Nick Hornby – back at Parkside

Parkside Community College, November 12th, 2014

Bestselling author Nick Hornby returned to Parkside Community College last night to talk about his new novel, Funny Girl. In person he comes across just the same as he does on the page – relaxed, warm, engaging, amusing and unpretentious. In conversation with journalist Ángel Gurría-Quintana, and fielding questions from a packed audience, he covered his teaching days at Parkside, sitcoms, reading, libraries, inspiration for Fever Pitch, and Cambridge United.

photo copyright Miriam Douglas 2014

Had Parkside changed since Hornby taught English there in the 80s? ‘The hall hasn’t,’ he said, and there was still the same ‘vibe of great curiosity and intelligence’. He remembered the ‘wonderful atmosphere’ at his job interview and how he was ‘thrilled to bits’ to get the job. About a Boy was directly inspired by his time at Parkside and it was ‘so strange’ that it was now a set text on the National Curriculum and pupils there might be studying it.

Funny Girl is Hornby’s sixth novel and first ‘period piece.’ Set in the 1960’s, it is about the birth, life and death of a fictional British sitcom. Influenced by the ‘socially precise writing’ of the revered Galton & Simpson team (Hancock, Steptoe & Son etc), it tells the story of Barbara, who goes from being Miss Blackpool to making it in London as the star of the hugely popular Barbara (and Jim). Gurría-Quintana observed that she was a ‘a fully-formed, sharp female character’ – a departure from the author’s trademark ‘blokishness.’ Hornby said that he had lost interest in men as characters, that all his ‘blokey books’ were written in the last century. Writing the Oscar-nominated screenplay for An Education, which documents the life for a 17 year old girl in 1961, was stimulating in a way he had not expected.

He talked about the challenges of writing about the Sixties, how he used online resources to recreate the language of the time. People not having phones was strange: ‘how did we used to get in touch or arrange to meet friends?’ Dialling 999 using an old telephone ‘took about 15 minutes.’ Hornby said that nowadays we accept that popular culture is culture: ‘long-form TV such as the HBO shows are like Victorian novels.’ But in the ‘60s this was not the case.

A member of the audience asked him about sitcoms – how did the modern ones compare with the old? Hornby said that the good ones survive,’ but it was ‘astonishing how bad, smug, freaky, precious and middle-class the old ones were. Nobody in TV would let them through now.’ He quoted Bob Dylan: ‘of course the past is better than the present. There’s more of it’.

Asked about studying English at Jesus College, Hornby said he hated it, that he ‘did the wrong course at the wrong time,’ but ‘with hindsight, one’s terrible failures can end up being something you can use’. He spent his student days watching Cambridge United and browsing in record shops.

Recent comments Hornby made on the subject of reading had been reported as an attack on highbrow fiction. Wanting to set the record straight, he said that ‘if adults are not enjoying something they are doing in their leisure time, they should stop doing it.’ He advised people to‘read a book that makes you feel alive’ and not feel guilty about abandoning a boring or difficult novel.

How was he first published? He sold a couple of short stories – one to a magazine and one to Radio 4. Fever Pitch was a moment of inspiration. Hornby was having therapy every Monday and in response to the question ‘how was your weekend?’ he would always answer with the Arsenal score – something like ‘shit. We lost 2 nil’. His therapist asked why he always made the same joke, and whether football actually meant anything. So he started talking about his father – there was ‘an awful lot you could say through the prism of football.’ It was easy to sell this idea because it hadn’t been done before.

Hornby spoke of his admiration for American authors such as Anne Tyler, Lorrie Moore and Raymond Carver, and their influence on his work. Unlike British writers, they wrote in the strong, clear,voices of ordinary people, with a simplicity that persuaded him he could realistically aim to write like this.

How would he encourage young people to use libraries? Hornby said that in a digital era, when we have unprecedented access to books online, libraries needed to re-imagine themselves and host events such as ‘meet the author’ to attract the youth.

Had he been to see Cambridge United since their promotion back into the football league? ‘No, but I will do. Can you still stand up in the Habbin Stand? That’s where I used to go’.