery from the Queen’s horses”) to use as fertiliser. He is a wonderful host.

Plug’s commitment to his own literary career is perversely admirable: rather than waste his time writing, he trawls book signings and festivals to glean tips from a cast of “real” Booker winners on how to be “a public author” for a book that he is clearly never going to complete. However, he does contemplate inserting a singing squid into his non-fiction text so that it can sit next to Plath and Poe in the fiction section.

Ewen actually went to these events, in character as Plug, and has the signed books to prove it. That he survived this picaresque autograph-hunt through bookshop back rooms, bars and Hay-on-Wye tents without being incarcerated, sectioned or severely beaten was lucky. For Plug is the carrier-bag-toting fan that all writers fear; and his banal, Pooteresque eye for detail and ear for scathing one-liners are memorably poetic.

A S Byatt’s face, we are told, resembles “an illustrated personification of the wind”. Howard Jacobson has “big frizzy hair, as if his head were a cushion and the stuffing has been pulled out of a tear in his scalp”. And V S Naipaul, who “says some really crazy things, and yet is still held up in esteem”, has “lightly oiled hair that resembles a glistening fish pulled from the sea and caught beneath the dazzling sun”. In a particularly fanciful episode, Julian Barnes ends a tedious theatre talk by ascending to the rafters by wires, his elbows pistoning “like chicken wings” before his head falls off, and then “out of his neck protrudes a fountain of confetti, and the crowd erupts in applause”.

Suffice it to say that Plug is a cipher for an utterly surreal critique of the Booker Prize. Novelists certainly have form in satirising the world they reluctantly inhabit. Earlier this year, Edward St Aubyn explored the machinations behind a major literary prize in Lost for Words – but this was a book for those au fait with the circuit. Plug is for the genuine outsiders and he pricks the pompous literary bubble with aplomb.

What Ewen’s subjects will make of these imagined meetings is anyone’s guess. Will Peter Carey, for one, remember the man who turned up at his reading wearing a Camden street bin in homage to Ned Kelly’s armour? As the novel concludes with a near-literal cliffhanger in the belly of the beast – the London Book Fair – Ewen’s dissection of literary life becomes almost too painful to watch. And as a result this might just be a modern comic masterpiece.

Ben Myers’s novel “Beastings” is published by Bluemoose Books (£12.99)

Ben Myers’ novels include Pig Iron and Richard, a Sunday Times book of the year. His writing has appeared in The Guardian, NME, Mojo, Time Out, 3:AM Magazine, Caught By The River and many others. www.benmyersmanofletters.blogspot.com

This article first appeared in the 09 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, How Isis hijacked the revolution

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Beware of tea: the cuppa has started wars and ruined lives

. . . and it once led F Scott Fitzgerald to humiliate himself.

A drink sustains me – one that steams companionably as I write. It is hot, amber and fragranced differently from any wine; nor does it have wine’s capacity to soften and blur. I’ve never understood how the great drunks of literature, Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald and their like, ever put anything on the page more worthwhile than a self-involved howl, though even Hemingway apparently finished the day’s writing before beginning the day’s drinking.

Tea is more kindly, or so I’d always thought. Those aromatic leaves, black or green, rolled and dried and oxidised, have some of wine’s artistry but none of its danger. Even their exoticism has waned, from a Chinese rarity (“froth of the liquid jade”), for which 17th-century English traders were made to pay in solid silver, to a product that can be found dirt cheap on supermarket shelves.

There are even home-grown teas now. The Tregothnan estate in Cornwall has supplemented its ornamental rhododendrons and camellias with their relative camellia sinensis, the tea plant, while Dalreoch in the Scottish Highlands grows a white (that is, lightly oxidised) tea, which is smoked using wood from the surrounding birch plantations. Tellingly, this local version is priced as steeply as the imported rarity once was.

I enjoy a simple, solitary mug, but I also appreciate communal tea-drinking – the delicate tea warmed with water at 85°C (a little higher for sturdier black blends), the teapot and china, the pourer volunteering to be “mother”, as if this were a liquid that could nurture. But in reality, tea is not so gentle.

Those long-ago English traders disliked haemorrhaging silver, so they started exporting opium to China from India and paying with that. This was a fabulous success, unless you happened to be Chinese. In 1839, a commissioner attempted to clamp down on the illegal and harmful trade, and the result was the Opium Wars, which the Chinese lost. “Gunboat diplomacy” – a phrase that surely constitutes froth of a different kind – won England a great deal of silver, a 150-year lease on Hong Kong and an open tea market. China received a potful of humiliation that may eventually have helped spark the Communist Revolution. As many of us have recently realised, there is nothing like economic mortification to galvanise a nation to kick its leaders.

Later, the tea bush was planted in India, Ceylon and elsewhere, and the fragrant but bitter brew for the upper classes became a ubiquitous fuel. But not an entirely sweet one: just as the opium trade ensured our tea’s arrival in the pot, the slave trade sweetened it in the cup. Even today, conditions for tea workers in places such as Assam in north-east India are often appalling.

Scott Fitzgerald also had tea trouble. When invited round by Edith Wharton, he frothed the liquid jade so assiduously with booze beforehand and risqué conversation during (a story about an American tourist couple staying unawares in a Paris bordello) that he was nearly as badly humiliated as those 19th-century Chinese. Wharton, unshocked, merely wondered aloud what the couple had done in the bordello and afterwards pronounced the entire occasion “awful”.

Some would blame his alcoholic preliminaries, but I’m not so sure. Tea has started wars and ruined lives; we should be wary of its consolations. On that sober note, I reach for the corkscrew and allow the subject to drive me softly, beguilingly, to drink.

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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