"It's hard writing about London." Mark Piggott concludes after spending nearly an age extolling its sweet and bitter charms, "So many brilliant writers have already done it, but it just keeps changing; new people, buildings demolished and built, and the politics and fashions are constantly shifting."
We're talking on the afternoon after the launch of his new novel, Out of Office, (Legend Press) and given the trajectory of the books' central protagonist it had seemed entirely appropriate when, given its reputation for embracing outsiders, Mark suggested we meet at the notorious highwayman's haven, the Spaniards Inn, way up at one end of Hampstead Heath, in London.
Mark was born in Manchester and raised in Hebden Bridge, "These days it's the lesbian centre of the world and very pretty, but in those days still had a gritty mill-town roughness. It's an area of real contrasts; you can be in the little street where I grew up and it looked rather drab but then you're surrounded by these huge hills, woods, and moors. It's quite a place."
He's been a fan of the Spaniards since a friend brought him, sensing he was missing his country roots more than he'd care to admit.
"I like the fact that they don't have music and have never dominated the place with huge plasma screens," he enthuses, "It's a perfect place for a conversation, contemplation and booze." And it's only a couple of cottager dodging minutes through the woods from his house in Tufnell Park."
Bored with the bucolic villages, the villagers and stifled by small towns, Mark headed to London in the 80s, "I had this idea that to write about the world, and I just needed to get out of the valley and experience as much of it as I could. That was my excuse at the time... I love cities, and have visited a fair few from Jakarta to Tijuana; I love Tokyo and Hong Kong and New York, but for me London beats all of them. It's just so un-planned, anarchistic, dynamic, cosmopolitan; it shouldn't work but somehow it just does."
Out of Office is his second novel to be published by the stellar indie, Legend Press, his first book for them was 2007's critically acclaimed Fire Horses. "For some odd reason," Mark begins, "People thought that the main character in Fire Horses was autobiographical and it wasn't - or maybe 10%... He was an angry young man from a small Northern town who moves to London... For Out of Office I wanted to make the central protagonist a very different character, a Londoner, public school, tall and reasonably smart - my polar opposite in some ways! But if you read the book you'll see it explores class, and race, and like many of my characters he's an outsider, not really belonging to any group; that suits the plot, but really, I think it also reflects the population, most of whom are a real mix of classes and backgrounds."
Set in 2012, Out of Office could be an unthinkably portentous story of Britain's Olympiad. Heatwaves, racial enmity and failed suicide bombings. Just for starters. I wonder aloud absentmindedly whether the London bombings of 2007 impacted his psyche while he was developing the story. "It was 2005 actually," he corrects me with an easy you-are-an-idiot laugh. "I remember it well because I was working in the East End and the day before we found London had "won" the Olympics and there was this real buzz of optimism, then a few hours later, it all went wrong. My wife and daughter and I were due to go to Ireland on the day of the bombings; we got to the tube and they'd closed the gates, blaming a "power surge". Then my auntie texted me and said what was happening. I remember thinking we had to get home and suddenly all the shop windows seemed like objects of danger. But really what struck me was that within a very short time everyone was getting the tube and bus; it wasn't about being brave, it's just we had no choice.
One morning a few days after the bombs, we were on this packed tube and this guy's hat blew off and tumbled down the carriage: everyone jumped, then burst out laughing. That encapsulated the whole weird time, really. But with "Out of Office" I wanted to think about what might happen if there was another campaign; I decided it would be more effective to have a failed campaign, that would provide more tension."
He also wanted to explore the relationship between Militant Islam and the Left, and to test his own attitudes. "I've always been anti-religion," he says, "But I've worked with lots of Muslims, I soon found most of them are just like anyone else; they just want a quiet life. Ask the English who they'd like to live next to, a Muslim family or a load of skinheads with Rottweilers; 99% would pick the Muslims."
Maybe Mark thinks the English have lost their love of dogs.
I know I have. Yesterday I was walking along with the kid and at first we used to walk around the dog shit that literally litters our pavement. I know there's an art book in there somewhere, but now my daughter wants to jump over it. It's a nightmare. "Daddy, why don't dogs wear diapers?" She asked last week. Anyway. That's an anti-ad for my neighborhood, a missive from the Daily Telegraph's England now. Meanwhile back to Mark...
I wondered whether having young kids made him think about leaving London. After all Lesbians love Hebden Bridge because Hebden Bridge now is regarded as one of the best places in the UK to raise kids. Hebden Bridge has everything...
"I'd always thought that when we had kids (we have two, aged 6 and 3) we'd have to leave London for the schools, quality of life etc. But we're fortunate in being in an area where the schools are brilliant, the streets relatively safe, there are loads of parks and we have a garden complete with a family of foxes. It's such a mixed area, not just in terms of ethnicity but also in terms of class; a mix of public and private housing. Our kids are thriving here and being a parent has helped me see London with fresh eyes. The main reason I might want to leave London would be to write about somewhere else; a small town or village, or the suburbs maybe. But I'm not sure it'll ever happen, we're all too settled."
When I ask Mark what he's reading right now, he mentions that between books he consumes fiction, "When I'm working on a novel I avoid it. So right now I'm reading the short stories of John Cheever. I love Updike and Roth, my reading is fairly eclectic - Bolano's 2666 blew me away, as did Who Dreams of Katz (Todd McEwan), Cloud Atlas (David Mitchell), and people like Tim Winton, Dermot Bolger... "
Apart from his two books, he has contributed to an enormous array of household name publications. Even this one, which makes us very happy. Finally, when I no longer know what to ask, I ask him who he is. He looks at me quizzically and why not. But takes a stab at it, "Who am I? Christ, I'm a writer not a philosopher! I'm a novelist who sometimes writes other things, a conservative adventurer, a home-bird who loves to travel, a misanthrope who loves people, all the usual conflicts. As I think I said in "Fire Horses" - embrace your contradictions... Anyway, never mind all that - it's your round. Mine's a Stella..."