“My ambition was to sign on the dole”

30 Jan|Tom Hodgkinson

Geoff Dyer on the USS George H W Bush by Chris Steele-Perkins

Tom Hodgkinson kicks back with the semi-indolent but highly productive author

Tom Hodgkinson: What about your school days and your time at university … were you a lazy boy?

Geoff Dyer: I was just a kid who liked watching football, not reading. There were no books in my house. I was an only child. Then this teacher at school – it’s such a classic story – turned me on to reading. I think because I didn’t have any brothers or sisters, there was always this moment when I came home after playing outside that the fun stopped. So reading was a wonderful discovery for me. Going further back, I’d passed the 11-plus and gone to grammar school. And so I just rode the educational escalator, which again is so common: from the 11-plus onwards, passively passing exams, not realising that there was more to it than that. I got a sense that I was getting an education, getting qualifications. Then, because of the wonders of the welfare state or the post-War settlement, I ended up at Oxford reading English. I left Oxford – I’ve written this down, so it’s got the feeling of a gag that is not at all off the cuff, but well and truly up the sleeve – knowing exactly what I wanted to do: because I was so full of ambition, I wanted to sign on the dole. It was 1980, there was mass unemployment because of Thatcherism, but with all that network of welfare state in place. It wasn’t that I wanted to be a drop-out; it was a well-respected option at that point. Everyone was doing it. At the same time, that was the yuppie era. You don’t often hear that word any more. It was the yuppie period of people making lots of money in whatever they were doing. But then there were also a lot of people like me, living the fag-end of the hippie ideal. Crucially – and how times have changed! – it was so easy to live in London on very little money. There was a whole economy of living cheaply. It was a wonderful time.

TH: It was possible to be a bohemian then. It would be much more difficult now, 30 years later.

To go from university to the dole to freelancing is a very easy transition to make

GD: I’m so conscious of this in America now. The equivalent of that dole system now in America is to get accepted on an MFA programme, a Master of Fine Arts. That’s what aspiring writers do. If you can get accepted onto one of these programmes, several of which I’ve taught on, you’re fully funded for three years, living in Austin, Texas, or wherever. There you lead exactly the kind of life that I lived back then, with a bit more guidance and mentoring. It’s strikingly similar. As opposed to the other quite time-consuming alternative in America, which is now the case here as well, where you have to work in a café if you want to be a writer.

TH: How long were you on the dole for?

GD: Still on it, actually … Quite a long time. It was that time when, in the early 1980s, newspapers were getting bigger and bigger. That meant there were more and more opportunities for writers. It was, and I think this is historically correct, the real beginning of the freelancer era. To go from university to the dole to freelancing is a very easy transition to make. Then from freelancing to becoming that lowest form of life – the career novelist.

TH: The rates of pay were far better then.

GD: Yes, but let’s not forget, the other thing – and I remember this so clearly – the first book review I wrote, it was Milan Kundera’s The Farewell Party, and I received it for free. I’d been buying books until then, so to receive a free copy from a magazine was really exciting. The thrill of the jiffy bag thumping through the letterbox – that has never diminished at all. The fact that you can get paid for that which you were previously paying money for.

A longer version of this interview appeared in Idler 58, January/February 2018. Buy a copy here.