Orient, expressly

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 November, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 November, 2009, 12:00am

Tony Parsons, best-selling author, Essex boy with a typical Cockney accent and, in his polo shirt, identifiable as a West Ham United supporter at considerably more than 100 paces, is a Hong Kong brat.

Not a brat, you understand, in any pejorative sense, but a true child of the territory who, shockingly for a 'lad lit' writer who carved his first public identity from the rock of rock 'n' roll, and who seems more London than a flat pint of Watney's Red Barrel, remains deeply enamoured of the DNA of Hong Kong. And this is a condition in which Parsons has revelled for decades.

'It's everything: the smell of duck, the petrol fumes, the flash of a girl's thigh in the Dragon Bar at the Hong Kong Hilton, the light. I fell in love with Hong Kong the first time I saw it,' he says. 'There's a degree of irrationality about that, but you don't sit down and itemise every reason.'

Parsons' faithful - and many who will prove converts come the end of the evening, using book sales and the queue for autographs as a gauge - have congregated at a literary dinner hosted by booksellers Dymocks in Grappa's Cellar, Central.

The winner of the 2001 British Book Awards' Book of the Year Prize, for Man and Boy, Parsons is here to promote his current novel, Starting Over, in which a disciplinarian police officer undergoes a startling personality transplant along with a heart transplant, then takes a second crack at life. And as Parsons speaks, it emerges that his entire literary output, along with his world view, have been moulded to a hitherto unsuspected degree by Hong Kong.

This, remember, is the same Parsons who, as a young journalist with Britain's New Musical Express, was firmly in the vanguard of punk rock, 'taking', as he likes to relate, 'drugs with The Clash, the Sex Pistols and Iggy Pop' and later touring with and writing about the sort of world-straddling artists who can be found in every real and virtual music store near you.

But then, curiously, just as he opted out of that career, and before television presentation and novel writing appeared on his CV, along came Hong Kong, discovered on a regional backpacking tour. Parsons estimates that he has made more than 60 visits in the past 20-odd years, landing on these shores three or four times annually, partly to make social calls on his best friend, now resident here. But his alternative home has also provided much more.

'Hong Kong has always been an R 'n' R place for me - but it also filled the hole left by music,' he declares. 'It's always been a real comfort zone. There's a sense of possibility here, a sense of reinvention - people become who they want to be. People feel a love and affection for Hong Kong they don't feel for London, Sydney, Durban, Tokyo; it gets under your skin. Hong Kong offers what the music offered me when I was spending time with Joe Strummer, Morrissey, Johnny Rotten - a chance to be the person you want to be.

'Hong Kong is not just another big Chinese city. That's not the case. One of the great facts of the changeover [sic] is that Hong Kong hasn't changed. In fact, the tail is wagging the dog.'

Recently, Parsons' enthusiasm has extended to the mainland, urban uniformity notwithstanding. His previous novel, My Favourite Wife, is set in Shanghai, whose ruthless business culture emerges through the story of an expatriate lawyer who settles there with his wife and child. The book was three years, and more than a dozen lengthy Shanghai visits, in the writing. 'I wanted to get it right,' he says. 'I wanted Shanghainese people, and people here, to come up and say, 'Yeah, that's pretty much how it is.'' Returning recently to promote Starting Over, he found his passion for the mainland catch flame again. 'I'm very pro-China,' he continues. 'The work ethic, the invention, the willingness to try things ... touring, I felt that every second. It's been exciting to go back and watch the confidence growing.'

Parsons, who has two novels - Man and Boy and Man and Wife - available in Chinese, was also impressed with the mechanics of his latest tour.

'It was a bloody joy to do a book tour of China after five tours of America,' he says, 'because the Chinese are so much better at capitalism than Americans. Americans give you a million dollars and stick you in coach class to Philadelphia. If you don't catch Larry King's eye, it's: 'Where's our million dollars?' In China I was on the only books show on CCTV, with novelist Wang Hailing, and I was everywhere. They said: 'We hope you don't mind that the audience is only 800 million.' It was a joy to do business with them. But capitalism in America seems to be knackered; it's on its last legs.'

Broadly, Parsons' novels deal with contemporary relationships and their emotional meltdowns or resuscitations. More specifically, he says: 'I like transformation stories, where ... where Peter Parker is bitten by a radioactive spider and suddenly he can climb up walls. Stories with a 'transforming incident' touch something profound in how we live. That's what Starting Over is about. Any proximity to death changes the way we look at our lives.'

Had Parsons ever been close to any 'transforming incident' where his beloved Hong Kong was concerned?

'I've thought about moving here many times - I've been tempted,' he admits, 'but I might not have had the opportunities in print or on TV. It might have been good for the novels though.

'I'd never rule it out, but a lot of my income is derived from newspaper and magazine columns. And by the way, it's a big thing in Britain - people say the newspaper industry is dying. I think it is, but I'll die before it will.'

Starting Over also kept Parsons' feet fixed largely on London ground. Where the writing of My Favourite Wife required a particular rigour in the research, as well as an absence from family, his current novel afforded him greater opportunity to remain at home in Hampstead with his daughter and Japanese wife.

'In Shanghai, there was a bigger burden to get it right. When you're writing about your own city you don't feel that burden. And I wanted to write a book that allowed me to walk my daughter to school.'

Parsons confesses to a singular sadness whenever he leaves Hong Kong. 'When the blinds go down on the flight out, that's it, the party's over,' he says wistfully. But like many authors he observes certain rituals in the creation of his books, one of which concerns the delivery of his manuscripts - and an associated return to the SAR.

'You do what you know works for you,' he reveals. 'I deliver the first draft of a book to my publisher on the way to the airport - and then catch a flight to Hong Kong. BA 25.'

And repeated Parsons arrivals can be expected, because his metier seems assured. 'I believe stories are how we understand the world,' he says. 'We get more understanding of our place in the universe from stories than we do from newspapers.

'My background is journalism, so I'm used to making things up.'

Writer's notes

Name: Tony Parsons

Age: 56

Born: Romford, Essex

Lives: Hampstead, London

Family: wife Yuriko, daughter Jasmine; son Robert from previous marriage

Genres: contemporary fiction; non-fiction

Other books include: The Kids (1976), Platinum Logic (1981), Limelight Blues (1983), Man and Boy (2000), One for My Baby (2002), Man and Wife (2003), The Family Way (2005), Stories We Could Tell (2005); My Favourite Wife (2007)

Latest book: Starting Over (2009)

Other jobs: journalist, television presenter

What the critics say: 'A mid-life crisis and a desire to be young again are issues everyone can relate to, and Parsons deals with them in a poignant and believable way - as usual.' Edinburgh Evening News on Starting Over