Sunday, 22 June 2014

The Horror... The Humour... of Graham Masterton

One of Britain’s most prolific and hard-working horror writers talks to Remy Dean about sex, murder, crossing the line and not wearing hats indoors…



If you check out an on-line bibliography of Graham Masterton, you will be glad of your scroll wheel! The lists go on and on… and most are incomplete, mainly because no one can keep up with his output, which seems to average about four novels a year. 

If you talk to a Masterton fan (I count myself as a member of this cult) they will sing his praises and convince you that he is indeed, ‘the living inheritor of the realm of Edgar Allen Poe’ - as claimed on the back of numerous book jackets - a writer of dark imagination that rivals, perhaps surpasses, the big names such as Stephen King and Clive Barker. Talk to one of his detractors (as with most horror writers he has many) and they will fail to convince you that his stories come from a sick and warped imagination and are only suitable reading for those who have sicker minds. Or perhaps you will talk to a reader of his sweeping historical sagas, who will recount how they could not put his doorstop of novel down, how they were transported into a well-researched and convincing re-telling of some historical setting and mind-set. Or maybe a reader that loves to be immersed in his perceptive and often prophetic political thrillers… 

Generally, Masterton divides readers, into three categories: those who love his books, those who hate them, and those who have never heard of him… He has managed to maintain the status of a ‘cult’ writer, although his first novel, The Manitou, was published nearly forty years ago, he has won literary awards, collaborated with William S Boroughs, featured on best-seller lists, been adapted for television and cinema… and shows no signs of slowing down!

Depending on what day you ask me, I may well cite Graham Masterton as my favourite author – not for clarity and elegance of prose, for that I go to Bukowski, not for his profound yet entertaining philosophical inventiveness, for that I go to Richard Miller, not for his potent and disconcerting honesty, for that I go to Lydia Lunch… but for a good rollicking read, I’ll go for Graham!

In a recent twitter conversation with @GrahamMasterton, he stated that Descendant was one of his personal favourites from his own back-catalogue. I thoroughly enjoyed it too and on hearing the news that another of his books has just been optioned for film, was suggesting it as an ideal candidate for cinematic treatment… His writing is usually so cinematic, it is surprising that more of his books have not been made into big screen movies.

“Ten of my books have been optioned over the years for feature films, including Trauma, which was optioned by Jonathan Mostow, and Family Portrait, which was optioned by Gold Circle. Every time some last-minute problem led to the projects falling by the wayside – usually financial. Almost all writers will tell you that they have had the same experience. The late Tony Scott bought three of my short stories for his Hunger TV series, the best adaptation of which was The Secret Shih-Tan, a Chinese cannibal story featuring Jason Scott Lee. The other two were Anais, about the sketch of a sexy woman coming to life, and Bridal Suite, about a honeymoon couple who get more than they bargained for in a New England guest house.

"Walkers has been optioned by Jules Stewart, the mother of Kristen Stewart from the Twilight series. It is currently in development with her Libertine Films in Los Angeles, under the new title of The Oaks. All I can do is cross my fingers and hope that it gets a green light.”


Also ideally filmic was one of the first Mastertons that I read, The Devils of D-Day, a fast-moving and fantastical war story that I have since pushed on several friends… With such a huge back-catalogue, does Graham have any recommendations for anyone who has not read anything Mastertonian? Where could they start?

“I think The Manitou is probably a good place to start,” he responds with little hesitation, “because that was the novel which kicked off my career as a horror writer.  After that I would probably recommend some of the novels I wrote in the 1980s like Family Portrait and Mirror and The Pariah. By the time new readers have digested those, I think they will be pretty well acquainted with the way I write and the directions I like to go wandering off."

The Manitou was a hugely original and influential novel for the horror genre, with very few precedents at the time of publication, it has been followed by four sequels to date. In the Manitou series of stories, the protagonist, Harry Erskine - who was played by Tony Curtis in the 1978 movie version - is  described in the books as a bit like Elliot Gould... so who would be cast in that role now?

John Singing Rock (Michael Ansara) talks 'medicine'
with Harry Erskine (Tony Curtis) in The Manitou
“I think Tony Curtis was perfect for the role, because he played it absolutely straight - as did the rest of the cast. I don’t know enough of today’s young male actors to be able to make a suggestion for a remake.”

How much of the real Masterton is in Erskine?

“Oh, quite a bit, the real Masterton finds it hard to take things too seriously and also reads fortune-telling cards, although I do it for pretty young women for free, rather than rich old ladies for money.”

He seems happy enough to be labelled as a horror writer, and is respected as one, having been awarded some prestigious genre prizes, such as a Special Edgar for Charnel House, a Bram Stoker award for short stories, the Prix Julia Verlanger for Family Portrait. He recently had a park bench dedicated to him in Krakow, where you can sit and listen to an extract from Bassilisk on your mobile device... but having written such a variety of genres, including non-fiction and sex-guides, is there a label he feels is more suitable?
A French edition of Family Portrait / Picture of Evil
which was awarded the Prix Julia Verlanger 
“If I labelled myself as anything, it would probably be ‘journalist’. I was trained as a newspaper reporter and a magazine editor - I have always written to entertain and involve my readers rather than trying to make any personal points or explore my own psyche. To me, writing is my job.”

Does he wear different hats for different genres? (I mean this metaphorically, of course, but privately hope he really does wear a variety of a hats when writing!)

“Obviously there is a difference between the way I write a sex guide and the way I write a horror novel, but when I am writing fiction the genre is unimportant. What is important is making the characters and the settings believable and giving readers the sense that they are participating in the story rather than just reading it. Even with a sex guide I try to be involving and make readers empathise with the experiences of the people I am writing about, and imagine themselves in some of the sexual scenarios which I recommend.”

Is there, I wonder, a personal favourite piece of work that means a lot to him on some level, or that he is particularly proud of?

“I was very pleased by the way Trauma (aka Bonnie Winter) came out. I was originally going to write it under a woman’s nom-de-plume but when I showed it to my agent he persuaded me to publish it under my own name. It tells the story of a woman crime-scene cleaner who is gradually brought to the point of a nervous breakdown by the horrors of her job and her dead-end marriage, and I feel that in this novel I managed to get closer to understanding female thinking than any other novel I had written before.”

Fellow Brit Horror writer, Ramsey Campbell, recounts how people often come up to him and, knowing him to be a horror writer, will say, “I don’t like the kind of books your write,” to which he responds with the questions, “Oh, which ones did you read and not like?” To which they reply, “I haven’t read any of them…” Clive Barker is accused of being in league with Satan… Graham must also be used to dealing with negative responses because of people’s preconceptions?

“My crime novels White Bones and Broken Angelswhich have been very successful as Kindle books, did elicit some hostile reactions, mainly because I wrote about murders in a very graphic way. But, after all, murders are horrible and I don’t see any point in pretending otherwise. Real murder is not like an Agatha Christie novel, in which the bishop gets bashed on the head in the bathroom with a badger. It amused me that most of the readers who complained spelled 'graphic' with a double 'f' - ‘graffic’.

"I never read reviews these days, because I know from my experience on magazines that only a tiny percentage of readers ever complain, and so they are not in any way representative of the readership at large. All that counts is how many books are sold... if it’s a lot, then you obviously have some happy and satisfied customers."

His books do often have a level of cruelty and ‘nastiness’, but the characters and stories are also very entertaining and I often find myself chuckling along to dialogue and the ridiculous situations they may find themselves in – to me the horror seems balanced with humour. Is this a deliberate decision?

“It’s deliberate in that I know that people often react to desperate or even grisly situations with humour. It’s our defence mechanism against the unspeakable. Think of the 'Tommies' in World War One who produced humorous magazines like The Wipers Times and made jokes about death and hideous conditions in the trenches.”

…the cat and razor-wire enema from The Sleepless, or the family murdered cruelly in the opening of Black Angel – both books I really enjoyed, by the way, particularly the latter – but does Graham ever think he has ‘crossed the line’?

“I have occasionally ‘crossed the line’, as you call it, on purpose. I have written several short stories which were intended from the beginning to test the very limits of acceptability, such as the notorious Eric The Pie, which led to the banning, by W H Smith, of the horror magazine Frighteners, which I still regret, as it was a very good horror magazine. Then there was Sepsis, which was a Cemetery Dance chapbook, and most recently Beholder, about a little girl who believes that her mother is keeping her imprisoned in the house because she is too beautiful to go out. That will appear in my new collection of short stories Figures of Fear, in October.”

What does he think his readers enjoy in the books, what attracts them to come back?

“I hope when they read my books they feel involved in the characters and identify with their lives and their problems. All of my characters are pretty ordinary people, not super-heroes or knights of the realm, and they often have difficulties quite apart from the evils they have to confront, like business difficulties or a failed marriage or grief. I try very hard to make myself invisible to the reader to create that ‘cinematic’ effect you talked about. This is not nearly as easy as it might seem, because it requires very precise choice of words and an ability to communicate plot essentials without appearing to be lecturing. The late William Burroughs and I spent many hours discussing how to become what he called ‘El Hombre Invisible’. I try to evoke sounds and smells and sensations in my novels to make them feel real, and the greatest compliment that was ever paid to me was by a woman who was reading my Irish crime novel White Bones and said she had to keep looking up from the book to reassure herself that she wasn’t actually in Ireland.”

Graham has been writing professionally for fifty years or so, what is it that still motivates him to write?

“It gives me a chance to tell everybody else what to do. And sometimes that’s a good thing. A retired country doctor in Warsaw said that for years he had prescribed my sex guide Magia Seksu (How to Drive Your Man Wild in Bed) to his patients if they had sex problems.”

He was instrumental in publishing Scare Care – a collection of horror stories sold to raise money for children’s charities - what wider issues are important to him? What gets Graham angry or ‘fired up’?

“Very few things fire me up except stupidity and ignorance and cruelty and elderly people who dress badly and people who wear hats or caps indoors,” (okay, so he doesn't actually wear different hats for writing each genre…) “Oh, and Banksy and his rubbishy clichéd graffiti. Apart from that, I find it almost impossible to believe that in the 21st century we are still fighting and killing each other, especially small children who have never had a chance to live out their lives. I have seen a great deal of child abuse, and also children who have terrible debilitating illnesses and brain damage, and that is why I put together the Scare Care anthology, which was a collection of short stories by mostly well-known horror authors all of which were donated for free. It raised tens of thousands of dollars for children’s charities in the UK, United States, and several European countries.”

So who are his heroes and heroines?

“People who believe in themselves and stick at what they believe in and take risks. I am helping a young woman to write her first novel and her determination makes me proud of her.”

In many Masterton books, you will find some quite specific art references, to particular works and painters. I gather then that art must be an interest of his – how does creativity from other formats feed into the creative writing?

“I have always enjoyed art and in fact was going to be a commercial artist before I decided to become a newspaper reporter instead. Art can teach you a lot about how to describe a room or a scene or a building or a person. Take a look at paintings by Velasquez, easily my favourite painter. From a distance, they appear immensely detailed, but when you look closer you can see that elaborate lace ruff is just a few splodges of white, and that cherubic face is made out nothing more than some smears of red and yellow ochre. Picasso could do that, too, before he started painting all that Cubist rubbish. Whistler comes a close second...”

To what extent does Graham think that location influences creativity?

“Location is very important as the setting for a story. It has to be utterly believable and feel real. But I can write anywhere. I have written horror stories on the beach in Greece, and sex guides in a cupboard in Stockholm,. When I first joined a newspaper, the reporters’ room with all its manual typewriters sounded like a riveting shop in a Glasgow shipyard, but you soon get used to writing with all that background noise.”

He moved around from Scotland to Ireland to the USA and back – can he still be considered a British writer?

“When I write, I am not aware of having any particular nationality. I set many of my books in the United States for commercial reasons – the whole world is familiar with American culture from films and TV, so it make sense. I am writing a series of books about Katie Maguire the Irish detective at the moment so the inside of my head is completely Irish and I even find myself saying things like: (in blarney accent) ‘if my dog had a face as ugly as yours he’d shave his arse and walk backwards’!”

So when we drink to Graham’s health this solstice weekend, what should we toast him with… a shot of poteen or Irish whiskey? ...perhaps raise a Guinness?

“I have been known to enjoy a Sauvignon Blanc or two, although in Bialystok in Poland recently I spent the whole night until 2:30 in the morning on wild strawberry vodka. It was absolutely delicious and so pure I had no hangover the following day. Many thanks to Adam ‘Tequila’ the barman!”

- and thank you Graham Masterton, Cheers!

Just out are a new disaster novel Drought - in the style of Plague and Famine - and a new Katie Maguire novel, Red Light

A new short story collection Figures of Fear will be published in October and he is currently working on a fourth Katie Maguire novel and when that is finished he promises, “to write a novel so scary that nobody will be able to sleep at night after reading it.”
up-coming release...
More info and news on the official Graham Masterton website...

Graham Masterton will be 'Brought to Book' in our Autumn Equinox issue...

Thursday, 19 June 2014

Liesel Schwarz - Brought to Book

What was the first book that really grabbed you and took you on a journey when you started reading?

That's a very difficult question to answer because there are so many! I think stories and the books they came in have always held me in their thrall. I grew up reading a lot of fantasy. For me, historical fiction was also a form of fantasy because writers were bringing the past to life. I think as a child, books written by authors such as Rosemary Sutcliffe and Diana Wynne-Jones had a profound impact on my young mind.

Do you have an all-time favourite book? 

I have many, so it's very hard to pick just one. I know I am supposed to cite some wondrous work of literature at this juncture, but I think I also have a number of ‘guilty pleasure’ favourite books - the ones you own in paperback and have read till they became dog-eared and the pages started falling out? I am a big fan of Michael Moorcock's work. I also love writers like Margaret Atwood, Ursula LeGuinn and Anne MaCaffrey.


What is the most recent book you have read and really enjoyed? 

I recently read debut author Debbie Johnson's novel, Dark Vision which I thought was excellent.

What are you reading right now? 

I am currently in the process of researching my next project so I am reading a lot of non-fiction at the moment. I have however recently purchased G W Dahlquist's next book titled, The Dark Volume which is sitting on my shelf waiting for me.

Is there any other media you really enjoy and what inspires you most such as comics, music, art?

I tend to absorb a lot of media across the board. That includes film, TV, comics and short films. I am currently very interested in what Amazon Prime and Netflix are doing in terms of television shows.

Who is your all-time favourite writer?

There are many and it changes from time to time. I am a big fan of Charles Dickens. I also love writers like Jules Verne.

Is there a writer who changed your outlook profoundly? 

I think every time you read a good book, it changes your outlook profoundly. That's what books do. I think I read Stephen King's On Writing many years ago and it made the idea of being a writer accessible. I also absolutely loved Sometimes the Magic Works - Lessons From a Writing Life by Terry Brooks. I was incredibly honoured to meet him in person last year and he was ever so nice to me which made it extra special.

 When did you ‘wake up’ to being a writer?

I don't think I had a moment where I ‘woke up’ to being a writer. I've always had an aptitude for languages. I've always been a voracious reader and I wrote stories from a very young age. Then common sense prevailed and I went on to become a lawyer with a ‘real job’. I took the decision to go back to writing when I was in my twenties - once I had ticked all the boxes one has to tick in life.

What is your writing regimen right now?

Sadly, the image of the ubiquitous writer spread out on a chaise lounge, wrapped in a feather boa while nibbling bonbons is a myth. Writing is very hard work and so I think that having a professional approach to one's writing is important. I think it's also quite important to have structure and routine, so I aim to be at my desk, working by 8.30 am as one would a day job.

Do you have any advice for writers getting started? 

The best advice I can give writers who are getting started is this: Learn as much as you can about your craft and the business. Work hard and finish what you start. Also, never give up on your dream.

Did you wonder about being gender neutral for your launch in the Science Fiction and Fantasy genre? Do you think this a valid issue? 

Oddly enough, there is a percentage of people who think that Liesel is a man's name - I joke not. I think every writer, around the time of publication of their first book wonders what name to put on the cover. Unfortunately, sales and reader statistics seem to indicate that even in this day and age in the SFF genre, female readers will generally read books written by men and by women. Male readers won't and tend to stick to books written by men. This is why female writers and their publishers are faced with the dilemma of whether or not to publish under a gender neutral name in order to reach a greater readership.

It's a sad state of affairs, but one that I hope is slowly changing, one reader at a time. I am happy to say though, that I have never been asked to androgenise my name. In fact, I am extremely lucky to be with my publishers, DelRey UK, who actively promote and celebrate women writers in SFF.

What is your favourite recipe book? 

My favourite recipe book is a work entitled Domestic Cookery written by ‘A Lady’ It was published in 1846. Recipe books published pre-Mrs Beaton are quite rare, mostly because few survived the ravages of the kitchen. I love it because the recipes are so interesting.

Liesel Schwarz is hailed as ‘the new high priestess of steam-punk’ and writes with an infectious joy in the genre. Dark arcane arts, gadgets and fin de siècle details merge into a compelling story arc which follows the adventures of heroine Elle Chance.

Novels to date are Conspiracy of Alchemists, A Clockwork Heart and Sky Pirates - which has just been published by DelRey.
Chronicles of Light and Shadow - the story so far...
She also teaches SFF creative writing master classes and is just finishing off her MA in creative writing at Brunel University.  

Liesel was born in South Africa, worked in London and now has a cottage in the country. She is a romantic and loves (amongst other things) cats, the British Library, and the proper way to drink Absinthe.

For updates see Liesel's official website 

Thank you, Liesel!

- Liesel Schwarz was talking with Kim Vertue

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

There's No Stopping Thomas E Sniegoski...

Television series, novel series and revisiting Vampirella - Thomas E Sniegoski up-dates Remy Dean on just some of what has happened since his last Scrawl interview...
Tom (left) and Kirby (right)
“Thanks for the kind words about my latest Vampirella story.” Thomas E Sniegoski responds with his characteristic energy, enthusiasm and positivity, “It was a blast getting to write her again.”

As you will know from the previous time I talked with Sniegoski for Scrawl, I am a fan of Vampirella and opened by telling him how much I enjoyed On The Side Of The Angels, the collected series of the new Vampirella Strikes that keeps up the quality and spirit of 're-invention' from his earlier Vengeance of Vampirella series... 

There are always rumours of a new Vampirella movie and recently there was some vague talk about a big budget Hollywood one… With the recent ‘glut’ of blockbusters based on superhero comics, it would seem like an opportunity to ‘strike’ while the iron is hot… I am digging here, but Tom has heard nothing solid about any adaptations being currently considered.
Vampirella is On The Side of the Angels
One thing that does seem quite clear is that comics transition to the big screen quite readily – I suppose they are ready-made storyboards...

“When they're done well, they're absolutely amazing,” Tom concedes, “and so far the track record has been pretty good. There have only been few ‘dogs’ here and there. I love the fact that the creators doing these films seem to have a genuine respect for the source material. If somebody had told me thirty years ago that we would be seeing Thor, Captain America and The Avengers on the big screen - and have them be done well - I probably wouldn't have believed it possible… but here we are!”

I wonder what the so called ‘literary’ writer could learn from comics?

“Hmm, that's a tough one…” He ponders, “They're two very different kinds of writing. If I had to say anything, I would say that a comic can teach a literary writer about how to be more succinct in their story telling. You only have so much space to fit in a word balloon, so you have to make the words that you can fit really count. Comics can also help with the visualisation of a story. Breaking down certain actions - be it a fight scene, or a car chase - into panels inside your head can help with laying out a particular scene in a book.”

Tom knows a thing or three about different kinds of writing, he has been writing for comics since the 1980s, has contributed to video games, writes short fiction, novels and series fiction. His writing always seems fast-paced and very visual, does that come from honing his skills with comic scripting?

“I'm sure some of it comes from that,” he agrees.

I get the feeling from the visuality of his written texts that perhaps he imagines the stories and runs them like a movie in his head, recounting what he ‘sees’…

“Yeah, that's a pretty good description. I love movies and television so it's very easy to see it all played out before your mind's eye.”

Yet each format - novel, series fiction, comic, screenplay – are also vastly different. Does Tom’s writing approach vary?

“Completely... Each one is approached differently. Novels are the toughest, and require the most work. Series fiction is pretty much the same thing - if it's in novel form, it's tough. The only difference with series fiction is that you already know some of the characters. Comics and screenplays are a little more ‘loose’ in their execution… and for the finished product you're not responsible for all the work like a novel. With comics, you'll likely be working with an artist, and screenplays, actors, directors and a whole host of other talented folks that are needed to make a movie.”

Is the screen the goal? When Tom is writing series fiction such as The Fallen - which has now been adapted into a five-part television series - is it with a literary, word-based focus or is he really thinking ‘TV proposal’ - are the books some sort of compromise because he does not have a producer lined up for them?
The Fallen # 5
“I love series fiction because it lets me flesh out worlds, and characters to their fullest.  They're always books first in my mind… If the whole TV, or movie thing comes along after, that's cool too, but I never think of these ideas as anything other than books first.”

For any new readers who are unfamiliar with the series, how wold Sniegoski sum up The Fallen?

The Fallen series is about Aaron Corbet who on his 18th Birthday learns that he is a Nephilim, the offspring of a human/angel pairing, and that because of this, he has made himself the target for a group of angel enforcers called The Powers. The Powers believe that the children of angels, and humans are freaks – ‘abominations’ - and an affront to the Lord God. However, there is a prophecy that a special Nephilim would be born who would redeem all the fallen angels, and allow them to return to Heaven. The Powers don't care for this idea at all, and are attempting to eradicate all the Nephilim, just in case this prophecy happens to be true.

“It was a fun series to write. Originally there were four books, now collected as The Fallen Volume One and Two, and then I was allowed to write three more original novels.
In collaboration with Christopher Golden
Another series of novels that seemed ripe for the screen were the Menagerie series, so what happened with those?

The Menagerie is another favourite of mine, written with my good friend, Christopher Golden. The Menagerie series is about a team of legendary characters, each with his or her own powers and mystical, mythical origins. Chris and I took characters or concepts from well-known legends and mythology and made them our own. It was sort of like a supernatural Mission Impossible team. There were four books in the series, and there were supposed to be more, but sales weren't what the publisher was hoping for. Some day, Chris and I would love to write a final Menagerie book to wrap up the major story arc which we never got to finish... Some day..."

If someone had never read anything Sniegoski at all, where should they start?

“If nobody has ever read me before I'd recommend that they start with my Remy Chandler books. I like to call them my ‘Big-Boy Books’. The first Remy book, A Kiss Before the Apocalypse, was the first time that I really tested myself as a writer - going places that normally I wouldn't have felt comfortable going to. I think it was a real wake up call for me as a writer.”
Remy Chandler # 1
Is there any particular piece of work that he is either the most proud of, or that means something special on a personal level?

“I'm extremely proud of the Remy books, and they're most definitely the most personal of my work. Though I did write a short story not too long ago for a collection that Christopher Golden was putting together - 21st Century Dead - which I'm extremely proud of. The story was called Ghost Dog and Pup: Stay, and I was really taken aback by how much it affected me to write it. It was an extremely emotional experience doing it. I think it's one of the best things I've ever written, and would love to expand on it someday as a novel... Guess I'll just have to add it to 'the list'."

Sometimes it gets difficult for a successful writer to find the time to read… I wonder if Tom makes time to read books, and what he may have enjoyed recently?

“I just finished Snowblind by Christopher Golden, which was fantastic. Before that, I read The Troop, by Nick Cutter which was one of the best horror reads that I've had in a while. Currently, I'm reading The Language Of Dying, by Sarah Pinborough, which is really amazing so far.”

…and, I should think, he will be having a glance at the continuing Vampirella arc, but what else is currently on Sniegoski’s comics and graphic novels shelf?

“I read quite a few monthly titles still… love some of the new stuff Marvel has been doing - The Avengers titles, Warren Ellis's new Moon Knight, James Robinson's Fantastic Four, et cetera. Fun stuff. Loving all the Dark Horse Hellboy stuff. Image has got quite a few titles that I'm really enjoying... Revival, Black Science, Manifest Destiny, Saga, East of West. The Batman stuff over at DC is quite good. The graphic novels that I absolutely love from Archaia-Boom are Hopeless Maine, Volumes One and Two. They're by Tom and Nimue Brown and they're stunning!”

Enthusiasm and positivity! Tom sounds just as happy with his lot as he did last time we talked...


- you can read his earlier interview here - 

So thank you, Thomas E Sniegoski …now get back to that ‘list’!

more info at the official Thomas E Sniegoski webiste

Saturday, 7 June 2014

Beowulf versus Grendel - the Rematch!

With the recent publication of J R R Tolkien's 'lost' translation of the saga and a major exhibition at the British Museum dedicated to Viking life and legend, Remy Dean looks back over the life and times of Beowulf - our first 'novel' - and asks, "Was Grendel a 'green' warrior, wrongly vilified?"

Beowulf is a true classic, the most important piece of Olde English literature to survive from the Anglo-Saxon period. The story is set during a much earlier era, the action taking place in fifth century Scandinavia against a backdrop of political intrigue, feuding, feasting and fighting amongst men and monsters.

The original author and precise date(s) of origin remain open to conjecture, though it was certainly set down, in written form, in pre-Saxon Britain, though possibly as a series of separate stories later compiled around the central theme and adapted to take in the influence of Christianity. It is generally thought that many elements of the story had been passed down from the scalds, bards of the Norse, as there are themes and conventions in common with the great Viking sagas such as those of the hero Sigurd.

The surviving version of story as we know it, is thought to date back to the early eighth century, later being recorded as one manuscript toward the end of the tenth century, almost certainly by a monk or religious scribe of some kind. The original poems, from which the story is derived, could date back as far as the fifth and sixth centuries, contemporary with when the action is set. The only surviving manuscript is 1,000 years old and only narrowly escaped being destroyed by fire in 1731, when held at the Cotton Library. It is now preserved and displayed at the British Library, who have also made an e-version available on-line.
A page from the one and only Beowulf 
Beowulf is not only the oldest story set down in English, but also in the whole group of Germanic stemmed languages and is important as a major landmark in the development of literature, yet striking in its apparent modernity - the story is a quintessential heroic epic, jam-packed with action and adventure. Although tinged by the Christianity of the time when it was set down with quill and ink, Beowulf is a tale of heathen warriors, old gods and ancient monsters. The central hero is the Beowulf of the title. The story joins him as a young aspiring warrior and follows his life from that point on as he triumphs over seemingly insurmountable odds that have repeatedly defeated and slain lesser men.

There are three pivotal confrontations, or trials, that punctuate our hero’s life. First, Beowulf takes on the formidable Grendel, a creature of natural and supernatural power that has been terrorising the court of King Hrothgar. After defeating Grendel in combat, Beowulf is then faced with the onslaught of the beast’s mother, whom he also defeats after a metaphysical journey into the earth to seek her subterranean lair. The third and final confrontation occurs some fifty years later when a mighty and fierce dragon, a firedrake from the north, becomes Beowulf’s nemesis.

Beowulf was not written by a single author, it stems from the age of the storyteller, where a tale would be told and re-told, adapted to the audience, elaborated upon and passed down to the next generation as oral tradition. Each storyteller would add their own personality, experiences and style, emphasis may shift according to political climate and contemporary events. Beowulf is a tale filled with the drama and poetic artistry gleaned from generations of performers who have spoken and sung its verses. It is the earliest, long story to make the transition from this bardic tradition of story-telling and story-singing into the written form. It could be considered the earliest example of the novel.

Beowulf is a well-known work, though it has not, until recently, been widely read and had remained the preserve of scholars. Some small sections and verses from Beowulf were translated into 'modern' English in the early 1800s, but the very first ‘accessible’ translation of the full text, from the Olde English, was into Danish in 1820. This was followed, some years later in 1895, by a translation into contemporary English by William Morris. Probably the person most responsible for the poem coming to the attention of a wider audience was Professor J R R Tolkien who drew heavily from it for his Lord Of The Rings sagas and presented a lecture to the British Academy in 1936 titled, Beowulf: The Monsters and The Critics. He had also written his own translation of the saga in 1926, though this remained unpublished… until now.

The Beowulf story itself remained hard to get to grips with until an excellent translation by Michael Alexander was broadcast by the BBC and published in the Penguin Classics series in 1973, to be reprinted almost every year for the following decade. This version goes out of its way to convey the ‘barbaric splendour’ and ‘sustained energy’ of the poem and is accompanied by an extensive introductory essay that points out that a textual translation can never by completely faithful. Old English ‘scopas’, and the storytellers of yet older traditions, would certainly have spoken the piece, or even recited it in song to the sound of harp. Alexander concludes his intro by saying, ‘While I cannot expect readers to sing, I hope they will read the verse aloud. Beowulf was not written to be readable but to be listened to’.

Then here is one scholarly editor who may well approve of the treatment the story received at the hands of eighties rock giants 'Marillion' in their monumental track, Grendel. The song is a 17 minute rock opera that tells the story of Grendel from the monster’s point of view, where he is the ‘good’ primeval force of nature and the Viking ‘heroes’ are the villains, with their lack of respect for the land and for their fellow humans, whom they slay by the hundreds in ‘noble battles’.
Fish fronting 'Marillion', circa 1983,
takes on the mantle of Grendel
Though the song is greatly respected by the fans, Fish, the lyricist responsible for the Grendel song, does not feel that it deserves the high esteem in which it is held, “It’s a song that has gathered a lot of weight through the years that I don’t think is really justified,” admits Fish, “The whole Grendel thing came about because I was given huge slab of music and we needed lyrics for it. I had to come up with a conceptual piece that was gonna tie it together, that was grand enough to lay over the top. At the time I had read a book, it was just called Grendel, by John Gardner - I was given it when I first joined 'Marillion'…

“Gardner completely re-wrote the whole thing from the monster’s perspective,” Fish explained, “The humans were actually the more evil of the two. Grendel had been on the planet from ages before - it had a lot of ecological roots in it - and I took that from his book. What can I say - it was a very early piece of writing and it stands on its own, but, y’know, it’s not what I’d have carved on my tombstone! To me it’s a nice wee slice of nostalgia.”

Grendel is currently available on the compilation album B'Sides Themselves... you can watch a wonderfully theatrical live performance of Grendel from 1983 - on YouTube - and you can read a longer Scrawl interview with Fish here... )

The Grendel section of the story seems to be the piece that most effectively captures the imagination of the modern creative and was also the plot focus for the film, The 13th Warrior, adapted by Michael Crichton from his own novel, Eaters of the Dead. Though Crichton has said that the plot is based on the journals of Ahmed Ibn Fadlan, played by Antonio Banderas in the film, it is undeniably an adaptation of the Grendel story thread - and a pretty faithful and effective one at that.

Ibn Fadlan was a Moslem emissary who travelled with a group of Vikings through the Europe of 922 and who was, “astonished by their lustful aggression and apathy towards death”. In his journals, according to Crichton, the leader of the warrior band is named ‘Buliwyf' - which does sound pretty similar to ‘Beowulf’. What Crichton has done, is expertly fuse the historic facts of one source with the poetic power and drama of another, thus creating the most accessible portrayal of the Grendel arc so far, as well as one of the most intelligent action movies of 1999.

There are some interesting takes on major scenes from Beowulf, for example, the strange ribbons of fire that look like serpents across the land are interpreted as vast hordes of horsemen bearing torches and riding in columns. Grendel himself is represented as one particularly fierce warlord among a vicious tribe who don paint and animal pelts before a raid. Grendel’s ‘mother’ is their pagan priestess and the supernatural magic is the stealth and tactics they employ, and perhaps the effects of certain ‘herbal’ substances - both on the raiders and their victims.
Ibn Fadlan (Antonio Banderas) has yet to earn the respect
of Buliwyf (Vladimir Kulich) in The 13th Warrior
One interesting piece of re-casting is the narrator being of Arabic origin, rather than a Christain Brit. In the movie, Buliwyf asks Fadlan if he can, ‘draw sounds’, meaning to record speech in written form. It is generally accepted that the runic alphabet was brought to the Vikings by a traveller, who became known as Odyn in their mythology, later being elevated to the status of a god. The journey and development of the runic alphabet can be traced back through Europe to its origins in the middle-east.

It is also worthy of note that the personage of Odyn is referred to as ‘grim’, meaning hooded, and ‘dark’, possibly because he was of a middle-eastern origin and would have had dark hair, eyes and complexion compared with the redheaded and blonde-haired, pale or ruddy complexions of the Nordic races. His garb was also unusual enough to warrant comment.

The 13th Warrior was not the success that may have been expected from, John McTiernan, director of blockbusters such as Die Hard, and passed without being noticed by many who could have appreciated its content on the level at which it was intended, instead garnering luke-warm reviews and even a few hostile ones from mainstream critics who could not see beyond the rim of their tub of popcorn.

In contrast, Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf, published the same year, was well received by the critics and did make it into the best seller lists. This most recent translation was also released as a talking book edition, read by the poet with his expressive Irish lilt. This form best suits the work, so it is unfortunate that the spoken version has been abridged for release, though it remains a very enjoyable and certainly a most accessible rendition.

You can listen to Seamus Heaney reading his translation of Beowulf: part one and part two
...or you could read his translation in text for yourself here.

Four further films have since tackled the task of re-telling the classic tale. A fairly low-key (not Loki) historical drama treatment, Beowulf and Grendel, was filmed in 2005 against the moody backdrop of Icelandic landscapes. This was a solid attempt at a more naturalistic, performance-driven interpretation with Gerard Butler as Beowulf and Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson as a more ‘homo-simian’ Grendel.

Then, in 2007, there was the pioneering CGI Hollywood epic version of Beowulf, starring a ‘buffed-up’ Ray Winston in the central role of the ‘larger-than-life-but-authentically-flawed’ hero and an interpretation of Grendel portrayed as, hideous – yes – but also a sympathetic victim to some extent – an unfortunate outsider, unable to comprehend the hatred and revulsion he inspires in others. The role of Grendel’s mother was given a seductive makeover in the form of Angolina Jolie as the Sea ‘Hag’.
Beowulf confronts Grendel's mother, the 'Sea-Hag'!?
Also in 2007, possibly to ride the bandwagon of the bigger budget movie, Grendel  was back as a straightforward villain in a made for TV monster-movie, Grendel: The Legend of Beowulf, that puts aside any real trappings of historical accuracy in favour a being a CGI powered romp… the Vikings even wear the good old horned helmets (which they did not really do). It is a bit of monstrous fun, if you are in the right mood, and the visualisation of Grendel is closer to how he was described, or at least hinted at, in the original text.

More recently, in 2008, Outlander introduced a ‘futuregoth’ theme in a clever re-imagining of the tale. A crashed space ship brings the hero and an alien menace that will fulfill the role of both Grendel and the Firedrake. Again the villain is shown as sympathetic, one of the last few of an alien race that were dreadfully wronged and now seek understandable vengeance. Yet its jailer-custodian cannot allow that wrath to be vented on the unsuspecting Viking villages of Earth, and so steps in to defend their inhabitants.

Cinema is not the only transmedia journey taken by our ancient hero… in 1975, probably spurred on by the huge success of the Penguin translation, DC Comics launched, Beowulf: Dragon Slayer, a typically camp and musclebound interpretation of the saga. Well almost. The comic soon veers away and leaves very little in common with the original epic. There are horned helmets and bikini clad maidens left right and centre, and also a whole array of international, cross-cultural monsters for Beowulf to slay – it seems he will travel far and wide to avoid, or at least, postpone his confrontation with Grendel!

Produced in 2008, the slim graphic novel, Beowulf: Monster Slayer, adapted by Paul Storrie and illustrated by Ron Randall, is a bold attempt to compress the poem and render it more accessible to younger readers, which it does fairly well… Though produced around the same time, Gareth Hinds' three volume Beowulf is the most successful graphic adaptation to date.

Each volume tackles a main segment: Beowulf versus Grendel in book one, takes on his mother in book two and defeats the firedrake in the third volume before being proven to be mortal himself. These books are now available collected in a single volume.
Beowulf graphically retold by Gareth Hinds
There have been other graphic re-tellings of the legend and most are listed here, with some samples of artwork.

…and so the story of Beowulf continues to capture the imagination of readers, and viewers, to this day - perhaps this is because the story operates on a number of levels. It is obviously an action adventure, heroic epic and ripping yarn, but it is also a symbolic parable that reflects not only the trials and triumphs that beset Beowulf throughout the journey of his life, but those that have continuously confronted all human endeavour on both the physical and spiritual levels.

If you are interested in the reality behind Viking life, then there is currently (until 22 June) a major exhibition at the British Museum that you should take time out to visit – more information and some on-line resources here.
Enthroned Odin - small silver piece currently on display in the
British Museum's Vikings: Life and Legend exhibition

Monday, 2 June 2014

Aaron Stainthorpe - Brought to Book

What was the first book you can remember reading that really grabbed you and carried you along?

My first clear memory of any palpable literature was the debut by William Golding, Lord of the Flies. Naturally, at the age of 10, I didn’t fully embrace the book's theme of a new civilization but loved the idea of a bunch of kids messing around on a desert island with no adults telling them what to do.

Do you have a favourite book, or one that you have re-read a few times?

I have two actually: Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson and, in total contrast, Guards! Guards!, by Sir Terry Pratchett, the latter of which I have enjoyed three times... but Neals’ is so vast that a second visit has not yet been planned.

What was the most recent book you read and thoroughly enjoyed?

Whacky, intelligent and thoroughly gripping is how I’d begin to describe the Adam Roberts book Land of the Headless. Beautifully written it tells of a wild notion of decapitation as punishment but without the terminal effects that you’d expect!

Who have been your favourite authors, and what have you learnt from them?

I’ve loved Pratchett for 25 years and although I can’t say I’ve learnt that much from his musings I have certainly gained a lot from them. Adam Roberts is my latest target at this moment in time. As well as the above mentioned I also nailed Salt, Swiftly, The Sellamillion and The Soddit and am currently reading Splinter. What have I learnt from him? Anything goes!
Aaron Stainthorpe delivers the doom
Do you have a writing ritual, regimen or a tried and tested process?

I take notes when something appeals - I always have pen and paper - whether I’m out doing menial day to day tasks or walking in the hills and forests of Yorkshire. If I’m inspired by movies, music or art I’ll make a little note of just what it is that turns me on about that special moment in time and add it to my archive of seeming gibberish. When I actually begin to write, I really need to be in just the right mood and as cheesy as it sounds I love to write by candle-light while sipping a sanguine red wine, late at night when I can’t be disturbed or distracted by real life. I will refer to my notes and look for a spark to light the fire and hope that the next few hours will deliver and inferno rather than a soggy fire-cracker. Unfortunately, dissatisfaction comes hand in hand with patting-on-back but I can handle that. I don’t read what I’ve written for a couple of days and then return to it in the hope that it’s as I remember in the fuzz of badly lit alcohol.

What motivates you to write?

Passion. If it’s not there then I simply do not bother. In the past I’ve tried to write because I had a deadline and it’s mostly been a disaster so no more. If the heat and fervor are absent then so am I.

How do the different creative formats that you work in ‘feed’ into each other: photography, illustration, lyric, etc?

There have been moments when I was convinced that I was going to create an illustration based on some madness at the back of my mind and during the process I’ve lost my way or couldn’t get the image just right so I change format and begin to try to write my vision instead, which luckily often works rather nicely. And it works the other way round too. I’ve binned pages of lyrics because of their lack of cooperation and chucked oils at a canvas, popped another Chateauneuf-du-Pape and wondered why it was sunrise already! My lyrics and illustrations are thoughts manifest but my photography is more pleasure and observation – a lovely way to spend a carefree afternoon without tormenting myself.

Aaron Stainthorpe is the lead singer and lyricist for 'My Dying Bride', the British ‘Doom Metal’ band who have defined the genre over the last twenty years or so, successfully bringing the graveyard school of Romanticism back to contemporary cultural relevance. Although they may have their imitators, they have continually innovated and maintained their distinctive sound and originality. Typically, a 'My Dying Bride' album will have moments of lush overindulgence, bursts of startling brutality and a haunting fragile beauty… A butterfly braving the storm. As a backdrop to Aaron’s literary lyrics, the guitar work can be as heavy as hell one minute but poignant and heart-rending the next. The songs are fleeting poetic ideas framed by evocative soundscapes or epic stories told in verse illustrated by a mix of complex textural atmospherics, heart-pounding riffs and symphonic strings.
an epic tale told in song...
In order to appreciate the power and variety of Aaron’s storytelling we recommend the following ten tracks (listed in reverse chronology):

The Barghest O’Whitby 
...from A Map of All Our Failures: A Tapestry Scorned and Hail Odysseus 
...from A Line of Deathless Kings: And I Walk With Them, The Raven Wings
...from Songs of Darkness, Words of Light: The Wreckage of My Flesh and The Blue Lotus
...from The Dreadful Hours, the title track and My Hope, the Destroyer
...the title track from Light at the End of the World

- Aaron Stainthorpe was talking with Remy Dean

Thursday, 29 May 2014

Jonathan Meades en catamini

In this extended interview feature, Jonathan Meades talks to Remy Dean about writing, painting, concrete poetry, and Blaenau Ffestiniog…


Who is Jonathan Meades? He is that man on the telly, who always wears dark suits and talks about stuff you think would be boring but turns out to be really interesting. He performs intellectual acrobatics around a theme and continually re-routes the train-of-thought, sometimes derailing it completely and though you may sometimes feel you are losing track, your train-driver never does. You start out somewhere familiar and soon you have been transported, along with this delightful and well-informed travelling companion, to some surprise destination.

I recall the profound quote from T S Elliot’s The Waste Land, as quoted in the movie The Magus, which was based on the novel by John Fowles and starred Candace Bergan, Anna Karina, Michael Caine and Anthony Quinn:


We shall not cease from exploration 
And the end of all our exploring 
Will be to arrive where we started 
And know the place for the first time.

This is what Meades facilitates, a meaningfully guided exploration through what might seem mundane towards something that begins to feel magical and when we return to normality, the familiar has become once more fascinating, something much more grotesque and/or beautiful.

Meades is our Media Magus. Indeed he must be working some sort of magic to get his work produced for television. It is difficult to imagine how he might pitch his ideas to producers more usually hungry for increasing viewing figures or sensational tabloid responses… Consider these titles: The Utopian Avoidance of Right Angles, The World of Caravans, The Architecture of Beer, Postwar Churches, The Fens, The Joy of Essex… well, I would want to watch all of those - and the rest of his oeuvre - but I would not have a clue as how to sell these titles to a television producer!

“Well, I have the advantage of having been at it for a long time,” responds Meades with a fatherly tone of encouragement, “I did my first BBC series 25 years ago. I had done a one-off for the BBC before that, and I had done a Channel 4 series before then. So it would not be the same for anyone coming in and trying to do it now – but I still have quite considerable difficulty getting things of the ground. The reviews get better and better and the time I am allotted gets smaller and smaller… but people in television tend not to take any notice of reviews. It’s very, very insular, inward looking, I mean like a verruca – not like a wart, that grows out into something new, more like a verruca that grows inward.”

So, does he suggest that, just perhaps, television companies in general - and the BBC in particular - could be more interested in building internal power structures than in pandering to audiences?

“For example this pathetic nobody called James Harding who had the temerity to criticise Jeremy Paxman - when Paxman said that a lot of the BBC is absolute shite - this little fool rapped his knuckles like some sort of prefect at school… and that is not atypical, it’s pretty much a world that is full of fear and people looking over their shoulders, not wanting to offend. I rather agree with the attitude of Joe Orton and Kingsley Amis that unless you’re offending someone, you’re not doing your job.

“I certainly don’t pander to audiences, I make shows that I want to see, and when I write, I write prose that I would want to read. I mean, you are your own first reader, after all. So I make stuff to please myself, and hope that it will also please a certain audience, and it appears to – I mean, it’s not very large audience…. but that is a self-fulfilling prophecy, when I was on BBC2 I used to get two-and-a-half to three-million viewers, I only get a tenth of that on BBC4, because that is the nature of BBC4. Frankly, I don’t really care – I’m not after viewing figures, I’m after programs and films that please me and please the people I work with.”

Something oft debated, with my students in art history classes, is the question of which is more valid: a piece of work that millions of people think is ‘OK’, or a piece that only a few people respond to, but passionately and on a much deeper level? Generally, to appeal to more people you have to serve a lower common denominator, though true excellence and quality is sometimes, sadly not so often, recognised by the masses.

“My stuff is implicitly critical of television as it is now,” explains Jonathan, “Television used not to be as openly moronic as it has become...

“Obviously, things that appeal to millions of people can be very good, but there is an awful lot of populism which is second-guessing what people are going to like, yet there are lots of unsuccessful light entertainment programs, lots of unsuccessful airport novelists. The thing is that television is so institutionalised that it is very loath to try anything new or to make a program about a subject that has not been covered before. It is very loath to take any risks… and when you think how fantastic it was twenty / twenty-five years ago: we had Denis Potter, Peter Nichols, David Mercer, David Perry, David Rudkin, Tom Stoppard – really good writers writing specially for telly. Whereas now, it has become absolutely formulaic, with very occasional exceptions. I imagine that British television is going to have to react in some way to the success of things like Breaking Bad and The Wire and Lilyhammer and those Scandinavians.”

Yes, those colour-drained crime dramas from the northern lands…

“I don’t think Scandinavian shows are quite what they’re cracked up to be but there is nothing, nothing, made in Britain which is remotely that standard… And television is a great medium. But it has been hijacked by morons.”
RIP - Do you remember Charlie Drake!?
Could this be, at least partly, behind the symbolism of his ‘trade-mark’ dark suit, black tie, dark glasses - the contrived look that rather resembles the garb of an undertaker – a subject examined in his novel The Fowler Family Business – is Meades, as our Media Magus and Social Shaman, presiding over the funerary rites of our cultural programming pride?

“There isn’t anything symbolic about it. (Was that a chuckle?) I want a constant look in those films, and there have been very few when I haven’t worn a dark suit and dark glasses and so on… There is one when I didn’t because someone spilled coffee all over my suit just before I was about to start, so I wore a tweed jacket for that one, which was in Aberdeen… but the suit differentiates me from the few other people who are around and the landscape or streetscape. It turns me into something that may have landed form and alien civilisation. It’s as simple and practical as that.
Jonathan Meades stands out
“I worked it out. It wasn’t something that I came to by chance, I wanted to do television which was, as much as possible, a kind of one-man-show - performance art as well as being informative, educational, entertaining… and I determined to have that particular look, which I’ve never changed. I hope that it seems like I have come from, elsewhere and I’m very detached from what is around me. Equally, I remember going to see Michel Sardou in concert, a French singer, and he was brilliant on stage. He didn’t do anything, he just stood there absolutely stock still and I found that very impressive.”

Meades manages to be a very detached, yet very human presence throughout his documentaries. In the introduction to the DVD collection he explains how he consciously avoids the TV presenter clichés, always speaking deliberately and eloquently with a very deadpan delivery, so much so that sometimes I get the idea that, just at the point of the edit, he or the cameraman burst out laughing…
Past Presenter... a memento of Meades TV
“No. Not often, no. The scripts are very written. It is a literary project as well as a visual one. A lot of people who present things on television aren’t writers, they have scripts put together by producers and researchers and so on. What I do is write a very detailed script then give it to the director, who is nearly always Frank Hanley who is a great friend of mine. Once Frank has got the script I don’t question anything that he does. I do write in a lot of shots and suggestions. But basically after I have written the script, then I am there as actor-performer.”
A collection of writings including scripts
So the script is of utmost importance here – the words come first. Meades takes great care and puts in the time and effort at the writing stage and thus the rest works out well when interpreted for the screen. So is there a particular approach to writing, a regimen, a Ritual? Or does he just get up, have a coffee and croissant and get on with it.

“I haven’t had a croissant for a long time, very rarely have a croissant… Ritual?” he seems to consider this for a long moment, “No. I just go to work. I get up and I sit down at my computer and start work. I work till lunch time, then do sort of admin things in the afternoon and then late afternoon I start writing again. I write very specifically for whatever medium the work I am doing is going to be in. I don’t really believe in synergy between different mediums, I don’t think it works, I think you have to write absolutely specifically. If I am writing for television, it is absolutely specific to television and equally I don’t think my new book or any of my books are particularly adaptable. You could do a version of them but they aren’t written with a view to being re-done.”

So, when he is writing a novel he does not have one eye on the film rights, or TV series?

“Absolutely not, I mean when you take a novel and make a film of it, all you’re left with is the plot, the story and the characters to some extend – you have an element but you don’t have the prose, the nuances of language. I find it rather difficult to understand why there is – always has been – such a reliance on stuff from different media in the cinema. It is a kind of lack of confidence in the power of cinema and similarly in the power of television.

“Y’know this new arts directive announced by the current director general of the BBC is basically TV abasing itself and telling itself that it is not as authentic as theatre or opera or symphonies, and so on – that TV is just a means of transmitting those cultural forms to a bigger audience. That is not right: what TV can do is to create a kind of television that is peculiar to the medium… It is what the writers I mentioned used to do. It is not a poor man’s cinema. It is not radio with pictures. It is something of itself. That is what I, obsessively, try to do… and will sooner or later give up doing because it becomes such a slog!”

So when he does ‘give up’, or if he were to retire – I would very much be interested in the job description used to advertise the vacant position. The most common description of Jonathan Meades seems to be ‘writer and broadcaster’ – I’m not sure it that really covers it.

“I hate the word ‘broadcaster’… I am a… writer and… er… writer. I write books, I write journalism, I write films. I appear in those films but I wouldn’t call myself a ‘broadcaster’ – it’s a deathly sounding word, some terrible fool waving his arms around and speaking a script that’s been written by someone else.

“It’s not my job to classify myself – I do a variety of things. I don’t think about how I should be described. It’s up to other people…  I’m not really mad about talking about myself.”

Your new book is all about you…

“It’s not actually, although the title would imply that. It’s much more about my parents and my parents’ generation.”
What's it about, Jonathan?
So An Encyclopaedia of Myself is more of a history book in a way?

“Yeah, it’s a kind of scrutiny of provincial life in the 1950s – it’s very petits pois, very detailed. It is only marginally about me. I’ve only seen the one review so far, in The Sunday Times, which gives the impression that is totally about me – it is not. I am a viewpoint. I am a camera looking at things, I don’t particularly engage…”

Here’s another review from The Guardian

Perhaps Meades tries not to dwell too much on himself, yet it is his individual take on the subjects he addresses that make him such an asset. He, himself, is the lens that brings many original ideas and fresh views into focus. It has been said that any artist can only ever produce a self-portrait…

“I think that’s true. What Alain Robbe-Grillet said, ‘I have never written about anything except myself.’ People often think there is something distant and objective about his books but there is not and when you realise that, you read them in a different way. It’s more acknowledged in painters than it is in writers, that they have their mark their signatures – you can tell a Cezanne from a Mondrian, I hope. It is evident with painters and I think much less so with writers."

Is there talk of a television series based on An Encyclopaedia of Myself?

"No – it wouldn’t transfer. I mean someone could dramatise it – I could dramatise it, some bits of it – but it is a completely different thing. I have made one or two television films that are autobiographical, one about the places I went to with my father on his rounds selling biscuits in small towns in Hampshire and Dorset and Wiltshire.”

Were those travels with his father responsible for his fascination with how communities were tied together by the way people spoke and the places those people shared familiarity with as a little clan… Within the virtual architecture of video games and our digital viral lives across social media, are we perhaps leaving those little regional differences in the nostalgic past?

“I think that tribalism still exists in Britain. People have regional accents and there are huge regional differences in Britain. Which is something I am so interested in that I wanted to do a series of films about it, but the reaction was, ‘you’re kidding yourself if you think there are these great differences…’ but I think there certainly are. The differences between Newcastle and Plymouth are massive, even down the East Lancs from Liverpool to Manchester – totally different cities.

“Thirty or forty years ago, that tribalism was perhaps disappearing, but it has come back in a very big way. You hear strong regional accents much more than you did for a time and that’s fine. Of course what is not fine about regional accents is the kind of hierarchy that if you have a West Country accent or a Brummie accent you’re not going to get anywhere in life – you have to get rid of it, but that’s not the case with Irish accents or most Welsh accents… Scottish accents or English accents – they’re all OK… but anything with a rural twang, sort of Somerset or Norfolk is deemed unacceptable. There is something very wrong with that – as there is with most hierarchical systems.”

Many people would assume that Meades comes from a privileged upper-class sort of background, but it seems that his childhood at least was quite humble... a working class background?

“Not working class, no, sort of lower middle-class. I mean I would have been entirely state educated if it had not been for my mother having a very rich great uncle. An extraordinary guy. A gay accountant. Basically a gambler who had made a fortune during the depression because he knew how to work stock markets that were constantly falling. So he had made a lot of money and retired at the age of forty with his boyfriend who he called his valet and he used to design outrageous chauffeur uniforms for him. They lived in Dublin, which was apparently a much better place to live if you were gay in those years – there was less persecution of gay people. They used to come to England about once a year in their Rolls Royce and Frank the valet would sit there completely mute, looking like something out of a musical comedy. And he offered to pay the fees for me to go to this really rotten school – really horrible, horrible school – where I felt really out of place because all the other people had fathers who were solicitors, army officers or had their own business. But I am not in the least bit working class, though I did have a West Country accent which I got rid of for those reasons we already discussed. I didn’t sound like Mike Channon – My God Almighty! A huge seagull – just flew towards me. I mean enormous – size of a condor – really big!”
I did not see this bird. Was this one of those hallucinations that he has described in this extract from An Encyclopaedia of Myself, something akin to those flocks of malevolent sheep from the dark side, menacing him along school corridors, or does he have a sea view there?

“From the office I’m in, I am looking out towards a range of hills, and on the other side we look towards the sea.”

This, if you have not already guessed, is a transcription of a transcontinental telephone conversation from the southern coast of France – Marseille(s) where Jonathan Meades for the most part resides – and the heart of Snowdonia where I enjoy an uninterrupted view of the three peaks of the Moelwyns range of mountains… He has mentioned that, as a child, little Jonathan used to think the Devil lived in Blaenau Ffestiniog.

“Yes, when I was a child I thought it was really scary – the slate quarries under a slate coloured sky, y’know, it’s quite something.”

Living and working in a rural area, I have to do quite a bit of driving and I still get a kick out of coming down into the Vale of Ffestiniog, through the Crimea Pass, and when it opens up you can see right down the valley, suddenly it is slate as far as the eye can see… it reminds me of approaching castle Dracula through the Borgo Pass.

“Yes, it is fantastic,” He agrees, “When I took one of my daughters there, she was very… surprised. She hadn’t seen anything like it, and there isn’t much like it.”

Your reasons for moving to France have been explained as ‘gastronomic’…

“No. It was just a whim of wanting to move out of London. There are many parts of Britain which I like very much but are impossible to get in and out of London from. I mean, I love Shropshire, but getting to London from Shropshire takes much longer than getting to London from Marseilles… and flying in is probably cheaper than train tickets from Shropshire too. We looked at places there. I remember looking at a place in Clifton on Teme, which is beautiful, Worcestershire west of the Severn… we were looking at a house there and I asked why ever are you selling it? And they said it just takes too long to get here on the weekend. Britain has really terrible transport infrastructure. It is certainly the worst in Western Europe.”

So how is the ‘Englishman abroad’ thing working out – is there a cultural identity that Meades identifies himself with, or is he becoming a cultural collage?

“I identify myself with my self. I don’t think of myself as English or British or Wiltshire or London, where I lived most of my life… That is something that I am not particularly concerned with.”

Yet the ways that environments affect people, how places and the people who live in them are inextricable linked, is a theme that he has returned to repeatedly.

“Oh, yes. Other people, not me – it’s not something that I really think about. I’m not particularly introspective.”

Talking of environments, does he enjoy living in a building often hailed as one of Le Corbusier’s masterpieces?

“Yes I do.”
The Modern kitchen a Le Corbusier
Was living in La Cité Radieuse, apparently referred to by some locals as ‘The Crackpot’s House’, justified as research for Bunkers, Brutalism and Bloodymindedness: Concrete Poetry – his most recent two-part television exploration?

“Oh, no, much longer ago than that. But the Brutalism programme was something I had been thinking of for a long time – in 1994, I did a film called Jerry Building about Hitler’s architecture, and that alludes to the fact that the bunkers and defensive structures of that regime were the precursors of the Brutalism of the 1960s and 70s and there was a fairly considerable interest taken in them. People rather ignored all of those structures for a long time and then the French writer and theorist Paul Virilio wrote a book called Bunkerology and that was the culmination of his research into bunkers. What he did was start to take photographs of them and publish them in architectural magazines and it awakened quite a considerable interest and so there is that route into Brutalism from the bunkers. His earliest photographs of bunkers were in the early 1960s and his book didn’t come out until the early 1970s. Not a very good photographer it has to be said, but that isn’t particularly pertinent. He designed, with Claude Parent a very bunker-like church of Sainte-Bernadette du Banlay in Nevers, Northern Burgundy.”

Having looked at Bauhaus and Modern architecture over the years, teaching and giving talks about them, I have grown to appreciate Corbusier-style buildings - in the right place. I particularly admire some of the ideas in his Sainte-Marie de la Tourette for example. Concrete Brutalism seems to work well against a rural setting, when counterpointed by rolling hills, or trees and natural dry-stone walling, something to balance the expanses of grey and flat slabs, but too much together in a city centre gets rather drab, oppressive and overwhelming…
Jonathan Meades likes a bit of Brutalism
“Yes, but he can’t be blamed for what his imitators did. He had thousands of imitators and about five percent of them were good, the rest were rather mediocre. There’s a lot of very bad sub-Corbusien building in virtually every country in the world.”

For a fairly brief part of my childhood I lived in ‘Skem’ (Skelmersdale) one of the 1970s concrete and pebble-dash New Towns, hailed as ‘the future’, the way we would all be living… but did not really catch on, did it?

“Well, some of them did and some of them didn’t. With most of these social housing projects of the fifties, sixties and seventies, you had architects who were extremely well intentioned being undercut all the time by politicians wanting to get things done cheaper. Local councils who were charged with maintaining these places didn’t do so. If you buy a car, you then get it regularly serviced, but these places were not serviced. They were also completely undefended, anyone could walk in and have a piss in the lift, and they did. But it needn’t have been like that. High-rise works very well for the rich – you only have to look at London or New York nearly any big city except Paris - which doesn’t really have a lot of high-rise in the centre and has a different demographic pattern. But rich people always get on very well in social housing because their places are looked after by concierges and janitors and so on and not anyone can just walk in – it’s not a free space, it is a gated community avant la lettre… and those new towns would have worked just as well if that had been noted.”

Architecture is an interest I share with Meades, but I remember this interview is for Scrawl, so I attempt to steer it back to his word-wielding and creative writing. Filthy English is one of my favourite anthologies of short fiction and is a potent and very dark portrait of ‘Englishness’, both the language and the (sub)culture. The stories are sparked by etymological meanings, this in itself is an intriguingly Post-Modern method of approaching literature…

“The title story is,” Meades agrees to some extent, “I don’t think the other stories in the collection are really… the story set in the New Forest - that is based on stuff I gleaned from my mother who taught in the New Forest early in the Second World War.”

He is talking about The Sylvan Life, the second story from the Filthy English collection, in which some of the children wear itchy, untreated wild animal furs as underwear (which is the least of their problems)… Just one example, and not the strongest by far, of disturbing elements in a lot of his fiction… It always has plenty of humour, but a lot of darkness that I think qualifies Meades as a horror writer…
The Horror... The Humour... 
“That’s certainly true, but a lot of it is fact or has been recounted to me. The thing about the children coming to school sewn into furs, that’s something my mother told me, it came with my mother’s milk, so to speak. Quite a lot of the stuff in that book, and in Pompey and Fowler Family Business, comes from stuff that people have told me – I’m quite a sponge – I remember what people tell me.

“For instance the most singularly horrific thing in Pompey is the guy who chokes to death on his own shit. Well, that actually happened… I was talking to a writer friend of mine and he said, ‘A most extraordinary thing has happened – this was in Herefordshire, the Welsh Marches – a guy, who was a local bastion at the chamber of commerce and a magistrate, had this particular predilection for shoving a pipe up his arse and then sucking on it, a kind of self-enema, and he choked to death on it.’ I said to my friend, ‘God, what a gift that is!’ He asked, ‘What do you mean?’ I was talking from the point of view of a writer and I said, ‘Well aren’t you going to use it?’ and he said, ‘Oh no, you have it!’ So I did.
Some good shit...
“There is a great deal of stuff that comes, not from my life, but anecdotally received incidents from the lives of others. A lot of the stuff in those stories is invented, the places almost certainly aren’t. Even when I’m writing about the Congo, somewhere I’ve never been, or Agadir – I’ll have done quite a lot of reading round a subject to try to get it right. Every book swallows hundreds of other books so… if I was writing a book about someone who steals eggs, I wouldn’t read another book about an egg-stealer, but I would read about chicken runs or how to construct them… how you could get grants to build chicken runs after the first world war, and things like that. That’s what I do with my films as well, taking an oblique view, not going directly into the subject but looking at things that are tangential to the subject.”

Speaking of tangents, Meades also enjoys working in varied creative formats – I recently enjoyed Pidgin Snaps: A Boxette, his collection of photography presented as 100 postcards (you can read my review here), I know he also dabbles with drawing and painting…
Jonathan Meades, photographer: a new angle on the familiar
“What the French would call en catamini, which is to say on the sly, with no pretensions. I take photographs fairly obsessively and I do paint a bit. I started taking photographs in car washes, as one does, you get extraordinary effects. Then I started putting liquids of different colours and viscosity into plastic bags and taking photographs of that. Looking at surfaces and making things… so it is all representational but looks like instant abstract expressionism in some cases.

“It amuses me but - I am very perfectionist and detailed as a writer and I will spend hours on a sentence or paragraph getting it right. But with this stuff I do it sort of left-handed and don’t really care what the result is, but in my writing and in my television there is no room for spontaneity, everything is worked out in advance. With this there is a kind of spontaneity that is quite liberating in a way – just messing around."

Some teachers of creative writing do recommend painting and drawing - working with your hands and eyes can bring in fresh creative faculties and get different parts of the brain going…

“Absolutely true it does – what I’ve got left that isn’t atrophied yet – it helps find bits that are actually quite useful which I might not have previously explored.”

Are there any favourite visual artists or ones that Meades finds particularly inspiring?

“They do inspire me, yes, but not to emulate them, but they inspire me, full stop. I find them uplifting: Otto Dix, Christian Schad, Rogier van der Weyden, people who work in extreme detail – though Bacon I find splendid, perhaps the greatest artist of the twentieth century."

You see, I would have thought more Modernist, with his preferences in architecture… Minimalists, Malevich, and Mondrian...

“I’m not very interested in that – I like representational painting really. Pollock and DeKooning leave me cold. I like painters like Edward Burra, one of those eccentric odd-ball English people – not really part of the great canon. I hate this idea of minor painters, or minor poets, I think Burra was terrific. Carel Willink, Dick Ket, and the so called Magical Realists in Holland in the 1930s and 1940s, very interesting – they are rather like the German Neue Sachlichkeit but without the same bitterness.

“I have thousands of postcards, many of them from art galleries and have these weird plastic folders suspended from the ceiling which just show cards on both sides – the one closest to me at the moment has got a portrait of Martin Luther, a painting by Christian Schad, a painting by some Victorian whose name I don’t know, something by one of the Birmingham School who are kind of slightly like Beardsley without the pornographic element, something by a woodcut artist whose work I found in Lubeck, something by Nevinson, another one by Nevinson, a Victorian narrative painting of the Princes in the Tower, something by Patrick Caulfield – very eclectic, I mean I don’t really believe in ‘schools’ I believe in talents. Schools and -isms are quite interesting in a way, but it is just a form of taxonomy which is like when you asked to describe myself – well I don’t.

“It’s like the Nouveau Roman, Alan Robbe-Grillet was fantastic, a great, great artist and writer, but the rest of those people – Jesus, they were so boring, plodding, nothing to say, whereas he was a wonderful kind of poet. I do find it very weird that many architects will say, ‘Oh, I’m a Corbusian’, or ‘I’m a Miesian’, or ‘I follow Lloyd Wright’, for example.

“I find that very strange – because writers don’t think in that way and painters don’t think in that way. They don’t say, ‘Oh, I want to paint like… Constable,’ or, ‘I want to paint like Motherwell,’ – they just want to paint. And for the most part, I don’t think writers sit down and think, ‘I want to be like Stevenson.’ Perhaps when you’re starting off you might – it was Stevenson who said, ‘You teach yourself by being the sedulous ape, you can’t help mimic people until you find your own voice,’ and I think there is truth in that, but afterwards you wouldn’t dream of sitting down and thinking, ‘I’m going to write this paragraph like Fitzgerald’…

“Most creatives are obsessed with trying to be true to themselves, and one way of being like yourself is like what Picasso said, ‘copy anyone, but never copy yourself.’ Picasso copied Velázquez - coming out as Picasso of course, but that can be a route into finding a different part of yourself.”

After a writing career spanning three-and-a-half decades, does Jonathan have any advice for aspiring writers?

“Get a job in the city. I think things are worse for writers than they have been for a long time because of things like blogging – which is a form of self-publishing – people are not able to make any kind of living from writing, which can be arduous and takes a long time – perhaps it doesn’t take bloggers a long time and there are different types of blogger, so I don’t know – The old phrase was, ‘Write for pleasure, publish for profit,’ – now its write for pleasure and publish for pleasure."

The ease of publishing nowadays is good in many respects. Power has been returned to the writer and things with limited minority appeal can now be put out cost-effectively, but it also means that we are swamped by masses of unmediated stuff that readers have to navigate for themselves, without the filters of publishing houses…

“Yes, but the publishing houses have always been very fallible – they have no idea. If they get a best seller, they just try to repeat the formula. That’s no different from TV.”

Different is something that Jonathan Meades is. His fiction is certainly not formulaic. His television is far from being run-of-the-mill. His mind has the elements of wonder and curiosity of a young child, and the cutting intellect of a polymath with wide-ranging experiences. He uses words well, though it is hard to sum him up with them…

‘Etymological’ is an interesting word, sounds so much like ‘entomology’ that some people mite (sic) get confused, it’s the word for the study of words, how post-modern and self-referential is that? Of course, Meades would never get confused by this sort of thing, being an expert etymological archaeologist and Media Magus… I wonder does he have a favourite word?

“No.”

No? ‘No’ – that’s his favourite word? (Titles spring to mind for this interview feature: Jonathan Meades – the man who likes to say NO… Doctor NO… Mr NO it all… NO Meades NO… Or did he actually say, ‘Know’? Now, that’s more like it…)

 “No, it’s not. I really don’t have a favourite word!”