Richard T Kelly

Left wing and a prayer

Film books editor and critic Richard T Kelly has turned to the links between Labour and the church for his debut novel. Paul Dale hears from an author on a crusade

Richard T Kelly is laughing at the jibe that his debut novel is a cross between Anthony Trollope’s Barchester Towers and Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty. It’s a cutesy icebreaker and this editor and writer whose published works to date have confined themselves to the world of cinema with books on Sean Penn, Alan Clarke and the Danish Dogme 95 film movement, knows it. ‘It’s certainly a “no good deed goes unpunished” story.’

Kelly talks slowly and eloquently, an urbane clarity emerging from the horizontal vowels of a north east England accent. Crusaders is the entertaining and weighty tale (at over 500 pages) of left leaning Reverend John Gore, an Anglican clergyman who returns to Newcastle to set up a church in a deprived area in 1996, a time of Labour Party revisionism. ‘Around about the 1990s there were certain things happening in the north east,’ recalls Kelly. ‘I found myself cutting out clippings in the newspapers about ‘church planting’, which was a particular churchy response to declining congregations. Also the Tyneside underworld came into focus in the 90s with some distressing stories while Blair became the leader of Labour and I was very interested in his claim to north east roots and his professed Christianity. All these ideas began to coalesce in my mind.’

Two and a half years ago, Kelly finally sat down to write a multi-character novel peopled by political radicals, miners, gangsters, MPs and men of the cloth. ‘It was important to me that everything is underpinned by the religious presence of Gore because if you look at deprived areas that have needed urban regeneration, people tend to flee the areas but the church tends to stay. That is an almost irresistible element of real life.’ Stopping briefly, Kelly decides to embrace the unfashionable leitmotif that runs through his book. ‘The novel’s source is this idea of Christian Socialism and the entwined tradition of the Labour Party and the church. So many of the architects of New Labour were members of the Christian Socialist society at Westminster. I thought that through Gore and him having old Labour roots and a dog collar round his neck, I could crack open some of those affinities and contradictions.’

Kelly is, however, at pains to point out that he is no polemicist. ‘The book is now arriving relatively shortly after Blair’s departure and I’m happy that he is still fresh in people’s minds. But the simple narrative that Labour supporters were ecstatic on 1 May 1997 and then driven to tears of dissolution five or six years later is of no interest to me whatsoever because I wasn’t particularly ecstatic when they won. I thought it was something of an historical irony that someone like Blair ever became leader of the Labour Party.’

An avid believer in research, Kelly will soon be spending lots of time this side of the border in preparation for his second novel, a ‘Scottish’ supernatural tale that, like so many before it, will pay a debt to Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and James Hogg’s Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. Kelly is on a most radical road.

Crusaders is published by Faber on Thu 17 Jan.

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