Today on the blog I’m delighted to have mysterious author Peter Stafford-Bow, author of a series of comic novels set within the wine business featuring Felix Hart. The latest, Firing Blancs, has just come out.
Firing Blancs, what a good title, is the third in a series featuring roguish supermarket wine buyer Felix Hart. If it all sounds rather like an in-joke for members of the wine trade, don’t worry because you don’t need to know anything about the booze business to enjoy it. In this book Felix Hart, his job on the line at the supermarket chain where he works, is sent to South Africa to get the company out of PR disaster after an Afrikaaner vineyard owner is accused of mistreating his workers. There are some great characters, not least the former Rhodes scholar turned land seizure militant whose army of disenfranchised black workers sing songs that he picked up on the terraces at Oxford United including ‘Come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough’ and ‘Swindon Town is falling Down.’ It’s a fast-paced romp from one amusing set piece to another but, as companies today fall over themselves to demonstrate their ethical credentials, also a timely satire on the cynicism of woke capitalism. I read it over the course of a weekend with my feet in the paddling pool and a bottle of rosé at my side, chuckling to myself every few pages. Tom Sharpe is the obvious comparison but there are shades of Kingsley Amis and even J.G. Farrell at his most farcical. In short it’s a good old fashioned comedy of the kind that publishers don’t offer any more. You’ll also learn a lot about South African wine.
Right, that’s enough preamble. Welcome Mr Stafford-Bow!
Why do you write under a pseudonym?
Anyone who has read Corkscrew will realise that it doesn’t depict the retail business, and management in general, in a particularly flattering light. Add to that the cheerfully amoral behaviour of Felix Hart, the protagonist, you can see why current and former employers might take a dim view of the type of person to dream up such shenanigans.
Where did the character of Felix Hart come from?
I had a vision of modern-day supermarket buyers as 18th century privateers, in all their cynical, mercenary glory. In terms of literary inspiration, Harry Flashman, from George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman Papers, is an influence, plus there are bits of James Bond, Bertie Wooster and Withnail in there too.
Where did the idea for Firing Blancs come from?
My years in South Africa, that beautiful, flawed but ultimately optimistic country, were the inspiration for the setting. Key scenes, particularly at Gatesave’s head office, were based on my own experience working for big supermarkets, while the main plot is shaped by the arguments around 21st century identity politics and its deathly reflection, corporate woke-washing.
What next for Felix Hart?
Felix will travel to East Asia for his most mind-scrambling adventure yet. The story’s all still in my head, I’m afraid, but I’ll begin writing later in the summer.
Is the supermarket business anywhere near as cynical as you make out when it comes to fair trade etc.?
Large supermarkets are driven solely by the profit motive. They react to what their customers want but they don’t have their own inherent moral imperative. I don’t think the cynicism of corporations lies in their pursuit of shareholder value – we all deserve to earn a living – it lies in their pretence that they care about ethical issues in the same way that a consumer might, summed up in the sick-bag phrase “we do it because it’s the right thing to do…” I mean, all those pictures of smiling workers and farmers that you see on in-store advertising… who do you think you’re kidding, Mr Supermarket?!
Have you always written?
No, I started around six years ago with the first edition of Corkscrew. I’ve always known I could just about string a sentence together, but that was my first attempt at serious long-form writing.
Did you have an epiphany bottle of wine?
Yes, I studied wine tasting at school, on the sixth form general studies curriculum. I remember sampling a Barsac and thinking it was the most incredible liquid ever to have passed my lips. I decided right then that working in an off-licence was the career I wanted to pursue. When I think back, I can’t quite believe our school allowed us to drink wine during lessons, but there you go, it was the olden days I suppose.
Why did you go into the wine trade?
I’ve partly answered that in the question above, but my career was given a helping hand by being expelled from university for being bone idle.
Do you still work in the wine trade?
No, I’ve been expelled from the wine trade too.
What’s your house wine de jour?
I’m chugging through a case of Le Boit Sans Soif from Jean-Francois Chene at the moment. It’s a Loire Grolleau with only 8% abv, so it’s perfectly chilled on warm weekday evenings.
What’s your dream wine / best bottle you’ve ever had?
It’s as much about the occasion as the wine, I don’t think you can separate the two. A bottle of 2004 Dom Pérignon paired with fish and chips on Dungeness beach, in the shadow of the nuclear power station, stands out as a special moment.