Summer Reads – We found the perfect book for your summer holidays

Here at Story of Home, we were delighted to attend the book launch of Joe Portman’s comic novel Separation for Beginners at BookBar and we loved it.

A classic odd-couple comedy, the novel is big-hearted, moving, and very funny; the story of what happens when you let go of the past and open up to the unexpected.

To coincide with the paperback publication, we caught up with Joe in his spiritual London home of N5. 

Joe Portman in Springfield Park @ yvessalmon

Are you a Londoner by birth?

No, I was born and raised in rural Kent and have lived most of my life in Kent and East Sussex. But London was my home from the late eighties to the early noughties and remains an important part of my life thanks to friends, football and trips to see my agent and publishers.

What parts of London mean a lot to you?

First and foremost, it’s always been Highbury for me. Since I went to my first Arsenal match as a six-year-old, N5 has been a constant in my life. Dad supported them as a boy growing up in Ilford, and he later worked for the club (though not on the pitch). We travelled up from Kent regularly as season ticket holders. The club has moved from N5 to N7 but my route hasn’t changed. The walk across Highbury Fields and the slope of Highbury Hill are timeless, beautiful, and always make me feel connected to this corner of North London.

Then there’s Soho and Fitzrovia, where my first career in film production was based for 25 years. I had an office off Fitzroy Square and loved that area. I still love meeting up with friends from the industry for pizza and Negronis at Santa Maria on New Cavendish Street. Living down on the coast as I do now, I get a massive buzz from walking into town from St. Pancras and getting amongst the streets of Bloomsbury, Fitzrovia and Soho. It’s fair to say all these areas are more polished and less characterful than when I arrived in the ‘80s but the architecture and the buzz is still a huge inspiration for a writer.

                                                                                                                                                                          London N5

What are your current London haunts?

My new favourite pub is The Carpenter’s Arms off St Peter’s Square, Hammersmith. Two of my dearest friends live around the corner and while they are possibly worth the trip to Stamford Brook in their own right, The Carpenters means I go see them far more often than I otherwise would. Everything inside the pub is pleasing to the eye – and taste buds – and the setting just off the square is residential London at its most stunning.

My best friend and his family live in Stoke Newington and they are close to Springfield Park. It’s a very special park for several reasons, including the views across the River Lea and Walthamstow Marshes. There is often an early morning mist there that comes off the Lea and hangs over the canal boats and the fields, with the pylons emerging from it. I love the landscape there.

  The River Lea at Springfield Park

I also have a new routine after Arsenal games which I am liking a lot. I walk down Liverpool Road through the beautiful backstreets of Islington and Barnsbury to the Regent’s Canal which I follow to Granary Square and St Pancras for my train back home. The genius of this walk is that it takes me to two of my favourite pubs from my time living in North London, The Albion, on the gorgeous Thornhill Road, with its wisteria-clad garden and atmospheric, firelit interior, and The Crown, on the wide, tree lined Cloudesley Road, in the heart of the Barnsbury Conservation Area.

Anything about London you don’t enjoy?

The windsurfing’s not great.

What makes Home for you?

Apart from our kids – I have to say them first, I suppose – it’s what might sound like a silly detail, but we purposefully looked for a house where all our bedrooms are on the same floor, off one landing. There’s always been something incredibly homely and fun about us all sleeping on the same floor and spilling out on to the landing for silly games, pile ups, lovely chats. Now, on weekend mornings, the kids hang out in their rooms while chatting to each other and us, they come and go, crawl into our and each other’s beds, read and are read to, and it’s a set-up that we love and could not have had in certain types of property.

Home for us is also lovingly retaining all the period details of the house – fireplaces, floorboards, and sash windows in particular – and it’s also about books on the walls. My partner is the Editorial Director of a publishing house and her degree, her Masters and her PhD were all in English Literature, so most of our walls are lined with her books. I have read some of them and I understood a couple, I think.

Where do you like to write at home?

I have a study in the attic of our house made up of two inter-connecting rooms. There are views to the sea from both rooms and, in summer, like now, I open the windows and let the sea breeze through. When I was in New York I wrote in cafes and bars, but I do so much less now, partly due to having a family and because I am more easily distracted by noise these days!

Wait a minute! Joe Portman isn’t your real name. What gives?

This is true. I write comic fiction under my pen name, Joe Portman (Joe being the name of my nephew, who isn’t a bad bloke, all things considered, and Portman after Portman Road, home of Ipswich Town FC, Joe’s team and one of my favourite grounds). I write literary fiction under my own name, Tom Connolly. The two styles of writing are distinct enough for me to want them separated this way. But it’s not a secret that Joe is Tom.

 Separation for Beginners contains a hilariously disastrous scene in the queue at a fish and chip shop. It is so vivid and detailed, is it autobiographical in any way?

I am mightily relieved to report that it is not. It’s made up. There is, however, one detail in the book taken from my life. One of the two central characters, Niall, commits a social faux pas in the pub when talking to his ex-girlfriend’s husband that is seismic and pretty unforgivable. I know, because I have never forgiven myself for committing it, thirty years ago.

The book blurb states that Joe Portman is “a writer and a colossal disappointment to his mother.” Is this true?

That depends on your definition of colossal.

Did anyone in particular inspire you to become a writer?

Despite struggling at school, and barely making it through, I spent a lot of time making up stories in my head, and reading The Catcher in the Rye at fourteen flicked a switch in me. The English teacher who put that book under my nose was Hugh Pullen, so I thank him. Then, having scraped into higher ed, my life was transformed by being taught – and given a grilling – by the inspirational Abdulrazak Gurnah. He challenged me and introduced me to the concept of a strict work ethic and love of academia – more importantly, he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2021.

Who are your favourite authors?

Too many, but if I mention William Maxwell, Marilynne Robinson, Doris Lessing, Richard Ford, James Baldwin and Robert Harris, that would be an honest start.

You recently had your first book of photographs – Fair Game – published. Tell us about that.

Although I do not miss filmmaking and film sets, I did miss having a camera to my eye, so I started taking photographs. Fair Game is a photographic journey into non-league football, following Eastbourne Town FC in the ninth tier. From the moment I started taking photographs for it, it became about much bigger things than sport. People started talking, telling their stories, and for some of them non-league football had saved their lives. During the time making the book the people at the club faced just about every joy and sadness life can throw at you, and it’s all reflected in the photographs.

Fair Game Copyright @stills_connolly

Your novels have been set in rural England, coastal England and in New York. When will you set one in London?

Next. The book I am writing right now is set in South London and Rye. I am loving the excuse it gives me to be up in town regularly. I loved living and working in London for the period I did, but there is something about being a visitor to London nowadays that makes me appreciate it, and engage with its infinite offerings, more than I ever did.

My family and I live 50 yards from the beach, and I love standing on the sea wall looking at the sea a couple of hours after being inside a buzzing North London pub; it’s the best of both worlds.

To buy Separation for Beginners and support independent bookshops – click here.

To buy Fair Game and support independent bookshops – click here.