Cathi Unsworth : London calling (english version)

Cathi Unsworth1 2012 credit Fen Oswin
Photo : Fen Oswin
You began your career at the age of 19 as a music journalist for Sounds. How did you manage to write so young in such a magazine?

I was on an HND diploma course at the London College of Fashion in Fashion Journalism & PR. In the summer holidays, PRs used to recruit students from our course to work for them – and back then in the Eighties, we even got paid for it. I had spent one summer working for a PR company who had the account for Reading Festival, where I had met Steve Double, a photographer on Sounds. I had a work placement coming up and I already knew I wanted to work in music, not fashion. I asked Steve if they took students on and he laughed and said the place was full of them. So I rang up the editor, Tony Stewart, and asked him if I could do my two weeks there. He gave me an interview, we got on and he let me start straight off on the news desk, with Hugh Fielder, a lovely man who had been around since the Sixties and had lots of wisdom to impart. I did well enough to start getting reviews and then interviews and it just went from there.

Sounds, then Melody Maker, the rock scene… You were a very young girl in a rather male environment.  Do you think that to be a woman has been a handicap for this peculiar job, did you have to fight to be listened to, or on the contrary, has your feminity been an advantage? Or, this question of genre did not matter at that time?

On Sounds it really didn’t matter. Tony was the best male magazine editor I have ever had, everyone there got their job on merit, and it was split evenly 50/50 between male and female, so it was a really nice atmosphere to work in. Melody Maker was a completely different set-up. I do remember being laughed at for suggesting we put Nirvana on the front cover for Reading 1991 by the all-male senior editors, one of whom has since gone on to create his own industry out of his involvement with that band. A few years later I read in Paul Gorman’s book about the music papers about Caroline Coon being similarly treated over The Sex Pistols and The Clash, probably by a number of the same people – that is the thing about the music press here, those that run what is left of it have been in situ for decades and they guard their kingdom jealously. They don’t really like it if a woman knows more than they do about music, by the simple fact she has been out seeing bands.

Melody Maker and NME were always really anxious about the fact that they fucked up on punk, Sounds got there first, so they were paranoid about that ever happening again. Which meant me and a handful of other freelancers who were really into the music would go out and find the bands, and then as soon as any of these bands got signed to a major label, the senior males would take over from that point, taking all the credit for ‘discovering’ the bands in question and enjoying all the free lunches, trips to America, etc. By the time I was 25 I felt like I was getting too old to stay working in music industry anyway. Luckily that was the year I met Robin Cook and a number of other people who would have a positive influence on my life.

In The Not Knowing, your first novel, whose story is set in the 90’s, Diana, your heroine, is a journalist herself. She is very critical of the music press. She describes arrogant journalists whose names are written bigger than those of the artists they interview. We have that kind of journalists in France too. What do you think about the music magazines nowadays, and their evolution?

I think that, in this country, there has been a devolution, really. Mojo and Uncut have well-written, interesting features, which are largely the work of the same people who were at Sounds, Melody Maker and NME in the Eighties/Nineties, which I guess reflects the demographic of their readers, so it’s not really like the music papers were for championing the cutting edge of new music. NME is now edited by a woman, which is some progress after five decades, but the magazine itself is more like the old Record Mirror or Smash Hits than the NME I used to read when I was a teenager. Kerrang! is still the naughty little brother of the music press, which is its enduring appeal, but it covers only one genre of music. Having lived through that period of time as a journalist, I think that the reason for this is down to the fact that the publishers of all UK consumer magazines relentlessly dumbed down the content of them until no one could bear to read them any more – which is why Melody Maker, Select and a lot of other music mags I used to work for no longer exist. Those same publishers were only interested in courting the very young and hence we have the situation we’re in now. At its peak Sounds could sell a 250,000 copies a week, now it is only the trashy celeb mags like Heat (published, incidentally, by the same people that closed down Sounds) that sell that much.

And what about the artists? Do you think that they are as approachable as before ? In The Singer, your second novel, you describe a rock background in which real psychopaths can be found. Do you think that people idealize the rock scene? Have you been disappointed by musicians sometimes?

Not so often as by the people who swirl around them, leeching off their talent and discarding the husks of their burnt-out careers. It is a world where psychopaths are ideally suited to flourish. There is definitely a type that Vince in The Singer conforms too, the charismatic leader who needs to be adored, and who reams through the Valley of Death unscathed, leaving the bodies of the impressionable in his wake. When you add heroin, you add another lever of control that people like him can wield, that will be enabled within that world by fawning acolytes as having something to do with creativity.

As for artists being approachable, I was lucky in that when I started on Sounds, there were no armies of PRs surrounding every artist, controlling what they said and making you sign all sorts of forms declaring the subjects that are off-limits. You could – and I did – ring people like John Peel and Joe Strummer up and they would be happy to talk to you. Which really does seem like a different world.

Music and words are intimately related in your life and career. Diana, in The Not Knowing, says that she would have gone mad without music and novels. Has music journalism been a real education for your work as a writer?

Yes, of course. As a journalist, I was taught the discipline of writing short, incisive pieces that grab the reader’s attention. And writing about music is a very creative thing as you are describing something ephemeral, the effect that music has on people. Within that world, I met so many characters – mostly brilliant I have to say, as well as the bad ones – that it’s set me up for a lifetime. It was like a field study in human nature – ramped up several notches by the nature of that business, I am sure – but I really did meet the full compliment of heroes, villains, dreamers and schemers there.

What is the triggering factor which determined you to write novels? Have you always thought about it? And why crime novels? Because rock music and Noir literature go together well?

It was because, through my friends in the band Gallon Drunk, I met the black novelist Robin Cook (who was known as Derek Raymond in this country) when they made together a record of his masterpiece, I Was Dora Suarez. Before I read this book, the only crime fiction I had really been into was Sherlock Holmes as a child – Robin opened up an entire world I never knew existed. In his books, the victim was the important person – not the investigator or the killer – and society was probed for the reasons they ended up in this bleak and lonely place.

Robin himself was one of the most brilliant, livewire people I have ever met, to me he was like the Johnny Rotten of crime fiction and I just wanted to be like him. After I had read all his books, I spent ten years reading the books he led me too – James Ellroy, Dashiell Hammett, Jim Thompson, Patrick Hamilton, David Peace, Jake Arnott, and a ton of others. I only knew Robin for one year before he sadly died, but he gave me a lifetime’s worth of magic.

In The Not Knowing, Diana is obliged to read a very bad crime novel, written by a woman who does not know what she is talking about. What makes a good Noir novel? What are your influences as fas as literature is concerned?

I think it is the job of the noir writer to ask the fundamental questions that have troubled us from time immemorial – why are we here, why does evil exist, what is it about the human race that makes it so hard for us to get along – and to shine that light of enquiry into the society in which the crime is committed. My heroes in this field are those stated above – Robin Cook/Derek Raymond, James Ellroy, David Peace and Jake Arnott in particular, because of the quality of their writing. And because they freed the genre from the straightjacket of the serial lead character.

Crime writers… Here again, this is quite a male world. In music, where they are too often only sexy figures, or even when they write crime novels, (most of the time they write « psychological » ones), women seem to conform to not too disturbing images. They do what they are expected to do, in a way. Do you agree with me ? Was it easy for you to be published?

It is a strange one, this. In Britain, there are lots of very successful female crime writers who are very good writers too, but you are right, they mostly do write psychological thrillers and they all have to have serial characters. I did write something recently for The Guardian about how female crime writers are all still strapped into Agatha Christie’s corset when it comes to what is permitted of them by publishers.  I know a lot of women writers who feel the same way.

But it was very difficult for me to get published. Only John Williams at Serpent’s Tail thought The Not Knowing was worth publishing – other editors at bigger houses did like it, but thought it was too different and as there was no obvious detective character to make a series out of, were not willing to take a risk. John thought it was entirely down to the fact that I was writing about popular culture in it, and that only arty male writers were allowed to do this – a very similar situation to the music press, in fact.

Your heroines are strong female characters. They work as journalists, singers, managers, fashion creators. They try to do their best to find their way. Is it important for you to show positive images of women?

Yes, I write for the women who I think are like me, who are making their way in a still hugely imbalanced and male-dominated world. It’s good to have strong role models – when I grew up there were tons of them, like Lydia Lunch and Siouxsie Sioux who looked brilliant, said things that were important and you couldn’t imagine taking any shit off men. In my lifetime, they were the first wave of women who I saw doing things differently, the way they wanted to, and they have had just as much impact on me as the male crime writers I mentioned earlier. So the women in my books are also very inspired by women like them.

Having done Bad Penny Blues, set in the early Sixties, even though that was a time when young, artistic women like Mary Quant and Pauline Boty did make a name for themselves in London, it really came home to me just how much more difficult it was for my mother’s generation than mine. And then of course there were the women who were the victims in that book, who were the most important people for me – I wanted to make people think what it was like to be on the receiving end of such short and brutal lives as theirs. The women who have to take all the shit than men can dish out, become the vessels into which they pour all their rage.

In The Singer, the young punks you portray are so touching, so vivid, that the reader could imagine you are depicting your own teens. But you were still a child when punk movement exploded. Do you think that punk has moulded you even if you were very young? What are your memories of the period?

I was only a child when the Pistols were going, but the post-punk period coincided with my early teens, and because I lived in the middle of a field in Norfolk then, I spent all my time listening to John Peel and watching the many rather good music programmes there were in those days (like The Tube, The Oxford Roadshow, Riverside). There was such a wealth of good music going on and so many bands experimenting with image and ideas and following their own agenda. It went on being pretty good at least until the mid-Eighties. And it did leave me with that sense that the personal is the political, and the all-important DIY aesthetic that, if you don’t like the way things are, then try and make something better and do something about it yourself.

Your latest novel, Weirdo (Rivages will publish its translation in french), explores the 80’s and the time when you were a teenager. Can you tell us more about it? Do you still feel close to the girl you were at the time? 

This is very much a love letter to those times, and the friends I shared them with in Norfolk in the early Eighties, a select band of weirdos, goths, punks, rockabillies, psychobillies and cross-pollinations of all that, who used to assemble in this pub I every Friday and Saturday night.

It wasp one of those times that was the classic best of/worst of simultaneously. Margaret Thatcher was in power and in the process of destroying the very fabric of our society in the year that Weirdo’s set, 1984, which was the year of the Miner’s Strike. But, inspired by hatred of her and by the fact no one had a job to go to, there were all these brilliant, politically motivated bands like New Model Army, The Mob, Poison Girls, Crass, Killing Joke, who I’ve put into the soundtrack of the book. As well as the ones who weren’t so political but made stunning music, like The Sisters, Bunnymen, Theatre of Hate, Southern Death Cult.

And then of course, being a teenager you experience the extremes of best and worst all at once, too. The happiness you find when you discover kindred spirits and a place to hide from the rest of the normal world, versus the fact that you are stuck in a small, closed-minded place – which in itself gives you something to kick against. I remember those days very vividly, probably because you can never forget the heightened reality of being a teenager.

Your third novel, Bad Penny Blues, is the only one which is situated during a period, the 60’s, that you didn’t live yourself, even if we stay in a musical and artistic environment. Was it more difficult to write?

Bad Penny was the hardest one to write for many reasons. Firstly, the true, unsolved case that it was based on was extremely harrowing, complex and bizarre and finding a solution to it that was more satisfactory than any of the claims made by the handful of other authors who have studied it and written books about it was an extremely difficult thing to do. Secondly, not having lived through that time period I had to stop and think all the time about what did exist in that world and what had yet to be invented; and how people spoke in those days – some words have change their meaning so much in 50-60 years. It involved a lot of research and that was a good thing – as well as the factual books I read around the case and that time period in general, I also read a lot of pulp fiction and watched a lot of movies from the era, which by happy coincidence, was probably the best time ever for British film. I learned so much from writing that book about culture, history and the forgotten heroines and heroes of that age, as well as the phantom killer.

The structure of your novels is often rather complex. You mix several periods, several voices. Do you make a very detailed plan before writing?

With Bad Penny it really was necessary to have a timeline, not just of the murders, but of events going on in general in the UK and around the world, to keep everything in order. I also had an extremely long list of the crimes investigated by the detective I based my fictional Harold Wesker on. But I don’t really plan out beyond that – the act of writing a novel is an investigation and I find that things come to me while writing if I leave myself open like that. I don’t really like the idea of writing up something you already know is going to happen. So if the ending of a book is a surprise to the reader, well it was to me the first time around as well!

You insert parts of the History of England among the stories of the characters. Youth movements such as the punks or the Teddy boys, the political background such as Thatcher’s election or Mosley’s campaign are very well documented. Do you make a lot of research to stand close to real life?

I do try and make it as authentic as I can. When I have done all the research about things I’ve used that really happened and then started to imagine it coming to life as I write, I really want to feel like I am there, watching it unfold in real time, so that hopefully the reader can feel it the same way too. After writing Bad Penny Blues I did actually feel like I had lived through that time period! That’s why the researching part is really nice, because I have always been interested in history, and as I’ve got older, the hidden histories of our time and why things have been forgotten or suppressed.

You seem to be in love with your city, London, even if you know and show its dark side. Is it the reason why you have published London Noir, an anthology of black short stories? Can you tell us this anthology?

That book was commissioned by a guy I know from my music press days, Johnny Temple of Akashic books. Johnny’s in the band Girls Against Boys, who I interviewed many times, and back in the days of the record company gold rush brought about by the sudden success of Nirvana, they got signed to Geffen records for a tidy amount. Johnny invested his in starting a publishing house, which happily has gone from strength to strength. He started the Noir series in Brooklyn, where he lives, with a brilliant collection edited by Tim McLoughlin. It was a success, so he took the format to other cities and asked other crime writers to edit them, and for London I was lucky enough that he asked me.

I asked some of my favourite established writers, like Ken Bruen, Martyn Waites, Joolz Denby and Patrick McCabe, as well as people from the music world, like Barry Adamson, who I knew was a brilliant writer as well as musician and Sylvie Simmons who is an ace music biographer. Also people involved in other areas of popular culture/esoterica, such as Ken Hollings, who put a fantastic sci-fi spin on his closing story about Canary Wharf, and Stewart Home, whose story derives from material he had discovered researching his mother’s life in Ladbroke Grove in the Seventies. Also, a handful of people who had never published fiction before, like Michael Ward and Joe McNally, but who I thought had very distinct voices that I should be heard. I thoroughly enjoyed working on the book, and would love to do something similar again in the future. Collaborations are always much more fun.

Each place you describe has its own soundtrack. Your stories are located in specific areas, Camden, Ladbroke Grove, Soho, places which were famous for their artistic creation, their musical expression. Is it still true? Do you think that London has changed a lot? If yes, in a positive way?

London is always shifting, which is part of my impulse to write down and record what was happening at certain times in certain places, before it all disappears into the ether. London has changed so much in the 25 years I have lived here. When I got my first bedsit in Ladbroke Grove (the one described as Diana’s in The Not Knowing), it was still a cheap, bohemian and exciting place that attracted artists, musicians and writers for all of those reasons – but mainly the first one. But ever since the film Notting Hill came out, the place has been overrun by American bankers looking for the quaint little old blue door, and they have pushed the prices up to such astronomical levels that it would just be unthinkable that a 19-year-old student could attempt to live there now.

All the young people who are doing good things these days live in Hackney, because that’s where they can still find affordable (I won’t say cheap because nothing is cheap in this city) places to live. That’s where you’ll find the interesting bands, clubs, galleries and shops now.

All your books have been translated in french, do you have a special connection with France? 

I love France and I am very grateful to have the wonderful François Guérif as my publisher. Rivages have been very supportive and right behind all of my books, like Serpent’s Tail in the UK they are a publisher that will take a risk.

Here’s the thing for you: John Williams, who signed me to Serpent’s Tail and has since edited all my books, I met through the aforementioned Robin Cook. John looked after Robin throughout his final illness and I first met him in Robin’s flat, only about a week before Robin died. As you probably know, Robin also lived in France for a long time, where his work was much more appreciated than it ever was here, and his best friend in France was François. So, I feel like Robin is still looking out for me, and that’s what I mean about that lifetime of magic.

Music is ubiquitous in your novels. Each place has a soundtrack and each period has its own too. Do you listen to the same music as your characters when you are writing? Do you think that music influences the way you write?

Yes, totally. It was how I managed to get back down the time tunnel for Bad Penny – the first thing I did was to look up what record was number one in the singles chart when each woman was murdered and that provided an eerie and evocative soundtrack. I added to it with other records that were hits in the years covered in the story, each taking on a sinister new meaning in context – even Tommy Steele’s jolly old Cockney knees-up ‘Flash! Bang! Wallop!’ When I heard the music of the times, I could visualise things so much better. So yes, whatever the music is in the books, that was what I was listening to as I was writing it.

As far as music is concerned, what are you listening at the moment? In an interview I have read, you mentioned the Cardiacs. Thank you for the discovery, I love them. Are there other bands you want to talk about?

I am so glad you love the Cardiacs – one of the greatest ever British bands, though I fear, like most of my favourite writers, prophets without honour in their own land. My favourite band right now are every bit as unique and talented, they are called The Cesarians and I think everyone in France should know about them, as they put on the most amazing live shows of any band I have seen since the Cardiacs. Their album, Cesarians I is well worth seeking out, but nothing beats seeing them – imagine a bunch of Victorian cutpurses luring the unwary down a dark alley while a man with the physical dexterity of David Yow sings with the vocal dexterity of Scott Walker like a ringmaster in front of them… and you’d be almost there! I am also very keen on Big Sexy Noise, who are Lydia Lunch with Gallon Drunk, Gallon Drunk themselves of course, and a trio of very brilliant women called We Are Birds of Paradise.

What are your plans? Are you working in a new novel? With a different musical background?

I am in the middle of researching a new novel, which requires a lot of reading, as it is based in the days of the Blitz in London. I am hoping it might be the start of a series of books that examine how the worlds of showbiz, politics, crime, policing and newspapers combine to such deadly effect as we have seen pouring out at the Leveson Enquiry, and thought it would be good to start in the Forties and the War – there was a massive crimewave in London during the blackout, and I think this is where very interesting characters from all these worlds start to combine. It is such a fascinating period to cover but it needs so much research that I haven’t actually started anything other than a timeline yet – and been listening to all the brilliant swing and jazz from this period, too!

Interview published in New Noise n°14 – January-february 2013