Nicholas Blincoe: A passionate puritan

From 'Madchester' to Bethlehem, Nicholas Blincoe's life and novels lurch from one flashpoint to another. Katy Guest meets a writer who stays on the front line

Saturday 20 July 2013 23:00

When you pick up a book by Nicholas Blincoe, it's hard not to make assumptions about its author. His novels so far have been witty little studies of young, cool life in the city. Manchester Slingback was set in Manchester's "gay village", preceding the staggeringly rude Channel4 series Queer as Folk by a good year and throwing in a salty dollop of blackmail and pederasty for good measure. Acid Casuals did exactly what it said on the tin, with transsexuals and a hit man. Jello Salad and White Mice covered gangsters, Goa and incest, and gave added depth to the term "fashion victim".

A few years ago, Blincoe and some of his precocious writer friends launched All Hail the New Puritans: a collection of short stories written to a series of rules that banned authorial asides, poetic sentences, flashbacks and ornate punctuation. The reaction from the critics resembled a Bateman cartoon. And just to round off the preconceptions, Blincoe appeared on the covers of Manchester Slingback and The Dope Priest dressed, respectively, in a black satin frock, red stilettos and fishnets, and as a Hasidic Jew smoking an enormous spliff. "It's impossible to disassociate the writer from their works, and I wanted to play with that," he says now, adding casually: "I've never been a dope-smoker, though." This is not where the surprises end.

It might have been assumed that Blincoe had run out of taboos, but in his latest novel, Burning Paris (Sceptre, £16.99), he has surpassed himself. The book is narrated by James Beddoes, a young Englishman living in Paris to pursue a beautiful French lesbian and write a book about the siege of Paris in 1870. "I've been a bit of a Renegade Puritan with this novel," Blincoe admits, "since about two-thirds of it is historical fiction." But in his pursuit of Flavie, James is eventually dragged to Bethlehem as the city is invaded by the Israeli army.

Blincoe is married to the Palestinian film-maker Leila Sansour, who produced the documentary Jeremy Hardy vs the Israeli Army, about the siege of Bethlehem in Easter 2002. The final scenes of the book will be familiar to anyone who has seen the documentary: Blincoe and a group of international activists are fired at by an Israeli tank. This Sunday, Blincoe will leave for a six-week stay in Bethlehem - his first visit since the events described in the novel. He's travelling "with trepidation but also with hope", after the International Court of Justice ruling against Israel's West Bank wall.

What will shock fans of Blincoe's books is the change in tone from his previous novels. "War has grammar but no logic," it begins, quoting the military theorist Von Clausewitz. What follows is a painstaking analysis of the grammar of war, the way an army thinks, and what happens to the cities the author has so beautifully described in his other books when they get in the way of generals.

Blincoe sees the change in direction as a natural progression. "You get older," he explains. "When I started writing, I was in my late twenties, and I saw myself in the tradition of cult and underground writers. It takes a while for you to realise you're always an outsider, always ineffective and on the margins. I wanted to speak to a readership I felt more in touch with. I want to address the world as an equal. I think I've made a commitment to being a political novelist, which in some ways isn't fashionable." However, "Where else can we be partisan? Where can we put our heart if it isn't in novels?

"I'm the opposite of the character in my novel: I've become more right-wing as I've got older," he says, ordering a lobster salad. "I began to realise that it's people and politicians who make history; it's not Great Forces. And that's always been a right-wing idea: that big men or great men or kings make history."

There is an engaging precociousness about Blincoe. He speaks with a camp Rochdale accent and reels off his influences with the slightly obsessive enthusiasm of a teenage boy listing his favourite films. He learnt huge amounts from reading the French enfant terrible Michel Houellebecq and his friend and fellow New Puritan Matt Thorne, he says. He "didn't want to be a romantic novelist in the way that I saw someone like D H Lawrence or Kerouac was".

He loves Emile Zola, Jane Austen and Daniel Defoe because, as with the New Puritans, "their real depiction of life at the time, more than their poetry, is what continues to excite us". Waugh and Marquez, Lou Reed and Rabbinical Judaism, Harold Bloom and Pedro Almodovar are all cited as influences. His raging autodidacticism obviously started early. "I wrote three novels as a teenager," he admits. "One was an attempt to write like William Burroughs, one was an attempt to write like James Joyce and one was an attempt to rewrite Money. And these were really, really bad novels."

After Blincoe left school at 16, his parents kept the manuscripts in their cellar while he went to art college, hung out in gay bars ("They played better music. And also I got a lot of drinks bought for me"), took a degree and then a PhD - and formed a rap band called Meatmouth, who were signed to Factory records. "We weren't very good," he says. "We were very like the Beastie Boys. And we got signed to Factory so quickly, we just didn't have any material. We only had three songs and then we had to go on tour."

Two years ago, his parents moved house, and Blincoe Jnr burnt his juvenilia - much to his wife's disgust. It seems, however, that he still has a finger in every creative pie. As well as the novels (the next one will be about the siege of Constantinople after the First World War), Blincoe writes journalism and reviews, is a freelance editor for Sceptre (where he is editing his friend Tracey Emin's new book), and campaigns for the International Solidarity Movement (ISM). He has also written the script for a film noir-style theatre production in London. "Oh yes," he remembers. "I've got a play on as well."

Does he, I ask, have a short attention-span? "No one who writes novels can have a short attention-span," he tuts. "The writer I've always admired is Anthony Burgess. And I think there's a tradition of writers from Defoe to Burgess who see the business of writing as communicating, and turn their hands to different forms. At heart I'm only a novelist."

He adds that "novelists are very, very bad at being involved in politics, because they always want to do and say their own thing. I very much admire Edward Said, but he was absolutely useless as a politician because he just wouldn't work with other people. But that brand of idealism is also important." Blincoe's political feelings, inspired only when he met his wife and travelled with her to Bethlehem, have taken on all the passion of a zealot. He is unapologetic about his sympathies, and when I try to pre-empt criticisms of his book (for obvious reasons, the scenes set in Bethlehem are one-sided) and ask him to defend himself, he simply says that: "I've honestly got no idea whether it will come in for criticism."

Several days after our interview, though, he e-mails me a thoughtful and sensitive essay on "the ethical imperative to recognise Israel". Many members of the ISM are Jewish, he says, and his membership has made him challenge his own politics and question the preconceptions he has held all his adult life.

"There's no chance that I'll ever believe in God," he says, carefully, although "I do see religions as a repository for human thought and culture. There's no connection with the time of Christ other than through Jews or the Christians of the Holy Land. And if one side erases the other side, we've destroyed history.

"I've become slightly anti-Puritan, I suppose," he continues. "The Puritans believe that we're born again, that we can kick the past into touch and create a new model future... And I really strongly believe now that if you destroy everything and blow all the bits up into the air, you've got no control over the way they fall. There, that's getting older. I'm against iconoclasm now." It's true. Blincoe has come a long way from Jello Salad to lobster salad, and his Manchester slingbacks probably won't get another airing. Perhaps, even, he's not quite the dictatorial Puritan he once thought. But against iconoclasm? Somehow, I doubt it.

Biography: Nicholas Blincoe

Nicholas Blincoe was born in Rochdale in 1965, where he was a van driver, a welder and an art-college dropout. As a teenager he wrote three "terrible" novels based on the work of William Burroughs, James Joyce and Martin Amis, which he recently burnt. He did an English degree and a PhD in modern European philosophy at Warwick University and, after a short spell in a hip-hop band, Meatmouth, published his first novel, Acid Casuals, set in Manchester. He has since published Jello Salad, Manchester Slingback, which won the CWA Silver Dagger award, The Dope Priest and White Mice, as well as being a journalist, screenwriter, critic and editor. His latest novel, Burning Paris, is published by Sceptre. He is also the co-editor of Peace Under Fire: Israel/Palestine and the International Solidarity Movement (Verso). He lives in London with his wife, the film-maker Leila Sansour.

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