Mike Garry talks about his life, work and the city of Manchester with fellow Mancunian writer CP Lee at Louder Than Words Festival. The talk is punctuated by readings throughout. Recorded at The Palace Hotel, Manchester, November 2015.
Mike Garry talks about his life, work and the city of Manchester with fellow Mancunian writer CP Lee at Louder Than Words Festival. The talk is punctuated by readings throughout. Recorded at The Palace Hotel, Manchester, November 2015.
As Ian Clayton’s Bringing It All Back Home approaches its tenth anniversary, and we prepare to mark the occasion at the Pontefract Festival of Stories, here is an interview Ian conducted about the book in 2006, prior to publication. In ten years, the book has been on a journey of its own, and with each person who has read it, and every review written, something new has been brought to its essence. This then, an interview conducted before the book entered the world, gives insight into its conception and original intent.
Ian Clayton answers questions about Bringing It All Back Home in a public house in the Castleford Potteries, a traditional drinking hole adjacent to a dilapidated old tin hut which was once home to a school where a young Henry Moore began his education.
Q: Can you tell us a little bit about why you wanted to write this book?
A: It’s just some stories that I’ve been telling for years and never written down. Most stories circulate in their own neighbourhood, you might call this a gang of stories bursting out of where they are from.
Q: The book is essentially about music, but in it you do talk a lot about the value of the stories and the power of storytelling.
A: It starts with sounds really. If you enjoy music it’s because you’ve enjoyed sounds as a kid. The sounds can be anything, from listening to birds whistling in the morning to listening to the sounds of the street where you live, to listening to arguments. In my case I listened to a lot of arguments because I grew up in a house full of them. I listened to what people were shouting to each other about. And it’s a learning thing then. Because I tried to understand what the arguments were about and in trying to understand what arguments are about I get an understanding of what people are about. So that’s the first part of it, listening to sounds, listening to noises. I always enjoyed listening to what was going on, it could be my old grandad telling stories, could be old neighbours telling ancient stories about what their lives were about and what entertained them.
I listened to a lot of radio when I was a kid, so that’s a really big memory for me. Radio Luxemburg in my case, sometimes the pirate radio stations I got to hear. The few records that we had I enjoyed and on top of that are the stories that children tell each other at schools, and I always got something out of that; playground games, rhymes, songs that kids were singing in playgrounds, stories that kids were telling in playgrounds.
Then above that I grew up in a place where working men’s clubs were strong; they always had entertainment at weekends and I’d hear songs coming out of those places. These songs were contemporary in a way because the songs that turns were singing in working men’s clubs were up to date, but also old fashioned because they were presented in a way that entertainment to working people had been presented for a hundred years, right back to the music halls. And although I didn’t know it when I was a kid, thirty years later I would become fascinated by music hall and I think the fascination is because that was the music I was hearing as a kid. The songs that my relatives and friends and neighbours were singing coming out of working men’s clubs wasn’t much different to what people had been listening to for a hundred years or more. So that’s the starting point really. The starting point isn’t pop music, rock music or folk music or any kind of music, it’s sounds; sounds of my neighbourhood, my street, my school playground, my family home and places of entertainment, which was working men’s clubs.
Q: You’re saying that fascination with stories and the fascination with music is inseparable. So your pursuit of music which is outlined in this book, is that a pursuit of stories and other places?
A: I can’t separate anything, I never have been able to. It’s what is usually wrapped up as culture by better educated, more culturally aware people. They will say that conversation, music, art, creativity, reading, stories, dance, however we choose to express ourselves creatively, is culture. I never got the opportunity to see anything beyond the confines of my town where I lived until I was a young man, so for the first sixteen years of my life my culture was wrapped up in my environment and what that means. So anything that is coming to me is synthesised really. If I hear a record that is on Radio 1, I don’t hear it on Radio 1, I hear it in my kitchen on a wireless. And so it means something because of that. Therefore when I hear The Kinks singing ‘Lola’, I don’t think of it as a band that is recording in London as part of a 1960s, early 1970s pop culture, I hear it as part of an everyday occurrence coming from a wireless or a record in my house. I don’t recognise the pop music industry as a separate entity to my everyday life, it’s just another part of what I’m listening to or experiencing. To be precise when I think of ‘Lola’ it makes me recall a caravan holiday at Withernsea on the Yorkshire coast, which is a long way from ‘old Soho where they drink champagne and it tastes just like cherry cola’.
Q: There are many journeys in the book, lots of starting points that lead you to other stories; finding a blues record in a second hand shop in Cornwall leads you to Bessie Smith’s deathbed; listening to the wireless leads on to you being on the wireless, to making radio. Have you educated yourself through these things?
A: It’s utilising experience. I didn’t think this when I was younger, I’m not even sure I’m completely aware of what I’m doing now, but I think that if the metaphor for life is the journey, then part of that metaphor is experiences. If life’s journey is about experiences that you have in life, then it necessarily follows that one experience must lead to another and that if you can enjoy and learn from those experiences then your natural and instinctive inquisitiveness leads you from one experience to the next. I don’t have any qualms about making the leap from the general hubbub of noise in my backyard to the concert hall where I go to see my first opera.
Q: The world is awash with music and we get it pumped at us on a regular basis. How do you discern, what is it that interests you in a piece of music? How do you make your steps?
A: You’re touching on taste there. I think authenticity is the word. If with expression – whether it be musical, storytelling or however you choose to express yourself – if you are doing that with sincerity then it necessarily follows that it is an authentic experience of who you are, where you are from, what you are aiming towards and what you are trying to understand in order to transfer that understanding to somebody else. If you take an old music hall song that my grandad used to sing, I think that’s a great thing because it’s the popular music of that time and it’s meant something to his life and therefore meant something to mine because I’m part of him. If you take a Blue Note jazz record by Ike Quebec or Art Blakey it’s completely out of my experience in real terms but I can see what they are doing, expressing something which is dear to them or near to them, so that’s important. I’ve listened to African music, I’ve never been to West Africa or Central Africa, but I enjoy the music of Congo and Mali because I can see what they are doing, that they are expressing something which is close to them, meaningful and authentic.
Q: As you’ve travelled through your life and you’ve made journeys and connections, as you’ve moved from one thing to another there is a sense in the book of collecting and hoarding as you go along and you fill your house. There is this talk of your ‘head being your house and your house being your head’. What is this instinct about? You may hear the hubbub of a playground, but that is a transient and passes by, why is it you feel the need to collect music and artefacts?
A: I think it might be primitive. Most human beings who have nothing try to acquire and once they’ve acquired they try to keep. Here again I don’t separate the collections in my house from the collections in my head. Playground hubbub is transient, but even though it doesn’t sit on a shelf in my house it is filed somewhere in my head.
I don’t want to make a big sociological argument for this book, but I think working-class people like to acquire things that they haven’t got and they hold them. My record collection is pristine and I don’t want to hurt it, I want it be as good as it was when I got it. There is a passage in this book that is very important to me and that is when I was a little boy I liked to collect things because I didn’t want them to be lost. I used to collect things that were washed up from the sea at the seaside because it seemed to me they were very lonely; pieces of wood with bits of writing on that were once crates for fruit or vegetables, once were boxes that had things in them and now were destroyed and tossed about on the waters. I saved stuff like that because it seemed to me that it was more important to render them not lost. I don’t know if that connects. I think it probably does actually, if you render something not lost anymore it connects to something that’s been created, so something that’s found is as important as something that is made. I’ve been thinking about this a lot in the last few years, while creativity is a good thing for all human beings to be involved in – and I have been involved in a lot of creativity in my life – I think that finding things is just as important and what you can do with things that you find is great.
Q: There are lots of references in the book to your desire as a young man to make maps. You had this very early, almost romantic fascination about foreign places and wanting to create maps. Is your library and record collection and your trinkets some kind of map of your life?
A: Yes they are, they are places on a map, it’s a progressive route. I also think that I’m very romantically and sentimentally attached to my hometown and I want it to be as important as other people’s hometowns. I’ve been upset over the years that there are certain northern English working class towns that don’t get the recognition that they deserve. I’ve sophisticated this idea over the years – I didn’t know this when I started to think about it – but it seems to me that my hometown is as important as anybody else’s hometown anywhere in the world. So, if I can find something from another place and compare it to something that’s from where I’m from and share the comparisons and draw the significances, then it lifts my hometown up to their level, or the level that they perceive themselves to be at. It’s a way of drawing maps and drawing lines between places. This is what I’ve heard from your place, now listen to something coming from mine.
Q: The title Bringing It All Back Home is in many ways about a dialogue. Exactly what you have just described, a dialogue between what you have, what you can bring to it and what you can export as well.
A: I don’t think there is any point in making any journey whatsoever if you are not going to take anything with you as well as bring something back. I despise the idea of being a cultural tourist; I don’t want to be one. That means to say that the only thing you will ever do is go to somewhere to see what you can get from it. I’d rather take something with me and then it works both ways.
Q: If this book represents your journey so far, where do you go from here? What is interesting you now, what musical journeys do you expect to embark on?
A: I’ll carry on doing what I do. It’s undefined. We talk about maps, we talk about compass directions, we talk about journeys, and journeys always suggest that there is a start and a middle bit and that you come to some kind of end. This book doesn’t work in that way because it goes round and round. Time isn’t accounted for, geographical location isn’t accounted for, except to say that there are certain places and comparisons that I have made. I think that there are towns in America and Eastern Europe and Asia that have got more in common with where I’m from than places in the south of this country.
The hardest thing of all to deal with has been the terrible family tragedy that befell us. As I was coming to the end of this book my daughter Billie died in a canoeing accident. My partner Heather encouraged me to write about this and include it in the book. Billie’s death has ended many journeys for me. A lot of my life now, both professionally and personally, is going to be trying to work out how to restart the journey. I don’t want to make a big thing about it, but it just seems that a lot of endings have come all at the same time; working on a book that’s finished, having a child in your family that has died, doing some cathartic thing like getting a lot of stories out of you means that they’re not in you anymore. There’s a lot of endings that have come all at once.
Q: On the idea of time and how things connect to each other across all different sorts of levels, there’s a section in the book called ‘A Seed Doesn’t Stay in the Ground Forever’, do you see that there are seeds in the book that are part of that continuum, is there stuff in there that you will relate to and bring round again.
A: Of course there is. Nothing ever ends in that sense. There are resonances in this book coming from hundreds of years ago, which means that there will be echoes in years to come. It’s finding that ear for both resonance and echo and I’ll do it. At the moment I’m a bit lost with that, I’m not quite sure what a lot of things mean anymore and I’m not sure what is going to be important anymore. I’ll just find it, it’ll happen. I’ve never planned, it’s always been quite an anarchic journey, sometimes I think the harder I try to make the maps the more I throw them away.
Tom Hingley chats with Connor McKernan of Belfast’s NVTV about his memoir Carpet Burns, his career to date and performs two tracks, ‘Glory Days’ and ‘Prodigal Son’.
Ian Clayton’s Arthur Scargill film, made on the occasion of Arthur’s 70th birthday. It’s a slightly different profile of Arthur than we’re used to being presented with.
Arthur talks movingly about the support of his parents, his early days as a trade unionist and about events of the miners’ strike of 1984/85.
‘My father was a tremendous reader, he was a master of words. If you learn you will be able to understand the world in which you live, but more important, you will be able to do things in a way that can help put it right.’
Ian and Arthur revisit the site of the Orgreave Coke Plant, scene of a bloody battle during the strike; and the chamber of the NUM headquarters in Barnsley where Arthur recalls his first speech in the early 1960s.
Recorded in January 2008.
Michael Nath talks to Seki Lynch about British Story
SEKI: More than anything, British Story is preoccupied with character, both with Arthur Mountain, the great character of the book, but also it seems concerned with the idea that one, namely Dr. Kennedy, may be able to acquire character, or reveal parts of his character which have remained dormant. There’s a lot to tackle just on this one subject, but firstly, what does character mean to you?
MICHAEL: I fancy that literary character is a magical effect which we still haven’t got too smart for. Our experience of character isn’t really distinguishable from our experience of each other, though it’s often more attentive. Clever people may tell us character is ‘only a matter of make-believe’, but practice hears a tremor in that phrase.
Baudelaire calls language skilfully managed sorcellerie évocatoire, and if you want some ‘evocative sorcery’, get you to Part VI of Yeats’s great poem, ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’, where a C14th Irish demon named Robert Artisson (who bears some resemblance to the Mayor of London) is called up. If this is marvellous, and terrifying, consider how much more marvellous is the appearance of character in the novel, where the effect has to be prolonged.
There’s a passage in Proust where the narrator says that everyday gestures of people are supernatural. I wonder what you think of that? Does he mean that it’s so remarkable that any of us are here at all, that we spend our lives not drawing attention to it – like bashful spirits? Then character is the expression of this condition of ours, here, and not here.
Note how often we use forms of the verb ‘to be’, when we refer to characters. This is not just a ‘convention’: we intuit their existence.
In answer to the other part of your question, let’s say that to acquire character is to become like someone in a book or drama, hard to forget, even time-proof …
‘When you’re a character, other characters check you out.’
You become a kind of perfume.
Secondly when did your own preoccupation with character begin and how important to you is the relationship between how characters are shaped by and shape a story?
You’re asking this at just the right time, since I realised a couple of days ago that it began with The Herbs, a lovely kids’ programme. When the narrator uttered the password, you went through a door in a sunlit wall and met these characters, a lion, a lord and lady, a witch, and so forth. At the end of the programme, the door shut – but it wasn’t over. Most of the talk of Shakespeare in British Story, is concerned with Falstaff when the door shuts.
To the next bit of the question, I’d say that characters must dance the story. Of course, the dance can be a slow one, such as your saraband – indeed, this may be best for a man who’s tied his shoes together.
You said the idea for your first book, La Rochelle, came from a dream your brother had. How did you get the idea for British Story?
Long ago, an August evening in Edinburgh, in the alcove of the flat where my wife and I lived, just behind the King’s Theatre, I saw a pale young man in a white shirt who’d run away from home; with shaking hand, he was trying to write … a moth fell in his tea and died; he gave up, and went into the city. His name was Ian Brown. Soon enough, he ran into a green-eyed Welshman. But it began with Ian Brown …
This is a very ambitious work, as the title suggests. How long has it taken you to write and why try to tackle such a large project?
It was around 1991 I had the idea. I spent some years on character sketches. From 1998 to 2001, I wrote several earlier versions; bits of these (like the sketches) were published here and there. I wrote a couple more novels (La Rochelle and The Book of the Law – which was never published). August 2009, I returned to British Story. All in all, it’s occupied nearly a quarter century – if you measure such things by years.
If it seems a large project, that’s because I don’t care for miniaturism, or economy in the novel. I’m for the baroque.
There’s a wonderful reference to the first line of Saul Bellow’s Herzog in British Story, ‘Was he losing his mind? All right with Kennedy.’ Which characters most influenced your writing of this book?
Well with Kennedy, there was a touch of Herzog (and maybe a trace of Ramona Donsal in Barbara, come to think of it), also Josef K, the type Woody Allen plays (though Kennedy’s taller), Joe (a hapless kid who lived in a transport cafe), Prufrock, Horace (again, a programme – mentioned in the book), even Prince Hal.
To let you in on a secret (though as a Yorkshireman, you may know already), there was a C19th hopping champion called Kennedy. Now Kennedy was such a fearsome hopper that opponents often bottled out of racing him, so he picked up the purse without having to hop at all – unless he performed a lap or so to please the crowd. The Kennedy in British Story is modelled ironically on that athlete, since he can never get his feet free.
Arthur Mountain is a kind of Falstaff; but at one time, he was also like Jack Carter (of the Ted Lewis novels), and Mark E Smith, along with some people I’ve known; I wonder if anyone will compare him to the Baron de Charlus? Perhaps not.
You’ve called British Story a romance but it is not a typical love story. What does romance mean to you in relation to this novel?
It has the old sense of meaning a story that deals with fantastic or improbable things, a tale of enchantment, questing, shape-shifting. The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser is a kind of force behind the book. Natalie, for example, is something like the lady knight, Britomart.
The book comically has gripes with the modern state of affairs, which spans across everything from surveillance, politics, journalism, gang mentality and academia to gadgetry and if you’re allowed to take your phone out while chatting in a pub. But there’s genuine concern which goes beyond simply being reactionary- Why did you feel it important to challenge these things?
Because I think modernity, its instruments, its conceit, its presumption in speaking for all of us, is a monster. Of course, we all have clean water and the vote – in the western world, at least. But individuality (genuine individuality) and the soul are hated, since they can’t be rationalised – or told what to buy. Meanwhile, our thirst increases, we cannot breathe for the grit of numbers.
With an air of horrible achievement, people talk about ‘kick-starting’ the day, or their ‘energy levels’, as if existence were now fully mechanical and metred. In public life, no one speaks in sentences; they conduct the traffic of their own meaning, they wave their hands, and emit messages. It’s uncool to say things slowly.
I would like British Story to slow things down a bit.
In both La Rochelle and British Story there are often uncanny coincidences which propel the story forward. Mountain even says at one point, ‘The coincidence is the story.’ Why is coincidence so prominent in your writing?
To annoy statisticians.
Or you could say it’s a preservation of the romance, where characters happen upon each other just as the story needs.
But it’s also part of the waking dream.
By the way, people who have long memories experience coincidence frequently …
‘Nothing disappears/ Though all is rearranged’!
Speech is clearly important to your work. Accents, dialects and colloquialisms are rich throughout the novel. The narrator’s voice especially is as much a lesson in story telling as Arthur Mountain’s speeches – constantly joking, whispering, changing pace with the rhythms of the story. What is it about speech that interests you so much?
Well it is a British story, so it can’t just speak in that metropolitan register that’s common in the literary novel. At the same time, you don’t want to overdo the phonetic/dialect realism: a) because it attracts too much attention; b) because it’s exceptionally difficult to get right (the various forms of ‘you’ and ‘your’ in Swansea speech are hard enough to do accurately). What matters is that the Welsh, Scotch and English regions have each their own sound.
Cheers. What you say about the voice of the narrator is quite a compliment. The novel in general ought to be in conversation with the reader; once you have the reader listening, you can make most things interesting (even, I hope, a fridge). Like the ghost of Cirencester (1670 AD), the narrator should address the reader in a ‘melodious twang’. Know what I mean?
Aristotle says plot is the soul of tragedy; well voice is the soul of the novel. By the voice, we judge if a novel is living or dead. Nothing else matters.
Much well-reviewed and prize-winning fiction is stone dead.
Have you begun working on anything new or is there a new idea you want to tackle?
Yes. It’s called The Treatment. Look out for Mr Arnold, John F (‘Fabian’) Morgan, the Sibyl, Lawyer Hanley, Donna Juan, Claire Sykes and the terrible de Laceys.
Seki Lynch writes poetry and short stories concerned with love and romance in the modern day, and is currently working on his first novel.
Janet talks diary-keeping to Wes Butters, a keen diarist himself, and how the diaries helped her to write Nothing Ever Happens in Wentbridge.