Biblio: The Patrick Neate profile

(First published in Biblio, 2004)

The year Patrick Neate won the Whitbread for Twelve Bar Blues, a friend sent me an email. “Guess what I’m doing in New Orleans?” he wrote. “Looking for twelve blues bars in tribute to the Neate man. Going to raise a toast to every chapter of that book.”

It takes a while for Patrick Neate to make the journey from London and Zambia, the two places between which he shuttles these days, down to dusty Delhi. He knows India slightly, courtesy his website (“I’ve had a lot of email from India, bizarrely”) and even though India doesn’t know his writing as well as it could, since three out of four of his novels aren’t available in bookshops here, his small but devoted following here are the kind who put the ‘fan’ back in ‘fanatic’. That may have something to do with the fact that Patrick Neate possesses one of the sharpest minds in the business today; his flair for the interesting concept is married to the old-fashioned but irresistible urge to tell a story. When the Granta editors left him off the list of the Best Young Writers in Britain today (the very same list that propelled Monica Ali to fame), some of us thought nostalgically back to the days when horsewhipping editors whose views you disagreed with was a common and acceptable practice.

Neate, whose slightly skinhead-inspired look is belied by the humour lurking around his eyes, is phlegmatic about the slings and arrows of fortune. The way he sees it, the Whitbread was the result of an arbitrary decision made by a small panel; the Granta list was the product of arbitrary decisions made by an equally small panel. “I can’t really reject one decision and accept the other,” he reasons.

Somewhere in the US, there’s a college band called Musungu Jim in honour of the title of Neate’s first novel. Musungu Jim is about a student teacher who gets sucked into the politics of an emerging banana republic in Africa, and features a dictator with false testicles. His next book was Twelve Bar Blues, an inspired piece of writing where the rhythms and dissonances of jazz found its way into the patterns of his writing as he evoked New Orleans in a narrative that unfolds across two centuries. Among the books on the Whitbread shortlist that year were Ian McEwan’s Atonement and Andrew Miller’s Oxygen. It says a great deal for Neate’s talent that the judges’ decision was seen as surprising but perfectly apposite.

Next up was Where We’re At, a high-speed travelogue through the hip-hop world pretending to be a novel, the kind of book that just begs to be read aloud. It traces the roots of hip-hop and the manner in which it’s been subverted by the mainstream. The London Pigeon Wars did a 180 degree turn. In Neate’s imagination, the saga of the bloodthirsty and dynamic pigeons who’re the secret citizens of London was the perfect satirical counterpoint to the tale of the lives of apathetic, aimless thirtysomethings trying to avoid any kind of engagement with the world at all costs. LPW divided reviewers, in part because Neate came up with a language of his own (promptly dubbed “pigeon (pidgin) English”, in a terrible but tempting pun) which isn’t one of the easiest dialects to read on the page.

Neate laughs when I ask him about the changing voice from novel to novel: “It was a sort of gag I had with myself. I’d written two novels, one of which I was criticised for writing in an African voice, and one of which I was criticised for writing in an African American voice. It was a nice idea to write as a pigeon, because they wouldn’t be able to complain!”

To the criticism, sometimes expressed in the mainstream (read white) UK media of him for writing about “black” culture when he is so patently white, Neate has just one response: “It would only be straitjacketing if I listened. I understand where these criticisms come from, but ultimately, if you create a piece of art, it exists in its own right. I don’t mean to sound disingenuous about it but I write what I want to write and I’m damned if I’m going to let somebody else’s opinions stop me writing it. For me, there’s a kind of narrative within jazz and also within how I feel the music has influenced my life that I wanted to access [in Twelve Bar Blues] and express, and if it offends people, all right.”

He “discovered” his whiteness the hard way, when he made his first trip to Zimbabwe. When he was 18, he schlepped off there–“on one of those awful post-colonial feelgood programmes where they send British kids to go and teach Africans how to speak English. It doesn’t exist any more. Thank god.”

He vividly remembers walking out at Harare airport and thinking that he had never felt such an outsider, being reminded forcibly that he was a minority in a totally black country. “It was just quite sobering really. I got off the bus at school, and there were these primary school kids and I was literally the most hilarious thing they’d ever seen. And they just all killed themselves laughing! That was my first reaction: Wow, I’m very, very white!”

The novels aside, there are the short stories he occasionally posts on, his regular stints on the performance poetry circuit; his involvement with the music scene; and the man isn’t even in his mid-thirties.

From his online diary, these two entries sum up the warp and weft of his life:

“How did I become such a performing monkey? I’m sure it was never a conscious choice but I seem to be doing more performing than writing right now. I don’t mind too much but the not writing is driving me crazy. It makes me physically itch.”

And then, this:

“The very luckiest thing about writing books for a living is that you know who you are and don’t really need anything else to feel fulfilled. But the downside of this is the withdrawal symptoms when you’re not doing it. When I’m not writing? I feel like I’m not really here, like I’m this shade who’s vaguely but insistently tormented by something left undone.”

Neate juggles an overflowing schedule and occasional writer’s block at an age where many authors are still polishing their first short story collection. He looks a trifle abashed: “I always intend to lie about this; I’d like to say I completed my first novel at the age of 11.” The truth was slightly different. He always knew he could write: “All my essays at school came back with stars and remarks like: good style, not sure about the content.”

Going to Zimbabwe in his late teens did two things for him: it made him aware that there were places in Africa where he would always be at home, almost more at home than in parts of England, and it started him writing. Back from Africa, he went to Cambridge and wrote a few plays, until he figured out that this was not a viable way to make a living as an unknown author: “They’re such a cooperative exercise. If you have no money and you want to write a book, all you need is pen and paper. But no money and trying to produce a play is impossible.”

Neate had nothing to offer the world, just a whole heap of ideas bouncing around in his head. He had a string of “crappy little jobs”-he worked at a Christmas card shop, and was sacked around Xmas time; he worked as a landscape gardner, a job where he was hired because he sounded educated, the flaw here being that he knew nothing about gardening. He went back to Africa; he came back and went to journalism school. When he was just 22, he found an agent who told him he was going to be the next literary sensation. Nothing happened (“it sort of blew up in my face”). He shelved his novel-which happened to be an early version of The London Pigeon Wars, featuring twentysomethings instead of thirtysomethings–and carried on. He didn’t get published for the next seven years, but when the key finally turned for him, it went pretty smoothly. He didn’t make much money off Musungu Jim and is mildly sardonic about the cult of the big bestseller even as he admits that he can now make a living off his work.

As the conversation bounces from a discussion of the Terrible Twosome, Bush and Blair, back to the politics of Africa, away in the direction of the fascinating charms of storytelling, what emerges is that Patrick Neate is at something of a crossroads in his career. He’s shelved a new novel in order to give it breathing space: it’s more political than anything he’s written so far, he says. He’s also reaching a stage in his writing life where he’s looking back at the earlier work and wanting to dump the “gimmicks”, to quit fooling around with what he sees as technical virtuosity.

“I’m a terrible moralist. I can’t help it, I don’t mean to be,” he says, with an engaging grin, “and I’m totally immoral myself like all the best moralists. I subscribe to do as I say, not do as I do. I do have this wild, resentment of the current moral apathy in the UK: how that apathy works, or doesn’t.” Neate’s years in Africa have only sharpened that sense of moral outrage, his ability to step back and assess a place within the context of its history and what it means to him.

The reason he feels so much at home in Zambia, Zimbabwe and South Africa, says Neate, is that the things he appreciates and is interested in are echoed in those cultures. “There’s a strong belief in the family, there’s a political awareness,” he says, continuing deadpan, “and they like to drink – I feel very, very much at home.”

So much so that he’s building a house in Leopard’s Hill, just outside Lusaka in Zambia. In a 2003 entry from his diary, Neate wrote: “It’s a funny kind of area. The nearest district of Lusaka is Kabulonga, a place where the vast majority of white expats live. A few are born and bred Zambians (and so not really expats at all) but most are working here for one or other of the international NGOs. They live in high-walled houses, drive stately four by fours and throw dinner parties for one another. That’s not a criticism. It’s just seems to be what they do.”

He’s wryly ironic about present-day Africa: “Before independence, there were white people who lived in Africa but who still considered themselves British. They lived in a way the majority of the population could only dream about, their only contact with black people was through their servants.” He makes a scathing gesture to indicate that the situation’s gone full circle: “After independence, now you have numerous white people who’ve moved to Africa as aid workers, but who still earn far more money than any of the African population could dream about, still build a house there–and still their only contact with any black people is through their servants! You know, it’s just that previously they might have been tobacco farmers, now they’re development economists; the power equation is pretty much the same.”

Neate wouldn’t say this himself, but I get the feeling that what he brings to Africa is a commodity that can serve both as bridge and barter between him and the rest of the community: stories. What he loves in Zimbabwe, Zambia and South Africa is that the tradition of oral storytelling is still alive. “People don’t necessarily have TVs and radios in the rural areas and they sit around and tell each other these stories, and that’s something I’m very fascinated with.” That became obvious in Delhi and Bangalore, where he held crowds spellbound with performance poetry readings.

He sees himself, quite rightly, as unusual among young British writers because he’s “obssessed with story-telling” and wins the heart of certain beleagured reviewers with his next statement. “I can’t bear books which signpost the theme on page one: this is about, this is what I’m about postcolonial identity, I don’t do that, I tell a story and the themes come out of it.” Glory hallelujah, I add mentally, because that is really the essence of Patrick Neate’s writing: he serves as a sharp reminder to the Eggerses and David Foster Wallaces of the literary firmament that a novel without a story is often just a set of clever circus tricks.

We’re braving Delhi’s heat in order to sit outside in the British Council’s courtyard, where the smokers-Neate says he’s given up, but fiddles wistfully with the matchbox-congregate furtively, like the pariahs they are. The source of inspiration for him, he says, was his grandfather-“this mad storyteller”. “He was this old Irishman, an Irish immigrant who came over to England in the twenties. He grew up in a very rural town, Longford; he could tell me stories about tarrings and featherings, and the first car that they saw, which was amazing for me as a kid. I was fascinated by his idea of storytelling. I’m still fascinated with stories, what they reveal about those who tell them, what the characters say about themselves, all these things for me are the things that make us human. What makes us human? For me, doing things that you know are bad for you-that’s one thing; no animals eat pizza, no animals smoke.”

On cue, the matchbox in his hands bursts into flames, and so do his fingers, and for a second I see tomorrow’s headline: Blazing New Talent Goes to Blazes. We dunk his hand in the fountain nearby (it will heal remarkably fast thanks to the patented Neate remedy: soak injured fingers in glass of cold gin and ice for several hours when back in hotel room).

A while later, when apologies have been traded and soothing unguents offered, Patrick Neate grins evilly. “You’re going to read about this somewhere, you know. My India War Wounds. Scars. Delhi, Where They Tried To Set Me On Fire.” I remind him that he’s the writer. He should know a good story when he stars in one.

Nilanjana S Roy

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