Friday, 6 January 2012

Anthony Clavane - on football, Leeds, songwriting and when it's ok to hack phones




You all know Anthony Clavane of course - the gifted songwriter, the underground troubadour, the love-child of Leonard Cohen and Nick Drake. Bon Iver's more thoughtful, better read, more politically astute older brother.

Well your loss if you don't. Most people - most readers of this blog - will know Anthony as the author of The Promised Land last year's surprise best-selling, award-winning account of growing up with the burden of being a Leeds Utd fan. hough actually that does both Anthony and the book a disservice because The Promised Land is more than that. More than a Northern Fever Pitch. It's about fooball yes, but it's also about industrial growth and decline and about being an outsider within tribes of outsiders. It's popular social history as well as football memoir.

And some people will know him as a football writer on the Sunday Mirror. But when I first met Anthony he was a history teacher in Colchester and also a songwriter. A brilliant songwriter (I think he was probably an okay history teacher). So brilliant that when I got the chance to write a play (Still Waiting For Everything) I built it around some of those songs. I will still contend that just because his greatest hits remain largely unheard that doesn't make them any less astounding. He's got half a dozen that would stand comparison with any of the canonical singer-songwriter classics. I know it. A handful of his friends and family know it. The 500 people across the country that came to see my - very fringey - play know it. And one day - possibly quite soon - you will know it too.

Oh and he's working on another book too (but then so is everyone I know...)

Can you give me your autobiography in exactly 50 words (not 49, not 51)

Born and brought up in Leeds . History teacher, news reporter, "Independent" feature writer and sportswriter with the "Mirror". Teaches at the Arvon Foundation, wrote the songs for the play "Still Waiting For Everything". First book, "Promised Land", won Sports Book of the Year at the 2011 National Sporting Club Awards.

Why should I read “Promised Land”?

I know it’s based on the fortunes of a football team, Leeds United, but people who don't like football - like Ian McMillan's wife - like it. Apparently. It’s really about cultural outsiders; how people (like me), cities (like Leeds) and tribes (like the Jewish community) have attempted to escape their pasts by reinventing themselves – and the price that has to be paid for these reinventions. It’s a kind of love story really, or at least a love letter to the three things that shaped by early life: Leeds , football and Jewishness. I’m still living with the guilt of turning my back on all three in my 20s.

Did you learn anything during your research that surprised you?

Where do I begin? Houdini failing to escape from a Tetley’s beer barrel, and almost dying from the alcohol fumes because he was teatotal. Cuthbert Brodrick designing Leeds Town Hall in his early 30s - then buggering off to France with a married woman. Alan Bennett excitedly spotting Leeds manager Don Revie outside the Queens Hotel kitchen; The Don was waiting to collect takeaway lunches for his players. Bennett mistaking the artist Jacob Kramer, who had an art gallery named after him, for a tramp when he almost fell over him…outside the art gallery. Albert Johanneson, the first black footballer to play in an FA Cup Final, giving all his medals to my friend’s dad and asking him to put them in his safe because he was worried he’d pawn them (Albert had become an alcoholic). The gypsy Revie had asked to remove the “curse” on Elland Road urinating on all four corners of the pitch (it didn't work). The great northern realist writer David Storey signing a long-term contract with Leeds Rugby League – and using the money to pay for his art course at the Slade School of Art. Pele headbutting Billy Bremner. The young Damien Hirst living near Eric Cantona, though not at the same time…

The Dirty Leeds nickname - that was actually pretty fair wasn't it?

Yes and no. The London media hated these cocky northern upstarts because they were unfashionable, played to win and, yes, cut corners. Many of the cynical things they did were in response to the gamesmanship of the European teams they played in the mid-1960s. What’s really interesting is the club’s repeated attempts to shed this image. First Super Leeds – the “total football” side of the mid-1970s, then Wilko’s wonders – with the late, great Gary Speed, Strachan and Gary McAllister in midfield – and finally O’Leary’s babies. All these attempts failed. How come Arsenal can successfully get away with reinventing themselves under Arsene Wenger and we can't? I’m also interested in this nickname as a “personal myth” – from Dickens and Shaw, who thought industrial Leeds was a beastly place that should be burned down, to Hirst and David Peace. Why are some people, groups, teams nicknamed “dirty”. As Mary Douglas said: “Dirt is matter out of place.”   

You've lived away from Yorkshire for quite a while - how have your feeling towards your home city changed over the years?

My mum and dad and lots of Clavanes still live in Leeds so I spend a lot of time in the capital of God's Own Country. Back in the 1970s there were so many prodigal-son-returns-oop-north novels and films. I loved them all, especially “Charlie Bubbles” and “Get Carter” (although Caine was too lazy to use a northern accent). When I first went back, in the crappy 1980s, it was a kind of hell. In the 1990s things suddenly changed. I’ve never been in Harvey Nicks, but I was a big fan of the new Leeds . I liked its aspirational drive. There’s an incredible energy in Leeds at the moment – but, like most northern cities, it's up against a government run by out-of-touch southern toffs.

What are you working on now?

I’ve been commissioned by Red Ladder Theatre Company to write a play, with Nick Stimson, based on “Promised Land” – to be performed at Leeds Carriageworks in June 2012 – and I’m also working on my new book “Does Your Rabbi Know You’re Here?”, which is about Jewish involvement in English football.

I'm a fan of your songwriting. How come there is such a select band of us that know about this side of your life?

Why thank you. Maybe it’s because my songs aren’t that good, really. But I’m writing the songs for the play and maybe you and my mum will be joined by more admirers.

Where do you see yourself in five years time?

Writing the difficult sixth book – and more songs that nobody, apart from you and my mum, listen to.

Recommend something...

“The Big Lebowski” Okay, everyone knows about that. Anna Karina? She's my favourite actress. Do you mean obscure-ish? My favourite Scottish singer-songwriter is Aidan John Moffat from "Arab Strap".

And finally... tell me something I don't know...

 I went to jail in the 1980s for handing out ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ leaflets outside the South African Embassy. Oh yes, and I hate people winking at me.

I'm sorry I have a twitch... and the real final question... the Columbo question: Mr Clavane - you are a tabloid journalist. have you ever hacked a phone? Are there circumstances in which you feel phone-hacking is justified?

I am not now, nor have I ever been, a phone hacker. In the Second World War, definitely justified. Although Hitler never left any voicemails, I think British intelligence was up to some dodgy stuff back then. And quite right too.


2 comments:

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