TLY: Today’s guest is Peter Cowlam, a writer of numerous gifts and author of Who’s Afraid of the Booker Prize? and Across the Rebel Network.
Peter, always a pleasure! Thank you for talking to us. You grew up in England. Would you tell us a bit about your background?
PETER: My family can trace its roots to Lincolnshire, a county in eastern England that extends along the North Sea coast from the Humber estuary to the Wash. There are still lots of Cowlams there, and variants of that name. Peripheral to family mythology is the ancestor who, thanks to Thomas Edison, was the first person in Lincolnshire to have the electric light, and thanks to someone else had his own silver band. The imagination swims at the combination of that imagery. By the time my grandmother was born, her family fortune had been drunk away, and she, when still very young, was obliged to seek work in service in the West Midlands, which at that time still resounded with the hammer blows and anvil of the Industrial Revolution. Her husband-to-be followed her down from Lincolnshire, and found work as a coach-builder. My father was born in Birmingham, as was my mother. The two of them met in the drawing office – my father an engineer, my mother secretarial – where both of them worked. By the time I was born they had moved to the East Midlands, though I was christened in St Germain’s, Edgbaston, where my father had grown up. But I also spent part of my childhood in Switzerland. My father had work with an American firm whose European HQ was in Zürich, and whose contracts were bound up with German post-war reconstruction after the Marshall Plan. His part in it was in the restoration of industrial production in the German-speaking world, in the design of factory plant. The rest of my childhood was spent in the English Southeast, where my father had work with engineering firms in Frant (not far from Tunbridge Wells) and latterly in Greenwich. As well for me, as the English Midlands, long after its industrial boon, suffers as one of the worst regions for social mobility, while disproportionate opportunity is centered on London and the Southeast, the powerhouse of finance and its related service industries. My time in that part of the world took me into IT, an industry I finished with soon after I was assigned projects working on algorithms, before the internet had really got going, for the global transfer of money, institution to institution.
TLY: Have you lived in other countries? Traveled? Any war stories?
PETER: Apart from Zürich above, and that as a result of parental migration, Sarah and I and our two children lived for six months in New Zealand, in the late 1990s. Good friends of ours had emigrated there, and made us promise to visit before too long. We didn’t think a flying visit to a location halfway round the world was the best plan, so we opted for six months. We lived on the Marua Road, in Ellerslie, which is a town in Auckland famous for its race course, and a short drive along Highway 1 to the city centre. NZ is a country of enormous diversity: volcanoes, limestone caves, glacier lakes, kauri forests, fjords, long sandy beaches, the snowcapped peaks of the Southern Alps, and it retains a strong Maori presence, culturally, architecturally, with meetinghouses everywhere. We travelled the length and breadth of both the North and South Islands, in an ancient Nissan Bluebird, bought at auction on Ellerslie Racecourse. In its thousands of kilometres up and down mountains, along highways and unmade roads, it broke down only once, a blessing, given these were the days before the prevalence of mobile phones. Then one day I read in our local paper in Ellerslie of someone surname Coulam who had just published a book. His was a variant on my own name I had never seen before. There were plenty of Coulans, Cowlands and Coulands – but never a Coulam. The paper’s editorial department gave me his phone number. I congratulated him on his book. He told me his family traced its ancestry to Lincolnshire, though he was not a bit interested, he said, in genealogy. His brother was, and that’s where he’d got his information. I thanked him very much, and made a note. After New Zealand it was two months touring round Australia. As to ‘war stories’, I have thrown away my shield.
TLY: What genres do you most enjoy as a reader?
PETER: I am not a systematic reader, and I don’t read as much fiction as I used to – picking up whatever takes my fancy. At the moment I am reading essays by Thorstein Veblen, Browning’s The Ring and the Book, and a generously plump volume of essays on physics, astronomy and maths. Whichever one of those it is depends on the time of day (I have three reading slots: morning, evening, night). Veblen was a nineteenth-century Norwegian-American economist and sociologist, who has had an influence on non-Marxist critique of capitalism and technological determinism. His jumping-off point in the essays I am reading is the Physiocrats, a school of economists founded in Enlightenment France. Its central idea was that government shouldn’t interfere with natural economic laws, and that the wealth of nations was derived from productive work on the land and the value of its agriculture. That is in contrast to earlier schools, in particular that of Mercantilism, whose focus was on ownership, the owner’s wealth, the accumulation of capital, and trade. You begin to see whose spell we are under now, centuries later.
Browning’s dramatic monologues I have long admired, but The Ring and the Book has been on my shelves for over a decade. I have only now had a chance to open it. The town where I live had four antiquarian and remainder bookshops when I first moved to it (it now has only one), so I spent my first few years here buying more books than I could possibly read.
The Ring and the Book, a long narrative poem written in blank verse, is divided into twelve books. Each of the twelve is a dramatic monologue supposedly delivered by one of the characters in the story. The story is based on an actual murder trial in Rome in 1698, where Pompilia, a young woman, is unhappy in her marriage – an arranged marriage – to the cruel Count Franceschini, an older man, who is titled but insolvent. When she asks a young priest to help her return to her parents, the count discovers the plot and finds them. He has Pompilia sent to a convent, and banishes the priest. Nevertheless Pompilia returns to her parents, whereupon the count arranges for the assassination of both her and her parents. The count is arrested, and a trial commences. Browning came across an account of that trial in the market in Florence, and used it as the basis of his poem—
‘Do you see this square old yellow Book, I toss
I’ the air, and catch again, and twirl about
By the crumpled vellum covers,—pure crude fact
Secreted from man’s life when hearts beat hard,
And brains, high-blooded, ticked two centuries since?
Examine it yourselves! I found this book,
Gave a lira for it, eightpence English just,
(Mark the predestination!) when a Hand,
Always above my shoulder, pushed me once,
One day still fierce ’mid many a day struck calm,
Across a Square in Florence, crammed with booths,
Buzzing and blaze, noontide and market-time,
Toward Baccio’s marble….’
The third on my list of current reading – a cornucopia of physics, astronomy and maths – is aimed at a lay readership, though it cannot help enter into complexities that are vastly beyond my scope. It ranges from the realm of the atom, to time and space, to AI and computers, to science philosophy. One of my good friends once reminded me that the universe is quite indifferent to me. True, but it doesn’t stop me wanting to know about it. I would really like to get it straight, just what it is all of us have got ourselves into. I asked Professor of Physics Jim Al-Khalili if what dark matter really amounts to is tiny particles that undergo stretching as the fabric of the universe expands, to the point that rather like cell division they divide. He was polite in his dismissal, pointing out that (and I paraphrase)—
Expansion of the universe takes place only in the vast gaps between galaxies. At the level of particles, the forces between them, even the very weakest of the four forces, are enough to stop space expanding. Although at the quantum level particles and their antimatter partners do, out of nowhere, pop into existence (cp. my idea of multiplication or cell division) this can only happen if the energy books are kept balanced. There either has to be enough energy in the vacuum to create them in the first place, or they must disappear again very quickly to repay their debt to the universe.
I am chastened: a little knowledge leads one up a cul-de-sac.
TLY: What aspect of the writing process do you find most difficult?
PETER: The word count. Anthony Burgess would have wondered what I get up to all day, it is so pathetically low.
TLY: What inspired you to write Who’s Afraid of the Booker Prize?
PETER: In my last few years living and working in London I subscribed to various literary journals and assiduously read the review pages in the weekend broadsheets. I began to get uneasy with this when I soon saw it was the same small cluster of writers lavishly attended on and held up as paradigms. This didn’t fit with my experience, when I was reading writers and poets who barely rated a mention, serious artists no less accomplished than the cabal I was under instruction to admire. That raises the prickly matter of assessment. If you are being offered an expert view, and it’s a view you don’t agree with, you are entitled to ask who the experts are, what is their expertise exactly, by what authority do they exercise that expertise, and how has that authority been granted to them (and not to someone else, for example). And what is an expert? I like Niels Bohr’s definition—
‘Many people will tell you that an expert is someone who knows a great deal about his subject. To this I would object that no one can ever know very much about any subject. I would much prefer the following definition: an expert is someone who knows some of the worst mistakes that can be made in his subject, and how to avoid them.’
Of course, when we’re being offered paradigms, the person making the offer, and the paradigms themselves, cannot be shown to have, as a raison d’être, the avoidance of mistakes, pottering along, making careful assays, and anxious not to get into too much trouble. We have been taught to expect brilliance, genius even. It’s this brilliance, this genius, that I wished to turn upside down in Who’s Afraid of the Booker Prize? It’s a novel, a satire that in the spirit of Horace aims to ‘tell the truth with a laugh’, where all characters are inventions, that’s to say not based on actual persons. At its centre is Marshall Zob, a mediocre novelist who nevertheless expects to win all the major prizes. His agent, Cornelius Snell, has no interest in literature, but has a stable of successful authors nevertheless. Alistair Wye, Zob’s newly appointed amanuensis, has stumbled in on this in all innocence, and through the diary he keeps shows us the tarnished coin circulating in the Republic of Letters. And that is it, to its Christmas Day dénouement, bearing Bohr in mind, where I kept the thing at a good safe distance, with 1994 as Alistair Wye’s diary year (though I can’t now remember what great books were being touted at that time).
TLY: Vladimir Nabokov once said, “Satire is a lesson, parody is a game.” What do you think he meant?
PETER: Nabokov’s almost allergic reaction to novels of social intent is very well documented. Of Thomas Mann he wanted to issue everyone with lump hammers, in order to chip away – bit by bit – at the plinth he perceived that Nobel laureate to have been planted on. Under strain of serious myopia Borges he once dismissed as a ‘trite miniaturist’, though may later have modified that view. Orwell he was scathing of, but couldn’t have read, or had forgotten, the range of Orwell’s essays, their depth of analysis and the clarity of writing. He did not like Constance Garnett’s translations into English of Dostoyevsky. Of Dostoyevsky himself he was less than complimentary. In Nabokov’s Lectures on Russian Literature he begins his summary of The Idiot in good neutral academic tone. But then, just a few paragraphs in, he is powerless to resist that mirthful diktat he was often prone to, to comic effect. Of Nabokov himself as novelist we do not imagine he created a character like Humbert Humbert in order to stimulate public debate on paedophilia. His long list of frauds and shams included Pound and Eliot. It has been suggested (by Brian Boyd, I think) that John Shade’s extended poem ‘Pale Fire’, from the novel of that name, is a smack at them both, in that it consists of four cantos (Pound’s Cantos, Eliot’s Four Quartets). His friend (and later his estranged friend) Edmund Wilson chastised him for not taking an interest in, or showing enough understanding of, politics, though perhaps with Bend Sinister we should take issue with that evaluation. In that book there’s plenty of parody, for parody is among Nabokov’s favourite pastimes. There isn’t much satire, because satire belongs in the realms of social and political instruction, and Nabokov’s is a different order of didacticism. I can sympathise with his position, though I do not approve of debunking other writers. America had taken him in as a Russian émigré, fleeing first the October Revolution, then the rise of fascism in Western Europe. From the 1940s Nabokov was an American novelist, but I wonder how difficult it would have been, as a welcome outsider, to commentate on domestic affairs, both social and political. And anyway, the world is awash with social and political journalism, much of it masquerading as literature. The Vladimir Nabokovs are of a rare species of butterfly, and light up our summers just once in a while.
TLY: Across the Rebel Network came out in 2015. The novel is set in a “federated Europe in an uncertain, and not-to-distant future.” What is the rebel network?
PETER: There’s a certain symmetry about it, the book being published in 2015, though its setting is 2051. Much of it was written, however, while I was in New Zealand, in 1998. At that time public use of the internet was still a novelty. Therefore my conception of a dystopian 2051 rested on a prediction as to what that digital infrastructure might become, especially in the hands of governments and media corporations, whose interests are in the dissemination of self-serving propaganda. In Across the Rebel Network governments and media corporations have fused, and might as well be unitary wholes. From our one-third-acre plot in Ellerslie I was not only projecting forward to 2051 (or really 2015), I was looking back to the continent I’d left behind, Europe. Its federal ambitions, its designs after a single flag, a single currency, a standing army, a central bank, a definable border, a judiciary, were issues that had split the major political parties in the UK for decades, though I did not envisage that my own country would be the first to secede from the Union, or that it would ever have a Prime Minister willing to offer a remain-leave referendum (and run a lacklustre campaign on the remain side). In the Rebel Network of 2051 it is the smallest member states that – for social and economic reasons – start to break up the Union, and in so doing spawn well organised digital guerilla groups (today we’d call them hackers) able to infiltrate the federation’s IT infrastructure, for the purpose of disseminating counter-propaganda. It’s a risky business, writing novels that are set in the future. There’s a lot I got wrong, and there is much that has come about, though not in the way I envisaged. See Niels Bohr’s definition of an expert, above.
TLY: Recently, you published Laurel, a book of poems about love, loss and rivalry. The poems are spare and telling, and often poignant; one senses they came about through a long evolution despite the brevity of the poems. Would that be the case?
PETER: ‘Evolution’ probably isn’t quite the word. Most of the poems were written in the 1980s, when I was working for a huge, impersonal IT company, a behemoth. My role was in the writing or reading of voluminous reports, which was excruciating. These little poems started to appear in the margins of those reports, when – rebelling all forms of enslavement – my mind began to wander. I transcribed them all into a notebook at the end of each day, and after a few weeks of this resigned my job, left London, and forgot about them. They resurfaced again this year, and after a retouch are now in print.
TLY: Are you currently working on any new projects?
PETER: I began writing a blog novel, on the basis that unlike my other fiction I would not plan it in advance. I’d just see what transpired. But. Unexpectedly, after three chapters, I began to see possibilities, so nothing will now be added until I do have a plan. Instead I’m revising a novel that did have a blueprint, about a poet, of a provenance you’d not normally associate with poetry. He is terminally ill, and the novel records conversations he has with his chosen obituarist.
TLY: Once more, we’d like to thank you for your time. We have long been fans of your work, and pleased beyond measure to have had this chance to talk.
About the Author
Peter Cowlam’s brief stint as a commissioning editor saw two issues of The Finger, a journal of politics, literature and culture. His novel Who’s Afraid of the Booker Prize? won the 2015 Quagga Prize for Literary Fiction. His latest novels are New King Palmers and Across the Rebel Network, the latter being longlisted for the Guardian 2015 Not the Booker Prize. Poems forthcoming in Fulcrum. Poems and short stories have appeared in The Battersea Review, Literary Matters, The Galway Review, Easy Street, Valparaiso Fiction Review, The Four Quarters Magazine, The Liberal, and others. Further details at petercowlam.one.