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Slow Politics: An Interview With Dan Kieran

Charlotte Stretch interviews Dan Kieran (Crap Towns and deputy editor of The Idler) about his latest, I Fought The Law.

There’s a strange shift in mood taking place in your local bookshop. Since 2003, shelves have been awash with humour-based chronicles of all things crap in our society. Dan Kieran is (at least in part) the man responsible for this phenomenon. Crap Towns, which he co-edited (along with Sam Jordison) four years ago, is a hilarious catalogue of the fifty worst places to live in the UK. Spawning countless imitators and enraging local councils everywhere, it quickly became the publishing event of the year.

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With his latest book, however, Kieran has turned his socially-focused attentions to the issue of civil liberties. I Fought the Law is just as witty and warm as anything you might expect from Kieran, but he is tackling some serious stuff here. He’s taking a long hard look at the protest culture in Britain, uncovering bits of legislation that range from the unfair to the illogical to the downright terrifying.

As I go to meet Kieran in the centre of London (crap town number seventeen), I am not sure what to expect. This is a man who hung out with angry protesters and tried to get himself arrested, who has thus far dedicated a sizeable portion of his writing career exposing all that is crap in our country.

In the flesh, Kieran is just as friendly and likeable as he comes across in his writing. He speaks passionately about everything he has learned while writing this book, but I never feel lectured to – just fascinated. Even though Kieran has obviously injected much of his personality into I Fought The Law, readers’ opinions have nonetheless diverged wildly. “I tried to be really honest. But some people said, ‘I never knew you were so right)wing,’ and other people said, ‘I never knew you were a socialist.’ I had anarchists telling me, ‘Yeah, good for you – speaking up for the anarchists.’”

In the course of striking a variety of chords with an even bigger variety of readers, Kieran hopes that his book will reach beyond Idler stalwarts. “My brother read it – for no real reason other than he’s my brother – but he was reading it and going, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe this!’”

The book often defies expectations, particularly in its determination to sidestep the frivolity of Kieran’s writing elsewhere. “When you look at the cover you imagine it’s just going to be a silly stunt book but then once you start reading it you realise that it’s far more serious than it seems. So many people read it and said, ‘It’s the book I’d read but [judging by the cover] I wouldn’t buy it.’ It’s not a Christmas-friendly gift title, in short; although Kieran admits that this was nearly the case. “It started off as just a humour book, but then it became something a bit more serious. The publishers were great – the cover was done, and I had to say, ‘Look, this has turned into this other type of book.’ And luckily, they loved it.”

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Actually, it’s not hard to see the origins of that other book. Like Kieran’s brother I was often in shock while reading, but for the rest of the time I was in fits of laughter. More significantly for someone who hasn’t read a book about politics since being force-fed Marx at university, I took it all in. “I wanted to keep it accessible,” explains Kieran. “I described in pretty basic terms what democracy is, and I really thought the publisher would say to me, ‘You can’t put that in.’ But I thought it was really important.”

It’s a fair point. One of the issues raised by Kieran in the book is the tendency to accept everything we are told by the media; perhaps, after everything we read in newspapers, we need someone like Kieran to be basic, as well as objective. It’s obvious, as he talks about the book, that he believes firmly in questioning everything he hears in the news, and in finding his own answers. He remains dismissive of certain things which, relatively speaking, simply aren’t likely to affect us. Statistically, as Kieran tells us in I Fought the Law, you are more at risk from a flight of stairs than a terrorist. “Terrorism, to be honest, is just not that big a threat,” he says. “And yet entire laws change because of it. One of the best things [about writing the book] was finding Indymedia, a collective news website, who print things that you never read in the papers. These things do happen, but you never hear about it. I want to read about these stories, but you just don’t get them.”

He goes on to tell me a story about his friend, which neatly illustrates his point. “My friend was protesting, and the police got their cuffs out. He said, “You don’t need to cuff me, I’ll come with you,” but they were basically very forceful; he was manhandled to the ground when he was offering no resistance to the arrest. When he made a complaint about the way he was treated back at Charing Cross police station, the Police replied by instantly accusing him of assaulting a Police Officer. The only reason he wasn’t found guilty of doing that was because someone happened to have filmed his arrest. If it hadn’t been filmed then in court it would simply have been his word against the Police Officer who claimed he’d been assaulted. If they hadn’t had that tape and if Steve had been found guilty of that offence he’d have been sent to prison. Needless to say the complaint about his own violent arrest was ignored by the police even though there was film evidence of it.”

It’s a horrifying anecdote, and one that makes his own mission to be arrested all the more awe-inspiring. Was he ever frightened of the prospect? Kieran confesses that he was, but goes on to reveal that his thwarted ambition has become “one of the biggest regrets, really.”

“I got a big placard with a great Tony Blair quote, and I was going to stand there reading the book, and that was going to be my launch,” he explains. “BBC London news, London Tonight and Newsnight were going to come and film it, which meant that I had to do it – I couldn’t get out of it. But then the day we were supposed to have it, something really important happened in Northern Ireland and they called to say, ‘We can’t get there, can you do it tomorrow?’ But the story moved on, and it just never happened, and I always wondered – did I not do it just because I bottled it? That was a really big regret – I always felt that I should have done it.”

There’s still hope, of course. The paperback version will be released soon with an added chapter, “because so many people read it and said, ‘Why didn’t you say anything about the NHS?’.” It seems typical of Kieran not to be able to contain his passion and enthusiasm. Even now, he can’t resist mentioning this new chapter without sharing some of his astonishing research with me. “It’s all about hitting your targets. They can’t put them [patients] in corridors anymore; they can only be put in wards. So they renamed the corridor into ‘The Whatever Ward’, and suddenly they’ve hit their targets.”

After this, Kieran will be slowing down – literally. “My next book is really different – it’s me and my friends travelling from Lowestoft, which is the furthest point east, to Lands End, which is the furthest point west, on a milk float. It’s called Three Men in a Float, because Jerome K Jerome was editor of the Idler.” It sounds like an epic odyssey, but Kieran insists that such languidness is the point, and should be so for any journey. “I’m really into slow travel – I don’t think there’s any excuse for flying to Paris. I want people to see that travelling by train or whatever is sometimes better. Helping the environment should just be a bonus.”

It’s hard to reconcile the two images: an arrest-baiting protester and a contented milk-float-traveller, and for some time after our interview I wonder if the voice of dissent is gone for good. A couple of days later, I get an email from him with the subject heading, “Evil Facebook” which picks apart the site’s privacy policy. He might be getting there slowly, but Dan Kieran’s remarkable and essential revolution shows no signs of stopping.

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ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Charlotte Stretch lives in Brixton where she is a freelance writer and an editor of 3:AM. She is currently working on her first novel.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, November 14th, 2007.