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2 December 2020

Carmen Callil Q&A: “Everyone says: ‘Carmen, do stop’”

The publisher discusses the leaders of the French Revolution, watching Call My Agent and reading Charles Dickens. 

By New Statesman

Carmen Callil was born in Melbourne, Australia, in 1938. She founded Virago Press in 1973 to “publish books which celebrated women and women’s lives”.


What’s your earliest memory?

Everything before the age of nine is a blank for me. That is how old I was when my father died and his death changed my family’s life entirely.

Who are your heroes?

My childhood hero was Charles Dickens. My mother read his books to us in the cold Melbourne winters. As an adult, my heroes are the marvellous investigative journalists of today: Amelia Gentleman, Carole Cadwalladr.

[see also: Dickens and his demons]

What book last changed your thinking?

Alison Light’s Common People, which made me understand that if I did the work, I could tell a similar tale.

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Which political figure do you look up to?

The people who started the French Revolution: they showed the world that ordinary people could fight back against injustice, oppression, poverty and hunger.

What would be your Mastermind specialist subject?

English literature in general, women writers in particular; Vichy France; the lives of the poor in England during the Industrial Revolution; animals; wine; anything to do with cricket.

What TV show could you not live without?

Call My Agent, the French series about a talent agency. It’s witty, so beautifully acted, achingly funny, utterly addictive.

Who would paint your portrait?

Winifred Nicholson, the 20th-century English painter who mostly painted landscapes, flowers and scenes from a window, and domestic things.

What’s your theme tune?

“Soul Limbo”, the Test Match Special theme tune, and “I Don’t Want To Set the World on Fire” – “I just want to start a flame in your heart!” – by the Ink Spots.

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

“Carmen, do stop.” Everyone tells me that. I’ve never followed it.

What’s currently bugging you?

Every single aspect of this government.

What single thing would make your life better?

A change in our voting system so that it’s not first past the post, or compulsory voting, or both, and a coalition of the Labour Party, the Green Party and the Liberal Democrats and a good number of Tories – the number of them that Johnson sacked over Brexit – so we could have a government that works for the good of those who are not members of the British favoured classes.

[see also: A year on, the UK has paid an appalling price for Boris Johnson’s election victory]

When were you happiest?

The 1960s and 1970s in England was the most wonderful place – you could do anything. And in the Languedoc, near Carcassonne, in the 1990s and 2000s. There’s nothing I don’t like about living in France.

In another life, what job might you have chosen?

I’m told I should have been a barrister. I had one of those tests at school. But I’d like to have been an investigative journalist.

Are we all doomed?

In England, yes. I don’t think the Welsh or Scots are, as long as they become independent countries. As to the rest of the world, it’s up to the peoples of those countries to get rid of the Putins, the Bolsonaros and Erdogans, to name only a few of the monsters currently persecuting the human race. 

“Oh Happy Day” by Carmen Callil is published by Jonathan Cape

[see also: John Lanchester Q&A: “I’d like to be the kind of rich person who doesn’t do much”]

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This article appears in the 02 Dec 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Crashed