Table of Contents Interview with James Delingpole
Stories and Serials
Interview with James Delingpole
James Delingpole writes regularly for the Times, Sunday Times and Daily Telegraph. He is also a TV critic for the Spectator. He is the author of various novels including Fin and Thinly Disguised Autobiography.
Hi James – welcome to Gateway! I've been reading some of your archived articles on the Times and Telegraph websites – nothing about WWII so far, though, apart from the one that kicked off the whole COWARD ON THE BEACH thing and alerted me to it – is WWII a passion of yours or is it simply the fact that it's the major conflict nearest to you in terms of memory?
JD: “Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier” said Dr Johnson. It’s certainly true of me. As to why WWII, I think it’s partly a generational thing – childhood reading of Commando, Battle and War Picture Library; then Sven Hassel; teachers who had served; Where Eagles Dare; etc. Partly it's that WWII had everything: the most evil of baddies; the noblest of causes; amazing weaponry (Nebelwerfers; Spitfires; Tigers…); an extraordinary range of settings from the deserts of North Africa to the fjords of Norway to the islands of the Pacific. Finally it’s that if you were a British officer – which is always what I fantasise that I would have been – you stood a reasonable chance (unlike in WWI) of having the greatest adventure of your life while coming out in one piece.
PN: The book is billed as filling a gap, which it certainly does – plenty of people have written books about WWII, but yours is told from a very personal viewpoint and is the richer for it. Did you or do you have relatives that might have recounted their WWII adventures to you as a young boy, as mine did?
JD: My best friend’s father Ken Greves was in the Long Range Desert Group; our family friend Stan Hughes was at Monte Cassino; but they never talked about it. I have no relatives who were there at the sharp end which, perversely, was probably another thing that drove my obsession. To make up for my family’s failure to have been there in action. (Both my grandfathers were midlands engineers in reserved occupations)
PN: How long will we have to wait for the second in the series? Are you working on it now or are you taking a break from fiction for a while?
JD: You make me feel guilty. And guilty I ought to feel because I know jolly well I should be on the case with volume II ASAP. Suffice to say that it’s at Arnhem; I’ve done most of my research; and hey, if you weren’t asking me these questions I’d be writing it now.
PN: I personally felt that Coward was much closer to Sharpe than Flashman – Flashman was a coward, after all, while Sharpe finds himself embroiled in situations and gets to meet the top brass of the British Army en route to those situations, often saving someone's life and thereby ensuring some kind of payback in the future. Would you say that's a fair assessment?
JD: You’re totally right. The Flashman thing was just publisher’s marketing shorthand for: “You will like this book.” I love Flashman. And one of the best war memoirs ever was George Macdonald Fraser’s Quartered Safe Out Here. So the last thing I wanted to do was rip him off. If you’ll notice, Coward is more the diametric opposite of Flashman: the decent chap who everyone thinks is a coward and who never gets the credit he deserves. Nor does he get nearly as much sex as Flashie. Where the two are similar is that they both have an uncanny knack of participating in every major action going.
PN: Do you think it's important that we keep alive all those vivid memories of WWII as an indicator of what was right and wrong with the world at the time and how we strived to put it right?
JD: People knew what was worth fighting for then in a way I’m not sure we do today in our decadent, relativist society. I could bang on about this for hours but there’s just two brief points I’d like to make: Hitler was a fierce anti-smoker and also the man who banned foxhunting in Germany.
PN: In common with your contemporary historical novelists such as Bernard Cornwell and Philippa Gregory, you include an author's note at the end explaining how, for the most part, your book is based on fact. I've never doubted what you (and they) tell me. Am I right to accept what you say? In other words, are such authors' notes also works of fiction? I suspect not…
JD: The historical factual bits – as scrupulously accurate as I can make them – are almost the favourite part of my books. I really really want people to come away from Coward not just having had a jolly good romp but also having learned loads of fascinating campaign history.
PN: The humour in COWARD ON THE BEACH is anarchic, and similar in vein to that used in a wide variety of war films and books, such as OH! WHAT A LOVELY WAR, BLACKADDER GOES FORTH and DAD'S ARMY. Did you speak to people who survived the conflict to get a feel for the humour they used to help them get through it, or is it dredged up from memory? Either way it serves to make the book a terrific read! Your mix of comedy and tragedy is spot on.
JD: Thanks, that’s really kind of you. It’s hard to recreate the sort of jokes that went on because even the chaps who were there don’t remember exactly. But we do know that what kept them going was humour. Often very, very dark humour. It was the British soldier’s most powerful weapon. Why we won the war, even. Did you know, for example, that on the way into Arnhem, the men of the Airborne Reconnaissance Squadron sang: “Hitler has only got one ball.”
PN: Mark Thomas did a superb job on the front cover – did you tell him what you wanted or did you leave it to him?
JD: I agree. He’s done a fab job. So good in fact that it almost doesn’t matter if the contents are rubbish. Mark had a pretty strong idea of what he wanted and all I did was make a few suggestions. When the final version came, I was totally blown away. The colour! The Commando retro-ness! Everything about it is a dream. Cheers Mark!
PN: Would you like to see COWARD made into a TV series, like Sharpe? If so, do you have anyone in mind that could play him?
JD: Coward is only about 24 when this book is set and, in my dreams, I’d like there to be a whole series of Coward films/TV adventures/whatever, so whoever plays him needs to be really young and fresh-faced. Young enough, in other words, for the actor who’ll play him to be someone one almost certainly hasn’t heard of. Yet. Sorry, that’s a rubbish answer. But it’s true. Who do you want to play him? And what about Price (aged about 43 on D-Day)? And the babesome Gina? (PN: This requires some thought - I'll come back to this next month)
PN: How long was it before your first novel was accepted for publication? Did you find it slightly easier because you are an established freelance writer?
JD: Oh God. Groan. Writing novels isn’t a career I’d recommend to anyone. It’s hard even if you’re a published journalist. Your only real hope is to be one of those Zadie Smith types plucked by the hand of fate to achieve insta-fame on leaving university. Otherwise it’s a real slog.
PN: Apart from researching COWARD, what other books do you typically read?
JD: This is sad but I’m afraid almost the only books I read are military histories/memoirs or war-y type books by the likes of Allan Mallinson. But I do like the look of that Elizabethan detective series by C.J.Sansom.
PN: And what books did you read as a child? Do you still have any of them?
JD: The Silver Sword; the Alan Garner books; Biggles, obviously; Wilbur Smith (I wrote him a fan letter and he sent me the most lovely letter back which I treasured forever: what a nice man!). Don’t know where they are now.
PN: What sort of music do you listen to? Do you have music playing when you are writing?
JD: Well I’m a rock critic too so I listen to all sorts. DJ Shadow and Radiohead are particular faves. This year I rather fancy Ulrich Schnauss; Maps; Husky Rescue. Never listen to music when I’m working though.
PN: Now the inevitable stock question: can you name your top ten favourite books? You can qualify your list with the phrase "subject to change", of course.
JD: Uh…. War and Peace (no really: it’s great, and not as difficult as they say); Le Grand Meaulnes; Tess of the D’Urbervilles; Dog Soldiers by Robert Stone; Quartered Safe Out Here by George Macdonald Fraser; Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows; When The Lion Feeds by Wilbur Smith; Men At Arnhem by Geoffrey Powell; The Cauldron by Zeno; Dispatches by Michael Herr; Gawain and The Green Knight. Oh dear, is that eleven? I really do like Gawain and the Green Knight.
PN: Thanks for finding the time to write for Gateway – I hope it's not too long before the next COWARD book arrives!
JD: And thank you for giving me the space and for being so very, very kind about my book.
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