A comedy writer insists to Simon Round that his second novel is absolutely, definitely non-autobiographical
Jon Canter has gone to great lengths to ensure that his new comic novel is not read as autobiographical.
A Short Gentlemen tells of the fall from grace of a vertically challenged, pompous, humourless and gentile barrister. Canter himself is a six-foot-two-inch Jew, whose reputation has been forged on his wit — he has written for, among others, Lenny Henry and Fry and Laurie.
However, Canter, his long frame cramped behind a table in a café in Crouch End, North London, has more in common with his main character than one would think.
“I was a law student and my father was a solicitor, so law is deep within me,” he admits, adding: “I loved the idea of writing with a barristerial voice because it so theatrical. My character, Robert Purcell, announces at the start of the book that he is not pleading or making his own case, but of course he is — in every page and in every sentence. The amusing thing is that it is about 20,000 words longer than Seeds of Greatness [Canter’s first novel] for the same amount of story, simply because Purcell speaks in this long-winded somewhat grandiose fashion. There are footnotes…”
Canter, too, like the eponymous Short Gentleman, lives in the Suffolk town of Aldeburgh. Now in his 50s, he moved from North London in his late 30s. “Through living in the country, I met a lot of people who had worked in the City or in law and moved because they wanted their lives to be more spiritual — to be painters or writers. That is a theme of the book. It is about a mid-life crisis which takes a particular form.”
Without giving too much away (Canter is concerned that the reader should not know certain vital plot details), the novel is Purcell’s account of how his life falls apart, how he commits a crime and is imprisoned. It is a comedy of the dark sort, he says.
“I particularly like comedy with pain. Most of the best comedy has loads of pain in it. The other aspect of writing the book I most enjoyed was exploring the idea of the non-Jewish mother. Purcell’s mother is cold, brisk and remote — the very opposite of my own mother.”
So why did he make Purcell so tiny? “Being a tall person, I have always been fascinated with shortness. Partly I wanted to explore shortness and partly I wanted to make sure that no one thought it was me. I’m not short, and I’m no gentleman,” he laughs.
Size has been on Canter’s mind for a while. He confesses he had even discussed the idea of writing a book listing famous people through history in size order.
It is the kind of quirkiness that is appreciated by those who rate him, which is just about everyone who is anyone in the comedy world. Canter was raised in Golders Green and attended Highgate School, where as a teenager he first decided he wanted to write. “I wrote my first sketch for a talent show at Ace Holiday Camp in Worthing. I haven’t looked back since.”
He took time out from comedy to study law at Cambridge but performed in the Footlights. By his mid-20s he was writing comedy, courtesy of a year-long contract awarded to new comedy writers by the BBC Light Entertainment department.
Remaining in emphatically tall circles — he was a flatmate of the late, lengthy Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy author Douglas Adams — Canter met Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie socially and eventually became their script editor.
It was, he says, easy work. “For most of the time , my job was to sit there and say, ‘Yeah, that’s great’. A lot of script editors don’t realise it’s OK to do that.”
Working for Lenny Henry gave him a greater challenge. Canter was “computer-dated” with Henry through a mutual friend and had to get to know him before he could attempt to write for him.
“It’s quite funny, really. Here am I, a Jewish guy sitting in an office in Aldeburgh, pretending to be a black working-class man from the Midlands.”
Perhaps there could be a novel in it.
A Short Gentleman is published by Jonathan Cape (£16.99)