“Sorry what was the question? I was just thinking about myself”
Over rabbit and chickpeas and a side of speck, Lucy Holden talks psychoanalysis, narcissism and expletives with Giles Coren in Kentish Town.
Giles Coren is a columnist for The Times who thinks pollock tastes like cod. He’s also just finished five years of psychoanalysis for anger management issues – not because pollock tastes like cod, he was just angry.
In a little restaurant in Kentish Town Coren is ordering us lunch: rabbit with chickpeas, artichoke, fennel and pecorino salad, wood-fired pizza with a buffalo mozzarella called burrata and a spicy Italian salami, and a speck and hispi cabbage salad. Not that he agrees we’ve been served burrata when it arrives, just its less-creamy and less-interesting version, mozzarella. The consistency isn’t quite right.
Coren lives opposite and has had a bad morning writing. After going back to a new novel he started a month ago, he’s realised it isn’t quite as good as he initially thought. The novel is told from the point of view of an 18-month-old girl whose father makes a fool of himself on Twitter. It is a beautifully ironic idea as in fact Giles himself has a little girl and is known by just a handful of people to be a controversial violator of linguistic etiquette – a remarkable coincidence that no doubt helps the novel along nicely.
Yet Coren has at some point written for most of the big-name publications and didn’t learn crudity from the tabloids. ‘Shit or piss or fuck or bollocks – that’s what I wasn’t allowed to say in the tabs’, he tells me, as two small children weep unnoticed on the table next to us. ‘They’re much more restrictive; I wouldn’t have anything to offer them. My sensitivities are way too subtle. They might not sound subtle when I write “fucking cunt” on Twitter, but my areas of interest, the things that make me angry, are not things that would interest the tabloids.’
Anger is in fact a running theme, a public assumption perhaps not diluted by Coren’s release of the title Anger Management For Beginners in 2010. So what colours Coren’s cheeks, boils the blood in his veins, causes the spray of vitriol up the walls? Last night it was celebrities saying goodnight to their followers on Twitter, which Coren believes, aside from stepping in dog-shit, to be the most nauseating thing on earth. How seriously should we take these expostulations? Sincerity sparkles with facetiousness in his eye – not that the petulant public always choose to see it.
Is Coren actually angry then or does he amuse himself by playing up to the roles created for him by the public? He subtly adjusts the tense – he was angry, but stopped five years of psychoanalysis a week ago. He thought psychoanalysis would be more interesting than a ‘lame-arse anger management course’ or behavioural therapy.
‘I had a couple of relationships that broke up because of anger. They weren’t violent, but I punched a lot of walls, and so did they. I think now that I was probably with a couple of crazies and therefore my craziness was worse.’ Coren was doing a lot of drugs, cocaine especially (leaving out pills because of an almost-phobic dislike of dancing), and was living a kind of delayed-youth – the result of a serious relationship that lasted nearly the whole of his twenties. With cocaine followed accusations, lies, heated fights, crying, shouting, destruction and, as is inevitable when someone is repeatedly told something, Coren started to believe that maybe it was true, maybe he was crazy.
‘I became very unhappy. All I’d ever wanted was to be married and settled down with a kid and I thought it would never happen. But it was very handy that I’d had a lot of fun beforehand. Many journalists and television presenters working in the food-arena’ – he says raising his eyebrows across our chickpeas and rabbit– ‘have been married since they were very young, and when they meet young women they think they have to fuck them now to make up for it. I’m very certain that my relationship will remain faithful because I know exactly how boring it is to wake up with a hangover in a bed-sit in Clapham with your own spunk painted over your stomach and some girl weeping over a cigarette at the end of the bed’.
Yet despite all the sex-talk Coren says he’s never hugely slept around. ‘I’m not one of those Julio Iglesias women-hating types. I’m quite scared of girls, I’m quite shy’, he says, as though this is all a game. When I question the contrary nature of his assertions, he’s cryptic, elusive: ‘consistency is dangerous’.
A steadfast advocator of the pointlessness of moderation, Coren says it is all or nothing for him, a reason he’s been sober for about four months now. ‘One ice-cold lager makes me want three bottles of red, and then a couple of lines of coke, and then I’m walking through the door at four in the morning with a girl’s underwear in my pocket.’ Coren jokes, at least he’s waving it off as a joke, but it’s clear the idea of losing his inhibitions makes him uncomfortable, the same reason he’s never liked dancing, pills. It seems that fame only heightens insecurity because you become easier to scrutinize – for Coren, narcissism is a natural extension of the fear of embarrassment. By preoccupying himself with his image, he seeks to control it, and therefore avoids humiliation of any kind. Coren knows he’d never cross the line but he’s anxious not to risk the family setup he spent so long worrying he’d never find.
We pause whilst the manager presents a special of translucent-looking Pollock in a bright orange pan that Coren has already declined the option of ordering with another waiter. He accepts, but picks at it with a knowing, bored fork, waiting to have his suspicions confirmed. ‘I’m always wanking on about how people should eat pollock because it’s sustainable but it’s not the nicest fish. That could be cod really. You wouldn’t know it wasn’t cod, unless you were me.’
Coren’s restaurant reviews are in fact known to revolve largely around his own life – never have kinky sex and MDMA crept so convincingly into food criticism. But should a review be as much about the critic as their subject? Well yes, in Coren’s book. He flicks two V’s in the air in front of us like a West Ham fan watching a pitch full of Millwall players. ‘Read The Guardian. Jay [Rayner]’s a foodie, I’m not.’ Why food criticism then? ‘It’s very easy and I’m quite good at it. I write for the same reason that a professional plays football. And I can write about anything so when I was getting drunk and shagging girls that’s what I wrote about – now that I’m not drinking and looking after my baby I write about that. Food’s boring. Some people complain about it being all about me but they can fuck off. If the food’s really good it forces its way in.’
How does Coren think he is viewed by the public? Good question. But well avoided. Coren’s off on a tangent about fame, seeming to struggle separating his own perception of himself, to that of the public’s. Would he describe himself as self-obsessed? Coren pretends not to hear the question and then starts: ‘Sorry what was the question? I was just thinking about myself’. He’s grinning, eyes twinkling. I’m laughing – what a comedian. He tries again, talking very quickly. ‘I would never admit it. No one ever says “I’m selfish, I’m a terrible cunt, I don’t care about other people and I hate the homeless”. The people on the left probably think that I’m a scavenging, right-wing, Oxford-graduate-with-my-famous-dad… talentless, overpaid – and they’re not all wrong. But some people think I’m funny and original, and believe I just say what I want to say.’
Would he agree with claims that he is narcissistic? ‘Narcissism is an interesting, often misunderstood term. People think that being narcissistic means you’re in love with yourself. But Narcissus was a Greek god who had never seen another human being before, and fell in love with his reflection in a pool of water. So a narcissist is not someone who is in love with themself, but someone who is in love with their own reflection.’ An obsession with how he is seen by other people then seems the reason Coren struggles to talk about perception – he agrees he is narcissistic but also that he is vain, a more demure quality.
How vain? ‘You can’t get a more handsome man’ he says with exaggerated-arrogance. ‘The men all hate me, the women think I’m awful and all want to fuck me, and the gays think I’m awful and really, really want to fuck me.’ Is he interested? He believes in Woolf-type sense that everyone is homosexual to a degree, that he may be slightly over average, but he’s holding back – well, in Coren-terms. ‘I’ve never sucked a white cock, that’s all you’re getting.’
I wonder whether he believes that being outrageous is a way of being interesting, but although he admits a worry of being dull, he doesn’t agree. ‘There are very few columnists who aren’t sometimes boring. I think I’m the most original and most funny university-educated columnist under 50, but the people I think are more interesting and funny are all school drop-outs: Charlie Brooker, A.A Gill, Caitlin Moran, Jeremy Clarkson. I think that’s really significant. I can’t help believe that it is not tied down to bourgeois ideas of how English should be written. I’ve always thought I was quite edgy and cool for a public-schooled Oxford graduate, but Caitlin walked barefoot to have sex with popstars when she was 11. That basically makes me a mix between David Cameron and Nick Clegg.’
The fact that he’s always been surrounded by writers does perhaps give Coren the ability to judge. Having the famed-satirist and writer Alan Coren for a father, and poker-playing journalist Victoria Coren for a younger sister (one who was being paid 150 pounds an article to write for The Telegraph when she was 13), made writing a natural career choice. Yet he describes his relationship with his sister as boring. ‘Rivalry? No not really. She’s very different from me; she’s always been precocious, which I never have. Whilst I was in sixth-form I bankrolled my very low-rent, middle-class drug-selling with an injection of cash-flow from my journalist sister. And we don’t have the same sense of humour – her first thought in writing anything is not to upset or offend anybody, and within those boundaries she tries to be funny. Which is why she’s more liked’, he says with a slight laugh.
Instead of a journalist, Coren always wanted to be a novelist, partly he thinks, because his father thought more highly of novelists and instilled in Coren the same belief. ‘He loved American fiction and so from a very young age I was reading Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, Norman Mailer, but also Orwell and Waugh, and so I dreamt about being a novelist. I thought that was how you achieved some kind of status, and it took me a long time to realise that that actually wasn’t true.’
Maybe it was the extravagance of these wild American authors then – Fitzgerald’s drunken, champagne-spilling parties, Mailer’s temperamental womanizing, Waugh’s breakdowns and drugs and homosexual encounters – that fuelled Coren’s interest in excess. This was how you lived if you were a novelist. Moderation never came into it. But for now Coren’s unlikely American Dream is gone: the days of Groucho Club bar-bills for 24 gin and tonics leave just a nostalgic wave of nausea in their wake.