It is 1777, and England’s second-greatest portrait artist, Thomas Gainsborough, has a thriving practice a stone’s thrown from London’s royal palaces, while the press talks up his rivalry with Sir Joshua Reynolds, the pedantic theoretician who is the top dog of British portraiture.
Fonder of the low life than high society, Gainsborough loathes pandering to grand sitters, but he changes his tune when he is commissioned to paint King George III and his large family. In their final, most bitter competition, who will be chosen as court painter, Tom or Sir Joshua?
Meanwhile, two and a half centuries later, a badly damaged painting turns up on a downmarket antiques TV show being filmed in Suffolk. Could the monstrosity really be, as its eccentric owner claims, a Gainsborough? If so, who is the sitter? And why does he have donkey’s ears?
Mixing ancient and modern as he did in his acclaimed debut The Hopkins Conundrum, Simon Edge takes aim at fakery and pretension in this highly original celebration of one of our greatest artists.
When and where do you prefer to write?
I tend to write in the afternoons. I have a part-time day job, which I do from home, and I get that out of the way in the morning, leaving the rest of the day for any writing projects. I like to write in different rooms of the house, often following the sun around. A change of scene, away from a desk with all the distractions of wi-fi, is the most important thing.
Do you have a certain ritual?
Mostly I write long-hand in a notebook. Lately I’ve been investing in nicely bound ones from the factory shop at the silk mill near my home. I find it much easier to concentrate writing by hand: there are fewer distractions, you move forwards rather than going back over what you’ve written, and you tend to think harder to get a sentence right before you write it down. You can also do it anywhere, such as the garden in the summer.
Is there a drink of some food that keeps you company while you write?
I drink very strong black coffee, made in a stove-top espresso machine, first thing in the morning and after lunch, and otherwise tea – at the moment I’m keen on vanilla or spicy chai. It’s nicest of all to write with a glass of wine, but I try to confine that to weekends.
What is your favourite book?
For me, Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited is as close to perfection as a novel can come. Lady Marchmain is the most subtly drawn monster in English letters, because she believes so absolutely in her own goodness and cannot see the destruction she creates all around her. Very different in tone, Waugh’s Scoop – in which the staff of a newspaper adjust the world to fit their editor’s mistakes – is also a great achievement. Before I worked for the national press, I assumed the novel was a parody of the way that newspapers are run. Then I spent twenty-five years as a journalist, and I now know that the best satire is actually documentary.
Do you consider writing a different genre in the future?
My first novel, The Hopkins Conundrum, mixed period drama, including the horrors of a Victorian shipwreck, with a modern comedy poking fun at the Da Vinci Code My second one, The Hurtle of Hell, billed as an atheist comedy, was about the strains of an upsetting incident on a gay relationship, intertwined with a metaphysical meditation about where in the universe God is meant to live. A Right Royal Face-Off mixes historical and modern writing, but in this case my innovation has been to play biographical fiction – usually a rather po-faced genre – for laughs. So, as you can see, my work deliberately defies genre anyway, putting strange combinations together to see where they take me. I intend to continue doing that.
Do you sometimes base your characters on people you know?
Probably not in the way that people imagine. There are times when I’ve seen someone in the street or on the Tube who seems to embody a character I have in mind, and I use their face and body in my imagination, and paste a character on top. With some comic characters, it can be useful to have a voice in my head as I write the dialogue, and certain friends or acquaintances have unwittingly lent me theirs. There are two such examples in A Right Royal Face-Off, but I will never tell anyone who they are and I very much doubt they would ever recognise themselves.
Do you take a notebook everywhere in order to write down ideas that pop up?
No. I tend to have my best ideas with my eyes closed or when I’m walking my dogs. If the idea is any good, it will carry on taking shape and I don’t need to jot it down. I do, however, keep an ideas box for each novel, where I stick random scraps of paper, leaflets, pictures etc to come back to later. It has become a tradition but I’ve noticed that the boxes are emptier as I get more experienced. The first one was full of printouts from the internet and notes from days at the British Library, which were probably all a form of displacement activity. As I embark on my fourth novel for publication, I hope I’ve become more efficient.
Which genre do you not like at all?
I am prepared to run very fast from anything New Age.
If you had the chance to co-write a book. Whom would it be with?
I’m actually co-writing a book at the moment. It’s non-fiction work called Indian Spy, about an Indian naval officer who is in prison in Pakistan after confessing to espionage and terrorism offences. I’m writing it with Waseem Mahmood, who specialises in conflict-resolution projects in strife-torn parts of the world. He persuaded the Pakistani authorities to let us interview the subject of this book on death row.
If you should travel to a foreign country to do research, which one would you chose and why?
I have just come back from a research trip for Indian Spy, which took us to western Pakistan, very near the border with Afghanistan. It’s a part of the country which is generally considered very unsafe for foreigners, so we travelled everywhere under armed guard and at one stage we had to be blindfolded, when we were being taken to a secret location. Having spent a lot of time in the Arab world in the Eighties and Nineties, I am very comfortable in Muslim countries and it was an immense privilege to visit parts of a beautiful country that most Westerners never see.
Thank you, Simon Edge and Rachel’s Random Resources.
About the author
Simon Edge was born in Chester and read philosophy at Cambridge University.
He was editor of the pioneering London paper Capital Gay before becoming a gossip columnist on the Evening Standard and then a feature writer on the Daily Express, where he was also a theatre critic for many years.
He has an MA in Creative Writing from City University, London. His first novel, The Hopkins Conundrum, was longlisted for the Waverton Good Read Award. He lives in Suffolk.
Read more about Simon and his work at www.simon-edge.com.
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