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Factory records: an interview with John King

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Best known for his Football Factory trilogy, John King is back with a timely and provocative satire looking at Britain’s history and the European Union, ahead of the UK’s referendum in June. 3:AM caught up with him to hear his thoughts on that and other matters of English identity as a novelist.

Andrew Stevens

3:AM: We last spoke to you in 2008 when Skinheads had just come out, what have you been up to since?

JK: I wrote a novel called Slaughterhouse Prayer, which was hard going and took a lot of time. I’m finishing some rewrites and it will be published next year. The story is centred around animal rights, and as a vegetarian and later vegan for over thirty years, it’s an important book for me, similar to The Prison House in some ways, with elements of Human Punk. When the main character is a boy he thinks praying and wishing hard will save the animals from being killed, but it makes no difference. When he is a young man, he believes that reason and peaceful protest will end the slaughter. Again, nothing changes. And so when he reaches middle-age he’s had enough and takes some very violent, direct action. We never see what he does, only the behaviour of those who make money from the meat and dairy industries. I’m excited about Slaughterhouse Prayer, want it to make a difference.

I also edited a series of books during this time, the ‘London Classics’ series stands at 11 titles now, all socially-aware, mainly working class London fiction. Authors such as James Curtis, Gerald Kersh, Arthur La Bern and Simon Blumenfeld. Each book has a quality introduction by a contemporary writer. It’s a lot of work, but a lot of fun as well, and I’ve met some brilliant people along the way. And I started putting on ‘Human Punk’ nights at the 100 Club in Central London with a couple of friends. We’ve had Ruts DC and a Cockney Rejects two-nighter among our highlights this year. We just released our first single on vinyl by an excellent band called Knock Off – ‘Football, Beer and Punk Rock’.

3:AM: Your new novel, The Liberal Politics of Adolf Hitler, is being published to coincide with the EU referendum?

JK: It’s set sometime in the future, maybe 50 or so years from now, and imagines a society where there’s no more elections as they are considered disruptive by those in control, who ‘only want to help’. This is the time of ‘New Democracy’. Worthy words mask a hidden dictatorship. Even the secret police are called Cool. They bring coffee and nibbles when they come to take you away. For us, the title of the book is an absurdity, but history has been altered with physical copies of books, films and music illegal, and money just credit on a screen. Everything that can be digitised has been, and so information only exists in cyberspace, where it is edited, rewritten and deleted.

Technology has evolved and the State uses a restricted internet – InterZone – to monitor people in increasingly intrusive but subtle ways, with mobiles replaced by Palms, devices that are embedded in the user’s hand and can’t be easily removed. Culture is stolen and sold back to the masses in distorted forms – Parisian songsmith Jean Rotten bursts onto the music scene with a ferocious Tenderburger jingle, while Terry Johns captains London United against the Barca Flamboyants and is ritually abused for no real reason. London has large areas of gentrification called Gates, and these are protected by huge domes and security systems, while the commons live on the margins and travel on separate trains.

The three main characters are Controller Horace, who visits London from Brussels, capital of the USE; a young bureaucrat called Rupert Ronsberger, one of the Good Euros who run the city. And out in the West Country, there is Kenny Jackson, a secret librarian and member of a resistance group called GB45. They are set on a collision course, and hopefully their stories balance each other out across the novel.

One of the themes of the novel is the way language is warped, the simple difference between what a person says and what a person does. It’s fine promoting liberal values, but don’t use them to hide exploitation and make those with genuine concerns scared to state their case. I’ve never known our society to be so conformist, and this is taken to new levels in the book, where doublespeak becomes babytalk. There’s a thread that links to Slaughterhouse Prayer, in the way the big smiles of those working for the State mask a terrible, mocking cruelty towards animals, and this ability humans have to deny what is happening right in front of them connects to what is going on at the moment, I feel.

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3:AM: One review, which for a declared fan of yours wasn’t so kind, acknowledged those nods to Orwell, but also raised the point that “Orwell made even his totalitarian villains recognisably human”.

JK: It’s true that Rupert Ronsberger is written in a way that makes him seem very superficial, but that is the whole point of the character. He is superficial. He has an incredible ability to accept whatever he is told as the truth if it comes from his superiors, and is constantly justifying his actions with a series of moral arguments that become more and more ridiculous, whether it’s to do with his use of the prostitute Polestar or his behaviour at the animal fetish club Splash! His Euroland alter-ego Rocket Ron shows a kink in his personality I’d suggest. You see, Rupert has erased his past, only values his future success within the system. The past, generally, is only any good if it can be exploited. Otherwise, it’s wholly negative. That is the basis of an extreme sort of capitalism.

Rupert is a know-all. Arrogant yet at the same time weak and pathetic, relying on the State to protect him and give him a platform. There are plenty of politicians who are just like Rupert, and they are the ones who seem to make it to the top as they have less scruples. He takes his correctness and obedience to levels that finally enrage Controller Horace, who can’t believe anyone can not have doubts or even secrets. Two of Rupert’s comments at the end of the novel, in the way he refers to the Controller and his mention of an albatross, show his deeper nature. It makes sense if you read the book. Hopefully it does, anyway. But you have to concentrate to understand what is going on, I suppose.

As for Horace Starski, I’d say he is very human, as despite his position and the things he has sanctioned over the years, he has started to question the decision he made earlier in his life, when he chose his career over the only woman he ever loved. He goes back to watch her in her flat on his visit to London and even I felt a bit sorry for this old man, despite everything he represents. The vision of Blackpool he creates for Rupert puts his emotions out on display, but of course the younger bureaucrat feels nothing but disgust for the place and its people, is bemused by the bands he sees at a punk festival replayed from fifty years before, his glimpses of the Subhumans, The Last Resort, Ruts DC. So I would argue that Controller Horace has a powerful interior life. He is a deceiver, uses the same language and justifications as Rupert, but he also accepts the realities of New Democracy and the USE, knows that he is corrupt and a liar, while there’s a tiny hint that maybe he has helped engineer his own reckoning.

Kenny Jackson? I’d say his humanity is there in his love for Jan and his love of literature and the memories he has of leaving London as a boy, back when his father is bullied and has to flee with his family. Kenny risks his life on a daily basis, acquiring and hiding and storing books, believes in ideas and freedom of expression, while the contemporary writers I have mentioned in relation to the books he is handed in his local pub represent something very positive in literature at the moment I feel, when big chunks of mainstream publishing has become more elitist than I can remember. So I would take more issue with the way they are referred to in that review really, because the alternative press and independent publishers are exciting and vital, represent the magic of the printed word, where novels and fanzines and pamphlets produced by dedicated people can pass down through the decades and even centuries. That shows Kenny is human, I feel.

3:AM: As well as the EU, Orwell also features in your recent essay calling for a better understanding and articulation of English identity and patriotism by the British left.

JK: I read George Orwell’s novels and some of his essays early on and certain of his ideas have always stayed with me. He connected with David Bowie and The Clash in my teenage head, and I’ve never had a reason not to respect what they produced. It doesn’t get much better than Orwell, Bowie and The Clash.

With this novel being set in the future, and the nature of what I wanted to say, there was always going to be some of Orwell’s ideas in the story, simply because so many of his predictions came true. The same goes for Aldous Huxley and Ray Bradbury. It made writing the book a lot of fun, seeing these connections. The experience was the total opposite to Slaughterhouse Prayer, as The Liberal Politics… is a satire really, and I did laugh out loud when I wrote certain sections. Imagining Sid James and Del Boy Trotter driving taxis for Controller Horace put a smile on my face.

‘Patriotism’ is a difficult word, as it conjures up different images for different people, so in the recent essays you mention I have tried to show it as a form of localism, as that is one way to look at the nation state, as the representation of a culture, especially with what is happening with regards the political mission of EU and its drive towards a superstate. I am thinking about England and Britain as the people and their cultures here, not the state or the establishment. I’d also say that the EU has nothing to do with the people and cultures of Europe, that it is a separate organisation that serves an international elite.

I liked Orwell from the start because he wasn’t scared to speak honestly and much of what he said made perfect sense to me. I think the party-political system is a curse. Parliament should be full of independents. Free-thinkers. And make it more representative. Insist on a percentage of MPs who have not been through the university system, a number to match those in the general population. That would be true diversity. We need to get away from fixed ideas of what is Right and Left, find a middle way instead of fixating on how much we hate the other side. It gets us nowhere.

3:AM: In that essay, you cast Jeremy Corbyn in the “maverick English Labour tradition”, what do you make of the recent calls for an ‘English turn’ for Labour by those probably more associated with New Labour? Or its recent fall-outs over voters on the doorstep with the St George’s Cross?

JK: If they genuinely believe in England, then great, but politicians shouldn’t have to try and identify with such a large part of the population – they should be those people. If someone is trying to appropriate a position for their own ends, and doesn’t mean what they say, then that is no good either. Personally, I believe in the Union, our shared geography, language, history, culture, humour. Devolve power, but stay united. England makes up the bulk of the population of the UK and we should remember that we are strong, be prepared to bend to keep everyone together and work out any problems.

For me, Jeremy Corbyn’s most interesting move has been putting a vegan, Kerry McCarthy, in charge of farming policy. That was brilliant. I do feel let down by his position on the EU referendum though. He has long been opposed to the EU, but has put Labour Party unity ahead of the interests of the people. It is a miscalculation, because by returning Labour to its traditional position he would have pulled back millions of voters. I imagine a reticence to connect with those who hang an English flag outside their houses when an election is on is also playing its part. If only Tony Benn and Bob Crow were still alive. They would have led the left’s resistance to the EU and made a real difference.

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3:AM: As you say, the book relies on the reversal of history between Hitler and Churchill by an omnipotent United States of Europe. Churchill was in his lifetime one of the first to call for a United States of Europe and the ‘Remain’ camp now use the 70 years of peace argument for staying in, which is what the architects of the early European Communities also claimed as their founding principle.

JK: The idea in the novel is that due to the dominance of InterZone and the enforced digitisation of information, the State controls history. It creates the past. Says what it wants. When Churchill and Hitler are mentioned – and it is only briefly – their roles are reversed. Views differ on what Churchill meant when he talked about a ‘kind’ of united states, but my USE is a single state, not a federation of independent nations. If a government is undemocratic and unaccountable, there is a real chance it could evolve into a dictatorship.

It’s hard to believe Churchill wanted to see us hand over power to a foreign body, betray the Commonwealth and weaken our relationship with the US. He saw the need for Germany and France to forge a link that would stop them going to war again, and we would not be having a referendum if the EU was simply about trade and friendship. NATO and the presence of the US army kept the peace after the war, not the EEC. Does anyone seriously believe that leaving the EU would lead to another war with Germany?

3:AM: I saw Linton Kwesi Johnson last week, who remarked that his parents’ generation were the ‘heroic’ generation in terms of the sacrifices they made after the war, his was the ‘rebel’ generation in terms of their refusal to accept what they were expected to put up with in the 70s and 80s, whereas the current generation of youth, both black and white, are just the ‘depoliticised’ generation.

JK: Generally speaking, I think he is right. Young people are bombarded with information, fed endless trivia and propaganda, so it becomes harder to work out what’s true and what’s not. They have their views, but don’t exist socially unless they are part of a virtual world that restricts what they can say. I think they are scared to express political opinions that go against the norm, and maybe it’s even more extreme for those who want to move into ‘professional’ circles. Once a person is smeared on facebook or similar, it can affect the rest of their lives. None of this is admitted. Another sort of censorship applies to the likes of literature and music. Censorship by omission. Would Forces of Victory get a proper release today?

To balance this out, kids are given credit cards in their teens and can go out and buy the clothes and gadgets they see in the adverts. Many don’t realise they will be charged interest for years to come, maybe the rest of their lives. We couldn’t do that when we were young, plus now you have mobiles to pay for and laptops and all the rest of it. Young people can consume almost at will, and that is bound to help depoliticise them, if only in the short term.

We prized democracy. Whatever happened, however much it was distorted and abused, we believed in it as a principle. I worry that’s no longer the case. There are young people who wouldn’t know what you are talking about. New generations need to learn from the past, as we did, but the past is often belittled now and those who refer to lessons that can be learned from it are mocked. History passes through families, which is the best way, but you are up against a new, emerging system that likes its customers isolated and easy to manipulate. This is what The Liberal Politics of Adolf Hitler is all about, basically.

3:AM: What about your generation? You were frequently included alongside Irvine Welsh in the 90s, who also recently came out for leaving the EU, to the point of being categorised together in one book as The Repetitive Beat Generation. Has the hedonism and internationalist optimism of that decade given way to something else?

JK: If you look at those novels that came out in the late-90s and early-2000s – written by people in their thirties or thereabouts – they were serious works, showed life behind the gloss of New Labour and the Smiley grins. They drew on foundations that came from the 70s and 80s. It was rare for these novels to be covered properly at the time. Certainly not by the larger magazines and newspapers. What happened was that the cultural aspects – music, drugs, football, youth culture in general – were focused on and the ideas ignored. But luckily the readers understood them, which was the important thing.

The Repetitive Beat Generation book was put together by a really nice bloke called Steve Redhead. The beat in question was as much to do with William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac as the music, as a lot of those featured were interested in American literature. I certainly was – the energy of Kerouac and the cut-ups of Burroughs (if not always the stories), and more than them the prose of Charles Bukowski and Hubert Selby Jr, the journalism of Hunter S. Thompson, and then John and Dan Fante, the short stories of Thom Jones. There was a strength and freedom about their writing that was hard to find here.

There was a sense of optimism in the 90s, but I’m not sure how far it stretched, and the writers who emerged then reflected that. There are a lot of new pressures now, largely caused by global business interests and the stripping back of the public sector. Even so, I see lots of things to be optimistic about at a human level. Those in their teens and twenties may be depoliticised to an extent, but the ones I know are proper, decent people. They are more clued-up than they are given credit for as well, but under the cosh. Problem is, the Eton Rifles are back in control, and this time they have InterZone to back them up.

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3:AM: Several of your novels seem concerned with the idea of a ‘golden thread’ running through the generations – is that what drove you to do London Books and the Human Punk nights?

JK: I think I look at time as more of a circle than a straight line. Some people are very fixed, section their lives off, but I have never been that way. I do find it interesting how things change, but also how they repeat. People’s problems remain the same. I’ve always liked social history, listening to stories. That’s a big part of our education, really. What shapes us. So it feeds into what I do, makes the experience of writing exciting.

Tricky and DJ Shadow do this with their music, in a way. Create something new out of what has gone before. Yet it is timeless. Circles in on itself. Those two albums from the 90s – Tricky’s Maxinquaye and Shadow’s Endtroducing – are incredible. Not optimistic maybe, but very moving. I saw DJ Shadow twice at The Forum. First time he was remixing and banging his drum pads in a giant pod, with these brilliant graphics, and that is one of the best gigs I have ever seen. Then he did a sort of history lesson from his record collection. I have never been into funk, but it took me back to the local soulboys of the late-70s. Those albums are basically Burroughs and Bowie working with a sampler.

With the London Classics, the novels we republish are so vividly written it is like they slice through time. Uncensored stories based in a London that is long-gone and not recorded in the same way anywhere else. For instance, May Day by John Sommerfield is a huge book in terms of its ambition and what the author achieved. James Curtis delivers dialogue that anyone who reads it is going to love for the way it flows and his use of slang. These are novels from the 1930s, yet the style of writing has barely aged. The London Classics are a lot of work, but very rewarding. It is part of our tradition.

The Human Punk nights at the 100 Club work because we mix new bands with established ones who are recording fresh music and on top of their game. We have put on the likes of Knock Off, Skurvi, Morgellons as supports. Headlined with the Cockney Rejects, Ruts DC, The Last Resort and Sham 69. The audience is a mix of ages. I love it. And I do like these threads, it’s true. I got into reading some science-fiction a while back and was reminded how the authors concerned were really writing about the future to explain the present, and that really made sense. And so I gave it a go with The Liberal Politics of Adolf Hitler.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Andrew Stevens is senior editor of 3:AM and lives in London.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, May 23rd, 2016.