Jonathan Harvey talks to Uli Lenart about his latest novel The History of Us, a dark and comic story about friendship, secrets and their consequences.
Uli Lenart: Jonathan thank you so much for taking with Pride Life. So novel number five, congratulations. The History of Us follows three childhood friends who know each other from Liverpool in the mid-80s, to their adult lives in 90s and post-millennium London. What do people have in store for them with this latest book?
Jonathan Harvey: A few laughs, a few tears. It’s a book about friendship and how friendships evolve over thirty years, so following the characters from their teenage years to the present day. I’ve thought a lot about people I’ve known through my life who I’ve lost touch with and then met up with again. Those promises that you make in childhood that are often never fulfilled, and the hopes and aspirations that you have when you are a kid that you never always achieve. So it’s about stuff like that.
UL: So let’s talk a little about each of the main characters, staring with Kathleen.
JH: Kathleen is sort of the follower in the pack, doesn’t have that much confidence really and she’s a bit obsessed with her friend Adam. Her mum has vanished from her life; she’s being brought up by her nan. Her dad’s in prison, but the euphemism is that he’s on the oil rigs. And she doesn’t really have that much get-up-and-go really, whereas the other two have quite lofty ambitions, where her ambition is to be an embalmer, which actually she never ends up being, but I suppose it’s quite a practical thing. And she’s got a big nose.
UL: And Adam…
JH: Adam, I don’t know where I got this from, [laughs] he’s the little gay one who, when we first meet him, is in the church nativity play and has dreams to be a writer, and he becomes a writer. He writes quite a dreadful play when he is older based on what happens to them as kids and they get a production in London but it’s not very good, and his dreams sort of fade and die. In the present day he’s a celebrity hairdresser’s agent and he’s living with a bloke and they’ve just adopted a small child.
UL: And finally, of the trio, Jocelyn…
JH: Jocelyn’s from a Sierra Leonean family, she’s being brought up in Liverpool but they are a bit different from the other people on the street because she goes to a posh private school and she doesn’t really have a Liverpool accent. She’s got a beautiful voice, hence being in the church choir and rather scandalously cast as Mary in the nativity play because the local white people don’t think that’s a very good idea: having a black Mary.
As she gets older various things happen to her, and I suppose what I wanted to explore with that character…I’m really fascinated by celebrity these days and people who are famous for having an opinion, these sort of rent-a-gob people who are very vocal on twitter or chat shows and say controversial things basically to upset people and to maintain a career, so I wanted to delve behind the sort of person who might do that.
So she’s had various jobs over the years: she was a page 3 girl, she had a bit of a crap record out and then ended up being a professional rent-a-gob. The book sort of opens with her having died. She’s, we think, committed suicide. It’s about the other two friend’s meeting at her funeral, and flashing back over all three lives. She was quite a figure of hate in the present day so we don’t really know has she thrown herself off Trellick Tower, allegedly, or was she pushed?
UL: And therein lies the intrigue…
UL: We have to talk a little about my favourite character in the novel, Kathleen’s nan.
JH: [Laughs] Well I was very close to my nan growing up so there is a lot of my nan in this character. My favourite story about my nan which I did put in the book, is I often went to my nan’s for my tea, we moved around a lot as a family in Liverpool, and I’d lived in eight different houses by the time I left at eighteen, but my nan always lived in the same block of flats, so it was the one consistent in my life.
My nan gave me mint sauce with everything and one day she said “I’ve got you a gorgeous lime mousse in the fridge” and I opened it and what was inside but a Glade air-freshener with lime gel inside. Kathleen’s nan is sort of quasi-religious, she’s got a set of religious plates with all the twelve disciples on and when she serves the egg and chips you have to guess which disciple is underneath.
And she’s quite opinionated, but a heart of gold. She smokes and watches Howard’s Way. She’s brought her grand-daughter, Kathleen, up when her mum went AWOL. I think that we can read between the lines that the mum was in quite an abusive relationship with Kathleen’s dad and that’s why she ran away. She’s brought this child up and they are very close. I do love the character, the nan, she’s quite easy to write.
UL: Would you say that your background in play and script writing has informed your novel writing technique?
JH: I think the way it’s informed it is I was always quite scared of writing prose and David Nicholls, who wrote One Day, he’s a friend of mine, and when I was contemplating writing a book he was really encouraging because we both had theatrical and TV backgrounds, and he said it’s not scary if you just envisage it as an extended monologue. So all of my books have been written in the first person via a character and once I realised I could do that, you know I’ve written one person shows before, it was liberating. Well the example I use is, if I were to describe looking out my window I might well end up using a few clichés, but if my character uses a cliché it is excusable because they don’t have to be intelligent [laughs] so they can get it wrong and it looks like the character has got it wrong and not me. You can sort of get away with it.
UL: There is a roaming narratoral perspective in the novel; the story told from the shifting view point of the different characters. Why did you make that decision when you were writing it?
JH: Do you know what I think it was, when I wrote my first book, which was about four years ago, I did it then and I just enjoyed that way of doing it so much and I understand writing that way. I think I find it a bit more challenging to write in a third person, I think I’d get confused about whose point of view is it. And I’m really interested in character and even with this book I can be telling you a story [and] the reader is hopefully is seeing other things and realising them before the character has themselves.
Kathleen really fancies Adam when they are fifteen and think he’s just delightful because he talks about make-up and musical theatre and isn’t really interested in any other girls and he really encourages her when she fancies the boy at school and he’s more than happy to join in in following him around everywhere so the reader realises he’s gay but she doesn’t. It’s a big shock to her when she finds out. You can have some fun in what the character doesn’t realise.
UL: I love the tension between comedy and tragedy in the novel. Is that a tricky balance to get right?
JH: That’s my modus operandi really; that’s what I do. There is always a comic vein. If I was to describe that book it all sounds very dark but obviously it is a good laugh reading it, but I do think no matter how dark things get you do always have a bit of a laugh at the same time. One of my best friends died this year and all I kept thinking was when I was organising the funeral was how funny the undertaker was, in a bizarre way.
In our darkest of hours me and his sisters and his mum and that there was some sort of buoyancy from being “bloody hell, he would have laughed at this”. The most bizarre, mundane, insane things seem to happen the darkest of hours and I suppose it’s got black humour, for want of a better word. I’m a great believer in that, really.
UL: Friendship and family, secrets and their consequences. Would you say that these are core themes for you as a writer?
JH: Yes, because most of us have got families so this is all stuff we can identify with. I think particularly with this one because it was about friendship. One of my favourite books, actually, was Circle of Friends by Maeve Binchy, about three girls in Ireland, and I first came across it as a film and then read the book. It’s a real doorstop of a book, and I just loved the way it followed these girls and how they fell out and how one of them betrayed them, and all this, and it’s always been one of my favourites.
I wanted to do something in that area because the older I get the more I look back on the friendships I had at school, and the ones I’m in touch with and the ones I’m not, and how we’ve all changed. I’ve moved back to Liverpool in the last year to be nearer my family as they are getting older, so all those sort of things are important to me.
UL: In the book you also touch on vile behaviour on social media, trolls and the era of the online anti-hero celebrity. Why was this an interesting topic worth exploring in the book?
JH: I don’t know, I just find it really interesting. I think I quite like being outraged. There are several people, I don’t follow them on twitter, but I’ll often go and look at their twitter page just to be outraged, you know? I did used to follow people like Katie Hopkins and I’d have a good ten minutes a day when I was like really fucked-off and then I thought “you know, I don’t really need” so I stopped following her and several others, and life became a bit easier really.
I’m fascinated by all their psychopathic tendencies to not give a shit about how other people view you. That’s really important to me, is what other people think of me, I think, and so it’s interesting, I suppose, characters who aren’t like me. Someone who can say the unsayable. It seems be a very modern day phenomena, that wouldn’t have been around about ten years ago because those platforms didn’t really exist.
UL: As we’ve discussed the book centres on three friends who grow up in Alderson Road in Wavertree, Liverpool. How much of your own personal history did you draw on in writing this novel?
JH: [Laughs] I didn’t live on Alderson Road but I did go to St. Thomas’ Church round the corner where the book is set. It no longer exists, it’s now a block of flats in the shape of a church. But my two good school friends, Siobhan and Sandra, lived on Alderson Road. It’s not based on them. They were very odd years. When I was fourteen my best friend Lee was really musical, and I was quite musical, I played the piano.
Lee was having organ lessons and there was this church in a reasonably run down part of the city that needed an organist, so at the age of fourteen he became the organist and choirmaster and I came to help him out, like his assistant and we had this choir of which Sandra and Siobhan were singers in it. So I got to know the area really well and we did do the nativity play with Mary walking down the aisle singing How Far is it to Bethlehem?
There’s lots of my childhood in there. I know that road inside-out, I don’t live that far from it now. It ran between two big main roads and, as a child, it just seemed to go on forever. And they did film Boys from the Blackstuff there, it’s like a celebrity road in our area. It was a really important part of my childhood so it felt natural that I would set something there.
UL: The book is also about how people and places change over time. How the haunts we had in our youth gets knocked down as places change and just end up existing in our memories. How has Liverpool changed from your early memories of it?
JH: The city centre is sort of unrecognizable. When I grew up in the Eighties, I left in ’86 to go to university, it was a very macho city, very run down. Thatcher had practically annihilated the city. And over the years, with E.U. money [laughs], possibly why Liverpool voted to Remain, it’s undergone a massive transformation that they call the Big Dig, where these skyscrapers have gone up and there’s this massive area called Liverpool One which is a beautiful shopping centre.
So the whole city has been regenerated and it was Capital of Culture in 2008 and there is a great art scene. It felt like a very hard-faced homophobic city when I left and it’s certainly not that anymore.
UL: London is changing though intense economic gentrification. One very visible fault line of this is the battle between developers and the LGBT community over the gay scene, with venue after venue closing down or being threatened with closure, like the Royal Vauxhall Tavern for example. I can’t help thinking of that scene in Beautiful Thing when Jamie and Ste go to The Gloucester pub and Dave Lynn says that line ‘and ten of your mate’. Were gay venues important spaces for you growing up and do you think dedicated queer spaces remain valuable?
JH: When I was growing up it was definitely a safe haven that you could run away to when you hadn’t really come out and you hadn’t told anyone. I remember going to The Gloucester and there were these two lads, they must have been about seventeen, eighteen, snogging by the fruit machine on a Friday night and everyone was going [in mock camp] “Ergh, get a room!”
I remember a few days later seeing the pair of them walking through Thamesmead, where the play was set, with their mates and of course they weren’t holding hands, and I realised that they needed The Gloucester; that was the only place that they could go to be themselves, which sort of inspired me to write they play really. Yes, incredibly important. So all I can think of is that they are still incredibly important to young people today, you know, certainly my young friends, they spend a lot of time in them [laughs].
UL: So my mate Doug just watched Beautiful Thing for the first time a couple of days ago and I asked if he’d like to ask you a question about it, so here is:
“I recently watched, and loved Beautiful Thing, the film adaptation of the play. Despite the bullying and inner turmoil Jamie endured initially, I couldn’t help admiring his confidence and sure-headed exploration into his young sexuality. Was this positive representation a reflection of how you came to grips with being gay?”
JH: Probably, yeah, cause I never really thought about that, but yeah. I mean, obviously I wanted the journey they went on to have a happy ending because I wanted it to be positive role models and all that; because, and I know this sounds really worthy, but there just weren’t that many at the time, it was so long ago. But I think that lots of gay kids are like that, even if society is telling them it’s wrong they intrinsically know they are decent people and they’re not really doing anything wrong, so it was more that. It was just that knowing really that, whatever people said, he [Jamie] knew he was in the right.
UL: A few months back there a 20th anniversary screening of Beautiful Thing. People regard the play and film adaptation with such genuine affection, but how do you feel about it two decades on?
JH: I’m really proud of it. It’s like your child that’s done really well, or something, and it’s just lovely to go and celebrate it and go and see it on a big screen and see it with Tameka [Empson, who played Leah Russell], yeah I’m still proud. I suppose I’m quite surprised that there has not been a big play or film, a British one anyway, about being gay that’s superseded it really, because there is an element of a museum piece about it now.
I’m 48 and I wrote it when I was 23…24; I wrote it in ’92, so yeah I would have been about 24, and that’s an awfully long time ago really. That’s like me being 24 and watching A Taste of Honey [the play by Shelagh Delaney, adapted as a film in 1961] so it was of its time. I suppose it is universal, the fact that you fall in love and you are worried about what your mum is going to say, but I would have thought that there’d be something else by now. Maybe it is television taking over, I don’t know. I have more interest in what young gay people’s experiences are today, how people cope today, you know because I can’t write that, I don’t know that, but I want some other young person to tell me, I suppose.
UL: And moving from South East London to Kentish Town, specifically 69 Paradise Passage. Was making Gimmie, Gimmie, Gimmie as much fun as I imagine it was?
JH: [Laughing] Yeah, it was sort of fun. It’s really hard writing a sitcom and you do go a bit mad because it is very high pressure. Yeah, it was fun, but it is just really hard because if you are doing a TV drama it doesn’t have to be funny, if you are doing a comedy drama with a few jokes in there they love that, but when you are doing a sitcom every single line is analysed by a million people for ‘can this be funnier’. So the pressure is never ending really.
You’ve got to, if possible, make every line as funny as it could be so I’d find myself on the bus going into the studio and I’d hear a couple in front of me speaking and they’d be quite amusing and I’d sit there and I’d think and really analyse it, ‘why is that funny? Why is that making me laugh?’ and then you’d be running it through in front of the crew, the episode, and everybody from the exec producer to the cleaner has an opinion on what is funny.
Everybody think they know what funny is, but we all have completely different senses of humour, so it was really hard to people-please all the time and hence a lot of the jokes were [chuckles] scraping the bottom of the barrel. I remember halfway through the first series I did think I was going a bit mad and I read an interview with Victoria Wood in the Radio Times, she was just doing the first series of Dinner Ladies, and she said ‘half way through I just felt I was going mad and I wanted to go and lie down in a darkened room’ and I read it on the bus and I burst out crying because that’s exactly how I felt. It was really good fun and to be allowed to be that silly, [but] it did come with the cost of…the pressure was really on in that intense period of rehearsing and recording. It was a real fulltime job.
UL: So, Tom…Linda. Did you write Gimmie, Gimmie, Gimmie with anyone specifically in mind to play the characters?
JH: By the time I got to writing the script I did, yeah. When I came up with the idea, it was just an idea, but then there was a synchronicity really, that happened. Kathy Burke directed a play of mine and James Dreyfus had been in a reading of a TV film of mine that never got made. Cathy, at that time, I think she’d just won some big award and they said ‘what do you want to do?’ and she said ‘I’d love to do something with Jonathan’ and so she then saw the pitch document I’d written and we sort of worked it up. So by the time I was writing I knew that James and Cathy were attached and they were the only two.
UL: Any chance of a reunion episode special or film?
JH: I think it would be very doubtful because I think Cathy’s stock answer on this is ‘fuck off’ [laughing]. I think she’s convinced it is just dead somewhere in a gutter rotting away. No, I don’t think I’d be that interested really; leave them wanting more. It was such a long time ago, it’s nearly twenty years. It does feel of its time. I do watch it sometimes now and my jaw widens, and ‘fucking hell, did I write that?’ [Laughing] It’s so rude. No wonder my mother was so horrified at first. So I don’t know how well I’d do it in this day and age, to be honest with you, I’ve got into habits of not writing like that anymore.
UL: Which characters do you most enjoy writing on Corrie?
JH: To be honest with you what’s really nice about writing for Coronation Street is, on the whole, the episodes they give you are never the same with the group of characters you get so you don’t get stuck in a routine of just writing for certain characters. So it is always a treat and it is always a challenge to write the characters that wouldn’t necessarily be your natural forte, I suppose, and that’s one of the reasons I like the job. And I love writing for people like Mary and I used to love writing for Deirdre and Blanche. But part of the joy of it really is it’s ever-changing so you’ll write one set of characters one week and then, a few weeks later, you are given a whole set of different characters and that’s what keeps it fresh and exciting.
UL: You are a busy man with lots of writing output and a deadlines; when and where do you write?
JH: I try and write 10am – 6pm every day. I’ve got an office at the top of my house, so I write there. But I can sort of write anywhere. My laptop is rarely not with me, so it might be on someone’s couch with my laptop on my knee, it might be on the train, anywhere really. But I prefer to be at home and to be at a desk, only cause I’m old now and I’ve done years of lying on a couch and it does your back in, so it is better for me to be straight-backed.
UL: What do you like to do to unwind?
JH: I’m really lazy so I like to watch things like Big Brother and Bake Off and things like that. Stuff that’s not drama [laughs].
UL: Who would you like to play you in the film version of your life?
JH: Cathy Burke always says that Russell Tovey looks like me when I was about 25, so he could play the young me before age, fatness and shit hair set in. But I think, probably Julie Walters from the age of 30 onwards. That would be nice.
UL: What have you learnt about yourself in the last year?
JH: You never know what’s round the corner, and it’s quite hard to find extra-large tops [laughing].
UL: I hear you are working on a new novel, can you tell us a little about that?
JH: Yeah, there was a spate about twenty years ago of babies being snatched from hospitals when they’d just been born and the woman who’d snatched them would go on the run for a few weeks and then they’d be found. It’s about a woman who’s in her mid-thirties whose mum dies, and she was never that close to her mum and she finds out after she’s died that as a baby she was taken from her mother for a few weeks and then returned, and she sets out to find the woman who stole her because she blames her for never having been that close to her mother. That’s the premise, anyway.
UL: Interesting! So final question with explanations for your decisions please: Snog, Marry, Avoid; Kathleen, Adam and Jocelyn?
JH: [Laughs] I’d snog Adam. I’d avoid Jocelyn and I’d marry Kathleen. I’d avoid Jocelyn in the present day just because she’s created this horrible persona and the other two haven’t. Oh, I don’t know, this is hard, because Kathleen is a bit of a nightmare because she’s always pissed. No, yeah, I’ll go with avoid Jocelyn, just because she might be horrible to me.
UL: And do you reckon Adam would be a good kisser?
JH: Yeah, dirty.
UL: [Laughs] That’s what we like. Jonathan, you’ve been amazing. Thanks ever so much.
JH: Thank you.
The History of Us is published by Pan Macmillan and is out now.