William Boyd Q&A: “In another life, I might have made a good spycatcher”

The author discusses his memories of Ghana, childhood literary heroes and the weather forecast. 

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William Boyd was born in Accra, Ghana, in 1952. He is the author of 16 novels and a winner of the Whitbread Literary Award. Between 1981 and 1983 he was the New Statesman’s television critic.

What’s your earliest memory?

It was in Achimota village in what was then the Gold Coast (Ghana today). I was very young – about three – and I was playing on an elevated vehicle inspection ramp near our house. I have no idea why this would have lodged in my mind.

Who are your heroes?

I had many childhood heroes: Matt Braddock VC and bar, Horatio Hornblower, Mowgli, Frodo Baggins, amongst others – all fictional, interestingly. I think my adult hero – and I’m not really into hero-worship – is probably Anton Chekhov.

What book last changed your thinking?

The View From Nowhere by Thomas Nagel – moral philosophy at its most limpid and relevant.

Which political figure do you look up to?

Politicians have a hard time with me. Who would actually choose to be a politician? What’s the real reason for making that choice? Suspicion is my normal state of mind regarding politicians. Grudging, conditional respect is as enthusiastic as I get. I think Abraham Lincoln is the answer. Or Barbara Castle – whom I met once.

What would be your Mastermind specialist subject?

I’m one of those people who knows a little bit about a lot of things – I don’t really have a niche area of expertise. Postwar British artists, perhaps. Or the life and work of Evelyn Waugh.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

Paris, 1900-14. But then I think of that Woody Allen joke about time-travel to the past – what about dentistry?

What TV show could you not live without?

The weather forecast.

Who would paint your portrait?

If he were still alive it would be Graham Sutherland. Otherwise David Hockney or Howard Morgan. All three world-class, very different portraitists.

What’s your theme tune?

It varies according to circumstance. Last week it was “So Many People” by Stephen Sondheim. This week it’s “The Fool on the Hill” by the Beatles. “Badge” by Cream recurs.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

Carpe diem. And yes, I try to follow it every day. And another piece of valuable advice I received was: “You can always say no.” That I wish I followed more often.

What’s currently bugging you?

Don’t start. Brexit, Covid-19, Trump, this ship of fools in the Conservative government, a near-terminal book storage problem, production notes from development executives, the human condition, heedless cyclists, plumbing issues, eczema – the list goes on and on.

What single thing would make your life better?

A hundred yards of empty bookshelves.

When were you happiest?

Here and now. Seize the day (see above).

In another life, what job might you have chosen?

I might have made a good spycatcher. Or else run my own think tank.

Are we all doomed?

Yes. But we should try to enjoy ourselves in the meantime. Make the most of it. 

“Trio” by William Boyd is published by Viking

This article appears in the 16 October 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Can Joe Biden save America?

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