Interview: Corks a-popping for socialism: Ken Follett loves his Queen Anne house and his Bentley. What about the workers? They love his books

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No interviews at his home, he said, that's his rule, never breaks it. A shame, for I know that his home is a four-storey Queen Anne gem in Chelsea and that he has a staff of two full-time secretaries and three domestics - one to do the laundry, one to cook and one to clean.

Ken Follett is a noted champagne socialist, but that does seem going it a bit.

Let's have lunch somewhere, he said. I'll drive you there. What about the Waterside Inn at Bray?

Hmm, going it a bit more, even for a socialist champagne drinker. It's supposedly the country's best restaurant. Not that I've been. I said no thanks. Tell you what. You come to my place. I have a half bottle of M & S champagne somewhere.

He arrived in his new car, a Bentley Continental R, price pounds 175,000. All lunch I fretted. Would it get nicked, would some kid vandalise it? That's when I wasn't thinking, can it be true? Can this

man really be a socialist, champagne or otherwise?

Let's explain where the champagne comes from first. Novels. He got a US advance of dollars 7m ( pounds 4.8m) for his last book, A Dangerous Fortune. In the United States it was 14 weeks on the bestseller list and sold 500,000 in hardback. In the UK it was only two weeks on the list and just 60,000 sold, but no doubt it'll sell millions when the paperback appears in July.

Interesting that he does better abroad than here. Far better than J Archer. Even the Italian edition sold three times the UK's. 'I think the marketing is better, especially in the US.'

He's 44, born in Cardiff, dad a tax inspector who was moved to north London when Ken was 10, and then to Dorset. This explains his lack of a Welsh accent. It's now almost mid-Atlantic.

He went to grammar school and then University College, London, where he read philosophy. At 18 he got married to his girlfriend, Mary, three years older, with whom he'd been going out since he was 16. Bit young, for marriage? 'We got pregnant, that's why. She came to see me on a flying visit during my first term, and that was it.' He lets out a deep, dirty laugh, flashing his teeth. He'd make a good studio audience, roaring at anything remotely funny.

Yes, but it couldn't have been funny at the time. 'Of course not. It seemed the end of the world. We'd met at church, the same church. Both our parents were Plymouth Brethren. You can imagine how horrified they were. But they came to the wedding.

Mary got a job as a bookkeeper, I carried on a student, and we survived. I didn't live a normal Sixties student life, but I don't regret it. You think at the time you're having a baby, but what you're having is a person. I had a son, Emanuele whom I'm still very close to.'

Emanuele? Bit fancy. 'Not really. I could have called him Purple Neon Sunshine.' You what? 'I was just trying to think of a stupid Sixties name.' Thanks. Then they had a daughter, Marie-Claire.

He'd worked on the student paper Pi under the editorship of Jonathan Dimbleby. On graduation, with a 2:1, he joined Thomson Newspapers as a trainee journalist, first in Cardiff on the South Wales Echo, then to London on the old Evening News. After that came two years in publishing. In 1973 he needed some money in a hurry, pounds 200 to repair his car, and decided to write a thriller. He went on to write 10 in all, under a pseudonym.

His breakthrough came in 1978 with Eye of the Needle, a spy story set in the Second World War and published under his own name. How was it different? 'The pace was slower, the plot better. I became fascinated by the last war and did a lot of research for the first time. That's what gave the book its grain.' It sold 10 million copies and was followed by a string of wartime adventure books.

He changed direction three books ago, giving up spies and war, producing a historical novel set in the middle ages, The Pillars of the Earth, all about cathedrals. His latest novel is more up to date, about two banking families in the 19th century. The next novel, on which he's now working, is set in the 18th century, about a group of convicts being sent to the US.

With every book he writes a 60-page outline and lets his agent, publisher and family read it. He genuinely wants to hear suggestions. 'An editor who doesn't criticise is no use to me.' Doesn't this suggest a lack of confidence? 'Listen, I wrote 10 unsuccessful books before I broke through, so I'm looking all the time to keep my books fascinating. I want to write what people want to read, not push any message.'

Unlike most authors with massive worldwide sales he does not bridle at criticism of his literary style, nor boast about his talents. He likes to think he writes decent, simple English, but that's all. 'I aim to be translucent, so you don't notice the words, just their meaning. I haven't much insight into people's motivations.

'People are much more complicated in real life, but my characters are as subtle and nuanced as I can make them. But if you say my characters are too black and white, you've missed the point. Villains are meant to be black-hearted in popular novels. If you say I have a grey-hearted villain, then I've failed.'

His main strength, he says, is plot and structure, keeping you turning the pages. 'It's like steps in a dance. If you take the right ones, the music never stops and you go round and round. Make one wrong step and the enchantment's gone.'

So far, he's avoided a present-day setting, which seems strange for an ex-journalist. 'Yes, but I wasn't a good journalist. I'm not very observant. I noticed your sitting room had lots of books, but if you asked me to describe the furniture, I couldn't'

We were now walking round Hampstead Heath. He was in old clothes and puffing a bit, though he says he keeps fit by playing tennis and practising his bass guitar. He often plays in public.

Emanuele went to boarding school, Frensham Heights, and is now a struggling pop musician. Marie-Claire went to a private day school and is now a drama student. He was divorced from their mother in 1985, having fallen for a woman six and a half years older.

'There's a remark in a Julian Barnes novel about there being only one rule in any marital break-up - that the man never leaves his wife for an older woman. When I met him, I told him this was bollocks.'

So why do you always go for older women, Ken?

'They've got dirtier minds,' he said. More awful laughter.

His present wife, Barbara, a social researcher, was responsible for polishing up the clothes and presentation of various Labour leaders. They met at a local Labour Party meeting. She was the secretary and she turned him into a true activist. 'Party research showed that people didn't think the Labour Party was for successful people, so I spent two years before the last election gathering a list of over 500 celebrities who supported the party.' They were then invited to come out of the closet, fly the red flag, or at least turn up at pounds 500-a-head fund- raising dinners. Luvvies for Labour, they were called, as most were actors.

'Oh God, don't use that phrase. I got told off by Alan Rickman and Barbara Ewing. She actually hit me. They say it's demeaning - but here's the last time. How many luvvies does it take to screw in a light bulb? One to screw it in and nine to say 'Darling you were marvellous' . . .' His laughter echoed down Parliament Hill.

Time for tea and confrontation. Nobody ever suspects Tories when they admit to Toryism, and no self-confessed capitalist pig is ever asked to explain himself, so this is a bit unfair; but come on, Ken, are you really, truly, madly a socialist?

'Stick it in your ear, Uncle Roy.'

What does that mean?

'I could have said fuck off, but that's the polite phrase we use in our family.'

Right, so what about your flash red pounds 175,000 car?

'I can't say I needed it, any more than a woman might say she needed a diamond necklace to keep her neck warm. It wasn't rational, but it's my extravagance. I don't regret it. I never said I was a saint, only a socialist. You tell me the contradictions in owning that car, and I'll answer them.'

Doesn't it upset ordinary struggling party workers who might feel you should help them more?

'I do help. That's boring. Try harder. It's an argument with no moral weight. By buying that car, I provide money and work for people. Tell me one bad consequence?'

What does your wife think?

'I suspect she strongly disapproves. At least, she's always finding fault with it. I think in her heart she's a Puritan. I'm not.'

Your children. Why didn't they go to state comprehensives?

'Emanuele asked to go to boarding school. He chose it.'

That's a cop-out answer.

'Barbara is more scrupulous than me. She sent her children to state schools and has never used private medicine. Yes, I have. So what? I don't like these pernickity bullshit questions. I won't be told what to do and say by politically correct people. I remember Barbara throwing a wobbly when I turned up at a CND demo wearing a fur coat. Nobody tells me what to wear.

'Your questioning has a slight odour of Guardian-reading sanctity. You sound rather dismayed that I don't apologise for being rich and enjoying it - like a vicar meeting a hooker who says she likes men. I might not be a good socialist, any more than I'm a good Christian, but I am one.'

Why?

'It's commmon sense. The Conservatives are not interested in trying to make society a fairer place, which I am. Have you noticed how their main interest is persecuting - the Irish, Jews, Commies, gays, immigrants and now single mothers?'

How do you think Labour's doing?

'The Tories are doing all the work for us, making such a mess of things, but their bad luck can't go on. We shouldn't be lulled into security. I was devasted when we didn't win last time. Neil would have made a great PM. Smithy has one great thing going for him - the people think he's honest, which he is of course.'

It's normal, with age and with success, to become more conservative, with a small c. Has it happened to you?

'Yes, I no longer believe in the class struggle.'

The car was still there, surrounded by a gang of kids ogling it. They were divided between guessing it was a famous footballer's, or belonged to Ken Dodd, thanks to the number plate - KEN 25P.

What does the second half mean, Ken?

'Every man has his price, and that's mine - 25p]'

I could still hear his laughter, two streets away.

(Photograph omitted)

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