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 …'

Arts and Entertainment

game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers

Arts and Entertainment
The original Star Wars trio of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill

George Osborne confirms Star Wars 8 will film at Pinewood Studios in time for 4 May


Arts and Entertainment
Haunted looks: Matthew Macfadyen and Timothy Spall star in ‘The Enfield Haunting’

North London meets The Exorcist in eerie suburban drama


Arts and Entertainment

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year


Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before