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A Floating Question Mark

Interview by Guy Mankowski.

At first glance Withdrawn Traces seems to have been written firstly to reappraise the legacy of Richard Edwards as a man and an artist, without merely focusing on his private struggles. But secondly, it seems to have been written to raise awareness of Edwards’ disappearance and to rejuvenate attempts to discover what happened to him. It was co-written by Sara Hawys Roberts and Leon Noakes and with its foreword from Rachel Edwards comes, by proxy, the consent of Edwards’ family.

Before going any further I must declare an interest, regarding the questions I put to Sara Hawys Roberts regarding her new book.  As a fan (for want of another term) of Richard Edwards, I became friends with Sara a few years ago after we connected online. So I was privy to some of the inner workings of her book as she was researching and writing it. I was fortunate to read some chapters Sara sent me while they were in development. I soon had to filter out my interest in anything related to Richard Edwards (whose work I have long felt warranted more in-depth study) to try to retain some critical faculty for the chapters being sent to me. But even in the cold light of day, it strikes me that Withdrawn Traces represents a high watermark for the biography genre. It is not simply that the book was intensely researched (as is necessitated by any biography) drawing from the archives and documents left by Edwards before his disappearance. It is that in trying to work out what happened to Edwards the assembler and author of such a book is charged with the responsibility of entering into a kind of intellectual duel with a missing person. It is a duel that the subject matter might not necessarily have wanted to enter into. It is also one that affected parties — not least the band — might also not wish anyone to undertake.

In this respect, I think Roberts rises to the task admirably — firstly because writing this book demanded that she offer scrutiny to any theory or anecdote anyone wanted to offer about Edwards’ disappearance. There seems to me a kind of Sisyphean cruelty to this task that was in front of Roberts. After all, it may well be that there simply is no physical evidence of what happened, which then leaves the examiner with the cruel task of burdening themselves with the intellectual weight of all possibilities. To some extent, the reader then takes on the burden left by those who had to pick up the pieces.

But the second issue for the author would surely be in incurring the ire of any fans who might feel Edwards’ life is best left unscrutinised. If some people deem that a point of criticism then perhaps that is understandable. But how do we separate the sense that his work was worth analysing from the man itself?

For my money, the main achievement of the book is that it is the first in which the person focusing on him rises to the intellectual, philosophical and cultural versatility of Edwards’ worldview. The range of deftly filleted and well-blended references within the book is astounding. I draw the attention of any reader to the penultimate chapter of the novel entitled “The Narrative Verdict”. In its synthesis of the array of culturally significant clues Edwards left in his wake, in its deft calculus of the alternative paths Edwards might have taken, it is utterly brilliant. It does become inflected with the kind of paranoia that entering into a troubled mindset requires. But I have often been struck by how frustrating it is to read biographies in which the author’s interest in chasing down loose ends dwindles — and Roberts never does. I got the impression that Roberts chased every lead as far as she could, and given the fraught nature of the context, this is admirable. It also means that the book serves as a kind of portrait of the era in which Edwards vanished. With all its abandoned hotel rooms, departed service stations and other forms of cultural lacunae.

3:AM: What did you want to achieve in co-writing Withdrawn Traces?

Sara Hawys Roberts: Rachel [Edwards] wasn’t happy by the way Richey has been portrayed. She is sick of him being defined by his illness and as a tortured genius. She wanted to reclaim him as a brother, a friend, a son. So she and I decided to write this book. We wanted to see him as a poet, a thinker, a gentle person (which he was) so that’s how it came about.

3:AM: Outside of the goals you had on behalf of Rachel Edwards, what were your personal goals with this book?

SHR: I wanted to share him with people and how great he was to me. For people to see him from the perspective I see him from. Which is why the archive is really important. It had all his notes, all his musings, all his hard work to do with setting up the band. Because I do truly believe (as he said to his best friend) that without Richey there would’ve been no Manic Street Preachers. They never would’ve got a record deal. The idea the Manics were propelled to stardom after he left [I dismiss]. At one point he was aligning himself with other bands but he decided to go with the Manics.

3:AM: In a sense through song lyrics he had quite a small forum to express himself.

SHR: He was trying to do communication to the masses. He was very into his literature which is why everyone thought he’d write a book. A few people who knew him said “We thought he’d be an author and not in a band”. He was more like a great novelist.

3:AM: Nicky Wire said in the Escape From History documentary that at times “it was like talking to a novelist”. Given what you’ve said the archive is really important as he’s not restricted in any way there.

SHR: Yes, Rachel and I have discussed sharing the archive. There was a lot of archiving, it was hard to pick what to use. You find yourself asking “Does this define him?” There were essays from university, letters, poetry. Notes from when he was in The Priory. There was a diary he wrote from two weeks in January but we didn’t want to share that. 

3:AM: One aspect I was surprised by, in reading the book, was how ferocious and wide-ranging Edwards’ intellectual curiosity was. From his interest in a wide range of unusual literature, his ability to contextualise his thoughts historically and philosophically and his preoccupation with esoteric ideas (such as the fourth dimension and the perfect circle) he seemed to have a remarkably freewheeling mind.

SHR: Yeah, he was at times worried about being left alone with his own mind. He even drove up to London, stayed at a house for five minutes then left. He turned up in his pyjamas with a shaved head when they were doing the cuts for the ‘Yes’ video and he left after a few minutes.

And yeah, Richey himself was a big thinker in regards to conspiracy theories. For instance, the meaning of “I laughed when Lennon got shot”. It’s about him knowing it was a CIA thing with Mark Chapman and that’s why in the lyric he laughed. There are notes in which he thinks it’s hilarious no one can see it and they’re thinking he wrote “I laughed” because he somehow thought Lennon getting shot was funny. With regards to esoteric ideas. To the point where all he was left in was his doubt.

Someone got in touch and told us that Richey had hired a hitman to kill him and part of the difficulty is that you find yourself questioning the out-there scenarios because the whole narrative is quite out-there.

Your book How I Left The National Grid [a novel informed by Edwards’ story] was such a good read because you expressed such a lot of different views, from the protagonist’s views, to the singer who disappeared. You could see it was a very questioning read, there were doubts there on every level too. Rachel thought it was good too — very powerful and coming from the right place.

3:AM: Thanks — I think I was able to put that fatalistic attitude, that strong wish I had to just vanish (which I had in my late twenties) to bed with that book.

SHR: Yeah, I wondered if you found it cathartic to put all that down in a book, and draw a line under it. One reason I like Tolstoy’s A Confession is the way he dismisses his early work because he sees it all as exercises in vanity and he thinks what’s the point? He too just wanted to disappear. He just wanted to find meaning.

3:AM: The whole idea that meaning can be found externally might be one risk for the type of people who have that level of questioning and curiosity.

SHR: Richey didn’t have an anchor, a central point he could draw himself up from. He was even diagnosed as being “borderline”. I don’t think he had much of a sense of self towards the end.

3:AM: Because he was so perceptive and compelling in how he presented himself, you can get sucked into his way of thinking. But if you do get swept along with his mindset at what point can you say you disagree with him and think he takes it too far?

SHR: It’s true. I got into him because I found myself to be quite similar to him and the things he was saying. In A Confession a lot of what Richey said is echoed. The Ecclesiastes view that “All is Vanity,” it’s all in vain. There was a deep existential crisis in his thinking. I agree with a lot of what he says, personally.

3:AM: For me, Richey’s whole worldview was perhaps similar to mine until I was about 27. We can get weird and talk about “Saturn’s Return” or whatever, but it is interesting that it takes you to a point when you can’t take that way of thinking any further. One thing that might be difficult in the world of entertainment is that your success might feel predicated on everything about you that is less functional.

SHR: Richey did try to talk that around by proposing to his girlfriend Jo. He was trying to find a way out of his mindset by seeking family life. In his book, we have a quote from one of his friends saying how much he loved children and how he wanted all that for himself. 

3:AM: How far have you been able to characterise the nature of Edwards’ difficulties?

SHR: I think it’s like a deep intellectual crisis really. It started off nihilistically and full of anger, and then went into this deep doubt and everything was unreal and everything was tricking him. He wrote in his diary, ‘you put your hand under a hot tap and it feels cold, you put your hand under a cold tap and it feels like it’s hot’.

3:AM: There’s a doublethink there because he relied on his intellect, but he also was so isolated that there was no other perspective to balance it.

SHR: He felt his intellect was failing him towards the end. He rolled the world into one big question. He was very hard on himself in terms of finding answers. 

3:AM: What aspects of researching and writing the book surprised you?

SHR: The bit about his great Aunt Bessie being a recluse and then his uncle Shane going off to America for five years and not making contact with the family. Rachel said he was always fascinated by those stories and when he was younger he was always asking his Dad to tell those stories. That was quite surprising. The borderline diagnosis as well — not that I put weight on that. Rachel spoke to someone else at The Priory who said they didn’t think that applied to him. I think Richey thought it was quite a lazy diagnosis. 

3:AM: What view do you think the fans generally have about him, and how did your research perhaps challenge it?

SHR: I think the fans now are very cautious not to express too much admiration as they get labelled as being in the ‘Cult Of Richey’ So this is about reclaiming him and saying: look, just because you admire someone’s work doesn’t make you a depressive, cutting oddball. You can admire him without being a cliché.

3:AM: Were there aspects of Edwards’ story you wished to explore further but didn’t? Or couldn’t?

SHR: I think we wanted to speak to Jo [Edwards’ girlfriend] because that would have been a real eye-opener. And to see the box he left behind at the Embassy Hotel, with all the pictures of cartoon characters where there’s a picture of a house on the box. We’d have liked to have figured out where that house was. That all came to a dead end in the end but Jo let us use some of the letters.

3:AM: Did anyone find out who the Vivian was, who he spoke to on the night he went missing [Vivian is the woman Edwards gave his passport to]?

SHR: No. Still waiting. Hopefully, this book will throw something up. Apparently, Nicky [Wire] spoke to Vivian but they didn’t offer any more information to Rachel and time passed and now no one knows who she is.

3:AM: Are there any aspects of his story that you wanted to include in the book but were not able to?

SHR: Just more about The Priory and things like that. But we were limited about what we could say as a lot of it was confidential. We weren’t allowed to use certain names.

3:AM: Given how young the band were, and given that Edwards himself was at times keen to rejoin the band despite his difficulties, is the sense of criticism of any key figures fair?

SHR: It’s a good point. The band were young men themselves, and mental health was not as prevalent as it is now in terms of how to deal with it, how to cope with it, how to help the person.

3:AM: I suppose it was tough on the band too because they’re dealing with a traumatic event in public and whenever anyone asks about it they have to offer some kind of view. Playing devil’s advocate, some fans might argue that whatever choice Edwards made, he did make a choice. So does that beg the question that therefore his life should not be examined?

SHR: I think that depends. When people say he made a choice: was he too ill to make a choice? That’s something Rachel says and sticks by. I think every life deserves to be examined. Some people say he should be left alone. But he left this marvellous body of work, and he was always going on about how he wanted to write, how he wanted to leave something perfect behind. I think it would be a great disservice to him not to look at these lyrics, not to look at this body of work. Regardless of what he thought of it. I always worried about doing his work justice, writing about this astounding man. I always thought who am I to do this?

3:AM: That doubt might have driven you to write the book better though. But how much do you think we can extrapolate about a person from the documents that they leave behind?

SHR: There is a danger of looking into things too deeply. But that’s something Richey used to do. The band said he was “adept at dramatic symbolism”. He left so much. From the beginning, he would document van hire certificates, reviews. He has all these folders up until 1992; he was documenting it all. In the end, I think he wanted somebody to document the later years of the band, and him.

3:AM: Anyone criticising the book has to take on the complex premise behind a book that was intended to do that but also to try and help find him. It’s an intellectually taxing conceit. One thing I was struck by when talking to Rachel was how intellectually curious and open-minded she was. I think it’s remarkable how fearless she is at asking the difficult questions.

SHR: To speak to Rachel and to have her offer me the use of the archive was very humbling, and a real honour. It was hard writing the book — trying to represent him. I didn’t want to kiss anyone’s arse too much, and I wanted to do right by Rachel. I was writing for me and for her. It’s like a never-ending stream with Richey, from films to books to poetry to public figures and the way he did it without coming across as preachy or snobby. That was a talent of his.

As a band, they had a skill for making everyday life, even mundane things like hotel rooms into little things of melancholy. They definitely had an aesthetic and a narrative they were bringing from the beginning. We’ve got some of Richey’s old writing from the Manics’ first tour in the book, and it’s got that Manics feel to it. This intoxicating mix of melancholia and everyday life. It’s captivating because so many people then attached themselves to that narrative.

3:AM: If you are the focal point for all these cultural symbols, you kind of take on some of their symbolic power. The book presents the idea that there are various possibilities of what could have happened to Edwards, including the intriguing idea he vanished to Israel. Given what we know about his physical and psychological state of mind, how rigorous are theories that he could have meticulously planned his disappearance? Let alone that he could have executed that plan?

SHR: That is a hard one. I think that again he used to present himself differently to different people. In the book, we have Jo saying in January it was the worst she’d seen Richey and the band saying they were back on form again. So what he was capable of I’m not sure. What band before has ever talked about the perfect disappearance? As far back as 1992, they were referencing JD Salinger.

3:AM: Yeah, but they were referencing a lot of authors.

SHR: No other band talked about vanishing. It cheats people of an opinion of him. He’s just a floating question mark. You can’t have a concrete opinion of him.

3:AM: Do you think it’s possible he returned to London after leaving the hotel?

SHR: Well, somebody went back to his flat. It might not have been him. We’ve never had a concrete fact about who checked Richey out at 7am from the Embassy Hotel — it’s not on a police file. We noticed his car was at the Severn Bridge Service Station on 14 February, but it may have been there earlier and the car park attendant didn’t do his job properly. The band hired a private detective to investigate Richey, but he didn’t speak to the last people Richey spoke to. When Rachel asked if she could see the findings of the detective she was told the information had been lost.

3:AM: What do you think Edwards’ story says about the entertainment industry and the expectations it has upon people?

SHR: Richey himself said in his last interview that everyone in the music industry was evil and didn’t care about artists. He was saying there was no one in the industry he respected. He thought he was clever enough to manipulate the music industry and he didn’t bargain on the amount of journalists he could convince and I think he underestimated the world of fame. It wasn’t what he imagined it to be.

3:AM: Do you have any plans for a follow-up book?

SHR: I’ve been writing about Herschel Grynszpan, who was claimed to be the boy who started World War Two. I’m going to be putting myself in his shoes writing from his point of view.

3:AM: It’s interesting to wonder if he would have a sense of his own legacy.

SHR: I do wonder. He said himself he just wanted to be remembered as a great writer. He said to Jo, “cutting yourself — what a shit thing to be remembered for”. Michel Foucault said men should be separate from their lives and their work and I write about that in the book. Maybe Richey wanted to get away so his work could be judged on its merit. I just hope people find the book informative and interesting.

Guy Mankowski is an academic whose PhD concerned post-punk literature. He is also the author of Letters From Yelena and How I Left The National Grid. His latest novel, An Honest Deceit, was re-published in 2018.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, February 4th, 2019.