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Jon Canter interview: The very definition of anonymous

He is arguably Britain's finest comic novelist. So why haven't we heard of him? James Kidd went to find out

“You must push yourself. You mustn’t give a damn about anything or anyone. You mustn’t censor yourself. And then it can be wonderful. It’s taken me this long to work it out.”

Jon Canter is chatting about comedy and its relationship to discomfort. “I think you should scour yourself properly if you are going to do it. I love comedy with pain. I am very drawn to things like Peep Show, Curb your Enthusiasm, The Office. It’s comedy of social embarrassment, but you can tell the writers are going deeper and deeper into their anxieties. I think it is just admirable.”

Canter is worth listening to on the subject, for the simple reason that he is arguably the finest comic novelist working in Britain today. Indeed, he may just be the finest comic anything working in Britain right now. This only leaves the questions: who is Jon Canter, and why haven’t I heard of him?

We meet in Faber and Faber’s London offices – ostensibly to discuss Afterliff. Written in collaboration with John Lloyd (who produced Blackadder and QI), this is the third witty dictionary of “things for which there isn’t a word”. For example: “Beaucroissant n: Male flatmate who spends all his time in the bathroom.”

This particular “Liff” was inspired by Douglas Adams, who not only invented the dictionary but was for many years Canter’s friend and Beaucroissant. “He was addicted to bathing,” he explains. “Douglas crashed in my house in Islington when Hitchiker’s was first on the radio. It was blindingly brilliant to hear that with him.”

Canter himself seems amused, mildly surprised and curious to be stepping out of the wings. “That is certainly where I have been. But I love this,” he says, referring to the interview. “I texted my daughter who’s in Italy. She texted back, Just pretend to be yourself.” Is he pretending right now? “I am aware that I am performing. If my daughter were here she would say, ‘Be natural’. But I don’t know what that would mean in this situation. I’d like to find out what I’m like by reading this interview.”

We could start with the idea of performance, which suggests one reason for Canter’s absurdly modest reputation. While many of his contemporaries (Clive Anderson, Griff Rhys Jones) have become household names, Canter has spent much of the last four decades producing plays, filmscripts and jokes: for Dawn French, Smith and Jones, Fry and Laurie and, most often, Lennie Henry.

Canter clearly revels in the curious twists of his writing life. He once wrote radio commercials for Peter Cook. “I spent two very happy days with him in his flat drinking lager.” Recent projects include a musical, The Cowardly Porter, inspired by Noël Coward and Cole Porter, and the script for the finals of the Bartending World Championships in Barcelona. “I have learned about mixology, which is what bartenders call their art. There aren’t that many jokes in it.”

In 2006, Canter cut out the middle man and began writing fiction: first Seeds of Greatness, then A Short Gentleman, and most recently Worth. Canter made the leap, partly to explore his upbringing, partly to have control over his work, but mainly because his agent told him to. “She said I should have a go. It hadn’t occurred to me. I am very much lead by what women want to do.”

Canter’s prose is achingly funny, but in contrast to the “sit-down comedy” of so many stand-up-novelists, it is also vital, acute, literary and oddly moving. Although his work is deeply personal, it required a sliver of steel. “The difficulty with writing autobiographically is dealing with your parents. My mother used to say, ‘I live in Golders Green but my heart is in Hampstead’, which is agony for me now to remember that.”

In this context, Canter’s role in Afterliff appears like an extension of his fiction – and not only because both exhibit their author’s laser-sighted observations of life’s minutiae. The modest joke-writer filling the shoes of the better known Douglas Adams feels authentically Canterian. The pair had what Canter calls an “interesting friendship”. “Rivalrous” when they met at Cambridge, they gradually formed a deep bond when flat-sharing  in the 1980s. 

“Douglas would be writing ferociously and anxiously, listening to Kate Bush’s ‘Wuthering Heights’ all day long. It was maddening. He was a very extreme guy but great company. He was always on my case. I was never pushy enough for him. I wasn’t bold enough about girls, work – everything.”

On a professional level, Canter seems to be working to prove Adams wrong. Having turned 60 earlier this year, he is honing the “killer instinct” necessary to mine his insecurities in his fiction. “All my novels have come to me over 50 years of research, inadvertently. I can’t imagine setting a novel in Beirut.” At the same time, his new work-in-progress sees Canter expanding his repertoire and learning new tricks. “It is about a woman whose husband dies. It is the first time I have written in the third person and not drawn from my own experience.”

In his personal life, however, Canter seems entirely content to have disappointed his old Beaucroissant. He shares his life in Suffolk with Helen Napper, daughter of the artist Barbara Napper. Discipline helps stave off his creative demons, but Canter confesses to periods of desperate head-clutching.

Before he leaves to have his photograph taken, I ask whether he would contribute a special “Liff” for this interview. “Could I have 24 hours?” Canter asks. Apparently professional pride demands that even this commission is given the utmost attention. The photographer arrives. Canter prepares for his close-up. Hopefully it’s a  small step to ensuring that he won’t be anonymous for much longer.

An Exlusive Liff by Jon Canter

Not  from Afterliff By Jon Canter and John Lloyd

Faber and Faber £9.99

“High Holborn.n A drunken decision which leads to something good”