Books: A guide to loitering your life away

Mark Bostridge talks to Geoff Dyer, writer and slacker
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At first glance there's a disarming modesty about Geoff Dyer as a writer. His latest book is Anglo-English Attitudes, a selection of reviews, essays, and what he calls misadventures, from his past 15 years as a jobbing journalist and critic. In the introduction he writes that writers are sometimes "prevailed upon" to publish their "occasional pieces". Only in his case rather the reverse has been true: "It was my publisher who was prevailed upon and I was the one doing the prevailing."

A display of admirable humility, then, appropriate to what is commonly considered "a pretty low form of book, barely a book at all". But later in the same introduction, Dyer admits in a volte-face entirely characteristic of his style, that for him this collection is far from representing the bin-ends of his literary career, and that "if we're being utterly frank, there were times when it was only the prospect of one day being able to publish my journalism that kept me writing `proper' books".

This may sound like a bit of cleverly inverted writer's self-promotion, but the truth is that Geoff Dyer's writing has always been set apart by his ability to take the humdrum and turn it into something diverting and out-of-the-ordinary. His journalism, in common with his books, is the expression of a free soul who has purposely avoided becoming hooked on any particular specialisms. If his writing lacks continuity, then that is precisely how he's always wanted it to be. As "a late-20th-century man of letters" he positively revels in the waywardness of his interests and quotes Hazlitt in support of his lifestyle, "loiter[ing] life away, reading books, looking at pictures, going to plays, hearing, thinking, writing on what pleased [him] best" - and, one should add, getting paid for it.

Not for nothing has Dyer been dubbed "the poet laureate of the slacker generation". In person he's lean and amiable looking, speaking with a quiet assuredness, fixing you with his steely-blue eyes and flashing smile. Both his grandfathers were farm labourers, and as he remarks in an essay which movingly interrelates the suicide of his Gloucestershire- bred uncle to Dyer's reading of the great Gloucester war poet and composer, Ivor Gurney, he should have evolved as stocky and broad, but instead, "by some genetic fluke", he and his father have the build of "House of Usher aristocrats".

Born in 1958, Dyer is the only child of a working-class family from Cheltenham. His father was a sheet-metal worker while his mother was a dinner lady. He strayed "from the template laid down by class and family" in classic style, emulating his boyhood hero D H Lawrence by winning a scholarship to grammar school, and from there going up to Corpus Christi College, Oxford to read English.

Lawrence was the first major writer to leave his mark on Dyer. "I fell in love with his fantastic, heroic life, and with his belief that you forged your own destiny. Also with his example of moving between different types of writing." Two years ago Dyer paid his homage to Lawrence in Out of Sheer Rage, a heady and intoxicating work which, like so much of Dyer's output, defies conventional classification. It is about many things other than Lawrence, about other writers who have influenced him, like Rilke, Thomas Bernhard and Camus, about his travels with his girlfriend in Lawrence's wake, and the depression and frustration that ensue. It's an hilarious antidote to biography - and to any notion of writing biography - but how much of it, I wonder, is fictional? "Oh, it was all based on a conceit," Dyer smiles enigmatically.

After Oxford, Dyer spent some time tutoring, as "the cultural attache" at the Lucie Clayton Secretarial College, before being sacked and going on the dole. He lived in Brixton, where he still keeps a flat, dividing his time between there and Brighton. The "culture of doleism" and the lost generation of the 1980s are the subjects of his first novel of gritty realism, The Colour of Memory, published in 1989. He looks back on his own period of unemployment as decisive and formative; during this time he discovered some of the writing that has influenced him most: Roland Barthes, Raymond Williams and, most importantly, John Berger.

Berger achieved notoriety in the early 1970s when he won the Booker Prize, denounced Booker-McConnell as imperialists, and announced that he was giving half his prize money to the Black Panthers. When Dyer speaks of Berger, however, it is of a warmer, more approachable personality. "He is a great, great man," he says, "and a loyal and open friend". They met in 1984 when Dyer interviewed Berger for Marxism Today, and for Ways Of Telling, Dyer's first book ("dull and timid" he calls it now) - a critical study of Berger, published in 1986. Berger's influence on Dyer is strongest as an art critic: "He made me look at Old Masters and see more than just a bunch of old men in ruffs." The essays in Anglo-English Attitudes on artists and photographers demonstrate that most clearly.

Geoff Dyer has a passion for taking a subject, developing an interest in it, holding it up to the light and recording his journey of discovery in his own idiosyncratic fashion before dropping it, and moving on. He has done this time and again, whether it be for his book about jazz, But Beautiful (which won the 1992 Somerset Maugham Prize), or for his searing reconsideration of the myth and memory of the Battle of the Somme in The Missing of the Somme (1994). He gives the impression that it is a way of working that comes terribly easily to him. But at the same time his prose is so finely honed, and underlying much of his writing is an extraordinarily perceptive understanding of failure, of the fear of failure, and of what it is like to fail.

It's no coincidence that Dyer's favourite Scott Fitzgerald novel is Tender is the Night which he has described as "a beautiful novel about failure"; and last year, in his novel Paris Trance, Dyer played a variation on Fitzgerald's theme, locating a group of directionless twentysomethings in a modern- day Paris and recounting their vicissitudes in love. The novel mingled eroticism and melancholy, and confirmed Geoff Dyer's place among the most original and talented writers of his generation. As for the present, he's about to set off on another journey, in search of the story of antiquity, which may send him on nomadic wanderings across Europe, living on the fringes of existence - the way of life he likes best.

`Anglo-English Attitudes' is published by Abacus