Bethnal Green Road is a place that still feels distinctively ‘east end’. There are market stalls selling fruit and veg and discounted loo paper; the caffs are staffed by waiters who call you ‘darling’; and bookies and pubs abound.
It’s easy to imagine Seth ‘Sinner’ Roach – the boxer in Ned Beauman’s debut novel Boxer, Beetle – swaggering along, stopping perhaps for pie and mash, a swig of whiskey or an impromptu fight.
Beauman himself, a dapper figure you would describe as petite if it didn’t seem so girly, seems less obviously suited to the area. The pub where I meet him is his favourite on the street because it is the only one that offers table service, and his accent is more Hampstead – where he grew up – than Bethnal Green, where he lives in a ex-local authority flat with two friends. He’s well turned out (BStore jacket, jeans by Acne and Paul Smith shoes) and his beard and haircut suggest a man who pays attention to grooming.
Boxer, Beetle is an exuberant and sprawling novel that divides its time between the 1930s and the present day. It’s full of dubious characters who exhibit various physical, mental and ideological flaws. Sinner is a nine-toed, alcoholic boxer battling it out in the east end Jewish slums of the 1930s, while Philip Erskine is a closet gay eugenicist who hasn’t learned to control his wet dreams. In present day London, we have Nazi memorabilia collector Fishy – so-called because of his trimethylaminuria, a disease that causes him to emit a rotting fish stench.
The book earned Beauman a place on the 2010 Guardian first book award shortlist and ensured that he was one of only 12 new novelists included in a BBC Culture Show book special earlier this month. Newspaper reviewers have lavished Boxer, Beetle with glowing praise. Professor John Mullan, head of the English department at University College London and a Culture Show judge, has also praised the novel.
“There’s a kind of genuine – not faux – genuine playfulness to it, which is an unusual quality for a first novel,” he says. “You’ve got to be quite confident, cocky even, to do that.”
So where does 26-year-old Beauman get his confidence? Could it be from attending Winchester, Britain’s oldest public school, and a place Tatler describes as “unashamedly academic “ and “bliss for bookworms”.
“Public school definitely gives you an unshakeable self-confidence,” he concedes. “That is the one thing that is an unambiguous boon of going to public school.”
It’s the nicest thing he’ll say about his alma mater. “Winchester was a terrible place full of terrible people. I made a few friends but barely any. It’s 80 per cent cunts. Which is why in the book Erskine goes to Winchester and has a terrible time.”
After following his father and brothers to Winchester, Beauman did what everybody else in his family – mother, father, brothers and sister – had done before him, and went to study at Cambridge.
“I’d never met a girl before; I’d never been to a party,” he says of his first year. “I eventually found my way, but oh my God it took a while.”
Finding his way involved running a club night, writing comment pieces for the student paper and appearing in fashion shoots. “I only got a 2:1 so it’s not like I was in the library all the time but I was doing a lot of extra-curricular stuff.” He winces. “God I sound like one of those people that’s like, ‘If I’ve got one flaw, it’s that I’m too driven.’”
His drive – both academic and extra-curricular – led him to London where he landed a job at Dazed and Confused. He had begun writing Boxer, Beetle the summer he graduated from Cambridge and continued working on it while studying for an MA in English literature at the University of Sussex and during his time at Dazed. After 50,000 words, he sent a draft to an agent.
“I knew this girl from university who happened to be working as an assistant at Lutyens and Rubinstein so I showed it to her and she showed it to her boss and her boss took me on,” he explains, making it sound easy. “But my agency – they do read everything they get so I think if I had sent it to them out of the blue the result would have been the same.”
Once he had an agent onside, it wasn’t long before he secured a publishing deal. “I got an advance, so I quit my job at Dazed, not straight away but a few months after,” he says. “It’s not like I’ll never have to work again but I can make a living from writing. It’s really nice and it’s rare as well.”
Beauman has wanted to be a writer for as long as he can remember. Growing up in a privileged and intellectual family (his father is an economist and his mother founded the publishing company Persephone), writing a book didn’t seem like such a lofty idea. His sister Francesca Beauman has written several non-fiction books, his mother is a biographer, his half-brother writes children’s books and his dad has “always thought about writing a book but never has”.
“Writing seemed like quite a natural thing growing up. Books always felt very important in our house,” he says.
He describes himself as “racially Jewish” but says he learned more about the Jewish experience from 20th-Century American literature than from the couple of Bar Mitzvahs he attended as a child. “I think the experience of being a secular, middle-class Hampstead Jew has nothing in common with being a Cockney second-generation immigrant slum Jew in the ‘30s so it wasn’t that helpful when it came to writing the Sinner character.”
He’s halfway through his next book The Teleportation Accident, a novel charting the lives of émigrés from the Weimar republic – following them from Berlin to Paris and finally to LA. Why has he chosen to set his second book in the 1930s too?
“It’s a really politically charged time,” he says. “It seems like the last time you could be a really committed fascist or a really committed Marxist without feeling like a bit of an idiot. And that’s really interesting for a politicised novel to be able to have that.”
He voted Labour in the last election but hasn’t attended any of the protests against cuts. “Obviously all these cuts are really frightening and terrible but I don’t think the protests are going to make any difference.”
“It’s just really hard to care about politics now because it’s been so long since there’s been an interesting debate going on because everyone was so sick of Labour at the end and everyone is already so sick of the Coalition.”
He says his third book will be set in the present day though as “I just really don’t want to be known as ‘the Hitler guy’.” So what does Beauman – who had an insight into the fashion industry at Dazed – think of ex-Dior designer John Galliano’s ‘I love Hitler’ rant?
“I think people are overreacting. From what I saw, the high fashion world is full of deluded, loathsome, childlike, drunken people. An anti-Semitic comment in a bar is terrible but it’s far from the worst thing that a fashion designer has ever done.
“It just happens it got videoed. They’re all monsters, those people. So I think it’s really hypocritical to pretend to be shocked that this guy who dresses up as a pirate every day could say something offensive,” he says, laughing.
And that’s the nice thing about Beauman. You can happily flit from fashion and philosophy to cooking and his favourite TV shows, and you know he’ll have something fresh, thoughtful and funny to say. He admits he’s a bit of a nerd (“I can’t really hug. And I love superheroes. So that’s two quite big nerd ticks.”) but he’s a great person to chat to while enjoying a couple of whiskey-sodas, his drink of choice.
So what’s next for a man who secured a two-book deal aged just 24? Comic books, apparently.
“It’s a race against time about whether superhero comics will have died out before I get to write an issue of Batman, which is kind of my main remaining ambition now that I’ve had a book out,” he says. “I mean it’s much harder to get into than writing literary fiction.”
Let’s give him ‘til he’s 30.