Tony Parsons: No sign of departure yet for a truly top-flight author

Despite an airport writing residency and a hankering for Japan, Tony Parsons would struggle to leave Britain behind

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Tony Parsons, outspoken patriot though he is, admits he has thought deeply about turning his back on Britain. A self-described "fanatical royalist" who remains in awe of his father's medal-winning bravery in the Second World War, the multimillion-selling author and champion of the British working classes has considered moving to Japan.

There are various reasons why he hasn't left yet, the most graphic being the experience of standing with his Japanese wife, Yuriko, on the 32nd floor of the Conrad Hotel in Tokyo, struggling to stand up as an earthquake shook the building. The couple peered from the window to see if the Rainbow suspension bridge was buckling, a symbol of the most serious tremors, and then Mrs Parsons declared: "We are never living here."

But he's still not fully convinced that he won't leave someday. "I don't know that Yuriko will always feel we are never going to live in Japan."

Lately the novelist has spent a lot of time around aeroplanes, thinking about such subjects as emigration, immigration, leaving home and arriving home. That's largely because his book of short stories, Departures, is the product of his time as writer-in-residence at Heathrow. In August he succeeded Alain de Botton as the airport's writer-in-residence and spent a week living among the staff. He took a room at the Sofitel, stacked the bedside table with volumes of his favourite short stories by Raymond Carver and Roald Dahl and set his alarm clock for 3am so he could "go out with airside ops".

Parsons is 57. His semi-autobiographical novels about such fundamental issues as parenthood and love – from Man and Boy and One for My Baby to the more recent Men from the Boys – have sold in so many territories that they would appear to contain some universal truths. The author, as he orders an omelette and "lightly toasted" bagel for breakfast in a café near his home in Hampstead, has a worldly air of seen it, done it. He rarely misses a chance to recount how he snorted speed with the Sex Pistols when a teenage writer for the NME.

Yet he says he was genuinely taken aback by what he saw at Heathrow, from the menagerie of komodo dragons and Argentine polo ponies in the animal reception centre to the youthfulness of the twentysomethings working in air-traffic control in their cargo shorts and frayed T-shirts. "The thing that distinguishes good storytelling from mediocre storytelling is the element of surprise – and I was constantly surprised up there."

The research also coincided with some emotional moments in his life. On his first night at Heathrow, the Parsons family's closest friends left Britain for their native Australia, despite a sense they might be making the wrong move (Parsons uses the story in his book). And on his final evening, his 85-year-old Uncle Ken, who lives in Toronto, departed Heathrow after what might be his last visit to Britain. "It [was] really emotional stuff; he's my last connection with my dad," says Parsons, in one of several references to his revered father, Victor, who has inspired much of his writing and his quest for defining masculinity.

In accepting the Heathrow project, Parsons put on hold the completion of his next novel, Catching the Sun, which is described in a promotion at the back of Departures as the story of a taxi driver who, having been "almost jailed for confronting two burglars in his own home", leaves "broken Britain and takes his wife and children to live on the tropical island of Phuket, Thailand".

Emigration, home and family are the themes again. Notions such as "confronting burglars" and quitting "broken Britain" would surely play well with Daily Mail readers, though, as a long-standing columnist with the Daily Mirror, Parsons might be considered an influential voice among the Labour core vote. Do the Labour hierarchy consider him right-wing? "Probably, yeah," he quickly agrees. "There's not a lot I can do about it."

He corrects the image by insisting that he is "no fan" of the Prime Minister. "I think he believes in nothing... he has just been bred for power," he says, arguing that David Cameron's success is a sign of the weakness of the state education system in producing a worthy competitor.

He thinks Ed Miliband should stand aside for Yvette Cooper, who would "chew up Cameron". Labour needs a female at the helm, he says. "I think it's ludicrous that the party of equal opportunity, the progressive and egalitarian party, has never had a woman as a leader."

Students of Parsons will recall that the machismo prose has caused him problems in the past, notably when he was himself chewed up by contributors to the Mumsnet website after a reference to "big brood mares with saggy tits". His public and acrimonious spat with his first wife, Julie Burchill, has prompted him to use language which doesn't fit the image of the macchiato-sipping metropolitan sophisticate in the Pretty Green polo shirt and designer cap (a combination he has worn for previous interviews).

He comes back to the subject of immigration. "I'm genuinely upset that we have got three million unemployed and yet we have got freedom of labour movement in the European Union," he says. "It's wrong that Ed Miliband and David Cameron say we shouldn't talk about it. I'm married to a foreigner, an immigrant, but the idea that it is not worthy of debate is so simplistic."

His son, Robert, has now passed 30. "He's a professional gambler," says his dad. Parsons is comfortable with that. "I completely am. He loves it and if the love is there then good things happen eventually." Robert briefly took his career to Las Vegas, but now gambles from London.

His father would like that too because his roots are another reason why he'll find it hard to move abroad. "This is home for me – not just Britain, but London."