Mal Peet’s top cultural picks

November 6, 2014, Article by Ben Willis in Books

Carnegie Award-winning author, Mal Peet, took time out from promoting his new genre-bending, fantastical black comedy THE MURDSTONE TRILOGY (published by David Fickling Books on 6th November 2014) to tell us a few of his cultural favourites:

Band: Has to be Miles Davis’ second ‘Great Quintet’. That’s the one with Miles on trumpet, Herbie Hancock on piano, Ron Carter on bass, Tony Williams on drums and Wayne Shorter on saxophones. Just took jazz into places it had never been before. I adore Miles because as soon as he became popular, or ‘cool’, he said ‘Fuck that’ and turned his back (literally; on stage he used to do exactly that) on white hipsters and said, through his music, ‘You think you know who I am? Well, see if you can dig this shit.’ Then he’d play stuff that made your bones dance in ways they’d never thought of. And when you’d got used to that, he’d go off and do something else.

After discovering Miles in the late Sixties, I more or less stopped listening to pop or rock music and went off in directions that my fellow hippies didn’t take. I do, though, think that the Stones’ Exile on Main Street might just be the best Rock album ever made. Not long ago I reviewed a brilliant Teen novel called Grasshopper Jungle by an American writer called Andrew Smith. (Check it out; it’s hilarious and mad and very, very smart.) On their way to do battle with the armour-plated six foot-high mutant man-eating praying mantises terrorising Ealing, Iowa, Austin Szerba and his more than best friend Robby Brees discuss the naming of testicles:

Robby said, “My balls are named Mick and Keith.”
“Those are probably the best names anyone has ever given their balls in the history of naming your balls,” I said.
Robby said, “Thank you, Austin.”

I also like pretty much anything by David Byrne.

Artist: Rembrandt. Or Vermeer. At school I was taught the history of art in a ruthlessly chronological way. I struggled with the Italian Renaissance. Didn’t get it. All those scenes from Classical mythology (even the ones with inexplicably naked ladies hanging around in the countryside), all that religious stuff; it just didn’t connect with me. (Well, I was a snotty, ignorant and sarky little atheist from a council estate in Norfolk.) Then at last we headed north to the Low Countries in the 17th century and it was as if I’d been short-sighted all my life without knowing it and been given a pair of specs. Many years later I stood before some of these paintings in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and cried like an infant. Which made them kinda blurry.

Mind you, Robert Crumb is pretty good.

Film: Oh, God. I’m lousy at single favourite questions. Uh, Sunset Boulevard? Bladerunner? Barton Fink? Wild at Heart? Doctor Strangelove?

Book: This is getting worse. One book? The one book I couldn’t live without is the Shorter OED. But that’s two books anyway. So I’m looking around my room trying to decide which would be the last book I’d part with.

(Long interval. Small nervous breakdown.)

OK. Moby-Dick has just gone out the window. Which leaves Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne.

Writer: I’m going to say John Steinbeck. Not because he’s the greatest writer in the language but because he changed my life. He’s largely responsible for my becoming a writer and getting me into this mess but I forgive him. I read – probably at the behest of my brilliant and war-damaged English teacher – The Grapes of Wrath when I was 13. Until then, I’d been an avid consumer of books in much the same way as other kids were avid consumers of snacks. Books were stories and I was a gobbler of stories. Then I read The Grapes of Wrath and understood that novels could do much, much more than tell tales. (I had only just graduated from Biggles books.) It was like opening a door into a huge and splendid and scary room. I was gripped by the tribulations of the Joad family but, maybe more importantly, it dawned on me that fiction was a way of dealing with real stuff and that there were currents – political, historical, angry, heart-felt – driving the story. Steinbeck also taught me that American fiction was significantly different from English fiction. And he led me off down that road: to Hemingway and Chandler and Scott Fitzgerald. When I went to university, it was to study American fiction. Then I met Emily Dickinson and Edgar Allen Poe and Melville and, later, Thomas Pynchon and Donald Barthelme and Raymond Carver and Carson Mcullers. I have an American imagination, I think.

Drink: Ah, this is easier. I used to be an ale snob. Can’t drink pints any more, though. They make me feel like a rain-filled hammock. Strictly wine these days. Elspeth and I have spent a good deal of time in New Zealand and (there’s a bit of a backlash going on about this, I know) their wines are beautiful. Most of what we get over here comes from the Marlborough vineyards, which is fine, but further south, in Otago, they produce the most amazing Pinots (whites and reds) from terraces perched in weird and hostile-looking landscapes. Sadly, Bargain Booze doesn’t stock them.

Places and holiday destinations: I love where I live and thank god for it. East Devon. We’re just a bit off the main holiday routes: the A30 runs down to Cornwall 10 miles north of us, and the surfers (in VW vans with optimistic roof racks) and second home owners (in 4x4s loaded with Fortnum and Mason hampers) mostly pass us by. 10 minutes walk from my house there’s a bench overlooking the Exe estuary and the view is so beautiful that I’d like to die there. Maybe I will. My foot will skid on a used condom and I’ll plunge off the cliff.

We started going to Turkey about 25 years ago and still love it despite most of the good places having been fucked up. And NZ is extraordinary: all the landscapes and climates of Europe crammed into 2 small islands where they drive on the left and make the best coffee in the world.

Food: My taste buds go on strike east of Calcutta. Thai food always has a hint of bath additive, it seems to me. Whack in some Waitrose Essential Ginger and Sea Salt shower gel and 5 chillis and there’s your Thai. In Hong Kong, Elspeth and I pretty much gave up on sucking mucus from the thin legs of spider crabs and stocked up on the hotel breakfast in napkins to last us through the day.

I can’t do sushi, either. I agree with the guy who said that it was invented by 2 Scottish entrepreneurs who saved money by not buying an oven. Raw fish? Get a penguin on the phone.

My meal of choice is a fillet steak from our local butcher and a good salad.

Jesus! I seem to be channelling Nigel Farage!

Teams and Sport: The only sport I’m interested in is football, about which I used to be fanatical but am less so these days. I support the team with the fewest tattoos.

THE MURDSTONE TRILOGY by Mal Peet is published by David Fickling Books on 6th November 2014

The Murdstone Trilogy Cover For Biblio Revised Colour