Tony Parsons: Writing the good write
PUBLISHED: 20:03 01 June 2015 | UPDATED: 20:03 01 June 2015
Billericay boy Tony Parsons has been a larger-than-life figure in journalism and literature for more than 40 years. Here he talks to Shaun Curran about his recent move into crime thrillers and how his colourful career is constantly influenced by his Essex upbringing
In a career that has seen him adopt many diverse and eclectic guises — fearsome, intoxicated music hack, voice-of-the-people tabloid columnist, semi-autobiographical ‘lad lit’ best seller and, latterly, crime thriller author extraordinaire — Tony Parsons has enlightened, antagonised, empathised and condemned in equal measure.
The very definition of a marmite character — people seem to either love him or loathe him with little in between — his strident, at times controversial, views mean the one thing you can never do is ignore him (his recent declaration of support for UKIP a case in point). It’s exactly why, whether writing about music for the NME, preaching for the Daily Mirror, The Sun, GQ and the Late Review or topping the book charts, Tony has forged a 40-year career in the media and the arts. He remains one of journalism’s most recognisable figures.
He has also never forgotten his roots. Coursing through all of his work, whether via the written word or on the television, is the working class attitude instilled in him growing up. Born in Romford to his former Royal Naval Commando/greengrocer father and dinner lady mother, Tony grew up in Harold Hill before moving to Billericay in his teens. ‘With all the other cockneys by the sea,’ is how he describes it endearingly. He is a man prone to looking to the past with a certain rose-tinted romanticism — those familiar with his columns will recognise that — and his recollections of his upbringing in Essex naturally tease out that element of his character.
‘Well it certainly wasn’t like The Only Way is Essex, let me tell you that,’ Tony says. ‘Nobody had any money and there wasn’t any bling or anything. But people worked hard and had pride in what they did. People were skilled, had decent homes and good families. My dad worked hard his whole life, six days a week and dropped dead when he was 62. That’s how it was.’
Parsons is nearly 62 himself and his dad’s entrenched influence on him is as strong as ever. ‘He had to take three jobs at one point so we could move from the flat into a three-bedroom detached in Billericay, so I knew very early on that money is not easy to come by. So my strong work ethic comes from that. And as I’ve got older, I don’t take anything for granted anymore. The world doesn’t owe me a living.’
It wasn’t the only way his father aided his development. Tony’s intelligence — ‘I was always considered a bit of an intellectual because I read so many books’ — was actively encouraged. Far from accusing him of harbouring grandiose ideas above his station, Tony’s dad pushed him to pursue his dreams, even after he’d left school to work in a gin factory in Islington at 15.
‘Unskilled manual labour could have been my lot, but even when I was working I was still writing my first novel. The creative, arty life wasn’t looked down on in my house. My dad and his brothers hated their jobs so they were up for me doing something I loved. So I kept at it, even though it wasn’t great. Five years later it was published.’
The Kids sold 25,000 copies and ‘made me about £700’, but it opened up the path to fame when he answered NME’s call for ‘hip, young gunslingers’. Tony adds: ‘I made it my play when I went for the job and they liked it — a young gin factory worker from Essex who had written a novel.’
Tony’s belligerent attitude was a perfect fit for the late-70s NME, where punk was enjoying notoriety. It is a period of music with which he is still strongly associated and it is a time that, unwittingly, would influence the greatest success of his career. The years between his NME stint and Tony’s 1999 novel Man and Boy were only sporadically successful, but using his marriage and subsequent divorce to fellow NME writer Julie Burchill as a prompt, Man and Boy became the definitive ‘lad lit’ book and an unlikely best seller.
‘There’s an element of runaway luck when it comes to bestsellers. All I know is it was the combination of all the things I’d learned about life, my own experiences of death, divorce, poverty and work struggles,’ Tony explains.
While the tabloid work remained prolific, subsequent book sales slumped. Tony’s answer was to move into the crime thriller genre, cashing in his pension to raise the funds without a guarantee that publishers would be interested. Random House loved The Murder Bag, featuring principled yet personally troubled super sleuth Detective Max Wolfe, as did readers in their droves. The third book of the series, The Slaughter Man, has just been released, confirming Tony’s place back at the top of the charts. He admits to having his core audience in mind when changing genres.
‘I wanted my old readers to like it,’ says Tony. ‘And I didn’t want to write cliché after cliché, the old detective drowning their sorrows and moaning about their lot. I wanted to write characters people liked.’
But try as he might, Tony can’t help but stray back to those familiar themes that have defined his work: in the series, DC Wolfe struggles to bring up his daughter as a single father.
‘I still found the space in crime fiction to discuss what I wanted to — relationships, politics, being a man. More space if anything. I thought it was important to address those things in that context.’
That is because, ultimately, Tony is a product of his upbringing — and proud to admit it, too.
‘Coming from Essex in that working class background does influence me. Not just in my work, although it does, but the way I see my work. I know I’m lucky to have had my career and part of acknowledging that comes from how hard my dad worked for us when we were young. I’ll always be thankful for that and I’m aware of it every day.’
Get the book
The Slaughter Man by Tony Parsons is published by Century on May 21.