Son of a preacher man
PUBLISHED: 14:24 10 May 2014 | UPDATED: 14:33 10 May 2014
Catherine Larner meets novelist James Runcie, in Woodbridge to talk about his latest offering, Sidney Chambers and the Problem of Evil
Meeting novelist James Runcie is pleasurable, but also slightly disconcerting.
Tall and charming, he sports ostentatious footwear and has an infectious giggle. He also speaks at breakneck speed, while ideas and stories are related in scattergun fashion. You come away feeling dazed and wondering how much of your conversation will be used as future material.
“I do like anecdotes,” he says. “Now when people tell me stories, they say ‘you can’t use that’, or ‘you can have that!’ My attitude to secrets is that if it’s funny, I’m going to tell people.”
He does qualify this statement – there is some self-regulation to protect the innocent, but you sense nothing is wasted with a man whose CV lists television producer, theatre director, screenwriter, documentary filmmaker and novelist, with time divided between his home in Edinburgh and London where he is currently Head of Literature and the Spoken Word at the Southbank Centre.
As well as collecting stories, he is also obviously very observant, noting details about appearance and behaviour, and this is informing his latest writing project, a series of six novels called ‘The Grantchester Mysteries’ which are being dramatized for a television series released in the autumn.
The third book, Sidney Chambers and the Problem of Evil is published this month [May]. Like the others it is made up of four stories about a crime-solving country vicar, called Sidney Chambers. We meet him first in 1953, and each book progresses through the decades, concluding with the 1980s in book six, reflecting changes in attitudes in British social history.
“I am particularly interested in how we have moved from post-war society where we were looking to build a better Britain, to the solipsism of the 21st century and ‘how can I be famous’,” James says. “These days everybody wants to be public. But then there was still tact and manners so Sidney has to understand what’s happening beneath the secrecy and the privacy.”
The clergy are, of course, privy to information unlike any other sector of society. Sidney is the canon of a village church just outside Cambridge. It’s a small community where people know their place through the roles they hold: the doctor, the teacher and the vicar. He is present at the rites of passage - births, marriages and deaths - and when people are at their most vulnerable and most confessional.
“This is Morse with morals, or a Trollope with crime,” James says about the books, while admitting that he is more interested in manners and social behaviour than crime, and is influenced more by Dostoevsky or Jane Austen than Ian Rankin.
“I am interested in what Englishness means, in old fashioned things like decency,” he says. “What is a good life? How does one lead a good moral life without compromise? Obviously one can’t just tell the truth all the time, one has to be kind to people and occasionally lie, so what does truth mean? The books are more about behaviour and social observation than about crime.
“And I’m very interested in humour,” he says, “the idea that things can be comic and tragic simultaneously.”
He recalls an incident when he was a child and his father’s secretary saying that when her husband left her, she wanted to think of the rudest word she could say, and came up with ‘Harpic’!
James is unabashed about acknowledging that the books draw on his experience of being the son of Archbishop Robert Runcie.
“If I had written this while my father was still alive, or soon after he had died, it would look opportunistic. But I have done other things now and he died nearly 14 years ago – I don’t know how long it takes people to grieve. I feel Sidney Chambers is partly a biography of my dad, and partly an alternative autobiography of what would have happened if I had been a priest.
“I wanted to present someone with moral seriousness and to show faith in action. But Sidney has flaws. He knows he’s charming so he’s slightly vain. He has an over-eagerness to be loved, and he’s indiscreet of course, which is bad. He’s not actually that good a priest.” Maybe not, but in this warm, affectionate, thoughtful and amusing portrayal, Sidney is building a loyal and quietly passionate fan base.
James Runcie will be speaking at Seckford Hall Hotel at 7.30pm on Wednesday 14 May, the guest of Browsers Bookshop. Details: 01394 388890