Singer with the band A New International, Biff Smith recently fronted the hugely successful theatre show The Dark Carnival, a co-production with Vanishing Point. Biff, a keen writer, talks to Marianne Taylor about the books that shaped him.

Favourite book you read as child and teenager

As a child it was Enid Blyton’s Secret Seven and Famous Five books. I used to wonder where all these mysteries were happening, who these weirdly polite children fuelled by ginger snaps and lashings of home made lemonade were. Wherever it was, it wasn’t Cumbernauld. As a teenager I loved Catch-22 which, like so many other things, my Dad put me on to, or The Catcher in the Rye. These books showed it was not only okay, but necessary to be different if that meant being true to yourself and that, even though there would be a price to be paid for it, we don’t have to follow the crowd. When you’re a teenager there is so much pressure to “fit in”. The idea of celebrating one’s difference was news to me.

The first book that made an impact on you?

The Plague Dogs by Richard Adams was the first “big book” I read that moved me. Dogs as underdogs? Oh my. I like it twice already. Being able to read it to the end felt like some kind of promotion for me.

Which books have made you laugh or cry?

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders did both. My sister bought it for me. Brilliantly imaginative and laugh out loud funny, I went from initial bewilderment to being joyfully swept along, right up to the very moving finale. I was sad when it ended and intend to pay it the biggest compliment we can pay any book: I’m going to read it again.

Favourite character

The Artful Dodger. I love him for his sense of joy, mischief and anarchy, his instinctive mistrust of authority and his active commitment to the redistribution of wealth. He’s like a blueprint for an artist.

Least favourite genre

Genre is useful for filing purposes. I don’t find it useful as a guide to taste. I am a lazy dilettante and like to have fingers in as many pies as possible, as long as it isn’t too much effort.

Book you wish you’d written

There are so many. The important thing is that someone did write them.

Book you think is overrated

Most of them. Hyperbole keeps the PR industry in business. Word of mouth is my preferred source.

E reader or print?

Print. You don’t need a charger for a book. All you have to do is try not to lose it. I once left Moby Dick on a bus. I was near the end, too. Gutted, I was. It was a few years ago now so I’ll need to buy another copy and start again. Next time I’ll skip the dull bits about the whale oil.

Where do you like to read?

On the bus, in bed, on the toilet, in the pub, train stations, dentist waiting rooms... a book colours in life’s blank spaces, of which there are many.

Last book you didn’t finish?

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. It all felt so worthy and wholesome, not like anyone I know, myself included. I didn’t believe a word of it.

Last book you read

The Rings of Saturn by WG Sebald. He’s a fascinating writer. His books are like episodes in a cult documentary series: part travelogue; part interior monologue, narrating a literal and cultural journey through a lost Europe in a meandering stream of consciousness, drifting through mysteries of forgotten lives, people, places and obscure esoterica. There’s a haunted, solitary quality to his writing, always searching for humanity in life’s forgotten corners. I began with Austerlitz, which I loved, and I’m slowly working my way through the others without ever wanting to reach the end.

Favourite three novels

I’ll go with The Great Gatsby, Catch 22 and Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time. Ask me again tomorrow and I may say something entirely different.

Favourite three non-fiction

The Path Between the Seas by David McCullough: a fascinating, very human and readable history of the quest to build the Panama Canal, from the initial French effort which bankrupted many ordinary people in a national scandal (“Quel Panama!” became a popular phrase to describe a disaster), through the battle against mosquitos and yellow fever, to the ultimate success of the American effort which was overshadowed by the outbreak of World War One. An epic history of biblical proportions.

Nuremberg Diary by Gustave Gilbert: an everyday account of the Nazi war criminals. We like to demonise our criminals, all the better to exculpate any guilt we may feel ourselves, but this account by their prison psychologist allows us to view the Nazis through the filter of the human beings behind the atrocities: their rivalries, gossip, day to day routines, blame-shifting and denial, each one of them still jostling for position all the way to the gallows. It’s like a Shakespearean tragedy. My favourite quote is: “Goering is still sulking in his cell, complaining of sciatica and treachery.”

Kim Philby: The Spy Who Betrayed a Generation by Bruce Page, David Leitch and Phillip Knightley. The Kim Philby story continues to fascinate as ever more books, articles and documentaries are added to his continuing myth. I found this book among the most enjoyable. Anecdotal, funny and moving, it also contains a hilariously bitter introduction by John Le Carré who, it is rumoured, was one of the agents blown by Philby. Philby’s story is more gripping than any spy novel and highlights the fault lines in British society which endure to this day in our politics, society and class system. If you enjoy this book, there are many more on the subject, including Philby’s own My Silent War in which his friend Graham Greene wrote in the introduction: "They say he betrayed his country –yes, perhaps he did, but who among us has not committed treason to something or someone more important than a country?”

Favourite Scottish book

Trainspotting. Before reading it I had no idea that there were working class people in Edinburgh. Well, you wouldn’t, would you?

Guilty pleasure

I feel no guilt about pleasure. Life is very short and much of it is dreary enough as it is.

Most interesting or unusual use of a book

During the performances of the Dark Carnival we used The Life of Benjamin Disraeli to hide a plug socket. It was a bit of a dusty, foosty old tome and I felt no desire to rescue it from its fate.

A New International release a new single, History Will Be Ours, next month and play the Edinburgh Roxy on March 21 and Room 2 in Glasgow on March 28. The band will release a new album in 2021.