Comedian James Harris has written a novel titled Midlands.
So I talked to him...
JOHN: How long have you been doing stand-up?
JAMES: I started when I was 17 and I turned 40 last September.
JOHN: And you decided to publish your first novel because…?
JAMES: There’s a lot of novels which feature stand-up comedians, but none of them are particularly realistic. They’re about Stand-up comedian kidnaps someone or Stand-up comedian murders someone…
There was a Lynda la Plante miniseries on TV in the 1990s called Comics about an American comedian who witnessed a gangland killing. It’s always that sort of angle. It’s never Stand-up comedian develops material and does gigs…
So I wrote this book over the last ten years. A memoir of the time I was doing comedy in Germany.
JOHN: Why is the book called Midlands?
JAMES: Well, I’m from Nottingham and Germany has always been known as Mitteleuropa. It’s a play on Germany being in the middle of Europe and the character being from the East Midlands.
JOHN: Is Midlands a ‘comic novel’?
JAMES: It has lots of jokes in it and everyone who’s read it says it’s funny.
JOHN: All first novels tend to be autobiographical.
JAMES: It IS partly autobiographical, but I’ve made it more interesting.
JOHN: It’s a novel in two parts. Why?
JAMES: What’s the old joke? I didn’t have time to write a shorter book.
JOHN: The two parts are separate?
JAMES: Separate but interlinked. They join up in the middle. There are two central characters and they both live in Berlin. So the first half is about a stand-up comedian. It’s basically a fictionalised memoir of my performing days in Germany.
The book imagines that the lead character had stayed in Germany and made his life there, which I didn’t do.
The two characters diverge: one leaves, one stays.
JOHN: The second half of the book is about…?
JAMES: A love affair, a break-up and losing an important relationship. It’s about a blogger who writes a regular newsletter called The Pessimists’ Digest where he puts together all the worst news stories from around the world to… to communicate (LAUGHS) that human life isn’t worth living.
JOHN: Was it always your intention to write it in two parts?
JAMES: No. I had two things. One was too short, according to publishers, to be published on its own. That was the second part. So I wrote the first part to link into the second part.
There IS an outstanding precedent – Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood: in that case, several long stories linked together as a novel.
JOHN: So is your book a homage to Goodbye to Berlin?
JAMES: Well, you can’t really write a homage to a book you haven’t read… I’ve not read Goodbye to Berlin.
My book was inspired by the fact there weren’t enough people writing about what it was like to live in Berlin in the 2000s through to the 2010s. The book takes place around 2011-2012. I lived there full-time 2005-2013 and had been there before that in 2004 for six months, to start learning German.
JAMES: I always wanted to learn a language and a lot of the stuff I wanted to read was written in German. Like Freud and Heinrich Heine, a very funny German Jewish poet. I am part-Jewish. My grandad was a Jewish refugee who came here from Belgium via France in 1939; the rest of his family got killed by the Nazis.
His escape was very dramatic. He went over the border on a motorcycle but fell off and had to have a large metal plate inserted into his cheek, which gave him a lot of pain for the rest of his life. His life was in metal as well. He was in ballistics during the War: he was involved in the development of the bouncing bomb. After the War, he did metal engineering at Cambridge. He died when I was 16; we were extremely close.
JOHN: Did living in Berlin feel strange because of all that background?
JAMES: No and the book doesn’t go into this sort of stuff. But, just towards the end, after ten years and maybe because I was getting a little bit more interested in my Jewish side, I did sort-of start to think: Is it a bit weird that you live here? In some way? It’s not that long ago. And I had German friends who had worked on historical archives and stuff like that. It just began to be a little bit of an interesting question.
I had the choice at the end of whether I wanted to become a German citizen. You could have it after eight years and I’d been there nine by then.
JOHN: And you chose not to because…?
JAMES: I knew I wanted to come back to the UK and didn’t think it was fair.
JOHN: You have some German roots.
JAMES: My family name on the Jewish side is Gompertz, which is a village in Germany. They were Ashkenazi Jews.
JOHN: Harris is a Scottish name.
JAMES: Gompertz is my mum’s side of the family. My dad is a Welshman. I’m not matrilineally Jewish, because my mum’s mum is from Manchester. I would get into Israel but I wouldn’t get in with the Orthodox.
JOHN: You mentioned there was Jewishness in your act when you were in Germany?
JAMES: I did have a lot of jokes about it in my stand-up at the time.
A German comic said to me: “One thing I really like about the comedy you do is that you take the piss out of the Germans but you don’t hate them.”
I said: “I’ve got no reason to hate the Germans, apart from the fact they murdered my great-uncle.”
JOHN: Only him?
JAMES: It was everybody, yeah. There were some people who managed to hide but one of the problems with the Jews in Belgium and the Netherlands is there’s nowhere to hide. It’s very flat. No mountains. The casualty rate of Dutch and Belgian Jewry was very, very high.
I did have a cousin who was hidden by nuns for the entire Second World War. She was taken in and disguised as a young nun.
JOHN: Germany was odd. One of the most cultured countries in Europe and then it descended into…
JAMES: …barbarism. Yeah. Though there was a seam in German culture that We are the anti-Modern… We are resistant to other countries like France and Britain who have sold out to money and commerce and mercantilism, whereas we have kept this pure German soul. That was an idea that was quite prominent before the Nazis came into power. So you could see a lot of it coming.
JOHN: Have you got another novel in you?
JAMES: I’ve pretty much finished the second draft of a new one.
JOHN: A comic novel?
JAMES: No. It’s a mystery novel set in Bexley. And there’s not a single reference to stand-up comedians in it.
JOHN: No Germans?
JOHN: No Jews?
JAMES: No, but there are some Mexicans in it.
JOHN: And what about your stand-up comedy career? There was the enforced two-year gap caused by Covid…
JAMES: I think I’m pretty much finished with stand-up now… which is a shame in a way because I miss it. But, at the level I was at…
Well, I did my show, which you saw. I toured that round and did some festivals, but it’s just too much to do work and two creative things: writing and stand-up. And writing is the more important.
JOHN: You write a weekly newsletter.
JAMES: Yes, I write my Stiff Upper Quip for Substack. I write about comedy and culture and personal experiences but less about politics than I was intending to. The most successful post I wrote in the first 18 months was about professional failure in creative pursuits.
JOHN: The other posts which were popular were…?
JAMES: There was one about a sex club and one about working the night shift in a warehouse in Perivale.
JOHN: Those two are unconnected?
JOHN: And your day work is?
JAMES: I teach English. I’m an interpreter. I translate.
JOHN: And so, beyond Midlands and beyond the Bexley novel…?
JAMES: I have an idea for a science fiction novel set in the future about a gigging comedian travelling between different planets. They’re doing like 10 minutes on Andromeda and then taking a shuttle to do another gig at the Rings of Saturn. I thought that could be a nice little starter…
JOHN: Midlands has illustrations…
JAMES: Yes, a lovely Chinese lady has provided ten illustrations.
JOHN: Your wife.
JAMES: Yes. She has only read three books in English. Animal Farm, The Great Gatsby… and my book Midlands. I think she’s got the essentials.