“Getting into Cambridge was the biggest thing that’s ever happened to me,” says Matt Cain (1994), over drinks in Fitzbillies. “It’s bothered me since I left that Oxbridge has become a dirty word - the second I say I went to Cambridge people assume a level of privilege - but I went to state schools and worked really hard to get there. I was the first person from my school in 28 years to go to Oxbridge.”
Matt is back at Queens’ to celebrate the publication of his third novel, The Madonna of Bolton. The highly entertaining, unashamedly autobiographical book is a coming of age tale about a boy, Charlie, growing up in 1980s small-town Lancashire. The growing realisation that he is gay marks him out as a target for school bullies in a world where masculinity is narrowly and rigidly defined. His arrival at Queens’ (renamed St Christopher’s but otherwise undisguised - “If I’d called it Queens’ in a book about growing up gay people would have assumed I’d made it up!”) marks a turning point.
Through drama societies, May Ball committees and other extra-curricular involvement which a cursory glance at Matt’s file reveals to have been lifted directly from life, Charlie flourishes, establishing a network of friends who see him through the tribulations of the second half of the novel.
Contrary to frequent portrayals of Cambridge social networks, Matt paints a picture of a diverse, mutually supportive and accepting environment, in which students from all backgrounds form lifelong friendships. It sounds idyllic, and slightly idealised, but Matt insists it reflects his experience.
“Honestly, it really was like that. People in northern working class towns can sometimes decry the snootiness of Oxbridge, but I grew up in a northern working class town and I didn’t feel welcome in the background I was from. In Cambridge I was made welcome from day one, and my friends from Queens’ are the ones that have stuck.”
After Queens’, Matt knew he wanted to do “something creative”, but was sufficiently open-minded as to what that might mean that he wrote 211 letters to theatres, publishers and galleries.
“I got one reply, from a soft porn channel in Manchester,” he laughs.
This proved his unlikely entrance into television, leading to a seven-year stint as an executive producer on The South Bank Show, and three years as Channel 4’s first ever cultural editor. Matt then took voluntary redundancy in order to focus on writing fiction, publishing Shot Through the Heart in 2014, and Nothing But Trouble a year later. He spent 18 months as Editor-in-Chief of Attitude, Britain’s leading magazine for gay men, and is in demand as a freelance journalist.
But The Madonna of Bolton, a first draft of which was written in 2006, refused to let him go. Despite the book having been rejected by publisher after publisher, Matt was determined to give it a chance to find an audience. When he uploaded a sample chapter to crowdfunding publisher Unbound, it reached its funding target within a week, becoming one of the publisher’s fastest ever success stories. The novel will hit bookshops across the country on 12 July, and the film rights have been bought by Live Nation Productions.
While Matt is at pains to point out that “the character is very different to me”, the book rings emotionally true. Charlie’s relationship with his family is particularly well depicted, and although Matt says that when he showed the novel to his own parents “they could see immediately that Charlie’s parents weren’t them”, he admits that the character’s need to impress his father is very close to the bone.
“Dad grew up in a council house, went to grammar school, and then to Leeds University, but he’d always wanted to go to Cambridge. So when I was good enough at school for Cambridge to be talked about, I saw it mainly as a chance to impress him. But it opened up the world to me.”