Joseph Connolly: Fine and dandy

Joseph Connolly shares fashion tips and his happy memories of 1950s Britain, with James Kidd

It's hard to miss Joseph Connolly, even in a busy Hampstead café. Although I glimpse only his right hand side, the smart jacket, flash of pink shirt and cuff link, bush of grey hair and sprouting beard all distinguish the author of the excellent new novel, England's Lane, from the yummy mummies and carefully dishevelled young men sipping espressos.

"I know I look singular," Connolly says a little wearily when I mention his appearance. "It would be stupid to affect ignorance. The only regret I have is that people think I work really hard at it, and I don't. I have looked like this for 40 years."

Style is arguably Joseph Connolly's stock in trade, whether as the author of vibrant tragicomic slices of cosmopolitan Englishness, or elegant man about town. His entry in Who's Who lists his recreations as "wine, lunching and loafing", and includes "Founder Member, Useless Information Society" under his achievements. His conversation displays comparable panache.

We meet on the real-life England's Lane itself – a bustling, photogenic street close to Belsize Park in north-west London. The venue is entirely appropriate, but does create the eerie feeling of talking to a novelist inside his own novel. The story is a high-brow soap opera, set half a century ago. Despite the limited setting, there is enough action for several novels: death, murder, blackmail, confidence tricks, suicide, prostitution, and extra-marital affairs.

What brings England's Lane to life, however, is the carousel of voices that Connolly sets in motion. There is capable Milly, who pursues illicit romance, love and sex with a neighbour. Or Jonathan Barton, the local butcher, whose refined demeanour hides the darkest of pasts. "I love doing this period because the language just falls out of me. I remember the feel and the smell and what people said back then better than I do things from 10 years ago."

Central to the novel's drama is the disjunction between these rich interior lives and the rigid social codes of behaviour, morality, and speech. "Before the Sixties let it all hang out, people did not speak about the things that were most central to them. Even to their spouses. In fact, above all to their spouses. Any sort of a problem was seen as a weakness."

Connolly is quick to reject any direct autobiographical context for the novel, but it feels personal nonetheless. Born in 1950, he grew up a stone's throw from England's Lane, and has remained in its vicinity all of his life. "I was born in the prep school I was later educated in. I was pencil-sharpener monitor in the same room that my mother gave birth. Few can say that." Connolly was just three years old when his father died, leaving his mother to raise her imaginative but wilful only son by herself – like many other widows of the period, she did not remarry.

Connolly's memories of childhood are defined by the lingering influence of the Second World War. "In the Fifties, every sentence was preceded by 'Before the war …', 'During the war …' or 'Since the war …' People were still enormously grateful to be alive. It seemed almost rude to complain about little things because they had been through the big thing."

As Connolly describes it, 1950s England was a country where everyone – men, women and especially children – knew their place. He remembers boys and girls dressing like their parents in the desperate hope of being taken more seriously. "Everything now is geared to the young. Back then nothing was. There wasn't any point in being young. There was just a great list of things you couldn't do or couldn't afford. If a 19-year-old said 'I have written a novel', they would have been laughed at. Now, publishers are falling over themselves. The younger the better – particularly if they are pretty."

As Connolly's own flamboyant appearance suggests, his mature character developed, in part, as a reaction against these postwar restrictions. He confesses, sadly, that he missed the Swinging Sixties (he was at boarding school "in a field in Oxfordshire"), and speaks yearningly about that decade's "peacock revolution". "Suddenly men were allowed to wear what had been banned since the 19th century. Beautiful big cravats, velvet coats, long hair. The dandy re-emerged. But there were still enough old men around to laugh at them and think they were pansies."

Ask Connolly whether he envies young people today, and he weighs the pros and cons in similar fashion to his wholehearted fiction. "I'm not anti-progress by any means. England's Lane is not a wallow in the past. A lot of the 1950s morality had to be swept away, but it's the usual case of the baby out with the bath water."

Many areas of modern life leave Connolly cold: rampant consumerism, tower blocks, inflated property prices, the obsession with careers and what he calls "un-English egomania". A mention of Twitter causes his eyebrow to rise. Nevertheless, he loves ebooks, his laptop and, more generally, the freedom enjoyed by today's younger generation. If only they would dress more imaginatively. "There are no parameters left. The way people now go to a party is how people in the Fifties dressed to wash the car. Casual is the rule. This is good because they don't have to prove anything any more. But I think it's a waste. Men, who now have the freedom to do whatever they like, are conforming."

Conformity is unlikely to afflict Connolly any time soon. "That's the thing about blokes," he tells me with feeling. "You can be a serious person, but you tend not to lose that sense of fun. Women think it's a bit pathetic. We're not afraid of being idiotic."

'England's Lane' By Joseph Connolly, Quercus £18.99

'She got all the appliances. She got appliances coming out of her bloody ears. Telly, twin washtub – fridge, she got. Hoover, you name it. Blimey – she wants to take a leaf out of my old mum's book. When I think back what my old mum had to go through, fair makes me weep. It do. Never give it no mind at the time. Well you doesn't, does you? When you's a kid, you don't think about nothing nor nobody …'

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Strictly
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas