Howard Jacobson: What I've Learned

The British novelist on fatherhood, marriage and the perfect bacon sandwich

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The perfect bacon sandwich is on white bread, very soft and very thick. Sourdough with a good crust. The bacon is half way to being crispy – and there’s lots of it – and enough brown sauce to trickle down your arm. You’ve not really enjoyed a bacon sandwich unless 10 minutes later you’re still licking your wrists.

I’m very frightened of death. When Prospero says, “[My] every third thought shall be my grave”... I mean, only your every third thought? The finality of it, I find tough. The idea of not being. Nothingness. Not being just casts such a bleak reflection on being. If at the end of all of this I will not be, then what’s it all worth, really?

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Marriage is like a barbecue. When you light a barbecue, it’s very exciting to see the flames. That’s lovely, but you have to wait until the flames have died down. Everything that you want from a barbecue happens on the hot embers. You can’t cook on those flames.

I can buy a Canali suit off the peg because they’re making them for me, it would seem. I must be an Italian shape. I don’t like casual clothes. I bought a polo shirt for the first time recently for a holiday we were on. I’d seen a guy in one. I thought that a polo shirt would be a good idea because otherwise I take linen shirts that need to be ironed. I put it on and showed my wife. Then I threw it away.

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Worry is fine. I can’t imagine how you can live a responsible life with your senses alive and not worry. There is everything to worry about; one’s own personal health, the health of the world, politics, the future, everything. It seems to me that not to worry is not to be intelligent.

I was a gym member for a little while. I’d go in, I’d read The Independent and The Guardian, have some water and then walk on a treadmill for about five minutes. It cost me about £1,500 a year. I thought, “Bugger this for a game of soldiers.”

We are a lovely species until we open our mouths and tell someone else what we think.

One of the lessons that you learn from the great novelists is that you read books in order to know what it feels like to be another person. Although I believe in it intellectually, to make those imaginative leaps, I don’t make them often enough. I am too quick to judge.

There’s this kind of belief that somewhere or other we’re all only pretending, that if you’re a serious literary person you really want to read shit. Well, it’s not the case.

I loved Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. That record they did, Derek and Clive (Live), was absolutely filthy. Whenever I hear it, I still scream with laughter.

I was a terrible father. I was not ready to be a father. I got married too young. I wasn’t doing what I wanted to do. I wasn’t writing. There wasn’t enough money. I had a period in my mid-twenties, when my son Conrad was born, when I was working on the markets in Cambridge, selling leather goods. Handbags. There are photographs of me at that time showing a frantic, frantic man. I wasn’t fit to be a husband. We got divorced and it took me quite a long time really to be... I was too frustrated and just not a good man. I think that I’m a good man now. I’m not running around. It was pathetic. I didn’t keep promises. I didn’t keep vows. I didn’t keep anything, really. I wasn’t a junkie or a drunk; a woman seeing me would have thought, “He looks reliable and he wants to talk to me about serious things.” Or, “He seems like someone who might keep his word and not take advantage because he’s not a druggy.” But I was worse than any of those people precisely because it wasn’t evident exactly what a bum I really was.

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What I particularly dislike is when you go out somewhere, you go to the opera or you go to the theatre, and you see a woman who’s wearing something really nice but the bloke she’s with looks as though he’s just rolled out of bed. I can’t understand why more women don’t say, you know, “Just fuck off.”

I will get read or reviewed by somebody cretinous, but there’s no escaping that. I don’t mind being reviewed by writers; it’s the stuff you see online when some absolute nobody who hasn’t got three words to rub together... they give you stars!

I’ve not driven for about seven years. I used to be a road-rager. My nerves would be frayed when I was driving. I couldn’t stand being honked. They’re honking me! Don’t honk me! Can’t you see there’s a truck in front of me? The sheer unreason of that made me an unreasonable creature in return. I would find myself getting out of the car and shouting at people.

My mum had a shop for many years, but it was very much related to one of the things my dad did, which was to sell fancy goods. Swag, we called it. Hot-water bottles. Shepherdess plaques. Brass candlesticks. Suitcases. Anything. My father was very funny. My mother was more serious. My father was very bothered with me because he thought I was not relaxed enough. I was a mother’s boy.

I properly played table tennis. I was ranked in England as a junior. I’m a fool not to be playing. That’s what I should be doing now. The thing is, I've always got a book to write, that’s the trouble.

There’s too much fear of good things. Good things need not actually be beyond anyone’s reach. Again and again you see people... they fell in love with “Nessun Dorma” at a World Cup. They say, “Oh, isn’t it great?” Of course it's great! Why does there have to be a football match before you hear it? Some music is better than other music, more demanding of you and offering you a more lasting and deep pleasure. I think that’s true of literature and I think that’s true of art. I don’t want to say, “This is just for me, only I should listen to a late Beethoven quartet.” You should all listen to it. You would enjoy it more than you think you would. Just be a little more patient with it, that’s all. Let everybody have the best.

I remember going to the little book shop opposite Manchester Cathedral when I was aged 14. I used to buy a magazine called Spick & Span. They just had pictures of fully dressed women lifting up their skirts, wielding a golf club and showing their suspenders. It felt like pornography to me.

My father was good-looking. He was once offered the opportunity to be a body double for Peter Ustinov. At that time, my dad was taxi driving. He could have been in Spartacus. It didn’t quite happen.

When I think about my own mortality, I also think about the mortality of the person I love, my wife. The idea of anything happening to her is unbearable to me. Also the idea of her being hurt if and when... it’s likely that I will go first... is also absolutely unbearable to me. Would I prefer to be the one to go first? For my own sake, yes I would, because I will not be able to deal with her going. I won’t cope with it. I just will not cope with it. I know I won’t. I don’t know what I will do.

I waited quite a long time for what can be called success. It’s much better when it comes late. 


Howard Jacobson’s new novel J is published by Jonathan Cape, £18.99.  It is shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize for Fiction
 

This article was first printed in Issue 4 of Esquire's Big Black Book. On newsstands now.

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