John King : something about England (English version)

John King Noise1b
Photo : Philippe Matsas/Opale
In your latest novel, Skinheads, your three characters, Terry, Ray and Laurel, embody three different periods of the skinhead movement. Can you tell us about them, the music they listen and about this movement which seems to have been so popular in Great Britain?

 Terry is a teenager in the late 1960s and is drawn to the skinhead style, music and way of life generally. His music is ska, fresh from Jamaica and doing well in the charts. Ray, meanwhile, is an early-80s version of the skinhead scene, his music Oi, which is essentially punk. His style of dress is slightly different, but he represents one of the skinheads wings. These can crossover, if course, when it comes to the music, and Lol, while not really a skinhead, loves the end result of this fusion, which is referred to as ska-punk and has come back into England via the US, where bands such as Rancid are big fans of the Oi bands and ska, whether the original sounds of Prince Buster or the 2-Tone of The Specials.

The music Terry listens in 1969 is performed by people in England or does it come directly from Jamaica?

The music is by Jamaicans, some of them living in England. There were a lot of records that were made specifically for the skinhead-reggae market as well, many including the word ‘skinhead’ in the title. These songs sold very well and were big hits in the popular charts, so there was a crossover into the general population.

In France, though we copy everything coming from your country, we have ignored the original movement of 1969. The only skinheads who have crossed the channel are the nazis and racist ones, at the beginning of the 80’s, and later, in opposition, those we call the redskins. So the skinheads in England are not, or at least not all, the fascists presented by the press?

 Definitely not. But if is about definitions. If someone has a short haircut does that make them a skinhead? It is an easy stereotype, maybe due to the militaristic look, but it is only an element.

In Skinheads, Terry is upset by a TV programme called Skinheads and Swastikas, in which skinheads are presented as boneheads. The original members of the movement must be very angry always to be shown under this negative image?

It is annoying for Terry, but he is used to the distortion, but it’s not just skinheads who are shown in this way. It is a stereotype that is applied to the white working-class by those in power and within the media. There is little protection for this element of society and so it easy for those with power and influence to dismiss their opinions. For instance, if you oppose British membership of the European Union, you are often called ‘narrow-minded’ or even ‘racist’.

Maybe I’m wrong, but I think that if we have had only the nazi version here, it has to do with the feeling of being « proud to be English ». In France, this feeling of national pride is always linked with extreme right ideas and political parties. Don’t you think that this difference could come from the second world war (which is very present in your novels), because the English people could have get representations of themselves as heroes and not the French? Or is it the fact that you live on an island that influences your way of thinking ?

 I think there is a lot of truth in the fact we are an island and that were on the right side in the last war, but our media and political classes promote the same prejudices here, insist that if you are patriotic and/or don’t believe in being ruled by Brussels then you must be an extremist. Having said that, the extreme Left and Right have never been as strong here as they are on the Continent. Maybe this goes back to the difference between Protestant and Catholic thinking, the clash between free will and fate, the fact that we don’t have a supreme leader such as the Pope. The English, British and Scandinavian countries are more liberal in their thinking I feel. Britain has traditionally be a place that welcomes refugees, whether it was Protestants persecuted in Europe, the Jews who fled the pogroms in Russia in the 19th Century, the Poles and Free French during the Second World War.

Your characters are proud to belong to the working class, to incarnate proletarian values such as solidarity, work, being able to take care of one’s family. They are skinheads from father to son and don’t want to change the society, they want to do their best. They are very far from the punks who rejected the boring life of their parents, no ?

 There are a lot of different sorts of punk, and this is something I tried to show in my novel Human Punk. I always found that idea of punks being ‘bored’ more of a hippy attitude invented by people such as Malcolm McLaren, that middle-class element punk had in its very early days. How could teenagers be ‘bored’ or consider people who had fought in the war and survived the Blitz and decades of hardship dull? That is my stance. So I think the difference between punks and skinheads isn’t always so different in the UK as maybe it is in Europe, although I acknowledge that the core values of punk, such as do-it-yourself ethics, did make it something special.

Is this because Thatcher has destroyed this notion of pride among the working class that some skinheads have become more radical ?

 My thinking really is that Teds, rockers, skinheads, punks etc are manifestations of the mass culture, so skinheads were in a way a reaction in style against the long-haired, university-educated hippies of the late 1960s. For many working-class people in England, Thatcher appealed to them because she offered them ways to express their pride – through her rightful defence of the Falklands against fascist Argentina, her selling of houses to council tenants, her support for the self-employed who were penalised by the Left. Personally, I don’t like Thatcher and I think she did a lot of damage to my country and its culture, but there were policies that appealed to large sections of the working-class majority who weren’t strongly unionised.

Skinheads is the last episode of a trilogy, the Satellite Cycle, with Human Punk and White Trash. All situated in Slough, they recount forty years of British history, from 1969 to 2008. Are they realistic, almost naturalist novels, because there are autobiographical elements in them ? In fact, we don’t know many things about you, except that you were born in Slough and that you like the Sex Pistols, the Clash and Chelsea Football Club. Where are you from ? What did you do before you became a writer ?

 I draw on my life, even though they are of course fiction, so there is an element of reality to the stories. My life before writing was normal, I suppose. I grew up around Slough and Uxbridge, and was interested in music, drinking and football as a youth. When I left school I did various jobs – worked in a warehouse, a factory, painting houses, and for the local council. In my twenties I learned how to do production work on magazines and did this for a couple of years, then at 26 went travelling – Sri Lanka, India, Nepal, Thailand, Malaysia, China, the US, Mexico, Guatemala, etc. I crossed the Soviet Union on the Transiberian Express, travelled from Sydney to Perth in Australia, drove from New York to California. I began writing The Football Factory in the early 1990s, when I was back in England, and it was accepted in 1995. Since then I have written full-time.

In your previous trilogy, (The Football Factory, Headhunters and England Away), you also fought against some clichés about the hooligans. In these novels, Tom and his mates, supporters of Chelsea, are not the stupid guys we expect. You wanted these disturbing proletarian voices to be heard because they are usually not listened to ?

 Yes, and also because ‘football hooliganism’ was always exaggerated, made more important than it was, and I found the people condemning it hypocritical when they were cutting benefits for old people and conducting wars in which thousands died. My idea is that football is a spectacle and characters such as Tommy Johnson are easy targets for the poison of the political and media elite. I wanted to show the frustration and powerlessness of these ordinary English young men.

I am right if I say that, eventually, your two trilogies talk about the same thing : the fact to find a new family to live intensely a passion, music, football or fights against other supporters, to stand united against the rest of the world, to have a more exciting life ?

 They connect, definitely. The Football Factory Trilogy is more concerned with groups maybe, whereas the Satellite Cycle going more into the individuality of the characters, their locations and dreams.

I have read that you have been classified as an author who writes about football. But writing about football is not writing about the game but about the people, especially in England, and it has become almost a literary tradition, don’t you think ?

 That is often said, I know, but I have never written a book about football. Maybe I will one day. As you say, I have written about characters who go to football, but their lives are much broader, and the novels are political. It is the same with Skinheads, which is essentially about a family rather than just the skinhead way of life.

The Football Factory was your first published novel. It was a huge success, sold more than 200 000 copies in the UK. Had you written other books, maybe unpublished, before ? Has it changed your life ? Was it hard to deal with this new fame ?

 I have a manuscript I wrote before The Football Factory. It is a travel story, about the years I spent travelling. It is naive and maybe not that good, but one day I will rewrite it as my last novel, call it The Boy Who Searched For God, or something similar. It is nearly 200,000 words long, so there is a lot of material there, so maybe it will need to be two books. My life has only really changed in that because the books have sold decently I have been able to write full-time. I don’t see myself as famous. I’m not in that ‘literary world’, still do the same things I’ve always done and have the same friends. It’s easy to be anonymous when you are an author. I wouldn’t want to be famous. I just like writing my books.

Your novels deal with the notion of popular culture, and its transmission. Do you want to claim that the subculture of your characters, made of specific music, readings and values, is worth the one you can get at school ?

 Definitely. There’s formal learning and the education you get from your family and friends and the culture in which you grow-up, the passing down of first-hand experience and knowledge, free from political and social interference. I never went to university, but don’t feel it is a handicap. In some ways it means I can think freely, that I don’t have to obey too many rules when it comes to writing.

The transmission of this peculiar English way of lifetakes place also in the pubs and the stadiums, popular places where all the generations meet. Thats why Terry wants to reopen the Union Jack Club?

The Union Jack Club was formed by people from different countries, all of them proud to be British. I wanted to get across the truth that the past saw integration and acceptance, that the idea of being British was / is wider than one of ethnic background. People from the Commonwealth were considered British, while the likes of the Poles who stayed after the Second World War were keen to embrace a new, more open way of life. Terry wants to reopen the Union Jack Club because it holds the past but also the future. The book has a theme of haunting, most obviously in his memories of April.

One thing struck me. Joe in Human Punk grows up listening to the words of Rotten, Strummer, Weller or Pursey. Ray, in Skinheads, find a kind of peace when he reads 1984 by Orwell, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, Fahrenheit 451 by Bradbury, and the movie A Clockwork Orange is often quoted in your books. These references are just the same which constituted my own culture (and Bukowski as far as I am concerned). These works have built your personality too ? Isn’t is strange to think about this community, around the world, sharing the same culture ? Do you think that these novels have the same impact on the youth nowadays ?

 Yes, those people have influenced me a great deal – I also love Bukowski, and other American writers such as Hubert Selby Jr and John Fante – and for those punk singer/songwriters were like authors, but talking about things I was interested in, ideas that connected with my life. It’s great people share the same culture in different countries, find inspiration in the same music and literature. I like the novels of Camus and Zola, can identify with these authors, even though I can only read them in translation. There are ways of thinking that link us across all the divisions of language, country, age.

In France, a lot of people are very fond of english culture. We love your sense of humour, your language, your music. We have watched hundreds of times The Monty Python Flying Circus, The Avengers, The Prisoner, Bottom, Ab Fab, or more recently The Misfits. Do you think that England is always playing this cultural leading role today? What is new in music for instance?

 I think England still has its old energy, despite globalisation and the crass materialism the West is suffering. The humour is still here – ’Orrible, Benidorm, Inbetweeners, Citizen Khan for instance – while music changed with the arrival of techno, drum n bass and jungle, even Sixties-influenced bands such as Oasis and Blur. Today there are young punk bands, a renewed interest in rockabilly and mod and ska, but the innovative new music over the last decade or more is electronic I think. Dubstep is big and clever. Kids I know are into this sort of stuff and have a lot of good ideas, using the new technology in interesting ways, just as people did in the past. I like a lot of the cut-up material that has evolved – Tricky, Massive Attack, DJ Shadow from the US – who I saw last Christmas and though was brilliant. This reminds me of David Bowie in the Seventies – and I was and remain a massive fan of Bowie. I think culture moves in circles, repeats and mutates into something that is new but also older and deep-rooted. It is exciting. Nothing stands alone. We all link it someone and something else.

Female characters, through Terry’s dead wife April and sexy Angie, are more important in your latest novel. Has it something to do with the fact that Skinheads seems more optimistic than your other works ? Even naughty bad boys will be saved by love?

I think all my novels have strong female characters, despite the throwaway language of some of the males, while White Trash is centred around a nurse called Ruby James. Headhunters is really about the unity of men and women, the argument that people from the same background and culture have more in common than those linked merely by their sex. Of course, April and Angie are skinhead girls, love the same things as Terry, so there is a natural attraction, although Terry still feels loyal to April. Skinheads is optimistic and hopefully balances the trilogy that includes Human Punk and White Trash. A person and a culture is reflecting and then renewing itself.

I see your novels as rock novels, even punk novels. Speedy, exciting, angry, violent and moving. It has something to do with the subjects, the omnipresent music, but also the style, the rhythm. Do you agree with me?

 Me too! I suppose I write ‘punk prose’, having been influenced by the music and much as novels, and I do like that speed and movement, the flows of consciousness. I work more and more on the rhythms, which is what interests me, the flow and use of language.

The construction of your novels is very peculiar. There are many flashbacks. You insist on specific dates for your characters as individuals, you mix periods of their lives in a non chronological way. I think thats why nostalgia is so perceptible. Your work is fun and melancholic, speedy and sad, like a song of Madness. Are you afraid of the time that goes by or is it the expression of the English soul?

With Skinheads I wrote the contemporary sections in the past tense and the sections set in the past in the present tense. I did this to link and merge the stories and also the lives of the characters. In some ways time in a circle, as well as a straight line, depending on you mood and way of thinking. I fear wasting time, as I know it is precious, and will soon be gone, but I still let it pass too easily. I have always felt this way, but it is becoming more extreme as I get older. It is interesting that several French journalists have mentioned ‘nostalgia’, as I don’t really see Skinheads as nostalgic, although I have tried to look at things I feel have been dismissed or ignored.

You are often compared to Irvine Welsh. Both of you are aside from a more classical British literature. What makes you so specific?

I know Irvine and I suppose the link is that we are the same age and have similar interests and influences, and this comes across in our writing maybe. There are a few other writers of the same age and general approach, even if their styles vary – Alan Warner, Alex Wheetle, David Peace, for example.

Irvine Welsh has said that it was a tragedy that he was so bad at the two thinks he loved most, music and football. Have you suffered the same curse?

 Depends on the order. I would have wanted to be a footballer first, but I wasn’t good enough, although at night when I can’t sleep I imagine myself as a kid coming on as a substitute for Chelsea and scoring four or five goals, then going on to appear for England. My second choice would be someone in a band – a lead singer or guitarist. But again, that never happened. So yes, Irvine knows what he’s talking about. He is a good man.

What are your plans ? I have heard that you are trying to make a movie based on Human Punk, is it true ? Are you working on a new novel ? And what about your publishing house London Books ?

 We’re trying to get Human Punk made and I’m working on an album based on The Prison House. The song have all been written and are there at the rough stage, so I’m trying to work out how to make it and find the money. I want to get it out next year.

Do you mean that you have written the lyrics of the songs ? What about the music ? Whom are you working with on that project?

The Prison House album is based on my novel of the same name, and I have written the lyrics, which draw on the text of the book, while fPrice guitarist Leigh Heggarty has come up with the music, some of it with my input. The Ruts rhythm section of Dave Ruffy and Segs Jennings will hopefully be on the record, while we have to decide on a singer yet. I am producing the record, trying to learn more about how the process works. It is a lot of fun, and writing lyrics is relaxing after working on novels. The Human Punk film will take longer – we have a good screenplay, but film is dependent on raising the cash.

Yesterday, I have watched again the movie Nick Love made from The Football Factory. I like it very much. What do you think of it ? Wasn’it strange to see your characters come to life on the screen?

I think it’s a very good film, and it is certainly well respected, regarded as the best of the genre. The novel is more political, so the film operates on another level, but it works and I am happy with the end result. Because of the subject matter it is something that could easily have been done badly, so it is a relief it turned out so well. It was strange seeing the characters on the screen at first, but then the book re-emerged. Now I have two versions of The Football Factory in my head, rather than just the one!

Are you working on a new novel?

I have to finish the last story on a collection of shorts and rewrite some of a novel I have done the first draft on – Slaughterhouse Prayer – which is an animal-rights themed book, as I have been a vegetarian for thirty years and a vegan for much of that time. It is a subject I’ve wanted to write about seriously for a long time, but it has been difficult to get right.

Can you tell us about London Books ?

Next year we will hopefully release another couple of books in our London Classics series with London Books, and maybe even a brand-new title.

So I am keeping busy, which is good, as writing is a release, keeps me sane.

Interview published in New Noise n°13 – november-december 2012

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