Winner of the 2010 Man Booker prize for The Finkler Question, Howard Jacobson is a writer unafraid to sound the alarm for our moribund culture
Howard Jacobson takes a sip of wine and then tells me a story. "I went to a shabbas meal at a rabbi's house once and two nights before he'd taken his wife to see Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. And I just couldn't sit still! Chitty Chitty Bang Bang? It's total crap. Then I looked at his shelves and saw all these holy books and at the end, a Harry Potter! I said "You're a Jewish scholar! Where's the Saul Bellow? Where's the Philip Roth? Where's the Me? We as Jews are people of the Book! So rabbi! Read a book!"
Jacobson thumps the table, his blue eyes suddenly aflame in a leonine face, but then just as soon as it had arrived, the rage abates and a gentle smile appears. He is a fervent devotee of high culture and is dismissive of popular culture's baser offerings. "I know the difference between an Everly Brothers record and Mozart," he says.
Is that the stirring of the heart or of the mind? I ask. "I"m not sure that the heart is ever stirred," he says. "It can be lightly touched by trivia, but the throat can only be torn out by something that is powerful."
When asked if he believes firmly in High and Low culture, he almost apologises: "I"m afraid I do. The education system in this country has failed and intellectuals have absolutely lost their nerve. They're terrified of appearing stern and proscriptive. They want to be loved. Relativism has got going. The 'Who are you to tell me what to read?' line of argument pervades. To which the answer is: 'I am. Sit down. And learn. I tell you because that's what I'm for. I'm your teacher. People should read George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, Dickens, and Dr Johnson because these are the best. And of course students will disagree, but they will be empowered to disagree. There's no point in going to university to request to read Ben Elton or Ballard. No point at all."
I suggest that he should be galled that it has taken this long for him to win the Man Booker prize, and he appears to suppress a gleeful smile. "It's so vexed all this, so vexed," he says. "This prize business is very strange. You start writing because you love to write. All I ever wanted to do was write novels. I never ever had any other ambition.
"If anyone would have said to me 30 years ago that I might win a prize I"d have said 'Win a prize? Prizes are for kids!' But little by little, you think, well, if they're giving them, why are they giving them to anyone else but me?
"And my publishers said to me as things have got worse and worse over the past 15 years for serious writers, that if I wanted to sell my books in large numbers, I had to win the Booker prize.
"I've for many years had a shrinking readership. I sold more paperbacks of my first novel [Coming from Behind, 1983] when no one knew who I was than when I was selling books 20 years later."
Asked why this is the case Jacobson grows morose, his words issued in a soft Mancunian accent that soon begins to sound like a lament. "The reason is we have a less educated reading public. People have other things to do. The devaluation of reading. The disappearance of men from the national readership. Men tell me that their wives have read my books and they say they'd like to read thrillers and I say 'Why?' and they say they like to relax with a book after a hard day's work. And I'm seen by them as 'Work' rather than relaxation. Reading has become a demasculinised activity.
"I discovered that I could do with winning this prize. So as a writer I started being aware of when it was coming up each year. I got annoyed with the prize because I was being overlooked. I'd get good reviews for a novel and then two months later I had been left off the Booker list."
Has he grown sick of talking about The Finkler Question, a book that has sold more than one million copies in the US alone?
"No," he says quickly with a grin. "When I did win the Man Booker last year I thought 'Why has it taken so long? Why this book and not another book I have written?'. Two other novels of mine should also have won: The Mighty Walzer and Kalooki Nights.
"The Finkler Question should have been my third. I should have been the only person ever to have won it three times." Jacobson allows himself a laugh and drinks off his wine and beckons to the waiter who proceeds to ignore him.
"I know everything about the Booker prize. Three writers have won it more than once. I could tell you, if I put my mind to it, the names of the judges in every year that I had a novel out. I know who they are," he says with a raised eyebrow, "I know where they live, I know what their children do… You do lie in bed at night and think 'How will I make them pay'."
Jacobson is in good spirits, a man who has worked hard for the past three decades as a novelist, columnist and TV documentary maker, and who is now savouring being the centre of attention.
"Even my first novel was talked about as a contender for the Booker Prize, and I thought back then 'Could it be?' I slagged it off and wrote articles abusing it. I became an intimate adversary of the Booker. From the very start of my career I was in this relationship with the prize. But I didn't want to win for the money. Money is nice, but the real prize is the readership.
"I feel like an outsider even now, even having won the prize, partly because of my temperament.
"When I went to Cambridge, I was working class, northern and Jewish. Even now I'l go into a room and see people talking in a corner and I'll be able to recognise the literary mafia: that's the Hampstead mafia; that's the Belsize Park mafia; that's the University of East Anglia mafia. That's the strangest thing, that our real mafia is in Norwich.
"That's very English. I"m not part of that, but people used to think it all happened here in the Groucho Club."
Jacobson lives closer to the Groucho than any other writer, and he is often alone here among the sportsmen and advertising and media folk. "I've seen film deals being done here, but I've never met a fellow writer," he says gazing around the place looking for a waiter.
"There was a time when I'd come in here when I wasn't living in Soho, to be in the throbbing heart of it all, and I'd sit at that bar and just wait for the other writers to just walk in. I've talked to comedians, had long talks at this bar with Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer. Hugh Grant too. But I can"t think of any writers I"ve talked to unless I"ve agreed to meet them here. It"s a nice glamorous world. I like it. I have a weakness for it," he says, as if revealing an intimacy.
Asked if he gets excited by the vernacular of the common man as David Mamet avowedly does, he shoots me an owlish look: "I don't have to get excited by the vernacular when I grew up speaking it. I get high talking to people who have done well for themselves. But I don't feel I am still part of Manchester. I feel I'm a Mancunian and I will sometimes play the Mancunian card which is sharp and ironic and too dry for Londoners."
I ask him why he writes. "When I was younger I was always trying desperately to be a novelist in my head, but I never wrote anything until Coming From Behind when I was 40. I wanted to write, but couldn't. I tried to write inappropriate things.
"But I was in flight from where I came. I came from a fabulous working class background with a father who worked on the markets. I had fantastic material. I thought 'Forget about trying to write like Henry James' - because that's what I did. I instead wrote about my Jewishness. And I wrote to be funny.
"It was only when I ended my career as a lecturer in Wolverhampton, my career on the slide, that I decided to write myself out of the job. I wrote a novel about being in that predicament. A campus novel. Then I thought, 'I've got to leave, because if this novel is ever published, I can't stay'."
Jacobson chuckles at the recollection of this period in his life. "Then I handed in my notice. Then I panicked, took it back, then handed it in again. It was hard to give up a job. The future didn't augur well, because, well, what would I live on?
"Fortunately my wife was running a tourist business in Cornwall. That period got me through. In fact, my second novel was set down there [Peeping Tom]. But we could actually live. By novel three, then we could live on the proceeds of writing and we moved to London. By then I was doing some TV work. I've always needed to do other stuff. Living solely on writing is very hard."
Jacobson grabs the passing waiter and orders another round.
"I've got Whatever It Is, I Don't Like It [out now]. It's a collection of 80 essays that I have chosen from my newspaper column which gave me a great platform and a great discipline.
"I made myself write these pieces. I didn't have time to worry about trying to create elegant Jamesian beginnings. I just began, and hey presto, all those beginnings look alright."
Being married has helped him with his life and leant him a stability he would otherwise not have. "I'm not capable of being on my own. All the most terrible times I've had in my life were when I was on my own. I'd go mad when I was on my own. I need to be looked after and protected, cared for, wanted, loved. I always needed to have someone to love.
"I can work all day and not see the person I love, but if I knew she wasn't going to be there at the end of the day, I couldn't work.
"In the old days when I was single, I'd go out, hit the town. I was deranged by being on my own. My previous relationship was creative, embattled and fierce. But my current wife Jenny is very sweet. She worried that I'd lose my creative edge because I was not fighting her, and to be honest, now with her, I have never written so much. Happiness turns out to be alright. In fact, I can't stop writing. It's almost an illness.
"After I wrote The Finkler Question, it soon became apparent it was going nowhere. I'd taken on suicide and sadness, the complexity of male friendship. Yet it was a funny novel. But I didn't get the impression it was being liked. My old publisher [Random House] was a bit half hearted about it. So I just left it and put it to one side.
"My American publishers didn't want it, nor my Canadian publisher. I remember saying to my wife, 'I don't think I can earn a living anymore as a novelist.'
"Every writer's advance was being cut by more than half last year. I thought perhaps I'd have to go back to do more TV documentaries.
"So perversely I began to write a novel about this situation. A vigorous black comic novel about the end of it all, the end of one's dreams. I'd have a writer as the hero, I thought, a man who writes books that nobody wants to read, with everybody writing but no one reading. Publishers are shooting themselves in the face, bookshops are closing, libraries are closing. I was well into that story when I suddenly won the Booker Prize." Jacobson smirks. "Which affects the mindset somewhat, so I put the new novel aside."
Jacobson draws on his glass of wine then almost beams at me. "But it's surprising how much bitterness you can still muster, because when you win a thing, the victory always reminds one of defeat.
"So I went back to the story and finished it. I have another one I want to write already. It's more dystopian."
He holds his finger to his temple and delivers me a long baleful stare.
So the Booker is an impostor in your life? I venture. "That's very nice. I couldn"t have put it better myself. But I have taken it very seriously. But the judges? I'd still punch on the nose any number of people who dared not to see what I was doing!"
"The prize has changed my life, my perception of myself and has made me feel jubilant and vindicated. Somebody else thinks I'm good."
And the tools of this literary dynamo? "I write on an Apple computer. I start at 8am and I work all day. I can't work at night. I knock off at 6.30pm to watch the Channel 4 news. I love writing. It's the life I dreamed of. I"ve always wanted to be an international author, and I've not had it until now.
"When I was just starting out, I wanted to be a writer. But I didn't want to write. You know what I"m talking about. I wanted to be out in life, enjoying it. Not stuck in writing. So I had to force myself. But that doesn't mean that what I write is any good, just because I'm enjoying it. That's for other people to decide."
On the August riots that forced him briefly to lay his pen aside, if only to watch the news reports, Jacobson is fair-minded. "Politically I don't think I can easily locate myself in either of the ideologies, Left or Right.
"I wrote about the recent troubles and got it dead right, as I wanted it. I can attack Liberalism, Liberal education and can talk about the disinheritance of the young that comes about when Liberals think they can have child-centred education. But I can't say it on TV, I'm not a pundit."
I ask him which Israeli writer he admires. "Amos Oz is a wonderful writer," he says without hesitation. "As a commentator on the Israel-Palestine issue, I admire him enormously because he says the Palestinians and the Israelis are both in the wrong.
"The trouble is, I never feel I know enough or am educated enough on these subjects. Primarily, as a Cambridge-trained literary critic, my ears prick up as to how people write about Israel."
The character of Treslove in The Finkler Question had "naïve, innocent views about Jews", he says. "He's not anti-Semitic. He blunders in and it's all well meant. There's a lot of anger in the book, but not towards Treslove. The book was originally about male friendship, but it took on another shape. There are two books within one in The Finkler Question. There should be more people like Treslove who think Jews are great.
"I want Jews to be all about Art. To be serious," he adds. Ephemera is an irritant for Jacobson. It neutralises the mind. To be disputatious and alive is what counts.
"One of my beefs with orthodox Jews is that they're not intellectually serious."
Has he seen a psychiatrist? Jacobson laughs.
"I've never felt the need to. The business of finding out about myself is in my books. I went to my doctor at one point and said 'I need help' and he said 'Why?'. And I said 'I'm not sure, but I'm angry'. He said 'That's alright'. I said 'I'm bitter'. He said 'That's normal'. I said 'I'm envious of writers who make more money than I do'. He said 'On the basis of this I"m not prepared to recommend you to a psychiatrist. It's what it is to be alive.'"
When I mention Richard Dawkins as a writer at odds with Jacobson's moral sensibility, he grows prickly. "I'm a writer so I'm an uncertainties man. What is the point of Dawkins attacking religious certitude when he has more certitude than the clerics! What a schmuck."
The life of the mind is Jacobson's life. The twice-divorced husband, father and grandfather, now at the age of 69, shows no sign of fatigue. He appears at peace and at one with himself, though he looks at me with a gentle rueful smile over the rim of his wine glass. "I was not very good at being a father, because I never finished with being a son," he tells me, and this stops me in my tracks.
"The future is grim, but for me there is more laughter than tears. You have to believe in humanity's capacity to put things right. The advantage of getting old is being able to worry about whether I am able to stand up or feed myself. I don't worry about the future of civilisation so much.
"The mystery is how people go on being quite interesting, pleasant and tolerant. I still enjoy getting pissed with people," he says, and drains his glass.
If you did not have a facility with words, what would he have done? I ask, as we hunt for our umbrellas under our chairs, and with a dryness that any mere Londoner would probably not fully appreciate, he says, through his sage's beard: "I'd have been a tenor like Mario Lanza, hanging around cheap working men's clubs singing Neapolitan love songs. Or singing Tom Jones songs in a Mario Lanza tenor. I loved Mario Lanza. I still do. Sometimes if I want to upset myself, I'll play Gigli."
As we leave, he turns to the room and says: "Look, not one writer here, not one."
Whatever It Is, I Don't Like It by Howad Jacobson is published by Bloomsbury.