Tim Lott's new home in west London lies just across the road from a vast Victorian necropolis. It was this city of corpses that prompted GK Chesterton, an earlier explorer of Deepest England, to imagine that his countrymen would one day "go to Paradise by way of Kensal Green". Plenty of people know that scrap of verse, but even more will recognise the fragment from another poem, "The Secret People", that warns: "Smile at us, pay us, pass us; but do not quite forget./ For we are the people of England, that never have spoken yet."
Lott's career as an author pivots on that single Chestertonian theme. Over three books, and a bundle of polemical journalism, he has sought to find a voice for the hidden virtues of the middling millions ("upper working-class, or lower middle-class") in the old surburban sprawl and its Barratt-built equivalents in newer towns. "In many ways they are more moral than the people who look down upon them," he insists. "Just because they make bad fashion choices and buy inappropriate furniture, and haven't read Proust, doesn't invalidate the experience of their lives."
This champion of ordinary folk arrived at his vocation (as all writers must) by an extraordinary route. His memoir The Scent of Dried Roses set the lacerating story of his own depression and his mother's suicide against the glacial history of suburban England, with tiny incremental shifts punctuated by great cracks in the fabric of personal or social life. If the rest of the "confessional" literature spawned by the Narcissistic Nineties were to vanish into a marble tomb at Kensal Green, no one should bother. But Lott's scorching debut (along with Andrea Ashworth's Once in a House on Fire) deserves immortality.
Lott's feel for the chasms of class took root early, when the lad from "subtopian" Southall would serve in his father's greengrocers shop in Notting Hill. Once, he recalls, a patrician child of 11 or so was ordering the produce, "and he treated me like I was shit. He was so full of confidence and so completely at ease in the world. I just remember feeling this enormous sense of injustice that he would think I was nothing - that I had no thoughts, that I had no soul - because I was selling him apples."
The memoir recounts a fierce campaign to become something, hard and fast: teenage music journalism during the Burchill-Parsons heyday, precocious success as a magazine entrepreneur, then a good degree at the LSE to fix his intellectual credentials. Along with all that rapid motion came the rending pains of a drift away from a family and home he loved.
Even having written once of the classic late 20th-century memoirs of social mobility and its emotional toll, Lott still feels what Richard Sennett called "the hidden injuries of class". In the publishing world, he meets "people who have been told their whole lives that what they think matters, and what they do will have an effect". In contrast, his own childhood was shadowed by a blunt conviction that "you simply didn't count and you weren't going anywhere. That endures... Perhaps one of the reasons I've ended up being a novelist is an attempt to overcome that sense of insecurity."
His first novel, White City Blue, was as much about staying put as moving on. A neat, astute piece scripted for a quartet of Shepherd's Bush male voices, it hid some of its bitterness about the falsity of friends under a joky carapace. Although deftly written and greatly enjoyed, it later made Lott "very worried that I'd either get coralled as a Lad-Lit writer, which I very strongly felt that I wasn't, or a comedy writer".
So now Rumours of a Hurricane arrives (Viking, pounds 14.99), a historical novel of the Eighties seen through the Zola-esque tragedy of Charlie, a stolid Times print-worker-turned-Milton Keynes shopkeeper and, finally, self-annihilating down-and-out. His creator views this Thatcherite Everyman, buffeted by raging market forces, as "not that intelligent, quite good- hearted, but not well- equipped for dealing with all the choices that the modern world throws at him". Tracing his and his family's rocky road, Lott aims "to sum up a decade through the minutiae of personal lives, without being obvious or schematic".
Paradoxically, I go to discuss a book which argues that Mrs T's decade changed everything forever on a day when some ghosts of the collectivist past seem to be stirring. Public-sector unions strike, while media and politicians denounce the decay of tax-funded services. The night before, I had even heard Michael Fish advising us to "batten down the hatches" for a gale.
Yet Lott sticks with his analysis of "the decade that never ended", with its explosions of choice and chance that wrecked many lives (such as Charlie's) but rescued many more (such as his go- getting wife, Maureen's). "At the moment - amazingly, depressingly, disgustingly - we are still in the Eighties," he snorts. The novel portrays our still-persisting dreams of riches and autonomy with much sympathy, tempered by compassion for all the losers: "As a society we started to smash everything up, and to break out of all sorts of prisons," Lott says. "But Charlie was the sort of bloke who was quite happy in his prison. His tragedy was hubris: he got carried away, and that's what destroyed him."
Rumours of a Hurricane proceeds, Beckham-style, via a volley of spectacular set-pieces. The bruising Times dispute at "Fortress Wapping", a penitential Christmas dinner, a blood-stained boxing bout, the 1987 hurricane itself: public and private passions converge on this pilgrim's progress through an era that ends, not in the celestial city but the slough of despond.
It's an ambitious architecture, which sometimes shows its working parts too blatantly - like some gleaming techno-shed designed by Norman Foster at the time. And I missed the presence of movers and shakers, Thatchers and Murdochs: those hammers of destiny who beat raw material like Charlie into shape. Lott wanted to wheel on the big historical actors but - after two false starts to the novel - the prospect daunted him: "I think it would have been a wonderful thing to do, but I don't think I had the emotional staying-power."
Still, the novel boasts plenty of Lott's edgy tenderness and volcanic drama. Its characters wrestle with their times in tense, terse dialogue pitched somewhere between EastEnders and Harold Pinter. And, in spite of all the brand names he located in the Littlewood's catalogue for the relevant years, the novel by-passes the checklist-led ersatz history of TV nostalgia-fests. "I detest those programmes," he says, "and I detest nostalgia as what Dennis Potter called `a second-order emotion'."
In conversation, he sounds much like his prose: concrete and direct, but always capable of sliding off into passages of lyrical hope and doubt. On the fridge behind his stocky frame are photos of his small daughters. It's a reminder that Lott sports wounds from the battles of gender as well as class. In the novel, smart Maureen flourishes as dull Charlie fails, and Lott admits the liberating value of a smash-and-grab feminism which "had more to do with Margaret Thatcher, Madonna and possibly Julie Burchill than it did with Sheila Rowbotham, Germaine Greer and Kate Millett".
For a time, the sex wars hogged centre-stage in his journalistic prose. His divorce bred some hurt and hurtful articles, as well as a vitriolic longer piece (in Granta) that picked up the same notoriety as Intimacy by his friend Hanif Kureishi - and for much the same reasons. "That wasn't kiss-and-tell," he says. "It was me trying to say what it was like to lose your family. That's not the same as trying to settle scores."
Now, however, he intuits that the hurricane of gender hostility has blown out, although that hunch "might have something to do with the fact that I'm in a much happier relationship". His next book will explore this sense of a rapprochement: he calls it "an end-of- the-sex-war novel".
Lott has worn his heart brazenly on his sleeve, yet he finds a lot of confessional culture "thoroughly reprehensible. I really think it comes down to the writing," he adds. "If it's good enough, it's justified." At root, he believes, "self-deception is as natural as breathing to people. And all of writing is really about tearing away those veils."
The Scent of Dried Roses did exactly that, with a rare fusion of artistry and authenticity. Rumours of a Hurricane motors through its decade with tremendous pace and affecting poignancy, but I still think that Lott at his best is a stranger, subtler writer than his fiction so far shows - except in blazing sequences such as the (literal) dance of death that launches the new novel.
Thatcher's cultural legacies included a sort of pseudo-populism which presumes that art can never be accessible unless it mimics the ruling commercial genres. Lott the novelist still shares a bit of that (group sit-com flavours White City Blue, period family saga Rumours of a Hurricane). But his admiration for John Updike's nuanced suburban chronicles ("my fantasy has always been to write an English version of Rabbit") ought to draw him closer to the American's more flexible forms. The "secret people" of England have far richer histories than our top-down tabloid culture can conceive. And we urgently need Tim Lott to tell more of them, before we go to Paradise (by way of Kensal Green).
TIM LOTT: BIOGRAPHY
BORN IN 1956, Tim Lott grew up in Southall, London; his father ran a greengrocers shop in Notting Hill. He went to Greenford grammar school, and trained as a newspaper journalist in Harlow. In the late 1970s, he worked for the music magazine Sounds, and then founded a successful pop magazine publisher, Colourgold. A mature student in the mid-1980s, he studied politics and history at the London School of Economics. After graduating, he was briefly editor of the London listings magazine City Limits. He suffered a spell of severe depression and, shortly after his recovery, his mother committed suicide in 1988. These events formed the background of his first book, the memoir The Scent of Dried Roses (1996), which won the JR Ackerley Prize for autobiography. His debut novel, White City Blue (1999), won the Whitbread first novel award. His second, Rumours of a Hurricane, is published next week by Viking. Divorced, with two daughters, Tim Lott lives with his girlfriend in Kensal Green, west London.…