LEAVES in a BAG: a walk with Gaia Holmes through the Dean of Luddenden


I’ve just read Where the Road Runs Out, Gaia Holmes’ third poetry collection, published a few months ago by Comma Press. I’ve enjoyed all her work to date, but this feels like her strongest most accomplished collection, and I want to find out more about the background to the poems that novelist Sara Maitland calls ‘incantations’ and ‘witchcraft’.


I pick Gaia up in my van. It’s a crisp and misty autumn morning. She lives in a flat in Halifax, part of a large Georgian House. She shows me where the door and handle to her flat have been damaged. There was an attempted break in the other week. But the offender was not trying to steal anything. He was looking for an empty flat so he could squat. The Georgian house is one of former splendour. The hallway is grand with a sweeping staircase and beautiful oak bannisters, but the paint is peeling off the walls and the plaster bubbles with damp and water damage.

We drive through low mist which clings to spindly trees, towards Warley village, on the outskirts of Halifax, where Gaia spent her formative childhood years. We park up at the Maypole pub and cross over to examine the church over the road. It’s an imposing block of stone, with two turreted towers with crenelated crowns. Next to the chapel is a house called The Grange. Patrick Brontë lived here for a short while. Gaia grew up in the chapel which was bought by her parents and renovated. We stand beneath, in its shadow.


‘It’s an incredible bit of architecture but not necessarily an obvious family home.’ I say. ‘When did you move here?’

‘I was about six.’

‘Who was pushing the move? Your mum or your dad?’

‘Definitely my dad.’

‘And did he have building skills? Did he have construction site experience?’

‘Yeah, I mean he didn’t adhere to any health and safety rules though. There was a lot of gaffer tape involved.’

‘Where did he acquire those skills?’

‘I don’t know. He must have taught himself. He had these DIY magazines.’

We walk round the outside of the building. It hasn’t been a church since 1977. She tells me that before this they were living in a cottage in Luddenden.

‘So what prompted the move?’

‘It was just my dad. He had big dreams.’

‘How was he earning a living at this point?’

‘He did loads of stuff. He was a taxi driver, he was a handyman, he had a burger van. He kept getting it pushed over. There were lots of burger wars.’

‘But he became a vegan later though?’

‘Yeah, he did.’

‘So you were six years old. Can you remember being excited about the prospect of moving to a church?’

‘I just remember, in the backyard, we had a caravan, and me and my brothers, Jago and Rudolf, and my mum and my dad, and five cats, all living in this caravan and it was freezing. When you look at photographs, all the windows are steamed up, but I think we quite liked it really.’

‘So you lived there until it was renovated?’

‘Yeah. We moved into the front bit first. It was very primitive. You’d walk through all this building rubble and cement bags, into this furnished room with deep pile carpets and velvet curtains. It was very strange. We had pews and a pulpit.’

‘But your father wasn’t religious?’


‘Does it seem a bit perverse, as a non-believer, to want to live in a church?’

‘Possibly. He was a very contradictory character.’

‘What else do you remember?’

‘That clock tower.’

She points to the large opaque face towards the top of the building, with big black Roman numerals.

‘There was a room behind the clock and I used to hide in there. And I could see the street below, watch the people come and go. But they couldn’t see me.’

‘What were you hiding from?’

‘I was skiving off school.’


‘I didn’t like school. I got bullied.’

‘What were they bullying you for?’

She shrugs, ‘Because I was a hippy. And I lived in a church. And because my dad was my dad.’

She tells me that she lived here until she was seventeen when she moved out on her own to a high-rise tower block in Mixenden. On the top floor. Mixenden is an odd place, where urban tenements rise out of the middle of a rural landscape. When film makers want to suggest bleak and quirky, it’s the go-to location. It’s quite beautiful too in places. You can walk down from those flats to the beck that runs through the settlement. The trees are hundreds of years old and there is an ancient clam bridge over the beck.

‘Seventeen is quite young isn’t it? Were you at college or working?’

‘I couldn’t really cope with the bullying at school so my parents took me out of school and home educated me. My dad’s idea of home education was to give me GCSE pass books. I would work through them in his gallery. Then I went to the Steiner School in York and I didn’t like it there either.’

‘But they’d all be hippies there?’

‘Well, no, but at that point I was trying to fit in and I’d permed my hair and I was trying to conform. I was wearing teddy bear jumpers.’

‘You were caught between two worlds. So, you moved into your flat in Mixenden. On your own?’

‘Yeah, just me and a pet rat, Clovis.’

‘And did your family live in the church after that?’

‘For a bit, yes. My mum had moved out. Then Rudi moved out. Jago worked on the building with my dad. Then he bought the back and turned it into a gym. My dad moved to Shapinsay.’

We walk down Paradise Lane to the other end of the church.

‘This is where he had his kiln here.’

She points to a room which is partially beneath street level. Her father made ceramics to sell in his gallery which was situated in the repurposed Piece Hall in Halifax. He made Raku teapots. I contemplate the sombre, gothic exterior. I imagine a dark and cold inner world.

‘What was it like to actually live here? Did you have bad dreams?’

‘No, I loved it. All that space. We had a rope swing off one of the beams, and I used to swing from the balcony. There was a mattress underneath. It was an idyllic childhood, and quite free.’

‘But at seventeen you decided to move out?’

‘I think I just decided “I’m an adult now”. Even though I wasn’t an adult. I got a job. Like a YTS scheme. I worked at a day care centre in Ovenden for about two years.’

We walk away from the church further down Paradise Lane, towards the town primary school. The school that Gaia attended as an infant. We stop at some railings and peer into the play area.

‘Were you happy here?’

‘It was a good school. I loved it.’

‘That’s funny. I loved primary school too but I absolutely hated secondary school.’

‘Did you get bullied?’

‘No, but what happened, really in the first week, we were given an exercise to determine what groups we were to be put in. We had to write about a room. Any room. I went home and thought about it. I wrote this story about a character who wakes up in a room and doesn’t know where they are or who they are. It’s a round room, very small, with no windows or door. And they are confused. The walls are opaque and crimson light pours through. There are muffled noises. It ends with this blinding white light, which the character is pulled towards. We find out it’s a foetus being born. I was really pleased with it, but the teacher gave me an F for fail.’

‘Really? How come?’

‘She said, “I asked you to write a story about a room and you write this stupid story about being born.” I was put in the bottom class.’

‘That’s mad.’

‘After that, I just decided to subvert everything I was asked to do. It was a stupid game that I could only lose. By the end of the year I had been excluded from school for twelve months.’

We are walking across the village’s recreational fields. We turn left at the end and head down the lane past The Vandals rugby club. We cross a field with two stampeding horses until we reach a clearing, and the valley of Luddenden. The mist has cleared but still hangs low in the distance. Silver sunbeams cut through the mist illuminating the valley below. The beams look solid, like the steps that lead to heaven in Branwell Brontë’s painting ‘Jacob’s Dream’. He worked at the station at the foot of the valley until he was dismissed for misappropriating some money. There’s a statue of him where the station used to be. It is one of the worst examples of public art I have ever seen. The figure doesn’t even look human. It looks like a deformed, obese leprechaun.

‘Mist features heavily in your collection, doesn’t it? The first third of the book is really about the time you spent on the island of Shapinsay, off the Orkney Mainland, looking after your dying father. And mist is an integral feature. A lot of the poems describe mist. You call yourself The Mistress of Haar, which is a kind of sea fret.’

‘Yeah. It’s very cold. Often unexpected. It can be sunny, then in five minutes the island can be completely shrouded in this cold mist.’

‘Place and situation, in that section of the book, have a perfect marriage. The island is one of the Orkney islands off the north coast of the mainland. It is geographically on the edge. And the island itself is exposed to the elements of the North Sea. Your father in your book, is reaching the end of things too. The book is called Where the Road Runs Out, and that applies to both the geography of place, but also to a man’s life. It almost becomes the same thing. That sense of the end of things, the edges of things. The mist, the barrenness, the harsh weather. Were you aware of that as you were writing about place and person?’

‘The island, in my head, came to represent my dad. Before my dad got ill I used to really hate the island because it’s very exposed. It takes two days to get there. You travel to Aberdeen. You get a ferry to Kirkwall, which is on the Orkney mainland. The ferry doesn’t get in till 11pm, and the boat out to Shapinsay doesn’t go until 8 in the morning. So you have to stay over. But spending all that time with my dad there, I came to really love the island.’

‘But it’s a hard place to live.’

‘He had to keep his caravan from flying away by anchoring it with three tonne of cement blocks. Sometimes he would have to crawl on his hands and knees from his caravan to the mill where he had his pottery works. Or else the wind would have blown him away.’

‘That’s the caravan on the front cover of the book. It’s a lovely cover. But very bleak, just a gull and a caravan.’

‘And a load of pylons.’

‘I was going to ask you about that, why so many pylons?’

‘That’s just a reference to one of the poems.’

‘Yes, of course, “What Pylons Dream Of”.’

It’s a good example of surrealism. In the poem, the pylons dream of stepping into ball gowns.

‘That first third of the book is almost a chronology of your time nursing your father as cancer ravishes his body. That section ends with the poem “Kummerspeck”, which is a German word. It literally translates as “grief bacon”. It is a very visceral response to grief. It makes grief an actual physical thing that feeds on blood and flesh. There’s a line about the fridge stinking like a butcher’s gutter. But then the rest of the book is business as usual. Only you come back to him further on in the book as a ghostly figure. And there are lots of holes in the book.’

‘There’s a poem about a sinkhole.’

‘But not just sinkholes, other kinds of holes too. Is one of the holes that left by your father’s passing?’

‘I wasn’t going to include those poems. I was going to move on with my life. I had a collection that was a mix of subjects. There’s a poem about pylons and a poem about runners, a poem about childlessness.’

‘I love that poem. It’s called “Ballast”. I remember you reading it years ago, at an event, and it put a chill right down my spine. I’m so glad you included that poem. I’ve heard you read it several times since, and it has always had a profound effect on me.’

‘I was a bit wary about putting it in the collection because it was based on an experience that really happened. I went to my friend’s house and there were some other friends there I hadn’t seen for a while. I didn’t have to do much with that poem. I just put down what happened.’

‘It’s a remarkable poem. There is so much emotion in it, but it isn’t a bleeding heart poem. It’s about a woman, you, who has reached a stage in her life, where she spends a lot of time holding other people’s babies. It’s a party where M & S berry crushes outnumber wine bottles and you are the only one drinking. All the women there are mothers and they are talking about teething rings and Farley’s Rusks. Then you go outside for a cigarette and when you, or the character in the poem, returns, she senses that the women have been talking about her with pity. And there is a sense that you, or the childless woman in the poem, have become an image from a horror film. It really hammers home how much women are still defined by these roles. In fact, self-defined. Like the child is almost a fetish object and we all have to worship it. It’s a type of tyranny. Is that how you feel?’

‘Parts of me. The strongest thing for me is that you are not seen as a woman if you don’t have a child. That you are a freak.’

‘That’s so odd now, isn’t it? In this day and age. We live in an overpopulated world of dwindling resources; we should be encouraging childlessness in all its forms. And yet we have this post-feminist world that, in a way, has stepped backwards.’

She nods as she stares out over the valley, at the sun shining through the mist, and the leafless trees.

‘And the womb is another hole?’

‘Well, yeah, that was the idea.’

We reach a footpath that leads into Hollins Wood. We enter the woods and approach a clearing. The forest floor is thick and spongy with fallen leaves, and some leaves still cling to the branches above: copper, yellow and gold chevrons. Like the few feathers clinging to a plucked chicken.

‘This is the wood I used to come to when I moved back from Mixenden.’

‘Under this tree?’

‘We christened these two trees. One was the Grandmother Tree and the other the Grandfather Tree, but I can’t remember which. I felt really safe here. I slept out here a few times.’

‘By yourself or with friends?’

‘Both. I’ve slept here by myself a few times.’

There are still remnants of the fire pit Gaia built to keep herself warm. A rough circle of stones with a charcoal lined inner.

‘And you wrote poems here? By this fire pit?’

‘Yes. I was sending them off to magazines. I just couldn’t stop writing. I had this urge to write and it was lovely. I still have that urge but it’s nothing like as strong.’

‘I know what you mean. It’s almost like a drug. It overtakes you. It intoxicates you. You’re almost giddy with it. Your mum lived in these woods didn’t she?’

‘Yeah, but only for a few weeks. By that waterfall. She made a bender, and lived in it.’

We sit on a fallen tree trunk and drink hot black sweet coffee out of a flask. I take out my copy of Where the Road Runs Out.

‘I want to talk a bit more about the imagery in the poems, if that’s ok? For instance, this poem here,’ I turn to the first poem in the collection, ‘And Still We Keep On Singing’ and point to the last stanza. ‘“Candles whose wicks are too damp and weak to sustain a flame.” That’s your dad isn’t it?’

‘I like it when people do that. I hadn’t thought about that.’

‘I was intrigued by the poem “Leaves”. In the poem, when your dad is dying, you post him bags of leaves.’

‘You don’t see autumn on Shapinsay, because there are hardly any trees. It was late September and there were all these beautiful leaves, and I gathered them and put them in a parcel and posted them to him.’

‘I like it where you use metonyms. Is that the right word? There is a line of washing, his socks next to your dress. There is an image of red wine next to Complan. You are the red wine. Your father is the Complan.’

‘It’s known as objective correlative.’

I flick through the pages. ‘This line here, “the wrong kind of holy water”. Does that refer to alcohol?’

‘No, when he was dying he kept ordering these miracle cures from America.’

‘What sort of things?’

Caesium chloride was one. It’s basically a bleach. It was awful. My dad never struck me as gullible, but it cost three hundred quid to post this stuff from America. And he thought it would save him. He tried Cannabis Oil and Bloodroot. It burns your skin.’

‘And this line “the rain pelts like pearls” it’s an interesting oxymoron.’

‘When you’re in a caravan, you hear the rain on the roof like a drum. And the winds. I mean, a 50mph wind is nothing. On a night, when it’s all windy and wild, you feel cosy inside.’

‘And it’s rocking, almost like a boat?’

‘Yes, very much so.’

I put my book away. We finish the coffee. We walk out of the wood towards Luddenden village, making our way down a steep cobbled road, with worn undulations from cobbled soles, to the Lord Nelson pub, the same pub Branwell Brontë drank in, when he was Station Master at Luddenden Foot Station. I order a white wine for Gaia, and a pint of White Witch for me. We sit down at an old oak table, scratched and scarred with time. We’ve left the poems behind but one particular image haunts me.

‘I just want to come back to this line. You have the mist of the landscape, and the fact that your father’s breath isn’t strong enough to mist the mirror that you hold up to his mouth.’

‘It was a strange time. I was on my own with him. He spent his last days in hospital on the mainland, in Kirkwall. I’d have to commute from the island. I’d come home in dark. I’d walk up this hill in the wind and rain, and the street lights would run out and I’d be in complete darkness. I used to leave the lights in the mill on so that I could see where I was going. And as I got close, his three cats would be sitting outside, waiting for me.’


Where the Road Runs Out by Gaia Holmes is published by Comma Press. You can buy it here.

Ill Will: The Untold Story of Heathcliff by Michael Stewart is now published in paperback by HarperCollins. You can buy it here.



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The Brontë Stones

20180330_163411I first conceived of the Brontë Stones project in October 2013 while taking a group of writers along another literary trail. I live in Thornton and have long wanted my village to receive recognition for its place in the Brontë story. All three literary sisters and their wayward brother were born here. I thought about the journey they took in 1820, over to Haworth. They were a happy family, but very shortly, after their move to Haworth, tragedy struck. First the death of Maria, the mother, then the two oldest siblings.

I was also aware that Anne Brontë was buried in Scarborough many miles away from the rest of her family and I wanted a stone to mark her return. Emily’s stone had to be somewhere suitably bleak, up on the moors. Charlotte would have had a living memory of her house in Thornton, and I wanted her stone to be part of the very fabric of the building. Then a fourth stone, somewhere obscure, perhaps marking Branwell’s act of painting himself out of the picture. And so I started to put the project together in my mind. There would be a linear walk, from the birthplace to Haworth. It would take in all four stones which would be carved with contemporary writing from some of the most prestigious writers around. Then there would be three linear walks to feature each of the sisters.

In February 1978 I had just turned seven years old and I was fascinated by the number one single at the time, the debut record by Kate Bush called ‘Wuthering Heights’. I’d just received a tape recorder for Christmas and I filled a C60 cassette with the song. I don’t really know why this song obsessed me so much. It must have been the lyrics. I wanted to know who Cathy was and why she wanted to be let in at the window and not the door like normal people. I must have sensed she was a ghost. But not much else. My mother, who had read the book, explained it to me. Like Nelly, telling the oral tale to Mr Lockwood, my mother, told the tale to me. I was gripped by this cuckoo in the nest narrative, but it wasn’t until my teens that I read the book for myself and fully connected with it. It has been my favourite novel ever since, leading me to write my own tribute, Ill Will, which describes Heathcliff’s missing years.

As for the Brontë Stones project, In 2014 I put a funding bid together and applied to the Arts Council. The first bid was unsuccessful, but I persisted. The Arts Council suggested that I collaborate with the Bradford Literature Festival, and I met up with the directors and discussed the idea. They were keen to support my project. I put together a list of writers I’d like to work with and slowly we managed to commission some of the most eminent writers around. Carol Ann Duffy, the Poet Laureate, would write for the Charlotte Stone. Jackie Kay, the Scottish Maker, would write for the Anne Stone. Jeanette Winterson, award winning writer, the Brontë Stone. Most excitingly for me, fulfilling a childhood dream, Kate Bush would write the text that would be cut into the Emily Stone. I wanted to commission a letter carver of some renown and my research led me to the work of Pip Hall. Pip has a long history of working on literary projects, such as the Stanza Stones, and Jane Austen’s House Museum, and seemed perfect for this project. I was delighted when the writers and Pip all agreed to come on board.

I approached Michelle and Mark De Luca, the owners of the Brontë Birthplace, and asked them if they would be interested in having a commemorative stone outside the building. They said they could do better than that. I could cut a window in the wall and place the stone there. I approached the Brontë Parsonage and asked if they would give permission for a stone close to the Parsonage. They had the perfect spot, a wild meadow behind the museum, close to the graveyard and the church. I searched the moors, looking for Emily’s stone. It had to be remote, it had to be somewhere Emily would stop and cogitate, far from the teeming streets of Haworth. I wanted the Brontë Stone, to be somewhere obscure, and I think I’ve found a very suitable place.

I then set about devising the walks, traipsing across meadow and moor, over and over again, until I was happy with the routes. Each of the walks had to be pertinent to each of the sisters. They had to reflect in some way, the essence of their personalities. I hope I’ve achieved that. I also wanted the walks to be different lengths and different levels of difficulties, so that they would appeal to a broad group of walkers, from family ramblers, to more seasoned trekkers.

I admire the maps of the cartographer Chris Goddard, who makes beautiful bespoke drawings, very much in the Wainwright tradition, and so I approached him and commissioned him to realise these maps in his exquisite style. The launch event will take place on Saturday 7th of July at The Bradford Literature Festival, and will feature an evening with the commissioned writers. The following day, on Sunday 8th of July, I will take a group of walkers along the linear walk from the birthplace in Thornton to Haworth, in the footsteps of the Brontës, recreating the walk they all took in 1820. A walk through the landscape, through literature and history. Look out also for lots of events during Emily’s Bicentenary weekend at the Parsonage. Details will be available soon.

More information and tickets here: https://www.bradfordlitfest.co.uk/events/

This project has been supported by:

The Arts Council

Bradford Council

The Bradford Literature Festival

The Brontë Birthplace

The Brontë Society

The Brontë Parsonage

The University of Huddersfield


Follow the story of The Brontë Stones on Facebook @brontestones




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WRITING THE SHORT STORY: a conversation with novelist and short story writers, Carys Bray and Tessa Hadley



We all write short stories and novels. For me, the process is very different. I often use short stories to try out ideas, where a novel is something that I plan meticulously. How do you organise the two narrative worlds? What did you write first, novels or short stories?

TESSA: I felt that I could write short stories before I quite knew how to manage the great beast that is a novel. At first I tried just putting short stories end to end. That worked. Now I’m beginning to feel more confident with the longer lines of the novel.

CARYS: For me, the process is different, too. I’m not sure whether I’d describe myself as a meticulous planner when it comes to novels; I’m more of a beginning and end planner – the middle tends to be beaten into shape as I go. I plan short stories in a similar way but their weight and shape renders them more pliable. I suppose it’s like the difference between attempting to knead a one-pound and a ten-pound loaf of bread.

I wrote short stories first. I love the elasticity of the short form – stories in the same collection can be surprising, contemplative, horrifying, magical, speculative, experimental, and so on. I love the way short stories can capture a moment or, in Alice Munro’s case particularly, hold the essence of a whole life. Short stories can explore those ‘what if’ ideas you might have: what if you bought your children at the supermarket, what if the witch in Hansel and Gretel is a harmless old woman? Neither of those ideas has anything like the momentum or depth for a novel (not in my hands, at least) but they’re potentially interesting.

Initially, didn’t have any plans to write a novel and there were also matters of permission and time: I didn’t think of myself as a writer back then and as a result I didn’t feel I could invest huge amounts of time in writing. I used to write during the day when my children were at school/nursery. In the evenings, I’d keep my laptop open while I cooked or helped with homework and I’d edit things or make notes as I had new ideas.


We had a short story event here last year with Claire Dean, Michelle Green, David Constantine and Stuart Evers, and we discussed the origins of short stories. Both Claire and Michelle felt very strongly that short stories have evolved from folk tales and still bore the traces of their origins. Whereas Stuart Evers, and to an extent, David Constantine, felt that the modern short story is about 100 years old and quite different from folk tales. Which side of the fence, if any, do you both fall on?


CARYS: Give me a fence and I will sit on it! I think of Katherine Mansfield’s ‘Bliss’ and can’t immediately see a connection with folk tales (the image of the pear tree is nudging me, but I may be reading too much into it now that I’m searching for a connection/some roots). Having said that, I can see folk tale roots in other stories of that time. Can I have my cake and eat it, please?

‘Sweet Home’ (the story, as opposed to the collection) is clearly an adaptation of a fairy tale. I wrote ‘Sweet Home’ because I always felt that the old woman in Hansel and Gretel had a bad deal. She had made a beautiful house and then two children came along and started eating it. It reminded me of the effort I used to put in my children’s birthday cakes and how it subsequently felt to see them demolished.

TESSA: I think that the short story as mostly practised in the UK tradition is probably more like an off-shoot of the novel form. However, just because its length is something like the length of an extended anecdote, or a joke, or a story for children, it can take on something of those intonations. In the US it’s often – in the hands of Twain or Hawthorne – more like a tall tale or a parable. Perhaps there the literary culture kept closer, at least for a while, to oral culture.


To what extent do you write from experience and to what extent imagination?

TESSA: I’m not sure I can separate out experience and imagination. I’m not sure you can have much experience that’s worth writing about without imagination.

CARYS: I use a mixture of experience and imagination. I’m not aiming for reflection – for refraction, perhaps. For example, my second novel The Museum of You is about single fatherhood, something that’s outside of my experience, but I know how it feels to be a parent and I understand loss and loneliness and am interested in exploring those themes in my writing.

I think a lot of my stories are about characters that are trapped in some way. And I see it to an extent in both of your collections. Tessa, a lot of your protagonists are women trapped by middle class mores, yearning for some kind of escape. Which never comes through. Do you agree?

TESSA: My stories aren’t about women who are trapped. I don’t think ‘trapped’ is a very useful way of thinking about how any of these characters are caught up in the envelope of their particular circumstances. I think I prefer the idea that ‘stuff happens’ to people, and the stuff is sometimes fascinating.

Carys, some of your protagonists are women trapped by the mores of middle-class motherhood. You write, to an extent, about the domestic space, in relation to mothers and their children. To what degree do you think it is still gendered?


I think 8 of the 17 stories are explicitly about motherhood (perhaps even middle class motherhood, although I’m not entirely sure about that – the woman in ‘Just in Case’ is a shop assistant). ‘The Rescue’ concentrates mainly on fatherhood, as do ‘The Ice Baby’ and ‘The Countdown’ and the remaining stories are about older people (mostly women) or children.


I don’t see the domestic space as inherently gendered, despite that fact that it is, at least in Sweet Home, a space primarily peopled by women. We all eat and sleep somewhere. We all put on clothes in the morning and partake in a variety of domestic routines. I do think that women writers are asked to comment on ‘the domestic’ more than male writers. In fact, I keep a few quotes to hand for such moments. Let me find them…


Here’s what Helen Simpson had to say about it: ‘That domesticity word is politically loaded. It’s used to describe something as tame or boring. It’s anything but.’ From Kate Mosse, ‘…when men write about domesticity, it’s seen as great literature. When women do it, it’s seen as women’s issues.’ And Carol Shields: ‘now that men are writing so-called domestic novels they are not called [domestic] at all; they are called sensitive … reflections of modern life’; ‘[w]hen men write about ‘ordinary people’ they are thought to be subtle and sensitive, when women do so their novels are classed as domestic.’


I’m aware that I’ve used a lot of words and not really answered the question, so I’ll pull myself back to it. To what extent is the domestic space still gendered? In a general sense, I don’t know – that’s the kind of question I’d like to approach with a reading list and at least 10,000 words. To answer more specifically and personally, I wrote the stories in Sweet Home 8 years ago, after a decade of being at home with 4 children. The domestic space certainly felt gendered to me at the time. In the years since, that has changed and, for me, at least, the domestic space in my life feels less gendered, less lonely and more collaborative, and I suspect that is reflected in my writing.


Carys, your collection is very themed. The problems of parenthood to a large degree. Did you conceive of the collection as a single thread? Or is that just how it worked out?


CARYS: I wrote the stories during my MA, so they were written over a period of about 12 months and they reflect my preoccupations at the time. My children were small(ish) and I was thinking about parental ambivalence and the way families work (and don’t work).


Initially, I wasn’t imagining the stories as a collection. My writing was inspired by all sorts of things: snippets of conversation, real life events, one of my favourite poems – The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, fairy tales, and even a poster I used to walk past at Edge Hill which posed the question ‘How High Should Boys Sing?’ I was also inspired by some of the strange and magical stories in Adam Marek’s Instruction Manual for Swallowing and Robert Shearman’s Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical. It was only after I had a good chunk of material on which to reflect that I could see the common theme(s).


How important is order in your collections?


CARYS: I thought carefully about the order of the collection. I had post-it notes stuck to my kitchen cupboards in various orders over a period of time as I tried to work out how best to place the stories. In the end, I tried to arrange the stories so that there was some variety in length and theme; to intersperse the sad with the humorous and so on.

After Sweet Home was published, a poet friend asked if I had thought about how the closing image of each story interacted with the opening image of the next, which relates to your question, above. I hadn’t, and I suddenly wished I had. I went home and looked at the opening and closing images of the collection. It was then that I realised Sweet Home opens and closes with the same image, a mother on her knees – I’d like to pretend I did that on purpose, but it was an accident.

TESSA: I try to find a good rhythm between the stories.


What are your favourite short stories and writers?

CARYS: My favourite short story is probably Kate Clanchy’s ‘The Not Dead and the Saved’. It’s a remarkable story – as it concludes, a tiny piece of information that has been withheld is revealed and the whole story opens in the most satisfying way.

I have been hugely inspired by Carol Shields. I discovered her novels and short stories in the final year of my BA. Shields had five children and her first novel was published in 1976 when she had just turned forty. It was her writing that really made me see that there is beauty and interest in ordinary lives.

I love the short stories of Adam Marek and Robert Shearman – I admire the way they find magic and absurdity in the everyday. The same goes for Ali Smith’s short stories. Helen Simpson’s stories were recommended to me while I was studying at Edge Hill and her writing was very influential – it’s beautiful, observant and funny.

TESSA: Kipling, Chekhov, Alice Munro, John Updike, Mavis Gallant, Lucia Berlin, John McGahern, Agnes Owens, Colin Barrett & many more (but not that many).

Thank you both very much for taking the time out to answer my questions. Sweet Home by Carys Bray and Bad Dreams by Tessa Hadley are both available from the usual places. And I highly recommend both books.

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Benjamin Myers up Scout Rock: Turning Blue, Jimmy Savile, Ian Watkins and the occult side of popular culture


Below is a conversation I had with writer Benjamin Myers on Friday 23rd of September 2016, while walking up Scout Rock in Mytholmroyd.


Me: Your new book is called Turning Blue. From what you’ve said, it’s changed a lot in the writing.


Benjamin: The first version was about a pig farmer who kills a girl while out poaching. He’s so lonely, he falls in love with her. He realises that he doesn’t have to spend Christmas alone. It gets vile. I shocked myself with what I wrote. It was mainly him and the corpse. There was a scene where he tied the corpse to himself and danced around the room. It was about 40,000 words and really basic. There wasn’t much of a plot and it was too sick. There’s a limit to what people can take.


Me: You’ve gone  from RichardPig Iron, Beastings, which are literary novels. Pursuing a path, getting sparser, getting bleaker. Then you write Turning Blue which has taken you into a different genre. All your books are crime books in the sense that they feature crime but that distinction between crime as a subject and the crime novel as a genre. The tropes, a dead body, an investigation, good prevails, some sort of redemption, the tropes that have accreted around the genre, that go back to the 19th century, to Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle. How do you feel about that, writing what you want to write, to writing using a set of conventions?


Benjamin: It started out about loneliness and landscape. Each re-write, I added another character. Then the Jimmy Savile thing happened, Yewtree, and all that. He died and it all came out. I got a bit obsessed. I added different layers of plot, to the point where it became categorically a crime novel. It became a crime novel but I don’t know much about procedure or how police detectives work. From the outset you know who has done what. I don’t think there are any surprises in the book.


Me: It’s not a whodunnit, it’s a why-dunnit, but that’s still a recognised form within the genre.


Benjamin: There’s stuff like David Peace, Gordon Burn, James Ellroy – that’s the sort of crime novel that I’m interested in.


Me: The character of Larry Lister is a bit of a mash-up, he’s a bit Stuart Hall and a lot Jimmy Savile. I’m assuming you’ve read the Dan Davis book?


Benjamin: Yes, I’ve read that.


Me: I’m interested in when real people crop up in fiction. To what extent that upsets the fictional world. Why did you want to include real people or characters based on real people? Were you trying to say something about celebrity? Why are we fascinated by people like Jimmy Savile?


Benjamin: You wonder, how the fuck did he get that far? He was mates with Prince Charles, Thatcher, he had a lot of sway at the BBC, major charities. Basically every British institution.

Me: He’s a personification of what is wrong with the power system that runs through the British Establishment?


Benjamin: His rise coincided with the rise of pop music, pop culture, TV, The Beatles, Ready Steady Go!


Me: And yet he wasn’t interested in music.


Benjamin: He hated music. He hated kids. He knew fuck all about music. I was fascinated by how he got that far.


Me: He was a charlatan.


Benjamin: He was the sort of character you’d get at a carnival in the 19th century hoodwinking people. I interviewed Rolf Harris once. I was a fan.


Me: That was more of a shock. In a way that it wasn’t with Jimmy Savile.


Benjamin: I interviewed Ian Watkins from Lostprophets. It took a few days for the interview to happen because he kept disappearing. It was just a phone interview and loads of people I knew had worked with him. Were friends with him. I kept trying to get him on the phone. He’s buggered off to Berlin. He’s gone on a bender. I eventually tracked him down. Ended up that we really hit it off actually.


Me: What was he like? Was he intelligent? Was he charismatic?


Benjamin: Well, yeah. He was quite funny. He got a first at uni in graphic design or something. There was an academic background. We got talking. I told him I’d written a book about Richey Edwards, another South Wales rock star. He gave me his mother’s address and I sent him a copy. He read it. We started tweeting each other a bit. I always hated his band. The photo shoots that I saw, look at the state of these guys, particularly that singer. Working way too hard. Narcissistic.


Me: We were talking about Jimmy Savile and the birth of pop culture. Is there something endemic within pop culture which contributes to this culture of abuse? Someone like Ian Watkins on one level is a narcissist, but that’s different to being sexually abusive. But are they linked in some way?


Benjamin: It was quite a shock. When he was arrested and charged I realised that the time I was trying to track him down he was at the height of his atrocities. I couldn’t believe what I read. I don’t think anyone could.


Me: When you read The Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom, that idea of the libertine is that you are only free when you are free of all constraints, and that means also the social and moral constraints of the day. Savile talked about ultimate freedom. He said that he had ultimate freedom but only a handful of people in the world had that kind of freedom. Ian Watkins was exercising that kind of ultimate freedom.


Benjamin: That’s a really interesting point. After he was convicted, we were all messaging each other. People at Kerrang!, where I used to work. He was on the cover every few months. A friend of mine posted an interview he did with him. Ian Watkins was straight edge. He didn’t do drink or drugs for years. He turned 30 and thought, I’m going to give it a go. He embraced coke and meth wholeheartedly. This friend published the Kerrang! interview with Ian Watkins and after the arrest I went back and read it in a different light. Exactly what you said, he said he’d been reading de Sade and he said there was a freedom to be found in saying fuck it, no rules, party time. You read it and you just think, a rock star getting into drugs, big deal. But you read it now and you realise he wasn’t talking about doing a few lines of coke-


Me: He was talking about fucking babies.


Benjamin: Well, yeah, and all of this was going on while I was writing this book.


Me: I’m still trying to eke out this connection between a culture which gives licence and freedom and acknowledges narcissism in a context that is a positive one, i.e. pop culture, and one which leads ultimately to fucking babies?


Benjamin: I suppose what you’re asking is, I did a piece for the New Statesmen about him, ready to click send when he was convicted. It was asking, are we as music fans in some way culpable for elevating people to a higher status?


Me: Not only do we allow it, we celebrate it.


Benjamin: A lot of rock stars in the 70s. I mean Bowie, Jimmy Page and so on, were fucking 14 year olds and it was all men and there was a, what a man!, sort of attitude.


Me: Bill Wyman as well. Mandy Smith was 13 when he first starting seeing her. I remember at the time, there was some condemnation, but a lot of people were just like, well Bill is Bill, that’s rock and roll.


Benjamin: Yeah, what a legend, what a lad. When of course it is morally wrong. So Turning Blue, it is a crime book but I wanted to look at the idea of the occult, the things that are hidden. Conspiracies of men.


Me: I still want to come back to this point though. When you put someone in your book that is not exactly Jimmy Savile, but it is clear that that is the reference point, what is the effect of that? You’ve got a fictional world and you include a non-fictional character, in a way you are breaking the fourth wall, not in a Brechtian sense, that’s more a political device, but stylistically you do that. I’m reading this book at the moment called The Girls by Emma Cline. It’s a fictionalised version of the Manson cult from a 14 year old girl’s perspective. She gets seduced by the girls that surround Manson.


Benjamin: Yeah, I’ve read about that. She’s this nice middle class girl and is pulled in.


Me: Yeah, and it’s clearly about Manson, except that the Manson character is called Russell, Suzanne – the girl who seduces the protagonist – is clearly based on Susan Atkins, Dennis Wilson is a character called Mitch. As I’m reading this, each time I come across a character recognisable from the real world, it stops me and takes me out of the fictional world, while I assess to what extent the characteristics converge and to what extent they are distinct. Now I’m thinking critically rather than emotionally about that world. To what extend is that a useful fictional device?

Benjamin: I think if you are writing about Jimmy Savile, and originally my character was much closer to Savile, and my editor said, we know it’s Savile but he doesn’t have to have silver hair and smoke cigars. If you’ve got a real character your reader is arriving with a set of preconceptions of what that character represents. I did the novel Richard, which was very much about a real character but was about 50% invention and 50% research. You have to hope the reader accepts it. It would be really hard to write a novel about an underground world of grotty men, without people thinking Savile anyway.


Me: There are certain things in there that made me wonder about your research. Cinema X for example.


Benjamin: You might recognise it.


Me: It’s the one based in Huddersfield?


Benjamin: Yeah.


Me: Appropriately next to Beast Market.


Benjamin: Yeah. I didn’t know Huddersfield till I moved up here. But whenever I go I usually park in a little bay next to Cinema X. Only I didn’t realise, it was only when I looked it up.


Me: It’s a throwback to a previous era. I remember when every town had one, but now it’s rare. It’s a bygone symbol.


Benjamin: I was worried about writing about that. And readers in, say, London going, that’s not convincing, the internet has killed all of that. Adult porn cinemas don’t exist anymore. I didn’t go in. I didn’t join.


Me: And yet in your book it doesn’t exist to simply show films. And that’s very believable. Someone like me passes these places and thinks, that can’t just exist to show porn films. There must be another purpose.


Benjamin: I went on their website. I thought, who would go to a place like this when you can get porn so easily. You can get it on your phone, or wherever. Not everyone has the internet. Who would go to a place like this?


Me: Farmers?


Benjamin: Farmers, maybe guys for religious reasons,  or he lives in a house with the mother-in-law, eight kids, he needs to go somewhere private. I looked at the website for Cinema X and it looks so cheap and 70s – it was so at odds with the way things are now. It’s almost nostalgic when you see something like that. Like when you see an original butchers with an original frontage.


Me: Do you think we are at a stage now where we will look back on some forms of pornography affectionately?


Benjamin: More innocent perhaps. People can watch anything nowadays. Where is this going? Where is this leading. Anyway, I went on the website and it said, come and enjoy a cup of coffee in our cafe, and it looked grubby. There was one in Rochdale too. A lot of the post-industrial towns. They’re defiant against the advance of technology. I became fascinated by who would go there.


Me: But in your book, there is no innocence, it is not nostalgic. The cinema is just a front, for what you call the occult. No one is coming for a nice cup of coffee… To come back to this subject of genre just briefly, Turning Blue retains certain features that are more commonly associated with literary fiction. The dispensing of speech marks, the unconventional absence of commas. Val McDermid in her review in The Guardian picked up on its literary style. Are you trying to have your cake and eat it? Are you aware of two distinct audiences reading your books?


Benjamin: Yeah, yes. I don’t see myself as a crime writer, but the people publishing it are a crime imprint. Someone like James Ellroy or David Peace – he’s an experimental writer.


Me: Can we just stop here a moment as it’s a good spot to talk about place. Where are we right now, Benjamin? Is this the top of Scout Rock?


Benjamin: Yeah, this is the top. Ted Hughes wrote an essay about it called ‘The Rock’. It’s quite hard to find.


Me: We are just looking down now where Ted lived. That’s where the chapel was, what was it called?


Benjamin: Mount Zion.


Me: He felt hemmed in, didn’t he.


Benjamin: We live in the shadow of Scout Rock and I’ve realised recently that’s why my work has got darker, because my world now is physically darker. Ted Hughes saw it as a gloomy backdrop to his existence.


Me: He felt oppressed by it?


Benjamin: Yeah, because you can’t see anything beyond it. It blocks out the light.


Me: We can also see another one of his houses almost, Lumb Bank. Just in that clough there.


Benjamin: Yeah, and that’s Heptonstall, where Sylvia Plath was buried.


Me: To an extent all your writing is about place, about how it forms and warps character, how it influences events. You walk here every day? How does this geography filter into your writing?


Benjamin: See that house there, that’s where the King of the Coiners lived. My new book is about the coiners. He lived there in the 1760s. There’s physical evidence of what I write about all around me.


Me: Sally Wainwright’s Happy Valley is set round here, along the Calder Valley. When I interviewed David Peace a few years ago, we talked about the extent Peter Sutcliffe was a product of his environment.


Benjamin: I think living in the countryside, there is a timelessness, but there’s also a brutality – just over there is where the moors murderers buried their victims, Harold Shipman had his practice just there. The point is, we are surrounded by beauty but also the occult.


Me: Things are buried here. Things are hidden here.


Benjamin: The other day I came across a ruined cottage and there was a dead mole there. I come across dead things all the time when I’m walking. We can see down there, where people live and the traces of industry, but you don’t have to walk very far at all, and you see no one.


Me: No one can hear you scream.


Benjamin: No one can hear you scream.


Turning Blue is out now on Moth Publishing.

The Gallows Pole will be published next year by Bluemoose Books.



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2016-06-21 11.20.03-1

Below is a transcript of a conversation I had with Steve Hanley, bass player with The Fall for nineteen years and instrumental in developing the sound of the group, at the launch event for the paperback edition of The Big Midweek: Life Inside The Fall, by Steve and Olivia Piekarski (published by Route Books). The event took place in the Tap and Barrel pub in Pontefract. This conversation took place in the beer garden. Towards the end, Olivia joins the conversation, as does Ian Daley, the publisher.

Michael: The first thing I want to say Steve is how much I enjoyed the book. It’s not just one of the best books about The Fall, but one of the best books about being in a band I’ve ever read. It is unusual as it focuses on the work, the day to day grind of life in a band that tours and records almost constantly. Was that your intention from the outset?

Steve: Firstly, we wanted it to not be all about Mark. We wanted it to be about the other members who had been bypassed. We wanted to reflect The Fall as a working band, a prolific band who did an album a year and loads of other stuff as well.

Michael: Reading the book, it seemed unrelenting. Tour. Album. Tour. Album. Tour.

Steve: Yeah, but is that really that hard though?

Michael: I don’t know. Reading it feels fairly gruelling. Particularly the American tours where you are stuck on a bus most of the day, going to far flung places. Tempers fray. There’s a lot of hostility.

Steve: It was a lot easier to write about them. You tour Europe and you go from Holland to Belgium to Germany, and not much happens. But on the American tours there is always high jinks. The more difficult things to experience are the easier things to write about. It’s a lot harder to write about the good times.

Michael: Was it a cathartic process then?

Steve: It was, yes. I hadn’t listened to The Fall since I left.

Michael: And was that because it brought back bad memories?

Steve: The last five years were that bad that it coloured all my memories of the other years.

Michael: And can you listen to The Fall now without that?

Steve: Well, I had to listen to the albums I was on for the research for the book. I was pleasantly surprised.

Michael: Has writing the book changed your outlook then?

Steve: It has, yes. The last few years of the band, it had become… all the nonsense. No one was talking about the music any more. It was all about walking off stage, fights and sackings. And there was no place in that for me because I was just stood at the back playing the bass. All I was in it for was the music.

Michael: The book reads like a novel. The way it is structured, the characterisation, scene building and the level of detail.

Steve: This was one of my first conversations with Olivia, I don’t want to make it about the singer, but how do we do that? And she said, we’ll write it as a novel with you as the main character.

Michael: Had you written before?

Steve: No. Olivia had, but not me. Olivia is a novelist. Her first novel was being banded about, then I met her and she was looking for a project. We both learned a lot from writing the book.

Michael: The detail was forensic and I wondered to what extent you had recollected that, and to what extent you had relied on the testimonies of others.

Steve: To an extent it’s the way my memory works, but we had a few people on tap. My brother Paul has a great memory. Colin the roadie helped us a lot. What we found was that people who were in the band for a short time, like Mike Leigh who was on Dragnet, or our Paul who was in it for four years, they could remember pretty much all of the time they were in the group. But it’s amazing the way your mind opens up.

Michael: Did you make any of it up?

Steve: None of it is made up. There is some shift of time, where we’ve moved a scene say. But it’s all true.

Michael: So what was the process? How did the two of you put it together?

Steve: We started with a dictaphone. We had about three sessions where we were just talking with Olivia asking me questions.

Michael: So she interviewed you?

Steve: Yeah. We tried that. We’d start about nine o’clock at night, but it wasn’t really working. In fact, when we played it back, I could only hear Olivia talking. So what we did is we started from the end point and worked back. And gradually things would open up until we got to the beginning. We got a first draft down, and tinkered with it. Then we would go over and over it. Add bits, take bits away.

Michael: And how long did that take?

Steve: It took four years. I spoke to people and they said to do it properly it’s going to take five years. But I thought, I’m not spending five years on this. I’ll get it knocked out in a year. But no, it took four years. We were learning on the job. We had to learn a lot about what worked and what didn’t. We’d say, we’ve got this character right but not these, and we’d learn from that and go back and try again. Learn from the bits we’d got right.

Michael: Did you have a publisher in mind?

Steve: The first three years we didn’t. We had a bit of interest from a London publisher, but nothing definite.

Michael: So how did Route get involved?

Steve: I was working with Tom Hingley at the time.

Michael: Right, and Route had just brought out his memoir?

Steve: That’s right. Ian at Route rang us up and said he’d like to publish our book.

Michael: There are a lot of oblique references to drug taking. For example on page 145 [of the hardback] when you are writing about a flight over to America, ‘Karl, Mark and Sol, our driver, are puffing away at the back of the plane, no doubt pooling their dodgy New York contracts in preparation for arrival.’ Also on page 212, ‘I’ve pushed Paul through customs with a nice little present for the band stuck neatly into his disposable nappy fastening.’ Now we all know what these things are referring to, but you don’t state it explicitly.

Steve: Well, the thing is, if you know it then that’s fine, but if you don’t it doesn’t matter. But you’re writing about people who are friends, or ex-friends, people in the public eye, and you’ve got to be careful. People who have got children now. Do they want their kids to know what they got up to twenty years ago? Maybe they do, maybe they don’t.

Michael: So it wasn’t for legal reasons?

Steve: No. It’s not my place to tell tales, but at the same time you don’t want it to be bland. It’s getting the balance right.

Michael: Were you worried that Mark would kick off?

Steve: No. Not at all. If you are going to write a book worrying about what Mark Smith is going to do about it, you’d never do it. When the hardback came out, Mark ordered someone to pick a book up from the launch and deliver it through his letterbox at midnight.

Michael: You know this for sure?

Steve: Yeah. He’s a big Fall fan and he told us at the launch. Then a couple of days later Mark’s sister rang to complain. And I said, what’s the problem? She said, you mention our dad. Mark doesn’t like that you mentioned our dad in the book. That stuff about his dad, at that time I was really ill in hospital. I was approaching my thirties, and Mark’s dad died, and that kind of thing gives you a taste of your own mortality. So we thought it was an important bit of the book.

Michael: It’s called The Big Midweek. Do you think if the top forty charts had been announced on a Wednesday instead of a Sunday your fate would have been different?

Steve: Not really.

Michael: But that’s what the title is implying. That you were almost a chart-topping band. If the fans weren’t so keen to buy the records as soon as they came out.

Steve: It just seemed like an apt title. It’s a metaphor. I wanted it to sound like a gritty northern drama like Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.

Michael: It works for me because it asks a question. I didn’t know before reading it what the title referred to.

Steve: It’s a little bit frustrating when you’re almost there a few times, but then would you want to?

Michael: I want to refer to something in the book again. Here it is on page 388, ‘Not getting on? Not getting on was in the first few years. Not getting on would be great now. We are set in our own ways and have never been more isolated from each other and the rest of the world.’ That’s pretty bleak stuff. And yet you stayed some time after that. It sounds like it wasn’t fun for a very long time. So what made you stay?

Steve: It’s that thing when you’re in the middle of it and you don’t really see ‘it’ for what it is.

Michael: So this is a retrospective insight?

Steve: Yeah.

Michael: I mean you were a member of The Fall for nineteen years. The longest standing member of the group. What do you think it is about you that kept you in the band when others left? Is it resilience, or something else?

Steve: It’s probably a bit like people being abused. It becomes the norm.

Michael: Like a battered wife?

Steve: Yeah.

Michael: And it’s only when you go to work the next day with a black eye…

Steve: …and someone says, that’s not right.  That was really brought home to me by people like Colin.

Michael: The roadie?

Steve: Yeah, who worked with us in the late eighties and then again in the late nineties and he couldn’t believe the difference.

Michael: Did you ever worry about Mark’s mental health to the point where you thought he should be seeking help?

Steve: Yeah. People used to say it to me all the time. You’ve got to tell him. You’ve got to tell him. But there was no point, he wasn’t going to listen to me.

Michael: Did he know he was ill?

Steve: Did he? I don’t know.

[We are joined by Olivia Piekarski at this point.]

Olivia: when you’ve got psychosis you don’t realise you’ve got it. You think everyone else is mad. That’s part of the condition.

Michael: There’s that scene in a bar in Australia. Extricate has just come out and you’re on tour. It’s a great album. One of your best. It’s getting fantastic reviews. And you’re enjoying a pint, thinking, things are pretty good. The group is alright now. Marcia and Martin are at the other end of the bar, and everything is cushy. Then Mark walks up to you and whispers in your ear, ‘they’ve got to go,’ pointing to Marcia and Martin. They are sacked there and then, in the middle of the tour and they have to go home. Do you think that form of self-sabotage is purely artistic?

Steve: I don’t think it’s artistic at all.

Michael: So why do you think he needs to keep breaking things that work? You spend hours setting up the equipment, getting the sound right, then he comes on stage and kicks it all up in the air. To what extent is that about Mark trying to create those artistic tensions for the good of the sound and to what extent is it destructive?

Steve: There’s something about creating tension. He thought he needed it.

Michael: Is that his delusion though?

Steve: To an extent it worked. A certain amount of it. But it went way beyond that.

Olivia: He didn’t want it to get too successful. He wanted to keep control.

Michael: See, I think that’s the key actually. That it’s about control. He hates the internet because he can’t control it.

Steve: He loathes it. He’s tried to control that Fall fan website so many times. He’s tried to have it taken down. He tried to make it official so he could control it that way.

Michael: What’s your relationship with Mark like now? Do you still see him? Do you bump into him from time to time?

Steve: I was saying this to Brix just last week. It’s a bit strange, in nearly twenty years now, I mean Manchester is big but it’s not that big, but I’ve never bumped into him, in pubs or anywhere. Not once. I mean I don’t go to Prestwich.

Olivia: You do avoid that area.

Steve: There’s a pub called The King’s Arms that Paul Heaton owns.

Michael: I know it, near Salford Station. Nice pub.

Steve: Yeah, I spent a lot of time there. Put some gigs on there, and I heard that Mark drank there as well.

Michael: Is that where Paul keeps all his anoraks?

Steve: I don’t know.

Michael: What would happen if you did bump into him in a pub do you think?

Steve: You just can’t second guess that. He could come in and say, ‘Fancy a pint Steve?’ or he could come in and go, ‘Oi! You fucking bastard!’

Michael: What about other members of The Fall?

Steve: The launch was great. I think eleven or twelve came. We had Simon and Craig. We had Mike Leigh, Marcia, Brix.

Michael: Can I turn to you, Olivia. Can you talk me through your involvement with the book.

Olivia: Well, I eked the story out of Steve. It took him a long time to feel comfortable. To trust me enough to put his life in my hands. I said I’m only going to do it if we write it as a novel. And we did quite well, keeping Mark out of it. I applied creative writing techniques to the process. I would have found it quite boring to write a straight-forward autobiography. To picture a scene, it has to have detail. Steve would say, I’m back in the room. I’m back in that dressing room in Australia, and now I know that sound guy’s name, he was called Mitch. And it all started coming back. And I was like, quick, write it down. Steve remembered all the bad stuff, but he’d forgotten about the good stuff.

Steve: I had this black cloud over a lot of it.

Olivia: And we wanted to avoid a lot of the clichés associated with the genre. We took drugs. We shagged birds. You know, all that.

[Ian Daley, of Route Publishing joins us at the table at this point.]

Michael: Can I ask you, Ian, as the publisher, what was it about this book that interested you the most?

Ian: A number of things. Michael Nath, a novelist we publish. I interviewed him for his book La Rochelle. We did a podcast and I said bring some music. He put some Can on, Tago Mago. Then he put on Dragnet, ‘Is there anybody there?’

Michael: ‘Psychic Dancehall’.

Ian: And I said, can we put Can back on.

Michael: So you weren’t a Fall fan then?

Ian: No, not at all.

Michael: Had you heard of them?

Ian: I knew bits and bats. I knew about Steve, because I worked on Tom Hingley’s book and Steve was in a band with Tom at the time. Anyway, I asked Michael Nath about The Fall and he said, ‘I’ll tell you the history of English letters: Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dickens, The Fall.’ And I laughed, Michael didn’t. At the same time Tom was telling me about Steve, about him doing a book. Tom had a radio show and one night he played ‘Telephone Thing’ and said this is my mate Steve Hanley on bass. We bought Extricate. We had a four hour drive to Glasgow to see the film The Angels Share, a stay overnight, then a four hour drive back the next day. We had Extricate on there and back. By the time I got back from Glasgow I thought, that’s really something. So I went online and found a fan site with the top ten best Fall albums and Extricate wasn’t on the list.  I couldn’t quite understand that. The one that came out top was Hex Enduction Hour. I started with that and began to work my way through to listen to all the albums. Then Steve and Olivia sent me the manuscript and I thought, this is going to work.


[At this point we had to go back inside the pub to start the event which consisted of readings, archive footage, an interview, a Q and A, and name that tune.]


The paperback is now available to buy from Route Books: http://www.route-online.com/all-books/the-big-midweek-life-inside-the-fall.html

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Mark E Smith in conversation with Michael Stewart

To mark the tenth anniversary of the Huddersfield Literature Festival, below is a transcript of my conversation with Mark E Smith in 2009 at the Lawrence Batley Theatre.

MES poster2

MS      Thanks very much for coming along Mark. Welcome to Huddersfield. I know I’ve already spoken to you before about this, but I think a lot of your fans will want to know, so let’s get the hip out of the way first of all.

MES    The hip ?


MS      The hip yes. How is the hip? How did you break your hip? And how is it now?


MES    The hip priest. Have  you  bought  any records in  the past  twenty years ?    [the intro music was The Hip Priest].

Audience laugh.


MS      No I just download them.


MES    Oh right. No, it’s fine now. I’m just glad to stand up.


MS      Because  you  had  a theory about this didn’t  you.  Because  you’ve  broke  your   hip



MES    Yeah, five years.


MS      And you have a theory don’t you about why you keep breaking your hip.   What’s the



MES    I don’t sit down.


Audience laugh.


MS      So it’s your body telling you to sit down ? MES  I think so, yeah.

MS  It’s quite a clear message really… Now, thanks for coming along this evening but I   must say I’m surprised a little bit because I know you don’t normally do events like this. What was it about this particular event that appealed to you Mark ?

MES    You wrote me a letter saying that I’d changed your life.


Audience laughs.


MS      And that’s what it was?


MES    Well, I’ve done a few others.  This seems to be going alright.


MS      So far… Let’s wait and see shall we.


Audience laughs.


MES Why are you playing Fall records from 1982? [he is  still having a dig at  me  for  playing Hip Priest].

MS I thought it was appropriate… Now we are going to talk mainly about your  autobiography if that’s ok. We’ve got Borders outside, with copies of your book which is now available in paperback. [To audience] Mark has kindly agreed to stay behind after the event to sign copies. Before that, I’d just like to show you a short clip which I was going to say, I hope you enjoy, but I hope, in a strange way, that you  don’t enjoy it. I think that will make sense once you’ve seen it.

The Country Life Butter advert is played featuring John Lydon. Audience laugh immediately.


MES    That’s a person off the telly.


MS Now, I don’t want  to  denigrate John Lydon, I’ve got  a  lot  of respect  for the Sex  Pistols and for early Public Image Limited, but tell me what do you think and feel when you watch that footage?

MES    What are showing that for ?


MS   I have got a serious point believe it or not. Which is this, the sheer longevity of The   Fall is perhaps one of your greatest achievements. We’re told that rock bands should burn out or fade away, you seem far away from doing either.

MES    So you had to show a commercial ?


Audience laughs.


MS What I’m saying is, what do you think it is about you, when say John Lydon, well practically every one else in the business, decline creatively? You’re still going after 33 years and Lydon is making butter commercials.

MES    What’s Lydon? Do you mean Johnny Rotten?


MS      Yeah.


MES    I think Rotten was always… He had no ideas of his own. You know, pinched.


MS      And is that the difference?


MES    Probably, yeah… He’s a lot older than me you know. MS      Is he ?

Someone ƒrom the audience shouts out, ‘he’s a cunt’, which gets a laugh.


MS      Didn’t you say about his autobiography that it was ‘middle class propaganda’?


MES    Who said that?


MS      Didn’t you say that?


MES    I’ve never read it. MS  Have you not?

MES    No.


Get’s a big laugh.


MS      Well I misread that then.


MES    I have this problem with people going round pretending to be me. MS          Apparently there’s someone on FaceBook.

MES    I know, yeah.


MS      Maybe it was him then.


MES    I track them down in the end. It just takes a year or two. MS         Let’s talk about your autobiography.

MES    Renegade, yeah.


MS      You  say  in  your  book  that  you  want  it  to  be  ‘Mein  Kampf  for    the  Hollyoaks generation’, it’s a terrific aphorism, but what does it mean?

MES    I never said that.


Get’s a huge laugh. Someone shouts, ‘liar’.


MS      It’s in the book.


MES What you’ve got to remember right is that the ghost writer, he’s a good kid and he meant well, but it happens a lot to me this, the more I get to know people, the more they try and be like me. Why I don’t know but, it’s like when you see those fellas who write about Cromwell and they’ve got Oliver Cromwell hair and all that.

MS      So he said that, not you ?


MES    He was possessed by my spirit. There’s nothing you can do    about it  because  if you worry about it you end up going mad.

MS      I’m not sure that answers the question but…


MES  Mein Kampf – as if I’d say that ? Mein Kampf ? [laughs at the absurdity of it]. One  day with him I was looking through this bag and I came across these lyrics and I thought who’s wrote that ? Some kind of weirdo ? Then I realised it was me.


gets big laugh.


MS I read somewhere that you wanted to set the record straight with this book. That’s understandable. A lot has been written about you that’s unauthorised or inaccurate. What were the main things you wanted to set straight then?

MES I wanted it to be more a sort of cheap crime novel and one of those footballer’s biographies, I always thought they were very funny. So a cheap crime novel with a footballer’s thing. I wanted to do it like, ‘I remember my first gig 1979’ but it got out of hand because the publishers who did football biographies like Ian Wright wanted to do it but then Penguin stepped in.

MS      So did that spoil your plans ? MES  No, it was better.

MS      Forgive  me  Mark,  but  in  that  case,  I think  the  book  is  very far  away  from your

intention. You wanted it to be a list of the best hotels and the best drinks didn’t you ?


MES    Who told you that ?


Big laugh.


MS You told me… Now the opening chapter, talking about setting the record straight, the American tour in 2006 with Ben, Steve and Spencer – for those who’ve not read the book, do you want to just explain what happened on that tour?



MES Well I sat down and told them that there was going to be two or three months away from home. Very typical Manc musicians. No problem, no problem. They all sort of cracked up after a few weeks. People seem to crack about three weeks. People tend to crack up when they’re around me.

MS      Why is that ? MES    I don’t know.

MS      Do you think you put them under pressure ? MES Well, I don’t get on very well with musicians. MS          That comes across, why do you think that is ?

MES I just thought it would be a very interesting read really. Things don’t change with the music business or with the literary business or the acting business. There’s a lot of  arse lickers. They say things to your face… I’m very lucky in a way, touch wood, I  can detect that. They bear me no grudge. I wanted to call the book, ‘The Two Year Gap’. People seem to realise after two years, what they’ve done wrong and they come back.


MS Ok, well I’ll tell you something else I enjoyed about the book Mark was the early anecdotes about your childhood. My favourite is a game you played with your sisters called Japanese Prison Camp – can you just explain what that was?

MES I always had to babysit four or five girls. I was the oldest child. My parents were working, it was the only solution. So I used to say you can’t go out till yer mam and dad get back. Then I used to go out. They didn’t have babysitters in them days.

MS But it’s almost like the first Fall group. The Fall in embryo, because that’s how you rehearse isn’t it ?

MES    Don’t get clever.


Big laugh.


MS      Have your sisters forgiven you for that game. MES   Oh yeah.

MS      No lasting traumas ?


MES    Well, they are married to Hell’s Angels [he laughs at the irony of this].


MS They got off lightly then… I tell you what else interested me in the book. You say that when you were 12 you couldn’t stand music. That you hated it. And you say later that when you left school you just wanted to sign on get a flat, take drugs, and avoid work. But then two years later –

MES    I haven’t read these bits.


Big laugh.


MS    Well two years later you’ve got a vision to put primitive music with intelligent lyrics.  In other words you had a strong vision of what you wanted The Fall to be. What happened in between to change you?



MES My vision was to leave the house as quick as possible. Which is probably unusual for you innit ?

MS      What is ?


MES    Leaving the house ?


Gets a big laugh.


MS      Well, yeah.


MES    No, my ambition was to leave the house because it was too crowded.


MS      But it is a big gap though to say you hated music and then to have that vision.


MES  It is the ironical thing but that’s what kept me going on. I never thought  rock music  was of the quality I wanted it to be.

MS   You say about your own writing that you get very frustrated with yourself if you’ve    not written on a particular day. You also say that you find it hard to motivate yourself sometimes, as a writer. What type of writer are you? I mean, do you sit  down at a  desk for say 3 hours a day, or are you more sporadic?

MES    Yeah, I write every day. Yeah. But a lot of it is rubbish. I’m a very serious self-editor. MS     I think a lot of people think of you in terms of a beat writer, very spontaneous, valuing

the rough hewness of something, getting it out as a first draft, but I guess you’re a

more disciplined writer than that. Do you go through a lot of drafts ?


MES I think there’s a bit of a disease  in English writing.  If  it’s a really thick book, it’s  good, which is strange. What I found, doing that book is that it’s a lot tougher than doing a record. A record can be a pain in the arse, especially in the studio, especially the musicians, but a book, it goes on for ages and the end product isn’t particularly good. I don’t think there are really any smashing British films or good British books.

MS      Are you still as avid a reader as you once were? MES    Very much so, yeah.

MS      What have you read that’s good recently.


MES I think it’s a bit sad when you have to start reading Evelyn Waugh and all that crap.  You know what I mean, go back to Raymond Chandler just to… Cos I do  like reading.

MS  Ok, well let’s go to the  formative  moment, of seeing The Sex Pistols at  the Lesser   Free Trade Hall in 1976, and thinking, I’m not as bad as that. But if you hadn’t seen the Sex Pistols, do you think you would have formed The Fall?

MES    I had a group from 76 anyway. I just read poetry and played guitar. That’s how it

came about. We used to have poety readings with the mental nurses.


MS      This is Prestwich Hospital ? MES         Yeah.

MS      Which is now a garage or something. MES       Tesco.

MS      I worked there many years ago. MES      Where ?


MS      Prestwich Hospital. MES            Did you ?

MS      Yeah, as a care assistant. They had cats in the cellar. MES   Not nurses ?

MS      No it was run by cats.


MES Funny you should say that, because when I lived opposite it, I found the patients more sane than the fucking staff. Started a lot of our songs off, you know, Psycho-Mafia, stuff like that.

MS      And that song was based on those people ? MES           Sort of, yeah.

MS   I used to take them to the pub on a Sunday,  some of the patients. The Church pub.   And punters used to get confused as to who were the nurses and who were the  patients.

MES    It happened all the time, yeah. The nurses used to sit down cross legged listening to

Pink Floyd and they used to attack me because I didn’t want to listen to it.


MS  The cheek of it… I suppose what I’m saying with the Sex Pistols, a lot of your songs,  are more like short stories. There’s a narrative and they’re peopled by intriguing characters and unusual points of view. In other words, there’s a literary quality about them. What would you be doing now then, if the Fall had never happened do you think? Would you be writing short stories, plays, novels, films?

MES    I’ve thought about this, master of all trades, I don’t think it works really.


MS      Do you think you were destined to be in The Fall then ? MES   Yeah, I do, yeah. People say I’m a control freak…

MS      But what you do, it’s collaborative, you can’t control all those elements.


MES    I agree.


MS      You say in the book that The Fall are about the present, and that’s it.


MES Yeah, I wanted it to be topical but not dated. So that in years to come it would still  mean something. I mean all that stuff you were playing from 1982, a lot of people younger than you can relate to it, but at the time we were scum. What you say about Johnny Rotten, we couldn’t get work because some of us had long hair, all this crap, and we didn’t play heavy metal so I don’t really empathise with what your saying, because you were only ten or something.


MS      Well, I discoved The Fall when I was eighteen, 1989. MES:   I know, I’ve got the letter.

MS      [To the audience] he’s brought the letter with him.


MES: [Singing] I was walking down the street and I went past the venue and I heard this thumping…

Audience in uproar.


…sorry I shouldn’t have done that.


MS      It’s alright Mark. It was The Venue next to The Hacienda. MES         Was it.

MS      Your sister was in there in fact.


MES    [To the audience] so he’s nineteen and he walks past a club.


MS      What’s wrong with that?


MES:  Nothing.


MS: Good… Now you’ve written about the look-back bores, people who  are  unduly  obsessed with the past. There seems to be a lot of it about at the moment. Bands getting back together. You wrote Reformation –

MES Reformation was about the reformation of The Fall because I keep having to do it, it doesn’t matter how young or old the musicians are it’s just something that I have to keep doing.

MS      It’s why bands fall apart though, if you don’t do that.


I didn’t catch what MES said here.


MS I like what you say about writing about place in the book you say that writing about Prestwich is just as valid as Dante writing about his inferno. That’s an interesting comparison…

MES    The ghost writer wrote that.


Big laugh.




MS But you write about place often in your work don’t you but you’re not a realist writer even though your work is firmly rooted in your environment. There’s a strong fantasy element. I’m thinking of a song like ‘What about Us’. Which seems to be about an East German rabbit that comes to Manchester as an immigrant and is happy until   the


day it finds out that Harold Shipman has been giving out drugs to old ladies. Every time I hear that song it makes me laugh. But is it just a comedy song or do you mean something more by it?

MES    No, it’s true.


MS      Is it satire ?


MES    No, a lot of these Easern European fellas you meet are grossly disappointed. That’s why they’re plumbers. They’re crushed.

MS      So what’s the rabbit got to do with it then ?


MES    What do you mean, what’s the rabbit got to do with it ? MS          You wrote it, I’m just saying what’s there.

MES    Did you actually think it was about a rabbit ?


Gets a huge laugh.


MS      You’ve spoilt it for me now Mark.


MES    You thought it was a rabbit ?


Another huge laugh.


MES    East German, drug dealer, Shipman –


MS      Well, yeah, I know who Shipman was.


MES    Not Shipman, that’s the doctor. The main character is an East German.


MS      Who comes over to Manchester –


MES    Not Manchester, why Manchester ?


MS      Well, north Britain. Quite likes it, then finds out Harold Shipman –


MES    That he can get drugs from his surgery. MS  And the moral of the story is ?

MES    I don’t know.


Big laugh.


He feels disappointed.


MS      He does feel disappointed – I feel for that rabbit. MES   Did you actually think he was a rabbit ?


MS      I did Mark, yeah.


MES shakes his head in pity and disbelief. Big laugh.

MS The writer who seems to have had the biggest influence on you from Dragnet onwards really, you quote Blake in Dragnet, ‘I must create a new regime or be enslaved by another man’s’

MES    Is this from the book ?


MS      No, it’s from Dragnet. And then on a more recent album, The Unutterable, you have a song all about William Blake. What makes him so important as an artist to you ?

MES    I like his writing more than his art.


MS      I’m a big fan myself. He writes in aphorisms and sometimes you write in that mode

and you like Nietzsche as well, is that right ?


MES    Most of his stuff.


MS      And it’s that quality again, of aphorisms.


MES Blake wrote things that people didn’t really understand. I don’t understand a lot of it. He said, ‘200 years from the day I die the selfish smiling fool and the selfish frowning fool will both be thought to be wise…’ 200 years from my death. And that is incredible, for someone to write that. Think about it.

MS      He’s a visionary writer, at least that’s one way of describing him.


MES    But he was writing during the Napoleaonic wars. He was beaten up by a bloke from

Waterloo… It’s still relevant today.


MS What about contemporary lyrisist then. It’s always been the case I think that lots of lyricists don’t really bother. Oasis and Coldplay just seem to be interested in finding words that rhyme. Do you think there are good contemporary lyricists out there ? Are there any people you’re interested in ?

MES    I don’t know really.


Very long pause.


MS      I mean, for example, I like a lyricist called Nigel Blackwell. Have you heard of him  ?

Half Man Half Biscuit ?


MES    I haven’t no. I don’t really keep up.


MS      So are there no contemporary lyricists you like ? MES    Yeah, there are some good ones.


MS      You say in the book that Bob Dylan can’t write for toffee. Is that a joke or what ? MES  No, it’s not. I wasn’t criticising him. To me Dylan is bible.

MS      There’s a lot of religious imagery in there.


MES    That’s right. But it’s disguised as deadbeat. That’s the only thing I find offensive.


MS      Because he’s another writer who uses aphorisms.


MES That’s right, he gets them from the old testament. If you think about it. I’m the sort of person who looks at things like that. Don’t think I don’t enjoy something like this [the event] because I do. Because people in the music business just think I’m off my nut. You know what I think, there’s a lot of pseudo-poetry. People who just  get rhymes  out of books. I don’t think that’s poetry at all. That’s the problem.

MS      Well, I still think that’s the problem with groups like Coldplay and Oasis.


MES    Why ?


MS      I just think finding words that rhyme isn’t –


MES    How do you know that ? You don’t know that. Maybe that’s how their brains are.


Gets a laugh.


MS      Well, yeah, I’m sure that’s the case.


Gets a laugh.


Is there anything missing out of the book that you wish you’d included.


MES    There’s loads of stuff, but I haven’t got time.


MS      You left stuff out about Tony Wilson, out of respect for the family. MES I left a lot of stuff out.

MS      Has enough time passed now ? Is it fair to talk about it ? MES        The main thing is, I’m just glad people enjoyed it.

MS      It’s had good reviews.


MES That’s not the main thing. I wouldn’t like to live in the  book world. The  book’s  coming out May, then it’s coming out in November. Then it’s coming out June. It’s understandable, why there aren’t a lot of good writers. If you relied on that, you’d be starving to death.

MS      There’s too much stuff being published for starters, that’s not of sufficient merit.


MES    Well, I agree with you on that.


MS      We’re coming to the end of this part of the evening and we’re going to open it    up to the audience but I just thought I’d show you another clip.

MES    Oh I, what’s this ?


Big laugh.


MS      Wait and see.


The sequence from Ideal is played where MES plays Jesus Christ.


MS      It’s a great clip that Mark, how did it come about ?


MES    The main thing about Ideal is, it was supposed to be about drug dealers and  stuff, and they made that character up –

MS      The reason I showed that was for a serious point. MES    What’s that ?

MS      Well –


MES It’s a strange thing. Most of the film scripts I get given, I just get rid of about 90% of  the script. Like 24 Hour People, I was in there for 9 pages. By the time I got through with it, I just said, ‘Hello’.

Big laugh.


‘Tony can you get us a key.’


MS      What do you think about Tony incidentally…


MES  To get back to the question. I said I’d do it  because I used to know people vaguely   like that. I get offered a lot of films but by the time I get through with it… Where some people tend to write more for themselves –

MS      You right less. MES            Yeah.

MS      The reason why I showed it is simply this, have you read the book The Fallen by Dave Simpson ?

MES    No, I’ve seen bits of it.


MS      He seems to want to put you across as a David Koresh-style cult leader. MES  Do you get that impression ?

MS      Yeah, to a certain extent… [to audience] actually, is he here tonight ?


Audience shouts out, ‘he wouldn’t dare.


Well, maybe he’s not then. But there’s a lot of it about, the deification of rock stars.

Bono thinks he’s the second coming.


MES    What’s that got to do with me ?


MS Well, if people keep saying something about you, is there a temptation to believe the hype ?

MES  Well the thing about Fallen, the thing about books, you’ve got no control over them.  It’s not like records, slap them down, by fair means or foul. What made me laugh was the amount of time and energy he spent doing that.

MS      I think he cracked up towards the end. MES      They always do.

MS      He blames you I think.


MES    Of course he does. They always do. Same with producers. It happened last week. MS      What happened last week ?

MES Engineers crack up. I don’t know what it is. But the first time I met that fella [Dave Simpson], he was working for The Guardian, I got him drunk, which is an old trick, and he’s asking me all these questions about 1982, and I said, yeah, we’ve got a new LP out called Reformation, have you not heard it ? And he said, yes I have, but what about when you said in 1983 – a bit like you really.

Gets a laugh.


And this went on for an hour or two, then he started crying.


Gets a big laugh.


After four pints. He said that he’d been given a contract. If he could get the dirty on

me he’d get his office back which he’d lost.


MS      And that was the deal was it ?


MES Yeah, if he got the dirty on me… So I got into a taxi and I said ‘see you later’ and he  ran up to the taxi and said, ‘I’m going to ruin you’ and all this. And I said, ‘go back to Toplip’ or where ever it is he comes from, and I thought that would be the end of it.

MS      Well, you thought wrong then. MES    Well, it’s interesting, I know that.

MS  Ok, well I think we should open it out to the audience. Now, I think you know, when  this event was originally planned, I put something on one of the Fall websites for fans to send questions in, which they did. I have to be honest, most of them were mad. I


wish I’d brought it with me but the strangest one was something like, ‘can you ask Mark where he gets his hair cut, how much he pays for his haircut, what he asks for when he gets his hair cut, and what he talks to the barber about.’

MES    I was going to ask you that.


Gets a big laugh.


MS      I do it myself Mark… Right, the first question, Chris Goodhead.


Chris   Alright Mark. My question is, do you believe in God and if so, is he a Fall fan ? MES     I can’t see where you are. Where are you ? Do I believe in God ? Yeah.

MS      Why did you ask the question incidentally ? Chris  I wanted to win a free ticket.

Gets a laugh.


MS  This next one is a question from Peter Lazell but he’s not here so I’ll ask it. ‘Mark,   some lyrics appear to be inspired by dreams. Some authors (eg. Clive Barker) have claimed to keep a notebook at the bedside so as to be able to quickly note anything vivid on waking. Is this a technique/method you have ever used? A no or yes will suffice but would appreciate detail! Regards Peter.’ Do you do that? Do you have vivid dreams?

MES    Do you ? MS            I do yeah.

MES    What kind of dreams do you have?


MS      Well, I had a dream the other night that there was a civil war in a South American country and there were two tribes : The Dimblebys and the McGanns –

MES    The brothers off the telly ?


MS      Yeah, they were genetically modified. MES         I think you’ve got a problem.

Gets a huge laugh.


What country in South America ? Bolivia ?


MS      Somewhere like that. It was a dream. It was an invented country. MES            An invented country ?

Big laugh.MES shakes his head.


MES    I have the usual dreams. You know the ones, where you’re going to school. Or   going

to a show and it’s been cancelled.


MS      I have dreams like that.


Gets a big laugh [Mark cancelled the first literary gig arranged in March as he had broken his hip].


MS      You must dream about being on stage a lot. Does that happen ? MES           Not really no.

MS      Do you still get just as big a buzz being on stage ?


MES  Yeah I do. But only because you can spend two months in a recording studio, then   you get it in ten minutes on stage. Even if the audience is walking out.  [audience laugh] I feel sorry for groups that do the same set all the time. I don’t know how they do it. It must be a lot of physical and mental strain.

MS This next question is from Rik Neace in Chicago, a lot of the questions came from America. You must have a big fan base there. When you tour America, do you notice that?

MES    Yeah, there’s a big following.


MS      Anyway, this is from Rik and he asks, ‘what is the meaning or idea behind the   album

title, ‘Imperial Wax Solvent’?’


MES I did Reformation, and I did Fall Heads Roll, and the album before that, and I wanted something that would glue it altogether, the fourth LP of the tryptych.

Couldn’t here the rest oƒ the answer here.


MS Ok, next question is from Max Cole, Loveland, Ohio, ‘Hello Michael, I’m a huge fan from the states… seen the Fall 3 times here and warmed up for them in the early 80’s and almost got in a fight with the drummer –

MES    This is why the internet should be closed down.


Gets a laugh.


There should be a cull every 5 or 7 years.


MS Well, this is the question. If Albert Camus had never been… what would the band’s  name be?

MES A lot of these people, they’re just repressed Gang of Four, like yourself probably. You know, ‘I remember 1985’. They’re clogging the net up. There are people who are genuinely interested in The Fall. I don’t read it often but I think it’s a bad thing.


MS      But isn’t that a valid question?


MES    What?


MS To want to know what you would have been called if not The Fall? [MES mumbles something – I’m not going to get an answer] Ok, well let’s open it up to the audience. Any questions out there?

AUD    How did you write Elasticman?


Gets a big laugh.


MES    I hear what you’re saying. It’s a joke. I appreciate the joke.


MS      Ok, good. Has anyone got a question they want an answer to ?


AUD    Do  you ever  worry about  becoming  a national treasure ? Like Tony Benn  30 years ago, everyone hated him.

AUD    I wish you were my granddad.


Gets a big laugh.


MS      There you go, he wishes you were his granddad. I’d be very careful Mark.


MES    I get that a lot as well. I get fellas who pretend that I’m their father. Sorry, no, I wouldn’t want to be no.

AUD    Do you not feel that’s already happening.


MES    Maybe a bit too much, yeah. What’s your name ? AUD Dave.

MES    Hello Dave, I know what you’re saying but I try and gaurd against it.


DAVE I’ve been a Fall fan for donkey’s years. Someone gave me Dragnet and Live at the Witch Trials years ago and I thought, what’s this weird shit, then gradually I came to love it. Don’t get me wrong, I still think you’re ace, but these days you get mentioned on Radio 4 and you never did years ago.

MES    It’s the last thing I want.


MS      That’s true though isn’t it. Radio 4, the broadsheets.


MES    Yeah, yeah. 12 years ago we couldn’t even get a show. It’s a very weird thing. I   find

that when times are hard people start getting more interested in The Fall.


MS      So now is a good time for you, in a recession.


MES    [Laughing] half of my mates think that the credit crunch is a new type of snack bar.


Gets a laugh.


MS      Ok, can we have another question. AUD          Mark, those brown bottles…

Tape is inaudable after this point. The ƒinal question was something like, ‘have you ever

wanted to quit ?’ To which he answered, ‘yeah, some time in the 90s’.

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Celebrating The Short Story was a day dedicated to the short form that took place at Huddersfield University on Saturday 5th of December 2015 in collaboration with Comma Press. Below is a transcript of the panel discussion featuring the chair, Michael Stewart (MS), and short fiction writers Claire Dean (CD), David Constantine (DC), Michelle Green (MG) and Stuart Evers (SE). Towards the end of the event, the audience asked questions, including Ra Page (RP) from Comma Press.

MS: In 1914, the Strand magazine, one of the leading literary magazines of its day, would pay up to £350 for a short story. To put that in perspective, the average annual salary of a family doctor at that time was £400. To project that forward one hundred years to now, the average annual salary of a family doctor is £150,000. That would mean today a writer could potentially submit a story to a literary magazine and receive £135,000. Things have changed. What I want to talk about is the reversal of fortune for the short story. At that time a lot of writers saw the short story as a cash cow. It was perhaps something that they did to pay them to have more time to devote to more serious literary endeavours such as the novel. It seems to me now that the status of the short story and that of the novel has been reversed. So I want to ask first of all, does the panel agree that there has been a reversal of fortune, and if so, why do you think this is?

CD: Michelle and I were just having a conversation about this. The question I get asked more than anything else is, when are you going to write a novel? I have no intention of writing a novel. I love writing short stories.

MS: Can you say why though?

CD: Partly because I’m stubborn. And I don’t want to feel pushed into something because it’s what the market demands. There’s this idea that you’re not a proper writer unless you’ve written a novel. That the short story is a training ground for writers. I’ve heard this again and again. As though, when you grow up you’ll write a proper story. I don’t want to feel like I have to do something to get a publishing deal, because major publishers might let you get two novels in and then let you slip out a short story collection. I don’t make a living from writing. I make a living from writing-related activity. I’ve no interest in being a bestseller. Not that there is anything wrong with that. But all my favourite writers are short story writers. And that’s the form I love the best.

MS: David, what do you think? Why is the short story now less revered and less remunerated?

DC: I really don’t know. I guess it’s a marketing thing. It’s a publishing thing. They decide. I think they are probably simply wrong when they say what the reading public want. I think they are quite timorous. The one I really resent is the one Claire has already alluded to, that writing short fiction is a sort of apprenticeship.

MS: Which in itself is a reversal, isn’t it? Because the origins of the short story go back thousands of years to folktales. Those are its antecedents. So in a sense it is a much older literary form than the novel, which is only a few hundred years old.

SE: I’m not sure I agree with that.

MS: How so?

SE: In fact, I know I don’t agree with that. The short story as we know it is a very new form. The folktale is a very different thing. It’s an oral tradition. They eventually got written down but the reason they were short was so people could memorise them. I think the short story as we understand it, and this is something Philip Hensher found when was putting together the Penguin Book of the British Short Story just recently, is that when he looked at stories from the seventeenth and eighteenth century, and really a lot of the nineteenth century, they are not what we would call short stories.

MS: They are ‘shortened’ stories.

SE: Yes. What we understand as a short story has a very small history.

MS: Are we talking about lyrical stories here? Are we talking about the modernist writers? Or are we going back to Poe?

SE: Yes, that’s the birth of the short story. When you are talking about Strand magazine, what you have got there, you have people who are desperate for short stories, and people want to read them because they don’t have anything else. Their way of consuming any sort of fictive entertainment was pretty much at that point just down to what they were reading. I think you are right, that the British tradition of the short story has been, I’ll do one this weekend and I’ll send it there and get some money for it. That’s why we in Britain don’t have a particularly brilliant history with the short story. Whereas Ireland and America, what you’ve got there is this huge appetite for high quality fiction.

MS: So why such a difference then? I mean in lots of ways English culture and Irish culture are similar.

SE: The Irish literary scene is quite small. They understand the oral tradition. Also, it came out of a nationalistic necessity. If you read Dubliners for instance, it is very much coming out of a nationalist movement. That’s part of where the Irish thing comes from. Whereas America, it is trying to come to terms with this immigrant culture and the American century. Those twin things, patriotism and identity, weren’t happening in the UK. We weren’t as interested in examining our culture or where we fitted in the world. We were still trying to deal with the end of empire and the birth of the commonwealth. Having said that, I think now there is a change of emphasis. There are publishers now publishing first time short story writers. I’m very lucky to be one of those. We are also seeing for a first time in a long time, British short story writers making a career out of it, such as Adam Marek or Helen Simpson. But for a long time there weren’t really any British short story writers of any kind of note.

MS: Following that theory to its logical conclusion then, given our fall from grace and the end of empire, we should really now be embracing the short form?

SE: Well, there are small publishers taking risks now. But we don’t have any short stories in major newspapers these days. We don’t have a magazine like The New Yorker. We have Granta, but that’s an international magazine. We don’t really have that magazine culture that those countries have.

MS: I guess the rise of television is another factor. As a phenomenon it has provided a platform for mass storytelling.

SE: And radio.

MS: But we were promised, weren’t we, with the advent of the e-book and the digitisation of literature that the short story would have a resurgence. That length would no longer be a consideration in the marketing of fiction. That’s not really happened, has it? Why do you think that is, Michelle?

MG: I don’t know. I think it’s maybe a wee bit early to decide, that’s it: digital publishing has failed, it’s not working, because there is still a lot of jostling going on, trying to figure out different platforms and how they are working. And of course there is the big overarching jostling going on, the drive to monetise digital space. On the other hand, to open it up and the ‘information should be free’ ethos that some people have got. Personally, this Kindle versus physical books, I just have no real passion for that argument. To me they are two different ways of reading. Particularly, you know, I have different access issues at different times, due to health issues. There are times when reading off an e-reader is easier, and when the physical book is easier. I don’t really understand the passion behind that debate. One versus the other. I’m shocked at how few bookstores there are in England, moving from Canada. I’m absolutely blown away at how few bookstores there are here.

MS: Have you been to Hay-on-Wye?

MG: Yeah, except if you go to Hay. That’s it. I lived in a very rightwing, very arts-hostile part of Canada, and the number of bookshops, second-hand, specialist, niche, in that extremely rightwing, hostile, totally isolated town, like in Hay, that was just a totally normal thing. I don’t know what it is about Britain.

MS: I’ve certainly seen that in my lifetime. I grew up in Manchester and an area called Shudehill, David you’ll remember this, it was full of second-hand bookshops specialising in Science Fiction, Horror, Crime, and so on. You go to Shudehill now and it’s wine bars and restaurants.

MG: Paramount Books are still hanging on aren’t they? Two days a week they do their thing. But that’s it. I’ve been in Manchester for fifteen years, and it’s been close, close, close.

DC: It’s the same in Oxford, where I live. There’s really nothing now except for the Oxfam bookshop, which is very good. They can’t afford the rent. It’s not that there’s a demise in the interest in reading. They simply can’t afford it. Large collections from the university now go to Oxfam. The libraries don’t want them. And they are sold for a fair price. That’s not knocking Shudehill, where you could buy books very cheaply.

SE: To go back to your original point, I think the thing about length is kind of a misnomer. Laurie Moore, a great American short story writer, said something like people think the short story is perfect for now because it is short and therefore requires less concentration, less time. When in fact everyone who reads short stories knows that isn’t true. You have to read them slower. You have to read them in a different way. You have to be prepared to work that bit harder. Particularly if you write the kind of short fiction that I do. It does require a bit of a step back, otherwise you won’t get everything. If you read it at the same pace as you would reading a thriller or any kind of novel you are going to miss stuff. With digital the length doesn’t matter, but at the same time, the opposite is happening, books are getting longer and people’s attention span for long books is growing. Look at the success of Game of Thrones, Harry Potter, Hunger Games, those books are huge. People want that immersive experience. The short story offers a different kind of experience. Not better or worse, just different.

MS: It’s closer to poetry in that sense, isn’t it? It’s a more distilled form.

DC: The only thing about length I would say is, you shouldn’t write something that feels abbreviated. There is a difference between something being short and being abbreviated.

MS: That goes back to the writers such as Maupassant, who were really writing summaries of much longer stories: telling rather than showing.

DC: You might write a story of 16,000 words or one of 2,000 words. I would hope in both cases that that is the length they have had to be because the story required that length of expansion.

MS: We are handicapped by semantics to an extent, I suppose. The French term for short fiction is ‘conte’. It has no indication of length. The French word doesn’t define the form by how long it is.

DC: That’s right. The German word ‘novella’ – which was ‘not the novel’ – is a completely different kettle of fish. If you have in mind the nineteenth century idea of the German novella, I’m not sure anyone would want to write like that, which is really a bourgeois belief in order. The symbols that were put in and the leitmotifs that were put in, and an ending which is morally satisfying. That’s as far away from the kind of fiction that interests me as it is as possible to get. I’m happy to be talking about this but in a sense, you know there is a market, but it touches me not in the least. It doesn’t affect the way I write. Whereas, I know Helen Simpson is a case in point. They really did lean on her to present her short stories so that they resembled a novel, in order to sell more copies. If you come from poetry as I do, there is no money in poetry. And if you are talking about translation, there is less than nothing. You couldn’t conceivably be in it for the money. And that is a huge liberation.

SE: That’s how it was for me. I was labouring on a novel for ages. It was awful. I put it away. I didn’t know what I was going to do. The whole time I was thinking about getting published. Money. I was thinking about that. Which publisher will I go to? How much advance will I get? It was at the back of my mind the whole time. My friend is a musician and he took me to task one night and said, the money is not important. If you start thinking about money, that’s it, you’ll kill everything. The most important thing you have to do is concentrate on the work. That is the only thing that is important. This, coming from him was really interesting. He’d spent most of his time trying to get signed. Basically, what happened, they’d been out the night before and they were haggling about money, and they were supporting an Icelandic band. And he asked, how do you make money? and they answered, why would you want to make money? This is amazing. This is what we do. We are playing our music to people who love us. And it changed the way I thought about my writing for the better. Once you stop thinking about it, it’s like a weight off.

MG: This idea about thinking about a ‘writing career’ is something that is very alien to me. I grew up in a family of lots of artists. None of them called themselves artists, with one exception, because they were caretakers and they worked in Tesco and they did whatever numerous different jobs to feed their families, to feed us, but were doing all kinds of artistic endeavour. So I never had any illusion about making money from art. That wasn’t part of my consciousness. I don’t mean to glamorise being skint, because it’s not glamorous, and it doesn’t help your art, but the idea of chasing money in that way, I’d rather make my money elsewhere. I don’t want to think, I’ve written this thing, but it’s not very marketable, but perhaps if I make the main character a man, or whatever, I’ll sell more copies. I have no interest in that. If I do boring things I want to get paid for them but when I do something I love, it is something else.

MS: Having said all that though, there has been a proliferation of prize culture in recent years. With the demise of a paid platform for short fiction, lots or writers aspire and succeed in receiving money through that mechanism. David, I know that a few years ago you won the prestigious BBC National Short Story Award with ‘Tea At The Midland’ and it can be a very lucrative thing.

DC: I want to say to the audience though, if I’ve won something I wouldn’t dream of putting myself in for it again. Most writers probably feel like that. I think of Kafka constantly in this respect. He was an expert in employment insurance, his job was processing insurance claims, and he wrote at night in a state of sleeplessness. It’s interesting with Kafka. Following the truth of what he was. He started off with novels that he thought of as Dickensian. There’s a Dickensian novel about a young man going abroad and trying to make his way. But as he developed his own fiction you see him paying less and less attention to any nineteenth century realist tradition. In pursuit of the truth, as he understood it, he’s not only going into an area where a lot of people wouldn’t even understand where he was going, but also, the criteria for whether this material is truthful or not requires a degree of integrity that is off the scale. When he gives up on a piece of writing, it is hard to see why it isn’t good enough. But he knows it isn’t good enough. In the case of Amerika, he didn’t finish it. In the case of The Trial, he didn’t finish it. He wrote a last chapter and headed towards it but he couldn’t get there. And in the case of The Castle, famously, he never gets there. They are all unfinished because of his integrity. We are either behaving like that, to the best of our abilities, or it isn’t worth it. I was giving a talk to a Creative Writing class recently, and principally the students wanted to know how to get published.

MS: Well, that’s a very common question, isn’t it?

DC: Yes, and I could see why they would ask. And I’m not the person to ask. You could see why the tutors would want their students to get published. This came into universities some time ago now, where the humanities are ranked alongside the sciences in terms of impact. You have to prove that the writing is of a quality, i.e. that it has monetary value. And I relish the fact that what I do can’t be seen in that way.

MS: In that sense then, is writing short fiction an act of defiance? Is there a political element to it?

DC: I was very lucky that for 31 years I had a fulltime job which I loved and that made me a living and at the same time I was writing. I’ve been writing since I was 15 and I could not conceive of a life without writing. It’s had little to do with success. I’ve been very fortunate. I was lucky to be in the North East when Bloodaxe were beginning and I met Ra [of Comma Press] when he was beginning. And those two things have been two huge colossal pieces of luck.

MS: So you could have answered the question about how to get published by saying, move close to a publisher.

SE: The true trick, as David says, is to get lucky. When I wrote Ten Stories About Smoking, about six months before, Penguin had had success with David Vann’s Legend of a Suicide. People were talking up the short story. There was a market for it. People were buying those books. My book went out at the right time. Six months earlier it wouldn’t have been published; six months later, it wouldn’t have been published.

MS: I was impressed with the packaging of that book.

SE: Yes, it was pretty good.

MS: For audience members who aren’t aware of how it was packaged do you want to just explain?

SE: It was done like a cigarette box. Six months before that wouldn’t have happened. Again it was a quirk. They happened to have some money left with the packager so they got a special deal. The book was in the cigarette box and you opened the box to get to the book.

MS: It wasn’t sponsored by Benson and Hedges?

SE: No. The only stipulation I had was that they couldn’t make it look like a packet of Benson and Hedges, because I can’t stand them. But as I say, it’s that luck thing. The right time at the right place. No matter how good you are, no matter how wonderful, in terms of publishing, you never know. It might just be, well, we’re not publishing people like you at the moment. That actually just happened to me in the US. My last book. A big publisher pulled out because they had just bought a book that they deemed too similar to mine. And that was a bit of bad luck. I got another publisher but the point still stands.

MS: To change the subject back to the lyrical story and the BBC National Short Story Award, I was thinking about something Mark Haddon said when he was interviewed. As you know he was shortlisted this year and he said, he was wanting to get away from the kind of stories that Chekhov and Carver were writing. What he called ‘fragments’ of bigger stories. He was, without using the term, talking about lyrical stories. He said he wanted to write a fully fleshed out story. Do you think that the lyrical short story has had its day? Is it time to move on or for the lyrical story to develop?

CD: I don’t like the idea of the lyrical story being finished. I think there is room in short fiction to write all kinds of stories. I like the lyrical form. I like stories that focus on an image. That’s how I write. If you think about the short form as a challenge for the reader to finish the story, and going back to Barthes and the idea that the unity of the text is in the reader, the idea of an open ending is what makes it so moving and exciting because it’s a creative act to read and to work with that fragment of a story. You create your own version so that every reader creates a different version.

MS: I’m thinking of your stories now, Claire, and how you utilise non-realist elements. It seems that in some way the lyrical story is resistant to non-realist elements. In fact a lot of proponents of the lyrical form are writing about characters very much like themselves and worlds very close to their own. Do you think there is still a snobbery around incorporating non-realist elements in the literary short story?

SE: I wasn’t aware there was one.

MS: Writing that incorporates non-realist elements often gets shunted into a genre. If you write about speculative technology, it gets shoved in the sci-fi box, if you include monsters, it’s classed as horror, and so on.

DC: This never occurs to me. I didn’t actually know what a lyrical short story was, honestly. There are certain ways I try and write fiction. I’m not abiding by anything out there which is telling me this is good or bad. Anything which is a thing which can go on a shelf in Waterstones is a thing you can do without. The only anxiety that matters is how close you are to getting to the truth or undertow. I honestly think it is like starting for the first time, every time. There are no criteria in place that will help me with the new venture.

SE: I would also say that, Kafka, ‘The Hunger Artist’, is not a traditional realist story. ‘Lady With a Lap Dog’ is odd in its way. Even Carver’s stuff, there are weird things that are non-realistic.

MS: Well, some of Carver’s stuff approaches non-realism without actually getting there. I’m thinking in particular of the one with the yard sale.

CD: ‘Why Don’t You Dance?’

MS: Yeah, that inside-out image owes something to the surreal.

SE: And remember, ‘The Dead’ starts with the line ‘Lily, the caretaker’s daughter,  was literally rushed off her feet’. One of the greatest short stories of all time starting off with something that is obviously nonsense. I rejoice in different narratives and different genres.  I’m influenced by television, poetry, stuff in translation. Anything. And anyone who was snobbish about there being non-realistic things wouldn’t be any kind of critic who I would pay any attention to.

CD: I think it’s interesting though. The categories come about… for instance with my stories. I’ve had a story published in a book of horror with a ridiculously dramatic cover, a screaming face with blood dripping from it. The story of mine that’s in that book in no way fits with that image. My stories have gone into fantasy anthologies. But I don’t think the categories really exist.

MG: And they change. You know, ‘women’ was a category not so long ago. ‘Gay and lesbian’ is supposedly a category. That’s a marketing thing.

CD: It exists for publishers. But for writers, I’m not sure they definitely do exist.

MS: But the short fiction that seems to win all the prizes reflects a bias against non-realism.

SE: I think prizes are not worth thinking about until you win them. You win one and you think, that’s great, and then you enter another and you don’t get anywhere. My wife always goes down the list of shortlisted writers and says, do you know who isn’t here? And then lists all the writers that I love, and they’re not on there. And that’s how we get over it. Because if I’m thinking like that, what’s Julian Barnes thinking? What’s Hilary Mantel thinking? It’s important not to take those things too seriously. However, they are very good for deadlines. Saying the deadline for this competition is this, is a really good way to get a story out there.

At this point we took questions from the audience.

Audience: Stuart, I think you are being very pessimistic about the magazines that our out there in this country. There are a lot of opportunities.

SE: Sure. There are story outlets but they don’t have the same cultural cache that The New Yorker has. There are a lot of magazines here that publish really good work and the content is great. I’m not pessimistic about short stories. [Turning to panel] are you?

DC: Not about short stories themselves. I’m really not. The rest is of interest, but it’s not critical. If there was no access whatsoever to any kind of publishing I would still carry on writing.

MS: You do want to be read though?

DC: Of course I do but I would write whether anyone wanted to read me or not.

MS: But isn’t the purpose to communicate a feeling, a thought, or something, to someone else? Isn’t that what you are doing when you are writing?

DC: Well, yes, some of my most gratifying experiences in my entire life are when total strangers have taken the trouble to write to me to tell me something that I’ve written has moved them.

MS: Job done.

DC: No, I don’t think this is ‘job done’. I feel that there is a proper human contact going back and forth. I felt like this when my wife and I were editing Modern Poetry in Translation. We got poems sent in from every quarter of the globe. They wanted to be in a magazine that mattered to them. It’s been around for fifty years, in English. And again, it is a counter-culture, it is political in that sense. Because those poems passed frontiers. We didn’t make any money out of it. We didn’t have any money to give them. We gave small fees to some people. There was an Israeli who said please give my fee to Physicians for Peace. A guy in India said, I don’t want the fee, give it to this charity. You’re in a zone where it doesn’t enter into it. And that is liberating. It clears your head.

MS: So, we’ve established that we are not pessimists then.

Audience: I wanted to pick up on something you [Stuart] said about the short story being a very modern form and you discounted what was being said about its origins being the folktale. Do you really think there is a complete disjunction or do you think in some ways the modern short story is shot through with other forms?

SE: There is always an overlap. Obviously, but I do think what we write and publish as short fiction now… I mean, if you read the Brothers Grimm for example, no matter how wonderful they are, and they really are wonderful, I think I buy a new copy of the Brothers Grimm every year, with different illustrations and all the rest of it, when you read them they just don’t conform to what we understand as a short story. They’re vicious, they’re unpleasant, they are very very short, and often they just stop. Bang! There we go. While I don’t think they are completely different, I think they are the antecedents, but the modern short story as we understand it, from Chekhov right through to Zadie Smith, they are in there, and obviously Angela Carter has rewritten some of them, but if you put them side-to-side you’ll know instantly that one is a short story and one is a folktale. But I think that’s where the fascination comes from turning folktales into short fiction. Kirsty Logan did it recently in a fantastic collection. There’s a guy called Ben Loory and he wrote a collection of stories called Stories for Night-time and Some For The Day. They are again, based around folktales which he has reinvented. I don’t think necessarily that they are poles apart but I think it’s important to split them in two.

MS: You could argue that someone like Flannery O’Connor, for example, was writing the beware-of-the-wolf-that’s-out-there story?

SE: Yeah, I take the point. I just don’t think it is particularly helpful to put them together. My kid is reading ‘Cinderella’ at the moment. He loves it. But it feels like a different genre to me than short fiction.

CD: I disagree.

MS: Good.

SE: You’re allowed to.

CD: I’ve been researching fairytales and folklore for the past ten years and they have fed into my writing at every point. They have really shaped the way I write short stories. I write very sparse short stories. I’m drawing on the celerity of the fairytale form. With the Grimms, and from the sixteenth century onwards, people were collecting folktales, but then there was the writing of the literary fairytales as well which drew very much on the oral traditions. You get the patterns and the repetitions and the stuff that Propp drew on. I think that’s there in the bones of the short story, maybe just for me, but maybe for other writers too, maybe because I’ve worked with the form, I see that. There is something about the fragmented nature that is possible in the short form in those fairytales.

SE: I don’t dispute any influence, I just don’t see folktales as short stories.

CD: It’s not linear. It’s messy. And at different points in our history we have captured them and pinned them down in different ways but the same themes come up again and again and the same patterns. The same resonances resurface at different points and sometimes the technology we use, such as print technology, did affect the fairytale form and it did fix it. Angela Carter said it, that print technology gave the author a god-like status, the author of unique one-offs. Stories just aren’t like that. That’s partly why I have no concern out of making a living from it because it is communal material. In the oral tradition we all took material from the pot and added our own things to it. Tolkien talked about the bones of story and how it’s all about how you serve up the soup. People have kept throwing things into the pot over the years and we all serve up the soup differently, adding our own experiences or where we are at the moment or whatever is happening around us in the world. We come up again and again and draw on this communal pot so commodifying that doesn’t make sense.

MS: I was just thinking then about that Ursula Le Guin story, ‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas’. That seems to me to be steeped in a folklore tradition. And I was also thinking of some AL Kennedy stories as well. There is one called ‘A Perfect Possession’ about these fairytale wicked parents who lock up their child.

MG: I just wanted to pick up on something you were saying about scarcity. That there is space in there and that there are common elements that are thrown in. I find that really interesting because the way I read short stories and the way I write short stories is really influenced by being told stories, orally, hearing them. Then starting to write, for performance I guess. When someone is telling me a story they are performing and there is a lot of space in there for me to step into. It’s something that I recognise when I read a short story off the page, there is a lot of space. The ones that really grab me are not really drawn out. When it is done in a way that grabs me there are skilful points and a lot of space in-between and I get what you are saying from that, that spoken word perspective and that cross-over.

RP: If I can just pick it apart a bit more. One of the articulations that folktales and short stories are different is that with a folktale characters are more totemic. They are emblematic. They represent some ‘thing’. They don’t have an internal world. They don’t have psychologies. As opposed to modern short stories where every character has an internal psychology. Psychology doesn’t really apply to the characters in a folktale. Sometimes you get this weird combination. We published a short story by Sara Maitland called ‘The Moss Witch’ about a scientist who has psychology and lots of motivation with things going on internally and she meets a moss witch who is just a witch. I remember trying to work with a film crew, pulling it apart and rewriting it as a script.

MS: It was for this festival here, wasn’t it?

RP: Yeah, that’s right. And there was no way we could really do that in the normal way because normally when you adapt something you ask, what is the character’s motivation? You can’t do that with a fairy story. It’s not what they are. It’s an inappropriate question. Do you, Claire, agree with that definition?

CD: I agree that there is no psychology, yes. And I think the most liberating thing about working with fairytales is that you don’t have to explain. No one has to explain why the horse can talk. Particularly when I’m writing for Comma commissions and I try to bring realism into it more, sometimes I struggle with it. I don’t know how much I need to put in. How much I need to explain. Sometimes I think I’m way off getting that balance right. They are different but I feel one has fed into the other.

SE: To come back to your point about what you should put in and what you should not, I think one of  the things I always think about if I am writing anything like that is Bill Murray talking to Harold Ramis. Harold Ramis wrote and directed Groundhog Day. It was like the third day on the set, Bill Murray was going through his second divorce and was a complete nightmare, he went to Harold and said, all this is rubbish, change it. And Harold said, what do you mean ‘all this’? That’s the whole explanation to why you are living the same day over and over again. Yeah, I know, it’s rubbish. Get rid of it. And now there is no explanation as to why that is happening. It just is. Once you realise that, it is liberating. Let the audience or the reader get that on their own.

MS: Are you ever tempted to bring non-realist elements into your stories, David?

DC: What you call totemic, I call figurative. In quite a lot of my stories, I could show you the real base, but actually the characters in them are figurative. I mean, they are what they are but at the same time they are emblematic and they are like characters in fairytales. They’ve got a sort of aura around them which is more than the background from where they have come. And some of the stories I’ve written are more like fables.

RP: The character in ‘Trains’ is a mysterious character.

DC: They are usually real people at the back of them. With the process of memory over a long period they clarify like constellations. The way constellations are clear once you know what to look for but actually the stars themselves are not like that. There is that point of clarification. I do think a lot of fiction should be working towards the figurative. Not to release itself from its realities. I think that’s how things get read again and again and why we can read The Iliad, that extraordinary scene at the end when Priam gets back to find his son killed by Achilles and he goes down on his knees and he begs him and he lifts up this man’s hands and kisses his hands. These are the hands that have killed his son and he begs him to let him have the body back. And Achilles looks down on him and remembers his own father who he has left at home and should be attending to and there is a figurative moment. This is our fate but it shouldn’t be like this. That I have killed your son and I am not protecting my own father. This goes right back to something like the eighth century BC but then you go forward to something like ‘The Dead’. The end of that story. Michael Furey is in the garden dying for love. He is tubercular and shouldn’t be out in the snow. That’s a figure, don’t ask me what of, but it’s a figure. Brecht’s lover and collaborator, Margarete Steffin, who he got to know in 1930 or 1931, an extraordinary linguist and a poet, a communist like him, you see her name again and again as a co-writer of the major plays. She put him right. He was a bourgeois son of a factory owner. She told him what it was like to be born in the tubercular slums of Berlin. She made him write in that way that was intelligible to working people, she died in Moscow fleeing from Hitler, and one of the most beautiful poems he wrote at the end is precisely what I said. It’s a very short thing. He puts her up in the stars and he calls her the Constellation of Steffin and he looks up and says, I believe I hear a faint coughing. That’s how she died, with blood in her mouth, of tuberculosis, and she for him is up there in the stars as a figure in his life. An unforgettable figure who did all these amazing things. And  this thing about memorialising is a big thing in writing. Memory clings better in figures who have been somewhat relieved of the peripheral details and the incidentals. But if it goes too far it is just abstraction, which you don’t want. Nietzsche said that you could tell the story of a person’s life in three anecdotes, he meant three figurative instances. When this person was most himself, most herself.

MS: I’d go further and say one anecdote.

DC: Yes, possibly.

MS: The job of the short fiction writer is to find one.

DC: Yes, indeed it is.

MS: You talk about figurative writing and related to that is symbolism. You talked earlier about Lawrence [in an earlier event], a writer well known for his use of symbolism. And symbols figure largely in your work.

DC: As long as when we talk about symbols we never mean, this stands in the place of that. There’s that Mary McCarthy anecdote. She’s running a Creative Writing class and she asks one of her students how she is getting on with her story and she says, fine, I’ve finished. I’ve just got to go through and put in the symbols.

MS: Your stories often accrete around a symbol: a well, a cave, a shieling.

DC: The Odour of Chrysanthemums [by DH Lawrence] does precisely that. These are real flowers, precisely located, the time of the year is told. Then these chrysanthemums come in and step by step they keep coming in. Their real significance for the people in the story, like precipitation, it precipitates around, it’s like that.  But you can’t say the chrysanthemums equal that. That’s not how Lawrence writes. But the figurative sense accrues in the course of the story, sentence by sentence, until they bring the man home from the mine dead, and one of the miners knocks the vase off and smashes it and there is water all over and she goes down on her knees immediately. It’s completely homely, it’s absolutely what you ordinarily do, a miner’s life, wash the man’s back when he comes back from the pit. Then you wash the dead. These are what they did. At the same time they are luminous, figurative. If there was a religious dimension to it, these are sacramental acts.

MS: It’s almost like a Caravaggio painting, with the significant thing lit, and the rest in darkness.

DC: I suppose if you are an atheist, you still want fiction to have in it the sacramental. By that what I mean is what Blake understands as holy. The holiness of life itself. The luminous moment but never abstract.

SE: Updike said that he couldn’t see any symbolism in his work but other people could. He said that it’s inevitable when you write something that people will go looking for symbols and that there was no point in doing that. One of my favourite quotes, JG Ballard was interviewed by Will Self. Ballard is one of Self’s heroes. Self said to him, what is it with symbols of swimming pools in your novels? And he went through in his very loquacious way all of Ballard’s fiction and Ballard was beside himself with laughter, and Will said, have I said something wrong? And Ballard said, I just forgot. He hadn’t remembered that he’d put swimming pools into all of these stories. It just happened. It had been an accident. It’s in Junk Mail, the collection of Will Self’s journalism. Self has this very long, wonderful theory but Ballard is pissing himself laughing.

MS: But Ballard could be wrong.

SE: I do it myself. My editor came back and said, you do realise you have five characters called Mark don’t you?

MS: Thank God for ‘find and replace’.

SE: Yes.

MS: Shall we get another question from the audience?

Audience: You have been talking earlier about realism and non-realism and it is still the case that in some way realism is seen as superior to fantasy. It is seen as more literary perhaps. Stuff like science fiction and fantasy is put in the imaginary category, and it is seen as more immature, more for kids. How do you feel about that distinction and is there any way to combine the two forms.

MG: I think Margaret Atwood absolutely combines the two. I’ve never heard anyone call her a science fiction writer but she certainly writes speculative fiction. I don’t know why she doesn’t get dumped in the genre bin because that is what often happens with writing that has different imaginative elements to it. It does for some folk get really talked down. I don’t know why that is. I’ve read a lot of literary work that didn’t do a lot for me.

SE: I’d also mention Ben Marcus. His first collection was very future-based, science-based. Angela Carter wrote lots of imaginative fiction. Murakami is a great example. It’s a bit of a Duchamp idea. I call it art so therefore it is art. You say, this is literary fiction and it is influenced by all those things. It happens with crime writing as well. Look at someone like David Peace, one of my favourite writers, he’s considered a literary writer but he’s written primarily crime novels. He was pushed in the first instance by Serpent’s Tail as a literary writer. He’s put into a different pot.

CD: It goes back to the nineteenth century and the modern era. The way fairytales got relegated to the nursery. Even prior to that, the disenchantment of the world, the disenchantment narrative, where people in the west stopped believing in nature spirits. This rationalist drive forward, I wonder if it comes out of that, this sort of banishing away of magic. I think writers, however, throughout that period have continued to draw on it.

MS: I think it’s important that you say ‘in the west’ because I think it is a different tradition in other parts of the world. In Latin America, in Africa, in India, there isn’t the same reception towards non-realist elements.

SE: Yeah, if you look at Salman Rushdie or Gabriel Garcia Marquez, you know those magical realists, the first story in Rushdie’s East, West collection is absolutely fantastic and while not quite science fiction, it is a fantastical story. I still think it’s down to the way you present yourself rather than an issue with readers not wanting to read stuff that has fantastical elements, because everyone wants to read that. We all want to believe in fairies, witches and the rest of it. That’s what we want. We want to be able to experience that. And I still think reading is the best way to experience that.

MS: I’m looking at the clock, I’m aware the wine is getting warm, and it feels like that is a good place to stop. A big thanks to our panel, to Comma Press for all their help in putting this together, to the University of Huddersfield for hosting and funding the event and to you the audience for turning up from all over the country through hail and hurricane. It’s much appreciated.

And so endeth the panel discussion.

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The Ratmen Cometh… an interview with Steve Ely

Ely_0067 copy (3)The novel Ratmen by Steve Ely was published by Blackheath Books in June 2012 but has so far failed to attract the attention it fully deserves. It’s a compelling book and a fascinating study of extremism and seduction. It will get into your bones and make you reassess your feelings about rats. It’s currently my recommended read. Below is my interview with Steve.


The man (and later the boy) in Ratmen has a very hostile view of rats, what’s your opinion of the ‘nail-clawed nemesis’?


I fear and hate them.  Although I know they’re ‘just mammals’.  Partly this is due to their sinister appearance — greasy fur, scaly tail, orange incisors, beady black eye, bristling whiskers.  Partly  it’s their demeanour; a strange combination of the furtive and skulking with the brazen, defiant and flaunting — when I had an infestation in my garden (the origin of Ratmen) I’d see them dining in broad daylight under the bird-feeders, sitting up and cleaning their paws, giving me eye contact through the kitchen window — as well as slinking around under bushes and along fences, darting away at the slightest sound or movement.  Partly, it is the baggage of supernatural, mythic and folkloric horror rats carry as plague carriers, hovel infesters, food soilers and bone-biters.  Mostly, I think, it is atavistic and instinctive —  in the way tame meerkats (for example) that have never experienced an eagle will run for cover when they see an eagle’s shadow on the rocks, whilst completely ignoring the shadows of storks and geese, similarly large birds — the fear is somehow hard-wired into them.  I once inadvertently ‘tickled’ a brown rat (not a water vole) when feeling for trout under the overhanging earth-bank of a small South Yorkshire stream.  The panic I felt in that instant was almost hysterical.  I suppose I intuit that humankind is somehow bound to the rat — maybe as rivals for the Earth.  On the other hand, rats are just mammals.


Why don’t you give Man and Boy names?


Several reasons.  Firstly, they’re up to no good and I didn’t want to rat them out (pun intended).   Secondly, I wanted to avoid any form of characterisation that might facilitate ‘familiarity’ on the reader’s part (I also avoided describing their physical appearance as far as possible) in order to maintain a distance that would make absolutely clear the characters’  representative, everyman status.   Thirdly, I wanted to focus exclusively on the developing relationship between the two in the context of the theme; that’s how the ‘plot’ develops and how the themes reveal.  To make them real people — maverick loners with complex personal lives, extensive jazz collections and a love of single Malt whisky — would detract.  It would also bore and provoke me, as it does when I encounter ‘fully rounded’ characters like that.  As the book developed in the writing, I also thought the device added to the conspiratorial metaphysical mystique of the book.  Ratmen is more a fable or parable than a modern novel.  The methods of characterisation used are those used by the authors of the Hebrew Bible — or Elmore Leonard — everything emerges from what the characters say, think and do.


Although it is third-person, it is limited to the boy’s POV. Were you tempted to write it in first-person at any point?


No.  That might have seduced me into the whole inner-life of the boy and I’m not primarily interested in that.  Third person gives greater authorial freedom — omniscience, I suppose — even if he strives to efface it.  First person voice makes characters into tyrants.  (I don’t even use first person pronouns much in my poetry.)  In Ted Hughes’s introduction to his ferocious translation of Seneca’s Oedipus, he writes that he aimed for ‘a text […] in its plainest, bluntest form [with characters] more primitive than aboriginals […] a spider people, scuttling among hot stones’.  Hughes was interested in the ritual possibilities of his work, which was written to be performed by Peter Brook’s experimental theatre.  The Man and the Boy needed a little more flesh on their bones than that, but I was never tempted to let the Boy tell the story, in his voice.  That would’ve been too holistic.  In Ratmen, the author was content to allow the narrator to tell the story from selected and manipulated aspects of the Boy’s point-of-view — because the boy’s point-of-view — that of the seductee, (my tagline for Ratmen is that it is ‘a parable about the seductions of extremism’) — is instrumentally key to the theme and content of the book.


We learn from the man that there are no rats in the Bible. His explanation for this is very interesting. Do you want to expound a bit more about that?


Biologists tell us that black rats originated in tropical Asia and spread around the world along human trade routes.  By the 14th century they were probably in the Holy Land.  They arrived in England in 1349, at Melcombe Regis (Weymouth) bringing the Black Death.  They were the only rat in Britain until the mid-eighteenth century, when the bigger and more aggressive brown rat arrived.  The brown rat was originally a central Asiatic species and like many steppe creatures, is irruptive — they migrate en masse when population pressure becomes intense.  There are eighteenth century reports from Russia of armies of rats heading west, swimming rivers.  Brown rats too travelled around the world via ships and trade routes.  Their arrival in Britain coincided with the three century cold snap (very roughly 1600-1900) that saw ice fairs on the Thames and which all but killed off the tropical black rat, reducing it to a few warehouses in port cities.  The brown rat was used to the cold and simply took over.  Larger and more aggressive, it almost contributed to the black rat’s demise by forcing it out.


Getting back to the question … I’m certain that there are no rats in the Bible (the word sometimes mistranslated as ‘rat’ is akbar — ‘mouse’).  This is almost certainly because there were no rats in the Middle East at the time the Bible was written.  The Man sees conspiracy in this.  The black rat arrives on the scene (from tropical east Asia? From space?  Via the agency of some  occult hand? From nowhere?) bringing plague — a deliberate attempt to wipe out the human race.  When cold threatens to kill the black rat in Europe — behold, a second front is opened by means of the cold-resistant, bigger, more powerful, more aggressive  brown rat — which is just as effective as a plague carrier and more devastating as a spoiler and devourer.  Rattus norvegicus is theV2 of the rat arms race.


A rat dies from warfarin by bleeding from its internal organs. The man believes that ebola is ‘rat revenge’. How so?


Warfarin is the most widely used rat poison.  It works by thinning the blood (warfarin is also used with human heart patients with hardened arteries and similar problems, to aid circulation) to such an extent that the rat begins to bleed internally, producing symptoms akin to drunkenness (the last warfarin-poisoned rat of my own infestation staggered out from under the shed and wobbled all over the lawn like a wino before I did her in with my rat-stick) before the rat eventually dies.   So rats poisoned with warfarin bleed to death from the inside.  This is very similar to the way Ebola kills humans — a death from Ebola (as with Hanta, Lassa, Marburg) involves massive internal haemorrhaging and victims are often found with blood seeping from eyes, ears, pores.  Rats are likely vectors of Ebola in Western Africa.  So Ebola is rat-revenge; poetic justice served cold from our scaly-tailed nemesis.  Incidentally, warfarin is becoming increasingly less effective as a rat poison.  There are populations of rats all over the world that have developed immunity.  One of these is in Yorkshire.  Within a few decades it is likely that all rats will be immune to warfarin.  In the late 19th century the most effective rat poison on the market was red squill; however, by around 1920, was not able to kill even a week old baby rat, and the poison became obsolete.  New, more virulent poisons, such as brodifacoum, and phostoxin have recently been developed to kill rats.  Both sides are engaged in the arms race.




Which do you think is the most destructive, man or rat?


Man, without question.  Or, more precisely, industrial-capitalist-growth-greedy-ruling class man.   Rat are nothing without their aiders and abettors.  But I didn’t want to get into that comparison overtly.  Gunter Grass has already written that book.  I quote him in one of the epigraphs to the book, spoken by a giant, post-apocalyptic she-rat.   ‘Wherever there has been talk of exterminating rats, others, who were not rats, have been exterminated. (Gunter Grass, The Rat)


On one level the book is about how obsession can infect people. On another level it is about a cosmic battle. What do you want your reader to go away thinking about?


First of all, I want them to want to believe.  I want readers to be compelled by the book and want to take it seriously as if it was true — as certain people did/do with other manuals of extremism such as The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the Encyclopedia of the Afghan Jihad or The Turner Diaries.  As I was writing Ratmen, I was engaging in my own back-garden anti-rat struggle which informed the book as the book informed the struggle.  In the heat of obsession and battle I found myself half-believing (or wanting to believe) that the Man’s crazed cosmology was true and I even began to act and speak as if it was.  In writing about the seductions of extremism, I had seduced myself.    In talking about the seduction of extremism, I’m not talking about brainwashing.  To become extreme requires agencyThe Boy wanted it, just as I did. In my unpublished poem-sequence Werewolf, I explore similar themes — how could ‘ordinary men’ (to use Christopher Browning’s phrase) willingly and enthusiastically take active roles in committing genocide in Turkey, Nazi Europe and Rwanda, for example?  It’s do with fear, ambition and the quest for meaning.  Given the right combination of circumstances, many (most? all?) of us would wallow in horrors.


Ratmen become vegetarians because ‘it’s where the logic leads’. Can you explain this?


In the book, the rat becomes a cypher or symbol of predatory, competitive, destructive ‘devil take the hindmost’ capitalism.  The Man tells the Boy of the true — caring, naturing — spirit of humankind and how cruelty and selfishness has somehow entered human society and culture via the malign agency of the rat — ‘the spirit of cruelty comes from the rat’.   In combating rats, ratmen must reject rapacious capitalist society and the spirit of the rat from which it stems.   So they vow not to harm other sentient creatures (except rats), which leads to asceticism and vegetarianism.


The book moves from a social realist world to something more fantastical. Did you always know where the story was going?


Yes.  The book arose from the above-mentioned rat infestation in my garden, which saw me spend over two years exterminating rats by trap, poison, air-rifle, drowning and rat-stick.  My genodical approach to rats (characterised by urgency, fascination, fear and a minor theme of hysteria), when contrasted to my benign attitude to all other animals — got me thinking.  I’d been writing poetry about extremism — US prison gangs, Muslim extremists, murderers, the US racist right and the Militia movement, various conspiracy theories — since 2005, and I’d developed a theory of my own: people drawn to extremism generally fall into two main types.


  • Intelligent people (often ‘mathematically’ or instrumentally intelligent, like the 9/11 bombers (largely engineers and techicians), but who are nevertheless not quite mentally flexible enough to develop independent, self-critical reasoning in the regions of value and meaning, or to accept ambiguity as part of the human condition (2 +2 =4 and ‘the truth’ = ‘the truth’). These second-rate intelligences are often attracted to compelling and satisfying narratives/solutions that provide absolute security by ‘giving the answers’, which they accept lock, stock and become ‘true believers’.  Muhammad Atta, the leader of the 9/11 bombers is a classic example of this type, as to varying degrees, are religious fundamentalists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Socialist Workers, certain species of environmentalist and Tea Party types in the US.  The Man is of this type.
  • Highly intelligent people, who to some extent understand what they’re opting into is questionable, but allow themselves to be seduced because they want to belong/believe due to peculiarities of the their psychology, or to do with fear and ambition. For these types, extremist world-views and actions bring glamour, meaning, purpose, nobility and a sense of superiority.  At a deep level they know their extremism is at least questionable, but they commit to it anyway.   The Baader-Meinhof Gang and some of Charles Manson’s groupies fall into this type, as does The Boy.


Ratmen is about the process of seduction — how the man seduces and how the boy participates in his own seduction.  The denouement is over-the-top, unbelievable (or strangely believable), horror, or science fiction, unlikely and absurd.    Yet the highly intelligent, precocious and cultured Boy embraces the absurdity in an awed, profound and humble spirit.  From this point he is no longer ‘normal’.  He belongs.  He believes.  His values have been transformed and he is now capable of anything.  Jihadi John was once an A* GCSE student in Birmingham.  Now he saws people’s heads off on YouTube — the core sacrament of his profound and noble cause —  how did that happen?  He was seduced, and he wanted to be seduced.  It made him whole.


You write both poetry and prose. Which do you prefer?  Which do you find the easier?


Poetry, by a mile.  When I’m in the zone, I find that I enjoy the process of writing poetry and I actually look forward to composing at my desk.  Accordingly, I’m prolific.  I’ve written two and a half books of poetry this year and there are ten book-length projects on my to-do list.  Often my main issue is to find ways to stop writing poetry, to find time to read, go birdwatching or whatever .   I rarely enjoy writing creative prose (as opposed to analytical or expository prose, which I can do quite fluently).  For me, it’s a chore to sit down and write a novel, or even a short-story, whacking out 2000 words a day, or whatever.  I’ve started six novels and finished only two.  I abandon my novels because I become uninterested in them.  For example, I started a novel in September which, 14,000 words in, is ‘on hiatus’ because I got to a stage where it was too much of a schlep to write it.  In contrast, during the last ten years I’ve consciously started six books of poetry (I always write books of poems, as opposed to stand-alone poems which I then arrange into a ‘collection’) but ended up writing eleven (almost all unpublished as yet).  With Ratmen it was different.  I was seduced (there’s that word again) by my theme and content and became very enthusiastic about it.  I also simplified the plot into episodes to make it easier to write (during the school holidays).  My other finished novel (San Benito Brother ) is a fictionalised account of the prison race wars in the California Prison System in the 1970s.  It’s twice as long as Ratmen, with an ensemble cast of characters and labyrinthine plotting.  Extreme sex, violence racism and drug abuse.  I was really into that as well, so I suppose that’s why I managed to finish it.  Looking back, in its exploration of extremism, SBB  is probably a direct precursor of Ratmen.  I suppose I can only write when I’m really interested in something.  And most of my obsessions are handled through poetry.


Well let’s hope that SBB gets published soon as I’m eager to read it. In the meantime, you can buy Ratmen here (and I urge you to do so): http://www.blackheathbooks.org.uk/46.html



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URGE FOR NIGEL: an interview with Nigel Blackwell of Half Man Half Biscuit

bloodlustNigel Blackwell of Half Man Half Biscuit fame is an elusive figure in popular music, who has spent many years avoiding interviewers from many prestigious publications, so I feel very honoured that he was happy to answer the questions I had after listening to the latest album Urge For Offal. It’s as good as anything the band have done and if you haven’t listened to them for a while, it’s a great introduction to where they are now.

Right, first question: there’s a touch of John Shuttleworth on the new album. I’m thinking of the line about the beach having a ‘blue flag status’. How do you feel about that comparison?

John Shuttleworth – I must own, I haven’t really listened too much as I’m not particularly an avid radio listener but I did like Jilted John of course.

Urge For Offal has just made the Top 40 album charts. Are you worried you might become successful?

Not in the least. I would honestly be delighted to sell truckloads of records and make enough money to buy a kitchen for the house.

Why do you turn down so many interviews? Don’t you want to sell records?

I don’t mind doing the odd interview but I’m not one for doing them regularly as the nature of the beast often results in me repeating myself and boring people. Nothing against them per se though I’m not always e-mail/telephone accessible either which can prove problematic for both parties. I do definitely want to sell records though!

There’s a song on the album called ‘Baguette Dilemma For The Booker Prize Guy’. Do you read the Booker Prize winners? And if so, are there any that you rate? Or would you say, overall that they are overrated?

I’m fairly certain I’ve not read any Booker prize winners but that’s not a conscious decision. They’re probably very good. I wouldn’t know. I certainly couldn’t name any off the top of my head with confidence.

Who are your favourite lyricists and why?

I like all of ’em! All the really good ones especially.

There has been a lot of speculation about who Adam Boyle is. Some people think it is a reference to Alex James, others think it is Noel Gallagher. I assume it is actually an amalgam of a number of now aging ex-ladrock guitarists. Does this kind of speculation amuse you? Do you do it to wind people up?

Adam Boyle is simply a made up character who never actually got further than the rehearsal room. Alex James was not in a ‘ladrock’ band I would argue (more to Blur than that I feel) and I’ve got a lot of time for Noel Gallagher. I reckon he’d be good company on a long train journey. Oasis however, were responsible for lads hitherto uninterested in guitar music getting a bit excited and ‘having a dabble themselves’. That’s where Adam Boyle comes from. Oasis are not directly to blame, people can be astoundingly snobby towards them. In the last few years of course, young Boyle (about 38-45-ish actually) has realised he’s not getting anywhere with his own group and has collected around himself a broader cross section of pals one of whom has perhaps lent him The Wicker Man, another of whom has maybe passed on a Mumford and Sons CD to him along with a CAMRA newsletter. And y’know, good luck to the feller, life’s too short etc (I’m just here to gently chide!) p.s. while we’re here, our song ‘Shit Arm Bad Tattoo’ is most definitely NOT about Pete Docherty either! I can see how it would appear so in hindsight but I’d never set eyes on their album sleeve when I wrote the song – I’ve heard perhaps TWO Libertines songs in my life and liked what I heard. Fat bass players in local heavy metal outfits with no biceps and cap-sleeved t-shirts is SPECIFICALLY who the TITLE of the song is about. The lyric of the song doesn’t really have much to do with the title in actual fact. Apart from the chorus obviously! If it was about Pete Docherty I would mention him by name. He seems ok to me. He hasn’t got a shit arm either as far as I can make out, having just this minute ‘google-imaged’ him

The music has changed over the years, opening out to include influences beyond the ken of rock. Who are the bands/artists that have influenced this development?

I have honestly not noticed this so cannot answer without sounding like I’m making something up.

BBC 6 have been a strong advocate of HMHB. Before that it was John Peel and Andy Kershaw. But other than that, it’s hard to hear your music. Why do you think other DJs and stations are so reluctant to play you?

I’m not aware of that if truth be known. I’m happy enough with the exposure we get.

How do you see the relationship between poetry and lyric writing?

I haven’t thought about it. I don’t read that much poetry and lyrics don’t matter that much to me in a song. It’s the music that matters mostly I feel.

Have you ever been tempted to extend your writing to other forms such as novel writing or short fiction?

Not at all. Too many bike rides to go on and books by other people to read.

You’ve had a long relationship with your label boss, Geoff Davis. What do you attribute to the success of this relationship?

He can organize all the stuff that we could never hope to do or indeed wish to do. He’s also a one-off and has a superb speaking voice. He should be narrating Howard Hawks documentaries on BBC 2.

What keeps the wolf from the door the most, is it the live gigs or the album sales?

The wolf is prowling constantly I’m afraid but that’s probably good for the soul I imagine.

Why don’t women like HMHB?

They do! There’s a lady in Saundersfoot!  (I definitely see females in our audience – the songs aren’t all “Jonah Barrington gave me his Harrington” type of stuff. There’s a whole heap o’heartache for the lassies….

Finally, I’d like to share a nightmare with you, Nigel. I woke up at 4.30am the other morning after a bad dream. I dreamed that I’d been to a Half Man Half Biscuit museum. The first room was a library of all the books that had been referred to in your lyrics. The second room was a record shop and all the records were those that had been referred to. The next room was full of TVs playing excerpts from television shows that had been referenced. In the final room was a souvenir shop. It was cluttered and as I travelled through, it became more and more narrow, down a twisting staircase and down a narrow corridor, that I had to squeeze through. I started to panic as I realised I was getting further and further underground. When I woke up I had palpitations, I was sweating and shaking. I had to think calming thoughts. I pictured Nick Cave in an open necked shirt and I fixated on the stripes on the back of his collar. This was the only way I could find peace of mind. What do you fixate on to find peace of mind?

No Comment. Nigel Blackwell has left the building.

The album is available directly from Probe Plus records http://www.probeplus-store.co.uk/

For tour dates, click here: http://www.chrisrand.com/hmhb/breaking-news/

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simon wolstencroftsimon wolstencroft2

I’ve just read Simon Wolstencroft’s memoir, You Can Drum But You Can’t Hide, a PDF pre-published version. It’s a really enjoyable read about the many near-mythical figures of the Manchester music scene: Morrissey, Johnny Marr, Ian Brown, John Squires, and of course Mark E Smith. Simon was drummer in The Fall for eleven years, spending more time in the group than practically any other musician (with the exception of Steven Hanley – nineteen years – and Craig Scanlon – sixteen years). After which, he left of his own accord, unlike the many who were sacked. I met him at a Sleaford Mods gig two weeks ago and he asked me if I’d like to interview him. Of course, I said. We meet in the beer garden of the Britons Protection pub in Manchester on Tuesday 20th September. It’s over twenty years since I’ve been in. It hasn’t changed a bit. I find Simon in the beer garden drinking lager and smoking. I introduce myself.

First question. Why now?
Because, over the years, people have said to me, Si, you’ve had a really interesting life, why don’t you write a book about it? Yeah, right, right. Then I was watching Mastermind and the question was, who played drums on the first ever Smiths recording? and they got my name right and I thought, this might be the time to do it.
There are a lot of rock biographies out at the moment [as I type Steve Hanley’s has just been reviewed in The Guardian].
It’s unbelievable, everyone’s got one. Have you got one out?
I’ve got to form a band first.
The first 250 copies of the book, we’re putting a CD together. Ian Brown, doing ‘Billie Jean’, which we recorded as a B side back in 2000 and ‘Free Range’ hopefully.

You’ve got rights for that haven’t you?

Yeah, fifty fifty. I’ve had no money for it for years though.

That’s the only non-cover by The Fall that got into the top 40 isn’t it?


Why do you think the covers have done better than the original material?

I don’t know really. ‘Victoria’ I thought would have done better because they played it on Eastenders, in the cafe.

Radio 6 regularly play, ‘Victoria’, ‘Mr Pharmacist’ and ‘Ghost In My House’.

‘Hit The North’ they still play.

They do, occasionally, but it’s mainly the covers. ‘Mr Pharmacist’ they play virtually every day. It winds me up a bit. Why can’t they play original material? I guess they’re just more popular.

They’re the ones that stick out, aren’t they?

A lot of people think that ‘Mr Pharmacist’ was written by the band, don’t they?

Yeah, they do. It’s The Other Half, int it. It’s one of my favourite ones that I played on that. Not just because it was in Abbey Road. You know, the sound was fantastic. You get a good vibe off the place. Maybe because of all the wood.

The video is the one with Leigh Bowery with polka dots painted all over him.

I don’t think I’m in that.

I thought you were?

I don’t remember. I was strung out at the time. I was smoking gear for a long time.

[I checked later, in fact, strangely, unaccountably, Simon isn’t in the video.]

Did you keep it quiet?

Yeah, I did.

Did Mark know?

Eventually, he came out and asked me. Simon, have you been taking heroin? I said, what is this, the Spanish Inquisition? He started laughing. I didn’t admit it. Why should I? He’s not my school teacher. I never said to him, you’re drinking too much. Though I did say to him at the end, people are laughing at you, Mark. You’re going on stage, making a fool of yourself. He said, so fucking what. If I fart into the microphone people will buy it.

That sounds like a lot of the recent gigs of theirs I’ve been to.

More often than not, he’d fuck it up. He’d go off for ten minutes, as you know, and not come back. We’d be like, where the fuck is he?

What was he doing?

Just sat in his room, drinking whisky and snorting lines, probably. Like we all did. But not halfway through the gig. But he thought he was entitled to do that. I suppose he is. They’re paying to come and see him.

They’re not paying for him to sit in the dressing room though, are they?

It was funny when people came backstage. The atmosphere, you could cut it with a knife.

You’ve had a few battles with him, haven’t you?

A few. Justifiably. I had to give him a good hiding in Athens.

About your mum?

Yeah, terrible int it. It was only three days since she died. He’s got this thing, he worked on the docks, but he wasn’t a docker. He worked in an office.

He’s often been cited about his belief in the protestant work ethic. But he doesn’t always display it himself, does he?

No he doesn’t.

He’s a bit of a slacker, really.

Ha! He likes to think he runs the band like that. Thing is, he was paying our wages.

And he set up a pension for you. That made me laugh that.

Yeah, he got us all in with Rothschilds. Took us for a medical. If I’d kept paying into it I could have retired by now.

What do you think of his recent stuff?

There’s nothing that I think, that’s brilliant that. Not since that Corsa advert.

‘Touch Sensitive’?

Yeah, I thought that was brilliant.

I’ve not really liked anything since Fall Heads Roll. His voice has gone all phlegmy.

There’s no singing, like ‘Edinburgh Man’. When he came up with that, he put some real emotion into it.

I thought it was funny you saying you didn’t join The Smiths because you didn’t like Morrissey’s voice, because Mark’s voice isn’t exactly soothing.

Well, it wasn’t just his voice, it was the whole dour image.

The raincoat and all that?

Yeah. I was into jazz funk so was Andy Rourke. Obviously Johnny and Andy were mates for years. It didn’t surprise me that they hooked up again.

What did you feel about all the court stuff with Morrissey and Marr?

I thought Mike [Joyce] was good for taking it on. That drummer out of Oasis settled out of court.

Andy took a settlement didn’t he?

Andy took a measly pay-off. hundred grand or something.

Because Joyce got a big sum?

Supposed to be about a million. I thought, good on you Mike. But at the time I was very friendly with Johnny. But I don’t see him much now. He moved to America to work with Modest Mouse.

Do you like his solo stuff?

Some of it. I’ve seen The Healers and his new outfit a couple of times. As far as I’m concerned, he’s the best guitarist of my generation. I think his son Nile’s band is a lot more interesting though. They’re called Man Made. Nile really is a ‘chip off the old block’.

I quite like that new single [‘Easy Money’].

Do you? I heard it on Radio 2 today. It’s a grower. I’m dead glad for him. I’ve seen him a couple of times over the last few years. He’s dead happy.

He’s completely clean now isn’t he?

Yeah, he gave up everything years ago. In fact, the only time I see him now is when he’s running to his Mother’s from one of his houses, through Altrincham.

[Looking at the cigarette packet and the pint of lager] so you’ve not gone that way yourself then?

No, not yet. A lot of my mates have though. Andy Rourke has stopped smoking.

Marr looks better than ever.

I know, must be all that clean living.

Are you still in touch with Ian Brown?

Yeah, he’s been totally helpful with me. He’s got a brilliant memory.

Have you used him to fill in some of the gaps?

The early years, definitely.

I like his solo stuff.

I know yeah, I was lucky enough to play on Golden Greats. Not all of it. About five tracks.

In a way, I thought reforming The Stone Roses was a backward step.

Well, maybe not for the younger generation. It wasn’t just old geysers like me at the comeback shows, though I wouldn’t hold your breath if your waiting for a follow up to The Second Coming. Having said that, no way did I think they would get back together in the first place. So what do I know? I’m sure Ian will continue to come up with the goods, with his solo stuff, though.

I really like where that’s going. That driving drum beat, a bit military. Marching music.

Yeah, with the trumpets.

And that tabla player.


Yeah, that’s the guy.

He’s a good mate of mine. Inder Goldfinger.

What’s your relationship with Mark like these days?

Mark E Smith? I don’t see him socially but I bumped into him last January and he was fine with me. I’d just joined Big Unit, who supported The Fall, and he said, you better watch it with them Simon. Keep your receipts. He was absolutely right, because I’ve earned fuck all. We’re waiting for the stuff we’ve done with Rowetta to come out.

Out of The Happy Mondays?

Yeah, and Peter Hook on bass. With the string section from Downton Abbey. Ripped off wholesale. It sounds good. It’s a love song: ‘Cross My Heart, Hope To Die’.

When’s it coming out?

Good question. We’re waiting for the video to be ready. As soon as it is ready we can put it out.

What about the book, when’s that coming out?

November the 13th. The launch is at Crack Gallery, Hilton Street. Just off Stevenson Square.

It’s a good title, You Can Drum But You Can’t Hide. The drumming reference is obvious but why ‘hide’?

Because a) if you’re a drummer you can’t hide. If you’re shit everybody knows about it. B) you can’t hide from life. Drug habits, the affairs, eventually it comes out.

Who’s publishing the book?

Strata Books. They’ve only been going a couple of years. Started by an A and R man for Chrysalis and EMI. He only does books about musicians.

What will the launch entail?

I intend to do a Q and A. I’m going to book a new band called Nude to play after.

What do you think of Morrissey’s autobiography?

Not enough about The Smiths themselves, too much about his upbringing. I’ve read it all before because obviously I’ve been in quite a few Smiths books, and Roses books.

The court case features heavily.

He drives a gold Porsche.

Does he really? He doesn’t?!

It’s the James Dean thing, I think.

You got to like The Smiths in the end.

Yeah, I did. By the time they got to The Queen Is Dead, the quality.

Because you said that The Smiths were in a different league to The Fall.

Yeah, they were.

Do you think The Smiths were a better band?

Yeah, musically. Half the time it was understanding Mark E Smith’s lyrics.

That’s all part of the fun.

Middle Class Revolt, I understood where he was coming from. Because we had people working for the group with ponytails and designer glasses. You know, trendy ones.

He reminds me of William Burroughs. That cut-up technique. They have the same psychopathology too. I got into The Fall pretty much when you joined. I used to go to The Venue next to the Hacienda and the first time I went they were playing ‘Big New Prinz’ which had just come out. I can’t remember the DJ’s name now.

Did he have a quiff?


That’s Tin Tin.

He used to always play ‘Swerve’ by Dubsex.

Yeah, that’s him. They had an album out called Posh and I’m on the cover. I still see a couple of the lads. They were a bit too speedy for me. I know we played fast stuff in The Fall most of the time, so I never got to play my own style like I can now. I can play what I want, but back then it was, no, play it like this.

Are you still in touch with Brix?

Yeah. Steve [Hanley] had a book launch in July. She came up from London. She married Philip Start, the multi-millionaire rag trade king. She’s got her own shop, a boutique. Nice gear as well. She’s great. Hopefully she’ll come up to this one of mine.

Why here anyway? Why Britons Protection?

I used to come here with Mark. Mark brought me in here first.

I know you are in it, but have you read The Fallen by Dave Simpson?

Yeah, it’s a good book. I meant to send him the PDF of this one. I’ll do that soon.

As you know, he interviews former members of The Fall, and what comes out of that is this consistent pattern of people thinking they are what makes The Fall great and leaving to form a new band only for that band to go nowhere.

It’s not easy.

What is it about Mark though, he’s not a musician, he’s not a great singer, his lyrics don’t always make sense.

He’s got a persona. People like to laugh along with him sometimes. I think his best work is just when he’s being interviewed.

It was often why I’d buy the NME in the eighties and nineties. To read his interviews.

They were funny weren’t they?

Yeah, but by the time I got to interview him in 2009 for the Huddersfield Literature Festival he seemed to have lost some of his former sharpness. He still had it but, you know, not as much. He turned up three hours early for the interview.

That’s alarming.

I thought, what am I going to do with him for three hours?

He admits it himself, he was drinking too much.

Speed and alcohol is a bad combination. The speed just encourages you to drink more.

It’s a vicious circle.

It seems like, out of all the members of The Fall, you’ve had the most stable relationship with him. I know you’ve had a couple of punch-ups, but overall, you seem to get on.

I did have it good for a few years, but it was when Brix left. She kept him on the straight and narrow. She’s a strong character, Brix.

What did you think of Marcia?

I love Marcia, yeah.

Because she was sacked abruptly, along with Martin [Bramah]. You speculate why that was. [they had started seeing each other at the time].

He said, we’ve got to get rid of them two. Fucking doing my head in.

Was he jealous?

I think he might have been, because he wasn’t getting his end away.

Was he paranoid?

Yeah. Speed psychosis. But I’ve had some good laughs with Mark and he was dead good to my mum. Did your interview go ok once you’d broken the ice?

Well, I made the mistake of showing the John Lydon butter advert first, which he didn’t like. He said, what you showing an advert for butter for? I was using it to ask my first question but I never managed to ask it. I showed a clip from Ideal where he’s playing God.

Yeah, it was great that.

But then everything I asked him about the book-

Renegade you’re talking about?

Yeah, the book had just been released in paperback. I’d say, you say this on page six, and he’d say, I didn’t say that. To everything.

[We have just been joined by Roufie, percussionist in the new band Big Unit and Stuart Bisson-Foster, who helped Simon write the book.]

Roufie: Dave Haslem said the same thing when he interviewed him. He said, Mark, do you want me to buy you a copy of your own book?

Me: Yeah, I was talking to Dave Haslem about that. He’s interviewing John Lydon next, funnily enough.

Simon: They’re great value Mark’s interviews. They’re better than the music.

Me: So you’re not a Fall fan then? Because that’s one of the criteria isn’t it?

Simon: Yeah, you couldn’t be a Fall fan or a proper musician.

Stuart: Yeah, but that was inconsistent though. For example, someone like Simon Rogers. You’ve written loads of plays haven’t you?

Me: Yeah, a few. Stage plays, stuff for Radio 4.

Stuart: I want to turn this manuscript into a screenplay.

Me: My radio producer nearly got me a gig writing something about Mark E Smith for Radio 2. At the time Radio 2 were making these plays based on characters in popular music. I had this idea. Mark E Smith on Twitter. It’s not the real Mark E Smith, it’s someone impersonating him and Mark gets hacked off so he turns detective and eventually tracks him down. Only when he does, he gets a shock, because it’s him. He’s been posting on Twitter without realising. He’s been that off his head.

Simon: That’s good that.

Stuart: Have you heard ‘I Am Mark E Smith’, but Fat White Family?

Me: I’ve not heard that.

Stuart: it goes, ‘I am Mark E Smith, and I have got the paperwork to prove it.’

Me: I like Fat White Family. ‘Touch The Leather’. That’s a good one.

Simon: They’ve got a great sound, dead swampy.

Roufie disappears to get another round in. We talk more about The Fall, the highs and lows which are well documented in Simon’s book. Mark’s friendship with Tony Wilson, his rudeness to Ian Brown, his detestation of Madchester culture, his possible psychic powers, his fear of success. I get the next round in. We talk about cake as sculpture, Mickey Mouse, The Sleaford Mods, the soundtrack for the film Rumblefish. Another round of lagers. Things start to get messy as they do and several hours later I stumble back to the train station somewhat worse for wear.

The book is out on November 13th. It is published by Strata Books. You can buy it here: http://www.stratabooks.co.uk/book/memoir-5/you-can-drum-but-you-cant-hide/

It’s a must for all Fall fans or anyone interested in the Manchester music scene. Sometimes it reads like a soap opera about a dysfunctional family. Sometimes it feels like you’re immersed in a weird cult, but it is a riveting read and a great insight into life on the road with one of the most curmudgeonly men in rock.

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