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Tue, 09 Dec 2008 11:38
Mark Thwaite: What gave you the idea for writing Skinheads John?
John King: I was interested in the way beliefs and values are passed on in a family, across the generations, and so I decided on characters that were linked by blood but also by their place of work, the cab firm Estuary Cars, which is mentioned in Human Punk and White Trash, two other novels set in and around Slough. The main faces in Skinheads are also linked by their skinhead roots, and I was keen to write about their interests and beliefs honestly, produce something very different to the media stereotype. The two lead characters are influenced by Gunner George, who was in a Lancaster bomber shot down during the war, and their skinhead code of honour and decency stems from his example.
The skinhead look and stance are the base of the various youth cults I grew up with, from the boot-boy era to the non-fashion end of punk. The first skins listened to Jamaican music, while the second big wave that occurred in the late Seventies and early Eighties was largely interested in a stripped back, socially-honest form of punk. This later music was branded Nazi by various outsiders, which just wasn't true, so putting the ska-loving Terry next to the Oi-loving Ray was an obvious move, and equally as interesting for me was the way those two forms of music have merged in the newer ska-punk that the teenage character Lol, and millions of other kids, listen to today. It is a nice example of our cultural heritage.
Skinheads is part of a loose trilogy -- The Satellite Cycle -- which includes Human Punk and White Trash. Human Punk is set in 1977, 1988 and 2000, while the bulk of Skinheads occurs in 2008, with stories from 1969 and the early 80s connecting with the main narrative. White Trash is a little different, written in a simpler, good-versus-evil dancefloor style, and hopefully links the other two novels, dealing as it does with the importance of every person's life and the way in which a money-mad elite tries to dismiss and trivialise ordinary people. Punks and Skinheads are examples of this dismissal, and the role music plays in our culture is highlighted. It all fits together in my head at least.
MT: How long did it take you to write (and research) your book? How do you write? Longhand or directly onto a computer, straight off or with lots and lots of editing?
JK: I work quickly, and don't really do any research, as I write about things I know, though I do check dates and names, things like that. I write the main body of text fast and then go back and edit and rewrite where necessary, looking for more interesting ways of saying things. I enjoy the editing as much as the initial writing. Maybe more so in fact, as all sorts of threads and new ideas appear and the book evolves. I know it's a cliché, but it really can take on a life of its own. It is very exciting as these thoughts arrive and lead off in all sorts of unusual directions.
Skinheads took a lot longer to write than my other novels. I wrote most of it three years before it was published, but my dad became very ill and eventually passed away, so I was with him and couldn't write anything. Even if I'd wanted to, I wasn't able. Then I went through a phase of not seeing the point of writing any more, which was a shock, as I believe in the power of novels, think they are important and can influence lives, but eventually I managed to get back into the book and finish it off. I tried to make Skinheads upbeat, wanted to stay with my initial aims for the novel, to create something that ended The Satellite Cycle on a positive note.
MT: What is it that you find so vibrant, interesting and compelling about subcultures?
JK: I don't really think about the things I write about as subcultures, though I understand your question. I suppose I like the strength of these areas, their focus and determination, but nothing exists in isolation, so I enjoy broadening things out, creating parallel stories.
MT: Is English culture far more about its subcultures, then, than mainstream culture would have us believe?
JK: It depends what you mean by mainstream culture the evolving culture of the masses or the plastic interpretation pumped out by the media and big business. It depends which direction things come from the bottom up or the top down. If something comes from the top down it is usually via a power-propelled committee or a money-motivated business interest. I'm more interested in a culture that starts with people and evolves freely. There is real belief and feeling in such a culture. So, yes, I would say England is about lots of subcultures clattering along and merging and working together, forming a larger mainstream.
MT: Over the course of all your novels are you attempting a form of extended social commentary?
JK: Yes, definitely. The Football Factory was inspired by George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four and his idea of "the power of the proles." I met Ken Loach once and that was the first thing he said about The Football Factory imagine the power the masses would have if they were united. That's exactly what The Football Factory is about.
Headhunters and England Away take this idea on. Headhunters looks at the so-called sex war, and is basically saying that you can't separate people according to their sex. What does one of these wealthy chat-show ladies have in common with a woman who has to work for a fiver an hour and raise children at the same time, someone in debt forever and doing something she hates. It is the difference between a job and a career. These hippy matrons bleat on about careers from their posh town houses but most women have jobs dull, repetitive, badly-paid jobs. Just like most men in fact. England Away sees these ideas of unity taken further, beyond region and sex to nationality, and at the end of the book beyond nations. The Football Factory Trilogy is all about the need for unity and the creation of enemies.
Human Punk deals with three eras of British political life as seen through the eyes of someone whose education comes through music, while White Trash is a defence of the NHS and tries to show the importance of ordinary lives and experiences. Skinheads completes the trilogy and focuses on family bonds, the value of music and books, the importance of community. All three books consider the powerlessness of everyday people, and The Prison House takes this on in a more extreme setting. The Prison House came out before Skinheads and is set in a foreign prison, is about love and loss and survival to an extent, but more about those who are judged and those who are bullied. Every novel is a continuation of the last in terms of ideas and themes, although they obviously stand alone with regards their storylines.
MT: What does it mean, do you think, to Terry English actually to be English?
JK: For Terry, being English means having pride in his family, friends and culture, treating people fairly, not taking himself too seriously. He believes in hard work, but isn't driven by money. He is tolerant and generous, has no time for totalitarianism or show-offs. He drinks too much and eats unhealthy, tasty food. He likes his reggae records and a curry. He is the truth of liberal England.
The question Owhat is it to be English' is a difficult one to answer though, but then so would the question Owhat is it to be Brazilian' or Owhat is it to be Indian'. England has traditionally been described as conservative and unemotional, but this is a description of those running the place rather than the masses. I see English culture as vibrant, exciting, chaotic. We like laughing and telling jokes, getting drunk, hearing and inventing music. We are overweight and want to have fun. We are different from Europeans, who are a bit more controlled, yet many countries in Europe have a history of extreme politics. Our rulers are more in that European tradition, see Europe as the height of sophistication.
The English are a mixture of Celts, Angles, Saxons, Vikings, and so on, and Nutty Ray would tell Terry that the yuppie brigade must have different roots. Or that maybe there's a laboratory knocking clones out of test tubes, a series of EU robots obsessed with house prices and gastro-pubs, their mechanical voices bleating on and on as they tell everyone else how to live and how important they themselves are and what words the proles can and cannot use. Terry would understand what Ray was saying, and probably agree, but he would be too easygoing to become angry and too polite to pick on any such individual. Typical English really.
MT: You are said to be an authentic voice "disaffected white British youth". So, multi-culturalism then: good or bad?
JK: Cultures evolve, usually slowly. People hardly notice and feel comfortable with gradual change, but if you aren't living in a money-coated bubble then your identity and culture are very important to you, so when it seems to be under threat through rapid immigration, there is going to be fear and resentment. It is the same all over the world. My feeling is that the way multi-culturalism is talked about does more damage than its actual existence. In my lifetime it has been promoted by too many careerists with a chip on their shoulder, England-haters who have been brainwashed at university. When the white British are told they don't even have a culture, and see their way of life and beliefs constantly belittled and sneered at, well, it's surprising there hasn't been more of a backlash.
Is it good to have cultures that don't link up with the dominant culture? Probably not, and I'd ask if we want people to come here who only want to make money, but I think most working people who come to this country do have a respect for our way of life and do want to integrate. The thing is, for many people that term Omulticulturalism' has come to mean poorer immigrants, and doesn't seem to take into account the professional classes from the EU and other wealthy countries who have no interest in our culture. If money is their only motivation, it can't be a good thing, and their wealth means they have the power to change our culture. Personally, I believe we should get out of the EU immediately. I prefer the Commonwealth.
MT: Do you read the critics? Have you been pleased with the responses to your books? Have you learned anything from them?
JK: I read what reviews I get, but I don't get very many. I've had three or four really good ones in my time, but generally they are superficial or dismissive. I receive better coverage in places like Italy, France and Russia, where they take literature more seriously. Here it's all wrapped up in the class system, a mixture of favours and jealousy. It's a shame, but connects with what I write about in my novels, so I don't expect too much.
MT: What do you do when you are not writing?
JK: Think about writing. But I also read, listen to music, enjoy socialising in various pubs I know. I like pubs a lot. If I didn't have my writing I would be tempted to sit in one all day. I've done a fair bit of travelling over the years, love seeing other places. Normal things really. I'm putting together a home studio at the moment, which is interesting. I wouldn't mind having a garden one day as I like plants, would enjoy growing vegetables, things like that. I don't have expensive tastes.
MT: Did you have an idea in your mind of your "ideal" reader? Did you write specifically for them?
JK: No, not at all. I think books should be open to everyone, and I think they are, because the great thing about a novel is the imagination the reader brings to the book. Every person's imagery is different. That's the great strength of fiction. It's what makes it so special.
MT: What are you working on now?
JK: I writing a book about an honest man who knows the true war on terror needs to be fought on the home front. The meat and dairy industries are mutilating, raping, castrating, torturing and murdering tens of billions of animals a year in Britain, and hundreds of billion across the globe. All over the world there is a genocide taking against the meekest and most innocent creatures. People turn their heads away, block out the reality. Many just don't care. Meat eating in Britain has nothing to do with nutrition or survival. It is purely a matter of habit and taste. How many of these great lecturers who ramble on about things they can do nothing about go home and tuck into a lamb chop or chicken sandwich? If people did the right thing and stopped eating animals they would stop the slaughter immediately. This is something that they could actually achieve. It is the reality.
MT: Who is your favourite writer? What is/are your favourite book(s)?
JK: George Orwell. He had a massive influence on me. I think he was a very honest man -- Nineteen Eighty-Four, Animal Farm, Burmese Days, his brilliant Essays. It's incredible to think he was only in his forties when he died. Orwell saw through the lies. Most of what he said is still true today. He summed up so many things I already felt, put them into words. He was a genius.
Alan Sillitoe is another author I admire, and I can remember picking up his novels when I was a teenager and being amazed that someone was writing about the world I knew. Even though he was writing about Nottingham, and in what for me was the past, it was incredible. He stands alone. I have known Alan for ten years now and he is our greatest living author. No doubt about it. He should be promoted and honoured and treated like the king of literature he remains. His recent book A Man Of His Time is one of the best he has ever written.
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley was another book that had a big influence on me, and his visions have come true, more so that Orwell's really genetic engineering, cloning, ecstasy. I also love American literature for its style and freedom Hubert Selby Jr, Jack London, John Fante, Charles Bukowski, Thom Jones, Philip Roth. William Burroughs is interesting for his ideas, and I read Jack Kerouac's novels when I was younger. In some ways they seem very naive now, but the energy and desire to travel was impressive. I also like Caribbean writers such as Sam Selvon and Earl Lovelace, plus Albert Camus and Emile Zola from France.
Other British novelists I enjoy include Irvine Welsh, Iain Sinclair, Alan Warner, Martin Knight, Stewart Home, Laura Hird, Ben Richards, Michael Moorcock, Peter Ackroyd people like that. I'm interested in old London fiction and started a publishing company London Books a couple of years ago with Martin Knight. So far we've republished Night And The City by Gerald Kersh, The Gilt Kid by James Curtis and A Start In Life by Alan Sillitoe. Those are our first three London Classics.
In October, we're planning to republish They Drive By Night by James Curtis, with an introduction by Jonathan Meades, and Wide Boys Never Work by Robert Westerby, with an introduction by Iain Sinclair. These old books are incredible, more modern than a lot of modern literature in fact, socially-minded and political and really dipping into the language of the day. They offer a view of a time that would otherwise be left unrecorded and are great novels in their own right. I could go on and on, there are so many great novels out there, and I've probably missed loads I should have mentioned. I was a big Agatha Christie fan when I was a boy, but never solved a case.
MT: Do you have any tips for the aspiring writer!?
JK: Write for yourself. Choose a subject you are passionate about and follow your ideas. Take advice if you want, but don't try to please anyone else. And don't give up. Writing a book takes a lot of hard work, but it's one of the few things in life where you are in charge. You have total freedom and control and that's a great thing.
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