Howard Jacobson on Manchester: ‘I lack its passion for football and Noel Gallagher’

The author celebrates the mirth and raucousness of the city that shaped him, and explains why he feels like a fraud when he calls himself Mancunian

To say I come from Manchester is shorthand. Who has the patience to listen to me tell how I was born in a nursing home in Prestbury, lived my first years in Salford, the next few in a half Yiddish-speaking shtetl called Hightown, then moved to Prestwich, a suburb famous for its psychiatric hospital? It was, and remains, easier just to say Manchester.

But I feel a bit of a fraud calling myself a Mancunian. I don’t have the Mancunian’s passion for football. Or acid house. Or Noel Gallagher. Or going out in a short-sleeved shirt in the dead of winter. I have retained the flat vowels – making missiles of words such as “bus” and “basket” – but wish I hadn’t. I talk ...

The Meyerowitz Stories is an excruciating watch if you aspire to make great art

Compare this portrait of an artist to Maudie. I know which I’d rather hang on my wall

‘If he isn’t a great artist, that means he was just a prick.” That contribution to the art versus morality conversation is delivered ungoofily by Adam Sandler, playing Danny Meyerowitz in Noam Baumbach’s Netflix film The Meyerowitz Stories. The great artist who is otherwise just a prick is Danny’s father, Harold, played by Dustin Hoffman with considerable insight into just what a prick an artist can be. A prick not only unto others, but unto himself: every appraisal of his work either the promise of recognition or an insult; every encounter an occasion for a tiny triumph or an unbearable repudiation; every mention of his work an impossible excitation or an injury to skin so thin, you could blow bruises on it.

The Meyerowitz Stories is an excruciating watch for anyone ...

Let no one tell you that Manchester is a long way from Sicily | Howard Jacobson

‘Come on our patch playing Greensleeves again and you’ll end up in a wafer,’ I was warned by an Italian ice-cream family in the 50s

I recently stumbled upon a statue in Manchester that I’d never seen before. From a distance, it looks like a fairytale rocking horse, and closer up, it still looks like a fairytale rocking horse, but it turns out to be a monument to Chopin, who played here in 1848, the year before he died. This speaks well both for the good relations Manchester enjoys with Poland and for its love of music. Say what you like about our taste in public sculpture, but let no one tell you we Mancunians are provincial.

I’m sorry there’s no comparable monument to Domenico Modugno. If you don’t know Modugno, I’ll give you a clue: “Penso che un sogno così non ritorni mai più.” No? OK, then, ...

The Crown has taught me how to behave if I ever sit next to the Queen for dinner

Don’t tweet or email when you think the Queen isn’t looking, and in particular don’t tweet or email her

On the off-chance that you are dining with the Queen on New Year’s Eve – and, by off-chance, I don’t mean to imply no chance – it’s worth familiarising yourself with a few of the finer points of royal etiquette. Don’t take selfies. Don’t touch Her Majesty’s knee under the table. Don’t tweet or email when you think she isn’t looking, and in particular don’t tweet or email her. If you are sitting on her left, it means that you aren’t the guest of honour and must not attempt to engage her in conversation until the second course. She will turn to you if you don’t know which the second course is.

This is a selection of the information I’ve picked up from listening to enthusiasts of The Crown discussing what they’ve seen. I haven’t ...

Howard Jacobson: ‘Larry David is a warped version of Don Quixote’

Where would comedy, or indeed philosophy, be without the easily hurt?

The Germans have an expression for that maddening song or melody that invades your brain and won’t leave it. They call it an Ohrwurm. We translate that as earworm, but the German more effectively suggests the impending insanity, the way a tune can twist like a drill bit into your inner ear and lodge for what you fear will be forever. In my experience, a single word can do the same. Take “incommensurate”.

Incommensurate snaked into my ear during a recent episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, the theme tune of which is pretty Ohrwurmy itself. I am not the devoted watcher I once was. The pleasure Larry David takes in his own comic diabolism can wear a little thin. The devil isn’t always the irresistible companion in mischief he thinks he is. Sometimes, you’d prefer a quiet hour talking things over with ...

If you want me at your party, you’d better get your invitation in early

Jonas Kaufmann has asked me over the same evening Philip Roth wants a game of darts

December is the cruellest month. You wait all year to be invited somewhere interesting, then December comes along and you have more invitations than there’s room for on the mantelpiece. There are three parties at opposite ends of London I particularly want to go to this week, one carol service, one St Matthew Passion, one Chanukah dinner and two mince pie happenings in bookshops. The trouble is, they’re all on the same night.

I don’t know how this comes about, but there is always one evening that everyone fixes on to hold their event, and it is always the same evening that Jonas Kaufmann invites you over to his place for a Mahler lieder singalong and Philip Roth happens to be in town wanting a game of darts. This happens too often to be ...

The sign of a healthy society? Its queues | Howard Jacobson

An irritable queue would once have been the clue to a post office’s whereabouts, but queues are universal now

The gauge of a healthy society is how long you have to queue in a post office to buy a stamp. There will be societies in which people forced to wait more than five minutes machete their way through the queue and demand a second-class stamp at gunpoint. Such, we can agree, are unhealthy societies. At the other extreme are Australian post offices, which make a point of having more than one person serving, sell an attractive range of mail boxes, don’t double as social security advice centres and aren’t located in the back room of a convenience store. Somewhere in between, but closer to the bottom than the top, is this country – assuming you can find a post office to buy a stamp from.

An irritable queue would once ...

Milos Forman’s Taking Off hasn’t aged nearly as badly as I have

It’s natural to feel that a work of art you particularly love is yours, especially when enthusing about it to novices

Hearing me say how much I enjoyed Milos Forman’s film Taking Off when I saw it in 1972, someone who loves me ordered it from Amazon. I recommend it; I don’t just mean the film, I mean the whole experience of telling someone who loves you how much you enjoyed something years ago, then having it turn up unexpectedly from Amazon. It’s the adult equivalent of Santa coming good. Apart from anything else, it saves you having to remember your Amazon password.

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Howard Jacobson: ‘I sailed through the air with the lightness of a gymnast’

This fall was special. I have never before, of my own physical volition, flown. I am an earthbound man

I fell over last week. Not the most arresting sentence I’ve ever written but there’s falling over and there’s falling over. This fall was out of the ordinary. In the first place it was actually my wife who fell, dragging me down after her. My fault for being such interesting company that, as we strolled along, arm in arm, she didn’t notice the crater in the pavement. Down she went, anyway, and down I went after her, except that I didn’t immediately drop. So afraid of falling on top of her was I that I somehow contrived to fly over her and hover momentarily mid-air before landing safely – by safely, I mean safely for her – a foot beyond her.

Related: Do we need literary festivals? They're an escape from Emojiland


How many of us still read a book in bed?

Once I couldn’t sleep until I’d read 30 pages of a novel. Now I watch the news until late

Someone should write a history of reading in bed. There is already a marvellous A History Of Reading by Alberto Manguel, but I’m thinking of the whens and whys of bedtime reading in particular: how long it’s been going on, the difference electricity made, the dawn and demise of privacy, whether taking a book to bed is rarer now, in an age of multiple distractions, than it was.

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Do we need literary festivals? They’re an escape from Emojiland

There are few sights more cheering than crowds of readers tramping across a field carrying books

Three dates of importance in the history of Cliveden House. 1666: George Villiers, second Duke of Buckingham, acquires estate to build a house for mistress. Wife not too pleased. 1961: John Profumo meets and begins affair with Christine Keeler. Wife not too pleased. 2017: I attend inaugural Cliveden Literary Festival. Wife delighted.

I have loved literary festivals from the first time I went to Hay-on-Wye in the 1980s and sat in a pub garden discussing narrative technique with four other writers and an audience of one. University had been a letdown. No Gitanes-fuelled têtes-à-têtes with Sartre and de Beauvoir (and me as Camus) on the Boulevard Saint-Germain; no absinthe nights talking symbolism with Baudelaire and Rimbaud; just cycling to lectures in the rain and being in bed with a hot chocolate by 11pm. Now ...

The next time Jacob Rees-Mogg is given screen time, I will break the television

Jacob Rees-Mogg is not only, by self-definition, a democrat, he is also a mind-reader

My wife has taken to keeping Lucretius’s On The Nature Of Things by her bedside. I don’t know what this signifies, but I’ve responded with Seneca’s Moral And Political Essays. I’m only dipping in at the moment, but already I’ve found the following: “The best should be preferred by the majority and instead the populace chooses the worst.”

Just another 1st-century metropolitan elitist, you might think, but mistrusting majority opinion doesn’t necessarily equate with looking down on people. In a letter to Lucilius, procurator of Sicily, Seneca warned against condescension. “You must inevitably either hate or imitate the world. But the right thing is to shun both courses: you should neither become like the bad because they are many, nor be an enemy of the many because they are unlike you.”

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Howard Jacobson: ‘Hyderabadi lobster jhinga? No thanks. Give me chicken balti any day’

No matter how sophisticated Indian food has become, what every proper curry-lover really longs for is the old stuff The other day, at an Indian restaurant of the sort you wear a jacket to, a waiter dressed like Aladdin’s genie positioned himself salaciously at my ear and in a low voice asked me to confide my secret longings. Jealousy swept the table. Why, my fellow diners wondered, weren’t they being offered a scented suite at the Oberoi Udaivilas, the pick of gemstones mined in Channapatna or, because jealousy once started cannot be contained, a job reading the news at the BBC? This was not the first time the genie of contemporary Indian cuisine had whispered hotly in my neck. It’s happening to me more and more in the best Indian restaurants in London. And it isn’t riches, favours or indulgence beyond aromatic daydreaming they’re offering; it’s something plainer, but ...

Has Jimmy McGovern’s Broken redeemed religion for our times?

I am not a believer myself, but that shouldn’t preclude me from understanding why others are I recently discovered that the “Whit walks” I watched as a child were specific to the north of England, and to Manchester in particular. I thought every town in Christian England had one, but apparently the custom of marking Whitsuntide with processions of excited children done up in their Sunday best dates from the annual closing of the northern mills, and it’s in the north – mills or no mills – that the tradition is still honoured. Whether it was because the walks gave mixed cultural signals, or my upbringing left me in ignorance of their significance, I don’t know, but they seemed part bridal, with the girls in their snowy dresses, part May queen festival and part brass band competition. Whatever they were about, they made me feel there was an England that ...

Howard Jacobson: ‘My personal trainer has me doing tai chi’

I’m a soaring crane, or a tiger sharpening my claws on the living room carpet I make neither boast nor apology, but I have started to explore that form of martial mysticism the Chinese call tai chi. It’s the slow, trance-like movements that appeal to me, even when I’m being a soaring crane or sharpening my tiger claws on the living room carpet. To be frank, all I’m really doing is learning how to breathe, my personal trainer having told me that I have never breathed properly in the whole of my life. I recognise this to be true. Hoping to be able to swim one day, I keep signing up for lessons, but know it’s hopeless the minute the instructor tells me to hold my breath. I would if I could find it. I say “personal trainer”, but in fact he’s my wife’s. I decided to tag along only ...

The riddle of Donald Trump: how a man of few words reached the pinnacle of power

From ‘bigly’ to tweetspeak – the US president’s vocabulary is ripe for satire The Reader’s Digest used to run a feature called It Pays to Increase Your Word Power. The new wisdom – post-Trump and Brexit – is that it doesn’t. How Donald Trump has come so far with so few words – how he even managed to keep up conversationally with all those beauty queens – is a question I don’t expect ever to be solved. Which isn’t to say we haven’t been confronted with similar conundrums before. “The President of the United States has so singular a combination of defects for the office of a constitutional magistrate,” wrote the Atlantic magazine of Andrew Johnson in 1866, “that he could have obtained the opportunity to misrule the nation only by a visitation of Providence.” It is too early to say whether Trump will misrule the nation, and ...

Howard Jacobson: Is American Pastoral Philip Roth at his best?

Roth said Sabbath’s Theater was his best book, even though many hated it. Should we take notice of a writer’s evaluation of their own work? Philip Roth has said that Sabbath’s Theater is his best, or at least his best-written, novel. One should take writers’ valuations of their own work with a pinch of salt: they are likely to rank them differently tomorrow. But this judgment is particularly interesting, regardless of whether one agrees with it – though I do – for the reason that Roth seems to take satisfaction in noting that many people “hated” the novel. As though “hating” is a precondition of understanding it. Roth, of course, has always been a novelist who gives his readers a wild ride. If you haven’t wrestled with the angel and the devil and lost to both, you can’t be said to have read him. The nakedness of the encounter is ...

‘I’ll be watching The Mighty Walzer with my head in my hands’

The author on staging his deeply personal Manchester novel in the city to which it belongs Next month the Royal Exchange theatre in Manchester stages a dramatisation of my novel The Mighty Walzer, by Simon Bent, so in an important sense it’s his not mine. But I can’t pretend I don’t feel possessive of it still. And I’m fighting against feeling sentimental about the staging of it, too. Manchester – where it belongs! It’s like a long-awaited homecoming, because The Mighty Walzer, though it is steeped in the Manchester of the 1950s, was written much later than that and far from it – the first chapters at a little folding table in campsites in western Australia, the rest on an exploding laptop in Melbourne Public Library. That was in 1998 – a difficult year for me for many reasons, not least the breakdown of a marriage. A sad confusion ...

Villain or victim, Shakespeare’s Shylock is a character to celebrate

In his contemporary revision of The Merchant of Venice, Howard Jacobson set out to explore Shylock’s enduring appeal, not make amends for his Jewishness If Shakespeare is the most revelatory of writers, it is because he has infinite means at his disposal, and can find the poetry of grief or disappointment where the circumstances are least poetical. Take that scene in The Merchant of Venice in which Shylock presses his co-religionist Tubal for news of his daughter Jessica’s elopement, counting the cost of her going in ducats. Tubal intersperses what he knows of Jessica with what he has heard of Antonio’s misfortunes. Carefully, he leaks out supposition and hearsay, measuring their effect. But eventually he must let Shylock know the worst. Jessica has been heard of in Genoa, going through the money she stole from her father, and exchanging a ring, also stolen from him, for a monkey. “Thou torturest ...