“When you’re writing you lose all sense of proportion,” Robert Newman said last night, Sunday, of hearing the news in 2009 that manuscripts about English people in Iran had been destroyed. In 2006 he’d stumbled accidentally on a story about the first Elizabethans to discover oil and coffee, which would become the subject of his new book, The Trade Secret.
“I couldn’t believe no-one had written this amazing story,” he said, and was worried that one day he’d hear that Barbara Kingsolver had taken out all the books he was relying on from the British Library.When he heard that an Iranian academic had taken a funny turn and ripped pages out of 15th, 16th and 17th-century manuscripts on the very subject, instead of thinking “what a terrible loss,” he said he thought: “Ha ha! Now this is all mine!” He’d spent three years worrying, but “I was very relaxed after that”.
It was a typically self-effacing and funny anecdote, one of many that littered his talk in the Ballie Gifford Theatre event, chaired by Angela Meyer. It wasn’t very well-attended, with only a hundred or so in the audience, probably owing to the late-night Sunday slot, which was a shame as he was charming throughout, often letting his quick wit shine.
The novel is the story of Ned, a servant of Sir Antony Shirley – who manages to lose half his master’s money in a bit of rogue currency trading – and his friendship with a “lovelorn poet”, Darius, who works on a stool in the bazaar in Isfahan, then Persia’s capital. Newman read from the beginning of the book, the characters’ meeting, warning: “All the reading I do is for a 3½-year-old girl, my daughter, so I apologise it that influences my reading. I’m not being patronising, it just seeps into the tone.”
A telling line from it about Nat’s station in life, the lowest of the low – a “skink” – was that he marvels Darius has no master and notes “you are a year older than me and you have got your own stool“. After Darius suffers a public humiliation and an oil shortage plunges the dazzling city into a “near European darkness” the two set out to make their fortune as oil merchants.
Meyer noted that the story has many elements of the action adventure. Happy that she “had noticed”, Newman quoted Christopher Caudwell, a physicist killed in the Spanish Civil War, who said: “Action is a much more mysterious force than the unmysterious thing called mystery.”
One thing I have to note here is that those of you who have seen his stand-up will remember he can rev up to astonishing speed when talking, and here he whipped off into a digression about action against fracking in Balcombe and his Ukranian wife’s hopes she’d be going to the Balkans, before returning to the assertion that “The novel was born in action. The mother and father of the modern novel was the adventure story.”
He ran through his historical novel influences at similar speed, mentioning Pushkin, Barbara Kingsolver and Middlemarch among many others. The historical novel is all about how the world is always in flux, he said, and shows that the world around us now is not fixed as institutions try to tell us.
His fascination with the Shirley family extended to Anthony’s brother, Thomas – who was “the least successful playwright of all time”, and detailed how Anthony successfully invaded Jamaica then gave up when the natives gave him lots of meat.
Going into his research he said that the fun parts were “the bits in the library”.
“Did I go to Iran? No … Venice did seem necessary, went there a couple of times,” he said to a big laugh. He decided against worrying too much about visiting the sites after his experiences writing The Fountain at the Centre of the World when he immersed himself in information about Seattle, covered his walls with posters, maps and projections of the city and when he went there he didn’t recognise it at all. “The proscenium arch was the same … but it was just an empty space. It’s a moment you have to be there for.” Modern Isfahan is nothing like the city he wanted to describe, which Elizabethan sources described as “glittering and dazzling” because of all the oil and naptha lighting compared to how dark Europe would have been.
In his next reading he illustrated how it was often local customs that gave flavour to the book. One of them was that dancers at a wedding would stick a coin to their foreheads with elm gum, and the musicians would be paid as long as they could get people moving enough to make the coin drop. It also described beautifully the entrance of a group of Dervishes, and illicit “dance of defiance”, leading Nat to note “There are other powers than those that rule.”
Another benefit of historical fiction is, he said: “It thrills you and I like that you get to do more swordfighting scenes. You can cut more quickly to the emotion.” After finding he had so much research and background it was hard to find the story, he said he had asked his friend Nick Hornby for advice. The reply was “Everything with a proper noun? Just get rid of it.” Jokingly, Newman said: “I stopped talking to him for a while.” But he did decide that he needed to pick the story up and shake it, “so that anything that wasn’t story, let it fall away”.
One of the his big drives was realising how important the Middle East was to British history. Rather than the people like Drake beating the Spanish, the only way we were able to trade in the area at all was because of England’s relationship with Turkey as a bulwark against Spain, a fact that’s usually forgotten.
Asked how his stand-up informs his writing, he said it was a kind of counterbalance. Where the stand-up is direct and personal, the book has “no authorial voice”, and everything comes from the characters, something he might not have been able to do without having that other outlet. Also having a comedy writing background was good for “visual gags”. Finding himself stuck with Nat tied up and facing certain death, he thought “how do I get him out of this?” For a solution he thought about how Buster Keaton solved a problem by other comedians hadn’t been able to with a man alone in a room with a lion. He used the door “You use what’s already there in the room.” (I’ve tried to track down this clip, but can’t find it. I’d be grateful if anyone could let me know what film it’s from).
There is also an overlap in the book with his new show, Robert Newman’s New Theory of Evolution, as he discovered recently that in WH Auden’s last collection, Thank You, Fog which has the line “it was the misfits who altered their structure and prospered”, echoing the “anti-Dawkins” tone of his show. This is very similar to Nat’s line in the book “those who don’t fit into the present make the future”. Both are set against a sort of “biological determinism” that says human nature will always tend towards a certain sort of society.After another short reading, Meyer asked about direct action in politics and whether “slacktivism” almost makes it “too easy to think you’re doing something”.He noted that although all forms of activism are useful, green consumerism is one form where it means “how much money you have is how much influence you have, and that’s not fair. I think it’s when people come together, like Balcombe, that things happen.” There’s also too much focus on what the consumer is doing rather than the producer. An example was how people are demonised for using hosepipes during bans but groundwater extraction by industry, as in fracking, is ignored. Campaigns where people are kept “in an atomised state are dead-ends.” An analogy he used was the way people seldom sing together any more, except in churches or at sporting events, where until recorded music became popular, collective singing would have everywhere.Though I wouldn’t say it exactly amounted to a theme for this year’s festival, it was interesting to hear Cerys Matthews’ message last week echoed by an author promoting a very different book.
A final audience question was “How does the book fit in with the world today?”
“When the Coalition put in the government of al-Maliki [in Iraq] the Sunnis called them The Safavids,” explaining that that was the dynasty ruling most of the Middle East at the time the novel is set. And he said that in Iran there is an assumption that England is manipulating the world, much as some people here say Freemasons do, and wondered how much of that is down to the subject of his initial research, Sir Anthony Shirley, who pretended to be an emissary from the Crown to forge a Christian-Persian alliance against the Turks.
Winding up, he reeled out a complex story about how the City of London, the dagger that killed Wat Tyler, Mithraist fire-worship, Christianity and oil were all linked. It was fascinating if a bit baffling, but was capped with William Faulkner’s quote that summed up his attitude to how important history is to understanding today’s world: “The past is not dead, it isn’t even the past.”