Monday, 20 February 2012

Ian Marchant on writing, being written about and why no one should read his new book...

EVERYONE loves Ian Marchant. And it is true, he’s easy to love. Big-hearted, big-brained, big-boned, personality as big as the Ritz and twice as sparkly.

It is also true that he is infuriating, exasperating, attention-seeking and a general all round show off. He must also be a pain to stand behind at gigs. And hugely frustrating to play against if you are in a rival quiz team.

I know these things – the good things and the bad things – not just because Ian’s a mate but because of the books he writes. Parallel Lines was about the British love affair with railways. And about Ian. The Longest Crawl was about beer. And about Ian. The new one, the brilliant Something of the Night, is about things that happen in Britain in the dark. And about Ian. These books are a mix – what da kidz might call a mash-up – of memoir, travel writing, social history and that new thing we are meant to call psycho geography. They are frank and fearless and illuminating and I’m a fan. If you haven’t read any of his books then read this interview and then hurry to your bookstore to do what you know you must.

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

Conceived in Woking, born in Guildford, schooled in Newhaven, fucked drugged rocked and rolled in Lampeter, died in Brighton, born again in Radnorshire, educated in Lancaster, sold antiquarian books in London, first-aid trained in Devon, returned triumphant to Radnorshire, teach writing at Birmingham City University, sometimes make radio in Bristol.

Why should we read Something of the Night?

Hell, you shouldn’t read it, at least not yet. Reading is ruinous for books; it breaks the spine, and lets in dust and moisture. You should buy it in hardback, and keep it on your most treasured shelf. Postpone reading it until the paperback comes out. Or, if you really must read it now, why not download it onto your Kindle, so that your hardback can stay in mint condition?

You started as a novelist, why the switch to non-fiction?

I once met Bob Marley outside a pub in Brighton, and showed him the way to the Concorde Club. Nice guy. Here in Presteigne, (pop. 2000) I have a friend who was the first person to supply R.D, Laing with LSD, a friend who was jailed in the US for laundering money for an aristocratic all-girl coke smuggling syndicate, and a friend who watched the Velvet Underground in Warhol’s factory while bouncing up and down on a trampoline. Stuff like that couldn’t happen in fiction, because you wouldn’t believe it. Non-fiction just seems to have more scope, I guess.

Also, nobody bought my novels. ‘The Battle for Dole Acre’ is second only to ‘Juggling for A Degree; Mature Students in Further Education’ (edited, with Hilary Arksey) in the list of my hard to find items.

What responsibilities do you feel to the real people who appear in your books?

Loads. I try to give them the best jokes. I change names, dates, places. I’ve only ever had one complaint, and that was from the barman of The Isle of Jura Hotel, who was so falling over drunk on duty that he called the customers and the landlord ‘cunts’. He asked me to take his photo out of the reprint of the paperback edition of ‘The Longest Crawl’. This offers exciting possibilities for collectors, as the paperback therefore exists in two states.

You've had the odd - I assume it's odd - experience of being the subject (at least in part) of a book published last year. What impact did that have on you?

It was a bit odd, yes, and not in a nice way. But there. The author let me read her manuscript. I thought it would be unethical of me to demand changes to the text. The author feels it was unethical of me not to. No dates or places were changed, and I certainly didn’t get the best jokes. No names were changed, but one was omitted, although Camilla Long saw to that in her notorious review. In fact, it was the little storm of press coverage that was the worst bit for my family.

I have asked for acknowledgement for the use of my comic verse in the paperback edition. Completists might want to hang on till it hits the remainder shops.

Your chapter (sort of) in response is brutally, painfully, candid (and also very funny) how hard was that to write?

It was a decision I took quite early on in the writing process. I knew I was going to write about sex, and I knew I wanted to write about transgressive sex. I thought about going dogging, and talking to some working girls, but this seemed to me bogus travel-writing shades into edgy psycho-geography 101, so I decided it would be more honest to write about my own impotent attempts to visit sex workers during my celibate years. My publishers made me change a few bits; in particular, they asked me to write of Jesus’s penis and testicles rather than his cock and balls. The unexpurgated manuscript has been left to Lancaster University in my will, and scholars will flock to see it in the years ahead.

Where do you see yourself in five years time?

Blimey. Writing books, I hope, living here in Presteigne with my wife and family. Doing music sometimes. Making radio programmes. Controlling the second-hand market in ‘The Battle For Dole Acre.’

What's the next book about?

It’s a kind of history of the British counter-culture between 1956 and 1994, written for my students, in order to explain a lost culture whose last echoes they might catch in their Mum’s record collection. It’s also an openly post-Alex Masters biography of a friend of mine called Bob Rowberry who ended up being pretty much everywhere the counter-culture was going off. Procul Harum were named after his cat. The working title is ‘A Hero for High Times’, and is due for publication by Jonathan Cape in late 2013. Cape have a fine tradition of publishing counter-culture stuff; they published Richard Neville’s ‘Play Power’ in 1970 – I have a nice first, with dustwrapper, though sadly it lacks the game insert in the pocket attached to the rear endpaper.

Who - in life or writing - do you most admire and why?

In life, and I’m very much afraid this might make your readers boak their rings, I most admire my wife, a book-woman to her core, who looks like Charlotte Gainsbourg, who puts up with a lot with a whole lot of love, and who is hugely fucking clever and funny.

Her or Gus Poyet.

In writing…. Oh god. I’d take Henry David Thoreau to a desert island. And Orwell’s essays. And The Four Quartets. My favourite book of last year was Richard Beard’s ‘Lazarus is Dead.’, by a country mile. I treat Geert Mak’s ‘In Europe’ much as Network Rail used to treat the Forth Rail Bridge, in that I pretty much start it again as soon as I’ve finished it. It was first published in hardback as ‘In Europa.’ I don’t have the hardback, which makes me sad. I have hinted till I’m blue in the face, but nothing. I am 54 on March 14th.

Tell me something I don't know.

E-books will eventually be a good thing for the secondhand market, as fewer books will be reprinted, thus forcing prices upwards.

Something of the Night is out now in precious hardbook form with Simon and Schuster. The price – though it might seem extortionate now – will look very reasonable in fifty years time…

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