Category Archives: Short stories

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

What becomes a legend most?

I have been sorting through my cuttings and notes recently and found the transcription of an interview I  did with Nan Goldin in 2002 which I  was commissioned to write for Pure magazine, and has until now, never been published, as, sadly, Pure folded before this piece could go to press. I know I have subtitled this blog My Literary Life, but the work of Goldin, one of my favourite artists whose work has made such a great impact on me – I am an unabashed and unapologetic fan – and has, in my opinion at least, such a powerful narrative quality, I thought this blog would be a appropriate place to publish it.

I first encountered Nan Goldin’s work in 1990 when I saw an image of hers, David and Butch crying at the Tin Pan Alley, New York City, displayed in a show of fashion photography at the Victoria and Albert Museum. This image of a woman in tears whilst trying to remain composed as Goldin takes her picture made a great impression on me. It stood apart from the other inclusions in the show, and was, I thought, an odd choice, not as it didn’t apparently fit the remit of the show, although I was delighted it had been included despite not having any overt fashion content, as this was my introduction to Goldin’s work. To me the image embodied the narrative power and qualities of the best literature; empathy and mystery. A depth charge went off in my head.

Then later on at the ICA, I saw Goldin’s book “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency” (Aperture, 1986, first published in the UK in 1989 by Secker and Warburg), which I bought. I was deeply impressed by Goldin’s startling talent and not only the brilliance of her images but by her sensitive and insightful introduction, which laid out quite succinctly what compelled her to document her world.

Discussing her sister Barbara’s suicide at the age of 18 (when Goldin was 11), she wrote: “When I was eighteen I started to photograph. I became social and started drinking and wanted to remember the details of what happened. For years, I thought I was obsessed with the record-keeping of my day-to-day life. But recently, I’ve realised my motivation has deeper roots: I don’t really remember my sister. In the process of leaving my family, in recreating myself, I lost the real memory of my sister. I remember my version of her, of the things she said, of the things she meant to me. But I don’t remember the tangible sense of who she was, her presence, what her eyes looked like, what her voice sounded like.

“I don’t want to be susceptible to anyone else’s version of my history. I don’t ever want to lose the real memory of anyone again.”

However, many of her friends that she documented so intensely were lost to early deaths – often from AIDS-related illnesses. A few years after the Ballad was published, she wrote in her introduction to her monograph about the life and death of her dear friend Cookie Mueller: “I used to think I couldn’t lose anyone if I photographed them enough. In fact it shows me how much I’ve lost.” This cruel fact is not lost on Goldin.

The Ballad was a book I returned to again and again. Fascinated by the shifting relationships between Goldin, her subjects and her camera – the ambivalence, trust, oblivion, poignancy, ecstasy, despair and sadness, love and lust.

Since then I have seen Goldin present her images at a variety of events at the Photographers’ Gallery and the ICA and again been deeply impressed by her unflinchingly honest, brave and beautiful work and how it has evolved as she has: from her drag days in Boston, to Lower East Side party oblivion, from empty bedrooms to her more recent poetic, abstract landscapes and film installations.

Her groundbreaking and brilliant work has been influential. And while various photographers, particularly those working in fashion, have appropriated elements of her style none rival the genius of her uncompromising vision.

As I mentioned above, I conducted the interview for the brilliantly innovative Pure – such a fantastic place to work where I met the most brilliant and talented people, it was like going to Warhol’s Factory everyday – which closed and so wasn’t able to publish the following interview.

The final issue of Pure magazine.

Seeing as this piece was for a fashion magazine, that industry is discussed at some length by Goldin in this piece. But I think her observations are worth considering and it’s (to me, at least) interesting to hear her talk around topics other than her early life and career as she established herself, which are frequently revisited in interviews with her.

At the time of this interview, which took place in London in January 2002, her exhibition, The Devil’s Playground was showing at the Whitechapel Gallery.

Coincidentally, Goldin has a show in London at the recently opened gallery Sprovieri of recent work, including grids of images featuring new and old work and a slideshow of her
pictures of children.

I could write a lot more about Goldin and how much her work means to me, but I’ll stop now. Here’s the interview:

FS: Is film still the number one thing in your life?
NG: My number one thing is still to go to a movie. They seem surprised by how long I take to install here because I can spend a week installing a show. There are 350 pictures in this show. Not all are new. Two thirds are from 1999 onwards. I’ve got really prolific since I moved to Paris where I am living permanently, for the rest of my life, until I find another idea. I have really close women friends here: Valerie, Raymonde, not Joana so much, Maria Schneider, who was always a real heroine of mine who and has now become a close friend. I have very healthy strong relationships with women. I didn’t have so many in New York. My life there was almost entirely about gay men for 30 years.

FS: So that’s the reason you’re in Paris?
NG: That’s a big reason.

FS: Do you find it more sympathetic? Do you find Europe more politically sympathetic?
NG: No place could be less sympathetic to my politics than America. My work is received more intelligently in Europe. I had my first museum showing of my slide show in Rotterdam, in 1983. I love Rotterdam. I love harbour cities in general. I like it much better than Amsterdam which is too much like a postcard. It’s too cute for me. Rotterdam is more real, it’s got a stomach. In ’83 I started travelling round Europe with my slide show. It wasn’t until I moved to Europe and got accepted in a big way in Berlin in the ’90s that I got acceptance by the big art world in New York. I didn’t really get to be known, or in the market, til ’93 in New York.

FS: Is acceptance important to you?
NG: Yes it was. Now what I like is that other artists know my work and are interested in me or want to collaborate. I’m very flattered when people I respect like my work. It’s like a dream of a little kid when somebody I idolised likes my work.

FS: Like who?
NG: Maria (Schneider). I don’t think of her like that anymore, because I worshipped her when I was young. Like Kiarostami; Jan Fabre the theatre director and visual artist; the Dardenne brothers, Jean Pierre Dardenne and his brother Luc Dardenne, Wong Kar-wai. Like Yves St Laurent, I don’t know if he likes my work but Pierre Bergé does. Stella McCartney is a big fan. I feel like a little girl sometimes because I don’t hang out with celebrities. I have never got into that. I never courted that but it’s nice when it’s people you respect and they respect your work. It’s thrilling.

FS: In a recent interview with the Observer, you said you were ambivalent about the fashion world and cosmetic industry.
NG: One of my assistants, a British man, says I should find a platform for it. Meanwhile I wear make-up.

FS: It’s a dual edge thing.
NG: I have no ambivalence about myself wearing make-up or designer clothes but I have an enormous ambivalence about what the fashion world has done to women.

FS: Do you know the writer Jean Rhys?
NG: Yes, I read everything by her.

FS: Do you remember the quote from her (I think from “Quartet”) “the desire to be loved and to be beautiful is the true curse of Eve”.
NG: Ha! It’s not true for me, my life is more important. At this point in my life I’m alone. I don’t think about it a lot. I’ve been alone for about eight years and it doesn’t bother me. Yes, I need to be fed but the need to be loved by friends has been as important to me than any lover I’ve had all my life. This is part of the reasons that my lovers don’t stay because they are jealous of how much I care about my friends.

FS: Haven’t you recently shot for Vogue?
NG: I shot for French and British Vogue. The British Vogue one featured clothes by Chloe and was shot at Highgate and the John Soane Museum. It came out much better in my opinion. I only did one day and was working with my own make-up and hair people and a model who I’ve known for years. I like Stella (McCartney) a lot – she’s a very open and warm person. I don’t particularly want to know about her background. We started talking last night about how we should tell each other about our family histories but we haven’t got there yet. Each time I spend with her, I like her better. So I was excited to be asked by her.

I had bought some Chloe clothes in Italy. I was interested and curious about her. I know somewhat about Kate (Moss who featured in the Vogue spread). I always thought that Kate’s look had come from my old friend Siobhan Liddell and some of her friends because they dressed like that about ten years ago. Unconsciously, and right after that, that whole look sort of came out. It looked exactly like Siobhan and Siobhan actually is – or was – as thin (I think she still is). She has that kind of baby face, a very young face. So I was interested in working with Kate.
At the same time as the UK Vogue one, I did a shoot that took about 40 days of friends and people I admired in Paris, for French Vogue. It included Joana (eight or ten pages) and Valerie. This is how I met Maria Schneider in June and which began our friendship. I also met Dominique Sanda, who I always worshipped. I also photographed Maggie Cheung – but these didn’t develop into a friendship either – and Maria de Medeiros a Portuguese actress and her daughter. She played Anais Nin in “Henry and June”. And Amanda Ooms who lives in London, and who I’ve known since ’89 and my friend Joey from New York who is a gorgeous transsexual.

The shot was about jewelry but that was sort of secondary. It was more like portraits. Joey is almost completely naked and they are taken in hotel rooms or old 18th century hotel rooms that I love.

The pictures were beautiful but the layout and colour-printing weren’t so beautiful. I love lots of the pictures but somehow there was something flat and dead about the way they were printed. But there was a really interesting letter published in the magazine the following month from a woman reader saying it was so nice to see real human beings.

One of the fashion things I ever did was for Helmut Lang for Visionaire magazine and I used people from all genders. People from the age of 18 – like James King – to people like my friend Sharon who’s about 50 or older. People of all different shapes and literally all different genders and my boyfriend at the time and his daughter who was 11. If I were to do fashion that’s what I would want to do

“If I do continue to do fashion, I would want to radicalise it

FS: Does it feel different when you shoot fashion?
NG: Well, that day it didn’t (for Helmut Lang). It was really fun. For Paris Vogue, it was setting up the shooting, setting up the clothes – there was so much involved in the set-up that it literally ended up being 40 days – or it felt like that. The letter was very gratifying. This woman acknowledged it was the first time she had seen in a fashion magazine real people of different shapes and ages.

If I do continue to do fashion, I would want to radicalise it, refuting the whole idea that there is only one way to look; that women have to be so skinny to look good; that they have to be 12 years old and wearing clothes that only women in their 30s and 40s can afford. Plastic surgery is distressingly popular and I feel that the fashion industry has killed tens of thousands of women over the years from anorexia.

I used to live with Teri Toye in the ’80s – a really gorgeous transsexual. She won Girl of the Year in 1986 (I think) as a Chanel model and she introduced this whole way of slinky, slow-motion modeling. It was amazing that the girl of the year was actually born male. It’s so rare to see a woman’s sexuality, real female sexuality, either in the shows or in the clothes. And in Paris now, when I walk into stores and the shopgirls literally say to me every time, “We don’t have anything in your size”.

The only time this happened to me before was in Jil Sander in Berlin where they said, “We have nothing that will fit you.” I said, “Yes, you do.” And I found something great. This happens to me in Paris again and again and again. They don’t carry anything over size 40 which is nothing, because I wear a size 42 or 44 but that’s hard to find in Paris among the designer clothes. All stores are like that. And I say, “Aren’t you ashamed of yourself?” And they say, “not at all.” But I say, “Not in the rest of the world.”

It’s a hideous feeling to go round shopping and even feel like you are a freak. In America, more than half the population are overweight. It’s not healthy and I’m not proud of that but I don’t hate having a woman’s body. I’m not ashamed of my body and you know everything in the fashion world, if I was vulnerable to it, could drive me crazy. I think it produces so much self-hatred.

I remember so many girls when I was growing up who hated the way they looked. My work shows the beauty in so many different kinds of people because I never photograph anyone who I don’t think is beautiful. I never take an intentionally mean picture. I won’t show a picture where a person doesn’t look beautiful. There are days when everyone in the world looks like a Diane Arbus to me. She’s a genius but her work is completely different to mine. But on those days I don’t use my camera. I feel like if I started to use it that way, it would be like a sin almost. I never show people ugly pictures I take of them. I usually destroy them. So even if I like it, and they don’t, it doesn’t get shown.

The main thing that I want to say in this magazine is that I don’t think women are at their most beautiful in their adolescence or in their early 20s. You know it’s said that you make your own face. So you don’t really have a face until you are 30 or your mid-20s. When you are starting to grow up and show your character in your face. I think it’s obscene that many people are starving to death from anorexia. It’s been said many times, it’s trite. But when so much evil is going on against, for example the Afghani people, where women are being so oppressed that a woman’s body is a battlefield.

One of the things I love so much about Valerie is that she inhabits her body so completely. She has no self-consciousness about having stretch marks or having given birth. It’s just so amazing that she has nothing to hide. Whereas all these other women see every little – supposed – imperfection – anything irregular is seen as an imperfection.

Actually, I think what is being shown as beauty in fashion magazines right now has become particularly ugly. This kind of straight, blonde very conservative. American magazines are becoming very patriotic beyond belief to the point that I can’t live there any more. I had said that when the first Bush got elected that I would leave the country. And when the second Bush wasn’t even elected properly. I wasn’t there when the city was bombed but it seems to have changed my friends. Some people have become a lot more conservative but I can’t really speak about that because I wasn’t there. I feel compassion for their pain but it distresses me to see them all become more patriotic.


FS: How do you feel about appropriation of element of your style in fashion photography?

NG: In a way, it’s an homage. But I didn’t really know about it at first. But then when I started living in Berlin in the early ’90s, I started getting ID and Dazed and Confused. I was shocked how close things were to my work,

“I never thought heroin was very chic”

FS: Nothing in those pictures has the power to move you though.
NG: Well, it’s all set up. I never, never photograph someone getting high to sell clothes. I was called, at some point, the person responsible for “heroin chic”. I didn’t have anything to do with “heroin chic”. I never thought heroin was very chic. I did maybe when I was 18 but I got over that pretty quickly. The idea that a fashion photograph could make you cry doesn’t happen. And I’m proud to say that my slideshows can make people cry.

FS: I love the narrative quality of your images. There is a short story in each one.
NG: I don’t think I am going to do pictures which are anything like Renaissance art. I’m very influenced by a lot of things, but my chief influence is my friends and what I see and what I feel and my own experiences and memory. And the things that I look at include Renaissance art. I’m obsessed with churches and paintings of saints.

FS: You’re not Catholic, of course.
NG: I have the freedom of seeing it with a non-Catholic eye without the guilt. No Jews have our own guilt, that’s why we have psychiatrists – the Jewish version of a priest. As a non-Catholic, and since I was a child, I have been obsessed with the ritual and the beauty of Catholic art. I look at Renaissance art all the time. That’s where I got the idea to paint the walls of the gallery with varied colours (at the Whitechapel show). I tried to figure out how all these Renaissance paintings manage to work together.

And after that, I start to paint my walls. And I’m heavily influenced by films.

FS: Who has influenced you recently?
NG: Cassavetes, “Killing of a Chinese Booker”, “Opening Night” are my favourites. Gena Rowlands is fabulous. The work of early Antonioni,  Orson Welles and Pasolini, I love Roeg’s film “Performance”. I saw “Darling” the other night, which was amazing. I love all the Hollywood women. I saw all the films when I was a teenager. Jack Smith‘s “Flaming Creatures”.

The film maker Vivienne Dick had a big influence on me. I found her eye was very close to mine. I think we see things very clearly.

“The thing that drives me most crazy in the world

is not to be believed”

FS: Are you still taking self-portraits?
NG: No, not recently.

FS: I have always wondered how you managed to never show your camera when you were shooting yourself.
NG: There are ways of angling the camera. I don’t just use a tripod. The only time I did that was in ’88 when I first came out of detox, I spent every day doing self-portraits to fit back into my own skin. I didn’t know what the world looked like – what I looked like – so in order to fit back into myself, I took self-portraits everyday to give myself courage and to fit the pieces back together. I used a tripod then.

I was recently interviewed for radio in relation to the “Thanksgiving” show (2001) at the Saatchi gallery that I was part of. The interviewer said that people in London were very disturbed that I showed a picture of myself battered (“Nan One Month after Being Battered”, 1984) and they thought that I set it up. I was accused of deliberately putting on a wig for that particular picture. And also because I have some make up on they think I must have set it up. Of course I was wearing make-up, I never went anywhere without red lipstick for 25 years! It was a form of self-preservation for me to continue to wear lipstick even though my face was broken.

When I started photographing my boyfriend of years ago, Brian, I realised I had no right to photograph other people having sex if I wasn’t prepared to take them of myself too.

The thing that drives me most crazy in the world is not to be believed. If I say something honestly, generally, I am being completely honest and don’t tell me I am lying. It drives me crazy to be told I set up my pictures. How does it benefit me to lie? I guess they are afraid to believe it and are afraid to look at it.

FS: I think you look different in every picture of yourself.
NG: I think that’s even more apparent in the portraits of Valerie. I took 15 pictures of her and you see so many different sides of her. Like the pictures I used to take of Siobhan.

FS: In this culture women aren’t allowed to display all their sides, for instance to show their anger, sadness, pain.
NG: One of the major things I really want to work on now is female rage because that’s not dealt with at all – and I have a lot of it. A lot of women I respect have it too, you know. I think it killed my sister as the times she was living in were so conformist. This is a subject I really want to deal with. I want to start making films about female rage.

FS: Is this going to be a documentary?
NG: I don’t know. I am going to collaborate with Valerie who is my closest friend on one about my sister for a big show in a mental hospital (“Sisters, Saints and Sibyls,”  at La Chapelle de la Salpêtrière ) next September in Paris where they invite an artist to show. This year it was Jenny Holzer. Usually people just do their own work. But I want to deal with the place and what it means to show in a mental hospital. This is what I am working on at the moment. I like using different mediums – not just photography and slide shows, but also film. There was a saint named Barbara and the story has some components which relate to my sister’s story, who was also called Barbara. There will be big cibachromes of empty spaces and still lives and a kind of emptiness.

I’ve become really interested in the landscape but not as landscape but more as it relates to mood and how we live and how the outside impacts on the inside. I didn’t really look at the outside world during the years I was photographing the Ballad as I  was  locked inside my house and I lived totally inside. The only time I went out was to go to bars at night and all the pictures were taken with a flash because there was no light at all. However now I’m very interested in light. It’s the first time that my work has become at all metaphorical – or allegorical.

FS: Do you feel the allegory when you are shooting the pictures or is it in the viewing?
NG: More in the viewing. But I’m very much interested in water and women in water. I’ve been photographing that for years although I didn’t really know it at the time.

I usually work really instinctively and it’s afterwards that I think about what it means. I don’t know consciously that I have these themes that run through my work. This show  (“Sisters, Saints and Sibyls”) I’m talking about is the first time I’m working on ideas really. When I put my big retrospective together in ’96 (for the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York), I saw that there were all these pictures of people inside looking out. All these pictures of women in water and mirrors. I don’t know what it means.

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Filed under Art, Interview, LGBT, Nan Goldin, Photography, Private view, Short stories, Transgender