I’m late to meet Anna Whitwham, and as I rush into the appointed café, I spy a familiar-looking blonde woman tapping away at a laptop. We stare at each other. This must be Anna, I think. It’s actually Rachel Johnson who once wrote a book called Notting Hell, and Anna Whitwham is sat quietly behind her. My mistake is nonetheless a sharp reminder that we are indeed in Notting Hill, albeit in what must be the scruffiest coffee shop on Portobello Road.
Anna mentions that we’ve just missed a crowd of “immaculate, blonde yummy mummies” and we talk about how the area has changed. She says “I was born here, raised here, will probably die here. Apart from going to university, I’ve basically been here. It’s lost so much of what it used to be but when I walk down Portobello Road, I can still see what I saw when I was fifteen. It’s just really expensive. I feel like you don’t want to leave London but London doesn’t really need you if you don’t earn.” I start to mention property, and refreshingly, she says “I don’t even want to think about it, you know?”
London, specifically the East End, is the backdrop to her first novel, Boxer Handsome and she adds “I’m not ready to leave though. In my writing, I love using London… and I kind of need the stress of it. You know if you to say yourself ‘Ill go away and write’? I’ll go away, but I can never write as much as I would in London – it’s all that time and all that space and I can’t work that much.”
We talk about day jobs and she says, “I didn’t just sit there every day and write a novel, I couldn’t afford that. I was cramming it in before and after work… The whole idea of writing is so romantic but actually the reality of it is just not.” I say that I think the solitude required is the hardest thing. “And it’s dull. Yes, the lack of company, the lack of reward… the lack of applause when you finish a chapter! If you’re a musician, everyone tells you you’re great, you have four other bandmates saying that or at least you go on stage. When you’re a writer, it’s not like that – you’re just pressing ‘save’ now and again on your computer and then you have a glass of wine at the end as a reward!”
At this point the café becomes the noisiest place I’ve ever conducted an interview – Whitwham and I are talking against a background of yelping babies and dogs, a drum-and-bass soundtrack and a screeching cappuccino machine. I half suspect she has chosen the venue because of all of this as I honestly don’t think she wants to be interviewed very much. She is pleasant and engaged throughout our conversation but also very good at steering it round to me. But returning to the point, she says: “It’s a really strange shift going from something that, as you say, is so lonely and isolating to suddenly something that’s up for grabs and in the marketplace and you’re not. It is in the marketplace and you’re pulled along too, and you think ‘I don’t want to be part of all of this.’ It took me ages to go on Twitter, I find things like that really awkward but you’ve just got to not be so naïve and think that the book will just dance its own dance. You have to kind of help it along.”
She says she only really tweets about the book or about boxing. So how much does she know about boxing? “When I started I didn’t really know much. It was only really when I was writing the book that I became literate in that world – I went to visit my granddad’s boxing club, the Crown & Manor club.”
I tell her that I grew up near the club, in Hackney, and the boys at my primary school used to pronounce it ‘Crannamanna’. It was only when I was quite old that I realised it was actually called the Crown & Manor. “No way! Are you serious? Oh I love hearing that – it’s like the life of the club in a different context. It’s been refurbished now, I’ve only seen pictures of the old building but it’s still the same site. It’s really new and fresh. I just still want the romance of 1920s East London!
“I went to Repton Boxing Hall as well,” she continues. “It was amazing – the trainers let me watch fights for a whole evening. They’re really nice, really really lovely old men in their sixties. They were playing Chuck Berry and all these eleven-year-olds were sparring. And then the trainer would come over and say ‘You see ’im? ’e’s gonna be world champion one day.’ There was a real kind of love there, you know?”
She explains how she started to unravel her grandfather’s experience as a boxer. “My granddad was a gymnast as well, and even up until his eighties, he had these gym rings hanging from the ceiling of his garage. He was just an athletic figure. I didn’t pull apart all the different bits of what he did at first. And then when he had a stroke and went into a home, I used to visit him and we talked about boxing. He told me about how the ropes in the ring changed over the years and that sort of thing. It was just really interesting: as he faded out, all of that stuff became really important.”
As a writer, I can’t just wade in and say ‘He’s such a bad man!’ I can’t judge the characters because I’m writing about their world, I’m giving an articulacy to a culture and I don’t want to start preaching my own values”
We talk about class and I ask her how it feels to write outside her own class. “I feel very loyal to my granddad and very proud of him and I’m very interested in the idea that my granddad would now be called whatever ‘chav’ – it’s such a negative word – means. And to me, my granddad was so heroic and that idea just seems to be lost. The general feeling towards anyone who’s working class seems to be so appalling. I don’t want to say I’m standing up for that culture because it’s not mine, I’m a middle-class girl with teacher parents but I’m very interested in the difference between how young working-class men were treated then and how they’re treated now.”
I ask her why she doesn’t seem to judge her characters, not least her protagonist Bobby, a boxer who hits a woman. She explains, “As a writer, I can’t just wade in and say ‘He’s such a bad man!’ There’s no point because then it’s not his book, it’s my book and I’m asserting my morals and not the morals of the book. I can’t judge the characters because I’m writing about their world, I’m giving an articulacy to a culture and I don’t want to start preaching my own values because it becomes a totally different book. I want to leave it open for the reader.”
Whitwham strikes me as a woman’s woman, not least when she tells me she would like to write a novel from the perspective of the main female character in Boxer Handsome, Theresa. “Theresa is so doomed, in all ways, and I wanted to save her but you can’t do that, it doesn’t work. She and Bobby are from the same brick, they’ve splintered into each other which is why they keep sleeping with each other. She’s my favourite character, though, she’s the most intelligent.” I can imagine a novel that puts Theresa centre stage and it seems odd, in many ways, that instead Whitwham’s first book is an exploration of masculinity. She says, “The writers who I think write best about boxing are women: Joyce Carol Oates and Kasia Boddy. Kasia Boddy writes that boxing is a sport without any ambiguity, it’s a place of definition and I think if you’re a boy with not very much, it can offer you so much in terms of identity. I guess gangs do that too. Young men need that, that sense of place.”
Anna Whitwham was born in 1981 in London and studied Drama and English at University of California, Los Angeles and Queens University, Belfast. She is currently completing her Creative Writing PhD at Royal Holloway, where she also lectures. Boxer Handsome is published by Chatto & Windus in hardback and eBook. Read more.
Follow Anna on Twitter: @Anna_Whitwham
Alex Peake-Tomkinson is a contributing editor at Bookanista and writes book reviews and features for the Mail on Sunday, the TLS and the Daily Telegraph.