Tokyo Bloodbath: Stanley Manly Interviewed
Interview by Richard Marshall.
SM: I’ve been writing since I was a student and I got heavily involved in the alternative humour comic business from the mid-eighties until most of it ran its course in the mid-nineties. I wrote for all of them, mainly the copywriting, lunatic articles, readers’ letters and the like, and it occurred to me fairly early on you could write novels like that. Raiders of the Low Forehead came from that idea. I punted it round everywhere without a sniff for years. It was the first book I tried to write, but by the time I got a deal I’d already had five others published. It had been to Creation Press twice and got knocked back both times so when Swells rang me without warning; it was completely unexpected. I got back home one night and my wife said: ‘Someone called Steven Wells rang’ our paths had crossed a little and I remember thinking what the fuck does he want? He’d found Raiders in a pile of manuscripts at Creation, so despite rejecting it they’d never got round to throwing it away. The story he told me was that somebody there said to him, ‘If there’s anything in that pile of shit over there you want, you can have it.’
3:AM: The book itself is a pure example of avant-pulp. How do you regard it? Have you views about the book and the whole Attack! thing changed over time? It seemed strong at the time, and I thought it would spawn loads of new things, but I’m not sure that’s happened. Did you expect anything to happen from Attack!, not just personally but more broadly, in fiction writing etc?
SM: I dunno quite what it is but if you reckon it’s ‘pure avant-pulp’ I’ll go with that. It was much simpler to write than people think, I wrote the kind of thing I’d love to read. I really liked the idea of turning every chapter into a short story and giving them a theme – sex, violence, food – so you could read it like a magazine and just line up 15 shags, 15 fights or 15 good feeds. The Times rated it a ‘bestial vision’ of humanity, which is about right.
Beyond that, it isn’t simple. I’d say my views of both the book and Attack! have changed a lot. In terms of the book, it’s true to the punk attitude but I’m one of those odd creatures who likes to watch a band develop. I’m glad the Sex Pistols didn’t spend the next three years trying to remake Never Mind the Bollocks. Even if some of them went on to record shite and/or advertise butter, I think it matters to move on and try things. Looking back, I wouldn’t have wanted to have spent years reprising Raiders. I thought more things would come of Attack! than actually did arise. Personally I coped okay because I had a few other things going on that kept me busy. As I understood it Attack! crashed for fairly understandable business reasons. Had we had a PR agency fronting it they’d have probably put it down to ‘literary differences’ though it was the standard ‘who’s gonna pay for this shit?’ kind of questions that did for us all in the end. I’d been round the houses a few times before all of that happened so I knew that kind of trouble for what it was. Sad, but if you can’t stand the heat…
I’m grateful Attack! had the success it did and I’m grateful for the fact I got one book out with them. It’s one of those odd things I’ve done that stand up on their own merits. The thing I love about that book is the way it got close to the way I’d imagined it, something that Workington Dynamo also managed. One night, knowing I was out, a fairly broad-minded mate of mine who knows his Bukowski, Kerouac and the rest really well rang my wife and said; ‘Don’t you worry about him?’ My wife’s a psychotherapist so she knows mental health problems inside out. I knew if I’d had that effect on someone who could handle his literature, I’d written something good. So Attack! gave me that priceless moment when no other publisher would. I bought that mate a copy of Tits-Out Terror Totty, don’t think he read it though.
Regarding the broad legacy of Attack! that’s probably the thing that disappoints me most. I wouldn’t say I expected things to happen but they should have. I think the internet has been a mixed blessing in this regard. It’s opened up the chance of an audience to anyone prepared to stick at writing, but it’s also undermined the business of bringing on talent. You can see it in the music industry which is struggling like hell, and to a lesser extent in print, where the ‘new and exciting’ talents are sometimes fairly safe bets and the more extreme writers are struggling to escape the net and/or self-publishing.
On the other hand if you want subversive and inventive ideas that spread and engage, the internet wipes the floor with fiction publishing. Sites like deadpools in particular crack me up and give me faith that we’ll never run out of lateral thinking and creativity. In a roundabout way I’d say operations like that have got a touch of avant-pulp about them.
3:AM: Class is a big element of your writing: are there writers who you admire because of their understanding of class? Is making the working class visible in contemporary lit important to you and are there models you follow?
SM: Not sure I totally agree with your basic premise there, so answering this is a toughie. Though, sometimes the feedback you get from others, especially those who know only your work is a really useful insight. So maybe I’m just in denial about the class thing. I remember my dad once saying to me, with regard to my writing, ‘what are you so angry about?’ I hadn’t really seen it that way. I mean, angry in a general sense that the planet is probably fucked, life is basically unfair and most of what we’re told about life having meaning may well be complete shite… but my dad was cynical about that stuff too and we’d both cope with it the same way, by having a sick old laugh at the worst of it.
So with regard to the class stuff, I’d say I write characters who see the shit for what it is, learn to trust each other and get somewhere because of it. It might be a traditional working class coping strategy, but it’s not exclusively that. Pretentious as it sounds, bringing out a person’s dignity and experience is important to me more than making the working class visible. For example, I did a radio play that got optioned as a film script, an odd story in which The Beatles never made it, Lennon survives into old age and we follow him from the end of the last century to around his 70th birthday as he struggles to get some belated recognition for his talents. The radio and film scripts are fairly honest about his middle-class background and cast him in that way. They focus on a human issue, the one of the element of chance in being discovered. Fairness, honesty and aiming for the things you want matter more to me than class, though I’ll cop for the fact they’re often working class concerns more than concerns of others.
Regarding writers, I like people with a voice and a vision so I certainly rate some like Richard Milward and Michael Smith, as in the Giro Playboy, guys who celebrate working class culture. Some of my other favourites are miles from them though, I love Kurt Vonnegut for his humanity and the sympathetic way he treats very unsympathetic characters, I think Mother Night is up there with his very best for that reason, and I go back to John Steinbeck for the same reasons and again I think there’s a hugely under-rated masterpiece there in Tortilla Flat. I guess some of the others I can go back to repeatedly might be heresy in 3:AM but I’ll cop for Basho and Richard Brautigan as favourite authors. Brautigan despite the self-indulgence and his hippy audience because his brevity, humour and the meditative qualities really grab me. I think the hippy favourites — like in Watermelon Sugar — are probably over-rated but some of his more genre oriented stuff, like The Hawkline Monster are favourites. I don’t care if it sounds pretentious, I reckon Basho — Japanese Buddhist haiku poet and contemporary of Shakespeare — drips wisdom, shows that less is more and still gives me something new whenever I read his work.
3:AM: The humour is broad and in your face — this seems kind of like stand-up. Swells was a ranting poet before he settled down to writing: have you links with that? Are there stand-ups in your kneck of the woods you admire — or any others?
SM: Did Swells ever really settle down? I hope not. I think he had the same thing as me where at least one part of his brain was forever a bubbling cesspit. Other people struggle to understand sometimes that you can have that about you and still be compassionate, professional and the rest.
I’ve never really stopped writing humour and I’ve always tended towards stuff that makes others wince, not because I’m out to shock but because I rate that as funny, so I’m true to my own vision of it. I still get stuff knocked back on the basis that ‘we can’t do that.’ I had this idea for a comedy sketch recently. You don’t see anything disgusting and it’s a spoof ad for an opticians. A middle-aged bloke raves about his new glasses but it becomes obvious that he’s a porno cameraman and he’d hit trouble one day shooting a film where they’d combined a granny and a badger. When the action started the cameraman couldn’t tell where one started and the other finished. Obviously the new glasses sorted everything. I just loved the grossness of the idea, but it’s unlikely to be coming to a screen near you any day soon!
I did loads of stuff for alternative humour comics, like Viz and I did write for one stand-up, and send things to others, so I spent years watching comics in clubs. The ones I loved, then and now, are those who tend not to pull the punches. So I remember years ago almost choking because I was laughing so much at Mark Thomas. Uncool as it is, I’ve seen Billy Connolly a lot, he’s like some prog-rock behemoth these days, in that it’s easy to knock his money and the large-scale stuff he does, but I really admire him. People tend to forget that like some prog bands, he set out and did things that weren’t being done by others and there was no expectation it would grow to the current scale. So he had some neck, respect for that.
3:AM: One of the elements most noticeable in your writing is the focus on Up North. Swells was further south than you but still from Yorkshire — I take it you’re still living Workington way? Mark Manning was Leeds. There is a sense of regional pride coupled with an awareness of a North/South divide which is reflected in writing generally but in a deeper sense too, as just being the case in modern UK. How far do you think there is this divide and, at the moment as the credit crunch kicks in, what ways do you see a particularly northern response, if any? I was shocked when one of my local towns — Barnsley — voted in the BNP. What’s that about?
SM: There is a sense of regional pride coupled with an awareness of a North/South divide which is reflected in writing generally but in a deeper sense too, as just being the case in modern UK: spot on, I agree.
Regarding the rest: I’ve been resident DOWN SOUTH for years, so I love it when people think I’m not. I still hang with my Cumbrian comrades, mind, frequently by way of pre-match pints before the – usually – apocalyptic horror of another Carlisle United away game. I’m writing this as the club is obviously in financial trouble and League One is offering a lot of southern games to worryingly good teams, like Southampton and Charlton, who’ll be out to prove their presence in the league is an aberration. As a nation, we’re all more likely to move for work than previous generations, so it has to be true that identity is more a state of mind than it used to be. If there’s a particularly northern response to the credit crunch that I’ve noticed it’s a combination of the ‘Y-E-E-E-S-S!!!’ factor as another fat cat faces jail or ruin, and the kind of grim humour that has always helped the downtrodden.
Barnsley and the BNP, obvious innit? Where people feel threatened you can whip them up into short-term defensive actions, like voting BNP. The extreme parties have die-hard supporters who’ll vote when the rest of the fickle cases pack it in because they’re sick of the whole bloody lot. I could bore you with a run in I once had with the National Front who had a fairly active membership in a factory I once worked in, a right story of reason colliding with die-hard opinions. But I won’t.
3:AM: Politics was a big thing for Swells, how far is it true for you? Any thoughts about where we are politically at the moment? Do you go with the idea that hard times brings about good art or is that too glib?
SM: It probably is a bit glib about the hard times and good art, though there are some factors people overlook. Like the fact anyone taking a punt on an author, band, film etc would have to be pretty bloody certain if the market was crashing all around them, so you’d sign massive talent like the Stone Roses in 2009 and tell Kula Shaker to fuck off! Politics, especially party politics, isn’t much of a thing for me. More by accident than design I’ve spent almost all of my life in safe Conservative seats, meaning I’ve never yet voted for a British parliamentary candidate who won. Always vote, mind. As to where we are; cynical, lacking leadership and holding a lower opinion of politicians than I can ever remember, which doesn’t give me any satisfaction.
3:AM: There’s a big gap between your Workington Dynamo book and Raiders. Why the long wait? Did it take that long to write or what?
SM: The Wukkie book was written in 2000. The original plan was to place a novel called Tokyo Bloodbath 2002 in the third wave of Attack! books but that went tits-up with everything else. I discussed it with Swells and he’d seen whole chunks of the work. From that point on the story becomes tiresome but the gist is I’d got 60,000+ words down when they told us all Attack! was dead in the water. I finished the first part of the novel and that’s the work now out as Workington Dynamo, there’s a sequel half-written in which that bunch of non-league cloggers go on to represent England in the World Cup, by which point Dougie Grimton, the hero of Workington Dynamo is their chairman. I sat on the first book until such time as any agreement would have expired and then looked around to get it published. By this time I was doing totally different work and my agent couldn’t get a sniff. In the end the one thing I changed was the title, it had been called Ruck! northern slang for ‘fight’. I changed the title to Workington Dynamo and got it out as a local book.
3:AM: Dynamo is a great read. How’s it gone down in Workington? Are there characters in it that are recognisable from real life despite the madness?
SM: All the reaction I have had from Wukkie is positive, and it’s shifted a few via amazon around the world, because lots of West Cumbrians emigrate, or join the army. Having said that, the sales are still in three figures. Reading isn’t big in Wukkie. In fact the place still has a smack of the 70s about it, the one gay pub is conveniently out of town near the docks, not far from the area Kelly plies her trade as a prossie in the book.
Regarding the characters, not really too many real life cases in there. Put it this way, all my female cousins hold down respectable jobs and pay tax! It’s pretty true to life regarding West Cumbrian attitudes, and the quality of the local football, mind.
3:AM: Stewart Home got very pissed off when everyone took him for being a yob writer when actually his books are very carefully constructed. Is this something that you’re aware of, that people might miss the craft in what you’re doing? Home thought the response to him was another example of snob cultural elitism. Is this something you’re aware of?
SM: How the fuck do I answer that, say yes and I’m up myself, say no and I admit I’m thick. I don’t think I take myself anywhere near as seriously as Stewart Home, I certainly don’t have a wiki page or website chronicling the responses to situations in my working life. I tend to leave the arguments about the careful construction of my work to the times when I’m arguing my way into writing jobs. It’s less about an evolving body of work for me and more about the ‘work,’ end of. So one of the things I’ve always enjoyed is pitching some project that looks ridiculous and then savouring that moment when we get the money and everyone looks at each other and says: ‘now what do we do?’ That’s the point at which I seem best able to sort it. There’s craft and skill in those moments, and I’ve learned a lot working that way.
I’m open to taking on board what people tell me about my writing. Since some of my most ambitious stuff has been about football, and attempting to take elements of football memoir to areas little covered, I get lots of feedback. People who love it seek me out and email me. People who hate it go on message boards and tell the world. I take both sets of comments on board.
Regarding your man Stewart, I’ve been exposing my undergraduate students to a chunk of 69 Things to do With a Dead Princess for years, and suggesting they visit the man’s website. It sure as hell gets a reaction, though to date I don’t think he’s sold a single book to any of my students, which disappoints me.
3:AM: I believe you’re a lecturer in your day job. Were the students you taught your potential audience when you wrote the book? How have they responded?
SM: Yeah, I still run the university course in Professional Writing I founded 10 years ago. I’ve road-tested the odd thing in front of students, though I wouldn’t say ‘students’ in general are a recognisable audience, and as a rule my students respond to my work in mixed ways. In general I think they relate to the fact I’ve done a range of things because that gives some credibility to my claims I can help them, beyond that I don’t think they acquaint themselves with every word, but some of them follow things up and I get a range of responses. So Stewart Home can take some pride in the fact he’s one of the few writers I’ve ever known who has produced a uniform reaction from most of our undergraduates.
3:AM: You’ve a book about the World Cup that’s not yet published. Care to say something about what it’s about and who might be interested?
SM: The gist of the story: an almighty corporate row leaves England in World Cup limbo, the country has qualified but none of the professional players can go. Workington Dynamos – under the astute chairmanship of Dougie Grimton – step in to represent their country and take their brand of brutal clogging to the world stage. There’s a sub-plot about terrorism focused on the finals and the whole thing ends in a massive calamity at the final. It’s pulp, grimly funny, so an arty/ literary publisher could defend it, although not everyone would believe them if they did. But it’d also go with a more general publisher. I can’t see Penguin ringing my agent to make us an offer we can’t refuse.
3:AM: Swells wanted Attack! to do to writing what punk had done to music. What kind of music are you into? Are you in a band? What kind of relationship have you had with punk, and music generally, over the years, and does it influence what you write about in any way?
SM: Music I’m into: just about everything bar jazz funk and jungle. Seriously, I go through phases where I pack in one type of music for a week. This will horrify most of your readers but I’ve gone all seventies disco this week, stuff I fucking hated back in the day, but I’ve been writing whilst listening to some respectable sounds, like Chic and Odyssey and some stuff generally agreed to stink, like Andrea True, who was a porn star before and after her disco stuff by the way, and made one of the worst punky albums ever. There’s something almost gloriously gormless about her clunking disco, writing with her on in the background was effortless. It’d be tragic to sit down in a darkened room and listen to that stuff, mind.
A couple of weeks back I took Never Mind the Bollocks into work and played it for about half a day, it struck me as having better melodies than I remembered. I love post-punk more than punk itself and I play that a lot, I’m still hunting down and discovering some of that and I’m big on the growing internet presence of old John Peel shows from that era which has put stuff like old Bogshed sessions within easy reach. I love 6 Music’s ‘Freakzone’ too, they play some complete tossers and under-rated visionaries, but it’s anyone’s guess which is which. My relationship with music has been lifelong, and I can’t see me ever giving up on trying to find new stuff, unless I go deaf.
Am I in a band? No, I was, we were shit, end of. My young ‘un is a bass player, like I was, and his band aren’t half bad. So that’s some consolation.
3:AM: Swells’s death has been widely covered and it’s been amazing how many people have come out and said how influential and brilliant they thought he was. Have you anything you’d like to add to what’s been said about him from your perspective?
SM: A couple of things; I agree with most of the positive comments I’ve seen.
Secondly, he had a truly pragmatic side and he’d have got a lot less achieved if he’d been all attitude and principles. As an example, we needed to talk business once he’d got the Attack! contracts drawn up, I was wall to wall with work and young kid, he was the same, minus the kid. My one bit of space in a fortnight was a Carlisle game at Southend, Swells agreed to meet up at Liverpool Street, we talked business on the train, and saw Carlisle win. That’s a man with a realistic side. I can’t imagine too many editors doing that, but we had a decent day out of it.
3:AM: Do you have any sense of the health of the arts generally to respond to the many different problems facing us all at the moment? Is there anything that gives you a bit of hope, not counting your own stuff of course!?
SM: In terms of the health of the arts, I’d say by the old definitions they’re not in great shape. Lots of reasons feed that but one huge problem is the way so many operations have come to rely on public funding and it’s being cut to pieces as money goes to the Olympics.
The thing that gives me the most hope is the way I see my undergraduates achieving things and finding ways round pretty much every barrier put in their way. We recruit about half the course from ‘mature’ students and their resourcefulness amazes me. Things are set up on our course so students will fail if they don’t manage to do something approaching real work. We’ve never seen one fail for lack of real work and my teaching on the course includes working with them on sorting their placements and pitches. Sometimes we’re honing submissions so they’ll be taken seriously, other times we’re shamelessly blagging, but both of those — and everything in between — gives me hope because no amount of funding cuts will stop people wanting to get a result. I think at grassroots level there’s as much creativity and ambition as ever, more so in some ways because people are more willing to take risks when they can’t see a regular job offering itself. I think there will be a lot more use of cheap technology to launch a range of work and people will get even more savvy about using the internet, local media and the rest to publicise themselves in the future.
3:AM: Finally, Stewart Home likes a good whiskey: what’s your particular poison?
SM: I’d be a hypocrite to recommend anything since I was teetotal for a couple of decades, no bullshit! I still put away less in a month than serious drinkers do in a good session. My equivalent of Home’s whisky is probably the hit I get hammering along on one of my bikes. I definitely got to the point years ago where I felt dishonest if I didn’t exercise. I’ve got over that now, but it’s still unwind/thinking time for me to go off for an hour or two and break sweat.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Richard Marshall is contributing editor to 3:AM and lives in London.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, July 17th, 2009.