The idea came from two blokes I saw in a pub. One entered alone and sat at a table right by me 10 or 15 minutes before the second arrived. He was a real bruiser, big bloke, skinhead, face bashed from some recent altercation. The second bloke was totally different, decent suit on, tie, smart haircut. County Hall is nearby and I’m guessing I took him for some kind of mid-management type in the Engineering Department. They greeted each other as if it was the first time they’d met in a while. Without earwigging too much it was obvious they were old mates from way back when, both working class, both at some point scallies. The second bloke asked him what had happened to his face and the bloke brushed it off, and I left shortly after so never got the story, and wondering what it might have been is where Coketown started.
Who are you writing for?
Middle-aged working class bog-standard comprehensive school drop-out autodidacts. There’s about 200 of us. But I hope the books are sufficiently accurate depictions of people and places which are plausibly ‘out there’ as to be of general interest to anyone.
What experience do you want your readers to have with this new book?
I couldn’t begin to imagine how people might respond to it, and consciously try never to think about the readers at all while writing. But I hope they have a good laugh and come away with lots of questions.
When you’re embarking on a new novel what approach do you take?
I probably thought about those two blokes in the pub for six months before writing anything at all about them. Once I’d decided the book would mostly take place in a pub the second bloke would find violently disagreeable, I spent a few months going for drinks in pubs I didn’t remotely like. Several encounters and details in the book were drawn from this period, and it was around then that I started writing a few passages which later went in the book. So I’d probably say live with the idea a bit first and then, if needed, live a little of it too, see if you have any idea what you’re about to start gobbing off about.
You’re clearly a political man. How does that manifest itself in your writing?
Mostly by writing as little directly about politics as possible. There’s none at all in my first book, but not really possible in Coketown. Two men in their late 40s or early 50s out for a first pint at the moment are going to talk and think about politics, the end. As a writer I’m much less interested in the mechanics and intrigue of politics – the Great Players and their Press Court – than its ripples across culture and society. The average working class Brexit voting bloke is far more interesting to me, the route travelled from where via what, than is Boris Johnson, who is a two-dimensional cartoon villain who can be read like a child’s book, and a shit one at that.
What’s wrong with politics these days?
It’s all really very simple. The interpretation of utilitarian thinking which has underpinned British democracy for so long has failed. The ‘greatest possible happiness to the greatest possible number’ has boiled down to a simple matter of wealth allocation. Gradually for decades and fast since the Crash this ‘happiness’ has only been sustained by making the ‘unhappiness’ of those outside that ‘greatest number’ increasingly intolerable. At the same time, older and so more likely Conservative recipients of the ‘greatest possible happiness’ are suddenly finding it all a bit empty and meaningless and casting around for something else, something to believe in as the darkness gathers. They settled on Brexit about ten years ago and then enlisted enough pissed-off members of those – as social mobility died – to all intents and purposes permanently excluded from the gilded greatest number to their cause, with the time-honoured method of stirring up hate and grudge of ‘the other’.
Tell us something about your writing process?
No discipline time-wise, I start when I start and stop when my heart’s not in it. Lots of tea, no smoking at the computer, no music, an ordeal in itself, proper get up and leave the room breaks.
Do you do a lot of planning? The inner monologue of Coketown suggests not but that’s just a device, isn’t it? And what about research? Do you delve into archive material?
I try not to use much archive material, and in this book that’s part of the point. The main character not only has no clue what he’s talking about, he knows he has no clue but has decided to blag on anyway. I did enough to put dates and such on a firm footing, because so would he, that bit’s easy! The biggest single bit of research was rereading Hard Times, which was no chore if I’m being honest. The inner monologue is totally unplanned, in the hope of catching something near the natural progression of thought to thought. Which is impossible of course, as the thought process is electricity zapping millimetres through conductive custard and I type about 20 words a minute, but is worth a bash.
How does writing a novel length work differ from writing for Viz?
The strips I write for Viz – drawn by Lee Healey, who also illustrated Coketown – are far harder. They’re usually one full page, always five decks, which at most means around 20 panels, and that’s that. If you want to go on, the idea needs to be good enough to do another 20 panels, but no more than 40. And Graham and Thorpy are tough editors. Having written as many great strips as they have they can spot a clunker at 20 paces, and quite right too. A novel has no end so all the discipline has to come from yourself, as I suppose the temptation is to waffle. Probably the years writing for Viz, where it was obvious from square one that any padding or flab in a strip would only succeed in having it returned stamped ‘shite’ has been a good training ground.
How close to Barney Farmer is the Barney in the book? Is that inner monologue yours or the character’s?
Don’t want to give much away. But the reason I gave him that name was mostly because I was trying to paint a grimmish picture of middle-aged liberalish leftish but mostly confused manhood to play off the other lad. On the first draft he had no name, but reading back I twigged that I was uncomfortably guilty of quite a lot of the things I’d heaped on him, to varying degrees, and also that by not acknowledging this I was putting myself undeservedly upon a fine little pedestal.
How did you work with Lee Healey on this?
More or less the same as for the strips. Framed rough sketches of the components which needed to be in each image, along with descriptive extracts from the book, and left him to it. They all came back just as envisaged, with one or two as if he’d plucked them straight from my mind’s eye. He’s a sublimely gifted artist.
How do you feel about Coketown being part of this Brexlit movement that you’ve been lumped into?
I see what they’re getting at, and am delighted that anyone, let alone academics, should have enjoyed my work enough to subject it to some critical thought, but they were certainly not written with that in mind.
We’re living in time where there aren’t many heroes anymore. Who, if any, are your literary heroes?
SJ Perelman is for me the greatest out-and-out comic writer of the 20th Century, and virtually every funny American column or essay I read to this day is shot through with a manner of expression lifted direct. And he was one of the team that helped Groucho transfer his persona from stage to screen, so debate over. In every other respect I have the standard set of autodidact stopping points for a man raised in the fag-end of postwar existentialism – Kafka, Ballard, Dickens, Camus. The list is boring.
There’s a hell of a lot of drinking in both Drunken Baker and Coketown. How important is alcohol to you, your characters and people in general?
Very, although in my private life I now have a fairly good grip on its collar and it is a rare pleasure always now enjoyed to the full. Alcohol is the only state approved flight from the drudgery of consciousness and so I think it’s hugely important, culturally, to my generation and those before, which tended to be more widely – although greatly less so from the 70s on – law abiding in that regard. It is interesting to me that younger people are now apparently far less likely to drink, preferring other substances. I think this is less a rejection of drink, by the way, than a good and healthy growing disdain for the State telling you what you can and cannot ingest for laughs.
Do you have any thoughts about your experience of independent publishers?
I thank goodness for them. Not to get too Dave Spart about it, but writers from my background writing books like mine would simply never be published without the indies, not in a way that is any use to them. Wrecking Ball and the like perform a vital role both in their communities, through organising events, bringing attention and activity, and generally in culture, as enablers for writers who might, just might, have an audience and the chance to give writing the hard time and dedication required.
So what’s the future hold for Barney Farmer?
It is yet unwritten, and no spoilers are available.