Something tells me I need to get out more

Who wants to be part of the one group to which no fashionable writer wishes to belong?
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The Independent Culture
IT WAS Louis de Bernieres who first raised the problem. We were on a stage together at the Hay-on-Wye Literary Festival and I had asked why he preferred foreign settings for his fiction. In a sustained, witty riff, de Bernieres explained that he had never wanted to be the kind of writer who goes to university, emerges with an average English degree, works in a job where you have to wear a suit, gets married, has children and ends up writing novels filled with middle-class English characters.

The audience loved it. I was rather less amused. Short of providing my address, the names of my children and my VAT number, he had just described my life.

Since then a pattern has emerged. Some jock enrage of the Irvine Welsh/James Kelman school sneers at the toffee-nosed, Oxbridge-educated literary establishment, and I know it's me. The Independent's columnist Bidisha takes a pop at the boys' club of writers, reviewers and publishers: I'm caught bang to rights again.

All the same, when the hip style novelist Christopher Fowler last week told The Times's Lottie Moggach that he was "terrified of that writers' thing, when you can tell from their references that they haven't left the house for years", I began to feel somewhat picked on.

No one, not even a Cambridge-educated member of the literary establishment, likes to be part of the one demographic group to which no fashionable writer wishes to belong. Besides, to be the despised member of a boys' club while also being fingered as the writer who never gets out seems peculiarly unfair.

In such dark moments, I fix my mind on literary purists for whom the word is all - Flaubert, Proust, Roth, Jeanette Winterson. I remind myself that E M Forster blamed his low output on having gone out too much. I recall Martin Amis's remark about how writing novels is precisely about not getting out of the house.

But, hell, he seems to get out of the house quite a bit. Philip Roth may work eight hours a day, seven days a week, but he still found time to develop a riotously dysfunctional relationship with Claire Bloom. That Winterson's no nun either.

It is a problem. Short of socially downgrading my childhood in the manner of Hanif Kureishi or subjecting my accent to a Ben Elton cockneyfication programme, there is little I can do about my background, upbringing or class. The only aspect of my life susceptible to improvement would seem to be in the house-leaving area.

This is where Westminster City Council have come to my rescue. A group of dynamic librarians has decided to mark the National Year of Reading, which starts next month, by bringing books and writing into the community. The campaign will tie in with The Word - the world's greatest literature festival, taking place across London next March - and requires a writer- in- residence. I am deeply honoured.

Now, not only will I be getting out of the house, but I will be having a far more interesting time than Christopher Fowler with his silly parties at Soho House. My project is to roam the borough, appearing in unexpected places to discuss literary matters with the people of Westminster. Obviously I am not at liberty to reveal our plans in detail, but I can give a broad- brush indication of our "placements".

Commuter trains. Targeting the Piccadilly and Circle Lines, I shall be stepping into carriages for three or four stops to provide passengers with impromptu readings from books ranging from Middlemarch to the short stories of Lorrie Moore. My audience will not be obliged to make contributions as they do to buskers, although brief literary critiques will be welcome.

Public toilets. Because graffiti are a valid art form, I shall be lurking in cubicles, popping out now and then to encourage consumers to enter Westminster's limerick-on-the-wall contest. All they will be required to do is complete a verse starting with the line, "A chancer called Dame Shirley Porter..."

The sex industry. Taking advantage of the fact that Soho is within my parish, I shall step out from behind curtains or out of bedroom wardrobes and ask punters to explore with me, at no extra cost, the fascinating connection between creativity and the need to enact the flogging scene from Mutiny on the Bounty in a third-floor flat off Windmill Street.

The Bouncer Licensing Department. Security operatives are surprisingly keen readers. As they collect their official Bouncer Permit, I hope to be able to meet them and discuss matters of common literary interest. For those looking for a thumping good read, which can also have practical use in the course of their work, I shall be recommending Captain Corelli's Mandolin.

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