It was the simplest, most immediate visual signifier of Klinsmann’s anti-consumerist, pro-green politics. Klinsmann’s Beetle is also symbolic of the journey the people’s car has undergone. Invented by Nazis, adopted by hippies (some of them German), manufactured everywhere, from Nigeria to Mexico. “I’ve never been in a country in the world where you couldn’t find a Volkswagen,” argues author and Volkswagen admirer Geoff Nicholson. He doesn’t drive one himself (he opted for a ’66 Dodge Dart), but he likes to write about them. His new novel Gravity’s Volkswagen is the third in a very loose trilogy that swerves and darts around the vehicular history, symbolism and sociology of the Beetle, while investigating the narrative possibilities of bodies in motion.
It’s a slight book, perhaps one of Nicholson’s slightest, but still it takes in Hollywood, dinosaurs, the psychic and physical dislocation of the English novelist in the US and cars jumping over other cars as a mode of entertainment, as well as sideglances at the Volkswagen-related incidents in the life of performance artist Chris Burden, porn star Linda Lovelace and rock monsters Led Zeppelin.
As you might have already gathered, the word to use to describe Nicholson is playful. He doesn’t mind that. “I like novels and novelists that are playful,” he says, before adding, “the idea that you are playful doesn’t mean you’re not serious.” Playfully serious (or seriously playful) his books riff on all the things worth riffing about: architecture, sex, the desert, walking, fine art, guitars and cars of course (though thankfully his take is slightly more JG Ballard than Jeremy Clarkson). He’s written some 15 novels over the last 22 years and is best known, if at all, for his mid-nineties novels Footsucker and Bleeding London (“my hit period” he says, sounding amused). I like his books a lot. But the thing is, I tell him as he sits in his Los Angeles home at nine in the morning, I’ve never met anyone else who’s read him. Is there a living in this novel business? “It sometimes amazes me and it may amaze you but it’s a reasonable living. I’ve made some nice money in the past from people buying movie options and then not making them. That and foreign editions, you put it together and yeah, it’s better than working in a petrol station.”
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Nicholson has retained his English accent but he’s an Angelino now. He lives with his wife Dian Hanson, formerly editor of “special interest” magazines Juggs and Leg Show, now in charge of art publisher Taschen’s more sauce-heavy books. When he’s not writing novels, journalism and his blog about food and food obsessives, he is cultivating a middle-aged interest in gardening. “I’m in the process of developing a cactus garden. I can get wonderfully obsessed with it and fantasise about making a really great garden but in the end I know I’m trifling.”
Nicholson rather likes LA. “I think it’s a great place to live and I think it’s probably a rather peculiar place to come as a tourist. You can’t get a fix on it. I live quite close to Hollywood Boulevard and I see tourists walking up and down looking at the stars and I can see that they’re saying, ‘What am I doing here? Have I really just come here to look at the pavement?’ I do like the architecture. I do like the built environment and I do like these explosions of greenery – the palm trees, the cactus and cool old cars weaving in and out of this landscape. Those are the kind of day to day pleasures of it.”
Appropriately enough, he says, he came to understand LA through a book. Urbanist Rayner Banham’s Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies. Ask him why he writes fiction and he says, “I think it was implanted very early. Some of my key experiences were reading. I began by reading not necessarily very good stuff – it would have been Enid Blyton – but I liked it. I liked the experience of going into a different world. If you’d asked me when I was 10 years old I would have said, ‘Oh yes, I want to be a writer’. There is that kind of one on one quality about reading a novel and indeed writing a novel, and I guess that’s what excites me.”
His Enid Blyton reading would have been done in Sheffield where he grew up on a council estate. A grammar school kid, he got into Cambridge around about the same time as the likes of Griff Rhys Jones and Douglas Adams. He toyed with the idea of being a playwright, and then started writing comedy sketches for TV shows. “I had a contract for a while with Chris Tarrant. This is a real footnote in history. He was doing a TV show called Saturday Stayback. It’s on nobody’s CV but a whole lot of people worked on that show. But the deal was I got a contract and I had to produce an hour’s worth of funny by a certain date. I can be funny once in a while but the idea that you get up in the morning and you sit down and write funny for eight hours or whatever, that was a bridge too far.”
And so he started writing novels instead, as well as the odd venture into non-fiction, some very odd such as Sex Collectors: The Secret World of Consumers, Connoisseurs, Curators, Creators, Dealers, Bibliographers, and Accumulators of “Erotica” and his blog Geoff Nicholson – Psycho Gourmet. “Food is sensual and maybe sexual. It reveals people’s personalities. It’s a place where people’s quirkiness comes out, whether they want it to or not. People who will only eat certain things or won’t eat certain things or have to eat in a very specific way – that’s the area of fascination for me. Problem eaters, eating disorders. I think you’ve got to be careful about this, that you don’t want to pitch it into an academic discussion of bulimia or anorexia. But it does seem there’s something there I want to write about. I don’t really have a programme. Who isn’t interested in food? You meet people who say, ‘I have no interest in food’ and I find them even more interesting.”
Geoff Nicholson collects photography books, writes about cars and food and sex and movies and is fascinated by obsessions and obsessiveness. He doesn’t quite manage to be an obsessive himself, he says. As he says, he’s just a trifler. But who doesn’t like trifles?
Gravity’s Volkswagen is published by Harbour Books, priced £10.