Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Shelley Harris - On life, writing and why she'd rather be an Ugly Sister than a Dame.

BRITAIN is not a grown up country. We still live with our parents. Sometimes we sulk in our bedroom while hoping that mum and dad will still let us use the car. Even though, actually, it is our car, our house, our everything. We buy the food, pay for the holidays, every goddam thing . Somehow our parents have tricked us into thinking that they are still the boss of us even though they haven't worked for years, weren't really around while we were growing up and are busy spending our inheritance on yachts, helicopters, high grade class A drugs and parties for their sleazy mates.

 Britain will never be a grown up country while we have Kings and Queens. I'm sure the individuals royals are mostly very nice and I agree that the version of Celebrity Big Brother they star in isn't quite as tacky as the Ch 5 version. On the other hand it's been going longer and costs a whole lot more.  But in fact I feel a bit sorry for the royal family. So let's set them free. let's give them the vote and the right to call themselves Mr and Mrs Windsor. Let's let them grow up and then maybe we can all grow up too.

There's a big royal jamboree coming up this summer but I bet it won't have the impact of the one we all remember: The Silver Jubilee. I was at school. I got a mug. We were all crocodiled out of Park Wood Middle School to see her progress up Brickhill Drive in the royal range rover. We waved plastic flags. Curlew Crescent didn't have a street party but lots of other streets did. They partied like it was VE day or like it was 1895 and Good Queen Vicky was on the throne.

 This is the background of Shelley Harris' book Jubilee which has just come out and which the critics are raving about (The Guardian said that they loved this book and were already impatient for the next one). It's a lovely book, and she's a lovely, warm, thoughtful and witty writer. And she's also - not quite - British. Which means she has a shot at being more grown up than the rest of us. 

Anyway I asked her some impertinent questions and she replied...

Shelley, Give me your autobiography in exactly 50 words (not 51, not 49...)

Born in Cape Town to a British father and South African mother, emigrated because of their opposition to Apartheid and grew up in Buckinghamshire. Read rampantly, did a series of more (journalist, teacher) or less (envelope-stuffer, mystery shopper) writing-related jobs. Lived in Paris, hatched a couple of kids, wrote Jubilee.

Why should I read Jubilee?

Jubilee is about an iconic photograph of a Silver Jubilee street party in 1977. At the centre of the image is Satish Patel: newcomer, outsider, keeper of secrets. When a reunion is planned, those secrets threaten to emerge, throwing Satish’s life off-course. So you might read it because there are mysteries at its heart, revealed as the book delves deeper into the events of Jubilee day. 

Or you might read it because it’s steeped in memories of that time. There tend to be a lot of clich├ęs about the seventies (Abba / flares), but I was interested in the complexities of the decade, the contradictions it contained. The National Front was on the rise, but Britishness was being redefined by a remarkable cohort of immigrants from Idi Amin’s Uganda; Rod Stewart was officially no. 1 on Jubilee day but in all probability,  God Save The Queen sold more; Union Jacks were everywhere, but we’d never tug our forelocks in quite the same way again.

How autobiographical is it?

In terms of its location, there’s a strong autobiographical element; Jubilee is set in the village I came to when we settled in Britain. The party takes place in my childhood street, and Satish lives in my family home. So the memories of growing up in that place and time – and of being an outsider there – are my own. But I really wanted the resemblance to finish there: Satish has a different gender, a different ethnicity, and is emotionally repressed in a way I can only aspire to.

Also - let’s be honest about this - Satish is just more interesting than me. I wanted to explore how we become British, a process which was uneven in my case, but would have been much more dramatic for him. Diversity is in our DNA, yet the Silver Jubilee presented nationhood in the most homogenous terms. I wondered: what if you were Asian and newly-British in 1977, at the conjunction of nationalistic fervour and assumptive racism? What would it be like to put on a Union Jack hat and celebrate that very selective version of what it means to be British?

How do you think the coming diamond jubilee will compare with the silver jubilee?

I always think of Andrew Collins, in Where Did It All Go Right: ‘It’s difficult to convey to people how royal the nation was in 1977…As I write this it is the Queen’s Golden Jubilee year and I feel I am in good company not giving a fuck.’ As of 2002, he was spot-on, and I still don’t think we’ll ever return to those days of unquestioning fealty. Having said that, the public response to William & Kate’s wedding last year took me by surprise. I never thought I’d be predicting this, but I think there’s a new upsurge of interest in the Royal Family. 

Just writing that makes me feel depressed. I fear that it is, however, true.

Would you accept an honour from the Queen - an OBE or an MBE? 

Well I’m no monarchist (and not much of an Empire-builder, either) so that might be a little tricky for me. A friend of mine told me about being in one of Buckingham Palace’s smaller kitchens, and seeing the tea sets the Queen uses – a different one for each day of the week, apparently. So I might ask her if we could just have a cuppa and a chat instead. 

Would you become a Dame?

Only if they let me be an Ugly Sister.

What are you working on now?

I’m writing my second novel, which will also be with Weidenfeld and Nicolson. It concerns a very ordinary woman who has a midlife crisis, and does something absolutely extraordinary in response to it.

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

I’ll do writing please, Steve. Sarah Waters because she is always utterly gripping, and her prose is fabulous; I will buy her on publication day, every single time. Then there’s Jane Harris, because she’s made me jealous with each of her books: The Observations is a masterclass in how to convey a character’s voice, and Gillespie and I builds with this incredible delicate subtlety – such restraint! I’d also have to mention Jon McGregor, whose If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things is the book I’d most like to have written. 

And finally, Michael Chabon because I think he’s a bona fide genius – so good I’m not even jealous of him. (I rave in detail about him here, if you’re interested: 

Hopes for the future?

Other than the health and happiness of my loved ones, what I’d most like is a long-term career in writing. I’d like to be able to develop my craft beyond the second novel, and get better and better – as good as I can possibly be. 

Recommend something...

With pleasure. As well as the cracking writers listed above, the one volume I’d like to put into everyone’s hand is the collected prose of Woody Allen. People obviously know his films, and some may have heard recordings of his stand-up (‘I shot a moose, upstate New York…’). But his prose is brilliant, and has seen me through many a long, dark night of the soul. Here, you can find his parody of Yeats (‘Civilization is shaped like a / Circle and repeats itself, while / O’ Leary’s head is shaped like / A trapezoid’), and read the memoirs of Hitler’s barber (‘After the Allied invasion, Hitler developed dry, unruly hair’).

Tell me something I don't know...

I know all the words to all the very worst songs of the eighties – and I’m no slouch at the seventies, either.  I know the full libretto of Tell Me On A Sunday, and recently delivered a flawless Where Do You Go To, My Lovely? a full twenty years after last hearing it.

Jubilee is published by Weidenfield and Nicholson and out now...

Sunday, 22 January 2012

The Iron Lady and My Part In Her Downfall

Protest and survive

Looks ugly doesn't it? It wasn't. It was damn good fun and jolly good exercise. All that running. All that shouting. All that righteous fury. The glow I got from Ready Brek as a 1970s primary school kid, I got from protesting in the 1980s (and also from bargain booze and amphetamine to be honest).

I wasn't a very good political activist. Though I tried.

Back then I went to demos the way other people went to the shops. I always nipping out for a rally or popping into town for a picket or a protest. It was the era of miner's strike and there was always something on. The odd thing was that I once I got there I never felt entirely comfortable. I'm too much of a natural doubter - Don't get me wrong I hated the Tories as much as anyone - I was, in the words of the old chant - a Tory hater, but I wanted to win in a Corinthian stylee. Not so much Organise. Agitate. Kick The Tories Out  as Organise. Agitate. Beat them Fair and Square in A Public Debate. In some shameful, unacknowledged part of my psyche Maggie! Maggie! Maggie! OUT! OUT! OUT! became Maggie! Maggie! Maggie! Next time we'll persuade more voters to put their crosses in our boxes than in yours! Then you'll be sorry!

I was particularly uncomfortable with No Platform rallies. Remember them? I think (and thought then - though I kept quiet about it) that everyone should have a platform. The point of being on the left is that we are fighting so that everyone can speak. So that everyone gets a voice. One of the big things we are fighting for is the right of our opponents to argue against us. Even if they win. 'I hate what you say - but I defend to the death your right to say it'. That's me - though then I was sort of ashamed of it. (God knows there were plenty of things I should have been ashamed of doing, saying, thinking - but that wasn't one of them... That's always been a thing with me. Feeling shame. And for the wrong things...)

Luckily the behaviour of the police at these things was usually enough to cure the inconvenient doubts. Because the police were reliably horrible. They never seemed to suffer from shame or angst about their part in the rituals of demonstrations. They knew who buttered their bread and it wasn't us.

Just one example: It is 1985 an anti-apartheid demo heading up to Trafalgar Square. Me and my mate Dave have sprinted to the front of the march so that we can nip into The Spice of Life and have a couple of beers while waiting for the Essex Uni contingent to catch up. A couple of beers means a trip to the toilet and have you ever used a public toilet when there are thousands of people milling about trying to topple a government? It can take a while.

Afterwards I'm trying to find Dave and the Essex SU crowd when I discover I'm at the front of the march where a little group of Class War nutjobs are taunting the police. They are chanting 'Tottenham! Tottenham!'  not because of any love for the boys from White Hart Lane, but to remind the coppers of the murder in that district of PC Blakelock a couple of years previously. I'm not an idiot. I'm at University. And my uni educated mind tells me that this is all unnecessary and, probably, unwise. That the police are likely to be unhappy about this and unhappy too about the banners that are now being used as missiles - so I turn away. None of my mates will be here that's for sure. And it's then the police charge, lashing out with their truncheons as they come.

Ah, truncheon. Such a nostalgic word. Truncheons have gone the way of typewriters and record players. They seem now like messages from a more innocent time. In the era of the US-style baton they seem benign somehow. Quaint. Almost sweet. Dickensian. The sort of thing a fat Beadle would carry. But they bloody hurt as does the fact that my arm is being bent up behind my back at an impossible angle.

'You'll do.' says the PC. Really. 'You'll do.' I'm scared and in pain but I'm also infuriated and, more than this even, I'm curious as to what I'll be charged with.

 It turns out to be 'obstructing a police officer in the course of his duty.' According to the PC he had been attempting to arrest some chanter, some banner-thrower, when I  intervened punching and kicking and swearing and he lists the words I'm meant to have used. I almost blush. To hear such words coming out of the mouth of a uniformed public servant... I can't think it's what Sir Robert Peel had in mind when he founded the force. I'm genuinely shocked. Not just at the words, but how brazen this all is. And then I spend several hours in a cell with a nervous wreck of a guy who has just been told he is going to be charged with attempted murder. A cop has been hit with a full can of Guinness and this chap has been discovered on the demo with a can of Guinness in his hand. He is, the police told him, therefore the obvious perp. He is going down.

The hours pass and eventually I am kicked out of the door to be greeted by a little knot of hyped up activists asking if I need anything. Food? Drink? Train fare? and actually yes, I discover I need all those things. The student union bus has gone you see and I need to get back to Colchester... A girl turns and addresses her fellow campaigners with a (frankly unnecessary) megaphone. 'Comrades! There's a bloke here who needs to get back to Manchester...' No no no Colchester, I whisper but it is too late, she is too swept up in her role as Joan of Arc to listen. '...Manchester. Please give whatever you can.' It's like I'm a famine and she is a Blue Peter appeal. It's like a little Live Aid. And I have to say, the crowd dig deep. I get more money than I've held in my hand since I started at Uni. And my protests about the wrong town are waved away. No one is listening to me.

I go to court a couple of months later. There are dozens of us and we're all absolutely discharged in batches of ten by an exasperated magistrate.

What really did for Thatch (as we called her then)  was the Poll Tax demo. The infamous riots. I was working by then. Clerking and assistanting for the Probation Service, and it had been our union conference the day before so I was hungover and hadn't had much sleep. Those probation officers can really put it away.

I was going to the demo with my mate Jessica (who later became the BBC producer on the Food Programme...). Jess was much more radical than me. She was in the SWP (who never allowed self-doubt- that was for  the Labour Party and other class traitors...) She was also American, fearless and in possession of a camera. When it all kicked off (and my memory is that it all began with a solitary orange juice bottle chucked at the window of a pizza hut) Jessica's instinct was to run towards the police, the horses, the burning cars. It was bonkers but it cured my hangover and the photos were sort of worth it. And it worked of course.

That's the thing with riots - they are an English tradition. And they work. A riot torn street in a deprived neighbourhood today is a City Farm tomorrow. Riots have always been part of the discourse between the ruling class and a disenfranchised working class. And the managers of capitalism do listen. Yes, at the time they're all birch 'em, flog 'em hang em high but then afterwards you'll find quiet concessions, subtle alterations in the course of the ship of state. You'll find, for example, the rhetoric about necessary cuts softened and a plan b gradually introduced(if not named) consisting of some large scale infrastructure projects.

And after the poll tax riots Thatcher was gone in weeks. That's all it took. Ding dong the witch was dead. The Iron Lady turned out not to be so very tough after all.

The next time I was on a really big demo was the huge anti-war thing in 2003. A million of us marching through the city and lots of people like me who hadn't been on a demo in years. I think we were all a bit over excited. Not only was it a huge, huge demo which they couldn't ignore. (Couldn't they? Of course they could... it would have different had it turned nasty. If they'd had to use the water cannon and the rubber bullets.) There was hope and happiness in the air. It was like a massive reunion. Veterans of all those old battles back together for one last gig. And what a gig. A million of us. A million. But times had changed a bit. There were a lot of people breaking off from the demo saying 'ooh there's a great little vintage shop down here...' or ' there's this amazing organic bakery round here somewhere.' I suspect a lot of the marchers had olives and hummus in those sandwiches. I know I did.

And now there's a new generation of student activists - smarter than we were I think. Witness how clumsy they make the police look. One goateed geek with an iPhone seems worth entire squadrons of police transits when it comes to organising the movements of large groups of people. 'I see your kettle and I raise it...' and it's because they're smarter that the authorities come down harder.

And I think the current generation are angrier too. They bloody well should be.

I do still prefer rational debate - and these days I'm not ashamed of doubt. It's people who have no doubts that worry me. But these days more than ever I think students should be out of the streets Occupying, Defending. Trying to make people listen. And you can tell that they've already got the ruling class rattled. Four years hard time  for writing 'let's have a riot' on Facebook? A year in chokey for climbing on a statue of Winston Churchill? These are not the responses of politicians who feel confident and in control.

In ten or twenty years time some of the things that are happening now will look ridiculous. Some actions might look embarrassing. Some - most - of today's student activists will have stories of generalised daftness But so what? Plenty of things worse than embarrassment. Doing nothing, saying nothing. Letting the bastards grind you down. That's all much worse. Isn't it?

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.