“In 1956 and 57, there was an explosion in the music charts,” says Ben Elton. “We took black music back to America. They put Elvis in the Army to stamp out Rock ‘n’ Roll, but then the Beatles came along and rejuvenated it.”
Mr. Elton knows his history. He’s here in Waterstones on Deansgate, which he describes as “one of the most beautiful bookshops in the world”, to launch his WW2 novel, Two Brothers. It’s 6 November, and the book doesn’t officially come out for another 2 days. Despite the fact that this is his first book event in “ten to fifteen years,” there are a few spare seats in the arena. I still pick the front row, for some reason.
“I don’t know whether people are sat in watching the US election,” he says, “or whether they’re just stuck in traffic like I was.”
Mr. Elton bucks the book-signing trend by not reading a segment his work. “Books are so intimate,” he says. “Reading a novel is intensely private- all there is is words. The images are entirely the gift of the reader.” That’s also why, he says, his books haven’t been made into films. Keeping his work in novel form, he says, “leaves almost everything to the imagination… Oh, and the other reason I’m not doing a reading is that every Nazi guard would have a cockney accent.”
“Besides,” he says, “Two Brothers is a big book- too big to be a film. Take Bonfire of the Vanities, for example. It’s a great book, but it’s a terrible movie. But then you can take the 39 Steps, for example, which is a great book and a great film. But they’ve got absolutely fuck all in common!”
At this point Mr. Elton breaks his presentation to-
“Excuse me- are you a journalist?” he asks.
He can only be talking to me. I’m sat in the front row furiously scribbling as much as I can of the presentation. I don’t have shorthand skills, but my handwriting is bad enough to pass for it.
I look up from my notebook. “No, I’m a blogger.”
“Oh!” he says. “I’ll be careful what I say then!”
Mr. Elton’s presentation, which has been twisting through a number of different subjects since the opening, takes another detour- via Twitter. After a quick show of hands to gauge numbers of Twitter users in the room- about half of us- he explains his problem with “the tweet”, or as he puts it, “the modern haiku”.
“Sometimes news on TV will have a little ticker at the bottom of the screen, and it’ll say, ‘John in Bristol has tweeted saying, “I think this is appalling…”’ Why?! Why show this? This is when I hate Twitter- when it starts to share news. I’ve got no problem with the site itself, but I do when it becomes a news story. It’s either that or reporters will ask the opinions of what we used to call ‘psycho fans’, y’know, the obsessives.”
Mr. Elton’s stream-of-consciousness presentation then lands on a statistic he saw, suggesting that there are more homeless on the UK’s streets than ever before. He then admits, “But this has nothing to do with anything.” He moves on, through Strictly Come Dancing, which he has avoided participating in against his children’s wishes, and asks why politicians try to pass off as celebrities in the jungle. “The holy grail is to be watched all the time,” he says. “To seek privacy these days is actually a perversity.”
The speech covers an eclectic range of subjects because he’s “spent eleven hours talking bout Two Brothers, and I don’t fucking want to, frankly.” And so he moves quickly on to George Harrison and Paul McCartney, whom he describes as “the greatest pop artists of the century,” and on to Olympic medallist Jessica Ennis (“cute and intimidating at the same time.”)
When he lands on the war on drugs, which Mr Elton dismisses as “a rout”, he divulges that he was in fact invited to talk to a group of Scottish MPs about drug abuse. Mr. Elton told these MPs that, had he the power, he would legalise crack. The amount of time and money spent fighting drugs, he suggests, would be better spent fighting other forms of crime.
I’d have to agree.
After talking to these MPs, one of those present approached Mr Elton and admitted they all knew that legalising crack was the answer. They all want to slacken off drug prohibition, but they all know it would be a nightmare if they did.
Eventually, Mr Elton HAS to touch on the novel, which he describes as “simple fiction”. The book is actually dedicated to his two uncles- one a member of the Wehrmarkt, the other in the British Army, and the story focuses on an adopted Jewish child who is dropped when Hitler comes to power.
“It’s inspired by my family, but it’s not about them,” he says. Then to me, he says, “There are 30 witnesses here, so you’ve got to get it right!”
The Q and A session brings some fascinating revelations, including an amusing impression of his Mancunian editor.
He first immersed himself in reading at a very early age, starting with Beanos, Dandies and war comics like Epiphiny. He cites Egg Beans and Crumpets as a favourite, stating PG Woodhouse as “the greatest British comic writer. His timing is perfection.”
Growing older, he dabbled in Conan Doyle and Simon Woodhouse.
His favourite fictional character is Sherlock Holmes.
His mum read George Orwell’s Animal Farm to him when he was 7.
When starting a writing project, he stays motivated by creating a deadline with his editor and writes into the night to attain it. In his words, “You have to keep on keeping on.”
He finds novels easier to write than screenplays, a format he has dabbled in. With novels, he points out, you don’t have to find locations.
He’ll be back up north filming a sitcom at Salford’s Media City at Christmas, so if you’re in the area, keep your eyes peeled…
The night ends like this:
Mr Elton gets my blog card. I get the book signed. If the author is reading this, please remember that I don't have shorthand and I did give it my best shot. If I got anything wrong, please get in touch and correct me.