William New, J. New
Jeff New, J.W. New

I’m now going to try very hard to trace William New. The whistling in the dark stops here.

First, I’ll see if I can get to him through his writings of thirty years ago. The biographical note in
PEN New Fiction 2 tells me that he also had pieces published in PEN New Fiction1, Firebird 3 and Ambit.

The earliest of these pieces was issue 93 of
Ambit, published in 1983. Amazingly, Ambit is still going, run by Briony Bax, who I guess is some relation to Martin Bax, who in 1959 set up the large-format magazine, a sophisticated blend of text and illustration.

I phoned Briony who found the relevant issue and confirmed with me that the six stories by J.New are not the same as the ‘Six Heated Tales’ in
PEN New Fiction 2. So I have sent her a cheque for £20 and await the journal that will mean I have on hand the complete published works of a mysterious Mr. New.

Oh yes and Briony did give her father, the now elderly Martin, a call. He has no recollection of this particular contributor to his magazine.


PEN New Fiction 1 and Firebird 3 are both 1984 publications. Let’s take Firebird 3 first, since there is a biographical note to it while for some unknown reason there aren’t any at the back of PEN New Fiction 1. (Where would I be without the potted bios that appear at the back of PEN 2?)

Firebird 3 is a Penguin that also contains stories by J.G. Ballard, Alasdair Gray and Marina Warner. So J. New (as he’s again here called) is in illustrious company between these covers.

‘J.New was born in 1952 in South Shields. He now lives in Oxfordshire, where he has completed a book,
100 Stories – from which ‘The game at Ghost Beach’ is taken, and a set of fifty paintings.’

In the story, two boys play games on the shore, which has become a council dump. Ray and Triv search for things in the rubbish. To begin with, it’s simply who can find a bottle first, but things soon escalate. After a while they’re providing each other with lists of items to find and bring back to base rock. In the end they argue, and after that Ray plays alone. In the last scene, Ray finds an old pocket radio which he throws out to sea. As it hits the water, a voice from the machine seems to sing:
'Oh why did you everever go away.'

I look up a map. South Shields is just to the south of the mouth of the River Tyne. A few miles to the north is Whitley Bay, where the artist Paul Noble comes from. I sense a connection between these Geordie creatives. Not least because I know that Paul and his friend, Trev, used to play together, and Paul Noble, who was shortlisted for the Turner Prize in 2012, has produced monumental drawings that commemorate their relationship, turning his childhood at Whitley Bay into the timeless Nobson Newtown.


In PEN New Fiction 1, the story is called ‘Crossing Demon’. The protagonist, on his way home from the industrial estate, comes to a crossroads with a roundabout in the centre. One of the roads leads to Rickmansworth. He realizes that there is a man on the roundabout, a tramp perhaps, and he listens as the other starts to speak. What he says is hard to follow. There are many biblical references as well as references to personal struggle. Aylesbury too is mentioned, grounding the story in the south of England, north of London. The protagonist falls asleep. When he wakes up on the roundabout it becomes unclear as to whether there ever was a second man in which case the ravings may have been his own. The story ends ‘Lordy, lordy. Best get me home.’

After the two 1984 publications there is a three year gap until the ‘Six Heated Tales’ of
Pen 2. In addition, a story by J.New appears in Panurge 7. The information that he was born in South Shields in 1952 and moved to Oxfordshire is repeated. It’s three stories this time and in the third one, the action returns to a northern beach edged by cliffs. The protagonist funds a block of wood, which he thinks has been carved into a Buddhist head. But has it been carved at all or is it the work of chance? That night he dreams that the head has risen from the sea and that it has two properties: it illuminates the area underneath and makes sounds. Interesting that the piece ends at the sea with mention of radios and music, as did the Firebird 3 story.


Anyway, the point is I can ask John Murray and David Almond, who were the editors at Panurge, whether they know of New’s full name or indeed anything about him.

John Murray is now resident in Greece where he runs a creative writing class throughout the summer months, so I write to him there and immediately he replies on this 5th day of January, 2016:

Dear Duncan,

The strange thing is that talking about 1987, 20 years ago, etc. seems quite in order...though given that I am 65 now  (and was 36 in 1987) it's not so odd. Panurge 7 was David Almond's province (I did 1-6 and then 19 till the last one) and the best thing I can do is forward your email to him and ask him to get in touch. Do hope he gets back soon.

Hope David can help you. He's abroad a lot. He gave all his MSS logs to me but he didn’t bother putting addresses with the MSS, so I think it might be a tough brief you have. 

David Almond, the other Panurge editor, does indeed get in touch. He tells me he remembers J. New well but doesn’t have an address for him. I follow this up by asking if the editor met his contributor and if so could he jot down his recollection of the man.

Apparently, he didn’t meet J. New, just remembers the thrill of reading his work when he took it out of the envelope. The editor always thought he’d see more of New’s work being published, but concludes that there may not have been much more of it.

Panurge editors have been helpful. Alas, the man New remains elusive. Which means I must try harder.


The issue I ordered of the literary magazine Ambit has arrived. I remember this large-format cloth covered book from the 1980s. I recall its cool combination of text and image, the serious and the whimsical.

William New’s contribution is ‘Six Pieces from 100 Stories’. These are eclectic to say the least. In the first a man with antlers scrapes his cock against a stone. The full-page drawing opposite shows the man with ‘a headful of points’ walking across the moor.


It gives me pleasure to read such challenging material. Moreover, I now have William New’s complete published works on my desk. Or at least I think I do. So let me extract from the five publications clues to New’s biography and the extent of his unpublished work.

Ambit 93. 1983. J. New. No biography as such. Reference to a work called 100 Stories.

Firebird 3. 1984. ‘J New was born in 1952 in South Shields. He now lives in Oxfordshire.’ 100 Stories is accompanied by a set of 50 paintings.

PEN New Fiction 2. 1987. ‘William New. was born in South Shields in 1952. Pieces from his two unpublished collections of stories Studies and Gesta Daemonorum have appeared in PEN New Fiction 1, Firebird 3 and Ambit.

Panurge 7, 1987. ‘J.New was born in South Shields in 1952 and now lives in Oxfordshire. His stories here from a collection that seeks a publisher.’

Let’s try something. I Google ‘Births, South Shields 1952’, the facts that have come up three times. And seconds later I’m gazing at the information that there were two News born in South Tyneside in 1952. One was a female and the other was Jeffrey William New. That has simply got to be the right person.

Now, I know he moved to Oxfordshire, where he was living in the mid-80s. Might he be still there? I look up Jeffrey New and a site called comes up with a list of 10 results from up and down the country. But amongst that list there is a Jeffrey W New who lives in Witney, Oxfordshire. What’s more he is in the 59-63 age bracket, which would be correct. By my calculation the New I’m looking for will now be 63.

Soon I have the address. Jeffrey New (59-63) lives with Juliet New (57-61) at an address in Witney. Also living at that address is Beatrice New (27-31).


I imagine Beatrice is Jeffrey and Juliet’s daughter. When is the earliest date she could have been born? 2016 – 31 = 1985. And the latest? 2016 – 27 = 1989.

It seems quite possible that having a child distracted Jeffrey New from his literary ambitions. But why speculate when I can now simply ask him?

Dear Jeffrey William New (aka J.New, aka William New),

This letter will come out of the blue and I only hope I have got the right Mr. New. Sincere apologies if I don’t.

I've been commissioned to research and write a book about the subsequent writing lives of those who contributed to 
PEN New Fiction 2, edited by Allan Massie. I may call it The Class of '87 or PEN PALS or even Many are Called, Few are Chosen.

Back in 1987 I really liked your piece, 'Six Heated Tales'. Indeed, it was my favourite thing in the anthology. As a result, I believe we met at the launch of PEN 2 on January 21, 1987. Can you recall anything about that distant evening? Who you spoke to and what your thoughts and emotions were? Did you meet Allan Massie?

It would be good to hear what your aspirations were back in the mid-80s and how those have changed over the years. I suspect I have your collected published works. An issue of
Ambit, another of Panurge, the two PEN New Fiction volumes and the Firebird. Is there more out there? If not, what distracted you from your literary career? Something more absorbing and life-enhancing perhaps? The biographical notes refer to 100 Stories and Gesta Daemonorum. Did these ever find a publisher? If not, do the manuscripts still exist?


I should mention that one of our fellow contributors (Ian Rankin) has sold 30 million books. Another is currently in Brixton Prison from where he is writing to me. I will be reading his latest missive as soon as I get this off to you. Charles doesn’t have a copy of the anthology to hand in his cell, but he has a remarkable memory, and he was well networked, so he’s been able to provide me with little pen portraits of several of our fellow contributors. He too loved your story and thinks he met you on ‘the night of the party’.

I hope that once you have got over the shock of receiving this letter you will feel able to reply to it. I’d be delighted to receive a letter, email or phone call from you.

Best wishes, Duncan McLaren

I don’t have to wait long for a response. It comes in the form of an email from ‘Jeff’ the next day. Though cheerfully friendly, the reply ends by saying that Jeff doesn’t want to be involved in my project. Which means I have to paraphrase his words, at least for now.

Jeff tells me he was pleasantly surprised to receive my letter
, though he was disconcerted to think that I’d actually read and still have copies of the anthologies and magazines I refer to. He suggests that Panurge must be like some rare specimen kept in a drawer of the V&A.

Upfront, Jeff admits he can’t match Rankin’s 30 million sales (just 30 million short) but that at least he's managed to avoid a jail term.

While ‘Jeff’ (I’m still getting used to the name) had some luck placing a few pieces in anthologies of new writing, this didn't convert into getting any publishers interested, much to his annoyance at the time
. His typical reaction was: “Those IDIOTS. Are they BLIND?” Later on, he began to think they might have had a point. 

In 30-year retrospect, Jeff thinks there were good things about his early work, but the book-length collection he tried to get publishers interested in was too hit-and-miss, ‘and most of it's hit the waste-bin since then’. He’s not had anything published for decades.

Jeff has gone on writing, but he doesn’t think what he produces these days is going ‘to tickle the taste buds of the time’. He thinks maybe Faber and Faber of the 1950s or Calder of the 1960s might have been interested, but is big enough to admit that they might not have been.


My latest PEN pal seems strong on self-deprecation. He tells me that he works on the fringes of publishing as a copy editor of academic books. He reads, ‘nags the family’ and walks the dog.

It’s at this point that Jeff says he’s not very keen on appearing in my book unless he can be slipped in anonymously or fictionally ('In the 1990s, faced with a large tax demand and having mistakenly taken a bag of money belonging to a Mexican drug baron, this PEN New Fiction 2 contributor changed his name to J. K. Rowling and began...').

He tells me he doesn’t recall much about the two launch parties he attended, his strategy being to drink a lot of free wine and leave without hanging around too long. He didn't meet Allan Massie, or anyone else. Nope, he just stood there 'feeling awkward and swaying slightly'.

Jeff asks me how things have gone for me since 1987, and wonders how I got the commission and from whom. He hopes I’ll get back to him as he’d like to hear more about the project despite the 'unhelpfulness' of his own response.

And he signs off with a conventional ‘Best wishes’.

My reaction to this communication is complex. Great that I’ve found ‘William’ New. But it will be a pity if I have to suppress the evidence of my tracing missing persons’ skills.

A key sentence in Jeff’s email is a comment that his wife reckons he has high-performance Asberger’s. That conflates two medical conditions, Asberger Syndrome and high-functioning autism. But no matter, individuals with either condition often have above average intelligence but may struggle with issues related to social interaction and communication.


Speaking for myself, I think I’ve always struggled with social integration and with communicating through normal channels – conversation. For years I didn’t talk much, except to friends. Eventually, I discovered I could more effectively communicate through writing. And so it goes on:

Ah, Jeff, so you still exist. I'm glad.

Have you got rid of those publications that your work appears in? I would have thought that that would be a tough thing to do. The
Ambit book and the PEN anthologies are nice objects. 

David Almond, editor at
Panurge, remembers the thrill he got on first reading your submission. He would be upset to hear that you'd ditched Panurge 7 with its funky yellow cover. Did you set fire to it? Take it to a charity shop? Drown it? Or is it still somewhere about your house just waiting to be rediscovered?

In PEN PALS I'll be describing and analysing some of your published stories and - with your permission - quoting from them. But if you don't want to be linked to them now, yes, we can give you a new identity. Best to stick with the South Shields beginnings and move to Oxfordshire, I think, as that's repeatedly stated in those publications. But perhaps New was the author's mother's maiden name and he is in fact William White? We might also say he moved to Dorset or some other English town or county (Africa or Japan would start to beg other questions). 

Given this anonymity you might be willing to say a few words about the competing attractions of writing experimental fiction for your own satisfaction and for no money, as opposed to doing a proper job in order to earn money and raise a child. That particular dilemma hasn't yet come up in the book I'm writing so it interests me.  

As for what I've been doing with my adult life, my website might help with that:

The publisher of my last book, about Evelyn Waugh, used to be m.d. at Quartet, who published PEN New Fiction 2. And he thinks this literary ‘Where are they now?' idea of mine is a good one. So his Harbour Books is going to publish it. Evelyn! has only sold about 500 copies so far, despite very positive broadsheet reviews, so PEN PALS is unlikely to take the world by storm. A flurry of interest in literary circles. Maybe not even that.


Best wishes, Duncan

PS And what have you done with your copy of
PEN New Fiction 2? Given it to the dog to play with? Thrown it on the dump that Ray and Triv used to scour? Left it on the roundabout referred to in 'Crossing Demon'? You can tell me anything and I'll believe it.  

A reply to this comes back the same day. Again I’d better paraphrase, though it pains me to depart in the slightest from Jeff’s witty banter:

He kicks off by telling me that I put him to shame.
All his copies of the aforementioned mags and anthologies have gone. He occasionally has clear-outs - when he can no longer get around his room for the books stacked on the floor. At which point, Jeff’s loss is Oxfam’s gain.

Jeff makes himself clear. He doesn’t enjoy modern writing. The writers he likes reading are all well dead. And he certainly didn't want to look over his own past efforts. So off those old mags and anths went.

It strikes him as odd to think his old stories are still drifting about out there. He’s sitting on a typescript of some 200 stories now, ‘their hair combed, faces washed, and flies buttoned, but they're all dressed up and nowhere to go’.


Jeff remembers at one book launch saying something to A. S. Byatt, one of the editors, before she could escape. The rest's a blur, and he felt grim the next day. He’s a non-smoking vegetarian teetotalitarian, Jeff tells me, in case I think he’s trying to sound raffish.

Then my New PEN pal turns to the subject of my book. He thinks it’s a good idea if I can track down enough willing victims. Jeff then says: ‘While not thrilled at the prospect of appearing as Mr Thirty-Years-and-Still-Can't-Get-Published, I think it would be daft to start playing coy and making your task more of a problem, so forget what I said yesterday and go ahead and write whatever you think best.’

He goes on to say that of course I can quote from his published work. Jeff had trouble at the time settling on a name. New is his surname, from his Estonian grandfather; 'Jeffrey' he thought sounded like a hairdresser ('with apologies to Chaucer'), 'Jeff', a bit too familiar; 'J.' too abrupt; 'J. W.' reminiscent of a law firm; 'William' a name he’d never used. And Jeff has a disturbing memory of trying to be amusing in a short biographical note he supplied for one of the anthologies. 

Jeff’s second email to me concludes with him saying he’s enjoyed the chance of gabbing about himself, though thinking back all that time does bring on a certain queasiness. He hopes for my project's sake I can dig up ‘a few more promising subjects’. 

As with his first email, Jeff signs off by saying that he hopes I’ll let him know how I get on with my author hunting.

I’m struck by the generosity of this message. I’m also struck by Jeff’s self-esteem. Though he’s been rejected in no uncertain way by the literary world, he is intact as a person. He remains very confident about his work no matter what anyone else thinks. So much so that he doesn’t even need a drink or a smoke, no chemical aids, to get him through the day. And he certainly doesn’t need to take his frustrations out on animals.


Nevertheless, I need to be sensitive to his delicate position. So here goes:


Final email and then I'll let you get back to your life.

First, thanks for the generous sentiments behind your last. But I'll try and make sure you see a draft of the relevant bits of the book before it goes to print. That is if you want to see them.

You put me to shame with your teetotalism and vegetarianism. I eat meat in the mistaken belief that my life is more important than any other animal's. And I can only get as far as Tuesday without the boost to my self-belief that booze gives.

I didn't know about the
New Writing 4 piece from ‘95 so I've just ordered that with anticipation. A story of mine is in New Writing 6 from ‘97. A.S. Byatt was also the editor that year and I bearded her at the launch. I remember her saying that she took my biographical note to be a cry for help. It contains the lines: 'His second novel, Archie van Gogh, did not interest publishers in the least. His third, Chinese Illustrations of the Path to Immortality, is so clearly unpublishable that he did not bother to submit it.' I think it must be the New Writing volume where you try to be amusing, so I look forward to reading that. Cry for help or humorous iconoclasm - who decides?  

All best for now, Duncan

Jeff doesn’t reply to this, but after a few days New Writing 4 arrives. The biographical note tells the reader that:

Joseph New was born in 1952 in South Shields.

Yes, and Jesus New, star of the New Testament was born in an inn in Jerusalem exactly one thousand, nine hundred and fifty-two years earlier.

The same height and weight as the fossil man recently discovered in West Sussex, this late Spenserian is married with two daughters.


That registers Jeff’s interest in the relatively recent past - Edmund Spenser was Elizabethan - and the more distant past. It was only the tibia of Boxgrove Man that was found, so any estimate of height and weight would have been a joke. Is a joke. Quite funny too.

He lives midway between Oxford, home of the brains, and Witney, home of the blankets. Without blankets we could not sleep; without brains, read. Thus both towns are justified.

He lives midway between Edmund Spenser, who was back and forth to Ireland as his poetry went in and out of favour, and Boxgrove Man, the state of whose shin bone suggests he was either cannibalized by his fellow humans or eaten by a scavenging animal. Thus both forbears are justified.

Looking though all 50-odd biographical notes at the end of the volume, there is not another one that even attempts humour. More typically, the writers list their publications. One boasts that his first novel ‘has been sold into twenty-two translated editions’. No less than three tell the reader that he/she appears on the list of the ‘Twenty Best of Young British Novelists’ in 1993. Another manages to include a sentence which mentions that he has won the Cholmondely Award for Poetry, the Dylan Thomas Award and the Whitbread Prize for poetry and that he has published 19 books. What do I think of this self-aggrandisement? Give me brains and blankets every time.

New Writing 6 is much the same in this respect. I am much too modest to suggest that my biographical note shines out like a beacon of self-deprecation. For do I not hideth my light under a bushel, my bollocks under a blanket?

New Writing Series did very well, lasting through 16 annual volumes that began in 1992, not long after the demise of PEN New Fiction, which only managed to stagger into print twice. It seems that The British Council made a better fist of things than the combined resources of P.E.N. and the Arts Council.


Perhaps what worked for New Writing was to commission work from well-known writers as well as encourage submissions from all. So in the volume that Jeff New appears there is work by Alasdair Gray, A.L.Kennedy, Fay Weldon, Adam Thorpe, William Trevor, Penelope Fitzgerald, Lawrence Norfolk and A.S. Byatt herself. Such a worthy list may attract more readers but the move towards the Granta model (only publish stories by the successful and known) is not a move in a democratic direction. I much prefer the idea of two editors (one male and one female) simply choosing what they prefer from everything that has been submitted.

The New Writing series came to a stop in 2007, perhaps because the financial downturn triggered a crisis in funding of the arts. And nothing has risen from the ashes since, perhaps because it’s thought (by PEN, the Arts Council and The British Council) that the web provides enough opportunities for new writers.

So where next in respect of J W New? A trip to Witney has already been booked as it’s where Kate’s 92-year-old mother lives, so why don’t I see if Jeff would be willing to meet me? It turns out that he is.

On the train journey down, I read from D.J. Taylor’s newly published
The Prose Factory. It’s a study of literary life in England since 1918, and by the time we get to Newcastle, Taylor has taken me through to the Second World War via FR Leavis and CS Lewis. When the train stops at Sheffield I am learning about ‘Late Bloomsbury’.

The first thing I say to Jeff, who is not the short, plump man I was expecting, but tall, bearded, with neat glasses and good teeth, is that not one of the PEN2 contributors is mentioned in David Taylor’s’s 500-page book, at least not according to its 31-page index. Jeff puts that right by, at my request, taking the book from me and signing it.


I apologise to him for not having with me a copy of his privately published book Little Tongues, a book I only discovered after our previous communications.

“You have a copy of
Little Tongues.”

“I got it from… well, you know… the internet.”

Jeff registers his amazement. He tells me that he ordered a print run of 100 copies in the early nineties. When the box arrived he was ashamed of what he’d done. Vanity publishing and all that. He managed to send out two or three copies. Literally, two or three copies, and ditched the rest.

“You’ve inscribed it. ‘To Debbie’, I think it says. Does that ring a bell?”


We talk in a relaxed way for an hour. I haven’t come with an agenda or a list of questions, it’s just a chat. Any point to it? Oh, I think time will answer that.

Back home, I write:

Hi Jeff,

Now I'm back at my desk, I can tell you that I'm the proud owner of a copy of
Little Tongues that's inscribed:


'Love to Deirdre from Jeff (this is what comes of sitting in a room reading).'

Given how few of the books you actually distributed, the fact that D didn't hold on to her copy perhaps causes a tinge of disappointment. But given your own equivocal feelings towards the book, I'm sure you won't be too down on your old friend!

Now that I know you went to St John’s, a couple of questions arise. I read Geography at Downing College, Cambridge. But neither of us mentioned our elite education in our PEN2 biographical notes. D.J.Taylor didn't mention his Oxford degree either, though he spends a big chunk of his new book,
The Prose Factory, talking about Oxbridge academics, notably C.S. Lewis and F.R. Leavis (not the same person I now realise). I wonder if this amounted to false modesty on our part, or whether something else was going on. I also wonder if having been a student at Oxford influenced where you settled down to live and work. 

As it happens, yet another fellow PEN2 contributor, C.A.R. Hills, currently in Brixton Prison, also went to Oxford. Like me, Charles is from a state school background. What sort of school did you go to, may I ask? I couldn't tell from talking with you. I know our schooldays were a long time ago and in many ways are irrelevant to who we now are, but it would seem odd if you, Charles and I all went to state schools, graduated from Oxbridge and were on the fringe of literary publishing, yet none of us were taken up by a mainstream publisher. 

Ach, I don't want to get bogged down in these old class considerations, certainly not! But I'll let the issue stand.

Best wishes, Duncan


To which I get an immediate response. Jeff starts by telling me that I am a ‘one-man storeful of surprises.’  

He explains that 'Deirdre' was in fact his mother-in-law, who sadly died years ago, so he must have sent her a copy of his little book. She was a reader of fiction, but preserved a tactful silence over his efforts.

Thinking back, Jeff reckons he sent a copy to the LRB, maybe the TLS, and ‘absurdly enough to George Steiner’, who'd written a book Jeff ‘thought he had’ enjoyed reading.

That was the lot, apart from one for his parents, which Jeff now has back in his possession after clearing out his father's flat. All the other copies were binned almost as soon as they came off the press. So the copy I have is a real collector's item. ‘Pity it's not very good,’ I hear Jeff say.

Jeff tells me that I’ve now sold 501 copies of EVELYN!, which he ordered from Amazon last week, plus my book about the art world.  He’s looking forward to both of these and will send trenchant comments if any occur to him worth sending.

He asks if the Enid Blyton one is mine too. He has happy memories of watching a show called NODDY LIVE! on video with his daughters long ago. The villain was a goblin, 'Wicked Gobbo', who used to have the kids hiding behind the furniture.

Jeff then turns to the subject of schooling. He says that he would have thought his Old Etonian background shone through even the scruffy coat. Then he admits that, like Charles and me, he’s a credit to state-school education, in particular South Shields Grammar Technical School for Boys. He doesn’t know why he didn't mention Oxford in any of his short biographical notes, other than a feeling that this sort of thing isn't of any business of anyone else. He read English, quite enjoyed his time there (friends, drinking, reading), and wasted every opportunity to 'better' himself that it might have offered. He’s still living in the area because of his wife’s working for OUP when they met up, then Jeff getting copy-editing work from the same publisher, ‘plus a sort of inertia’.

Jeff announces that he’s attaching his book, SATIRES. He suspects I may regret saddling myself with its 400-odd odd pages. He reminds me that it's pretty well unseen by human eye. He sent off half-dozen pieces from part 1 to Ambit a few years ago but they bounced back a few months later with the standard 'thank-you-no', and another six to Faber last year – which also bounced back, this time thanklessly - but ‘the rest are unsullied’. Jeff can't imagine what the result of someone reading them in bulk might be. What can he say? He hopes I enjoy it.


Jeff signs off by telling me he thoroughly enjoyed meeting up last week, though he finds it a bit worrying, all this introspecting at his time of life.

Introspecting at his time of life? Jeff has been introspecting like mad since the word go. I’m as sure of that as I am of anything.

Hi Jeff,

Thanks for telling me about Deirdre. And for buying two of my books. Yes
, Looking For Enid is also my work. In the Noddy books the goblins were originally gollies but Blyton has been heavily edited in certain ways, often unnecessarily.

Ah, so Charles, you and I are indeed a triumvirate of state school swots! Brought swiftly to the boil only to be left simmering until the end of time. At the very great risk of landing you with too much McLaren to read, let me introduce you to Charles via the draft of the PEN PALS chapter he first appears in. As you'll realise from something I say to Charles in a letter, I may have got the two of you mixed up in my recollection of an evening in January 1987. Of course, I'd be very interested to know what you think of the material. 

Satires is enticingly sub-titled. I mean I like the contents pages. I think I'm going to enjoy your Monster Book of Misanthropy. I'll let you know in due course.

Cheers, Duncan

One thing to be said about the triumvirate of state school swots is that Charles, Jeff and I all seem to be pretty good at calling on self-satisfaction. I suppose that’s what results from coming at the top of the class (or pretty near it) all through childhood and adolescence. By the time we got to university it had lodged in our minds that we were the bee’s knees:

Charles: ‘I am a very intelligent person.”

Jeff: “Therefore what I write is redolent with intelligence.”


Duncan: “We are The Intelligents.”

“Three little maids from school are we.
Pert as a school-girl well can be.
Filled to the brim with girlish glee.
Three little maids from school

“Everything is a source of fun.
Nobody's safe, for we care for none.

Life is a joke that's just begun.
Three little maids from school

“Three little maids who, all unwary,
Come from a ladies' seminary,
Freed from its genius tutelary,
Three little maids from school,
Three little maids from school.”

Over to Jeff. He tells me that he was just looking at the first few pages of his epic, trying to imagine my dismay, when he saw he’d accidentally omitted out a vital word from the piece ‘CONCLUSION IN D’, thereby spoiling the thing. And Jeff a copy-editor!

He asks me if I could just add, right at the end, 'ditch' after 'dead' and before 'Good.' in my copy. 

Perhaps this was just a ruse to get me to read at least one of Jeff’s Satires. In which case the ruse worked.


This is how I would paraphrase ‘Conclusion in D’.

A householder is upset because someone is digging a trench outside his home. He asks the digger to desist as the trench is in everyone’s way. The digger points out that the ditch is not in
his way and carries on. Verbal jousting ensues.

Q: What need for a ditch?
A: To fill up the time.

Q: Is it not a dangerous opening?
A: No fear.

The householder retreats to consider his options. He wonders if there is no law against what is happening.

Returning to the fray, the householder offers the digger a drink, but the offer is refused. Similar offers with respect to seeing a film together, going for a drive, praying together are also turned down. The digger even refuses the offer of the householder’s wife.

The householder retreats again, leaving the digger whistling while he works. But in the morning, as the householder steps out early, he finds his neighbour dropped in the bottom of the dead ditch. Good.

Having read the piece a couple of times I write back to Jeff, most literary of young maids:


Have just read your ‘Conclusion in D’ and am presently wondering whether it is me lying there in dead ditch. D

The next day Jeff writes again. He tells me he has to add an amendment to his amendment. When he said 'add "dead" after "ditch"', by this of course he meant '... before "ditch"'.  He fears his own senility's kicking in.

In my hyper-confident maid mode I have no problem batting back Jeff’s last:

I've taken this latest as a challenge to read the piece again. This time I was the first person protagonist and you were the ditch digger. A very smooth read - punctuated quite beautifully - brought to a catastrophic conclusion by your use of the word 'Good' after the dead, dead ditch. Which should clearly have been 'Bad'. D

Any feeling that this exchange with a fellow Oxbridge grad and PEN contributor was going swimmingly was dispelled by receipt of Jeff’s next missive:

He tells me that he’s just read my chapter on C.A.R. Hills. ‘Very absorbing and very well written, BUT WHAT THE HELL IS THIS?’. Jeff quotes from my own email as follows:

Part of my fragmented memory is of William, who wasn’t (or should I say ‘isn’t’?) very tall, dressed in a long coat and waving an umbrella, saying: “Verily we will hence forward to a hostelry where the festivities will reach a crescendo.”


 Jeff continues in bold. I really must quote:

The mere idea that I could ever have come out with a hokey, wretched, affected, spine-withering line like that -- 'Verily!...hence forward... hostelry...' Jesus Christ Almighty! I was near to hiring a hitman myself.' 

The bold format continues. Jeff tells me that unlike the brolly-waving goblin of my recollection he is - and was then - very tall, which he takes to be proof that I was getting him mixed up with ‘another hapless being’.

Jeff urges me to put something in my chapter to show (nay, prove) that this is a mistake. Alternatively, I could take out a full-page ad in The Times. He goes on irresistibly:

‘That is just terrible. I go to ONE -- ONE! -- dismal literary evening, 35 years ago, stand about talking to nobody, leave after fifteen minutes, and as a result end up years later being mistaken for Eugene de Ponsonby, Promising Prize Prat and 38 D-cup TIT!’

Jeff then states that he’s not sure why the above came out in bold, but lets it stand because it matches his mood and, anyway, he isn’t sure how to fix it.

More calmly, Jeff carries on. He tells me he googled ‘the Prisoner Hills’ yesterday and found an article about his misdeeds. My chapter filled this out very nicely and gave him a face. Jeff hopes Charles can get back on track when they 'spring' him this year – ‘he sounds capable and a character of some class’

But Jeff doesn't see how he himself is going to fit into the kind of literary-world discussion I get into in the rest of the chapter. It's about as far away from anything he cares about as it's possible to be.


Jeff fully accepts that it's my book and of course I must go ahead and write it the way I want to. But he'd like to stress a couple of things. First off, he really does not like the expression 'experimental fiction', which I used in one of my mails. To Jeff that's 'art trying to ape its elder brother, Science'. Now obviously science is the big thing, while art, it seems to Jeff, is getting very small indeed. But that's OK, as long as it's small and CLEAR, and the artist doesn't make an exhibition of himself pretending to be some sort of white-coated theorist grafting away in the arts lab. There was a lot of that in the 60s (Jeff’s old enough to remember), but 'like the kipper tie and loon pants, it looks ridiculous now'.

He feels there's nothing 'experimental' about his efforts - he knows what he wants them to be like, and when he’s lucky and the wind's in the right direction he gets a good one written down. 'To be grand about it', he’s ‘a follower of the Up/Down Aesthetic: you think things Up, and you write them Down’. And you try to make something that hasn't been done before, because what's been done before is something we have an awful amount of already.

On the subject of Oxford, Jeff wants to stress that he has not the slightest feeling of having been educated by the state then left in a condition of neglect. He didn't much enjoy school and dithered about at Oxford, but this was entirely due to his own personality and he has no wish to come across in my book as someone complaining or blaming the System.


He doesn’t even wish to come over as having a bad word to say about ‘that grand bunch of lads’, Publishers. Jeff assures me that he is genuinely relieved that he did not get a book published back then, when so much of what he wrote was ‘clumsy, strained, and affected’. True, Jeff adds, they're not going to publish what he’s written since then either, 'which isn't clumsy, strained, or affected', but how can he expect them to? They're not going to try and run commercial organisations on the basis of ‘Waiting for Oddball’.  

Anyway, if Jeff had wanted to make a career he'd have gone into accountancy or the law, not writing, or not writing the way he finds compelling. What would he do with a career in any case? Careers are Nature's way of producing golfers. And Jeff hates golf. 

To finish off his 'diatribe', Jeff tells me that when it comes to fiction and poetry, it's sad but there's nothing much he likes in contemporary work (and this goes for the other arts as well - and he’s saying 'nothing much' to be polite), but that's the truth. 'Are we going through a bad patch?' he wonders. Is it the fault of too much Facebook? 'Too much sugar in our diet? The Tories? The weather? Who knows?'

Jeff repeats that he likes his writers long dead. 'So that the whole apparatus of launches and publishers and agents and PEN anthologies (even), and little magazines and bigger magazines and that whole shebang may keep the wheels of industry humming' - but it's not for Jeff and never has been. That's why he left after fifteen minutes.   


Jeff hopes this doesn't sound too stroppy (especially not now, when I've just undertaken to read his ‘wretched’ book), but he doesn't want to give the wrong impression. 

And Jeff (God help him) does not, not, not want to come across like the fella with the umbrella in my chapter. Said fella will haunt Jeff’s dreams.

I suspect that email is written with half an eye on publication. In other words, Jeff means what he says but doesn’t necessarily expect it to be a private communication between us. Though I may be wrong about that, which is why I’ve resisted the near-irresistible temptation to directly quote the message in its entirety. In any case, I think a little halt in proceedings is needed at this point. Accordingly:

Hi Jeff,

Thanks for this. It's very clear about where you're coming from, and where you think I've prodded around in the dark (with or without an umbrella), and I'll take account of every word as I move forward (and edit backward).

It is puzzling about your fifteen minutes of being a small affected bloke. I will have to clarify all that. When I get to Brixton, sitting opposite Charles, I'll size him up and ask him if he could possibly have been responsible for the 'verily... hence forward... hostelry...' lines back in January 1987. Perhaps I should quote them at the top of my voice in case it rings a bell for anyone else in the prison waiting room. Step forward, Prendergast, Philbrick, Grimes...

I think I've already clocked that your more recent writing is far from clumsy, strained or affected. For some reason I recall that C.A.R. Hills’  favourite writer was Somerset Maugham, who looked to achieve clarity, simplicity and euphony. (Sounds like the names of three of the Angels that accompanied Mrs Ape in the pages of Vile Bodies.)


OK back to my Inbox. I'm nervously awaiting what Wendy Brandmark thinks of her chapter. I did feed rather a lot of her own words back to her, indirectly, and she may not go along with the conceit.

Ah, it's a hard life and a quick death. (It is not.)


PS Christ, I'm even butchering Beckett now.

That last email comes close to giving away the fact that this engagement with J W New has gone on for some time. Over two months in fact. I must now get back to January and to some of the conversations and investigations that have been developing in parallel to this one.

But not before registering the following perspective. I suspect Jeff’s big thing is originality, if it can be reduced to a single word. Just as DJ Taylor’s obsession is with productivity. Jeff is determined to write something that’s never been written before. The writers that he admires are so extraordinary that hundreds of years separate them. Hence they are all dead. Deep down, Jeff knows he is unlikely to join their exalted rank unless he himself gets published. And that is not going to happen. Not unless someone intervenes on his behalf. Might that person be me?

J.W New is one of the chosen ones. Chosen by himself, first and foremost. Chosen by me, both in 1987 and again in 2016. And if it takes the rest of society a hundred years to catch up with that opinion, or if it never does so, then that doesn’t change one thing: chosen.

Not that Jeff himself would pay much notice to my positive verdict. I have a feeling that in his mind I am still very much the person doing the unlooked for trenching outside his home. The fact that I call it ‘PEN Palling’ is unlikely to cut any ice with him.


PEN - Version 14

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