Interview: The agreeable world of Craig Brown: Editors clamour for his columns. He's young and rich. But what next? If he can't write the good novel, will he just disappear up his own parodies?

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Craig Brown is the most fashionable, most successful young journalist of his generation. No question. He depresses rivals by his speed, fluency and cleverness. And his income. His five columns in four national publications - including Wallace Arnold, the clubbable old fogey in the Independent on Sunday - earn him pounds 150,000 a year.

Julie Burchill probably earns more per word, but she's not as loved and admired inside the upper reaches of hackville. Young Brown has the range, the wit, the variety. And he's said to be nice, charming, unassuming, which always helps. More important, he is considered creative. What is there this boy can't do?

Just a couple of problems. First of all, he's 36 1/2 - OK, call that young. Will he still be as desirable, with editors begging for his favours, at 37? When you live by spinning things out of your bonce, not on some knowledge or expertise, other word-spinners can easily take your space.

Second, if he's so goddam clever, where's the novel, where's the hardback proof of his undoubted ability? Will he move on to be Michael Frayn? Or not?

Getting to him, that was hard. You might imagine metropolitan mores for such a leading journalist, Grouching or Garricking at lunch, media parties at night, in touch with the life he feeds on. Hampstead, at the very least.

Nope. He lives in the middle of fields, about 80 miles from London, not another house in sight. Humble-looking agricultural labourer's house, untidy entrance, some beat-up Volvos left to graze, dead toys in the garden. Inside, more children's toys capturing every room, sausages sizzling for lunch, mashed potatoes lying dormant. Some arty bits and bobs, once you move around, and a new wing at the back, nice big garden. But overall it feels like a high-class squat. That's Craig in his awful Oxfam clothes. His hair is out of control, what's left of it, poor teeth, but babylike skin. And he can produce a beatific smile.

We are in Essex. Oh, the humiliation, won't they snigger in Hampstead. But look, Suffolk is only a mile over there, he gestures hopefully. He is married to Frances, daughter of the journalist Colin Welch, and they have two children, Tallulah, five, and Silas, two. When you have such a boring name as Brown, best to pep it up.

The house has no mains water, no mains sewerage, no gas, and until two years ago, no central heating. Craig's study is in the garden, said Frances, doing sausage duty. A joke, I thought, as all I could see was a derelict greenhouse and a falling-down cement hut which might once have been a pigsty. But this was it, the heart of the little empire of his imagination. He walks across the garden every morning to his concrete bunker, clambers in across piles of books and papers, and creates away. No phone. No need. He doesn't do journalism where annoying editors ring him up with dopey suggestions. He does two columns a week in the Sunday Times - the television review and the restaurant article, both usually very amusing; a column in the London Evening Standard, meant to be opinion, but which so far hasn't found its voice; the pretend Diary of a famous person in Private Eye, well researched and completely convincing; plus Wallace Arnold.

The most interesting thing about his den is not its untidiness, his framed awards, the abandoned typewriters, the useless-looking electric heater, but the large metal dustbin beside his seat, overflowing with torn paper. So he does try to keep the place tidy, I thought. He bins all his junk. It turned out to be his cuttings. Good grief.

The normal hack has a cuttings book, each of his articles lovingly pasted in, back to that first wonderful bylined flower-show report in the Cumberland News. As one grows older, more successful, staff might do it for one, or one's mummy. C Brown is the first hack I've met who can't keep up with his own output. When publishers ask for collections of his journalism, as they do all the time (Craig Brown's Greatest Hits is just out from Century, price pounds 9.99), then he has a hell of a time scratching through his dustbin.

Craig never worked on the Cumberland News. In fact he hasn't seen service anywhere, never having been a staff man, far less worked in the provinces as people say you should. He went to Eton. Sufficient said, you might mutter, but that would be showing your prejudice.

Bit working class, being called Craig. Sounds like Spurs' latest signing from Stenhousemuir. At school he was the only Craig and thought it quite smart. 'It's only in the last five years that I find myself in supermarkets turning round when some mother shouts, 'Put that down, Craig.' '

Father a stockbroker, very big house in the Home Counties, occasionally reduced to an ordinary big house, when stockbroking was not doing so well. Large Catholic family of Scots extraction.

'I was taught by nuns, when I was very young, and they made us squeeze our hands hard together and told us: 'God is between them still.' Now, could a Church of England education give you that experience? At my prep school the headmaster wore the school uniform, the same as the boys: shorts, Airtex shirt and sandals. At the time it seemed perfectly natural, but it's only now I find myself wondering, what did the parents think?'

He hated Eton for the first two years, being useless at games and perpetually in fear of the other boys, but eventually he met some confederates, then found a niche writing for the school mag and the drama society. 'There was a master who blamed me when he got the sack, for ridiculing him, which wasn't quite true, but boys at Eton can acquire great power.'

What sort of stuff did you write for the school mag? 'Almost exactly the same stuff I'm writing now. Depressingly similar. Perhaps just a bit less polished.'

Clever, smart, awfully witty, then horror, shock. He was the Boy who Refused Oxbridge. Said shan't. Not trying. Scared of not getting in, were you? He looked aggrieved. 'Of course not. It's almost a formality if you're at Eton.' Your A-levels sound a bit weird: theology, history of art and English. Bit soft. Not exactly scholarship subjects. Yes, well, he was rotten at languages and couldn't understand economics.

So what grades did you get? He affected not to remember. Two As and a B, or was it two Bs and an A? There was a B in English, he remembers that, to his fury. Anyway, he had already applied to Bristol to read drama.

'I was fed up with school. I read Bristol's prospectus and it read like a holiday camp, doing voice lessons, pretending to be a leaf. I didn't plan to be an actor. In my mind I was always going to be a playwright or a novelist. Bristol was associated with Stoppard and Pinter and sounded very glamorous. My parents didn't protest much when I refused to go to Oxbridge - neither had been at university anyway - but my mother was upset when I dropped out of Bristol. She had always seen me as a Blue Peter presenter. Until a couple of years ago she was still saying 'such a shame about Bristol' . . .'

The drama course had been a mistake, so he came to London, lived in a squat south of the river and for about two years went up to Soho on the bus each day, drank and talked himself silly in the French pub, feeling awfully Bohemian. 'Totally fake Bohemian, of course. Coming from a well-to-do background, I could go home and be pampered any time I wanted.'

He applied for a job as a television researcher on the Russell Harty programme, got on the shortlist but didn't make it, so set himself up as a freelance journalist, doing odd articles for Harpers, Tatler, Time Out. Ian Jack on the Sunday Times (now editor of the Independent on Sunday) gave him two days' work a week as an assistant on the Atticus column.

'Was I pushy? I don't look upon myself as pushy, but I suppose I must have been, to persevere, turn up at newspaper offices and just hang around. What I did in the early days was put up endless ideas, saying if I write them, will you read them? I didn't actually ask for commissions, so they lost nothing by showing an interest.

'Being an Etonian was some help. The world is interested in Etonians, and people think you'll be able to do anything. But it's also a handicap in that people think you're rich and don't need the money. Eton does give you confidence. It's been said that Eton's greatest gift is arrogance, which you can choose whether to use or not.'

His break came in 1987, when a parody in Tatler of a Spectator political column led to being asked by the Times to do some parliamentary sketches, four a week at pounds 250 a time, his first real money and first regular employment.

'I had no interest in politics, but then lobby correspondents haven't either. It's the saga they like, the running story; who will get Mrs Beckett's job, or whatever.

'Journalists aren't cynical, in my experience. They do get carried away by people, usually the people they hang out with, the ones who are nice to them. But I think the standard of parliamentary sketch writing is astonishing - especially Matthew Parris (his successor on the Times). Yet they are hardly rated. The political pundits, like Hugo Young, can predict any old nonsense, and when it doesn't come true no one seems to mind. They are still considered important. Cabinet ministers still invite them to dinners.'

What do you think your strengths are? 'Er, parody. Yes, that's about it. I like being able to have my cake and eat it, being half for and half against the people I'm writing about. I suppose that's me. I half liked and half hated Eton. I half like and half hate talking about myself . . .'

Wallace Arnold appeared first in the Spectator, which led to legal trouble when he took it to the Independent on Sunday. 'They continued to run their own Wallace Arnold column, written by someone else, and I had to prove I owned it as an intellectual property. I won, but the costs came to pounds 8,000.'

It began as a parody of an old- fashioned Spectator columnist. 'A fat-bottomed writer, someone a bit like Godfrey Smith.'

Perhaps, in the years ahead, he'll turn into a real Wallace Arnold. There is a hint of future tweeds about him, the country gent, staunchly if idiosyncratically conservative, deliberately out of touch with London life. He likes the fact that at five each day there is absolutely nothing to do in the country. No theatre, no films to go to. The highlight of his day - dread phrase] - is a game of tennis.

Recently he has found himself worrying more about his columns. Until now he saw them as school essays, which were knocked off without thinking.

'At the moment I am like a footballer or a model in demand, with editors offering me jobs, but like footballers and models, I suppose I'll fade. I'm not an Incredibly Young writer any more. I find myself reading my replacements when I'm on holiday and thinking hmm, that one's pretty good.'

Right, so isn't it time to go legit, turn himself into a truly creative writer? One of his literary parodies, The Marsh Marlowe Letters, was made into a West End play, starring Michael Hordern, and last year there was a Radio 4 series starring Harry Enfield, based on Wallace Arnold. But neither was a big success.

Now he is taking the plunge. He is half-way through his first novel. 'I took four weeks off from the columns, thinking that would be enough, but I only managed 60,000 words. I'll have to take off more time to finish it.' He has an advance of pounds 20,000 from Century, which will make every other unpublished novelist pretty sick, but then if it takes him eight weeks to complete he'll have lost money, based on the journalistic income he could have had.

Alas, it is not going to be the serious, deeply moving literary novel he always hoped he'd write. 'Like all people who haven't written a novel, I thought my first novel would be like Patrick White, John Updike or Henry James. I've discovered that I haven't got those talents.'

For a start, he has found he can't handle narrative, nor can he get inside people's minds. 'I can't remember my own thought process, never mind someone else's' In essence, this novel will be, you've guessed, a parody, using documents to tell the story, written in different voices.

At first he said he didn't want to reveal the plot, in case someone pinched it. Then he said OK, it's about someone who appears at the end of a very famous novel as an embryo. All right, it's Lady Chatterley's son. Lady C herself goes downhill and becomes an alcoholic. Mellors becomes a successful market gardener. The son grows up to be a Tory MP. Clever, huh?

'I'm now seeing myself as a comic novelist, not a literary novelist, as I once thought, but what's wrong with that? P G Wodehouse did pretty well. And if I don't make it as a comic novelist, I'll still think I've been very lucky, in my work and in my family life.

'I'm sure I'll survive as a journalist - just look at the quantity of papers today. Yet they all write the same way. They go to journalism school, where their voices are ironed out, then work in offices, talking to each other all day, so their voices merge. Anyone with their own voice will always get work. And no one can parody me as well as I can . . .'

(Photograph omitted)

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