STEPHEN LEWIS talks to a former Lady Lumley's School head boy whose first novel is winning rave reviews.

PETER Hobbs insists that being head boy of Lady Lumley's School didn't necessarily mean he was the boy everybody loved to hate.

Yes, he was a bit of a swot: and yes, he wore glasses. But he was elected to his position as head boy. "And I got on pretty well with everybody!" he says.

A picture of him at the time - preparing to appear in the TV gameshow Blockbusters - shows an earnest-looking sixth-former with intense, dark eyes.

Nobody who knew him then will be too surprised to learn that the 31-year-old, who grew up in Kirkbymoorside, has written a book that has caused the Observer newspaper to dub him one of six new literary talents to look out for.

The Short Day Dying, which was published on Thursday by faber and faber, has already been getting rave reviews. "In the marriage of its language and landscape, in the intensity of that voice and place, (his book) deservedly walks, stride for stride, with Hardy and with Faulkner," wrote the novelist David Peace.

High praise indeed. There is certainly something of Thomas Hardy about Peter's book. Set in Cornwall (where Peter was born) in the late nineteenth century it tells the story of Charles Wenmouth, a young blacksmith and Methodist lay preacher. Experiencing a growing sense of isolation as church congregations dwindle around him, Charles' faith is increasingly challenged - especially when, following a difficult journey home through a storm, he awakes to be told of the death of a dear friend.

While Peter himself is not a church-goer, his father was the last of five generations of Cornish Methodist preachers. He died while Peter was writing the book. Much of the sense of loss Peter must have felt filters through into the lyrical intensity of his writing. The book, he admits, is "about grief and suffering, certainly, but also about freedom, the passing of time and about language and love and faith".

It is the beautifully-evoked Cornish landscape - recreated from Peter's half-remembered childhood and holidays spent there since - that really marks The Short Day Dying out, however. That, and the warm, intense, semi-educated Cornish burr in which the narrator, Charles Wenmouth, tells his story.

"Another Sabbath is gone into eternity borne from us swiftly as though the angels gathered it in their arms flung wide to harvest the days," Charles begins, in the novel's opening paragraph.

Peter had wanted an original voice in which to narrate the story, he explains - and ran across the above passage in his great-great-grandfather's diary. It gave him the voice he craved. "And I just ran with it."

He had worried he might not be able to pull the voice off consistently throughout the book. Although his father spoke with a Cornish accent, Peter's accent is more Yorkshire. But the novel's narrative voice works, wonderfully.

Peter says he never planned on being a writer. After studying Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford, he was all set for a job with the Foreign Office.

But he became ill while travelling in Pakistan and Afghanistan before getting to take up his FO job - and spent several years either sick or convalescing. That long period of illness may well account for the sheer intensity of his first book.

He does have a sense of humour as well, he insists - and that will be much more on show in his second book, a collection of short stories that should be out next spring and which he describes as much more playful and contemporary.

He also hopes to set a future story in the Yorkshire where he grew up - possibly in the Dales or Moors he loves so much, he says.

For now, however, he and his girlfriend - with whom he lives in London - are simply enjoying seeing his first book in print. "It is very exciting," he says. "But also quite terrifying. It was three years of work and there is every chance that people will just want to throw it away!"

The Short Day Dying is published by faber and faber, priced £10.99.


The Evening Press has five copies of The Short Day Dying for readers to win, courtesy of faber.

Question: in which English county was Peter Hobbs born?

To find out how to enter get your copy the the Evening Press for Saturday, March 26.

Updated: 08:45 Saturday, March 26, 2005