A CUNNING LINGUIST - 69 THINGS TO DO WITH STEWART HOME
"It's not a problem in the States for people to understand that there is more than one style of English language writing that can be worked at, but here it's a problem. The critics think that if you're not making these failed attempts at metaphor then you're not trying. They appear incapable of imagining that I choose to write as I do. The critics here seem to think I can't control my writing. But actually writing in a stripped-down way is a discipline, because you've got to make sure it's not baggy and you' re not repeating yourself too much within a sentence. And with every sentence you're paring it down. You're thinking - I want 20 to 30 word sentences. So there's a certain discipline in there. With this Dead Princess it's like Come Before Christ and Murder Love, it hasn't got that pulp narrative and basically it's written from the perspective of a disintegrating personality"
Richard Marshall interviews Stewart Home
COPYRIGHT © 2002, 3 A.M. MAGAZINE. ALL RIGHTS
3AM: OK, let's talk about your recent German tour.
SH: I was over there because Edition Nautilus have just published a German
translation of Blow Job. They'd already done Pure Mania and Defiant Pose, so
this is my third novel to be translated into German. I did a reading in
Zurich in the Paranoia City Bookshop, which was nice. It's a cool place. I'd
been there before in '95, the last time I did a tour for Nautilus. The last
tour was a long one with about twenty dates. This time I only went to
Zurich, Mainz, Hamburg and Berlin. I didn't want to do a big tour this time,
they get a bit exhausting. I've got a great publisher in Hamburg who put out
a lot of left-communist material, for example the works of Franz Jung who
interfaced with Berlin Dada, and they do a lot of classic avant-garde
material from Dadaism and Surrealism through to the Situationists, so my
writing fits in quite well within that list. This time I was in Germany and
Switzerland for about 10 days, I did a few interviews, stayed in a nice
three star hotel in Mainz. The accommodation in Mainz was brilliant, a kind
of 80's Modernist hotel with coloured hammers on the carpet in these
multicoloured swirls, real 80's décor, it was fantastic. I just wanted to
stay in my room. It was a shame I had to go out and do a reading. When I was
in Switzerland I stayed in Basle because my translator lives there. So we
just went to Zurich for the day to do the reading and various press
interviews, then back to Basle. It was pretty relaxed. We took a train to
Mainz, then I went up to Hamburg on my own. My publishers have access to
this house on the Elbe up in the posh suburbs of Hamburg, so I stayed there
in the millionaire's ghetto. I had a long weekend there, sitting in the
garden drinking beers and watching the huge ships pass by as they went in
and out of Hamburg harbour. I like to combine my work with a kind of
permanent holiday, and this last German trip worked out very well on that
score. Berlin is always good. In Berlin met up with Darius James whose
originally from New York but now based there, his novel Negrophobia is a
masterpiece. Berlin provided me with the chance to catch up with old
friends. It was particularly good to see Darius because they last time I'd
seen him had been in New York in '95.
3AM: Did you get a sense of anything happening over there?
SH: I was talking to people like Christoph Fringeli from Praxis Records
about what was happening here. He used to be based in London and I went to a
lot of the party nights he used to do in Brixton. He moved to Berlin because
there are very cheap rents there in Berlin, and you've got a sense of a
bigger political scene - a Left dissident thing. However, everything is
factionalised and I got a sense that since the Wall came down, the energy
the city used to have has dissipated a little. People are living all over
and having to travel quite long distances to get to events. It was always
the city to rival London as the big European city before the Wall went up,
and when you had the Wall up there was a kind of contained scene - lots of
people moved to West Berlin from all over Germany to avoid military
service - whereas now you've the cheap rents and space, but the intensity of
the scene has dissipated a little even though there is a lot going on. I
read at a place called Café Berger which is run by a guy called Bert
Papenfass - a former East German dissident, but not the kind of dissident
that the Western media liked - they preferred right-wingers like
Solzhenitsyn. Bert is a really interesting guy. I'd corresponded with him
before. He was an East German Left Communist who opposed the capitalist
regime of the Bolsheviks from a Communist perspective - you know, against
the rhetoric of Communism but the reality of Capitalism under the GDR. He
writes these incredibly dense poems about German history which I find quite
hard to follow - he sends me stuff in translation - but some of my German
friends have said 'Don't worry, they're brilliant but even Germans find them
difficult!' So it was really nice to meet Bert because he's translated some
of my writing in Left Communist publications like Sklaven. When I was on in
Mainz the guy who put me on had previously put me on in '95 in Munster, and
the owner of Paranoid City had put me on in a big hall in Zurich in '95.
Last time I went in the winter, literary things are done on a smaller scale
in the summer. However, I liked that as it made everything more relaxed.
Mainly I was meeting people I'd already met or meeting people I'd been in
correspondence with, so I didn't particularly get a feeling of something new
happening, it was more a case that I found that what I'd found interesting
before in Germany and Switzerland was still there
3AM: This was all pre September 11th wasn't it?
SH: Yes. I've been to Stockholm since September 11th. People were talking
about the Twin Towers but not with the rampant paranoia you find in the
South East of England, and probably more so in, not New York, but say San
Diego. I guess the further you are from it within the USA, the more paranoia
there seems to be about it. I view England as an American state in all but
name, which I guess is why you get paranoia about it here too. People in
Stockholm didn't seem to have any support for any US military atrocities in
Afghanistan. I get the same feeling here in London actually, which I don't
consider to be a part of England. I'm too young to have been alive to
remember it but it seems similar to the feeling I get about Suez, people are
just putting up with it thinking that this is a pile of shit. But there's
quite a strong anti-war movement - it's noticeably more impressive than
against Kosovo or the Gulf War. It's a much bigger thing. So that's made me
feel more hopeful. I just don't come across anyone who supports US military
atrocities in London, which is quite incredible. I don't think anyone
believes anything the US military or politicians say, and particularly what'
s being said by scum like Tony Blair. They keep claiming to have found the
proof of an Afghani connection, but every time they say they've finally
uncovered this proof it means they were lying the last time they said it. I
guess they just want bigger and better lies to go with their bigger and
better bombs. First they said they had the proof before the bombing, and now
they're saying they've got the proof after the bombing. You can't believe a
single thing that the Blair/Bush axis of stupidity is saying. So I get the
feeling that there is no support form American and British military
atrocities. Which isn't to say that I don't have a critique of terrorism.
For a start it's vanguardism, when what's needed is a mass movement. What
happened in New York was terrible, but that doesn't justify anything else.
And that was certainly the feeling I got in Sweden and Germany. There was no
support for American atrocities any more than there was support for the
atrocities committed in New York.
3AM: What do you think about what's happening in London?
SH: I can't imagine what it's like being young here now. When I was twenty four
back in the eighties, I got my first council flat. You couldn't get a
council flat anywhere now if you're an able bodied single guy, let alone in
inner London like I did. It's just very hard now. Property prices are
insane. I was in Sheffield last week doing at talk at the Showroom and there
was a screening of The Battle Of Orgreave re-enactment. I can remember all
the miners coming down to London back then, I put one of them up for a while
when I was living in Mile End. It was very odd watching this re-enactment.
The screening was mainly for the miners, because I wasn't on the list, I
just sneaked in at the back once the organisers had stopped checking who was
coming in. Jeremy Deller got up to speak and did this quite odd
introduction, where he basically apologised for the boring first two thirds
of the film which showed people who were in the audience giving their views
on Orgreave and the miners strike. This included a lot of salient political
points. There were criticisms of stuff like the chants used saying it should
have been about 'the Workers United' not just 'the Miners'. There were
people like Dave Douglas - who was never identified within the film as being
a long term member of Class War - making these comments about how this was a
chance for the left to put down their papers and actually get involved!
Classic rhetoric from where he was came from in terms of political
membership! Dave Douglas was presented as an NUM official and historian of
miners, which is true but it is important to understand he was also a Class
War militant. The whole presentation was rather curious because Jeremy
Deller is very much someone who wants to be on the right side and have his
heart in the right place, but the implication of what he was saying was:
'Well, you're just a bunch of working class guys so you won't be interested
in the political commentary,' which I thought was unbelievably insulting. It
became apparent during the course of the film that the miners were paid to
do the re-enactment. Some of the guys, these former miners, were shot
playing the role of the cops. Which is pretty weird. The guys from the
re-enactment society were saying that they were trying to make it as
accurate as possible. But everyone in the re-enactment were supposed to be
seventeen years younger than they actually were. By using people from the
event they were re-enacting, the average age was pushed way up. It was a
really strange thing - you know, I'm not big on Freud or Lacan but it was
like repetition as a way of failing to deal with trauma - and I was looking
at this stuff thinking: 'What the hell do these guys think about being paid
to do this?' They were talking about how they'd gone into other jobs and I
was thinking, in a way, they got to go away for two days and meet up with a
lot of their old mates which is nice, but at the same time they got paid
£120 for casualised labour, and surely losing the strike is why they don't
have secure jobs any longer. That was never dealt with in the film and that
really brought home to me what a different time we're living in. I think
even in the mid-90's you still had, even if it was only on a semiotic level,
a resistance to Thatcherism and the Tories but now with Blair it's all gone,
there's a realisation that those times have passed. In a lot of ways that's
a good thing because people realise that you have to organise in slightly
different ways . The fact that there is no support for the atrocities in
Afghanistan is fantastic and there are new kinds of ways in which opposition
is being built. That gives me hope. I've never been in Germany long enough
to really notice the changes there, but I did get - certainly in Berlin - a
feeling of a bigger Left scene.
3AM: Is this how your books land? Are they seen as part of this Left
landscape? How do Germans, Swedes and so on take Blow Job?
SH: I think it depends on who it is. I'm not actually published in Swedish -
I am published in Finland - I'm big in Finland! The Finns have a great sense
of humour. I've been to Malmo in southern Sweden and did an exhibition there
but I'd never done anything in Stockholm before. I've been there when I've
done stuff in Finland, weekend trips, and I was aware of a cult following
there. But the people reading my stuff in Stockholm do so in English. The
guys who came to readings - and it was all guys I noticed - well, the first
stuff people were picking up on was the youth culture thing, which is very
similar to what happened in the UK. I think in Germany there was a little
more room to read where the politics are coming from but as I say, in Sweden
and certainly in Finland it was more the youth culture thing that attracted
readers. It was quite funny in Stockholm where I did this story about a
Whitehouse tribute band, the Rolling Stones of industrial music and my piece
addresses extremism. Whitehouse have these songs like Right To Kill, so I
have this story about the Whitehouse tribute band not doing Right To Kill
because it's too liberal since the notion of rights comes out of the
Enlightenment - you know; 'I have a right to buy a five bedroom house in
Knightsbridge but it's entirely meaningless because I can't afford one.' So
if anyone has a house in Notting Hill they'd like to give me or five or ten
million quid to buy one, contact me.
3AM: We'll launch a campaign.
SH: I'd even accept a reasonably large house in Clerkenwell! Anyway, I do
this jokey story about a tribute band for Whitehouse - and of course part of
the joke is that you wouldn't get a tribute band for Whitehouse - it's hard
to know what their fan-base is, but they're image is predicated on some sort
of authenticity and it's always the same thing that happens when I do this
story in Europe - these industrial boys come up to me and they have to have
this story. Where can they buy this story because it's their kind of thing.
It happens in Sweden and Germany. Whereas in the UK you do the story and
most people haven't got a clue who Whitehouse are even though they were
originally based in London. William Bennett the lead singer is now based in
Edinburgh. That's quite curious. There's this weird way a lot of British
subcultures become much bigger and last much longer in Europe than they do
here. In Germany I'm always meeting nice people from the red skins scene who
want to interview me and they'll ask: 'What do you think of the skinhead
scene in London now?' and I'll say: 'Oh, it's fantastic, it's entirely and
100% a gay skinhead scene.' And then they ask 'What do people on the gay
skinhead scene think of bands like The Oppressed?' and I'll say 'They don't
listen to Oi, they listen to Hi Energy.' These kinds of interviews have been
killing off the youth culture audience for my work in Germany. I have a
somewhat ironic relationship to that scene.
3AM: So tell us about the new book that will eventually be published next
SH: This is a book called 69 Things To Do With A Dead Princess. I actually
finished it sometime in Spring 99. The title caused me a few problems with
publishers. It was considered perhaps not in the best of taste. It doesn't
use a conventional narrative. I've always been interested in the nouveau
roman and repetition as a structuring device. In the earlier books I was
engaging with Baudrillard although then I'd had problems and disagreements
with him, I was till using the notion of simulacrum in the earlier books.
They were an attempt to collapse the entire output of a pulp author - you
know, a massive output, the entire oeuvre, however many books, twenty,
thirty, a hundred whatever it was, into one book. When I went and read
through the entire output of one of these pulp writers I found they'd repeat
sentences, paragraphs, basic plot ideas through each book and to me that was
interesting. On the one hand they were operating under this constraint of
time, because the only way of making money with pulp is to write fast, and
on the other hand when I read all of them together and treated them as one
novel I was basically seeing the same thing from different perspectives
which very much reminded me Claude Simon and Alain Robbe-Grillet. So I was
working with the concept of pulp being the same as the nouveau roman, and I
was trying to make that repetition that occurs through successive pulp
novels readily apparent, by collapsing it into one novel. However, because
of the simulacrum element in my earlier novels which entailed using
narrative, people seemed to think I was trying to write pulp. A lot of
critics thought this. It's hard to judge the non-critics - you end up
sounding like Hegel making distinction between the critic and the more
general reader - but then, I have the critic's opinions in black and white
before me, so that's easier to deal with. A lot of people seemed to miss
what I was doing, and also there's this bizarre thing within the English
trade. If you write in a stripped down journalistic style it is considered
to be an unliterary style and people think you can't write. They don't think
you've actually spent a long time perfecting this very pared down style.
They don't have this problem in America where they have this hard-boiled
tradition. I prefer Jim Thompson to Raymond Chandler but people can
recognise that stripped down writer is writing you have to work at,
regardless of whether they go for Thompson or Chandler, or even Hemmingway.
3AM: You've got Mailer.
SH: Exactly. It's not a problem in the States for people to understand that
there is more than one style of English language writing that can be worked
at, but here it's a problem. The critics think that if you're not making
these failed attempts at metaphor then you're not trying. They appear
incapable of imagining that I choose to write as I do. The critics here seem
to think I can't control my writing. But actually writing in a stripped-down
way is a discipline, because you've got to make sure it's not baggy and you'
re not repeating yourself too much within a sentence. And with every
sentence you're paring it down. You're thinking - I want 20 to 30 word
sentences. So there's a certain discipline in there. With this Dead Princess
it's like Come Before Christ and Murder Love, it hasn't got that pulp
narrative and basically it's written from the perspective of a
disintegrating personality. Which is very Robbe-Grillet to have this
interest in extreme subjective mental states in subjects under stress. Dead
Princess is narrated by a twenty-year-old student at Aberdeen University
called Anna Noon who is studying literature and is going to a lot of Stone
Circles. Aberdeenshire has the greatest concentration of stone circles in
the world. Anna is hanging out with a ventriloquist's dummy and a real or
imaginary older male friend, discussing literature and having bizarre sex.
3AM: With the dummy?
SH: With the dummy.
3AM: You're writing from the point of view of a woman. Is this a way of
getting away from all those boys that chase you around?
SH: Well, I do have some female readers. I meet them more in the UK,
strangely enough. They tend to be a little older than the boys. I think
there was this other problem. When I do readings - like when I was doing
readings to promote the King Mob CDs with Michael Moorcock, Iain Sinclair
and people at the Conway Hall, the critics reviewing it would write about me
as a thug novelist. I'm doing these pieces that are very carefully
constructed and very referential in a simulacrum pulp style and they can't
read that there's this dialectic going on between pulp and highbrow. My
problem is I miss out the middlebrow, which is what the critics count as
literary. Moorcock obviously suffers from similar misreadings. So I've also
had this problem of people thinking that my fiction is autobiographical, a
classic problem of people reading novels as if they're autobiographical.
This was a problem with me being identified as an anarchist, so then I had
to produce all this theoretical work to explain the positions that had been
worked out through the fiction. I was satirising anarchism, I wasn't
endorsing it in my earlier novels. This new novel it's hugely referential.
There are footnotes - an enormous list of books about stone circles, a
bibliography, and I thought that if I wrote in the first person female this
would be interesting and hopefully people won't think that it's
autobiographical. Maybe what I want is a big literary hit so that I can
afford the sex change I've always wanted. The book after that is also
written in the first person female. In that book, a book every paragraph is
exactly 100 words long, and I use a lot of images of prostitution from
classic literary sources. It's completed now, it won an Arts Council Writers
' Award this summer.
3AM: What's this one called?
SH: Either Down And Out in Shoreditch and Hoxton or Love Comes in Spurts.
There's a bit of debate about which title I should use.
3AM: Maybe we should have a competition at 3AM. Get our readers to send in
SH: Good idea. It's trying to use very different kind of voices - it's
hugely sampled. I'm sampling all these narratives written by men as though
they're female prostitutes. It's quite curious. The book is about the
relationship between sex and death, dream and wakefulness, so it's divided
into two parts with this bridge where there's an attempt to fuck this John
to death by all these different women having sex with him. It's set around
Shoreditch and I'm looking at the images of prostitutes in that area, and I'
m examining how the recent gentrification of that area has actually being
pushing prostitutes out. I'm using people like Robert Greene, who are right
at the start of the true crime genre and provide documentation of
prostitution in this area going back at least 400 hundred years and now its
getting squeezed out by gentrification. It's not just the prostitution -
that's just the more visible thing - it's also the light industry and
warehousing that goes on around there. There are a lot of printers in that
area, and you've had a lot of people move in to loft conversations, so you'
ve got these new middle-class residents in what was once a pretty much
industrial area, and then the council estates just off that. I know quite a
few printers in the area - not that I'm using that in the book - I wanted to
use prostitution and get into the 'Is art prostitution?' dialectic question
rather than do the industry thing. However, I've picked up from the printers
that a lot of the businesses are being moved out. Printing's a little bit
noisy and the local presses are having more and more restrictions imposed on
the hours they can work, because the new residents complain about the
disturbance. So they're completely changing the area. Drug dealing is
getting shifted around as well as prostitution. So what happens in the book
is that the prostitution gets forced out of the area - which it hasn't
entirely yet - and what the prostitutes do, is they go and disguise
themselves as female mourners and widows in Tower Hamlets cemetery, and then
the Johns have to disguise themselves as mourners when they want sex. So you
get sex and death very explicitly in this book. The book after that is
called Neither Mask Nor Mirrors: Stewart Home, Double Consciousness, Special
Effects and Fictions of the Self which is written as though it is by this
liberal humanist professor from Wisbeach University - which doesn't exist of
course - and he can't really understand where I'm coming from. So I'm
writing about myself in a critical-parodic fashion. This liberal idiot I'm
impersonating can't understand why I don't support the Labour Party, and how
I can possibly suggest that in the whole debate round The Satanic Verses, a
lot of the liberal supporters of Salman Rushdie were unconsciously racist.
My argument, obviously, is a point I've been making for years about how
Islam is not a monolith. You know, if you made the same kind of statements
about Christianity as you hear people making about Islam you'd say - hold on
a minute, there are Catholics, Anglicans, Greek Orthodox, Baptists etc. etc.
and it's the same with Islam - Sunni and Shi'ite and so on. Not everyone is
a fundamentalist. Just as not every Christian has identical views to Ian
Paisley. So in the book, this professor isn't particularly sympathetic to
what I do. Again, it's an attempt to get away from my voice. I create a
collage effect by having huge chunks of myself in interviews with him, so I
can explain what I really want to say. So it's three books - it's a kind of
trilogy looking at the relationship between literature and criticism. The
last book, the mock critical book is basically asking the question: 'Am I
writing fiction or criticism?' Genres don't make a lot of sense to me, and
Neither Masks Nor Mirrors is simultaneously both fiction and criticism.
Indeed, I think all writing tends towards the fictional, and the more a
writer tries to avoid fiction and trickery, the more fictional and illusory
his or her text becomes.
3AM: Have you got a publisher for these?
SH: No. Canongate is looking at Love Comes In Spurts. There's even another
book I've just written called Memphis Underground. Again, I'm using Hoxton
and contrasting that with ideas of American suburbia. Although it's based in
Hoxton I'm also trying to invoke the ghetto without actually using a ghetto
because Hoxton isn't a ghetto. Looking at how a ghetto and a suburb can
produce and mediate each other. Looking at the relationship between people
doing shitty jobs in the city and the art and money that's moving around the
same areas. Memphis Underground has different narratives intercut with each
other. The book is in two halves each featuring two different narratives
interspliced and premised on the classic science fiction device of using
events happening to the same character but six months apart from each other.
Obviously, the reader isn't necessarily supposed to realise this is how it
is structured until the get to the end. Canongate hasn't done anything by
me before and they really want to see how it goes with the first book before
they make a decision on the second. This isn't a new experience for me, Blow
Job was finished in '93 but it didn't come out in English until the end of
'97. There's often quite a gap between the works being written and being
published. I guess if you can't be immediately assimilated into the system
it shows that you're doing something right.
3AM: Who do you rate at the moment?
SH: Have you read Destroy All Monsters by Ken Hollings? It came out round
about September 11th and is a science fiction extension of the Gulf War. It'
s an interesting book. I enjoyed the final line in Iain Sinclair's Landor's
Tower, the very last line in the Appendix '...further reading anything by
Stewart Home'. I thought that was the killer line in Sinclair's whole
oeuvre. I still rate Lynne Tillman. Cast In Doubt is my absolute favourite.
I like Darius James. It's kind of embarrassing because anyone who is any
good you're going to meet eventually, and they're all going to become your
friends. Steve Beard is someone whose doing some interesting stuff. I'm
looking forward to his new book that he's working on. He's got another book
of journalism out for next year and obviously Perfumed Head and Digital
Leatherette, the fiction, are very very interesting. It's a difficult time
to get work out and I understand the appeal of narrative. The trade is
reluctant to try anything a little bit different. However, I'm the sort of
person who benefits from a recession. There last time there was a recession
I was on Arts Strike but my reputation still went up in that recession. I
met a friend of mine the other day who does business futures stuff, he cons
industry out of huge sums of money, and he said 'you're the sort of person
who always benefits from a recession because in a time of crisis people are
looking for different ways of looking at things. You've got a critical take
on the system, therefore it's during a recession your stock rises most.' So
everything's looking great for me, and maybe Capitalism will destroy itself.
3AM: Is it true you used to know Robin Cook?
SH: Yes I used to know him quite well. Nice guy and an interesting story
with that change from the more literary books in the 60's and then the
silence and the comeback with the factory novels as Derek Raymond. I think
he suffered because he had a lot of second-rate imitators so his stock fell
in the 90's. That whole British noir genre got a bit of a bad reputation.
But Cookie did it very well. He was one of the few guys I've met with a very
bad drink problem who kept his very sweet personality.
3AM: What you said in the interview we published earlier this year about
Punk was controversial.
SH: Yes, well old punks are like old hippies. Punk is many things to many
people. What it is all depends on how you configure it. But you could say
that the whole punk ethos was to diss everything, so I was doing a punk on
punk. Which makes me more punk than these who want to be nostalgic. Anyway,
I'd rather listen to Jazz Funk. You haven't lived until you've heard Bouncy
Lady by Pleasure.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Richard Marshall is a talented writer and acts as an editor for 3am.