An interview with David Nobbs
David Nobbs illustrating the ‘fall and rise’.
David Nobbs’ latest novel is about a massively successful businessman who can do no wrong. He is universally loved. He owns a tower block in Canary Wharf, a championship football team, an art gallery and a huge charity empire. He believes he cannot be touched. But he is wrong.
The book begins with the protagonist Gordon Coppinger having a crisis of self-identity (he cannot remember his own name) similar to that suffered by Reginald Perrin. And of course, the title of this book makes reference to this too. However, without giving the plot away, ‘fall and rise’ here bristles with an irony that was absent from the original book. Coppinger and Perrin are very different characters. Perrin’s fall was an existential one – the ‘being and nothingness’ of a faceless man in a corporate machine. Coppinger’s fall is one of hubris. To what extent do you want readers to be thinking about Perrin as they follow Coppinger? To what extent do each men’s crises echo their times?
The idea of calling the book ‘The Fall and Rise of Gordon Coppinger’ was the publishers’, not mine. They said they wanted to show how much ambition they had for the book by risking a comparison with Perrin. I had called it simply ‘Coppinger’. Interestingly, it was not my idea to call the Perrin series ‘The Fall and Rise…’ either. The original book which I adapted into the first series was called ‘The Death of Reginald Perrin.’ This was changed to ’The Fall and Rise’ when the series came out. There’s no doubt that calling Coppinger ‘The Fall and Rise…’ helped with publicity, and I felt it was valid to Coppinger as a human being, in that towards the end he is beginning a change into a nicer human being, a change that to me was hugely important to the theme of the book. I now think that the drawback to the title is precisely that it leads the reader to search for comparisons that aren’t really there. Then I went and made this worse myself by coming out with a strap line that compared them! ‘Reggie Perrin was the story of a man whom the world slowly drove mad. Gordon Coppinger is the story of a man whom the world slowly drives sane’. My advice to the reader now is to forget Perrin and enjoy this one!
There is a sly reference in the book to what is now commonly known as ‘doing a Reggie’. You must be pleased with the extent to which that book and that character have become a part of our culture?
I find it extraordinary. I’m not mad on the press stating that people have ‘done a Reggie’ when it’s often a tragic story, and particularly when there is no existential element whatsoever, as in the famous case of the ‘Canoe Man’ in the North East, but it’s great that after 37 years people are still saying ‘I didn’t get where I am today…’ to me. They say television is ephemeral. Not in this case.
The third person narrative viewpoint occupies a delicate position: sometimes it seems to mock Coppinger and other times it is on his side. How do you want your reader to react to Coppinger? Do you want them to like him and/or empathise with his plight, or would you prefer them to be critical of his failings?
It may seem strange, but I wasn’t really conscious that my narration was doing this. My motivation in writing the book was my horror at the greed of the financial world. I set out with the idea that I might give the book a Dostoyevskian title like ‘Greed and Redemption’ but the book didn’t turn out to be as savage as I had intended, and I suppose, yes, I did come to like Coppinger. Some of my more left wing friends had trouble with the man at first, didn’t care about him. I wanted, as I wrote on, to show that he might be capable of redemption. So, in specific answer to your second question, I’d be delighted if the reader had somewhat ambivalent feelings towards him.
A recent novel, Obstacles to Young Love, a story about the failed coupling of an actress and a taxidermist, could have been written at any point over your long career. Your new book makes lots of references to contemporary media events, such as Jimmy Savile and the Olympic opening ceremony. To what degree did you want this to be a ‘state of the nation’ novel?
I did want to write a much more specifically contemporary book. I didn’t think of it as a ‘State of the Nation’ book, but the state of the nation concerned me hugely and inspired me to write it, so I suppose in a way it was.
The book is very funny. I laughed the hardest when I found out about the waiters (again, I can’t reveal any more without spoilers). Does the act of making your reader laugh in anyway undermine the serious intention of the book?
I suspect that sometimes it may be that the humour does undermine the serious intention. I don’t think it should and I hope that for many readers, even for most readers, it doesn’t. I have very devoted fans, (if not in the vast numbers that I would like!) and they do expect laughs. I had a great quote from Jonathan Coe in which he specifically described me as a comic novelist. I no longer want to be thought of as that. I suppose I want to be known as a writer who writes funny and entertaining books about the essential seriousness of life. But that sounds like a plan, and I never planned to write the way I do. It’s the way it comes out. It’s me, and that’s all have.
You seem to be suggesting that the entire business of Western capitalism is a confidence trick. A balloon suspended by hot air. How doomed are we do you think?
I went back to make a speech at my old Cambridge college, and the master told me that he had huge hopes for this generation of students. ‘They have the ability to save the world, and I think they will,’ he said. I have step-grand children and I see them searching for better moral values in our society. I think our present politicians are an abysmal lot. The House of Commons debates are like those at an unruly school. There are huge problems, particularly environmentally. The book I am writing now is about this, and full of hope. I can’t abandon hope for the world, but I do look for a better quality of leadership. As to it all being a confidence trick, yes, I think it contains huge elements of deceit, corruption and dishonesty, but we seem to be becoming more and more aware of this, and maybe from that a more honest way will prevail. I’m not holding my breath, though. Quite frankly, if people don’t feel a sense of responsibility to their fellow men, no system will work.
After nineteen novels, and years writing for some of the top names in the industry (The Two Ronnies, Les Dawson, Ken Dodd, Tommy Cooper, Frankie Howard – to name a few), what keeps you at your desk?
I love the process of writing. I’m writing my twentieth novel now and I am enjoying it as much as any, perhaps even more than any. I don’t want to be answering your questions, excellent though they are. I want to be in my fictional Pennine town, working on ‘The Second Life of Sally Mottram’. This is the first time I’ve mentioned the title, so you have a scoop! And this title I will fight to keep!
To find out more about David Nobbs go here: http://www.davidnobbs.com/