Are men really crud at Christmas? Author Boris Starling suggests they might be
- Credit: PA
Are you a guy who, while Christmas shopping for your beloved, defaults to ‘A selection of body wash, lotion, soap etc in a basket. Women love that stuff’? Or is this a stereotype we should resist?
When I last talked to Boris Starling (in 2004 – gulp) he was renting a Martello tower on the Suffolk coast for £1,400 a month. Apart from the view from the top, the things I remember most are the gaudy-coloured and kitsch film posters on the 10ft-thick walls of his circular living room. They usually featured guns and scantily-clad women – sometimes scantily-clad women with guns – and tag-lines such as “Billy Dee Williams… Badder than ever”. Tacky movies trying to tempt an audience with sensationalism.
“Ah, the old ’70s ‘exploitation films’,” laughs the Old Etonian. “They were a job-lot from Christie’s (the auctioneers). Must be 20 years ago now. I ended up selling quite a few on eBay in the end. But we’ve still got Women in Cages up in the kitchen. My wife finds it very funny…”
Boris was already basking in the glow of some considerable achievements when we met all those years ago. Messiah – his first novel, written in about 1997 – had been bought by HarperCollins in a £25,000 two-book deal. The American rights went for a cool $250,000. And the BBC made a TV adaptation, initially starring Ken Stott as a troubled detective, that ran for five seasons.
(The author had a bit-part as a corpse – chicken skin from Sainsbury’s helping transform him into the victim of a psychopath.)
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I was there in 2004 to talk to him about his latest thriller, written mostly in Suffolk. Vodka saw children’s bodies being pulled from the river in Moscow.
Today, we’re not discussing gory crime but Christmas and pocket-sized parodies.
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For me, Haynes’ instructional car manuals were indispensable guides back in the day when I needed to find out how to apply CPR to my dying Citroën Ami Super by checking the points gap. (Whatever that was.)
In the 21st Century, however, traditions are being overturned. First, Penguin fed some literary LSD to a range of family favourites and brought out satirical titles such as The Ladybird Book of the Mid-Life Crisis and The Ladybird Book of Mindfulness. Last year, Haynes Publishing took a leaf out of that… er… book and put its own surreal spin on its heritage.
It brought out four titles written by Boris – Haynes Explains Babies, Haynes Explains Teenagers… and Marriage and Pensioners.
True to its automotive DNA, the books featured exploded views, flow charts, “fault diagnosis” and the odd “wiring diagram”, along with tongue-in-cheek comment.
Boris has been a busy bee, because he’s penned eight more “strip-down and rebuild” books. The Haynes Explains Christmas manual is the topical title, but there’s also The French, Germans, Americans and The British. Along with Pets, Football and The Home.
The author, screenwriter and journalist says: “Everybody has their own take on Christmas, but the intention of the book is to create some laughter and debate along the way.
“Our ‘Headlights and Sidelights’ chapter looks at the three schools of thought when it comes to lighting up a house at Christmas and the pros and cons of the great divide of what’s acceptable and what’s not.”
There’s also guidance on how to interpret the round-robin letter, a guide to Christmas games, and how to survive the office party.
Since 2010, Boris, interior designer wife Charlotte and children Linus, nine, and Florence, 11, have lived in an old rectory near Dorchester. What does Christmas mean to him?
“I’m 48 and I can think of only one I have not spent with either my family or, now, Charlotte’s family. That was in ’93, when I was a journalist and doing a story about a Maasai school in Tanzania. Otherwise, it’s always been a family thing.
“Also, I’m very aware that, as a man, it’s a slightly more magical time if you’re not the one doing all the hard work,” he laughs.
Ah. I can’t deny that a section like “A man’s guide to presents” is funny (“Become vaguely aware that Christmas is approaching due to increased frequency of parties. Wait till Christmas Eve. Not the morning of Christmas Eve, either. Late afternoon. Panic”) but is it right to perpetuate the stereotype that men are rubbish at such things? Some of us are pretty switched-on.
Similarly, should we these days be trading in national characteristics?
“I know. And that was a very big thing for us – a very difficult balance to get. Especially with the French and Germans; and that was why I wanted to do the British as well, because you can’t poke fun at them and not poke fun at yourselves.”
The key is striking the right tone: jovial, not bigoted.
“It’s a hard balance to get: to be funny and also affectionate. There were certain things I wrote, and we looked at them and went ‘No…’ You know it when you see it, and then you dial it back.
“Weirdly, the same thing happened with writing ‘Pensioners’. The first draft came out a little bit too snarky. We did try to keep it as affectionate as possible, but you can also worry too much about what everyone’s going to think.
“We ran the French and German ones past French and German colleagues, who a) found them very funny, and b) the German guy made a very good point. He said this book is very funny but it is as much about the British view of the Germans as the Germans themselves. The national stereotypes work both ways.”
Boris points out he is a big fan of the nations he’s (gently) parodied, has German friends, and believes the British character is more similar to the Germans’ than many of us like to think. “They’re much funnier than people give them credit for!”
Back to this time of year: Is he a Christmas cracker with the domestic preparations, or a festive flop?
“She’s in London at the moment, but you should ask my wife for a more honest answer! But… oh god… I would say I’m probably round about halfway. I’m sure she would say I’m nearer the useless end.
“I’m not a very good cook, which takes me out. I’m quite a good washer-upper. And I’m a gregarious person, so I’m quite good at the hosting stuff.”
Gift-buying? “More Charlotte, because she tends to buy better presents. But we’ll discuss big presents for the kids and family. I’m pretty involved in that.”
Meanwhile, the decorations are fetched from the basement each year, with fairylights and stockings going up and a wreath placed on the back door. There’s mistletoe, too.
“We have to get the stepladder out as, being a former rectory, it’s got very high ceilings. So I always take the chance to change the batteries in the fire alarms when I’m up there.
“That makes me sound totally Alan Partridge! Another East Anglian link – I’m a big fan. My theory is that most men have much more Partridge in them than they realise…”
The dozen Haynes Explains books cost £6.99 each.
Suffolk: beautiful in its bleakness
In February, it will be 13 years since Boris left that Martello tower near Woodbridge. He’d been there since November, 2002, and was no stranger to the east – his parents having moved to Kelvedon, south of Colchester, in the mid-1990s. They’re now on the Essex coast.
He says of the county he once called home: “Suffolk is beautiful in its bleakness. Dorset is much softer, and the light is softer, with rolling hills and so on, and it’s much more obviously ‘a beautiful place’, but it hasn’t got any of Suffolk’s wildness.
“I really like that about Suffolk. It’s not to everyone’s taste, but I really loved it.”
* Boris, who got a ‘first’ in history at Cambridge, worked for Control Risks Group before turning full-time to writing. A specialist risk consultancy, its spheres of influence include creating secure organisations, cyber security, maritime security, terrorism and security incident response, and dealing with kidnap-for-ransom, piracy and extortive crime.
* Boris was one of the youngest contestants on Mastermind, in the mid-1990s, when he won his heat. Specialist subject: The life of Herge and his Tintin books.
* He’s penned eight novels, plus one non-fiction book.
Currently writing the screenplay for an animated sci-fi re-imagining of Charlie Chaplin film The Kid.
Man of the moment Prince Harry
Boris Starling has had quite a bit to do with the man of the moment: Prince Harry. Last year Boris wrote the book Unconquerable: The Invictus Spirit – telling the stories of athletes in the Invictus Games. The sporting event was created by the prince for current and ex-service personnel who have been wounded, are injured or sick.
“I had an hour with Prince Harry and so there’s quite a bit about him as well. Everyone was going ‘Do you think he’ll propose to her (Meghan Markle) in Toronto?’ (The games were there in September.)
“And I said ‘The last place he’ll propose to her is Toronto. Not knowing him from a bar of soap, but I know enough to know this is a real passion for him, these games, and there’s no way he’ll steal the competitors’ thunder by doing that.’
“The competitors genuinely love him. I tried, half-jokingly, to get anyone to say something bad about him – off the record; totally anonymous – and… no. He’s put them on the map; he’s one of them. He’s very natural. Every country, they just think he’s great.
“I found him just like that. Very passionate about it and very genuine. He’s got an extraordinary emotional intelligence, I think.
“He’d be the first to say he’s not an intellectual, but his ability to read people – in a nice way, not a CIA kind of way! – to put them at their ease and find out what makes them tick, it’s like talking to a mate. It sounds a little bit facile, but that’s exactly what it feels like. He’s a good egg.”