Joseph Connolly: ‘Men will behave as badly as they can get away with’

Author Joseph Connolly at the launch of his book This Is 64 at Hatchards Piccadilly. Picture: Poll

Author Joseph Connolly at the launch of his book This Is 64 at Hatchards Piccadilly. Picture: Polly Hancock - Credit: Archant

Hampstead author Joseph Connolly talks about his latest novel. Set amid the seedy bedsits and casual racism and sexism of the early 60s it’s an unvarnished portrait of an era often viewed through a revisionist lens

“Soooo,” drawled Joseph Connolly, launching his latest novel at Hatchards in Piccadilly, “Don’t you hate it when people begin a speech with “so”? I know I do.”

A healthy contempt for contemporary linguistic foibles is to be expected in Connolly, a man who still lives within strolling distance of the Fitzjohn’s Avenue building where he was not only born (it was previously a maternity hospital) but went to school. His love of writing extends not only to 14 novels but to the countless ones he sold while running The Flask Bookshop in Hampstead in the 1980s.

Ironically the only time he spent away from London were the early 1960s when he was at boarding school, thus missing out on the pre-Swinging London of his latest book This is 64.

The preface boasts two telling quotations, Wordsworth’s “Bliss it was it in that dawn to be alive, But to be young was very heaven!” and Lennon & McCartney’s “When I’m 64” . It’s tempting to see the novel as a nostalgic love letter for the innocence of the early 60s, before as Connolly puts it, the decade “got taken over by money and drowned in drugs”. But rather than a psychedelic mirage of a Swinging 60s which, was probably only true for “about 500 people in London” it’s a homage to the 60s of Kilburn bedsits, spluttering gas fires and BO. “Casual racism and sexism were everywhere,” he adds. His candid description of the colour of his heroine’s brown corduroy skirt would have today’s teenagers blushing in shame and confusion. “That was just an adjective, nobody gave it a second thought,” explains Connolly, adding that 1964 was more like the 50s than the movie-depicted 60s, a world in which “blacks and Irish” were routinely advised in typed black and white not to apply for a rented flat. Air-brushing history to save our blushes is not Connolly’s style and he makes no excuses for it. A dolly bird was a dolly bird he says, and it would be rude not to compliment a woman on the hard work and artifice involved in her creation. “In those days girls expected to be complimented on their appearance, you would be thought crass and ignorant if you didn’t,” he says, adding that, as the long-suffering Dorothy clearly demonstrates. “Women had a lot to put up with then,” Men, he says, will behave as badly as they can get away with and do the absolute minimum expected.

The novel follows 19-year-old George Reilly, who is young, free, and not quite single in 1964. George is a selfish, self-obsessed oaf who treats girlfriend Dorothy, appallingly, but we can’t help rooting for him.

“I made George 19 because I think that would have been the ultimate, perfect age to be at that time, you would have had it all,” explains Connolly.

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“It isn’t autobiographical,” he says adding that he rarely puts real life events or people into his novels because if he did he would be dismissed as a fraud, “real life is just so utterly incredible”.

The only thing Connolly and Reilly share is a love of the Beatles in general and Paul McCartney in particular. Like most, he said, he first fell for John, in the mistaken belief that he was the real rocker, eclipsing the boy next door charms of Paul. He’s adamant that far from being divided into Stones and Beatles fans, the world is divided into McCartney fans and misguided Lennon fans. “I’ll prove it to you,” he said, “Quickly tell me your three favourite Beatles songs.” Yesterday, Hey Jude and Obla Di Obla Da, I reply. “You see? All Paul songs, everybody does it.”

Connolly’s pen is an efficient time-machine. We only have to get a whiff of an untipped Consolate or a glance at his After Eight cart to be transported back to the land of Green Shield Stamps and rusty bathwater.

He still writes in pen, pausing every so often to wonder why his characters have come up with such an unexpected twist. “Creating characters is a bit like making friends,” he said, “It takes time to get to know them and you never know which way they are going to go.”

“I find that I can remember those days absolutely perfectly,” he adds, in fact he finds it far easier to recreate a rainy day in 1964 than what happened before lunch. The clothes, speech and food are described with the clear eye of someone who lived through it. “The only things I had to look up were the release dates of the singles.”

Snippets of real life sneak in. The locations are all close to home, a Kilburn bedsit, an unfeasibly fab pad in Circus Road, St John’s Wood and numerous rendezvous in The Spaniards Inn, Jack Straw’s Castle and an ill-fated picnic on Hampstead Heath. Locating a penniless hero in such an area now would be beyond credible, admits Connolly, mourning the loss of decent affordable flats. Only an heiress or oligarch could dream of living in a one-bed flat above a Hampstead shop, but it is still possible to meet a Beatle, because he’s done it.

Connolly met McCartney, in circumstances similar to the chance encounter of George Reilly, who bumps into his idol at the bar of The Chelsea Arts Club and is struck dumb by coming face to face with his hero . Connolly reacted in a similarly starstruck fashion. “I just turned into a teenage girl,” he explains, “ blushing, stuttering, stammering.” Ever the gent, Paul responded in the “calmest, kindest, coolest way.”

Picturing the extravagantly coiffed and bearded Connolly as a teenage girl is a bit of a stretch. Like his novels, he is set firmly in the recent past. His dandyish style and exuberantly twirl-able moustache out hipster the hipsters. At the launch he sports a multicoloured checked tie to offset his burgundy velvet jacket and blue suede shoes.

I ask him whether he would have preferred to have been young now or back in the 60s.

“I’d hate to be young full stop,” he says, yet the fact that he isn’t still 19 is a constant and slightly alarming surprise.

“When I was growing up, I thought there were basically four genders, girls, boys, old people and nuns, and I thought I was about as likely to turn into an old person as I was to turn into a nun. Look how well that turned out.”

This is 64 is published by riverrun (£19.99)