Novelist Tony Parsons on the 70s and Debbie Harry, love at first sight and why Hong Kong is his place

In retrospect, I was probably really lonely, as only children often are.

Down Under over

My parents were Londoners. My dad’s family moved to the East End. We lived in Harold Hill and my dad was a greengrocer and we lived above the shop. When I was five, we moved out to Billericay, in Essex.

My dad wanted to go out to Australia. When I was eight, we went to Australia House. All the paper­work was done, and we were going to get the boat to Australia as Ten Pound Poms.

My mum was worried that if we went, she wouldn’t see her mum again, so we didn’t go. My dad never spoke about it, but I think he was disappointed. So was I – I was up for an adventure.

There was an absolute certainty that there were two things in this world that would never kill you: sex and drugs.

Tony Parsons on pre-Aids London
I remember a teacher reading us My Family and Other Animals (1956, by Gerald Durrell) and I was overwhelmed by the descriptions of the countryside and a boy’s adventures in Corfu. That’s what stories gave me – you could go to Corfu and other places.

Rat-faced and writing

I left school at 16. I was writing at school, but I didn’t feel that my genius was really acknowledged by teachers, I don’t think they realised they had a special talent. I got a clerical job in a shipping office on the docks. Then I worked the night shift at a Gordon’s gin factory, the distillery was in Islington, right by the Angel.

We started work at 8pm and went through to 8am. Every night at 6pm, they would bring two cases of gin into a little room for the staff. We would get absolutely rat-faced and then go to work.

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A 12-hour shift was like a long-haul flight where you stay awake, so I had a lot of time on my hands. I wrote a novel there.

I wasn’t a typical teenager because I had this dream to become a writer and was prepared to do anything to make it come true. It took two or three years to write The Kids, a year to find an agent, and it was published in 1976.

It was about four kids growing up on the outskirts of London and their encounters with girls, drugs and violence. It wasn’t a very good book, but it was good enough to be published.

Sex, drugs and NME

I applied for a job at the NME (New Musical Express). People were sending in their typewritten stuff and biro essays and I sent in my novel. That’s what got me the job. And I looked the part – I was a 22-year-old kid who stayed up all night in a gin factory in a cheap leather jacket.

Debbie Harry of Blondie performs in concert in Newcastle in the UK in 1980. Tony Parsons’ beat at NME was “the new young bands” such as Blondie; he knew Harry “quite well”. Photo: Getty Images

When I began working there, in 1976, it was post-pill, pre-Aids and there were drugs everywhere. There was an absolute certainty that there were two things in this world that would never kill you: sex and drugs. Very soon after that it turned out they would kill you faster than anything.

The need for speed

My beat was the new young bands – the Sex Pistols, The Jam, The Clash and The Stranglers and the Americans like Blondie; I knew Debbie Harry quite well. They weren’t famous, they were trying to get a record deal. Thin Lizzy was the first band I went on the road with.

There were fantastic writers at the NME, like Nick Kent. It was about writing better than anyone else, and surviving, because you realised very quickly that the drugs could kill you.

There is an intensity to friendships in Hong Kong, which I think is not celebrated or talked about enough

Tony Parsons, a regular visitor for 34 years

There was pretty much every drug around. For the older people and those with the budget, there was cocaine. For the hard core, though, it had to be heroin. I’d been tested for a penicillin allergy when I was six and the needle broke in my arm, so that fear of needles kept me away from heroin.

I was doing speed, a kids’ drug really.

Finding the words

I met Julie Burchill at the NME. We got married and had a son and split up after seven years. I didn’t really become a writer at the NME, because it was too frenetic and demanding. I left in 1979 and had 10 wilderness years.

Tony Parsons reads his new book live at London’s Heathrow Airport in 2011. Photo: Getty Images

I was friendly with Louise Chunn at Elle and she gave me a lot of work getting the man’s perspective on all sorts of things. I had time on my hands and time for reflection, and it was there that I became a writer.

Wild in Wan Chai

I first came to Hong Kong in 1989 to do a travel story. I landed at Kai Tak airport and got a taxi to the Hilton hotel. I fell in love with Hong Kong at first sight and thought, “This will do me for the next 50 years.” That was the profound effect it had on me.

I had made £4,000 that year writing for Elle and The Face. I went to a bar and the bill was £4,000. I think I must have had an extra Scotch egg in Wan Chai … That crazy night in Wan Chai. I thought, “You just spent your entire year’s salary in a bar in Hong Kong. Never come here again because you’ll get in trouble.”

But I’ve been coming to Hong Kong at least twice a year since then, sometimes more. The pandemic was the only time I didn’t come.

Hong Kong was always my happy place

Tony Parsons

There is an intensity to friendships in Hong Kong, which I think is not celebrated or talked about enough. I stayed with my mate who was in his 20s and in a one-bedroom flat in Mid-Levels and later stayed with him and his family in Pok Fu Lam, Happy Valley and Stanley.

I stayed at The Ritz-Carlton hotel a lot and the old Mandarin Hotel. When I checked in recently, the hotel said it was my 40th stay with them.

Eureka Yuriko

In 1990, I was out with my German girlfriend and a friend whose wife had just told him their marriage was over. I was talking to everyone in the restaurant, telling them that I was off to Tokyo the next day to do a travel story and asking where I should go.

Parsons meets the then Duchess of Cornwall at a charity event in London in 2012. Photo: Getty Images

I started chatting to a Japanese woman at the bar, Yuriko. She was a student at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh and had been working in London for the summer. I had my traumatised mate in the corner with my girlfriend, so I was a very unthreatening presence.

I fell in love with her as soon as I looked at her and decided I wanted to spend my life with her. She was born in Tokyo and grew up in Yokohama. We have been married for 31 years and live in Hampstead village. Our daughter is now 21 and at Cambridge University.

People say, “Wow, it must be a big thing for someone in your family to go to Cambridge,” but my dad’s oldest brother went to Cambridge on some sort of slum kid’s scholarship in the 1930s.

Sweet taste of success

I wrote George Michael’s autobiography (Bare: George Michael, 1990), which was a big payday. In the mid-1990s, I worked as a Fleet Street columnist, which gave me financial independence for the first time and the time to write a novel.

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Man and Boy came out in 1999. It sold millions and your life does change when you sell millions of copies of a book, because people come up to you, and the money and success were incredible.

After Man and Boy, I could pretty much name my price and was writing a novel a year. I was delivering the novel at Heathrow on the way to Hong Kong because Hong Kong was always my happy place. The fact that people I knew in the 1980s stayed enabled me to keep coming back.

Constant writer

A friend from London and a few of my intimate friends in Hong Kong went with me to Manila (this month) to celebrate my 70th birthday. My last novel, Who She Was, the Cornwall book, is my favourite book and I think it would make a good last book, but already I’m a third of the way into a novel that will come out next year.


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