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Author interview: Barney Farmer on Coketown

With Coketown recently published by Wrecking Ball Press, and The Observer lumping him into the new Brexlit movement in contemporary literature alongside Jonathan Coe, Ali Smith, Sarah Moss and Melissa Harrison, we caught up with author Barney Farmer about where the initial idea for his second novel came from, his vision for the book, his writing process, working with illustrator Lee Healey and the state of British politics.
 
Can you tell us something about the vision you had for Coketown?
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. 
 
Barney Farmer is a writer and artist who writes about things for Viz, mostly about drunken bakers, and sometimes for Private Eye, but not about drunken bakers. Farmer also wrote a short film called Who is to Blame. He uses biros. Coketown, illustrated throughout by Lee Healey, is published by Wrecking Ball Press and available at www.wreckingballpress.com/product/coketown.

Barney Farmer, Drunken Baker, Coketown and Brexlit

The Observer featured an article on Sunday 27 October about the growth of a subtle and complex new movement in contemporary British literature: Brexlit. “Some are epic tales of the ancient kings who battled to rule Britain. Others are books about bakers in abandoned northern towns.” The latter, of course, referring to Drunken Baker by Barney Farmer, published by Wrecking Ball Press.
 
“Novels about ‘the left behind’ make up another strand of Brexlit. In Drunken Baker by Barney Farmer, characters created for the celebrated Viz comic strip Drunken Bakers are immortalised in a book ‘so soaked in booze the pages almost smell’, according to one critic. It’s a comic novel that takes place over a single day: as the bakers get drunker and fail to bake, they reflect on their failures in life and the decline of everything around them. ‘You see the impact of the collapse of a northern town from the point of view of the bakery workers. And it’s just so full of despair. It’s very, very bleak.'” Read the full article here.
 
On the same day, Robin Ince hailed Drunken Baker as “remarkable” and named it his book of the day on twitter. Ince said: “This book is a remarkable book and if it wasn’t connected to Viz, or it was published by Faber & Faber it would probably be considered to be one of the most intriguing, fascinating and beautifully written books about a world of austerity, a broken world and a world of drunken bakers. Some of you will read Drunken Bakers in Viz it’s one of the most brilliant cartoons anyway, Alan Moore (Watchmen, V for Vendetta, The Ballad of Halo Jones) believes so. Alan Moore sees it as Samuel Beckett with Battenberg. Drunken Baker by Barney Farmer is remarkable. So, buy this book. It would be nominated for stuff if the literati knew what they were talking about.” View Robin Ince’s twitter post and video here.  
 
Barney Farmer’s second novel, Coketown, is published by Wrecking Ball Press in November.  Barney told The Observer: “I’m interested in the people that politics creates. When it comes to cause and effect, the cause is endlessly discussed. But the effect on the individual is more interesting to me, as a writer, than the grand personalities and the great sweep of events. There is more for writers to reveal by approaching political writing from that angle.”
 
Coketown can be ordered online here.

BBC Contains Strong Language is back

For the third year in a row, the BBC Contains Strong Language literature festival is running in Hull, co-directed by the BBC and us here at Wrecking Ball Press. It will take place the last weekend of September from 27th to 29th.

This third incarnation of Contains Strong Language promises to be the best yet. Like the past two years, it will combine established poets of global importance with Hull talent, such as the Scottish Makar Jackie Kay reading alongside Peter Knaggs on the Sunday at Hull Truck Theatre 4pm. The incoming Poet Laureate Simon Armitage will be returning to read from his latest collection on Sunday at 4pm Hull College and will also be working with local schools all week to format the performance Zoom!, combining poetry, dance, light and music (composed by John Harle) with an intergalactic theme, shown at Hull College on the Saturday 11am. Adding to the line-up of nationally acclaimed voices, the outgoing Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, will be performing at Hull College alongside two Laureate Choice poets on Sat 28th Sep 4-5pm.

You might remember that Editor Shane Rhodes headed to Indonesia in May 2018 to the Jakarta and Makassar International Writers Festival to form publishing networks. This link will see an exchange of poetry with poets arriving from Indonesia and Northwest Africa to share their work. Adil Latefi from Morroco will be running an interactive workshop with his translator on Saturday 28th at 1pm, with attendees taking part in creating a new translation. On Sunday at 11am there will be readings from the Indonesian poets and further discussion and practical insights into translating poetry, followed by the Indigenous Language Gala at 4pm. Languages closer to home will have their part with Welsh and Shaetlan – the native tongue of the Shetland Islands – featuring in the work of Rufus Mufasa and Roseanne Watt. This festival will be showcasing poetry as the varied and international art form it is, and an art that is increasingly important in a world facing international issues.

19 poets – The Hull 19 – will be resident in the city for three days, presenting special commissions, performances and readings. The entire BBC radio network will be covering the festival. Last year over 6.9 million people tuned in to listen across the weekend.

The festival’s directors are the BBC’s Susan Roberts (Editor Audio Drama and Radio 3’s The Verb) and Editor Shane Rhodes. “Contains Strong Language 2019 follows two extremely successful festivals held in Hull since 2017,” said Susan Roberts. “Once again we will present a packed programme of powerful, eclectic and visionary work that will resonate with audiences both live and via broadcast and online. This really is a celebration of the power of poetry and spoken word.”

Shane Rhodes commented on the continuity of presenting three festivals over three years. He added, “Hull was chosen as the location for the festival due to its vibrant, creative and innovative reputation as the nation’s poetry city. We’re continuing to build on two previous successful festivals that have left people with a hunger for more and we’re taking poetry and spoken word to a wide and growing audience. This year’s programme of work is ambitious and exciting.”

As previously, most events at BBC Contains Strong Language will be free to attend. Three paid evening events are available for booking here and the rest will go live at 10am 23rd Sep at hulltruck.co.uk. Keep a lookout on our social media for details of the festival events or get your hands on our brochure, which is now being distributed across the city.

Tickets at: bbccsl.eventbrite.com and hulltruck.co.uk/whats-on/

National Writing Day – Dean Wilson’s Pining

Dean WilsonDean Wilson, the fourth best poet in Hull, has written a new poem – Pining – to celebrate National Writing Day.

Dean, whose collections Sometimes I’m So Happy I’m Not Safe On The Streets and WITH are published by Wrecking Ball Press, has been described as “Every bit as brilliant as Larkin, but a million times funnier” (Dave Lee, The Guardian).

“Whether it’s window shopping in Doncaster; addressing the lack of tourists in Hornsea or warning of the dangers of deck chairs – brilliantly rhyming ‘chair’ with ‘fing-er’ – Dean’s way with words, eccentricity and glass half-full disposition, is a winning combination” (Michelle Dee).

Dean, who lives on the east coast of England, worked for twenty years a postman. Follow Dean on twitter at @PoetDeanWilson6

 

Pining

I was on my way to Whitby

In a vicar’s car

Like I didn’t have

A care in the world

 

But then doubts took over

And he called me

From a pig to a dog

And kicked me out at Brid

 

I made my way

To the harbour

And confided in a seagull

I was pining for With

 

Next thing I knew

I was in The Fat Badger

Telling the landlord

I was pining for With

 

As it got dark I nipped into Tesco’s

For a scratch card and a lucky dip

Then broke down at the checkout

And confessed I was pining for With

 

Then I lingered in the lorry park

Until a hunky trucker

Took pity and drove me back

To my beloved With

 

– Dean Wilson

BBC drama Bathwater now available from Wrecking Ball Press

BathwaterBathwater, the script of Vicky Foster’s BBC Radio 4 drama, has been published by Wrecking Ball Press. The book contains the full-length script, including material not aired in the radio version, and additional prose.

Bathwater is a gripping, ever-twisting, often moving, somewhat shocking and often agonising piece of work.

Vicky Foster said: “Bathwater is based on my real life experience of domestic abuse and the impact that violent crime has on families.”

Rather than a cathartic over-share, however, Foster goes way beyond writing what she knows in order to craft something that is simultaneously hard-hitting and poetic. She has written a work of literary beauty, despite the harsh and uncomfortable subject matter, combining prose, poetry and dialogue.

This is as bold a line in the sand as a writer can make to announce their arrival.

Poet Helen Mort, five-times winner of the Foyle Young Poets award, says that Bathwater is, “A powerful, extraordinary piece of drama. It has left me changed. Courageous and compelling poetry from a very talented writer.”

Bathwater is available to purchase now and can be ordered from the Wrecking Ball Press website.

A limited number of copies of Bathwater signed by the author will be available. Please indicate if you would like a signed copy when you place your order.

Award for Doom ’94 translation

Doom 94

The translator of Jānis Joņevs Doom 94, published by Wrecking Ball Press, has received the 2019 Lillian Fairchild Award for her translation of the Latvian novel.

Kaija Straumanis, editorial director at the University of Rochester’s Open Letter Books, received the award in March. 

At the presentation ceremony, Rosemary Kegl, chair of Rochester’s Department of English, said the translation is a “remarkable artistic accomplishment,” adding “Her prose is equal to the immediacy of the voices of our protagonist and his new friends. The subtle shifts in perspective and tone that locate them within larger and longer personal and historical acts of rebelling, faltering, remembering, and forgetting.”

This is the first time in more than 80 years that the Fairchild Award has been presented to a literary translator. Previous winners have included visual artists, writers, choreographers, and composers.

As reported on the University of Rochester website, Kaija Straumanis said: “I wasn’t expecting to win. It’s almost surreal that I saw my advisor, Jennifer Grotz, receive the award several years ago, and now it’s my turn. By making people aware of translation, we’re bringing world voices into English and making world literature accessible.”

She added: “This is a book that spoke to a lot of people. I wanted this to resonate with people who were in the same generation as the author, in the States or around the world.”

Doom 94 was Jonevs’ debut novel, published first as Jelgava 94 in Latvia in 2013, and quickly proved to be a big hit and bestseller. Translated into 11 languages previously, Wrecking Ball Press presented it for the first time in English.

The story is set in the 1990s in the Latvian city of Jelgava and looks at the burgeoning craze during this decade for the alternative culture of heavy metal music. Jonevs takes the reader deep inside the world of music, combining the intimate diary of a youngster trying to find himself by joining a subculture, as well as a skilful, detailed, and almost documentary-like depiction of the beginnings of the second independence of Latvia–where Jonevs is the first writer to stir up memories of this period through a fully-fledged literary depiction.

To buy Doom 94 visit the Wrecking Ball Press website.

Call out to writers and artists

Wrecking Ball Press are pleased to announce an open call out to writers to submit short prose pieces (max. 1500 words) and poetry for publication in a special edition anthology in 2019.

Focussing on the life and work of poet, novelist, and singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen, we invite you to submit to us your writing inspired by the Ladies’ Man himself: what he meant to you, how he inspired you, how he influenced you. Words born in the emotions invoked by Cohen’s writing and music, from short stories and poems to brief autobiographical experiences. Did you ever meet Leonard Cohen, or see him in concert? Where did he take you with his words and his songs?

We would also like to invite any photographers or artists who have original work or images of Leonard Cohen from any point in his career to send submissions, too, with permissions for credited print within the anthology.

Submissions will be shortlisted and selected by poet and comedian Kate Fox, and Wrecking Ball Press editor Shane Rhodes.

Submissions to be sent to: editor@wreckingballpress.com
Please title the email with: Leonard Cohen Submissions
Submission deadline: 17th May 2019

Love, music, the Holocaust, and a dog called Mango.

On March 6th this year, Martin Goodman’s new novel, J SS Bach, will be published by Wrecking Ball Press (available for pre-order here). Martin Goodman, award-winning author and Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Hull, “writes enchantingly” (The Literary Review), in beautifully crafted and emotive storylines with the greatest sympathy for his subject. J SS Bach is no except. The story of three generations of women from either side of Germany’s 20th Century horror story suffering the consequences of the actions of men, spanning from 1990s California right back to the midst of the Second World War, is intricate and moving. 

Without giving away too much, let us say this: J SS Bach is singlehandedly one of the most affective and beautiful books that you will read this year.

Tonight (Tuesday 29th January), Martin will be on BBC Radio 3’s Free Thinking at 10pm. Listen to him in the company of art historian Monica Bohm-Duchen and cultural historian Daniel Snowman, with host Anne McElvoy, discussing ‘Art and Refugees from Nazi Germany’ here. If you miss it, the wonders of modern technology will keep the programme available as a podcast for 30 days.


There will be two launches of J SS Bach, in London and in Hull, with Martin Goodman reading stories from the novel and – a special treat – live performances of Bach’s cello music.

The first, on February 26th at 6pm in the University of Hull’s Middleton Hall: French cellist Brice Catherin will play Bach’s 6th Suite and a range of other pieces (including his own compositions) to reflect Martin’s readings. Booking is highly recommended and may be done so here.

Second up, the London event. On March 7th at 7pm in the Great Chamber at Sutton House (Hackney) and hosted by the glorious Pages of Hackney: London-based cellist Hannah Monkhouse will play Bach’s 1st Cello Suite, and Martin will read from the book and tell stories of its conception. Tickets may be purchased here.


And, finally, a review of J SS Bach by Paul Simon of The Morning Star can be read here. The final words, “A masterful novel,” have never been more accurate.

Poetry in motion

Dean Wilson (of Sometimes I’m So Happy I’m Not Safe On The Streets and WITH fame) and Dave Lee (of An Insider’s Guide to Hull: ‘It’s better than you think, honest…’ fame) went to the seaside a little while ago. Withernsea, being on the North Sea, does winter with real conviction, but they went up to the cliffs all the same and battled the wind and rain, and Dean read some of his poetry whilst Dave filmed him.

This is almost, almost as good as going to see Dean perform live.

Almost.

Dean’s books are available in our shop, at Wrecking Ball Music & Books (Princes Quay, Hull), and sometimes even from the man himself.

The short films can be seen here or here for ‘Tablets’, and here or here for ‘Glass’.

December book signings at Wrecking Ball Music & Books

It’s December, the Met Office has issued a yellow snow warning (just don’t eat it—surely?), and there’s a lot of seasonal excitement all around. In the midst of the long evenings of open log fires (three-bar electric heater), cognac (bottom shelf brandy), and the curious realisation that the narrative voice of ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’ had, barring repetitions, received twenty-three live birds in the course of a week, Wrecking Ball Press has just a little more joy for you…

…two, yes, two incredibly exciting book signing events.

First off, on Thursday 20th December from 6pm, we are thrilled to welcome Barney Farmer back to our fair city so he can demonstrate his joined-up handwriting for us all again.

Barney Farmer writes about things for Viz – mostly about drunken bakers, males online, and bestiality – and wrote a short film once called Who Is To Blame, although he claims that he isn’t. He uses biros. He’ll be in Hull to deface copies of his first book, Drunken Baker, and possibly anything else left within arm’s reach once he’s been given a pen.

Drunken Baker, published by Wrecking Ball Press earlier this year, received critical acclaim—or, at least, didn’t receive too much criticism from those who claim to be in the know. It is a day in the life: the decline of the independent bakery and the steeper decline of the independent bakers within it (cake and bargain booze included). It is a harsh reality displayed without apology, elbowing its way into our collective comfort zone bringing laughter (probably), tears (well, eye-watering), and the smell of stale beer (see the aforementioned eye-watering).

Leaving no time for the excitement of that particular rollercoaster ride to fade, we then have on Friday 21st December from 12-1.30pm our very own local (alright—he’s Glaswegian, but he’s been here for quite a while now) legend Dr. Brian W. Lavery.

Brian Lavery has been a factory worker, car valet, market trader, waiter, university dropout, and VAT officer (briefly—it didn’t stick). Latterly, he has been a journalist, university tutor, and writer. He knows his way around poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction, has a passing knowledge of the whisky shelf, and a practical understanding of the banjo. He will be signing copies of The Luckiest Thirteen and The Headscarf Revolutionaries, two astonishing true stories from Hull’s history on the world’s stage, published by Barbican Press.

The Luckiest Thirteen tells the tale of the super-trawler St. Finbarr: the catastrophic thirteenth trip after her maiden voyage, the heroic rescue attempt, and the horror of suspense for the families waiting at home in Hull. The Headscarf Revolutionaries is the incredible story of the Triple Trawler Disaster and its aftermath, as the Hessle Road fishwives led by Lillian Bilocca fought for their men, for their lives, and for a change to the most dangerous industry on earth.

Both of these signings will take place at Wrecking Ball Music & Books, found on the East Arcade of Princes Quay Shopping Centre in Hull.