:: Article

London Noir: Cathi Unsworth Interviewed

By Andrew Stevens.

3:AM: You used to be a music journalist, back in the ‘heyday’ almost.

CU: My first job (which I really loved) was on Sounds, between 1987-91. Everyone always calls me a Melody Maker journalist and I did work for them from 1991-95 it’s true, but I much preferred and am more proud of having worked for Sounds. You will notice that a Sounds journalist pops up in The Singer and one of the points I wanted to slide in was that it was Sounds who were at the forefront of covering punk, stealing a march on NME and Melody Maker, and at the time, selling more issues than they did. Because history is always written by the victors, so to speak, Sounds are always totally written out of history by former NME journalists and this isn’t just because Garry Bushell muddied the legacy of Sounds, but because Sounds made them look so pompous and backwards at the time of punk. My first editor, Tony Stewart, who gave me my job at Sounds was at the NME at the time of punk and even he admits that the other two papers floundered in the wake of prog, while Sounds put The Damned on the front cover on the strength of hearing ‘New Rose’ without even having an interview.

When I went to Melody Maker (when Sounds were bought and then closed down by Emap) there was always an underlying paranoia that this could possibly happen again, even though it virtually already had. Sounds had put Nirvana on the front cover three times before Everett True ‘discovered’ them. So they were always desperate to be seen as the ‘first’ even though they never were!


3:AM: I heard you were once the prize in a ‘win a date’ competition for readers. Who won?

CU: That is being too kind! What it was, was in the Reader’s Poll there was a question, ‘Which Sounds journalist would you most like to go for a drink with?’ And I won it, John Robb came second. I think it was for championing bands that were popular with the kids but not so much with the critics, bands like Cardiacs, The Levellers and New Model Army. I never thought of myself as having any kind of exalted status over the readers because I was lucky enough to be writing for Sounds, I was the same as them, reflecting what they thought. And I was a massive Goth and so were a lot of them!

3:AM: Do you share the commonly held view that things have very much declined under Conor McNicholas’ watch at the NME, compared to that era, then?

CU: One of the funniest things I ever heard was a radio encounter between Neil Spencer and Conor McNicholas as a sort of NME Editor ‘Clash of the Titans’. Only of course there only was one Titan and Spencer totally destroyed McNicholas, mainly by deploying the one argument that no one can deny, that in his day it was the music that mattered, and your love and knowledge of music that really counted, not the machinations of press, marketing and advertising departments. Someone who works in the music business once told me that when interviewed for the job as NME editor, McNicholas said that his favourite ALBUM was ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ by Nirvana. Even more shocking than him not even knowing that the most important album of the nineties was actually called Nevermind was the fact that the publishers still gave him the job. If this is true, of course, but if it isn’t, it shows you what people think about McNicholas within that community.

When I used to read Sounds and NME as a teenager, I used to learn a lot – I even used to have to get a dictionary out to understand some of the NME features. I can also remember the very powerful front cover the NME did in 1984 by X-Moore of The Redskins covering the miners’ strike from the front line of Orgreave, Britain falling apart into a civil war between Thatcher’s militia and the society she was so thirsty to destroy. Can you imagine anything like that happening now? Readers just aren’t treated like intelligent, sentient, enquiring human beings in the way that they were by all three of those old music papers between the 70s and even up to 1995, when Britpop killed everything, including Melody Maker.

The problem is, advertising, marketing and PR became more important than creativity, culture, intelligence and non-conformity. Like Peter Cook and Bill Hicks I firmly believe that Advertising is the Devil’s tool. God is Art, Advertising is Satan. Seriously. McNicholas isn’t saying: “Here’s three chords, go form a band”. He’s saying: “Buy this, be a happy consumer!”

That is what so annoys me, not just about the music press but nearly all consumer titles these days — we grew up with great writing, lengthy articles, educational articles that we all loved and thrived on but since the mid-90s, everything seems to have descended into this morass of dumbed down, soundbite nothingness. It’s just so trivial, so condescending, and worse of all, so BORING. On Bizarre I think we managed to produce something that the music paper generation really valued — until James Brown came along and turned it into an even more downmarket version of Loaded. And to think he used to go out collecting for the miners! Actually, Loaded has a lot to do with the shit state of the press in general, and the return to the good old Seventies values of sexism, violence and general intolerance. I feel so lucky, as a woman, that when I was growing up my female role models were Siouxsie Sioux, Lydia Lunch and Joolz Denby. What exactly do girls have now — strippers and footballers’ wives, women who only exist for their artificial body parts, living bloody Barbie dolls, the final revenge on Feminism. I suppose my main obsession is how women (and children) are treated with such hatred and contempt in our society, how it never goes away. That’s the main point of The Singer.


3:AM: You mention Lydia Lunch as an influence and Jake Arnott favourably refers to The Singer as “an elegy for the blank generation”. Do you consider the book as ‘blank generation’ in terms of the culture it depicts, Transatlantic gothdom?

CU: Actually, I think it represents a brief period of time — covered in great detail and most excellently by Simon Reynolds in Rip It Up And Start Again — when there was a blossoming of all kinds of alternative cultures, music and different ideas for living, a time that was highly politicised and came from a great and rapid exchange of ideas. It was like punk blew open a doorway through to a world where anything seemed possible, and people like my fictitious bands suddenly found that they could have a future that involved doing something creative that utilised their intelligence, instead of having to go to the jobs that were waiting for them at the factory, the shipyard or the pit. If you look at all the different types of music that were about then it is incredible — everything from the No Wave in New York to the electronic acts that came out of Sheffield, labels like Mute and Beggars Banquet, Postcard and Rough Trade — and even all the bands within those varying scenes were very different to each other, very keen to experiment in the new technology that was emerging and push themselves to be different, to stand out. Richard Hell might have sung in a very cool way about the Blank Generation, but they were far from empty! There were so many ideas, and so much music made in that time that still sounds amazingly fresh and advanced today — especially when you tune into 6 Radio and think you are hearing some long lost Killing Joke or Ruts single and you find out it is some new band just copying them!

Lydia said that New York at the time was very much a scary and desolate place, but crucially it was wide open — you could break into a building quite easily, set up some rudimentary electrics and get on with living and working at your art rent free. And you had the time to read a lot of books — a lot of the music from this era is inspired by people like Burroughs and Ballard, Camus and Hubert Selby Jr, you only have to look at the names of the bands and their songs to see it. I think it was pretty much the same in Ladbroke Grove, all the stuff about people living in squats is based on real bands. Amazing to think now that people could live rent free on the Lower East Side and W11 but they did, and those two places have powerful atmospheres, generations of great thinkers have lived there.

A lot of the people who helped me with my research really did have their lives changed by punk and its immediate aftermath — people who came from the old industrial north and Midlands for whom this music represented a beacon of hope, empathy and inspiration. It really did have that much power. And I suppose the sadness, the ‘elegy’ within the book is how the Advertising Men came and took it all away, sucked the soul out of young people and their dreams and replaced this egalitarian outpouring with products to buy without ever thinking. I saw a brilliant piece of film recently at The Horse Hospital, where Roger K. Burton who runs the place, got Vivienne Westwood and Talcy Malcy to come in and talk about their clothes, 15 years ago when the place first opened its doors. Vivienne made the point that punk was the ultimate youth culture as it actually was saying to the Establishment that we despise you and everything you stand for, but she is no longer interested in young people because they have become so docile.

As she put it, you don’t need to ban books now because nobody reads them. And all ideas come from books. She also said that only a very conservative, bordering on fascist culture flatters youth the way that we now do, which I would definitely agree with. And that was 15 years ago, before Pop Idol and Big Brother were even a blip on the horizon!

But the book does end on a hopeful note as I think there are some very young people out there utilising the very new technology that the Internet provides to really do their own version of punk, that by-passes the record company and the ad men, the marketing and the impotent music media. That was inspired by the Arctic Monkeys and what they did, by all those underage clubs that are springing up (and often run by the offspring of old punkers). I am too old to fully know about all of this, and that is the point, I am not supposed to, it doesn’t want me and my Granny Goth old ways. But I am heartened that it is out there as this really is a sick and scary time for young people to have to grow up in.


3:AM: It has a very elegiac feel to it throughout, I agree. As literary thrillers go though, it’s VERY psychogeographic, as was The Not Knowing. What does psychogeography mean to you?

CU: I fell in love with Ladbroke Grove in 1984, when I first visited Portobello Road on a trip up from Great Yarmouth with my then boyfriend, who actually came from London but was exiled in the Norfolk backwater at the time. He knew a lot about music and he took me to Portobello to indulge in the then essential ritual of buying bootleg tapes, there were stalls and stalls and stalls of them and we were trying to find the Sisters of Mercy tape where Andrew Eldritch did the best scream on ‘Sister Ray’. I thought it was heaven on earth, and when my boyfriend mentioned that Marc Almond lived round there too that was it, I said to myself “I WILL LIVE HERE” and only two years later I did and I still do live there. I couldn’t live happily anywhere else in England, I am quite sure of that. I come from Norfolk and I know that The League of Gentlemen is a documentary.

Camden Town was where Sounds was based, and where all the music venues still are, not to mention the market, so obviously I have spent a great amount of the past 20 years there too, and I work there now at my day job, where I can see great swathes of Old Camden being bulldozed to make way for luxury flats — the penthouse situated between Arlington House and The Good Mixer is a particular treasure. I have also spent a lot of time in Soho as any decent writer must. So everything I wrote in The Not Knowing and The Singer about those places came from a desire to chronicle the times that I spent in these places in detail before it all disappeared. All the pub and club conversations in The Not Knowing are based on real people saying real things, all the Soho bits are a snapshot of the two years I worked behind the bar at Gerry’s Club, involving a lot of characters who are sadly no longer with us. All Eddie’s observations about Camden and Ladbroke Grove in The Singer mirror my own and Steve gets to do all the things I would really like to do to the Seekers of the Blue Door when he takes his trip down Portobello Road. It is a love of those areas and the people who inhabit them that really drives it — I can open Soho in the Fifties by Dan Farson and be transported back to the world he knew, hopefully my own books will provide a similar time tunnel for the Sohemians of the future!

3:AM: The book veers backwards and forwards with each chapter, between the punk era to the recent past, documenting the Anthony Hardy murders on Rimbaud’s Royal College Street. It also spends a fair amount of time in Stoke Newington, once of the Angry Brigade and Edgar Allen Poe, capturing the moment in time before it became a liberal left version of Notting Hill.

CU: If anything proves psychogeography works it is the environs of Royal College Street. It is not surprising that Rimbaud wrote ‘A Night In Hell’ while he was having a bad time with Verlaine staying there. It is on a bad leyline and that is why, when we did the front cover shoot for The Not Knowing, we did it there — those railway arches round the back of Hawley Crescent are one of the few things that haven’t altered since the early Nineties. When we did the shoot the light was fading so Johnny Volcano, ace photographer, used a long exposure. But he didn’t have a proper tripod so we used a beer crate lent to us by Doug at the the Hawley Arms, and the weird ectoplasmic streaks that you see pointing towards the murder site of the railway arches are as a result of what Johnny called ‘noise’, the light travelling across the frame during the length of the exposure. They were not calculated but they point to the exact scene of the crime. Around this area were not only the John Anthony Hardy wheelie bin murders but also where Thomas Hinz, a trainee rabbi, was picked up at the Black Cap by one Thomas ‘The Hacksaw’ McDowell who took him home and cut him into tiny pieces and left him in another wheelie bin outside his flat at the top of Baynes Street, just north of Hawley Crescent.

In February this year the 176 Gallery in Kentish Town Road asked me to do a murder walk around the sites of my books and notorious Camden murders. I had planned my walk to stop by those arches and tell the tales of Hardy, McDowell and Rimbaud, ending with me reading a few lines from ‘A Night In Hell’ that went:

This is Hell, eternal torment
See how the flames rise
I burn as I ought to
Go on, Devil!

The night before I did my walk, the Hawley Arms burned down.

We went ahead and did it anyway but you can imagine how I felt the night before watching the inferno. I spent a fair bit of time in Stokey in the late 80s, early 90s, as a great friend of mine Shaun Connon lived there and we used to go to this pub where a mutual friend of ours, Ronnie Rocker hung out. Like me and Shaun, Ronnie came from Yarmouth and his claim to fame was that he was in Splodgenessabounds at the time of their great number one hit single ‘Three Pints of Lager And A Packet Of Crisps Please’. Max Splodge also went to this pub and it did seem to be a kind of limbo for old punk and rock stars, roadies and the like. I describe a similar incarnation of it in The Singer but it’s not entirely that pub, it’s the feeling that there is a kind of rock’n’roll death’s waiting room for all these people who once had their day and can never get it back again, but just cling on in this twilight world of tribute bands and revivals, still wearing the same clothes that they did in their heyday, never letting go of the dream. That is the cruelty of the music business — for every one person who makes it there is a thousand left in this permanent student existance in the rock’n’roll death’s waiting room saloon, eking out their rolies and their pints, their minds trapped in permanent teenage limbo as their bodies decay.


(reading at Filthy MacNasty’s. Credit: Ronnie Hackston)

3:AM: Your affinity for Derek Raymond is well-documented but how did he encourage you to begin writing fiction? I also recall that Patrick Hamilton‘s an influence for you, the bars in both books alone suggest that.

CU: Meeting Derek Raymond and reading I Was Dora Suarez was a pivotal moment in my life. I didn’t realise a crime novel could be the way his were — a séance for the dead, a burning rage for the unjust taking of a woman’s life, a depiction of London “scoured by vile psychic weather” — all very far removed from popular crime fiction where the clever detective foils the cunning criminal, or après Hannibal Lecter, the suave serial killer runs the cops a merry dance. This was all about, as he put it “the shit under the carpet”. And having come from the Establishment, Derek Raymond had no illusions about how society all works. He encouraged me by being the most brilliant writer and the most wonderful, inspiring and energising person — he was 40 years older than me but had the energy of a 19-year-old, a long thin streak of rage and razor sharp intelligence. I think he was very much like Johnny Rotten, the two of them have often referred to the “mistreatment of people” as being their main motivating factor. After Mr Raymond died, I was quite bereft. A friend of mine, Geoff Cox, who initiated the Dora Suarez record by putting Raymond and Gallon Drunk together, suggested that I read Twenty Thousand Streets Under The Sky by Patrick Hamiton. “It’s like [Raymond] Cookie without the swearing” he said and he was right. Hamilton exists in the same netherworld as Raymond, in the same dodgy bars and lonely bedsits, and his description of a mind unhinged is so good that you can only surmise that it was because he knew of what he spoke. The Gorse Trilogy by Hamilton and The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson are, I reckon, the best forensic descriptions of a man on a journey into darkness, insanity and murder you will ever read. Jim Thompson also knew where that was coming from. All three of these writers, along with James Ellroy, David Peace and Lydia Lunch are the inspirations that I turn back to time and time again. Also music — Gallon Drunk, who are the most pyschogeographic London band, and Barry Adamson, who captures the essence of noir.

3:AM: Speaking of séances, you’re curating a Derek Raymond event at the Horse Hospital soon. Earlier this year you did one at the Barbican on Beat Girl, what’s the fascination there?

CU: The Beat Girl thing came about through my friend Jay Clifton, who runs an excellent spoken word/music club called Tight Lip in Brighton, with his musical partner Sam Collins. He had an idea for an event called Peripheral Vision, where authors chose a film that they loved and spun off a story from it, based on one of the peripheral characters. I chose Beat Girl for two reasons. Firstly, the book I am writing now is set in 1959-65, so I wanted the film to come from that era and reflect some of the aspects of what I am writing about. Secondly, Beat Girl is rarely seen since the good old days of the Scala, but always popular — who can resist Oliver Reed go-go dancing to The John Barry Seven, Christopher Lee as an evil strip club owner and dialogue that includes the immortal line: “It’s straight from the fridge”? I did the event firstly in Brighton last summer and then again at The Barbican in January and it proved really popular each time. My ‘peripheral vision’ was of the club where Beat Girl and her hipster friends hang out, called The Off Beat Café, where I have set a story that attempts to start an urban myth about Joe Meek and Johnny Kidd and the Pirates. But what was really lovely was at Brighton there were a couple who had seen the film when it first came out in 1959 and have their own Off Beat Café on the North Lanes in Brighton.

3:AM: You mentioned how Derek Raymond turned you on to the possibilities of crime writing, do you consider Jake Arnott and David Peace as mining the same territory with their alternative histories?

CU: David was definitely inspired by Derek Raymond, for the same reasons as I was. When I first interviewed him he told me he listened to the Suarez CD as he wrote the Red Riding Quartet and you can see that his writing has the same haunted quality. I am not sure if Jake was as much of a fan but I would say that it is Derek Raymond and James Ellroy who together raised the bar and changed the course of crime fiction. It’s Ellroy’s LA Quartet we have to thank for the idea of the ‘alternative history’ through the crimes of a place (which is also very psychogeographic and in his case definitely proves that the theory works). No one had done that before Ellroy and in both him and Raymond there is a streak of wildness, touching madness, that elevates the writing far above the constraints of the cosy thriller that the big selling crime writers do as a formula for making big bucks. You know that unlike most people who write about crime as an entertainment, they both really care about what they are writing about, care passionately. Ellroy and Raymond care about the unjust and un-avenged savage hate-fuelled murders of women which is obviously something that appeals very much to me. I think they both put themselves on the line, personally, to write what they did, but they couldn’t stop themselves, they had to do it. I don’t ever think I could be as great as they are but I know my writing comes from the same place.

Andrew Stevens is contributing editor to 3:AM and lives in London.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, July 8th, 2008.