My first comic novel – indeed, my first novel – was published in 1994, by Hamish Hamilton. It was partly inspired by my experiences working on The Listener – a once magisterial BBC magazine which had been brought low in its last years by mismanagement, meanness and apathy. Around this time, in the early 1990s, gardening was becoming a hugely sexy subject, so I imagined the fate of a small, ailing, monthly magazine called Come into the Garden, as bigger, glossier productions muscled in on their market.
All the characters involved in the plot are versions of me, I now realise: from Michelle, the prissy sub-editor (who has to compose spoof letters to the editor, but deliberately writes them ungrammatically, so that she can have the pleasure of correcting them), to Osborne, the washed-up writer who’s written so many “Me and My Shed” interviews that he now can’t call to mind a single detail about the person he’s just done. My favourite character, however, is Lillian, the secretary who so resents being at work that she surrounds her desk with domestic furnishings. Meanwhile the writer Makepeace’s propensity for lying to editors (“But I posted it myself! I can’t believe it hasn’t arrived!”) came from my years as a literary editor, unwillingly playing along with contributors who, it seemed, had no professional scruples whatsoever.
The story starts with a mix-up and ends in farce. All of my novels are rigidly governed by my touching belief that if a plot gets faster and more complicated, it gets funnier. When it was “adapted” for a Woman’s Hour reading, it turned into a kind of nightmare: each scene had to be reduced to a single line, all the jokes were cut, and it went truly mad. However, it has now been very beautifully read, in entirety, for BBC Audio, by the fabulous Robert Bathurst. When it was reissued, along with my other novels, by Profile Books in 2004, I considered it a great kindness, and wept.
NB – BBC audio for this book is a library edition only