Category Archives: 20th century writers

One white crow – an interview with Nick Hudson

Nick Hudson interviewed by Caroline Simpson

Nick Hudson is a singular talent. Based in Brighton, Hudson, a musician, has a prodigious output, having produced four albums (My Antique Son, 2010, Territories of Dissent, 2010, A Day without Comfort, 2012 and Letters to the Dead 2012) over the past three years, which not only does he write, perform, play most of the instruments – he also records and produces himself.

Praised by outsider luminaries such as  David Tibet, Jeremy Reed and Julian Cope, Hudson’s music is spectral, creepy and menacing. Every song is a dark jewel, like ancient amber with an insect entombed inside. He is Pinky’s long lost brother; a wraith in Brighton’s labyrinthine back streets, whose stately and melancholy music is not only beautiful and strange, it is also disturbing, hinting at a world that is there, but is elusive – just out of reach.

Unrestrainedly and unabashedly ambitious, Hudson has now ventured into multimedia presentation having directed a film last summer to accompany, or augment, his latest recording Letters to the Dead.

As he sings on My Antique Son, “creeping, morbid, hopeful chant, And nervous, merry dance”.

Below is a conversation I had with Hudson, last autumn, in London.

When did you start making music?
I started playing violin at five, but never pursued it, because the teacher seemed like an alien, used to make us walk around the school with our violin on our shoulder. I then took up piano, essentially because of my Auntie Penny, who died in 1989, and was in a band called Room 101, who were at one point much loved by John Peel and Billy Bragg. She gave me a keyboard a few years before she died of cancer, and she gave me a keyboard and I started working stuff out on it, and my parents recognised that I had seemingly some affinity with it, so they bought me a piano and got me lessons.

I realised fairly quickly that I wouldn’t be concert pianist material – my sight-reading always suffered compared to my capacity to improvise. I think I was always inclined more towards a creative route than an interpretive one. Then I started playing guitar when I was ten, I’m totally self-taught. My technique’s not remarkable, it’s singular in that it’s me – replete with all the flaws that brings. And I got my first singing lesson when I was 23. I never really intended to sing.

I was living back at home where I started writing songs, saved up enough my money buy myself a laptop and a really crap mic. I downloaded some software. There was obviously some latent discharge waiting to happen ‘cause as soon as I had the capacity to record, I just went apeshit and started hemorrhaging songs. Then it was by default, “Ooh, I have to sing these, because there’s nobody else around – it’s Lincolnshire!”. I’m self-taught as a producer, and my ear for that and knowledge of the software is just through trial and error – plenty of the latter – but they’re starting to sound pretty decent I think.

 Nick Hudson with Yves Klein backdrop/ Photo by Joe Nockles

Nick Hudson with Yves Klein backdrop. Photo by Joe Nockles

And how did you get from Lincolnshire to Brighton?
I moved back after university, and it was something of an awful decision – I just think you get thrown into the same old behavioural archetypes that you had before you left. I became a teenager again, my dad became an oppressive monster again, which of course he isn’t, and I got generally very depressed and kinda decided that I could either stop there or write my way out of it.

How did that come about?
The writing gave me a lot more confidence and I’d also started corresponding with an author called Dennis Cooper.

I’ve never heard of him!
I know you haven’t!

Was that through the blog?
No, it was way before the blog. I emailed him personally. I’d just starting writing songs and I think it was reading his novels that gave me the confidence to write about the things I was addressing in my lyrics.

So this was about seven years ago?
And, the early lyrics were all quite stark, naked, confessional and, um, deeply unpleasant. (Laughter). I wrote to him, as a kind of nervous, delayed, adolescent. And he emailed me back. I sent him some music, and he replied saying, “Oh my god, this is really fucking beautiful, who are you? What’s your background?” And we became friends. This gave me a great deal of confidence to continue to write and explore these things in more detail and develop as a writer and an artist.

Prose and poetry were happening simultaneously with music anyway, and it was only when I was about 23 that I started twinning the writing and the music together. I think the confidence writing gave me, led me to looking to ways to move on from Lincolnshire. After this I ended up living in Crawley for a year or two.

Was this by yourself?
No, I was a lodger at some absolute nutjob’s terraced house.

How did you find that?
Family friend. And, y’know, we had fun. He was a challenging man in every sense, often in good ways, but … I wasn’t employed very much at the time so I was able to hone my craft, and write constantly. I mean, I think I did something like seven albums within three years or something stupid like that. And then minutes within arriving at Crawley, I got on the train to Brighton. I stepped off the train there and immediately thought, “Oh, I want to live here”. And within two years I was.

Apart from Dennis Cooper, what are your influences, music or otherwise?
They are as wide and varied as you would hope … Mmmm. I guess the real stayers, the enduring ones, are the absolute singular mavericks like Bjork … and Scott Walker, who I adore – every single stage of his career I adore, and a lot of the Eastern European contemporary classical composers like Penderecki and Gorecki and other names with the suffix “-esci”. His Symphony of Sorrowful Songs I listened to when I was 16 and it’s still one of the most strikingly beautiful things I’ve ever heard. Yeah, just something about the pace, orchestral texture and harmonic voicings really kicks my arse.

And although I don’t make dense modern classical music myself, it’s there, partly because of my training, partly because of my listening, there’s an influence, even if it’s understated. Who else?  Lots of film-makers actually. People like David Lynch, Terrence

Malick and Tarkovsky, who most recently has been utterly caning me.

Letters to the Dead – cover image

Letters to the Dead – cover image

And writers?
Burroughs, predominantly.

Why?
I think … I regard him foremost as a social philosopher in some sense, and as part of a potent lineage with Crowley, Genesis P-Orridge, Coil, and quite aggressive countercultural stuff.  And the cut-up work he did with Brion Gysin has been hugely influential on my approach to editing in whatever medium I’m working in.  Extreme juxtapositions within one piece I guess.

Why do you like that?
I guess I’ve always responded to collage, intuitively or whatever. It’s exciting to me to have lots of data densely crammed into one little announcement or something. I don’t know. It works for me.  And also, I guess like the modernists. They’re attempting to present an idea of consciousness with a greater accuracy than 19th-century novelistic fiction had ever done, and I find that really compelling.  And also, Burroughs’  life is fascinating too.  He’s kind of everything that society currently detests and deplores – he was a wife-murdering, misogynistic junkie. So, y’know …

What’s not to love?
Exactly, role models.

So you were in Brighton, you’d made lots of material.
Yep, too much some might say.

And you started to release these?
I always used to record as I’d write and I still do to a degree. It’s a slower process now as I’m better at recording, so it takes longer. The early stuff was very lo-fi and quickly produced. I’d barely edit. I was pretty much haemorrhaging songs as I’ve said. I’d always write and record pretty quickly. I did a seven-album cycle called The Phoenix Diaries which was me trying to write my way out of behavioural idiosyncracies that I found objectionable in myself … slightly fucked-up sexual stuff and …

The sea sprites in Letters to the Dead. Brighton, July 2012

The sea sprites in Letters to the Dead. Brighton, July 2012

Can you possibly elaborate?
You want me to elaborate? My mum might read this! Without labouring it, because it’s by no means an abuse tale on the level of intensity often reported, and rightly so – but there were incidents. Every adolescence is thorny, of course, and there were small, violent components to my forming. Little episodes with an older kid in my village. He was a speed freak. It’s all in the lyrics. And that kind of confused my approach to enjoying a healthy sexual dynamic for a while. That’s what most of the early cycle is – me trying to write my way out of that malingering bollocks. And then I started sending The Phoenix Diaries to various people.

Like who?
Franko B, Dennis Cooper, Alex Rose (he blogs with Dennis) who is an amazing artist based in Ireland. He is pretty reclusive. He has been a very fervent supporter of my early work who gave me a load of confidence, and opportunities. He is a really lovely human being. As I went on, I’ve just always entered into correspondence with people whose art I like, insofar as I can obtain their contact details, haha!

Go on?
Meredith Monk, briefly, which was lovely – when I got an email from her saying kind things about my music, I was kind of bowled over, y’know? And, Jeremy Reed and David Tibet, who wrote the foreword for My Antique Son – a record of mine that came out two years ago. Also, some photographers – Anthony Goicolea – he’s a Cuban-American photographer, his stuff’s really wonderful. His early stuff seemed to resonate with my early stuff – certain images he would use would appear in other forms in my own lyrics.

What’s Hexenverfolgung (this is a musical project of Nick’s)?
It’s German for witch persecution.

And who’s Kiddiepunk?
He’s Michael Salerno, a really good friend and another early supporter of my work who lives in Paris.  I played at his wedding in Italy last year – a really amazing week. He started a label which started out as a cottage industry zine. Then he started a label and put out The Elegy, which was a fairly wintry folk record that I made about five years ago.

For ToD, I got loads of orchestral players in to help me out, and I was still recording on a shitty SM58, standard dynamic microphone, usually for live work, but it’s all I could afford. I was recording acoustic instruments on that and through trial and error mixing them so they might sound ok and not lose all of the breadth of texture that string and wind instruments have – that was a challenge.

We self-released that, and that’s the first time we rented St Mary’s Church in Brighton – this huge, cavernous church with mind-blowing acoustics – a three-second sustain. We performed the entire record in sequence with a  ten-piece chamber orchestra. All through rehearsals, I was recovering from swine flu so I had a five-note range and was really cautious of infecting all of these wind musicians. But it went away just in time for the performance, and it went really well. Julian Cope reviewed the record – a profane and brash and crazy and lovely review.

Filming Letters To The Dead, Summer 2012. Photo by Lyndsey Muller

Filming Letters To The Dead, Summer 2012. Photo by Lyndsey Muller

And then My Antique Son happened. I got given a really brilliant microphone by a friend – a Neumann u89 – a £2,000 condenser mic, so a significant step-up from the SM58, which enabled me to everything with way more clarity, and to record sound sources that emit a lower signal. It’s really good for recording voices with. I went kind of nuts on My Antique Son. There’re loads of layered choral parts. I recorded throat singing and the organ and in the church, there are loads of doom metal influences on this one. It’s really progressive and psychedelic with a huge narrative. There’s a track – Hierocles – dedicated to Jeremy Reed on there, based on his book,  Boy Caesar.

And that’s the first one where I’d say the production is something I’m pleased with.  It took a good two years to make. It’s intensely sculpted, and feels more like theatre I would say.  It traces a lineage of my own connecting between what I call my pantheon of gnostic saints – from Heliogabalus, via William Blake, Aleister Crowley, Johnn Balance of Coil, Rimbaud and so on …

After My Antique Son, which was a really collaborative record without about 15 people on it, I wanted to hole up and make something entirely solo. A Day Without Comfort still sounds like a band record in places, even if it is only me. It’s way more intimate and personal than My Antique Son. The coalition, of course, has kicked my writing into more political realms – it’s quite a ranty, sore, acrimonious record. It also addresses certain episodes in the life story of a really dear friend, called John Bacchus. He has a really fascinating life story, and so the lyrics are his life so far condensed into a single day. It’s a more ballad-infused affair.

This brings us to Letters To The Dead. What were you trying to achieve with it?
I guess I tend to be quite reactionary. Every record seems to rebel against the processes, motives and shape of the previous one. I’d made this solo record, A Day Without Comfort, that set out to be very pop, insofar as I can conceivably go towards pop, which I’ve discovered is not very far.  In its production style, I was consciously aping Stephen Street’s work with The Smiths, and also certain Martin Hannett qualities – so an eighties agit-pop record essentially.  Letters To The Dead is utterly different. I was bored of compression and waveforms that look like a brick.

The Letters To The Dead, film ensemble. Photo by Lyndsey Muller

The Letters To The Dead, film ensemble. Photo by Lyndsey Muller

I knew I was going to make a record with very little compression. I’ve used lots of programming, and synths, post-production in the past. With the new one I wanted to record with very little post-production and use mainly acoustic instruments – that became the sonic blueprint. I also wanted to make a straight-up narrative record.  The narrative was written way before I actually began conceiving of it as a record. It’s an opera of sorts. Although that term intimidates me somewhat, so it’s essentially a narrative record.  I wrote the narrative, then started writing the lyrics which would convey the narrative, without being flatly expository, and then I started composing around them.

By this point I’d developed friendships with various members of really brilliant modern-compositional cult bands from NYC and Seattle, who’d all come from either the John Zorn milieu or from a Sunn O)))/Earth doom-y background.  I developed a friendship with Stuart Dahlquist who operates a band called Asva. Stuart was the original bassist in Sunn O))) and was in Burning Witch. And his band Asva are incredible. And every album they make, the further away from traditional doom they get.

The new one has shades of Arvo Part, and features Toby Driver from Kayo Dot on vocals.  I’d just gotten into Kayo Dot, and it was a total headfuck epiphany of a band to discover – totally kicked my arse when I heard them – it’s through-composed, but uses – especially in the early stuff, it’s gone even farther out now – rock instrumentation.

And we put them on in Brighton when they played their last UK tour, and hung out, and stayed in touch and developed a lovely online friendship, and now many of them appear on Letters. Toby, and various members of Kayo Dot, and satellite bands all contribute amazing parts. It has led to the record taking ages to make. Obviously if you’re collaborating with loads of people you have to wait for their schedules to allow for them to develop their contributions.  I also recorded a ten-piece choir of amazing Brighton singers in St Mary’s Church where we premiered the show.

The record’s now done. It’s being released on Antithetic Records which is run by just one guy, called Shawn. It’s an amazing DIY label, limited edition, in beautiful sleeves. Shawn really liked My Antique Son and we discussed doing something together. That turned out to be Letters To The Dead.  But also, I never conceived of it as just a record – it’s a performance as well, a film and a libretto booklet. It was more a case of isolating a narrative, refracting it through various media and seeing how they interact in the public forum.  The libretto booklet will feature all of the lyrics, scanned working notes, visual art, etc.

So all the instruments.
Yeah, I used some really beautiful pianos on Letters … for the lingering sonorities that my stage piano unfortunately can’t simulate. And Letters … is quite a sparse album so to have those hanging, sustained tones was important.  I had to blag my way into studios for free, or save up and rent rooms with pianos and good mics. Tim Byrnes is an amazing trumpet/flugel-horn player from New York who plays with Kayo Dot and his own outfit Hazel-Rah – provided a five-part brass arrangement of the opening track Bad Atoms – his contribution made for a really striking overture.

There’s a séance sequence in the narrative, and for that I wanted to exploit the human voice in unusual ways. I explained to the choir that I wanted them to respond to the vertical axis of my hands. When I’d raise my hand, they’d raise the pitch. They were doing long sustained notes and I was conducting them a bit like a theremin.

Can you tell us about the narrative?
It started pretty free-associative. Then I stripped it down into a more straightforward narrative. Basically, it tells the story of a woman who in the prologue abandons her child through bearing a complete lack of maternal compassion for it. Then it cuts to news footage of this being reported, and of the mother disappearing after the abandonment, and how the child hasn’t been found and how only the father remains. The father’s long-estranged from the family – barely even met the child.  Then it relates to a tale from the 1970s – a cult of fathers who were obsessed with battling over-population and would ritualistically abandon their first-borns into the ocean.

Is this true?
No. Haha. And then in the background you can see footage of three fathers abandoning three children into the ocean, and they sail off.  And then the piece really opens – the estranged father is a writer, he has his writing desk moored on the rockpools right at the fringe of the ocean. And he’s witnessed writing three open letters to his estranged child – each letter is a song. Every time he finishes writing a letter, he folds it into an origami sampan and sails it off into the ocean, like a message in a bottle.

Then we wind back about a hundred years – there’s a Victorian spirit medium called Leonora Piper, who was “tried” by William James – Henry James’ younger brother, and a psychologist – and him being a man of reason and empiricism. He was obviously sceptical, and yet he deemed this particular spirit medium’s psychical capacities so convincing that he became besotted with her. There’s a quote from him – “in order to disprove notion that all crows are black, you must but produce one white crow” – which I thought was pretty poetic. That’s why there are white crows dotted about the scenography and the film that’s attached to this project too.

Then we cut to a séance, and the mother from the prologue, is played by the same person who plays Leonora Piper, to imply a connection in the sense that they’re outlaws from what society would rather they be, so a séance happens, and she invokes three sprites from the ocean – undead, ocean-dwelling, half-naked, seaweed-draped sprites – and these are the kids that we saw being abandoned in the newsreel footage, and so there’s obviously some abandonment issues.

We then cut back to present day and the séance turns into a trial – as I figure they’re structurally quite similar – someone’s being tested, generally by sceptics. The mother is then put on trial by the trio of undead, ocean-dwelling sprites, and is banished into the ocean.  At which point, the child from the prologue sings a reprise of the overture addressed to his mother.

What do you hope to do with it?
We premiered it on November 5 at St Mary’s Church in Brighton – with giant origami sampans (boats) constructed from the letters, strobes, televisions emitting static, crows dotted about the space, and a causeway of candlelight.  We’ve also made a film to compliment it – kind of a cinematic album – a short feature – we had this screened at the Duke of York’s in Brighton in October.  A lot of the performers who appear on the record also appear in the film. The album’s coming out on vinyl, CD and DVD and as a libretto booklet. We screened the film as we performed it too.  I made the film with my collaborator Chris Purdie, who’s a really brilliant director who’s done stuff for Asva. We had a big shoot in Brighton which involved me taking the desk from my room about two miles up the road to the rock pools beyond Brighton Marina. My friend Gary Goodman, a poet, played the father. I sat him at the desk, writing the letters, gazing wistfully out to see and folding them into the sampans.  I felt a bit like a poor man’s Herzog carting the desk up there.

And we got some really beautiful shots – timed it so we’d have peak low tide and sunset. It was about the first good weather we had all year. I got footage of the sprites coming out of the ocean.  The cast are all really good friends and did an amazing job – covered in slimy kelp and writhing about in the sea.

NIck Hudson performs Letters to the Dead at its première in Brighton, 2012

NIck Hudson performs Letters to the Dead at its première in Brighton, 2012

So just a general question – what drives you creatively?
Erm. I’m probably quite naturally quite depressive and so in order to stave off the black dog, I keep myself really busy. Obviously I get huge intellectual and emotional satisfaction from working on it, and of course, it derives from some emotional core that it’s a little bit skewed in me. I think most writers maybe do it because they have an inability to express stuff in a more direct way. I’ve always liked telling stories  –manipulating words, sentences and music.

 The Letters To The Dead premiere, November 5, 2012. Photo by Chris Purdie

The Letters To The Dead premiere, November 5, 2012. Photo by Chris Purdie

Let’s not forget it’s fun.  The fact that I can do most of it from home is enormously liberating, as much as the democratisation of music that home recording allows – that can also produce a lot of shit. I think on the whole it’s an excellent thing. It’s occurring in most cases despite the industry.

And we’re essentially totally independent. There’s no big labels courting or moulding us. All the labels that we work with are often one person in the room who has an equally zealous thirst to do this kind of stuff.  Not that I would mind of course if some demented Russian oligarch decided to bequeath four billion pounds upon our creative acts, but in the meantime I’m happy to pursue bigger and more ambitious projects on whatever terms we can summon.

One last thing.  What’s the best thing that’s happened to you creatively?
I’m going to have to think carefully about this.  Ok. It’s all pretty exciting. It’s all challenging.  But, hmmm. I’ll list a few highlights.  One of them – playing in the cellar of a medieval castle in Italy last year – that was incredible. And the acoustic – I don’t really like PA systems – I prefer naturally amplified sound, so that was an incredible setting and a beautiful circumstance in which to perform.

Putting on Kayo Dot was pretty brilliant, and then developing friendships with them, and that leading to New York connections and the sense of this international community of mutually supportive artists coming together.  And the first ever concert we did in St Mary’s Church three years ago, where we did a unamplified, candlelit performance with a ten-piece chamber orchestra.  That was pretty special. This gave me more confidence to think – “ok, I can push this – we can be ambitious”.  And, I’m really proud of My Antique Son, I think it’s a really strange record that can proudly sit in the corner doing what it does.  And, it IS really odd.

And low points?
Usually the low point in the making of a record is when the hard-drive crashes and I lose half the album. It’s not happened so much of late because I’ve become a raving paranoiac about backing up, but there’s a whole other version of My Antique Son somewhere out there in the infinite multiverse that’s completely different to the one that got released.  Otherwise, I don’t really dwell. I try and keep myself busy. It’s very easy to get swallowed up into some kind of hole.

 http://nickhudsonindustries.bandcamp.com/music

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Filed under 20th century writers, Brighton, Brighton, Dennis Cooper, Dennis Cooper, FIlm, Gary Goodman, Gig, Gorecki, Jeremy Reed, Kayo Dot, Music, Nick Hudson, Penderecki, Poetry, Sunn O))), UK, UK writers, US writing, William Burroughs

This must be the place – an interview with writer Stephen Thompson

I first met author and writer Stephen Thompson when we were both living in a rehab for young drug addicts, called Alwyn House, in Notting Hill Gate in 1990, which seems a very long time ago now. This was Notting Hill pre-Richard Curtis when the area was still a reasonably interesting place in which to live. The rehab was a large gently dilapidated five-storey house, with the tang of the institution about it, and situated in a beautiful stucco terrace, off Colville Terrace W11, and facing the building where the precocious pop-starlet Wendy James lived  – a fact that generated quite a lot of animation in the male inhabitants of our household.

Stephen was a resident (ie a recovering addict) and I was on the other side, not staff, but a member of the support group, who were a collection of young people, all under 25 years old, as were all members of Alwyn House, and who were in regular employment and could act as sort of role models for the residents. Well, at least that was the idea.

However, Stephen seemed different to the other residents who, even at my callow age, I recognised were the products of extremely neglectful and abusive backgrounds, and, were, in the majority, from very under-privileged families. Middle-class users were cushioned by their family connections and money and didn’t end up in down-at-heel state-funded institutions so early on in their addictions. Residing in Alwyn House was a bargaining chip with the criminal justice system – a way of sidestepping a custodial sentence for someone whose habit, and the attendant need to fund it, had given them cause to appear in front of a judge.

Imposing a relatively unstructured routine on the residents, and not adhering to a 12-step therapeutic framework, or intensive group therapy, Alwyn House had a different character to most rehabs at that time and was, therefore, regarded by the addict community with some suspicion – Alpha House and Phoenix House being the rehabs of choice due to their employing a more macho approach to rehabilitation, admission to Alwyn House was seen as something of a cop-out.

However, I’ve got sidetracked here. I’m sure there’s a PhD, or at the very least a couple of books, to be written on UK rehabs in the late-20th century, but this is neither the time nor the place, and I am hardly up to that task.

Despite my callowness (did I mention that earlier?) I instantly pegged that Stephen was not like the other residents – he just didn’t have that air of heavy duty chemical devotion about him that they did. I strongly intuited that, despite his crack use (hey, Stephen – you were an early adopter!), he just really needed to get away, fast, from a bad situation going down in east London and was looking for a place to lie low in for a while.

And what could be better! An anonymous safe house, a far cry from the boisterous, unglamorous streets of E8. A residence patrolled and policed, however light their touch, by a team of social workers (with questionable degrees of eptitude and experience). There were certainly no brass plaques or signs outside Alwyn House to identify it.

Coincidentally, the rehab was around the corner from the house in Powis Square where the Nicolas Roeg/Donald Cammell film, Performance, was set – where another Eastender, Chaz, sat out his exile, under the radar in W11.

But anyway, enough of these ruminations. Stephen and I hit it off instantly. I think we recognised one another’s somewhat distant mien – two people slightly apart from the other inhabitants of Alwyn Houes, and who also shared a predilection for solitude – observers rather than participants.

And after spending some time with Stephen, I discovered that he was trying to make sense of his life on the streets and was writing it down (or out). As I had been participating in a young writers’ workshop led by Hanif Kureishi at the Riverside Arts Centre in Hammersmith, I invited him to accompany me.

Residents’ outings were heavily monitored in the first few months of their stay at Alwyn House (if they managed to clock up even that minimal amount of time – some were out of the door within a day). However, in this instance, the social workers were in favour. Stephen would be in my, a trusted support group member, company, and so apparently, would be carefully supervised and monitored. What could be better! An improving evening class!  From those early tentative days, Stephen began writing seriously and, now, 20 years later, three novels and numerous articles published widely in The Observer and Scotland on Sunday, just a couple of examples, Stephen Thompson is an well-established writer.

Coming full circle – it’s Stephen who is living on Ladbroke Grove now, and I’m the one who resides in Hackney, E5, just a few minutes away from the streets he grew up in.

I thought it might be interesting or fun, even, to invite Stephen back to Hackney and accompany him while he revisited his old turf – to find out through his eyes what has changed and what remains the same since he lived here.

Welcome to Hackney Downs! Back to your old yard

Welcome to Hackney Downs!

ST: First of all the front line … That block of flats looks quite posh used to be derelict and was where we used to play pool, hang out and take the piss out of the Old Bill. We used to steal sweets from that newsagent I was 15. We would run in, stuff our pockets and run out. The whole row was derelict but the shop is still the same. It’s funny because some things have changed and some things are exactly the same. Of course, there is no one at all around here now, but before, every one of these corners had clumps of people – youths mostly and every five minutes, you’d see the Old Bill, either a van or a car – sometimes both at once patrolling very slowly. This place here used to be a drug den – it was a council house at the time but it was squatted.

A drug den once upon a time

That pub there used to be one of the most notorious in Hackney.

This was one once of the most notorious pubs in Hackney – now it’s the venue for fashion shoots

FS: It’s not a pub anymore it’s used as a venue for fashion and film shoots locations.
ST: Classic! It’s no longer a pub! It’s a venue for film shoots that sums it up in one sentence! I think it used to be called the Kingsland Arms or something. That estate over there is called the Cromer Estate which is where I spent most of my childhood. We were known as the Cromer Possee. Another thing I forgot to mention is that there were always cars parked up here pumping music with people smoking weed, shooting the breeze, loaving basically.

Cromer Terrace estate –the home of Stephen’s old possee

My mum and I were living in Colvestone Crescent, just a few streets away. When they rehoused us, as that place was unfit for human habitation, they moved us to this place, 158 Amhurst Road which is this red door here. The one with the window open was my mum’s flat and I had the one above it. There is a scene in Toy Soldiers which takes place when the central character Gabriel has a freak out after smoking crack. He tries to open the window and jump out but his friend restrains him …

Stephen’s old home 158 Amhurst Road – the setting of some of the scenes in Toy Soldiers

Here we are at Downs Park Estate. This was quite a bad estate. It was known for dealing. The police were always in there. Very poor working class families, mostly black, lived here. I spent a lot of time in there. It looks very quiet now – almost abandoned.

FS: There is your old school hoving into view …
ST: Hackney Downs Secondary, now called Mossbourne Community Academy, formerly the Grocers Company which as a grammar school in the 1940s boasted amongst its former alumni Michael Caine and Harold Pinter no less. Of course, when I went there in the late 70s, it had moved on since those days. Truancy was at the highest in the entire country. Sometime in the 90s, it was dubbed the worst school in Britain. It was closed down long after I left, but there it is.

Stephen's former school, Hackney Downs Comprehensive, now the Mossbourne Academy

Stephen’s former school, Hackney Downs Comprehensive, now the Mossbourne Academy

FS: You did your bit!
ST: I made my small contribution to the statistics. But there it is. It’s reopened as the Mossbourne Academy. There is Hackney Downs Park where I spent a lot of time after school playing football and also during school hours dreaming of going over there to play football. As soon as the bell had gone, we were out of the gates and into the park. It looks now like a gated school like you see in The Wire. The funny thing is the same basic structure has been kept – the playgrounds were always at the back. It just looks brighter. Before it was just a grey slab with the train lines running next to it which we used to hate.

Hackney Downs itself

FS: Because it was noisy?
ST: No, because it seemed to encroach on the space. We would much rather have been able to go over that side of the wall but we couldn’t – “be careful of the trains”. It was always high fences and stuff. There were a few near misses as people ignored that rule.

There’s the Pembury Tavern. I don’t know what kind of pub it is now, but in the early 80s it used to be full of East End villains.

The Pembury Tavern

FS: Just white people?
ST: Yes, it was a no-go zone. If black people went there, it was because they had been incorporated into a villain family – they would be Cockney black guys.

Number 238b was Ozzy’s – as you can see it’s changed now – it was where we used to hang out, kill time, smoke weed, play pool and arcade games like Space Invaders.

What once was Ozzy’s – now Chase and Sorenson, a cafe and furniture store

FS: It’s a posh Scandinavian cafe now.
ST: Ozzy’s now a posh Scandinavian cafe! I can’t believe it! Chase and Sorenson.

That is the biggest change I’ve encountered today.

(Our walk now progresses along Clarence Road, the location of the most sustained of last August’s riots that took place in Hackney. We pass two men hanging out by the end of the street, at the junction of Dalston Lane.)

I recognise those two guys.  I left Hackney in 1989, think how long ago that was 23 years ago! I recognise them but they didn’t recognise me! They are still here.

(We walk towards Pogo, a vegan cafe on Clarence Road.) You can see why they say Hackney is now trendy.

FS: I don’t think they are very trendy there. Pogo is more full of crusties.
ST: Pembury Estate has not changed very much. It’s just got more satellite dishes!

It’s bit prison-like with all those grills.

We reach my flat and our walk concludes.

Foggy Sapphires’ interview with Stephen Thompson:

FS: What would you say are the high points and low points of your writing career?
ST: The high point was getting Toy Soldiers  published in 2000 and it being so widely publicised and widely reviewed. Although I have some regrets about how I conducted myself during that time.

Toy Soldiers – Stephen Thompson’s first novel

FS: What regrets?
ST: When you are getting a lot of publicity for your first novel you are prepared to do and say almost anything. I regret a lot of the imagery that was used to publicise myself as an author

FS: Like what?
ST: Almost every photo portrayed me as a thug from Hackney.

FS: Ghetto?
ST:  Exactly. I wanted to smile more (I would later satirise this in a novel). Photographers would say “no smiling, no smiling”. They wanted me to look serious and I think I should have been a bit more determined to make a distinction between my life and  the book, which was a heavily fictionalised account of my own experiences. I didn’t do myself any favours. I didn’t promote myself enough as a creative writer and that is a regret. But overall the book coming out was a high point. The low point was when my follow-up fell into the world still-born. The publishers did nothing to promote it.

Missing Joe – his second novel

FS: Missing Joe?
ST: It was almost the opposite of Toy Soldiers in terms of review and publicity. I’ll never forget the night Courttia Newland and I drove around in my car with posters I had printed up at my own expense, putting them up around Ladbroke Grove so that people would be aware of the book.

FS: Why didn’t the publishers push that book?
I don’t know, exactly. It did get reviewed. I also did radio interviews. However, there were no big features on me or the book. And the sales were disappointing. If I’m perfectly honest, and this isn’t easy to prove, I think it failed to get attention because it wasn’t as incendiary as Toy Soldiers in terms of the storyline, I would consider it to be much more a work of literature, much more a work of imagination, although it deals with my parents and my parents’ generation. Toy Soldiers has a lot of drugs and crime set in the black community, which, let’s face it, is more interesting to the media.

FS: I really liked Missing Joe. I thought it was ambitious and I thought it was good that you got out of the comfort zone – the stereotype zone of guns, crime and crack. What inspired this ambitious move?
ST: As you just mentioned, I wanted to get out of my comfort zone and prove myself to be a diverse writer. I wanted to move away from myself and talk about my parents. If Toy Soldiers is about me and my generation, Missing Joe is about the so-called Windrush generation. I didn’t know very much about that group of people and I wanted to see if I could examine them through fiction.

FS: I liked the book’s menacing sense of what happens in small town England, those nasty spiteful crimes that no one talks about – and people get away with.
ST: That’s what my publisher said to me as well.

FS: They came out quite consecutively.
ST: I had a very embryonic version of Toy Soldiers when I was at rehab in 1990. I really began it in 1991, when I had left. Then I worked on it off and on for 10 years. Once she had placed it, my agent managed to secure a two-book deal in 1999 so I had to write another one. Thus the pressure was on. I had a bit of money left from my advance and I went to Thailand to celebrate and think about the book. After that, I went to Jamaica to spend some time with my mum. It was while I was there that I started to think about Missing Joe.

I started making notes there in 1999 and more-or-less as soon as Toy Soldiers came out. I knew what the next book was going to be, although I hadn’t told my agent or publisher. I moved to Paris in the summer of 2000 to begin work on it. I initially went there for six months but I ended up staying there for three years.

It didn’t take me that long to write Missing Joe. It’s actually a shorter book than Toy Soldiers. And about a third of the story had to be grafted on. My original manuscript was more like a novella. My publisher said it was really good but it was too small and that I had to make it longer. It was the first time I came up against this notion of writing to length as a novelist, how commercial considerations come into novel writing. For instance, if you are going to buy a novel for £10, you clearly want value for money. Only the very, very successful authors can get away with publishing something short for that kind of money. However, I wasn’t in that category, so I had to make my story much longer. That’s how I came up with setting part of the story in Jamaica. I spent five years of my childhood growing up in rural Jamaica, so most of that section of the book was done from memory.

FS: I think it is very successful. I love the sense of mystery and menace.
ST: I wanted it to be a page turner as well. In retrospect, there are a number of things I was trying to pull off in that book. I wanted to write about my parents. I wanted to write about their lives in London and in Jamaica. I wanted to write something “literary” but also a gripping page turner, a psychological thriller, for want of a less clichéd definition.

FS: So we turn to your next book Meet Me Under the Westway.
ST: It came out a full six years after Missing Joe. Actually, this puts me in mind of your earlier question about what was the low point of my career. That was probably after I had published Missing Joe and it hadn’t done very well. I went from that to losing my agent and also being out of contract. So that was a deeply insecure and worrying time. Because I was almost back to square one.

They always say you are only as good as your last book. So I felt really under pressure to write something very quickly. Again, I wanted to write something different, which ended up being Meet Me Under the Westway. I wanted to go back to my experiences but I wanted them to reflect the new me, if you like. I wanted to write about my time in Notting Hill, when I joined the Royal Court Young People’s Theatre and was exposed to a different world to the one I’d been used to, namely, a white middle class theatre set.

Meet Me Under the Westway isn’t a so-called black book, in fact it’s non-colour specific. It’s not clear what race the narrator is. Again, I was deliberately trying not to get pigeonholed into being a so-called black writer. The upshot was that my agent at Curtis Brown turned it down – which was a shock to the system.

Stephen’s third published novel – Meet Me Under the Westway

FS: Did she give you a reason?
ST: Yes, she said that it wasn’t a patch on Missing Joe and that she was sorry to say that she just didn’t like it. She thought I could do a lot better. Which was not just a shock to the system but to the ego. This was a time when I had started to think I could do no wrong, that whatever I wrote would be published. If you don’t have an agent in this business, you can’t get your manuscript in front of a publisher, even though I had a good relationship with my publisher. I scrambled around trying to find a new agent without success. In the end I bit the bullet and took the book to the publisher myself. When she turned it down, my world collapsed. It felt like my career was over before it had even started.

So, that was the lowest point. That manuscript of Meet Me Under The Westway ended up being put in a drawer. I finished it in 2002. I left Paris in 2003. My girlfriend and I split up. It was a worrying time. I went to Thailand, where I always seem to end up when I have to lick my wounds, and stayed there for five months. This time I thought I need to write something else to get back in the game.

While I was there, I recklessly started work on another novel, this time about the slave revolts 19th century Jamaica. It was hard-going. In fact, before I went to Thailand, I went to Jamaica to do my research. I spent a lot of time with my family. I was very excited by the project, although as things turned out, the actual writing was very taxing. I think writing should be enjoyable, but this wasn’t. This was more like drudge. Now when I look at that manuscript, I see terrific passages of prose, but it’s only there in patches. Anyhow, I now had two manuscripts on my hands.

FS: What was that one?
ST: It’s called Rebellion, and it’s thematically inspired by Camus’ The Rebel.

FS: … and you haven’t published that?
ST: Not yet.

FS; And how did you get Meet Me Under the Westway published?
ST; When I came back from Thailand I moved to Edinburgh, where I met a woman who was starting up a literary imprint called Chroma, specialising in contemporary fiction. I told her I had something she might be interested in. And as soon as she read it, she said she would take it. But then I was faced with more difficulties. The book was going to published by a small press, and one that was based in Edinburgh. The publisher was confident about the Scottish market, but how to make inroads into the southern market? How do we get the book out in London? It was very, very difficult. It’s very difficult for Scottish writers full-stop to get a look in down south.

FS: Even after Irvine Welsh?
ST: Even after Irvine Welsh. But we did our best. I managed to get some copies sold down here. The Waterstones in Notting Hill Gate did a massive window display and we sold quite a few.

FS: It’s a great title.
ST: Thanks. I had a sense of vindication after that book came out because I thought it was never going to see the light of day and that really knocked my confidence. So for someone to see something in it, and to want to pay money for it gave me a real shot in the arm. It was published and people bought it. Then I tried to get Rebellion placed but couldn’t and my confidence took another knock. My agent that I found in Edinburgh just couldn’t place it with anyone. So I had to draw a line under that. So all in all, it was a very troubling period between 2001 when Missing Joe came out and 2007 when Meet Me Under the Westway was published.

After that, I started doubting myself as a writer. I didn’t know if I wanted to continue and if I did, what sort of things I wanted to write about and whether anyone would be interested. I had the feeling that I was being subtly pushed in the direction of writing about the black urban experience, whatever that is, and I just didn’t want to do it, or at least not exclusively. It was far too limiting. At the same time, I wanted to be published. There was a tension there, and I don’t think I’ve resolved it yet. Perhaps I never will.

FS: So what were you doing at the Royal Court?
ST: I was writing for the stage. I wanted to see it I could do it.

FS: You weren’t acting?
ST: No. There were two groups, an acting workshop and a writing workshop, and at the end of each term we would do a joint production. Writers would write and actors would act. But for most part, the two groups were separate. I liked it because you met up once a week. There was a tutor who would facilitate readings. We would write our pieces during the week and present them to be critiqued. I enjoyed it because for the first time since I was in rehab, I was in the company of other budding writers. Do you remember when you and I used to go to Hanif’s class?

FS: Yes.
ST: It was a similar vibe. I met a bunch of really lovely young people at the Royal Court Young People’s Theatre and a couple of them, Joe Penhall and Nick Grosso went on to become famous playwrights. You could tell that there was a handful of us who were really ambitious, who wanted to succeed. But I quickly realised that writing for the stage wasn’t for me. That’s much more of a collaborative process.

“I want to be a writer with longevity”

FS: You are more reflective aren’t you?
ST: (Laughs) Playwriting is reflective, too. No, what I mean is, I’m more of a loner. It’s funny because my group used to tease me a lot because if I got any bad criticism for my theatre pieces, I would always say, “I don’t really want to write for the stage anyway. I’m a novelist. I’m working on my novel right now”. It’s true. I was working on Toy Soldiers the entire time.

FS: So where do you see your writing progressing?
ST: In 2008, after Meet Me Under the Westway came out, I started thinking about writing as a profession. It’s ironic, actually, as this predates the current debate that writers are having in the wake of the ebook revolution and the notion of free-content. I was thinking about it from the point of view of being able to make a living, but also whether I wanted to explore other forms of writing. I enjoy other forms of writing. I like writing my diary, I like writing short stories. The only thing I don’t write is poems. I’ve always written screenplays.

So in 2008, I decided I wanted to try to get into film, writing them and directing them. Someone at the time advised to enrol in a film school, but I didn’t want to become influenced by film theory. I wanted to learn the craft of film making by actually doing it, just as I learned to write novels by getting on with it. Not long after making my decision to start making films, I wrote a short, which was filmed and then I directed another short. I loved it. Actually, I say I’ve never studied film. That’s not quite true. Like Tarantino, I worked in a video store for years, which has helped my understanding of film enormously.

FS: When did you do that?
ST: In Edinburgh, off and on for about five years. I regard that as my film school. It fuelled my appetite for film making. And not only for fictionalised stories. I am working on a documentary at the moment.

FS: What’s that about?
ST: Not so long ago I got a call from a friend saying, “Stephen I’ve just got hold of a book about the black power movement in London during the 1970s, which I think would make a great film”. The book is called The book is called Black  for a Cause … Not Just Because and was written by Winston N Trew who was one of a group of four men who were arrested in 1972 at the Oval tube station in south London who were sent to prison for crimes they didn’t commit. Their case became quite famous as a miscarriage of justice. My friend thought the book would make a great TV drama, but when I read it I thought it would work better as documentary and so I set to work right away trying to conceive it my mind’s eye.

I am very excited about this project and about film making in general. I used to see myself as a novelist and now I see myself as a storyteller who is prepared to explore other forms of storytelling besides the written word. But don’t get me wrong, writing remains a passion of mine, it’s just that I no longer limit myself to writing novels. I like writing journalism for instance. I write essays, too. I like writing them too. In fact, I am going to have a piece published by Five Dials in a couple of months’ time about Marcus Garvey.

FS: Yes, you are a very good journalist. Why do you think you like writing so much?
ST: That’s a very good question! If I go way back to when I was a child, the one thing I was always good at school at was English – both written and spoken. I was always told I had a facility for the English language. And when I was at rehab, I thought this is my strength, I am not really good at anything else. How can I make this work for me, which is why I thought I would become a journalist and earn a bit of money. How naive was I!

And as you know I stumbled into writing fiction. If Hanif hadn’t encouraged me, I might never have continued.

FS: What did he say, exactly? I remember he was very tight with the compliments..
ST: You can say that again. Anyway, he told me I had it in me to become some kind of writer.

FS: I guess there’s a compliment in there somewhere.
ST: (Laughs) I guess.

FS: Why did your mother send you to live in Jamaica?
ST: For economic reasons. She was a single mum with four boys and one girl. I went to live with my grandmother in a very rural part of Jamaica for five years, between the ages of five and ten. It was just me, my gran and my imagination. The emotional and psychological effect is one thing, but it’s great preparation for a life of solitude. I was recently discussing childhood experiences and how we repeat them in adulthood and it occurred to me that the reason I go off to far-flung parts of the world for long periods of time is because that’s what I did as a child, albeit against my will. The point is that I still live a life of solitude, I am quite a solitary figure, so for that reason I’m grateful for that early childhood experience. It prepared me for the life of a writer, which is essentially one of solitude.

“I see myself as a storyteller who wants to explore other forms of storytelling”

FS; Are you an avid reader?
ST; Yes. I think it’s because I came to literature quite late. When I was growing up, there were no books in my house. Apart from the odd book we studied at school, such as Kes, books weren’t part of our existence. I only started reading books at rehab. I remember the very first novel that really made an impression on me was Love in the Time of Cholera, which I got out at our local library in Ladbroke Grove. And the other one was Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. I don’t know if you remember a guy called Riz, an Asian guy who was at the rehab?

FS: I think that was after I had left.
ST: Riz had all of Rushdie’s novels at that time.

FS: Was he in the support group or a resident?
ST: He was a resident. He handed me Midnight’s Children one day and said, “Stephen you’ve got to read this”. And then I just started reading everything. And I thought, “Bloody hell, where have I been?” I felt quite resentful that I had never really been exposed to literature. Having said that, I realise that if I had done, I probably would have rejected it, since my childhood was about rejecting everything that I was forced to do, whether it be studying at school or going to church on a Sunday. I am glad I came to books of my own volition.

FS: Sometimes you have to live first, don’t you?
ST: Yes. Now I don’t read as much as before, as voraciously I mean. These days I am much more discriminating.

FS: Are there any contemporary writers you like?
ST: I don’t read a lot of fiction these days. Someone told me that once you get past a certain age, you don’t read much fiction as you are always looking for an experience which is much closer to the truth, closer to the source, you want to hear directly from a writer what they think or feel. You don’t want it mediated through the artifice of fiction.

But I do read the odd fictional work. I like Rupert Thomson who is one of this country’s best imaginative prose writers. I like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I thought Half of a Yellow Sun, her follow-up to Purple Hibiscus, was terrific. I reviewed it for Scotland on Sunday. I thought it was great how she went from having potential in one book to realising it in the other because often it can go the other way. Some writers arrive in a blaze of glory and they can’t live up to it. I think it’s always better to be a bit of a slow burn. She’s definitely done that – a very talented writer.

I really like Luke Sutherland, his Venus as a Boy is one of the best things I’ve ever read. There are other novelists out there who I admire, but the truth is you’re much more likely to find me with my nose between the pages of a non-fiction book. I’m heavily into history at the moment. Perhaps at a certain point in your life, you start looking back. I like African, Caribbean and African-American history. This all started when I began researching my historical novel, Rebellion, and I’ve kept it up. And I like anything that’s to do with human consciousness, how we raise our consciousness, which can be anything from Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom to a Life of Buddha.

You can follow Stephen on Twitter @ss_thompson

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Filed under 20th century writers, Black British writers, British writers, Caroline Simpson, Chroma publisher, Five Dials literary magazine, Hanif Kureishi, Literature, Short stories, Stephen Thompson, UK short stories, Writing about Hackney

A black falling empty unfamous star: Jonesying – The End by Elizabeth Young

The late Elizabeth Young is one of my favourite writers and critics. Her journalism was published widely and her short stories have featured in various collections. This Christmas I thought I’d post a seasonal short story, an anti-Christmas story if you like, by her – Jonesying – The End, which includes,  some of my favourite lines ever:

“He turned up on Xmas Eve. I was feeling sorry for myself. I kept hearing that song on the radio, something like ‘So now it’s Xmas/And what have you done?’ (Fuck all.) It ends balefully – ‘the Xmas you get you deserve’ – so reassuring.”

And:

“How does that hymn go? ‘Change and decay in all around I see …’
Right. I should get that methadone and some extra sleepers and come off. I know I should.

I’ll start tomorrow.”

Young was one of the most gifted literary critics and writers to emerge from the UK over the last 30 years. Very, very sadly she died of Hepatitis C at the age of 51 in 2001. Combining an extraordinarily fierce intellect with a filigree sensitivity, natural unforced writing talent and enormous breadth of literary knowledge. An elegant writer and perhaps too talented for this world.

A collection writing of most of her writing (but not, unfortunately, containing any of her fiction), Pandora’s Handbag, was published by Serpent’s Tail, posthumously, and it is a book that I highly recommend. It is a work of unassuming genius.

Pandora's Handbag – Adventures in the Book World by Elizabeth Young

Anyway, here is a short story by her: Jonesying – the End, Young’s mordant riposte to the other eponymous Miss Jones,  which was published in the Time Out Book of London Short Stories Volume Two, edited by Nicholas Royle (2000).

Her good friend, the writer Stewart Home, who Young described in Pandora’s Handbag, as being a “conceptual artist, installationist, theorist, novelist and all-round cultural terrorist”, wrote a very moving tribute to Young.

I realise that these jpgs  are possibly not the best way to present scans online, so I apologise in advance for the legibility, or otherwise, of these scans. If anyone would like me to email them my pdfs of the pages, please contact me.

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Filed under 20th century writers, Art, Elizabeth Young, Literature, Poetry, Short stories, Short Story, UK fiction, UK short stories, Winter