Anthony Quinn: 'I can never go home again'

The critic and controversial Man Booker judge Anthony Quinn turns poacher this month with the publication of his first novel, a love letter to his home town, Liverpool. Just how scared is he of a critical backlash?
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After more than 20 years as a critic, offering forthright and sometimes controversial opinions on others' films and novels (notably when, after being a Booker Prize judge in 2006, he publicly rejected the winner, Kiran Desai's The Inheritance of Loss, in favour of another title on the short list), Anthony Quinn could be forgiven for approaching the publication of his own first novel, The Rescue Man, with some trepidation. There are, after all, plenty of writers out there with a reason to want to get one back on him in a review. "It's true," he says, "that I've spent a lot of time over the years dishing it out and so I should be prepared to take it when it comes. And it will come." He pauses. "But you know what? I feel fine about it. I really do."

On paper, his words might sound a touch arrogant, but that is not the way that 44-year-old Quinn comes over in the flesh, sitting on the edge of a luminously purple sofa in his north London home and apologising repeatedly throughout our interview for not saying anything insightful enough. Getting a novel published at all, he stresses, is enough of an achievement for him, regardless of what the critics make of this particular poacher turned gamekeeper. "Writing it was a kind of test," he confides. "I didn't know if I could actually do it. I'd got 15,000 words into a novel once before, around 1993, and then given it up. So any reviews, good or bad, will be a bonus."

Another reason for his air of unruffled resignation is that The Rescue Man has already been dealt a critical mauling where it hurts – close to home. "The very first person who read my manuscript," he reveals, "was a writer friend. He advised me to think about putting it away in a drawer. So it can't get any worse than that."

For this reader, at least, the "friend" (Quinn resolutely won't be tempted into naming names and is so well-connected in literary London that it is impossible to hazard a guess) got it completely wrong. The Rescue Man is thoughtful, beautifully observed and utterly compelling, the sort of book that ought to move his name from prize juries on to prize shortlists. But did getting such a negative verdict so early on make him think twice about going ahead and publishing? "Well, I felt terrible when he said it. Just awful. Then my wife [the journalist and fellow critic Rachel Cooke] and my agent both said how much they liked it. And so gradually I came round to thinking, 'Okay, I'll probably be all right.'"

Has it changed his friendship with the unnamed other author, I can't help wondering? "No, but I think he felt a bit bad about it as soon as he saw publishers wanted it." Again this is a remark that could sound barbed, but Quinn delivers it with a wonderful warm, wheezy laugh and then proceeds to blame himself. "Maybe I deserved it. I hadn't been quite as supportive of his books as I should have been. I'd read some of them but I'd never really enthused about them."

There is an unmistakable Liverpool twang to Quinn's voice and his home town is, in many ways, the main character in the novel. At the outbreak of the Second World War, Tom Baines, a lonely, aimless architecture buff in his early forties, is horrified by the damage about to be inflicted on Liverpool's magnificent skyline by the Blitz. His concern for bricks and mortar prompts him to join one of the rescue teams that dig survivors out of bombed buildings, but the experience, memorably captured, of working as part of a close-knit team in appalling conditions, never knowing when the rubble might collapse and kill him too, jolts Baines alive. People, he realises, are more important than pillars and plasterwork.

"I was always hoping I would write a novel but I never had a subject," Quinn reflects. "And then the subject turned out to be one that had been staring me in the face all my life." The Rescue Man is an unashamed celebration of the A-list civic architecture of Liverpool, most of it put up during the late 19th-century boom in a port that styled itself "the second city of empire". Many of the great late 19th- and early 20th-century buildings that survived the Blitz fell victim to misguided urban planning policies. "Once I'd gone away to university" – Quinn read English at Oxford – "every time I came home it was different. Something else had been demolished. And these weren't slums, they were decent Victorian and Edwardian buildings. I remember thinking 'there's something very wicked happening here.'"

Oriel Chambers in Water Street was one gem that survived both bombers and planners, and one that particularly fascinated Quinn. It is thought to be the world's first building constructed of glass panels, fixed to a frame. Completed in 1864, it anticipated by several decades the first modern office blocks in New York and Chicago. "I remember walking past it," Quinn says, "and thinking 'I must find out something about this place.' And then I was reading a book on Liverpool and looked up its architect, Peter Ellis, and it said: 'He remains a frustratingly shadowy figure.' And as soon as I read that, I thought, great."

In The Rescue Man, Quinn creates a fac-tional tale that dispels those shadows, with Peter Ellis becoming Peter Eames. "I've tried to ventriloquise him" is how he describes it, and it is Eames's diary, as imagined by Quinn, that Tom Baines reads in his quiet moments between tunnelling into collapsing buildings.

There are parallels between Eames and Baines – though subtly suggested rather than laid on with a trowel. This is, unashamedly, a literary novel, both in its borrowings and references, and even in its plot. One fellow member of the rescue team, Jimmy Mavers, is a docker who reads Joseph Conrad and hands on his copies to Baines. This springs from another of Quinn's memories of childhood. "My mother was the youngest of 10 children and her father was a docker who used to read Conrad." His mother died in 1997; the novel is dedicated to her and to Quinn's father.

Such references remind me of the other stereotypical feature of a first novel – its alleged hefty dose of autobiography. Quinn rejects the charge. "I definitely write to conceal myself rather than reveal myself. Obviously a lot of Baines's feelings about Liverpool are mine, but I am not at all like him as a character. He's a loner. I'm not. I used to call myself 'a gregarious loner' – after George Gissing – but I am actually just gregarious. I like people's company and going out. So he really is nothing like me. And as for the sex..."

Torn away from his self-imposed isolation by the war, Baines begins a passionate affair with a friend's wife. "I remember meeting Ellah Allfrey, who edited the book," Quinn recalls, "and feeling I had to apologise to her for the sex scenes [there are only two]. And she replied, 'Don't worry, I don't think it's going to win the Bad Sex Award.'" (He's referring to the infamous annual prize instituted by the late Auberon Waugh and given by The Literary Review.)

Baines's commitment to Liverpool endures throughout the novel. Even after the bombers have gone and the city's ruined economy is at the start of its post-war decline, he cannot leave. Quinn seems cosily ensconced on his sofa in north London, so that deep-rooted sense of pride about the place can't, I assume, be autobiographical. "Liverpool is one of those places you can't feel neutral about," he admits. "And I do feel deeply ambiguous about it. I have family there so I still go up regularly, but I could never return. Yet I love it. I feel nostalgic and sad and hopeful for it."

Those who have moved away often say similar things about their birthplace, but Liverpool does, the novel suggests, exercise a particularly strong pull. "It's the capital of itself," Quinn says. "I never felt that I came from the north. I came from Liverpool, somewhere different from anywhere else, geographically with its back to the rest of the country, facing away, out to sea, with that feeling of us against the world. So, yes, it is different from the rest of the world, but," he adds cautiously, "it doesn't mean it is better." Perhaps not, but it's clearly hard to better as a theme for a first novel.

The extract

The Rescue Man, By Anthony Quinn (Cape £12.99)

'It wasn't the mouthfuls of dust or the stink Baines minded so much as the creaks that sounded ominously through the gloom, a reminder that a few tons of debris was poised precariously over his head. He could sometimes distract himself by imagining he was a boy again, crawling in the dead of night beneath the netting of the vegetable patch...'

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