Monday, 20 February 2012

Ian Marchant on writing, being written about and why no one should read his new book...

EVERYONE loves Ian Marchant. And it is true, he’s easy to love. Big-hearted, big-brained, big-boned, personality as big as the Ritz and twice as sparkly.

It is also true that he is infuriating, exasperating, attention-seeking and a general all round show off. He must also be a pain to stand behind at gigs. And hugely frustrating to play against if you are in a rival quiz team.

I know these things – the good things and the bad things – not just because Ian’s a mate but because of the books he writes. Parallel Lines was about the British love affair with railways. And about Ian. The Longest Crawl was about beer. And about Ian. The new one, the brilliant Something of the Night, is about things that happen in Britain in the dark. And about Ian. These books are a mix – what da kidz might call a mash-up – of memoir, travel writing, social history and that new thing we are meant to call psycho geography. They are frank and fearless and illuminating and I’m a fan. If you haven’t read any of his books then read this interview and then hurry to your bookstore to do what you know you must.

Ian, give me your autobiography in exactly 50 words (not 49, not 51)

Conceived in Woking, born in Guildford, schooled in Newhaven, fucked drugged rocked and rolled in Lampeter, died in Brighton, born again in Radnorshire, educated in Lancaster, sold antiquarian books in London, first-aid trained in Devon, returned triumphant to Radnorshire, teach writing at Birmingham City University, sometimes make radio in Bristol.

Why should we read Something of the Night?

Hell, you shouldn’t read it, at least not yet. Reading is ruinous for books; it breaks the spine, and lets in dust and moisture. You should buy it in hardback, and keep it on your most treasured shelf. Postpone reading it until the paperback comes out. Or, if you really must read it now, why not download it onto your Kindle, so that your hardback can stay in mint condition?

You started as a novelist, why the switch to non-fiction?

I once met Bob Marley outside a pub in Brighton, and showed him the way to the Concorde Club. Nice guy. Here in Presteigne, (pop. 2000) I have a friend who was the first person to supply R.D, Laing with LSD, a friend who was jailed in the US for laundering money for an aristocratic all-girl coke smuggling syndicate, and a friend who watched the Velvet Underground in Warhol’s factory while bouncing up and down on a trampoline. Stuff like that couldn’t happen in fiction, because you wouldn’t believe it. Non-fiction just seems to have more scope, I guess.

Also, nobody bought my novels. ‘The Battle for Dole Acre’ is second only to ‘Juggling for A Degree; Mature Students in Further Education’ (edited, with Hilary Arksey) in the list of my hard to find items.

What responsibilities do you feel to the real people who appear in your books?

Loads. I try to give them the best jokes. I change names, dates, places. I’ve only ever had one complaint, and that was from the barman of The Isle of Jura Hotel, who was so falling over drunk on duty that he called the customers and the landlord ‘cunts’. He asked me to take his photo out of the reprint of the paperback edition of ‘The Longest Crawl’. This offers exciting possibilities for collectors, as the paperback therefore exists in two states.

You've had the odd - I assume it's odd - experience of being the subject (at least in part) of a book published last year. What impact did that have on you?

It was a bit odd, yes, and not in a nice way. But there. The author let me read her manuscript. I thought it would be unethical of me to demand changes to the text. The author feels it was unethical of me not to. No dates or places were changed, and I certainly didn’t get the best jokes. No names were changed, but one was omitted, although Camilla Long saw to that in her notorious review. In fact, it was the little storm of press coverage that was the worst bit for my family.

I have asked for acknowledgement for the use of my comic verse in the paperback edition. Completists might want to hang on till it hits the remainder shops.

Your chapter (sort of) in response is brutally, painfully, candid (and also very funny) how hard was that to write?

It was a decision I took quite early on in the writing process. I knew I was going to write about sex, and I knew I wanted to write about transgressive sex. I thought about going dogging, and talking to some working girls, but this seemed to me bogus travel-writing shades into edgy psycho-geography 101, so I decided it would be more honest to write about my own impotent attempts to visit sex workers during my celibate years. My publishers made me change a few bits; in particular, they asked me to write of Jesus’s penis and testicles rather than his cock and balls. The unexpurgated manuscript has been left to Lancaster University in my will, and scholars will flock to see it in the years ahead.

Where do you see yourself in five years time?

Blimey. Writing books, I hope, living here in Presteigne with my wife and family. Doing music sometimes. Making radio programmes. Controlling the second-hand market in ‘The Battle For Dole Acre.’

What's the next book about?

It’s a kind of history of the British counter-culture between 1956 and 1994, written for my students, in order to explain a lost culture whose last echoes they might catch in their Mum’s record collection. It’s also an openly post-Alex Masters biography of a friend of mine called Bob Rowberry who ended up being pretty much everywhere the counter-culture was going off. Procul Harum were named after his cat. The working title is ‘A Hero for High Times’, and is due for publication by Jonathan Cape in late 2013. Cape have a fine tradition of publishing counter-culture stuff; they published Richard Neville’s ‘Play Power’ in 1970 – I have a nice first, with dustwrapper, though sadly it lacks the game insert in the pocket attached to the rear endpaper.

Who - in life or writing - do you most admire and why?

In life, and I’m very much afraid this might make your readers boak their rings, I most admire my wife, a book-woman to her core, who looks like Charlotte Gainsbourg, who puts up with a lot with a whole lot of love, and who is hugely fucking clever and funny.

Her or Gus Poyet.

In writing…. Oh god. I’d take Henry David Thoreau to a desert island. And Orwell’s essays. And The Four Quartets. My favourite book of last year was Richard Beard’s ‘Lazarus is Dead.’, by a country mile. I treat Geert Mak’s ‘In Europe’ much as Network Rail used to treat the Forth Rail Bridge, in that I pretty much start it again as soon as I’ve finished it. It was first published in hardback as ‘In Europa.’ I don’t have the hardback, which makes me sad. I have hinted till I’m blue in the face, but nothing. I am 54 on March 14th.

Tell me something I don't know.

E-books will eventually be a good thing for the secondhand market, as fewer books will be reprinted, thus forcing prices upwards.

Something of the Night is out now in precious hardbook form with Simon and Schuster. The price – though it might seem extortionate now – will look very reasonable in fifty years time…

Friday, 10 February 2012

Lizzie Enfield on being surrounded by psychopaths while loving the mundane

LIZZIE Enfield: wise, kind, thoughtful, funny, quick, bright, shy, reckless too sometimes (in a careful and considered kinda way). She always knows more than she lets on. And worries more than she should. When I met Liz I think I was still slightly thinking of myself as a kind of Bono figure who had, by some terrible cosmic accident been suckered into working as a suburban schoolteacher, while Bono - who let's face it - is an earnest Geography teacher type if ever we saw one - somehow stole my existence pontificating about Big Causes on a Big Stage fronting a band making Big Music. Lizzie saw the real me. 

Lizzie christened me Baldrick.

But I didn't take offence. It would have been hard to because she's wise, kind, thoughtful, funny etc etc. And so are her books. What You Don't Know (Headline) came out last year and now is the turn of Uncoupled (Headline) and I guess Lizzie is doing what publishers call 'building a brand' and what her fellow writers might call a mapping out  a distinctive territory, and what readers might call writing a series of decent novels which entertain while asking hard questions in a soft voice.

And we're teaching together for the Arvon Foundation in July which should be a laugh. She can be good cop (wise, kind, thoughtful, funny etc etc etc) and I can get to play bad cop which  I rarely do (mean, shouty, cruel). I'm looking forward to it.

Oh - and she's Harry's sister but she won't let anyone mention that...

So, Liz. Your autobiography in exactly 50 words (not 49, not 51)

Born in Sussex. Still there! Billingshurst to Brighton via, Norwich and London. Wanted to be a spy but not very good at keeping secrets. Became journalist instead. Divulged stuff for BBC radio, then as a freelance for papers and mags. Still do that, alongside writing. Two novels so far…
 What are you doing right now?
Answering your questions, Steve…           
And what are you doing next? 
Going to meet a friend for coffee – so far so productive -  isn’t that what all writers do all day?                 Why should we read Uncoupled?
 You don’t have to! I know you don’t like the swirly/girly cover (which is changing for the paperback because the content is not so swirly/wirly).  It’s about a woman who survives a serious train crash and the indefinable relationship that develops after between her and another commuter, with repercussions. A friend just finished reading and said she could not stop laughing – yet, it’s a study of the psychological impact of being involved in major trauma, so I don’t know what she was laughing at.         
 How different is it to What You Don't Know?
I did a reading the other day and the person who introduced me described Uncoupled as modern Brief Encounter, which is exactly how I described WYDK – so either exactly the same or he had not done his research very well! It’s a similar set up.  Everyday family thrown into crisis by outside event/outsider but it’s a bit darker and I hope a bit better. 
 What's the next book going to be about?
 A modern Brief Encounter? The one I’m working on is v different. It’s about a group of once right-on p.c. friends who are now in their forties and have all made compromises. One of them makes a decision she thinks is the right one for her family but it devastates another family in the process… I’m not giving away the main thing, in case a faster writer writes it faster… 
  Where do you see yourself in five years time?
 Writing modern Brief Encounters? Living it up in my second home? Really? Plugging away at another novel, writing freelance stuff, fretting about being fifty, wondering why we will never be able to retire and the children have not left home…  The future is mundane but I’m happy with mundane… 
 You live in Brighton. How true is it that every middle class person in Brighton writes books (or wants to) ?
I think you have your figures slightly wrong, Steve. It’s two in five.  Writer, writer, psychotherapist, psychologist, psychopath is the correct current make up of Brighton professions…
  Who - in life or writing - do you most admire and why? 
Too many writers to mention (and have trouble separating admiration from envy) so will go for life and my admiration goes to handful of close friends who are incredibly giving and good humoured even when their lives are bloody difficult… 
 Tell me something I don't know...
 I was a very, very, shy, quiet, unconfident child/young adult. Now I try to pretend that I am not any of those things.  I think I get away with it but underneath all the front, it’s still there. The real me would not be talking to you…

What You Don't Know and Uncoupled are both out now (Headline)
Mine and Lizzie's Arvon course is at the John Osborne Arvon Centre at The Hurst, Shropshire July 9 - July 14 2012

Saturday, 4 February 2012

IT'S NOT ABOUT THE BOOKS! - A short note on libraries.

TODAY is National Libraries Day and there will be a lot of chat, a lot of noise about them. I love libraries. How could I not? My dad was a librarian. I spent much of my childhood hanging about in Bedford's County Hall library reading Jane's Fighting Ships. (I was a weird kid. Can't deny it).

 My dad helped design the colour scheme for the new Bedfordshire mobile library service in 1974 (Orange and grey. Dad what were you thinking? You should have asked mum. No, maybe not. Would have inevitably led to a row. God knows everything else did.)

For me, like loads of other people my age and older, libraries sparked off a lifelong reading habit that pretty much defines who we are. Libraries really did set us free.*

Despite that, the current debate around libraries is not about the precious books. I don't fetishise books. (you should see how I treat them. Like a dog treats a bone. Not too much reverence there.) It's about the public space. Libraries are the commons of the indoor world.  No one owns them. No one can kick you out of them, charge you rent for them, or sell them to you. They can ask you to keep your voice down and that's about it.

The professional classes have largely abandoned libraries. They get their books from Amazon or Waterstones, and they do their computing in Starbucks with a large coffee and a slice of something naughty but nice. A slab of something chocolaty. The professionals - the ABC1s - they can afford to pay the cappucino tax. And councillors and council officials are generally emphatically of the professional classes. And this is why they don't know that libraries are full. Full of ordinary working people thinking, reading, writing CVs, looking for work, getting advice, getting the news, studying or - sometimes - just keeping warm.

They're full of kids too. Because libraries are not just the last public space where someone won't try and make you buy a blueberry muffin to justify your seat - they are pretty much the last places where kids can wander without being run down by a car or happy-slapped by their peers.

People wanting to close libraries love it when the debate is about books. So don't do it, Mr library Campaigner! It's a trap! Make the debate about books and the bean counter will adjust his trendy European  style specs and intone statistics about book lending dropping 6.9% year on year, and tell you that current forecasts suggest that the last library book will be issued on September 19 2021 and will be by Catherine Cookson or Jacqueline Wilson. 

Don't make books your battleground. I work for the Arts Council and we have a thing we say - we say we want to Achieve Great Art for Everyone and libraries are key to this. Because libraries are where Everyone is. All those places where theatres aren't, galleries aren't, art centres aren't - libraries are. All those people who don't have wireless internet at home, who don't speak English at home, who don't have jobs - they're in the library. Those hard to reach Cs, Ds, Es - the Neets and the Neds. They're all in the library. It's a paradox isn't it? One of the things about Britain I like.

No, it's not about the books - it's about the PC's and a place to meet and talk and plan. If every time someone logged on to a PC it counted the same as a book being issued the bean counting man with the European style specs would have to revise his figures upwards. He would have to agree that libraries were growing more important not less.

And then, just sometimes, it IS about the books. Everyone's first interaction with the arts comes with a visit to the library as a dot, pushed there by proud parents. Every parent does this. Teenage parents do it, just as Islington yummy mummies do it. Even parents who can't read themselves do it. Every new parent wants the best for their kid and every new parent knows this means stimulation and exercising baby's mind as well as as body - and this means books. Kindles don't really cut the mustard when it comes to picture books and anyway who is going to let Millie, Molly, Polly, Olly, Apple or Harper Seven get their rusky fingers all over their new eThing? The germ that will become the next Alesha Dixon, the next Dappy or the next Chris Martin will be nurtured in the childrens section of the library just as the next Zadie Smith will be.

And let's not be fobbed off with 'iconic' mega-libraries either. (isn't 'iconic' becoming a euphemisim for 'disastrous'? - the Millenium Dome was 'iconic' the Scottish Parliament was 'iconic' the bleeding Titanic was 'iconic' in its day) Of course city centres should have their big libraries. Big libraries with hundreds of PCs, lots of meeting rooms, and all the archives and records for everyone researching their family history. And yes, they should probably have quite a few books as well.

But the estates need their libraries, the villages need their libraries. Britain is not just a country of major cities. It is actually a country of small and medium sized towns and semi urban estates - that's where the real action of the UK takes place. That's where people are living and loving, fighting and fucking. And where people live, love, love, fight and fuck. Well, that's where they need their library -their free space. Their place where they won't have to buy a blueberry muffin just to keep out of the drizzle.

*A note on the Manic Street Preachers, the band who put a love of libraries in the top ten of the hit parade (A Design for Life) - I hate them. they were boring before Richey left and only improved slightly after he disappeared. (and I saw them live during the Richey phase. Dreadful racket)  If You Tolerate This is quite a good song but for the rest - Jesus, they are Coldplay but with a copy of Das Kapital where the tunes should be. They were right about libraries though.