Tethered to the small basket of red roses on the kitchen countertop is a red balloon – helium-filled, heart-shaped – with the words ‘I love you’ written across it in silver letters. It’s a cameo of kitsch, a miniature masterpiece of sentimentality, yet it is both as dense and delicate in meaning as a haiku. If you had to summarise Tony Parsons, the best-selling novelist and Mirror columnist, in one symbol, it would be hard to improve on this. He has bought it for Yuriko, his wife, because she has just heard that her mother has cancer. It is mid-morning in Islington. Sunshine stripes the room through a half-open blind. Perhaps on purpose, the balloon has not been hidden from this visitor’s view.
Tony Parsons, who is 47, met Yuriko, a 32-year-old Japanese translator, in a London sushi bar. They married in 1992 and her influence is apparent in the minimalist decor of their house; you pad across its wooden floors in your stockinged feet, after leaving your shoes at the door. It is evident in Parsons’s new novel One for My Baby, too, part of which is set in Hong Kong. Yuriko was also the inspiration for Gina, the wife who walks out on her unfaithful husband Harry, and four-year-old son Pat, in Parsons’s novel Man and Boy (1999). Or at least she inspired Gina’s dialogue. That character was also based on Charlotte, a Dutch women Parsons went out with – until she found out he was also sleeping with her au pair. To add to the confusion between fiction and reality, Harry is based on Parsons himself: Harry has to bring up his four-year-old son on his own, while struggling to come to terms with unemployment and the slow death from cancer of his father. Parsons had to bring up his five-year-old son, Bobby, on his own, after his first wife, the journalist Julie Burchill, left him in 1984. Parsons’s father died from lung cancer in 1987.
‘Nothing has the emotional clout of a true story,’ Parsons says with a nasal, Essex-Cockney accent. ‘So I do harvest my own life a bit, yeah.’ His wide mouth stretches into a grin. ‘I went off the rails when my dad died and I binged on women. Men are like dogs in their sexual promiscuity. I really hurt Charlotte and she was wonderful and beautiful. There are consequences for what you do and I didn’t think about them.’ In his novel, Parsons managed to make both Gina and Harry sympathetic characters and, as a consequence, it became what is known in publishing circles as ‘chick-friendly’ – a useful thing to be, given than women buy two-thirds of all books. But it was also guy-friendly – Jeremy Paxman said it made him cry – as well as middlebrow in tone and style (as one reviewer noted, Parsons combines ‘a broadsheet mind with a tabloid tongue’).
The book became a publishing phenomenon: it spent months on the bestseller list, sold a million copies and was named Book of the Year at this year’s National Book Awards. It was Parson’s fifth novel – the others, potboilers about tennis and pop, stiffed badly – and so, as he puts it, it made him a 25-year overnight success story. We are in the basement of his house now, in the study: shelves of books, a Nordic ski machine, an iMac, kung fu gloves and head shields, a bust of Mao, a piano and, stuck to the wall, at least 50 scrawled upon Post-It notes. Parsons is not a tall man but he is wiry and fit-looking, with Gary Oldman features – lupine, angular – and eyes which he describes as small and squinty. I am in a low armchair, he is in a higher one opposite me, sitting cross-legged: another Orientalism perhaps, master and pupil. One has the impression that even Parsons’s spontaneous acts are premeditated.
He is friendly and polite but also focused and intense. There is a stillness to him, despite what he is about to say. ‘Yeah, I am emotional. I am emotional. Sentimental, you know. But I try to keep a lid on it. I keep a lid on it.’ A conversational tic becomes apparent; he repeats his sentences, as though ruminating on them for his own satisfaction. (The trope is evident in his writing, too – an echo of his hero Hemingway perhaps, or just a bad habit picked up from his red-top journalism.) Surely it’s the sentimentality that sells? ‘It does. I don’t keep a lid on it in my fiction. Readers, women especially, like the relationship between the father and son in Man and Boy. Somebody wrote that it’s very refreshing to see a man call his child “darling”, and I thought, “Why? Is that unusual? Doesn’t everyone call their child ‘darling’?” My son and I have always been, I mean, if we meet each other now we kiss, you know, we kiss each other.’
In some ways, Parsons seems to want to play the unreconstructed male eager to prove his proletarian credentials, in others he wants to be the sensitive New Man in touch with his emotions. Presumably when he wasn’t engaged in bouts of manly wrestling with his father and son he was constantly telling them he loved them? ‘I only did it once with my dad, I only told him through tears when he was dying. You can’t do it in moments of calm and health and tranquillity, you need the crisis to do it. There was kind of an unspoken love between us. I think if we were hugging and weeping over each other every Sunday afternoon, it wouldn’t have worked. I’m all for a bit of manly restraint. I think it gives the moments when you express your emotions more power, more honesty. So I’m all for that, I’m all for that.’
There are black-and-white photographs of his parents around the room: his mother being cheered by colleagues on her final day as a dinner lady, his father in the uniform of a Royal Navy commando. Before becoming a greengrocer and moving from the Old Kent Road to Romford in Essex, his father had been a war hero – he won the Distinguished Service Medal fighting on the island of Elba just after D-Day, and one side of his body was left a mass of scar tissue. ‘Dad didn’t talk about the War,’ Parsons says. ‘He was very much a carpet slippers, Morecombe and Wise, rose garden man. But he was a killer, you know, a trained killer. I do feel that nothing I can do with my life can measure up to what he did in the War, nothing.’
According to its author, Man and Boy had wide appeal because readers saw their own lives in it. ‘They come up to me and say it reminds them of their dad or child, you know, or it made them pick up the phone and call the wife.’ Parsons’s mother died of cancer in 1999. Ever prepared to harvest the details of his life in the name of art, he has fictionalised her death in One for My Baby. He also wrote a column about her in the Mirror the day after she died. The headline was: GOODBYE MUM AND THANKS FOR TEACHING ME THE MEANING OF LOVE. Does he think now that column was a little mawkish? ‘If I had written it today, it would have been different, but it had a great impact at the time. I got literally hundreds of letters. Selfishly, it made things easier for me: a writer makes sense of the world by writing about it. I don’t think it was mawkish and sentimental so much as hysterical with emotion. The iMac was covered in tears when I wrote it.’
When your parents die, Parsons believes, there’s nobody standing between you and the stars. ‘It really does feel as momentous as that. At the risk of sounding like a song from The Lion King, it made me appreciate the cycle of life for the first time. I could see my son getting older, you know, becoming a young man. Suddenly he was six inches taller than me, staying out all night and chasing girls and getting up to God knows what. At the same time, my mum was struggling with a pleural… she had a pleural tumour in the lining of her lung. I could see a parent dying and a child growing and I just felt right in the middle. I felt complete.’
An only child, Tony Parsons describes his relationship with his son Bobby, now 21, as brotherly. ‘We talk about women and drugs but Bobby won’t let me dance in his presence. That would be just too embarrassing for him.’ They also talk about football (Bobby used to play for the Brighton youth team) as well as marriage. ‘Typically for one raised by divorced parents, Bobby is wary of getting married himself, he wants to do it once and once only.’ Parsons would like to have more children, he adds: ‘I didn’t want to while Bobby was growing up because I didn’t want him to think he was second best, you know, from the marriage that didn’t work out. I’m starting to feel quite broody now. I coo over babies in the street.’
After leaving Barstable grammar school in 1972 with five O-levels, Tony Parsons went to work at the Gordon’s Gin distillery in Islington. ‘I hated it,’ he says. ‘I regret not going to university because I think I’d have been able to sleep with a lot of women there, you know. The gin factory was quite barren, crumpet-wise. It’s good for the Tony Parsons brand to be able to say I did that job for four years, but I’d much rather have been jumping on the bones of some sensitive girl from the Shires.’ Hemingway might have approved of the machismo. He would also have been impressed by the fact that, in his spare time, the young Parsons wrote a novel, The Kids. This proved to be a useful calling card when the venerable popular music paper New Musical Express, noticing a shift in taste in 1976, advertised for ‘hip young gunslingers’ – journalists to cover the emerging punk movement. There were 5,000 applicants.
‘Kids was crap, it was juvenilia, but it got me the job on the NME and away from the gin distillery. You had to send a sample of your work and I just chucked in my book. Of course they didn’t even open it. They didn’t even open it.’ The second hip young gunslingers to be hired was Julie Burchill, a 16-year-old from Bristol. They were given a desk together. In her autobiography, I Knew I Was Right, Burchill describes how, when they first met, Parsons held out his hand to shake. ‘What do you want me to do with that?’ Burchill said, ‘Bite it?’ ‘He looked at me curiously, turned away casually, then turned back, picked me up and sat me high on top of a filing cabinet without drawing breath. I stared at him, amazed. Then we started laughing and didn’t stop for years. I liked Tony Parsons a whole lot. More than I liked anyone in my life. He was bellicose and self-dramatising to a ridiculous extent… He was immaculately working-class, just like me. No room for doubt or insinuations or lower-middle wankiness here… The punk bands hung around him slack-jawed and starry-eyed. The Sex Pistols and the Clash vied for his attention, for his eyes only.’
Heady days. Just as every Liverpudlian aged between 56 and 62 claims to have seen the Beatles perform at the Cavern, so every Londoner aged between 16 and 21 in 1976 supposedly saw the Sex Pistols at the 100 Club. Parsons doesn’t have to exaggerate his claim to musical history. ‘I saw a lot of the Pistols,’ he says. ‘They were my mates really, my drinking companions. I was sort of their ambassador on the Anarchy tour. I was thinking about this the other day when I got caught up in the May Day riots, which weren’t really riots. I just happened to be at King’s Cross when the hippy tribes were gathering first thing in the morning, and I would have cheerfully applauded if the police had cracked open their heads there and then. Then I thought, God, take a look at yourself. We’re two years away from the Queen’s Golden Jubilee, and for the Silver Jubilee I was floating down the Thames with the Sex Pistols, sharing a gramme of amphetamine sulphate with Johnny Rotten; being shoved around by the police. A lot of people got a really good hiding that day on the Thames. A lot of arrests. I thought, how could I have changed sides so completely?’
Perhaps it isn’t so out of character. There has always been a conservative side to Tony Parsons. Promiscuity and puritanism have been the warring hag-riders of his sexuality. In his Mirror columns he is something of a Paul Johnson figure, starting out as a youthful left-winger and ending up on the right; being able to supply fiery indignation and demagoguery on demand. He combines sentimentality about the War with a taste for anarchy, and ruthless ambition with the caution of one who has had to manage his career sensibly because he has the responsibility of bringing up a son on his own. He stopped taking drugs in his mid-twenties, never injected heroin (he had a fear the needle would snap off in his arm), and didn’t enjoy cocaine. ‘Coke was like an old man’s drug, I always preferred speed. I’ve always had like a cold, pragmatic chip in my heart that would prevent me from, you know, going all the way, losing control.’
Also – the ultimate non-punk, conservative gesture – he got married. ‘Julie and I were friends straight away, we slept with each other quite quickly and then we kind of went our separate ways for ages, 18 months, something like that, when I was sleeping with practically everybody.’ He proposed marriage shortly after punching a fellow journalist whom he suspected of sleeping with ‘his’ Julie. She was 18, they had a son and moved to a bungalow in Billericay. One fateful night, Parsons went to give a talk at the University of East Anglia and ended up sleeping with a student. She wrote to Burchill, telling all. Tony remembers Julie receiving the letter, looking up at him and just ‘staring and staring’.
The marriage soon ended. After leaving the NME, the careers of Burchill and Parsons ran on parallel tracks, with each alternately falling behind or steaming ahead of the other. Parsons languished for a long time. ‘The Eighties were tough for me. I really struggled, struggled to pay bills, once ended up in court for non-payment.’ Eventually, having long since shed his bondage trousers for sharp suits, he reinvented himself as a style expert for men’s magazines such as GQ and Arena. By the Nineties he was writing a column for the Daily Telegraph and appearing as a chin-stroking arts pundit on BBC2’s Late Review, a Cockney autodidact on a regular panel that included the journalist Allison Pearson and the poet Tom Paulin. Burchill’s career, meanwhile, flourished in the Eighties. She sold a million copies of her novel Ambition, adopted the ideologically tricky stance of being a Thatcherite Communist, and became one of the highest paid women on Fleet Street. She then fell from grace for a few years, put on weight, did enough cocaine, as she put it, to stun the entire Colombian armed forces, and reinvented herself impressively in a weekly Guardian.
The two have become pantomime media foes. Burchill will sometimes write about Shorty, as she calls her ex-husband, in her column. Example: ‘I bought Man and Boy the other day and can honestly report that it is not in any way autobiographical. The errant mother is slender, beautiful and decent while the long-suffering hero Harry is attractive to women, good in the sack and has all his own hair. So that rules me and Parsons right out.’ Do they really never speak? ‘No,’ Parsons says. ‘We don’t see each other, we don’t see each other. We haven’t done since we split up in 1984. So for me it’s odd that she writes a column, essentially she writes a column about me. She should think about me a little less. People think it was a very bitter divorce. It wasn’t. The bitterness came later. The fact that she had no contact with our son when he was growing up, not even a birthday card, a Christmas card, is to me unforgivable. I will never forgive it. That time can’t be, that time can’t be got back. You can’t recover that time.’
It could be argued that if Parsons hadn’t been unfaithful to Burchill he couldn’t have written the book that has made him a household name, and she wouldn’t have run off and married another man, Cosmo Landesman, before declaring herself bisexual and becoming a professional cynic on the subject of men and marriage. ‘Maybe, yeah, maybe. It hadn’t occurred to me that I was, you know, the cause of her horrific weight. It hadn’t occurred to me. I see it from the perspective of a father and to me it’s not this amusing media feud. I mean, I don’t hate Julie. I just have no respect for her. She’s a cruel, stupid coward. A very low form of life.’ So the animosity isn’t just a media pose? ‘There’s no in-joke. To me it was a cause of hurt and frustration that there was no contact between her and my son when he was growing up. I can’t take her seriously. One minute she’s a lesbian, the next she is heterosexual. It’s just laughable.’ Is there no curiosity left? Wouldn’t he like to meet her just once to talk about the old days? ‘I think she writes about me all the time because it is her way of having a relationship with me. She’s obsessed with me. She’s become my stalker, and makes us seem closer than we are. We haven’t seen each other since 1984. It would be like meeting up with someone from school. We would have nothing to talk about.’
They could discuss his age. Burchill claims he lies about it, that he is really 49. ‘What is the point in lying about his age,’ she wrote in The Spectator last year. ‘After all, Sean Connery is a sex symbol at 78. Mr Parsons with his cheeky grin and interesting hairline shouldn’t be so hard on himself. ‘Well, I’m 47,’ Parsons says flatly. ‘I don’t know why she… She’s kind of a sad human being. I mean, I don’t even recognise her in pictures any more. She was 17 when I met her, she’s whatever she is now, 55 or something. I think it rankles with her that my appearance has hardly changed. That rankles, you know. That fucks her off, I should look older.’
Success, of course, is the most effective form of revenge. Now that Parsons has not only just signed a million-dollar deal in New York for the American paperback rights to Man and Boy, but also the film rights to Miramax for another million, his revenge seems to be taking on a Jacobean complexion. He doesn’t think he is materialistic – he drives an old Audi – but he enjoys being able to afford to turn left when he boards a plane. But success is also realised ambition; so perhaps he felt less motivated when he was writing One for My Baby than he did Man and Boy? ‘It would be ridiculous to expect any other book that I might write to be bigger than Man and Boy. But they’ll spend a fortune on marketing the new one. They’ll be advertising it all over the Tube for months, there will be, like, wall-to-wall, you know, wall-to-wall marketing. When they want a book to be a hit, almost inevitably it is. I’ll be disappointed if it isn’t a number-one best-seller.’
Boris Johnson, a neighbour, persuaded Parsons to share the secret of his success with the readers of The Spectator last year. The author explained that while he was writing Man and Boy, he, his agent and editor had ‘countless discussions about every theme, every chapter, every line. We made sure that each and every scene in the book was played in exactly the right key.’ Fiction by committee? Didn’t he worry that readers would find his candour offputting? ‘The books weren’t written by committee, but I do take good advice wherever I can get it,’ Parsons now says. ‘F Scott Fitzgerald had an editor and Hemingway had an editor and if they weren’t too good to have one then I’m certainly not.’ He wrote four drafts of his latest novel. ‘I went away with Nick Sayers [his editor at HarperCollins] for a weekend and we asked ourselves two questions: is it too much like Man and Boy? Or not enough like it?’
Private Eye recently suggested another reason for Parsons’s success. It described him as ‘the unchallenged heir to Jeffrey Archer as the book world’s most unembarrassable self-promoter’. Does Private Eye have a point? ‘OK, OK. A few years ago I was called a media whore, but I’ve met a few working girls in my life and I’ve never met one of them who says no as often as I do. I’m more a Doris Day figure in the media.’ Nevertheless, the chaste Tony Parsons has an un-Doris-like tendency to talk of himself as a brand and, fraudulent though it may seem for him to keep up his professional Essex Man persona despite spending most of his life working as a media pundit in the metropolis, he does understand the value of having a strong image to market. ‘I don’t know why I never lost my accent,’ he says with a shrug. ‘I remember when I first turned up in Essex from Dagenham as part of the Cockney diaspora, one of my teachers said he’s a bright boy but he sounds like the Artful Dodger, so maybe he should have elocution lessons. My dad just laughed at the idea. He didn’t think I should pretend to be something I’m not.’
The cycle of conversation has brought us back to the subject of his father. Tony Parsons still feels inadequate as a man compared to him, he still craves his father’s approval and he says it takes the gloss off his current success to know that his father isn’t alive to witness it. In Parsons’s bathroom I’d seen a bottle of Old Spice aftershave – didn’t know they still made that. ‘It’s an old bottle,’ he says. ‘It reminds me of my dad. I often find myself sneaking a sniff of it.