John Niven interview: Chip off the old block

JOHN Niven has moved from the hectic heyday of Britpop to the more sedate arena of golf, creating a novel that would have made his father proud, he tells Aidan Smith

WHEN John Niven was a spotty teenager he thought he knew everything, and one thing above all else: that his home town of Irvine was the pits. Before the great day dawned when he could pack his rucksack, he joined a CND march in defiance of the manager of the local shopping centre. "The manager was my dad and I can still see him striding towards us, Embassy Regal stuck between his snarling teeth," says Niven. "He went absolutely mental."

Niven, who left Ayrshire to become a useless pop talent scout and is now a successful writer of black comedies on the back of his rockbiz blunders, then tells another story about the "pompous little shite" he used to be: "The last time I saw Dad alive he was in hospital. He was watching Hell Drivers, a crummy B-movie about truckers, on TV and reading the Daily Record. This seems scarcely believable, but I actually said: 'Dad, you've not got long to go – don't you think you should be imbibing the culture a bit more?'"

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These yarns might suggest that John Jeffrey Niven Jr, now 41 and author of pop expos Kill Your Friends, endured a difficult relationship with John Jeffrey Niven Sr – far from it. "I left the hospital to go on holiday thinking I'd see Dad again – he had cancer of the oesophagus – so I was devastated when he died. But there was nothing left unsaid between us, we were very close and he knew I loved him."

We're in London's Landmark Hotel, next to Marylebone station, an old Niven haunt from the dog days of Britpop ("Alan McGee was based here with Oasis"). After too many nights when he couldn't remember being in the Landmark, he moved out to rural Buckinghamshire. His father didn't live to see his eldest son become an A&R man, blowing the chance to sign Coldplay and dismissing Muse as no-hopers as well. He doesn't think Dad would have enjoyed the sex'n'drugs'n'rock'n'roll of Kill Your Friends, even though lots of others did, including one star-maker who bought 30 copies to sign for friends, so convinced was he that the character of Steven Stelfox was based on him (untrue).

But Niven is more confident his father would have got to the end of the follow-up, The Amateurs, an Ayrshire-set story of golf and family ties stronger than Tiger Woods-approved tungsten. This book is dedicated to him, and to Niven's own son – and with ubiquitous Regals and a Bing Crosby-style bunnet, its hero's dad is based on the old man. "What a fantastic job it is to be a writer," says Niven. "Dad died 16 years ago but every day working on this book I could go to my office and commune with his spirit. I'm spending time with him still."

The Amateurs is equal parts sentimental, violent (there are gangster executions) and hilarious, with municipal-course hacker Gary Irvine emerging from a coma after being struck by a wayward drive to find he can play like a golf god, albeit one with a bad case of Tourette's – and bloody hell, if he isn't romping the Open Championship with 20 pages left. Niven says he had the idea for the book prior to Kill Your Friends but surely it goes way back to Irvine, the town, and to boyhood fantasies of a mashie niblick with magical powers.

"There were some summers when every boy in Ayrshire seemed to be playing golf and my dad taught me," says Niven. "But he was a terrible teacher – of everything. Learning to drive with him almost killed me. He was the world's most impatient man, awful short fuse. He had high expectations of me, and seemed to think I should have been able to do everything instinctively better than him, and I guess I'm like that now with my son. It's one of the many ways I'm turning into Dad."

Niven ditched the golf when he discovered punk rock ("It would have ruined my image") and started showing his frustrations with Irvine: in his eyes, it was a town which produced ball-bearings, forklift trucks and closed minds. He escaped to Glasgow, having been pushed by his father as the first in the family to win a university place, and earned first-class honours. He's since revised his opinion of Irvine: "It was the time of Thatcher, so lots of wee Scottish towns were bleak. And all my pals were in bands and at least trying to be creative."

His father was older than his friends' fathers, and 20 years his mother's senior, but Niven was never self-conscious about this. "At school parents' nights the teachers assumed he was my grandfather, but I loved his wisdom and his humour and so did my pals," he says. "He was the spitting image of Sid James and his nickname was 'the Sid'. One time, when we were big into the leather trousers, the lads were round at my house and he appeared wearing mine with his oldest string vest. He looked like everyone's dad in the Village People."

Niven has revised his view of golf as well and is back playing when he can with his son, though the opportunities to thwack the dimpled pebble in Buckinghamshire – where a game is five times more expensive than Ayrshire rates – are limited by parental duties now that he has a baby daughter, and of course the burgeoning writing career.

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The next book will be a collection of short stories and Niven is 20,000 words into another novel, about Christ's second coming. Then there are the screenplays: both Kill Your Friends and The Amateurs are set to be turned into films while an original script, titled Roadkill and yet another black comedy, has just been sold to Hollywood for a sum he describes as "obscene – I'm too embarrassed to tell you how much".

He isn't the only Ayrshire lad who's stood on a grassy mound, looked out to sea and dreamed of America. For him, the writing dream would never have come true if he hadn't wasted 10 years being self-important, decadent and ludicrous. "I seemed to be intent on lobotomising myself," he says of that time. And to think John Niven once scolded his father for reading a tabloid… v

The Amateurs (William Heinemann, 12.99) is published April 2