You’re a writer, people often proclaim, why don’t you write a novel about all the places you’ve visited, all those characters. But the truth, when push comes to shove (as it so often does), is that hacks are not really writers. Only hacks, editors and the cleaning ladies in newsrooms know this unpalatable truth – but it’s good to play along. Obviously, the ladies love a writer – dark, mysterious, eccentric, grey shallow bags and thin wristed. The contrary is true of hacks. Almost no one likes hacks, not even hacks. We killed Princess Diana, remember – and almost everyone liked her.
What hackers and writers do have in common is the constant unedifying steady sludge of rejection, disappointment, failure and moments (or sometimes weeks) of that dreadful paranoia that at any moment you’re going to be caught out, uncovered, for the obvious fake that you undoubtedly are. And even when you do reach the dizzy heights of a daily national, I’m only guessing here, there’s still that nagging sensation that this is merely a stop gap, a day job – imagine an air hostess pretending she’s anything other than a glorified cocktail waitress and you’ll be close to the mark.
The remarkable thing about Giles Coren’s new documentary Giles Coren: My Failed Novel (Sky Arts) is that it captures all of the insecurities and nagging self-doubt of a wannabe writer perfectly – but only just, and almost certainly not intentionally, more as a natural matter of course.
Giles – we should get this out of the way – is one of Britain’s most successful restaurant critics and columnists; but it turns out that none of this matters, when you’ve always dreamed of being a novelist, and your first and only novel was a commercial and critical flop selling only 771 copies in hardback and 1400 copies in paperback – everyone from his agent to Jeffrey Archer smirks at the dismal sales.
So, Giles goes around in his annoyingly affable boyish way, meeting lots of publishers, authors, critics and women in book clubs to find out what makes a writer successful and why his novel was such a disaster. And what begins as a resignedly jaunty exploration into the publishing world bizarrely turns into self-analysis and pursuit for the soul of the artist (ok, I exaggerate – this is Giles Coren we’re talking about, but you get the idea.)
I have to say, I did feel sorry for him when his book was being scrutinised, ridiculed and ultimately tossed on the bonfire by a group of awfully patronising creative writing students; who basically said it’s all bollocks and you were only published because you’re a famous journo (and hacks, as we know, are not writers) and you should stick to your day job.
The usually confident and opinionated Giles was at pains to read it out loud and red-faced when they tore it to pieces. “If you can’t live through the failure, then your screwed,” Howard Jacobson said to him. Maybe, but he isn’t a failure – it’s just that his first novel wasn’t very good. I was ambivalent about Giles before this, now I quite like him.
Since everyone now accepts that all men (especially noble prize winning scientists, and those of a catholic disposition) are sexual deviants, predatory rapists and just all round nasty misogynists, apart from, of course, Arab, Muslim and North African men, who are all just lovely, thank you very much. It’s quite fitting that we should kick off this year’s spurge of new detective shows with a drab crime drama set in the 1950s, to remind us that men were just as awful and sleazy back then and fifteen-year-old girls just as randy.
What is baffling about the new series Grantchester (ITV, Wednesdays) is why the village vicar Sidney Chambers (James Norton) – who was at the beginning accused of sexual offences against a child, who then turns up dead – plays at being sleuth with local detective DI Geordie Keating (Robson Green); are the police low on staff, or is this just how it was back then? And back then is just another problem. I’m tired of back then. I want a back to the future, or a Phillip K Dick style drama set sometime in the next 5 minutes.
It’s not that Grantchester is particularly bad, and isn’t a perfectly amiable way to flitter away a Sunday afternoon (only it’s on Tuesdays – which might make you think twice). It’s just that it’s so dreary, laboured, been-there-done-that and certainly on a period (so to speak) that it made me want to either scream to wake up or hit myself to pass out. The best character was the dead girl’s father played by Neil Morrissey – I haven’t seen him for ages – because he looked like Hitler – if Hitler had decided to swap his trademark toothbrush moustache for a more socially acceptable variety of facial hair. But other than that, I’ll give this one a miss.