Robert Twigger: Why real men read 'Carp Monthly'

After his martial-arts exploits in the ranks of the Tokyo riot squad, and his intrepid quest for the world's longest snake, Robert Twigger sloped off to his shed to ask the big question: what defines a man today? He bonds with David Vincent
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"What I really like about Farringdon are the local amenities – a first-class donut shop, a world-class gym and a lads'-class lap-dancing club." These words, emblazoned on a Tube poster, seemed to augur well for a trip to meet the author of Being a Man the lousy modern world (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £12.99).

Later that day, in his comfortable if not quite world-class gym, Robert Twigger shows me the changing-rooms around which "Nude Shaver" – one of the book's memorable characters – struts before his ostentatious, unencumbered ceremony. The betowelled man today occupying the mirror position may perhaps only now be understanding the attentions of two fully clothed men, one earnestly pointing, the other sheepishly nodding. As we settle afterwards in the gym's bar, Twigger's habitual knuckle-cracking, syncopated to the sudsy muzak, provides a reminder of how he earned his literary spurs.

Robert Twigger burst on to the scene in 1997 with Angry White Pyjamas, an enthralling and darkly comic account of learning aikido for a year with the Tokyo riot police. It expertly gripped its wide readership – many of whom were, apparently, older women – and introduced them to the hierarchy of the dojo, the brutal discipline of the sensei, and "knobbies", the excruciatingly painful swollen bone-tips in the lower back. Where martial-arts students are expected to say "ooh"s at every conceivable occasion, the reader invariably responded with "ouch".

Angry White Pyjamas was a contentious, though deserved, winner of the 1998 William Hill sports book of the year. The hotly awaited film adaptation was thwarted by the production company's financial plight; now finance is again being sought for the project.

Flushed with unexpected success, Twigger set out on an expedition to the Far East to capture, alive, a reticulated python measuring in excess of 30 feet, and thus claim the $50,000 Roosevelt prize. Big Snake's adventures are interspersed with tales of a remarkable grandfather, Colonel H Twigger – "soldier, boxer, photographer, engineer, and, most latterly, beekeeper" – whose personal mythology and artefacts fascinated and inspired his young grandson, and still do.

Last year, he published his most playful book yet: The Extinction Club, or "Bambi with history!". Ostensibly a history of the milu, an endangered Chinese deer saved from extinction by the 11th Duke of Bedford, it proves more of a picaresque shaggy dog story. Maya Boyd, the world expert on milu, warns against Twigger, saying that "he does not distinguish between reality and fiction". Thank goodness for that. In fact, all Twigger's books appealingly overlap. Hot on the heels of the vanishing milu comes Being a Man. Here, the "adventurer philosophical" throws off his pyjamas to reveal not a bearskin but comfortable knitwear, as he explores the battle between traditional male virtues and the "lousy modern world". The phrase was coined by Tony Parsons, who has called Twigger "a 19th-century adventurer trapped in the body of a 21st-century writer". Twigger, in turn, is very complimentary about Parsons, both man and author.

Twigger's company proves generous and equally wide-ranging. After musing over the demise of the ugly author ("I suppose they're ugly inside, these days"), the potential of a professional double ("don't whinge – outmanoeuvre") and top travel advice ("with a bottle of Worcester sauce you can travel the world with impunity"), we sojourn, for more manly talk, to possibly the coldest pub in Oxford. The touch of death remains crucial to the male rite of passage, and aikido taught him that, to achieve anything, there has to be sacrifice.

"All transitions are a form of death," he says. "If we have a society that doesn't even acknowledge these stages of growth and change, then death becomes this disproportionate thing, but if you acknowledge life as a series of deaths, the final one is just like another transition."

Much of his writing has dwelt on transition, and in many ways Being a Man is a transitional book. Its writing overlapped with The Extinction Club, which had given rise to a depression he found hard to shake off. "The first draft of Being a Man was far more doom-laden. I was less worried about being a man than I was concerned for the whole planet."

The birth of his first child provides the book's framework, though children per se do not figure in Twigger's criteria for manliness. "The modern idea may be that having kids makes you more of a man, but I don't buy that at all. Just because your tackle works, it doesn't amount to much." Now a second child has rendered the Twigger household a chaos of toys and attendant family, necessitating the building of an airy, octagonal wooden shed in the garden, the traditional writer's bolt-hole. (Other notable shed scribblers have included Roald Dahl, Virginia Woolf, Jeanette Winterson – in Ruth Rendell's – and Philip Pullman). A print of Balzac looms over Twigger's laptop, and a whiteboard keeps a tally of daily word output – on average about 2,000, it seems.

A punch-bag outside the shed attests to the physicality of his regime, and I sense that Twigger is fuelled by a sense of personal guilt at being a writer. While he aspires to turn craft into art, to where it becomes "kaleidoscopically interesting", he insists his concerns lie with "super-normality, people who have somehow mastered the problems that affect all of us".

The first draft of a new novel has just been finished. It's a tale of love and language set in Egypt (his wife's birthplace), provisionally entitled Dr Ragab's Universal Language.

Though likened to a "sane, straight Chatwin" by Will Self, Twigger underwent his Chatwin period with The Extinction Club, and the most obvious influence on Being a Man is reflected in its working title, "The Hemingway Complex". He also cites Christopher Isherwood, Henry Miller, Italo Calvino and Norman Mailer, with Luis Buñuel's memoir My Last Breath setting a tone for autobiography – though he stresses that his work "has always been informed by the structures in fiction".

No poets, for the writer originally billed as "the Oxford poet doing his thing"? "I make my living from writing prose," he replies. "The problem is, if you write poetry all the time, it constipates prose. It's like being a photographer and always working with a zoom lens, then switching to a wide-angle. The other problem is cliché. In poetry, it's verbal; in fiction, it's character or situation."

I suggest the similarities to the work of the American poet and critic Robert Bly, whose 1990 book Iron John attracted derision for its new-man angst.

Twigger was aware of the connection. "I deliberately didn't want to read books that were too close," he comments, "as I wanted to navigate my own path through it. But I am aware of broadly what he talks about, and I knew there was an overlap. I love the confidence of Iron John. No English male writer has that degree of confidence." He also kept in mind the cautionary experience of Neil Lyndon, whose controversial book No More Sex War virtually destroy his career. Twigger admits that even discussing masculinity is seen by many men as an admission of failure, but is undeterred.

"If you believe that life's a journey, that experiences are more important than things, then you don't need the trappings of laddism, or mid-life crises," he says. "And, of course, real men don't read these lads' magazines. They read Carp Monthly or Motorcycle News."

Having negotiated, with his wife, three months a year for his "micro-adventures", Twigger intends to learn to sail, a resolution of an obsession with boats that has dogged his life. Rather than own a boat, he will simply sail.

Most important, he will be balancing the hours of introspection in the shed. "Men aren't very good at doing nothing," he says. "I felt that by the end of the book, I'd written away my hang-up. Being a man isn't such a bad option if you get yourself in balance and have male-proving and male-balancing activities. It's only when you're out of balance that it can all seem a bit grim and tricky. So there is a kind of resolution in the book. And I've always tried to make my books end properly, as my brother would say."

Robert Twigger: a biography

Robert Twigger was born in 1966 and raised in Oxfordshire. After breaking his back in a climbing accident, he switched from studying engineering to philosophy at Oxford University, and won the Newdigate Prize for poetry in 1985. He is the author of Angry White Pyjamas, about a period spent training with the Tokyo riot police, which won the William Hill sports book of the year in 1998 and the Somerset Maugham award for a first book. Big Snake, a quest to win a reward for the capture of a giant python in the Far East, was made into a Channel 4 documentary; last year, The Extinction Club took him on a hunt for an endangered deer. Besides travelling and writing, he stood as the Extinction Club candidate for Oxford West and Abingdon at the general election last year. He received 93 votes. His account of masculinity and its pitfalls, Being a Man the lousy modern world is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson later this month. Dubbed "a unique and dazzling talent" by Tony Parsons, Robert Twigger lives in Oxford with his wife and two children. He writes in a garden shed.