Jesse Armstrong is a class act on page and screen

Jesse Armstrong’s observations on posh people have borne fruit in his debut novel and his writing for sitcoms such as Peep Show, says Richard Fitzpatrick

ANDY is the central character in Jesse Armstrong’s novel, Love, Sex and Other Foreign Policy Goals. In the opening scene he finds himself in a posh house. Posh people, he discovers, never use the word “posh”. It’s too common.

Instead they refer to people, places or parties that are very posh as “grand” or “smart”, and if someone complains about the distribution of wealth and privilege as being unfair, that person is dismissed as being “chippy”.

The nailing of posh people goes on — their habit, for example, of abandoning bottles of wine half drunk, and of “young people swaggering with such unwarranted confidence”. Armstrong has a sharp eye for the ridiculous, and for more than just the peccadillos of posh people, which is no surprise given he’s worked as a scriptwriter on many of the best satirical shows on British television over the last decade, including Peep Show, Fresh Meat and The Thick of It.

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“It’s a lucky kink for comedy writers that particular English obsession and interest with class and social difference,” he says.

“It maybe is not good for society but it’s good for the comic writer. I come from Shropshire, a somewhat similar background to the character in the book, Andy — from the English side of the Welsh borders, and went to comprehensive school so I met varieties of people I hadn’t come across during a provincial upbringing. Posh people are particularly interesting, but without wanting to be trite it is important to take people as they come. I wouldn’t like to say I’m a class warrior.”

Armstrong’s protagonist, Andy, leaves the Welsh borders for Manchester and works on building sites. He’s swept along by an earnest theatre troupe who head to the former Yugoslavia to promote peace with a play (“to hot spots to defuse things”) during the Balkan war in 1994.

His drive to spread peace has more to do with youthful infatuation with the theatre company’s playwright, Penny, however, than ideological yearnings. It’s a ruse for Armstrong to explore several ideas, including youthful idealism and well intentioned if often misguided intervention.

The main characters’ weighty discussions about war and global politics are often intercut with undergraduate humour and frivolous digressions on the Madchester scene (“Is it true that the Inspiral Carpets will split?”).

Armstrong fetched up in Manchester to study at university in the late 1980s, where, incidentally, he shared a flat with his long-time writing partner, Sam Bain. It was a heady time to be in the city for a lad from the provinces.

“I was of that generation of NME-reading, indie fans. Part of the reason I went to Manchester was because of New Order and The Smiths. Growing up in the north west, it was where we aspired to go out. I got turned away from the Hacienda quite a few times before I went to university. It wasn’t a clubbing mecca at the time; it was more of that slightly dour, post-Joy Division thing we were attracted to. Luckily by the time we got to university, everyone was off their noggins on ecstasy, which was another kind of musical experience to enjoy.”

He says he wasn’t conscious at the time of being in the midst of a fabled music scene: “Writers tend to feel like outsiders. I never was standing on the podium at the Hacienda, going: ‘It’s all happening all around us.’ I was on the fringes. When you’re young everything seems great. Every big night out feels like a potentially life-changing juncture so I don’t think I felt more than the normal young person that this was a pretty good place to be going out. Also, you’re always reading that the really good thing happened six months ago. Already by 1991, ’92 you felt, ‘Ah, it was really good, really underground about a year ago’.”

Love, Sex and Other Foreign Policy Goals is Armstrong’s debut novel.

He says the experience of writing it has been very different to his work as a screenwriter, which includes putting words into the mouths of David Mitchell and Robert Webb on the BAFTA-winner, Peep Show, as well as co-writing Four Lions with master satirist, Chris Morris.

“All writers know the feeling of despair about how your work is going, and hopefully getting those moments where you’re ecstatic. That is even more magnified when you’re doing prose. All screenwriters end up collaborating with directors, producers and actors. Most of the things I’ve written I’ve collaborated with Sam, Simon Blackwell, Tony Roche, Armando Iannucci and Chris Morris. I’m used to getting quite early feedback. The period where you’re not sure whether it is total bollocks or it might be good stuff is relatively short. It might be a couple of weeks.

“With a book, you have to wait a couple of years and the room for paranoia and dreams of success and total failure are magnified.”

It seems your average novelist could do with a word from Malcolm Tucker to keep his or her feet on the ground. Armstrong offers some insight into why we find the rude, scornful Scot from The Thick of It and its Oscar-nominated spin-off film, In The Loop, so enjoyable:

“Part of us like it when someone takes action in fiction and maybe in life too; and part of our reaction to the dissembling and equivocation of democratic politicians is to go: ‘Come on! Just bloody sort it out.’ Maybe that is what we’re identifying with. It’s somebody coming in and taking control and being in command of the situation.

“Often his advice is bad, and he’s doing the wrong thing, and causing people to do grievous harm to their careers, but his certainty is very appealing to those around him and the audience.”

Jesse Armstrong will be in conversation at Listowel Writers’ Week, 7pm, Saturday, Listowel Arms Hotel. For more information, visit www.writersweek.ie.

FESTIVAL

Dennis Lehane, author of Mystic River, Shutter Island, and screenwriter on The Wire and Boardwalk Empire, tops the festival’s bill.

Christine Dwyer-Hickey, whose seventh novel, The Lives of Women, has just been published, is always an engaging, irreverent and opinionated speaker.

Anne Enright and Colm Tóibín, two of the finest modern chroniclers of the Irish imagination, share a stage in what promises to be an enlightening and entertaining afternoon’s conversation.

Phelim Drew, who is bringing his one-man stage adaptation of George Orwell’s memoir, Down and Out in Paris and London, will raise a laugh or two.

Graham Norton will chat with Rick O’Shea about his memoir, The Life and Loves of a He Devil.

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