By Francesca Nottola
Who is Neil Calcutt and why am I interviewing him? Neil is mostly known in Manchester – so far – as the deputy Smiths DJ at the legendary Smiths and Morrissey Disco held every first Friday of the month at the alternative dandy/punk/metal venue Star & Garter. The other DJ, Dave, has been running the club night since the beginning, whereas Neil joined first simply as an attendee and then, later, to cover Dave, especially now that he moved to London. Neil Calcutt has recently written a book, Reader Meet Author (also a Morrissey song), which I have read and thoroughly enjoyed, and about which I had a lot of questions, so we meet up for a chat at the very nice café Chapter One Books, in the Manchester city centre.
Neil is kind and indulges in self-deprecation, asking me if I am going to nod off during the interview (because I have just told him that I have not slept a lot the night before). ‘I won’t take it personally if you do’. This kind of humour permeates many pages of his book, which is simultaneously a comic, mundane masterpiece but also a very touching and intense text. With his material being largely autobiographical, this novel is a very interesting, extremely realistic account of growing up in the North of England and, specifically, in Manchester. As a foreigner who grew up listening to a lot of British music including The Smiths, reading about Manchester in the 80s and 90s as described by someone who was actually there when things were happening – although Neil was a very young teen when The Smiths disbanded – was particularly exciting. Having mostly read about the UK and its bands from magazines or history books, this book offered a very different insight. Here’s what we discussed.
Neil Calcutt [on The Smiths night] I really enjoy doing it, but just for a short time. It’s a bit stressful, because you can never please people. On the surface it should be really simple because you’re only playing Smiths and Morrissey but you get a lot of different people: some just want Smiths music, some just want Morrissey, some just want the hits, some just want the b-sides – whatever you play, people will always complain!
Francesca Nottola Really?
NC Yeah. Obviously you can’t physically fit everything in, with so many albums [between The Smiths and Morrissey]. I would have thought it’d be easier to please people. But, still, it’s well worth it. I love the atmosphere the music creates – to see so many people, in one place, singing along. You don’t get that anywhere else. There are so many bars and clubs in Manchester, but you don’t get that atmosphere, you hardly notice the music there. Whereas at the Star & Garter, that’s the reason why people go there. It’s not because it’s trendy or it looks nice, because it definitely doesn’t. It’s all about the music. Also, it’s great that there are older people there, and younger kids too. It’s wonderful to see how his music has that impact on so many different generations.
FN Did you say ‘his’ music?
NC Well, it’s mostly his, isn’t it?
FN Yeah, it’s mostly his.
NC I love The Smiths, but Morrissey has done so much since then that The Smiths has become a small period of time in his career. Also, I don’t particularly think that period helped him or Johnny Marr – as amazing as The Smiths were. Rather than have a positive impact on their careers, it has had pretty much the opposite. Since then, they are constantly judged by what they achieved with The Smiths, with every lyric and bassline judged by what has gone before, rather than on its own merits. And something else you always get in this country, whenever someone achieves a level of fame, then people can’t wait to take the chance to attack and say ‘Oh, this is not as good as such and such’. With a lot of material that Morrissey releases, if it was some indie rock band, it would get much more acclaim and publicity, but just because it’s him, it doesn’t. Maybe because of the way he is, very upfront. He’s one of the last real rock stars. The fact that he’s got an opinion makes him stand out. A lot of people these days just have to do what they are told. Anyway, going back to The Smiths night, it would be so incredibly sad if it ended.
NC It looks that way, yeah. Obviously we’ll probably try and put it on somewhere else, but I think it’s just the perfect venue.
FN There’s something a bit rundown about it that matches the Smiths’ atmosphere very well.
NC It’s just right. And there’s so much competition out there for club nights. It’s good that everybody knows when and where it is. If it moves, it’s going to be harder.
FN We’ll see what happens. Talking about Morrissey, I was really shocked to go to his gigs in the UK because I was expecting ‘gentle and kind’ people, whereas many people are proper thugs!
NC I think it depends on the venue. In the last few years his concerts have been put in larger venues that don’t really suit him. It’s much better to see him in smaller, intimate places. The larger the venue, the higher the chance you get people who might not necessarily be too much into his music and only know the odd Smiths song and they are going to affect the whole night because they’ll be shouting things or checking their phone all the time and it just ruins the atmosphere.
FN I’m actually talking about hard-core fans: they’ll run to the front and push and squeeze and crush, careless of other people. I was a bit worried when I heard my ribcage crack because of the pressure of the bodies around me. I’ve been to hundreds of concerts, but I’ve never, ever felt that way. I was surprised by the fanaticism of these men in their fifties: I could expect some madness from teenagers, but I did not expect this crazy homoerotic obsession from older men. They behaved like hooligans and I was wondering: what is it that you like of Morrissey? He’s so gentle and reserved and elegant. It just doesn’t match the entire Smiths/Morrissey ethos, I think.
NC That’s ‘people’ for you, though, that’s life unfortunately.
FN I was expecting that at any other gig, but not at Morrissey’s. He arouses wild emotions.
NC I suppose that’s the power of the music and the lyrics and the general aura of the man. I can’t imagine Ed Sheeran getting a similar reaction. As for the ‘hooligan’ element, you’re not necessarily always going to get on with people just because you enjoy the same music.
FN Talking about ‘people’, I get a feeling from your book that you don’t find most people particularly interesting or pleasant, is that true?
NC Mmmmm, there’s probably a little bit of truth to that. Everyone’s different and it’s not for me to judge if someone is interesting. It’s rather if they are interesting to me. I’m the same whether I meet somebody, or read a book or watch a film: there has to be something there, something a little different for me to enjoy the company of that person or enjoy that film or book. But if I say something like that it sounds like I think I’m really interesting. I’m really not. It’s difficult when you are writing anything like that and you are trying to put thoughts into words. There are great people and films or books out there if you look hard enough, but there are also a lot of things that aren’t great….
FN Sure. But what about everyday people, apart from creative people?
NC Well, it’s connected to what you were saying earlier about your expectations and you being disappointed. I just think people in most walks of life people can be quite selfish or cruel or, even worse, boring. I don’t think someone has to have great talent to be worthy, it can just be, for example, being unique or showing a lot of empathy for someone. But I do think there’s such a lot of selfishness and cruelty these days. It’s so easy to exploit people’s lives for political gain – at the minute it seems to be foreigners. What irritates me about most people is that they just accept things, whether it be newspaper headlines or politicians’ speeches. They don’t think for themselves. One instance is animal welfare. I’m a vegetarian…
FN I am a too (much before I knew Morrissey was).
NC …yeah, he wasn’t the reason I became a vegetarian either. Although it’s great that he has influenced many others. I just find there’s often a mocking attitude if you are a vegetarian, as if there’s something wrong with you.
FN I know, I get it all the time.
NC I don’t understand if people are just being blind to something or it’s just easier not to think about the wider subject.
FN A lot of people get defensive when I have to say I am a vegetarian, when booking a table, for example, even though I do not say a word about their choices.
NC A lot of it is guilt, because they know it’s wrong. They automatically think that you’re judging them because they are eating animals, but they know, deep down, that what they are doing is wrong. There is no ethical argument for it at all. Ultimately, you are ending the life of an animal just to fill your stomach because that animal can’t speak, that’s the only reason people do it. It’s quite obvious that if people actually saw what happens before meat gets into their plate, the majority of people would be vegetarian and those who’d still stay carnivores are not the type of people you’d want to be around anyway.
FN It’s so obvious to me.
NC That was just an example of people not thinking about things. We were talking earlier about migrants: lots of people get so angry about immigration but when you actually try and talk to them, there’s no depth to their arguments other than ‘it’s their fault’, because that’s what they’ve been told.
FN It’s fear of the unknown also, ignorance.
NC It’s ridiculous! It should be the opposite, we should be welcoming people. We were talking about what ‘interesting’ means to me: if everybody just looks exactly the same, talks the same, there is zero interest for me there. It’s great when someone looks different or has something new to bring to the table, rather than being treated with suspicion. Anything unusual, people will ridicule, rather than trying to embrace it. It’s all these little things that add to my dislike of the wider population. It’s people being so narrow-minded about so much and, also, it has a cultural impact because the vast majority of people enjoy rubbish TV or films. Then we end up with awful politicians. It’s not like you can hide away and think: ‘Oh well!’ It impacts you – your whole life is shaped by others and other people’s actions.
FN Going back to your book, I really enjoyed reading it. It’s very funny. I also like your realistic approach to fiction: you don’t write in an affected literary style, as some do. Despite your beautiful style and vocabulary and smooth prose, you address readers in a very direct, straightforward way, as if you were chatting to them in a real life conversation. You use spoken language.
NC I find that some literary styles end up isolating themselves from a huge audience. There’s a risk of trying to focus onto showing how educated you are and then losing your audience. I’d rather get something down that as many people as possible are going to read. You can write something with intelligence and humour and still make it accessible. I started writing for me and my eyes only and the finished book benefits from that honesty and a lack of pretension. That’s the trap that you can fall into as a writer: wondering what people’s reactions are going to be and adapting the story accordingly. I wrote something purely for my own enjoyment.
FN You did not think anybody would read it?
NC Yeah, which is why it’s a bit too honest [laughs].
FN When did you start writing it?
NC I’m really bad with the concept of time. Sometimes I think it’s two years ago, then it’s actually eight years ago. It was probably seven/eight years ago when I started writing that. I’d always wanted to do something creative and I never quite knew what I wanted to do. I don’t know why I didn’t start writing a lot earlier in life. I always knew I was quite creative, but everything I could think of, trying to do music or anything, it always involved other people and I just wanted to have total control, so…
FN You’re a control freak!
NC Writing was ideal because you don’t need anybody else’s input. I wish I’d started at an earlier age. Later in life you have less and less time, which is the most precious commodity. Also, you can’t just say: ‘Right, I’m going to write for half an hour’. You have to feel in the mood otherwise it’ll be awful when you try to force it. Anyway, I finally decided I was going to start writing something. For some reason, I can’t even think now why I decided to write about my mother. Maybe it was because I just had it inside me for so long and the book was just a way to write about the things that happened. As I’ve said, the best thing I did was write without thinking it would be read by other people. If I had had that thought, I wouldn’t have included about 60-80% of what’s in it.
FN I did have a feeling that you were writing to process your relationship with your mother and what happened to her. She appears in the beginning of the book and then occasionally, to then become the main presence in the book towards the end.
NC That reflects my personality, my difficulty to deal with events, it’s apparent throughout the book. When writing, I might start writing about something difficult but then I’ll go towards something that’s more light-hearted. In the end, I think that’s what makes the book work. Even the bits that are sad, I try and put in as much humour as possible because, even when I’m just writing for my own benefit, I don’t want to depress myself, so whenever I get into stuff that makes me sad then I’ll look for the funny side of it. That’s my way to deal with things, laughing about them.
FN While reading I wondered if you regret not having a closer relationship with your mother.
NC I don’t think it’s a regret as such. You know, people have different relationships with their families. Writing was a cathartic process for me because I’m not the type of person who likes to talk about personal things. I’d rather have a bit of a joke about things and enjoy the time I’ve got with people rather than going on about something bad that’s happened. For me the writing was a way to cover those things that I never got out with anyone before, but doing it in my own way. It was only later that I started thinking: maybe there is some kind of artistic quality to this. You can regret certain instances in life, but you can’t go back and think ‘I should/shouldn’t have done this’ because you are shaped by the experiences that happen throughout your life. As much as there were many things that weren’t right, that’s what happens to a lot of people, and they make the person that you end up being, for the better or the worse. There’s always things you are going to feel guilty about. Sometimes you don’t appreciate your parents as much as you should, especially when you are quite young. With a lot of people, until they die, you don’t appreciate everything that they did. Then you might become a parent yourself and actually realise how difficult it is and the sacrifices it takes. There’s always going to be regrets, but I don’t spend every day thinking about the past. You do what you think is best at the time. I just didn’t have that close relationship with my mother, we were not best buddies. Even in my own family I felt a little bit awkward around them.
FN The way you talk about your dad’s new family is hilarious, and I wondered how they’d react if they read your book.
NC The book is based on truth, and a lot of it was pretty miserable, but I’ve tried to put a humorous spin on it.
FN Relationships with families are always complicated, aren’t they? When you live close, you focus on the mundane, on the annoying. Then, when you are far away, you miss them and you appreciate the best in your relatives.
NC You can’t choose your family. You are born into a situation you have no say in and you do your best to get on. Now I appreciate all the things my parents did to bring me up as it’s really difficult. Some people are really close to their families, have lots in common and get on, whereas I have nothing in common with my family whatsoever, apart from being related to each other.
FN Has your family read the book?
NC I don’t think they’d appreciate the language, nor any artistic merit. Anyone involved is not going to read it in the same way as someone who picks it up from the library. But I think most authors, when they start writing, they write about what they know. That is your own life experience. I’m sure there’s a lot of early autobiographical stuff with most authors. Perhaps not their family story, but they’ll include experiences and characteristics of people close to them. But it’s not a historical document of what happened and was written in a style that I’d enjoy reading. I like books about people, relationships, the mundane and the everyday, so that’s what I write about.
FN Are there any writers that have inspired you in terms of style or choice of topics?
NC Probably my favourite writer is Richard Yates, who writes a lot about relationships. He’s a North American author and one of his books has been made into a film a few years ago, Revolutionary Road. Eleven Kinds of Loneliness also made me fully appreciate short stories. There’s a lot of writers whose style I look at and they make you feel inadequate in terms of how wonderful their prose is and how they bring characters to life. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye was the first book that inspired me and made me realise that books were a place that could create a new world for a person to visit.
FN I read it many years ago, but I do remember liking very much the way Holden was talking about his sister Phoebe. In your book, you talk about your younger sister as someone that had an easy life compared to you, right?
NC I think it’s what happens in many families: when someone is doing ok, they’ll be left alone, whereas the more problematic children will tend to get all the attention. But I talk about that in a jokey way like I do with everything. I didn’t have any issues with it or with the relationship at all. The influence of that particular book on my book – and I think that’s why it has been so popular with people – comes from its appeal to outsiders and people who feel they are a little bit different from the rest of society. The same reason why I think The Smiths have such universal appeal. In Salinger’s book, Holden is unhappy with the world that he tries to fit in with and the people he meets. He keeps getting disappointed, and that’s why he tries to be protective of his sister and doesn’t like the thought of her having to face this world. In my opinion, a lot of people misunderstand the book and claim it’s purely a book for teenagers and young adults as it’s reflecting an alienation that all teenagers grow out of. I don’t agree with that at all. That’s the character Holden was and I don’t think anything would have changed later on in life. His appeal consists precisely in him being somebody who could not adapt to society’s conventions. If you look at the reviews it’s quite a polarising book: a lot of people hate it because they have no kind of connection with the character. I’ll get that as well perhaps with mine: people might look at my character and think ‘Well, he’s a horrible individual! How can he treat people like that?’ I think people want to see bits of themselves in novels and relate to things, and that’s why it’s difficult to write and please everyone. You write thinking that if something is of a certain quality everyone is going to appreciate that, but then everybody’s different and you have to accept that people enjoy different things. You only have to go on Amazon and read the negative reviews of many classics films, books and albums.
FN Talking of reviews, a few days ago I was on Google looking for the address of a museum and, among the reviews online, somebody had written: ‘what a waste of space!’ The museum is actually in a relatively deprived area, a fantastic building and I think it brings a lot to it, so I really could not understand why anyone would write that. Online comments are the scariest and most enlightening thing about human nature.
NC That’s the thing: that someone has actually gone to the trouble of logging on to write that. Unbelievable! You will get people who are genuinely horrible, but you also get people who are attention-seekers, they say things just to provoke a reaction in people, which is ridiculous. It’s hard to understand, isn’t it? Some things are just unfathomable, you can’t comprehend why someone would act like that. Like those who – when someone dies – amongst all the condolence messages on a national newspaper, they’d write ‘Oh, he was rubbish!’ Ok, you can have that opinion, but why would you write that and tell everybody else? I suppose some people just enjoy that kind of interaction. Morrissey is a good example: he’s one of those artists who attract a lot of strange individuals. Sometimes people can’t get close to him and will be abhorrent all the time. They’ll spend all day writing abuse.
FN Are you thinking of anyone specific? Maybe that website Morrissey-solo?
NC Those people obviously love him, but in an obsessive way, and they spend time saying absolutely horrific things about him, maybe just because of the notoriety that might attract, getting attention from other people. I can’t rationalise why they’d do that.
FN Going back to the book, I have a feeling that you share Morrissey’s attitudes towards life and people. What do you like about him and what was his role when growing up?
NC Well, he’s been very important. Obviously he’s provided a lot of enjoyment over the years, that’s why I struggle when people come to me, after he says something slightly controversial and say ‘Right, that’s it! I’m going to throw all his CDs in the fire!’ I don’t think people actually appreciate what contribution he has made, affecting thousands and thousands of lives even just in this city, he’s totally unappreciated.
FN Oh yeah, I know, it’s unbelievable.
NC Lazy local journalists are still forever saying that he’s miserable, etc. But just seeing that club night that we do and how popular it is, people coming from all over the world, Manchester should be proud of him. But, as with everything, until he dies, he’s not likely to get any kind words said at all. In terms of direct influence on my writing, I wouldn’t say there is any kind of inspiration there. Although maybe the person I am is shaped by listening to his music. He’s always been incredibly important. Some people get quite obsessive about a person, want to get to know them, they hang on everything they say. Whereas for me, ultimately, he’s a human being, albeit an incredibly talented one. He’s given me so much in terms of artistic output, I don’t wish for anything more than that. The way he’s presented in the media is quite sad. It’s sad that there’s no real appreciation of what he’s done for this city and for the world of music. We live in a society that prefers to ridicule rather than praise. It all goes back to what I was saying before about people not appreciating things. Take David Bowie: there was this huge outpour when he died, everyone saying what a huge impact he had had on them. But when he was around, for the last 10-15 years he was largely ignored. It’s a bit like what we were saying earlier about appreciating your parents when they aren’t there anymore. Someone like Morrissey, just the canon of stuff that he brought out with The Smiths would have been more than enough for any individual, and the fact that, all these years later, he’s done so much more, creating so much more enjoyment for people it’s just incredible, and I think it’s incredibly sad that he’s not appreciated as he should be.
FN I think it has to do with him being extremely honest about what he thinks and not being willing to please people, and a lot of people hate that kind of brave personality.
NC If someone’s got an opinion some people will feel it’s overbearing, rather than appreciating that someone has an opinion and debate. Some of his own fans still expect him to be this 20-year-old guy with flowers in his pocket, walking around looking sad, and they are really upset that he’s not like that anymore. He’s now in his fifties; ultimately, he’s just a human being that will say things some people will agree with and others won’t, it shouldn’t affect how you feel about what he does artistically. If he murders four people tomorrow, I wouldn’t be happy, but it wouldn’t stop me from enjoying his albums.
NC Yeah, I don’t think it should do.
FN For me it’s impossible to separate the artist from their art, and if they behave like shit, I’m not going to give them my money or my support. My relationship with their art changes, and I will boycott them if they are sexist, homophobic or racist, for example.
NC I just think that it’s going to be difficult to find someone that always says morally fantastic things. They are just human beings, like other people, and people are going to say stupid things, that’s what happens.
FN I know, I include myself in that lot.
NC I just think that throwing everything in the bin after reading an interview you don’t like is a bit over the top.
FN Well, I prefer to support and promote artists who bring a positive contribution to society, according to the values I subscribe to, which I understand are not universal, but I think they can mostly be shared.
NC I feel like I’m morally on trial now after what we’ve been saying! [laughs]
FN Let’s see! Actually, there is something I wanted to ask about the book, as a female reader. There are some chapters, particularly those in which you talk about growing up and discovering sexuality and going out with girls, in which I felt completely excluded from your narration, I felt you were talking to ‘the lads’, for the way you were describing your experiences.
NC No. All those incidents are absolutely ridiculous! They are actual incidents that occurred and, obviously, there were two individuals involved, but they were all from times when I was very young and reflect the awkward and embarrassing issues involved in growing up – albeit from a male perspective. All these instances are discussed in terms of shaping my emotional upbringing, and episodes like those you’ll never forget. As with everything else, I was trying to put a humorous slant on everything. I don’t think they put me in a great light and there was definitely nothing to boast about! All of them were ridiculous, nonsense, not romantic or sexy, they were just about a young guy who doesn’t know what’s happening.
FN Sure, I get that, we’ve all been through that as teenagers: the ridiculous, the embarrassment, and I liked the way you talk about your early experiences, your self-deprecating humour, that’s brilliant. What I was trying to say is that what made me uncomfortable was the detachment of some parts, where you talk about some girlfriends, or perhaps when you only talk about their appearance, when you talk about girls as sort of ‘tools’ for discovery. Perhaps when we are teenagers, the people we meet are tools for discovery of sexuality for all of us. But, for example, there is a chapter, where you talk about a girlfriend and you say she was not particularly attractive or interesting, and you were very detached. The girlfriends in your book get very different treatments: some you adore, others don’t seem to have any qualities at all, they are ugly and they don’t conform to classic beauty standards. I was confused by the polarisation of treatments towards those women, very different. Also, even though you show great sensitivity and affection for some women throughout the book, they don’t seem to play a big part in your growth as a human being; this is my perception from your writing. Women are there, beautiful or ugly, but with no special qualities or any inspiring power.
NC For me, the book is just a series of various incidents in my young life, it’s just a very small part of my life, but the things that sew the whole book together are two women: my mother, and a girlfriend to whom I have dedicated a whole chapter and who broke my heart. So, in terms of inspiration, if they hadn’t been there, that book wouldn’t exist. Going back to what we were saying earlier, maybe there is some regret about not having a closer relationship with my mother as my sister had. I was not intentionally distant and I wasn’t close to my father either. For me, the book is all about my mother and putting to rest the emotions I had about what happened, which I talk about towards the end of the book. I got there through a very strange route, by going off on different tangents. Her death and the infidelity of my first girlfriend were two of the things which had the biggest impact on me in my entire life, as they would with anyone, especially at a young age. And also, when you fall in love at such a young age and you have someone who is the world to you and they give you such a hard life lesson, that could have made me bitter towards women, but I’m not. I still love her and the experiences we shared. It was just disappointing how things turned out. The book was written to tell stories, meandering here and there, through silly little things that happened. Some of them exaggerated for comedy effect. If I say anything negative about any girlfriends, it’s nothing compared to how I talk about myself! The only people who get a bit of a hard time are my stepfamily – and I could have been a lot harsher…
FN Wow! Could you?!
NC But it’s done with humour. There’s plenty of love for my father, for my mother. I can understand where you are coming from. Those were specific instances in my life as a young boy. I could have sugar-coated the whole thing…
FN I appreciate that you didn’t!
NC I have full respect for women, but I think the main reason the book works is because I’m honest and I’m not trying to paint myself, either now or back then, as the most amazing person in the world. It’s just what happened, it’s what teenage feelings were like. At that age, you are driven by emotion, or a sexual urge or to be with someone. I’m sure there are plenty of people out there who just go out to use people. One of the girls I mention, I do say I wasn’t too happy about the choice, but neither was she! I totally believe in equality, I might not like someone because they are incredibly boring but never because of their gender or their ethnicity or whatever. It does disappoint me if that’s how you interpreted the book.
FN I’ll give you an example. Even in the chapter about the girl you loved so much, we don’t get to know anything about this woman.
NC That’s because it’s me talking about me. I know what that person was and what I loved about her.
FN Exactly! But we don’t, and I’m left with no idea as to why you love her so much, of what she is like. I just find it very strange that of such an important person in your life, we know nothing. Similarly, we don’t know much about your mother, what she was like, what she liked, what she was good at, what qualities she had, what her opinions were, etc.
NC I think it’s difficult if you have attraction or fondness for anyone to put into words why a certain person might mean so much. I think it would have been strange to spend a paragraph saying ‘this is this type of character and this is what attracted me to her’. Especially when you are young, it might just be the way they smile at you, or a silly thing that they say. Sometimes it’s not very deep. People fall for people who are horrific individuals and it’s difficult to try to explain why, it’s difficult to put into words. I only talk about things that happened with her. It’s not that easy to explain why I was so in love with her over anybody else. Also, because it’s not a traditional style of storytelling, with a start and an end where characters are built over time, it is pretty much just a series of anecdotes all stitched together. The whole story is pretty much me rambling on with the intention of telling you about what happened to my mother, but discussing it later in the book because I don’t really want to talk about it. And that’s why I talk about other incidents, which remind me of other things, and even though it follows a chronological order, roughly, it’s never going to be a traditional story with full backgrounds. Basically it’s more like: this happened, and by the way, this other thing happened. That was ridiculous, I’m ridiculous…
FN We are all ridiculous. [we laugh] I really liked your honest style, and your choice of talking about the mundane and not sugar-coating anything, without shame. I loved when you wrote things like ‘I realise that I sound like a horrible human being, but this was the situation and what happened’. We all have our dark sides, and what you did just shows our complexity and it takes guts to openly say that in some instances we have been horrible. We all have been.
NC Sometimes you don’t realise at the time. It’s only when you look back and analyse life that you realise: actually, that was horrific! [laughs] I wrote with no moralistic approach. Everyone can make up their own mind, but I hope that those who read my book will think: ‘I’ve been told some entertaining stories.’ Some might want to judge that individual, but I think that would be quite harsh. You can dislike the language or cringe about some things – even I do! Even now, knowing that all these people are looking at it, sometimes I read some passages and think ‘Oh my god! Somebody’s actually reading this!’, but for me it works. The reactions I got so far have been so overwhelmingly positive because it’s authentic. People can relate to it.
FN Definitely! I think the great merits of your books are your honesty, self-criticism (rare quality) and your fantastic humour about your most embarrassing moments, I really liked that. And also, acknowledging your darker sides.
NC Going back to what we were saying earlier about the women in my life, in the parts where I try to understand why relationships failed, I felt so much affection for these people. It was not just a case of me deciding I was bored. I felt so much affection, but in life you feel affection for a lot of people. When you are with someone, you wonder: is this what it’s supposed to be? I look back at a lot of people in my life, and there’s this thing about love, it’s just one word that encapsulates so much: you can love family, friends, lovers. It’s not a very descriptive word considering the huge number of instances it’s required. And there are people like the girl I loved so much, I can still despise a part of her behaviour, but I still love her. And I look back and think: we were just two silly kids. We made a lot of mistakes, but I still have a lot of affection for her. If you spend any time with someone and they provide some happiness, some nice memories, then you’ll have affection for them. I struggle when sometimes, when you breakup with someone, that you can go from living with someone for two years to not being allowed to see them again. It’s a real struggle for me, because we’ve got a shared history. I understand why it happens, they’ve moved on to someone else, they might not appreciate me turning up, but I think it’s quite sad.
FN I suppose it depends on the breakup, if it’s a mutual decision, you might be able to be friends.
NC But if someone is with a new partner, they are not going to appreciate someone from the past showing up. It can’t work.
FN It can work, sometimes. It takes time for new partners to accept people from the past and vice versa, but it can work. It all depends on the people involved and how rational they are. You can be friends with your exes and get to the point where you are happy for them to be happy with somebody else who is perhaps more suitable for them, if you really love them. It’s also interesting that in the English language, the fact that the word ‘love’ can be used for family, friends and lovers simultaneously shapes and reflects reality. In Italian, for example, we use completely distinct words for romantic love and family/friends love, they are two completely differentiated semantic fields. For us Italians it’s much easier, very specific, whereas the English use of love is confusing and ambiguous for us foreigners. I think the way you talk about things in the book is very typically British or perhaps English.
NC Yes, I think it’s incredibly English and with a lot of low-brow cultural references which perhaps will not mean much to you.
FN Samantha Fox was huge in Italy too, worry not.
NC Sometimes I step back from my book and wonder what the audience would be. I hope people get something out of it – whether it will be entertainment or just a sense of nostalgia. Obviously you will not relate to a lot of those cultural references and unfortunately that’s going to take something away from the story. When I originally started writing, I was reading and thinking ‘some of this is quite good!’ Although I realise that everybody who writes anything will all think it’s good…
FN Not me, I’m very self-critical.
NC I’m quite critical too, but you see so many awful published books and those authors must think it’s good, so… No matter what you think, you need someone else’s feedback. So I started giving early drafts to friends and I got positive feedback from them, but I thought: ‘Wait a minute, they are friends’, so they’re bound to be kind – it might still be absolute rubbish. So I uploaded some chapters to the Harper Collins website for new writers (it doesn’t exist anymore) and I’d get feedback from readers from all over the world. That gave me confidence. People had taken the time to write comments for me. The quotes in the blurb are from these total strangers, often American readers. And I was surprised that they could enjoy it, despite the cultural differences.
FN Maybe that’s why they enjoyed it, because of your Englishness. My idea of Englishness has changed dramatically since moving to the UK, compared to what we studied at school/university and we learnt from the (music) press.
NC It was very positive, wasn’t it? Very cultured people etc.
FN Yes, very positive: poetry, music, committed directors, impartial journalism, creative rebellious youth, glamorous pop, all fantastic. We were listening to a lot of music from the UK and Ireland as children/teenagers. And then I moved here…
NC And your dreams were shattered… [we both laugh]
FN What struck me most – thinking that young British people were all like the Sex Pistols – was how most young people actually strive to be all exactly the same, looking alike and doing the same things at the same time. Being brainwashed with the idea of British creativity (which was and is real), I then crashed against the requirement, in all environments, to conform, a massive pressure to be exactly like everyone else. That shocked me. In your book, for instance, something I find very English is how to turn everything originally straightforward into something eventually awkward. Even when something could run perfectly smoothly, a very simple situation, the English are able to generate awkwardness: feeling embarrassed for perfectly normal things, performance anxiety, the terrible fear of doing something ridiculous, etc. You all always have to be perfect, otherwise it’s catastrophic failure. This is hard to live with, as we know life is very messy.
NC You can’t generalise. There are going to be very extrovert English people and English people who don’t care about conventions. Punks were mainly kids rebelling against adults, not necessarily adults making conscious decisions. It takes a lot here to see people protesting though. Then you see the news in Europe and people taking to the streets and starting fires for the slightest thing. I don’t like to admit that I have this Englishness. I had this romantic notion of France once. I was in love with French culture and music. So I started learning the language and so on. But then my idea of France was idyllic and I thought everyone was beautiful and elegant, etc… Then you go there and you realise you might be in love with certain things, little cafés, lovely buildings, but, ultimately, it’s full of twats there too! There was this massive demonstration against gay marriage and I could not believe it, because in my eyes France is all about liberté and egalité. So ultimately, you want to find people who are similar to you, who share your beliefs. I was there, it sounded better than it was because I could not understand everything they were saying, but they were horrible homophobic people! I wanted to live there at some point. In your mind, you romanticise things, but wherever you go in the world there’s going to be horrible and wonderful people. You can’t rely on songs and films.
FN It’s easy to fall into those cultural traps, though.
NC Those things you were saying about being the British being conscious and nervous. I think there are a lot of positives with that: people will tend to be, generally, a bit more well-mannered, you know, our famous queues. Even though not everyone is polite, there is the idea that you are supposed to be acting in a certain way towards people. In this country, in many areas where access to culture is limited, life eventually is about doing a job you hate, earn money, getting paid, getting drunk, trying to forget about things and not much more. The climate influences behaviour as well: people can’t sit outside and enjoy the weather, enjoy life, enjoy food. You have to be indoors all the time – which is why there are so many pubs and bars. People just consume too much alcohol.
FN Yes, I know. I’ve been discriminated against and bullied because I don’t drink a lot.
NC It’s the same with being a vegetarian. In this country – and probably more so in other countries – the reaction is always: ‘Oh my god, you’re a vegetarian!’ And the same with drinking, if you’re not out drinking, they’ll go: ‘What? You’re not out drinking?’ Even though the rational side of them knows that it’s fine not to eat animals and not drink much. It’s just the way society is. Sometimes I talk to people whom I think are intelligent people and find they just don’t really think about certain things in a way that I might do. In some ways I wish I didn’t think about things to the levels that I do, because it does make you miserable if you start analysing things. In some ways, it’s much better to have that mindset where you don’t think about anything, and you’ll probably be a lot happier in life. For me, when you turn on the news, or pass by homeless people, or you see someone being horrible, the more I think about it, the more stressed I get. It’s hard for me to look at something and forget it.
FN There are a few episodes in the book where you save animals: spiders, cats. I do the same: I’ve had two stray cats and I also gently accompany spiders outside the window.
NC I always think: why, in the entire street, is it me that has to do this? Why have I ended up with this stray cat! Someone else might see something in the news and say: ‘Oh, that’s sad!’, whereas for me sometimes it’s too much, it preys on my mind. It’s the helplessness of it all that there’s so many problems and nothing you can really do.
FN I find it really disturbing that there are so many homeless people and nobody seems to do anything about it. Hundreds and hundreds. It does not seem to be a priority for those in charge who can help these people.
NC Nobody cares, and also they are demonised in the media. Life’s difficult enough when you have a job and a house, imagine being in that situation: life’s incredibly desperate. It’s the same with migrants. People don’t see them as humans, they see them as rats.
FN It doesn’t help that the former Prime Minister referred to migrants as a ‘swarm’.
NC That’s why I don’t want to admit that I’m from here, because, even though I love the language and some of the culture, I hate how everyone is separate and selfish, thinking they are somehow better because ‘I’m from here’. I don’t want to be associated with any nationalism or patriotism. You can enjoy parts of your culture, but unless you have contributed to it, why should you take pride in it? It’s ludicrous. People happen to be born in different areas, speaking a different language, but this doesn’t make them different: there are great and horrible people everywhere. But because we are divided into national groups or regions, then people don’t see others as needing help. You get people going: ‘We’ve got to look after our own people first!’
FN Which they don’t, it’s bullshit. They just don’t care about anybody.
NC There’s people dying in the street, they need help, it does not matter where they are from. Again, it’s politicians and the media that twist people’s ideas. Why are they allowed to say things like that? Why are we in a situation where people are on the streets? Why are there hundreds of thousands of people dying trying to escape war zones?
FN The irony is bombing Syria and then complain that Syrians escape bombs to survive!
NC It’s just driven by money, isn’t it? Also, when I watch the news abroad, they talk about issues affecting other countries too, whereas here the news will mainly talk about the UK, or the US. If someone (white) dies in the US, it’s a disaster, whereas when thousands of people die under our bombs, they don’t even get a mention. The older I get, the more I get frustrated at people not caring about things. Just because we can speak, or build things, we like to think that we are somehow better than other creatures. But, eventually, we are just animals, and that’s why horrible things happen: people are driven by basic urges, greed…. You can try and educate and things can change, but it’s such a slow pace that it just gets you down. People who’ve got values, like Morrissey, get mocked for championing animal welfare, or if someone like Jeremy Corbyn actually comes out and tries to build policies around helping people and equality and they mock him because he’s wearing a cheap suit, you know something is wrong.
FN And if he had an expensive suit, they’d criticise him for wearing an expensive suit.
NC We’ve got these irrational, ridiculous fears and desires, people have only their own interest at heart, it’s very difficult to find anybody who is selfless. It’s all about what can I get out of life. And society breeds those feelings of looking down to those who haven’t got anything.
FN I also get depressed about politics and how public money is spent.
NC Look at how much money they spend on things like the royal family. You’d think anyone with rational thought would be like: ‘This is ridiculous!’
FN I can’t understand why the royals, the Kardashians, the Pope are so sacred. What have they done for humanity?
NC Nothing positive that’s for sure.
FN We’ve been digressing a lot from your book.
NC I think we’ve done nothing but digress.
FN Has anything changed now that you’ve got the book published? Has it affected you? Did you enjoy the process? Where are you going next? Will you write another one?
NC I’ve always enjoyed writing, but I think you get to a stage where your dream is to see something you’ve written get published and critically assessed. I ended up finding the quickest way. In the beginning I thought that if a book was good enough you’d send it to a publisher and they’d say ‘Hey that’s great, the book will be out on Monday!’ I naively thought it’d be quite simple. Whereas you can’t just send stuff to publishers directly. First you’ve got to get an agent, then you’ll have to send a sample of your work. A lot of them cover different genres, so it’s quite time-consuming to try and find out which agent covers which genres, especially when you are not sure what your genre is anyway.
NC Also, they don’t like you to send it out to many publishers, you have to wait. So at first I sent it to a couple of people; you have to wait at least three months to get a response. Then you get a rejection, then you wait, then you go through the whole process again. I soon realised that I was spending more time doing that rather than actually writing. Then a friend discovered this publisher based on a crowdfunding model. And the more I looked into it, the more it seemed just the quickest way. For me, the biggest thing is to see something you created in print. Knowing that people are reading it is such a huge buzz, as is hearing anything complimentary. In terms of the future, I have already written another novel, but I’ll never go through the same route again. What this has given me is an opportunity to put my work out there, and if somebody feels it’s worthy enough to then look at other things I’ve done then I’ll publish in a more traditional way. If they don’t, well, at least I’ve given it a go. It’s been a weird journey for me, because I thought I’d get enough pleasure from the act of writing and it’s not been nice to admit to myself what a big thrill it is to get positive feedback. You have that need for someone to tell you that something you’ve done is worthy of praise. I’d like to think that just my own enjoyment would have been enough, but it wasn’t. I’m still very nervous in case of negativity, but that’s part of getting your work out there. It could get totally ignored and I’ll just disappear, or it could get some positive reaction and hopefully then I could do more. I still get feelings of nausea thinking about people looking at it. In general, though, it’s been a thrill so far. Seeing it on a bookshelf is already a bigger step than what I thought would happen.
FN If you trust my judgement as a literature graduate and publishing history researcher, I think you really have a flair for writing, the book is very enjoyable and, although I had different feelings about different sections of the book, it’s definitely a gripping read. I even got angry at some points reading about women represented by their ‘knockers’, but I’d rather read something real and honest rather than think ‘this never happens in real life’.
NC I write about things that would interest me and provoke feelings, thought, emotion and it’s such a thrill when I‘ve had people telling me that they laughed or shared my sadness. This capacity of provoking emotions in people: I have achieved what I wanted. Maybe I did not want to provoke anger, but it’s better to have a reaction than none whatsoever. I hope that whatever I write, it might entertain people and make them think.
FN I also really enjoyed the range of emotions you trigger. It extremely funny in the beginning, that kind of victim/Woody Allen character you describe, where you endear your readers with laughter. Then you are a bit angry, and then, at the end, this terribly intense and brutal part about your mother. It’s authentic, it’s strong, it’s your emotion, your pain, your anger. I’m happy that you published this book and that I could read it. I’m also happy you are confident about your writing.
NC You’ve got to have that level of confidence, but it does not stop me from fearing any kind of negative reaction, although that’s part of the experience. Some people will go: ‘Where’s the story? Where’s the plot?’ Sometimes, when people ask me what it is about, I wish I could just say it’s a murder mystery because it’s much easier to sell it and market it!
FN Whereas it’s about wanks. Oh well. I wouldn’t buy a mystery murder book though, if that can make you feel happy.
NC I’m always going to write about the mundane. It may be difficult to market, but it’s me.
FN It must feel a bit weird now that we’ve read all those embarrassing things about your life, I know they are autobiographical, so…
NC I deny everything, of course.
FN When you read those stories, you feel part of the family, and you feel like you know the author. You sit on that sofa with him and his family, watching TV.
NC I think part of writing stories is getting readers involved, feeling empathy, bringing memories back. If people are not involved or bored, then you’ve failed. I definitely did not want to do something clichéd.
FN Last question. Is the choice of some non-politically correct terms intentional? It was sometimes so blatant that I thought you did it on purpose for comedy.
NC I’d like to think that if someone reads the entire book they get a good sense of what kind of person I am. I could have changed it while editing, but I decided not to.
FN I don’t think anybody would care about the foul language, it’s more about terms that are unacceptable today, like ‘retard’. I mention this as we were talking about criticism you might get.
NC It’s all about context. For that episode to sound real, I had to use the words we’d use at the time. I wanted it to be honest and authentic, so there was no point in polishing it all up at the end and cleansing. It wouldn’t have sounded right if the voice kept changing. You have to believe the voice of the narrator, otherwise the story collapses.
Curious? You can buy Neil Calcutt’s book (and review it) here: http://amzn.to/2ag4lwT
You can plan your Smiths Disco night here