Why Hope Is The Thing With Feathers
Write On!’s Lucy Kaufman interviews John O’Farrell and explores a writer’s responsibility to challenge the status quo.
John O’Farrell’s comedy writing credits read like a nostalgia trip through my formative years: Spitting Image, Alas Smith And Jones and Have I Got News For You. Also, my children’s formative years – as Aardman Animations fans, Chicken Run was a must-see. Yet none of these are what first brought John’s name into public consciousness. It was his 1998 memoir, Things Can Only Get Better, that catapulted him into the public eye and made him a ‘face’ of New Labour as a pundit and government insider.
In 1998, I bought his memoir for my dad. His own story, as stalwart Labour activist through the 80s and 90s, mirrored John’s. If my dad had been able to write, he could have written this comic, highly personal yet uncannily relatable take on the highs and (mainly) lows of attending pointless meetings, the utter joylessness of leafleting and canvassing. For me, it brought back my own experiences as a kid; knocking on doors of the disgruntled, the apathetic, the swearing and the downright aggressive. The book made me feel less alone. Someone else had been there, done that, felt the same false hopes and the eventual shock of elation in ’97, when 18 years of Tory rule was finally overturned. Things Can Only Get Better is a story of perseverance, lost causes, the difficulty in maintaining belief in the face of reality while envisioning a better world. It’s a book about hope.
Thanks to modern technology and our desire to also broadcast this interview on a Write On! Audio podcast, I meet with John on Zoom on a dull February afternoon that’s a bit like our current political, social and economic landscape: dreary, with not much to be hopeful about. The Far Right is on the rise, wealth and resources are in the hands of a few billionaires, the advance of AI threatens our jobs, and our planet is warming at an alarming rate. Climate change activist Greta Thunberg said: “We can no longer let the people in power decide what hope is. Hope is not blah, blah, blah. Hope is telling the truth. Hope is taking action.”
I ask John what action we can take in 2023, particularly as writers. For him, it’s about honesty and genuine communication.
“The idea ‘Hope is the truth’ is very important for writers. It’s very easy to second-guess the market or write what you think your agent wants. But saying something that’s really true and maybe difficult to say but honest and revealing about yourself, and hopefully your readers, is the way forward. It brings not only political hope but also spiritual hope; a philosophical honesty. The world is better for it when we genuinely communicate rather than going through the pretence of communicating.”
I ask John what lessons there are for the unpublished writer who has been plugging away for years but getting nowhere. Should they be giving up in the face of despair? In his novel The Best A Man Can Get, the main character says: If something is worth doing it is going to be hard. John shares this is drawn from his wilderness years: working on building sites and endless rejections. He also felt rejected as an activist.
“Both the activist and the writer depend on hope but also the belief you have something to offer that is worth putting out there. I believed a progressive government would be better for this country and I believed my bits of writing were worthy of sharing with a wider audience.”
Talking of audience, it’s interesting that John, an accomplished journalist, stage and screen writer, feels his books are still the most direct way of communicating. He shares how the release of his first memoir resulted in an outpouring of emotion through letters sent to him. This mattered; confirming as it did that his brand of humorous honesty connected.
“The intimacy of a book; nothing is quite as communicative as that.”
The prose in John’s novels flows beautifully, as if he’s simply telling the story to a friend. But, just as with anything that appears ‘easy’, the easier to read, the harder it is to write. Despite this, John tells me he enjoys writing – though the later stages of the novel are the hardest part.
“You keep turning up at the page and it takes a lot of time and a lot of effort. As a writer, you always reach the stage where you think, ‘This sucks, I suck,’ but you have to keep morale up, be kind to yourself.”
Historically, it’s been easier to achieve success if you’re from a privileged demographic. I ask John, as a successful white middle-class male writer, what his role is in helping pull up writers from less advantaged groups; a subject close to his heart. With a razor-sharp clarity, he tells me he’s aware of his privilege but also the difficulty in reaching groups who have convinced themselves opportunities are meant for others.
The 1980s BBC comedy-writing meetings he attended were open to anyone yet all attendees, bar one, were white middle-class male graduates. Even now, when mentoring young writers, he finds women don’t tend to push themselves forward in the same way.
“Class is also a big issue. It’s not being talked about enough. Age is also a place of discrimination, which is why I mentor writers with new voices of any age.”
It’s clear from John’s writing that he’s a dad. “I have enormous hope in young people,” he says, also sharing that he’s inspired by the commitment of young activists. However, the battle isn’t over and, in some cases, it’s going retrograde. He cites, for example, how he’s baffled that the feminist battles fought decades ago are still an issue for his daughter. He does welcome, though, what he perceives as a ‘political re-engagement’ in this post-Brexit, post-Trump world and the way young people are running compassion and kindness alongside their passion for a cause, to find new ways of doing politics. The eternal optimist, John tells me that: “Hope is what gets me up in the morning.”
Re-reading the memoir and its 2017 sequel, Things Can Only Get Worse, it’s obvious the role of satire and comedy has changed since Trump and Boris Johnson. As John says:
“These figures are beyond satire. We can no longer simply poke fun at buffoons and expect political change.”
Interestingly, John suggests that, rather than bringing about change, comedy and satire can prevent change. On BBC’s Newsnight, he said that satire serves the establishment, because it: “diffuses tensions rather than encourages active engagement.”
John’s writing will always be political, but he thinks that sketches featuring just two political figures are a thing of the past, adding: “No Thatcher government was ever brought down by Spitting Image sketches… but, having a chuckle at the people above us is better than throwing petrol bombs!”
John gives examples of how satire has evolved, showing the way sophisticated, clever satire such as The Thick Of It, Led By Donkeys and The Man In The Next Room raises morale, crystalises an idea and shapes a conversation. He elaborates, making the connection between art and comedy.
“Art helps us gain a greater understanding of where we are in this rapidly changing world. If art, writing and painting were not powerful, then dictatorships wouldn’t suppress them. It’s a vital part of our democracy that we exercise those powers and use them fully and responsibly. Artists lead the way in society, they are the first to identify the issues, problems and potential solutions in creative ways.”
John remains optimistic about his own writing future and, as a versatile writer, he has many projects. This year, the US tour of his musical Mrs Doubtfire comes to the West End and Chicken Run 2 will be released in theatres. He has a novel coming out in 2024 and is also working on his third musical, while still toying with a play he wrote in lockdown. All this, alongside his comedy history podcast with Angela Barnes: We Are History!
In 1998, I connected with John through the honestly and humility in his memoir. Today’s conversation has built on this: reminding me that it’s always better to act from a place of hope rather than embracing despondency, even when the outlook is bleak.
In his 2017 sequel, John cites Obama’s autobiography, The Audacity Of Hope and he’s right to do so. Hope is audacious. To hope is a mini-revolution, the willingness to be bold, to defy. It’s as true today as when Emily Dickinson first wrote that: Hope is the thing with feathers. That perches in the soul, and sings the tune without the words, and never stops – at all. Hope is the thing that should get all of us up in the morning.
Connect with Lucy and John on Twitter: @lucykaufman_ , @mrjohnofarrell
You can find this as a designed interview in our latest edition of Write On! (16). You’ll be able to see the digital issue from the 26 April, or pick up a copy in local libraries and other venues. In the meantime, you can find previous editions on our magazines page here.
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You keep turning up at the page and it takes a lot of time and a lot of effort. As a writer, you always reach the stage where you think, ‘This sucks, I suck,’ but you have to keep morale up, be kind to yourself.