Stewart Home tells us what is behind his incendiary literature, full of music, magic, and confrontation with capitalism, the middle class, and wealthy society. And more: the music that he likes and the pulp writers who have inspired him.
Stewart Home is sitting at a table in his apartment in East London. It’s a low table, with books piled on it, the little computer where he writes, a lamp, a 2012 diary, and a handful of pens. He finishes off his cup of green tea, which just a few minutes ago had coffee in it. It’s sort of an old habit for Home, the Neoist, reputed expert on cultural vanguards, ex punk rocker, to switch back and forth between tea and coffee, he says. He also mentions that he was in Manhattan two weeks ago, and he bought an old classic martial arts film (ultra pulp) called “Kung Fu Vs Yoga.” The DVD is also lying on the table as we speak. The first thing he says is that he still hasn’t had time to watch it.
But we aren’t here to talk about old classic martial arts films. We’re here to talk about music, books, and subculture with Home, in the first of a series of interviews in which we want to find out about writers’ lives beyond their books. So we’ll be talking about the bands of his younger days, his favourite albums, his likes and phobias and, of course, the emblematic John Johnson, the freelance librarian who has to pass for a promising artist with a grant in “Memphis Underground,” our favourite novel of his (and he has published 12) because it’s an ode to survival and a fierce satire of the art market.
We’d like to ask you about good old John Johnson, the main character of “Memphis Underground.” Where does his (in many ways, “dirty”) existence come from?
When writing fiction I draw on elements from my own life and the lives of other people I know – but also from books, the media and folklore. John Johnson can thus be viewed as containing elements of me – but my life is much filthier than that of the narrator of this book. Ultimately John Johnson is an everyman figure rather than me.
So he isn’t at all a sort of alter ego?
No. The name John Johnson has his origins in folklore and folk song. The name comes from a recursive English language rhyme entitled “Yon Yonson”. This is often sung in a Scandinavian accent. If recited in American or British English the name Yon Yonson would be pronounced “Jan Jansen” or “John Johnson.” The song is sometimes credited to Jan Sophus Jansen (1870–1953). Jan Jansen (pronounced Yon Yonson) was born in Amager Denmark. In 1893 he immigrated to Berlin, Wisconsin (USA), where he first worked in a lumberyard and later as a carpenter, cabinetmaker, and wood pattern maker. Jansen was known to sing his namesake song while playing the concertina as he walked the streets of Berlin: “My name is Yon Yonson / I come from Wisconsin / I work in a lumberyard there / Everyone that I meet / When I walk down the street / Says "Hello! What's your name / And I say: My name is Yon Yonson...” (repeated again and again).
A pretty song…
It has also been claimed the song has its origins in the Swedish play “Yon Yonson” (1899). The play was set in a Minnesota lumber camp (Minnesota is a neighbouring state to Wisconsin – and part of “Memphis Underground” is also set in Minnesota). The song has appeared in many places, including Kurt Vonnegut’s novel “Slaughterhouse 5” and the single “Yon Yonson” by Canadian post-punk band The Dave Howard Singers. A friend of mine in London was very fond of The Dave Howard Singers and often played the track when I visited him in the late eighties. So I chose a metafictional name for the narrator of the book – because he isn’t simply me, he’s everyone!
When did you start to write “ Memphis Underground,” and why?
I probably started writing the book in 2002 or 2003. I don’t remember exactly – I do know I finished it several years before it was first published. I wrote it before my novel “Tainted Love,” which was published in English in 2005. I started it because I wanted a challenge, and to construct a novel in a different way to anything I’d done before (there is quite a lot of variation in the ways my different books are structured). I’d always liked the sci-fi device of alternating chapters with the same character at different stages of their life, and I thought that would be a good way to do a mash up of different styles without being explicitly science-fiction. I mashed in the music I was listening to as I wrote the book by including the song titles as chapter headings. There were non-formalist concerns as well, since I wanted to address the housing situation in London among other things. And I guess I also wrote “Memphis Underground” because I’d finished my previous novel “Down & Out in Shoredtich & Hoxton.”
In this novel, and in your narrative in general, music plays an important role. And we have read somewhere that you would have preferred to have had a band, rather than being a writer. What is the truth in that?
I only started writing because I wanted to get free records and to get into concerts for free, so when I was teenager I began penning music reviews. Some people told me I was a really good writer and I should concentrate on that… but I was more interested in playing music than prose.
What do you remember about being in bands?
When I was teenage I played in bands at small venues around London, and I was okay on the bass, but then I realized that guitar players tended to have better looking girlfriends than drummers and bassists, so I switched to guitar. That was a mistake musically because although my bass playing and rhythm guitar playing were alright (I wasn’t a particularly good musician – but then that isn’t really an issue in a lot of rock and pop bands), my lead guitar came out back to front. I’m never sure if I’m right or left-handed (as I do some things one way and some things the other). I learnt to play bass and guitar right-handed, and I think I should have learnt left-handed when it came to lead but by the time I realized this it seemed like too much effort to start learning to play guitar from scratch again as a left-hander. Eventually I just stopped playing music, although I still listen to a lot of music. I’d have probably rather been a singer, but my voice is weak – it was always my dream to be able to sing like Aretha Franklin, but like most people I just can’t.
How has music influenced your work (this one specifically and, in general, everything that you do)?
Music influences my writing in many ways. Records create a mood and I like a driving beat when I’m working, so I also feel like I’m being propelled forward with the book as well as in my life. But then, of course, I use my knowledge of music in different ways. The rhythm of my sentences in English is important to me. They have to flow when they’re read aloud, so I try to get that from the monster beat of the tunes that groove me. Also I use parts of the history of popular music in my books. For example, my first novel “Pure Mania” parodied the London punk scene of the 1970s. And of course I’ve also written a non-fiction book about punk “Cranked Up Really High.” But I’ve also always listened to a lot of soul and funk. I’m not stuck on just one genre of music.
Reading part of your work, a writer who comes to mind is Hubert Selby Jr. (specifically the Hubert Selby Jr. of “Last Exit to Brooklyn”) because of the issue of contained rage and the sordidness with which you describe some of the settings. Is he one of your favourite writers?
I read “Last Exit to Brooklyn” when I was teenage but nothing else by Selby and he’s not important to me as a writer.
And what about Irvine Welsh?
My first novel was published four years before the first book by Irvine Welsh came out, so he couldn’t have been an influence. What I like about Welsh is that he gets up the noses of the literary establishment in London because he’s not some upper class twit, but beyond their working class setting his books aren’t particularly to my taste as I don’t particularly like his prose style. I always wanted to use a clipped journalistic prose style while combining elements of both pulp and experimental fiction. You can see that in writers like William Burroughs or Kathy Acker. However, my biggest sources of inspiration when I started writing fiction were 1970s British youth culture novels by writers like Mick Norman (real name Laurence James) and Peter Cave, whose style I set out to cross with that of people like Alain Robbe-Grillet and Georges Perec. A British experimental writer who particularly grooves me is Ann Quin, and my book “69 Things To Do with a Dead Princess” begins as a riff on her first novel “Berg.”
What other writers would you say are indispensable?
My reading is quite wide, so when I was younger I ran through a lot of pulp authors like Clark Ashton Smith and Abe Merritt. Also forgotten genres such as future war are an influence on my novels and in books like “Red London” I was drawing on largely forgotten writers and works such as “Angel of the Revolution” by George Griffith and “Hartmann the Anarchist” by E. Douglas Fawcett. Other writers I really like would include Clarence Cooper Jr., Blaster Al Ackerman, Calvin C. Hernton, Michael Moorcock and of course, Karl Marx. My reading is wide-ranging and so it would be a mistake to think only a few big names influenced me, it is more whole genres than individuals that I’m drawing on. And I’m also influenced just as much by film.
Sometimes you speak of the existence of an anti-ego narrative, but in “Memphis Underground” you include an interview in the middle of the novel. Is that some sort of critique of the literary establishment?
The interview you mention is a mash up. I took the answers from an e-mail interview I’d written in reply to questions from a fanzine and replaced their questions with the things I’d asked a really dull and talentless singer when I’d taped an interview with him at the request of a third party. I think that is a way of saying that rather than being unique most cultural figures are interchangeable and that most music and books simply don’t matter… I have repeatedly described myself as “an ego-maniac on a world historical scale.” My problem with most egotists is that they take themselves so seriously they’re not able to be as egotistical as I am. I’m unsure what you mean by “an anti-ego narrative,” so it is difficult for me to respond to that part of your question. I can’t recall saying anything along these lines – although possibly you mean something within “Memphis Underground” (but if that is the case this is an example of my fiction, and I often have characters express things that I personally would not agree with).
You have always shown yourself to be against writers like Martin Amis and Salman Rushdie. Have you met them? What is it that you don’t like about them?
The first thing that is wrong with Rushdie and Amis is that their writing is awful. They are typical of the talentless hacks promoted by the English literary establishment. Both are products of exclusive schools and Ox-bridge, and neither have anything to say worth hearing either. They don’t know the first thing about how ordinary people live and they don’t know how to write. I’m lucky in that I’ve never met Amis; but one time when I’d won a prize from the Arts Council of England, Rushdie was handing out the money for them. He spoke to everyone else who’d been given a writing award that year, but not me, which I found very funny. I didn’t want to speak to him – or even meet him –but I did want the money.
Your main character, Johnson, feels like a phoney when he pretends to be bourgeois. What have you got against the middle class?
I’m not worried about the middle class, I just find them uninteresting culturally and in every other way. They also side with the bourgeoisie in its conflicts with the working class. I just wanted to show the middle-class as I see them, in other words as a bunch of tossers.
You also tend to talk about concepts like the ghetto and the suburbs. What kind of music would you say that the people who live in those kinds of places listen to?
That would all depend where in the world they were. But, for example, in south London a lot of people listen to dance music genres like grime. But then a lot of people in England are being displaced from the city into the suburbs, and in that way London is becoming more like Paris, so probably people are listening to grime in the suburbs as well.
Speaking of music, what bands do you like now?
I don’t go and see many bands these days. The music scene in London isn’t as interesting to me now as it was in the late seventies when I used to go to rock concerts roughly four times a week on average. Then in the eighties there were still good American bands coming over like Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers. Now there isn’t so much worth seeing. The bands I see these days are mainly people I know personally like Chicks On Speed or Luke Haines. I saw Bill Rath’s Street Pirates recently because he was using a friend of mine, Chris Lowe, as a pick-up drummer. Billy Rath had been out of the music scene for a long time and I’d last seen him playing bass in Iggy Pop’s backing band in London in 1979! The Street Pirates mostly played songs from his old band The Heartbreakers.
So you stay home more, then.
The truth is, I spend more time listening to old soul records from the sixties and seventies these days than anything else. Although I still also listen to a lot of electro and rap from the eighties, and minimal and hardcore techno from the 1990s. I don’t listen to that much rock music any more.
What were your ten favourite albums of 2011?
I don’t really like to do chart listings, and there weren’t ten new albums I really liked released in 2011 anyway. The only album I can remember writing sleeve notes to last year was “Wyrd” by Brend - which is an amazing experiment in crossing over dance beats and Scottish folk music orchestrated by Glasgow-based DJ and producer Guy Veale. That is definitely a stand-out release, but although I did the sleeve notes last year, it wasn’t issued until last month, so it is a 2012 release!
The best song of all time is …
Always the last one I played, which right now happens to be “Soul Galore” by Jackie Wilson, but give me a couple of minutes and it will be something else.
Jackie Wilson: “Soul Galore”
Tell me the name of the band you would have liked to form when you were a child.
The band name I always wanted to use when I was younger, but could never get the rest of the group to agree to taking on was The Teenage Pricks. In one band the singer objected on the grounds she was a girl and not a guy and she wasn’t teenage anymore either…. Which all seemed a bit literal to me!
We’ve read somewhere that you think that youth culture is much less visible in London today than it was 20 or 30 years ago. Why do you think that this is so?
I’m not sure I said that about youth culture, it seems more likely I was talking about subculture. Youth culture is everywhere, it is ubiquitous and that’s partly why subculture has largely disappeared. Gentrification has changed a lot. Kids find it difficult to afford living in London, so do most people, but if you’ve been around a long time you’re more likely to have found somewhere relatively cheap to rent. The other factor is everything is instantly available now via the internet, so kids can get into something new every day or hour or minute. This means they’re less likely to evolve a unique style of their own over time. But you see youth culture in the form of sportswear brands all over London, it’s completely mainstream.
You say on your website that your narrative intention involves breaking the barriers between art and literary genres. What do your readers gain from this—a sort of new genre, the “non-genre”?
A precursor of what we’ll all gain from revolutionary activity, the overflowing of capitalist canalization and the realization of our species being. It isn’t a question of being this or that, we can be everything at once. An end to the separations that characterize our social alienation under the current system of anti-social relations. Genres will disappear too!
Why did you create the Neoist Alliance?
To make trouble and have a bubble bath [laugh]. This anti-group was also a way of confronting the question of communist organization, something I’d been involved in debates about since the 1970s. What happened was that a bunch of us in London all created one-person ‘groups’. So there were things like The London Psychogeographical Association, The Association of Autonomous Astronauts and Decadent Action. That meant the person who constituted the group could organize an action and those who constituted other groups could choose to get involved with that action or not, but didn’t have to take any responsibility for it.
You profess to be a detractor of capitalism (you tend to define yourself as a communist). What do you think about the economic crisis?
The collapse of capitalism goes back a long way, don’t forget the USSR was also a capitalist state despite its phoney rhetoric about being Marxist. So the euphoria the western bourgeoisie expressed about the collapse of the USSR was at best short-sighted. You can’t expand economically indefinitely, so capitalism was bound to collapse. The important thing now is to organize a non-hierarchical world where everyone gets what they need, rather than a few having far more than they deserve while millions starve to death.
The way the world should work, according to Stewart Home, is…
I don’t want a world run by one person or an elite. The only sensible way to organize is by everyone collectively working together.
Are you writing anything new? Or working on any new project?
I recently finished a novel called “The Nine Lives of Ray ‘The Cat’ Jones” based on the life of one of my relatives who was a burglar. He made the front pages of all the British newspapers in 1958 when he escaped from Pentonville Prison in London, but many of his court cases were also reported in the UK press. Ray Jones always stressed that the reason he stole from rich people was as an act of class war. So having finished that book I’m doing a humorous plagiarized work about the artist David Hockney’s time at The Royal College of Art in London.
Give us a reason to read one of your books NOW.
It will give you better orgasms, improve your blood circulation and make you roar with laughter too!
What can your fans expect from you in the future?
Anything could happen in the future, so they should expect the unexpected!