Flying in the face of fashion – the Wayne Hemingway interview

Sun Trap: Wayne and Jack Hemingway enjoy the ride in Morecambe last summer (Photo: Emma Sudall)

Sun Trap: Wayne and Jack Hemingway enjoy the ride in Morecambe last summer (Photo: Emma Sudall)

This September, Vintage by the Sea returns to the Lancashire coast, aiming to build on last year’s successful event in Morecambe, one that attracted 40,000 visitors.

The two-day festival will see the resort seafront and its landmark venues transformed, the event co-delivered by the town’s Deco Publique, Lancaster City Council and HemingwayDesign’s Vintage Festival team.

The latter includes Morecambe-born Wayne Hemingway, his wife Gerardine, originally from Padiham, near Burnley, and their eldest son Jack.

And for Wayne and Gerardine it’s a further chance to give something back to the county they left in 1982 to set up the world-renowned Red or Dead fashion empire.

As with last year, the festival, backed by Morecambe Town Council, celebrates music, fashion, film, art, design and dance from the 1920s through to the 1990s.

Its organisers promise a seafront rich with music, people, classic cars and glamour, making best use of the coastal setting, art deco Midland Hotel, iconic Winter Gardens and Morecambe’s old railway station in a multi-venue playground.

And from dance workshops to live performances, DJ sets, classic car shows, air displays, catwalk shows, food and cocktails, decade-specific hair and beauty makeovers and vintage shopping opportunities, it promises to be a visual feast.

Wayne was buzzing this week about the prospect of helping bring the event back to the town, promising ‘a feelgood factor that spreads far beyond the local community.’

“We’ve been doing it for a few years now, and have a good local team, so it’s a lot of work, but do-able. A lot of those involved worked on the Preston Guild too.”

Wayne’s no stranger to Morecambe’s seafront, having early memories of being dressed up as Elvis, a Beatle or Tarzan and paraded up and down the pier by his mother and grandmother.

Sea View: Wayne Hemingway returns to his Morecambe roots

Sea View: Wayne Hemingway returns to his Morecambe roots

Since 2010, the Vintage Festival has seen the Hemingways help organise events from London’s Southbank Centre to Glasgow via Morecambe and Preston.

Could he and Gerardine ever have imagined such an event when they upped sticks for the capital all those years ago?

“We never planned anything when we left, but it is nice to do something that has such a positive impact on a place that means such a lot.

“There’s so much to do in London and people tend to focus on the capital because of the sheer numbers of people and the amount of money that’s around.

“For that reason alone, it’s obviously a first choice for events, with the best chance to get it underwritten. But now we’ve worked out how to do it in the North.

“Preston Guild was the first of our festivals in that respect. That worked such a treat, with around 200,000 people coming along.

“So to be able to carry on working in Lancashire and in the town I was born in – and such a great seafront location – is really something.”

With the revival of the Midland Hotel, the seafront Eric Morecambe statue, a Football League team in town, and so much more, it seems Morecambe is well and truly back on the rise these days.

How does it compare to the 1960s town where 54-year-old Wayne spent the first seven years of his life, before relocating to Blackburn?

“It’s not quite back to the vibrancy it had when I was growing up, but it’s certainly in a better position than quite a few seaside towns. It also has something quite a few of those don’t have – that amazing view across to the Lakes.

Classic Touch: Jack and Wayne Hemingway take to two wheels for last summer's Vintage by the Sea (Photo: Emma Sudall)

Classic Touch: Jack and Wayne Hemingway take to two wheels for last summer’s Vintage by the Sea (Photo: Emma Sudall)

“There are very few things more dramatic than watching the tide coming in and going out at Morecambe Bay at the speed it does.

“And it’s blessed with a pretty good climate and a lovely long seafront that you can cycle or walk along.”

Wayne’s childhood was punctuated by key moments, not least when his father – Canadian Mohawk chief and former wrestler Billy Two Rivers – returned to North America when he was just three.

Is there a bit of the outsider in that Native American heritage on his father’s side that helped Wayne him stand up on his own two feet as a businessman?

“Well, you never know. Obviously, he was a rebel and an outsider and did things differently, and I have done too.

“But he didn’t bring me up, he buggered off! I like to think it came from my Mum really.”

His father left in 1964, and it doesn’t take much research to realise how much of an influence his mother and grandmother were to his upbringing.

Incidentally, it also transpires that another influential female figure lived next door to the family in Thirlmere Road – Sadie Bartholomew, mother of Eric Morecambe, as memorably portrayed in 2011 by Lancastrian writer and performer Victoria Wood.

Memories of Sadie may have been a bit before his time, but I put it to Wayne that those matriarchal figures in his life were clearly determined, strong women.

“Yeah, my Nan and my Mum were both very feisty, very stylish too, and did things very differently. That’s where I think it all rubbed off.”

Bass Instinct: A scene from 2014's Vintage by the Sea (Photo: Emma Sudall)

Bass Instinct: A scene from 2014’s Vintage by the Sea (Photo: Emma Sudall)

Wayne has certainly never forgotten his Lancashire roots, regularly returning home to see his mother, who was based in Garstang.

She passed away just 10 days before we spoke, at the age of 78 after a battle with lung cancer, family and friends holding a party to celebrate her life last weekend.

It was clearly still a difficult time for him to open up about her, but Wayne did voice his own tribute.

“She was always a fighter, trying to do things better, rise up from the background she came from, with great aspirations.”

It might surprise a few people that just know about his fashion roots that Wayne, with 10 O-levels and 4 A-levels under his belt, that it was geography and town planning he studied at degree level at the University of London.

But while some of that background later came in handy, that was never the draw.

“I went to the capital for London itself rather than for the university. That was my route.

“Not having much money, Blackburn Council paid for me to go, with a scholarship. But I didn’t think I’d have that much interest in geography and town planning.”

The Red or Dead fashion label was the result of a permanent move to the capital in 1982 alongside Gerardine, the couple initially selling items from their own wardrobes on Camden Market, making £80 that first day after spending just £6 to rent a stall.

The rest is history, their brand receiving global acclaim and the couple winning the British Fashion Council’s Streetstyle Designer of the Year award for an unprecedented three consecutive years from 1996.

But initially Wayne had other aspirations, word having it that the idea of the stall being to buy equipment for his band.

“I attempted to sing and attempted to play saxophone, but neither of them very well. We were into indie funk at the time, bands like A Certain Ratio.”

From an early and enduring love of Northern Soul to flirting over the years with the disco, punk, new romantic and rockabilly scenes, this was a lad who dearly loved his music. And music and fashion often go hand in hand.

“Yes, especially back then the two went together. You could stay underground a lot longer then because there wasn’t the internet – that movement had time to mature.

Certain Ratio: Wayne and Gerardine during those early '80s pioneering days (Photo: Hemingway Design)

Certain Ratio: Wayne and Gerardine during those early ’80s pioneering days (Photo: Hemingway Design)

“Me and Gerardine met in a nightclub and were going out dancing and watching bands.

“It was a very exciting time, and a lot of pretty famous people came out of the club culture scene of the late ’70s and early ’80s.”

Was Wayne, aged 21 when he started his market stall, a regular clubber at that time?

“Yeah, me and Gerardine met in a nightclub and were going out dancing and watching bands.”

One of the pair’s founding business ambitions was to create affordable fashion for youth, a principle that often put them at odds with the more elitist fashion industry, but something that clearly remains important to them today.

“Again, that’s the background we came from, and I think we’ve stayed pretty true to our roots.

“We’re not the kind of people who got money then started to buy Bentleys. I find that all a bit obscene. We live reasonably nobly.”

Despite those principles, the pair went from one to 16 stalls within a year, two decades of successful ownership of the Red or Dead empire following, first setting up in areas like Soho and Covent Garden.

Was Wayne a natural pitcher?

“No, I never needed to, and we never borrowed money. We’ve always done everything ourselves, never having to approach money people. We’ve always been in control of our situation and our lives.”

Surely it took a little persuasion to find funding when they first set up in areas like Soho and Covent Garden.

Sole Power: Fine examples of the Red or Dead footwear range (Photo: Hemingway Design)

Sole Power: Fine examples of the Red or Dead footwear range (Photo: Hemingway Design)

“Not back then, really.

“London wasn’t really the expensive place it is today. You could rent shops at £20 up to £60 a week.

“We were just good at finding cheap locations and building followings. We’ve always seemed to have that ability to spot opportunities.”

It must have been hard to keep so fresh and see off the competition. Was it a case of recruiting the right people around them to keep tabs on the scene and the market itself?

“We’ve always had a brilliant team around us, and now our eldest kids are well into their adult years and are partners in the business.

“They add that nice fresh thinking we had when we were in our 20s, and we had the elder statesman with the experience to add to that – it’s quite a good mix really.”

Eventually, Wayne and Gerardine took a step back, selling their fashion business in 1998 after 21 consecutive seasons on the catwalk at London Fashion Week, in a multi-million cash sale.

“The fashion industry can almost be like being on a treadmill really, and I think it was good to get off and do something different.

“Neither of us started out as fashion designers, but both of us were really pleased we had the chance to do that then do all the things we’re doing now – from regenerations to festivals and housing, furniture, product design, branding and graphics.

“It’s also useful if you’ve built up a business to sell it. That gives you the security to go and try other things.”

Like their first enterprise, HemingwayDesign has been a major success, their initial ambitious affordable housing development on Tyneside winning a series of high-profile awards and setting the tone for all that was to follow.

“That was the first really large-scale project, with 700-odd homes. It’s been a massive success too, there’s no other way of putting it.”

Today’s HemingwayDesign is a multi-disciplinary agency led by two generations of the Hemingway family and a wider team of designers, working to a core philosophy that ‘design is about improving things that matter in life’.

Catwalk Days: From the Hemingway-era Red or Dead fashion range (Photo: Hemingway Design)

Catwalk Days: From the Hemingway-era Red or Dead fashion range (Photo: Hemingway Design)

From further housing and regeneration projects to interiors, company uniform design and even dabbling in an alternative amusement park, it’s no doubt been a steep learning curve.

“Yeah, but it’s not rocket science, it’s all common sense. You wouldn’t want someone unqualified doing heart surgery on you, and you can’t teach yourself those skills.

“But designing houses, and designing anything really, is about common sense, understanding the human being and what life is all about. You can teach yourself anything in that respect.”

These days, Wayne and Gerardine spent most of their time between London and Chichester, West Sussex, where they brought up their four children, now aged 27 down to 19.

“We’re still in London at least half the week, but Chichester was a great place to bring up the kids, with a handy beach nearby and all that. But they all came back to London as soon as they were old enough.”

Life remains as hectic as ever for the Hemingways, who became MBEs in 2006 for services to the design industry.

Wayne for one is now part of the South Coast Design Forum, Building for Life and a patron of the Unite Foundation.

Then there are the charity projects with the likes of Oxfam, the Prince’s Trust, Shelter and Traid, the coffee table art books and writing, the talks and lectures.

Does he remain as passionate about today’s projects as he did with Red or Dead all those years before?

“Probably more so. Red or Dead was just fashion, after all. It’s not quite as important as some of the things we do today.

“I always felt very responsible for everything we did there and all the staff we employed, but sometimes now you’re holding more responsibility.

Interior Design: Wayne and Gerardine and their company have moved into challenging new areas (Photo: Hemingway Design)

Interior Design: Wayne and Gerardine and their company have moved into challenging new areas (Photo: Hemingway Design)

“You might be dealing with communities and people’s lives. If someone’s bought a blouse and it doesn’t fit, it’s not the end of the world.

“But if you’re designing a house or doing a regeneration scheme the potential impact of doing something wrong is a lot more.”

Looking back, would he do anything differently given what he knows now?

“I’d do it all again. There’s no point looking back, thinking you could have done things differently. That would be pointless.”

The adages about mixing business and pleasure or working too closely with a loved one don’t seem to apply to Wayne and Gerardine. So what’s the secret of their success?

“Well, we’ve been together since we were so young, always working together. We don’t really know any differently.

“Our lives have been wrapped up in it all, and all the way through the kids have been too. Gerardine, as soon as she had a baby, was back at work almost a day after.

“When we went on business trips to wherever, more often than not the kids would come with us.

“At the time we thought it was possibly the wrong thing to do, but they all absolutely loved it. We thought we were being cruel dragging them round trade shows buying shoes.”

Sunshine Legacy:  The organisers are hoping for great weather in Morecambe Bay this year too for Vintage by the Sea (Photo: Emma Sudall)

Sunshine Legacy: The organisers are hoping for great weather in Morecambe Bay this year too for Vintage by the Sea (Photo: Emma Sudall)

I’d suspect not, looking at their blossoming individual careers now – two having followed their parents’ lead into design, while one became an artist and the other a cricketer.

“They’ve all developed interests. We dragged them around housing estates all over Europe when we were studying all of that, instead of going on holiday. But they loved it and found it all fascinating.”

Vintage by the Sea runs on September 5 and 6, with more details at  www.vintagefestival.co.uk, the VintageFestival Facebook page, @vintage_2015 Twitter link and www.exploremorecambebay.org.uk

 

 

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Albania to Southport, via Brighton – with Attila the Stockbroker

Festival Flight: Attila the Stockbroker sings the Seagulls' praises at Glastonbury (Photo: Attila the Stockbroker)

Festival Flight: Attila the Stockbroker sings the Seagulls’ praises at Glastonbury (Photo: Attila the Stockbroker)

It’s been some journey for Attila the Stockbroker, who publishes his autobiography Arguments Yard later this year, with little to suggest he’s slowing down.

This is the radical performance poet and musician who toured East Germany four times before the Wall came down and was part of the first punk performance in Stalinist-era Albania.

Yet this 57-year-old also once stood in for Donny Osmond at a show, apparently.

He was targeted by fascists during the early ‘80s and once had a 10-minute stand-up political row with the singer of notorious Nazi band Skrewdriver mid-gig at London’s 100 Club.

But he had a far better night playing his Mum’s Women’s Institute in West Sussex.

Times may well have changed and Attila – real name John Baine – has hardly ever stood still, liking to think he remains a thorn in the side of 21st-century Britain.

What’s more, 35 years down the line since his live solo debut, he still has plenty of ambition, not least to play Pyongyang or the somehow-avoided Southport.

That’s where he is this weekend, incidentally (on the Lancashire coast rather than the capital of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea), fitting – as is his wont – that date and another on Saturday night in Glossop Labour Club, Derbyshire, around a Championship away fixture for Brighton and Hove Albion at Blackburn Rovers.

“This is very much a feature of my life and has been all the time I’ve been a performer. As much as possible I organise my gigs around my club.

“It doesn’t always work, and by the very nature of what I do and my travels abroad I miss some games. But I normally make around 32 of 46 games a season, home and away.”

Arcade Foyer: The Hungry Monk in Southport, ready to receive Attila the Stockbroker on March 20th

Arcade Foyer: The Hungry Monk in Southport, ready to receive Attila the Stockbroker on March 20th

After an estimated 3,000 gigs over three and a half decades, is he really sure he hasn’t made it to Southport?

“Many places I’ve played many, many times, but as far as I know I’ve never played Southport.

“I haven’t even been to Haig Avenue, although I nearly went a few weeks ago when Southport were playing Eastleigh in the FA Cup (early December’s second-round clash, a 2-0 victory for the Sandgrounders), with Brighton playing the next day.

“My mother-in-law’s in Northwich, so I was visiting her. I’m very familiar with the North West though.”

At that point Attila gets on to vague memories of the Port being voted out of the Football League (after three successive 23rd out of 24 Division Four finishes in 1978, making way for a certain Wigan Athletic).

But we’re soon back on to the subject of his Friday, March 20th date at the Hungry Monk, Cambridge Arcade in the Lancashire coastal town.

“I’m fascinated by this gig, to see who turns up and then see how many of those who do turn up have got any idea what they’re coming to see.

“I’m not a celebrity and not well known in the mainstream, but was quite amused when I was looking at everyone else booked at this venue, thinking, ‘Hang on a minute – they’re possibly going to get a bit of a shock’.

“I said to the guy putting me on, ‘Are you sure anyone’s going to turn up? It’s not like I’m a household name’. But it seems like it’s going to be alright.”

Launched into public consciousness by legendary Radio 1 DJ John Peel in 1982, Attila has extensively toured the world as a self-sustaining DIY one-man cottage industry, playing 24 countries in total.

Helping Hand: John Peel's early support helped Attila the Stockbroker find his feet

Helping Hand: John Peel’s early support helped Attila the Stockbroker find his feet

He’s also released some 20 or so LPs and CDs, 10 EPs and seven books of poetry, and reckons he was once thrown out of his own gig by the bouncers on the orders of main act John Cale, one of his all-time musical heroes.

Meanwhile, his own support acts have included the Manic Street Preachers, Julian Clary, New Model Army and Billy Bragg, while in the early ’80s the influential Radio 6 Music and former Radio 1 and 2 DJ Steve Lamacq was his roadie.

Alongside his solo work, Attila has led baroque’n’roll band Barnstormer for 20 years. And while his solo career started with a gig in Harlow in 1980, he was playing bass as early as 1977 in Brighton Riot Squad at his hometown’s legendary Vault nightspot.*

* After this feature was published, Attila put me right on that, letting me know, “The Vault was not a nightspot. It was a burial vault!”

Reviewing his first album in the NME, Don Watson memorably said he would rather gnaw through his own arm than listen to it again. That didn’t deter Attila though, in fact it was water off a duck’s back for a regular Morning Star columnist who has written for NME, Sounds, Time Out, The Guardian and The Independent over the years.

And now he’s ready to put his story out there in autobiographical form, describing Arguments Yard as ‘social history and personal story combined: a cultural activist’s eyewitness journey through the great political battles and movements of recent times’.

En route there was his part in the Rock Against Racism and Anti Nazi League movements, the Miners’ Strike, the Wapping dispute, Red Wedge, the Poll Tax protests and campaigns against two Gulf Wars. In fact, you could say – and he certainly does – Attila has ‘been there, done the benefit and worn the t-shirt’.

There’s also the non-stop touring schedule, taking him not just all over the UK and mainland Europe, but also Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the USA and the old Eastern bloc, with ‘history observed at first hand’ in the latter case.

Back home, Attila has performed at every Glastonbury Festival since 1983 and now even organises his own beer/music extravaganza, Glastonwick, in West Sussex. And away from all that he was at the heart of a 15-year campaign to save his football team from going out of business.

Roadie Stint: Steve Lamacq contemplates his early  days on the road with Attila the Stockbroker

Roadie Stint: Steve Lamacq contemplates his early days on the road with Attila the Stockbroker

While he remains fiercely political, there are signs of late of a more mature artist not just content to write about the old subjects, as seen with recent works The Long Goodbye and Never Too Late. And running alongside those pieces, Arguments Yard tells of a happy childhood ripped apart by his father’s death and, 40 years later, how he helped nurse his mum through a six-year battle with Alzheimer’s.

And yet for all that career passion, he stresses his message is a simple one – you don’t need to be ‘a celebrity’ to have a wonderful life earning your living doing what you love … although apparently it does help if you have ‘a way with words, the self-confidence and organisational ability of Napoleon and a skin thicker than the armour of a Chieftain tank’.

When I caught up with Attila, he was on foot to the University of Brighton’s Eastbourne campus, giving a talk on his part in his club’s move back from exile to their home city, on behalf of his friend, author Mark Perryman, co-founder of the Philosophy Football organisation.

We quickly get on to football, this scribe breaking the ice by talking about the vagaries of supporting Conference Premier outfit Woking while based 230 miles from home games – what Attila’s old tour-mate Billy Bragg might suggest would make me a ‘victim of geography’.

That appears to be enough to convince this diehard Seagulls fan that I understand the draw of a long-distance relationship with the Beautiful Game.

And he confides: “I once went to see Woking play Southwick in the Ryman League, a 1-1 draw on a Tuesday night at Old Barn Way when Brighton weren’t playing.”

I think it’s the fact he even remembered the score that impressed me (or perhaps worried me), something I confirmed via my treasured copy of Cardinal Red: The History of Woking FC, suggesting that was 25 years ago, an Isthmian League Division One game in September 1989 in which legendary defender Trevor Baron scored for the Cards.

In fact, we pipped our hosts – these days languishing in the Sussex County League – to promotion that season, finishing second. But that’s another story, and I wasn’t there while he was.

So, with that out of the way, I ask if it can really be 35 years in this business they call show for him come September.

“Well, you say ‘in the business’, but I don’t really have much of a relationship with the conventional entertainment industry.

Wickers Way: Southwick FC's Old Barn Way home (Photo: http://hoppysnaps.blogspot.co.uk/)

Wickers Way: Southwick FC’s Old Barn Way home (Photo: http://hoppysnaps.blogspot.co.uk/)

“I do everything for myself, book all my own gigs, put out my own CDs and books, and I’m totally DIY.

“I still do around 100 gigs a year, play all over the world, have a really good time, but I’m a tiny little fish in a huge great pool.

“Most of the mainstream media are scared shitless of me because of my politics and general volatility. But I have a great time.”

I ask him to think back to that first gig in Harlow, not long before his 23rd birthday, and why he’d felt the need to branch out alone.

“I’d been a bass player in punk bands, but I’d always been writing poetry and songs on the mandolin and wanted to earn my living out of it.

“My parents were both talented performers, and I just got this idea it would work getting up on stage between bands and shouting poetry.

“That’s what I did, and at the time I was doing this job in the city for a stockbroker’s company, hence this stage name.

“I went down quite well and it wasn’t very long before I was on the front cover of Melody Maker and getting sessions for John Peel.”

From his shows in Albania and the old East Germany to that one for his Mum’s WI back in Sussex and another at the Oxford Union, he’s played a bizarre mix of venues. Is there anywhere still on his list that he’d like to play for the first time (once he’s ticked off Southport of course)?

“I’d still like to play Pyonyang. And from those you mention to freezing squats in Germany, it’s been very fulfilling and interesting, and I remain a law unto myself, without anyone telling me what to do and no agent or manager.

Touching back on his Harlow debut, if he could go back to those days, what would he do different about those following years? Was confidence ever an issue, for example?

Poetic Licence: Attila the Stockbroker in live action (Photo: Attila the Stockbroker)

Poetic Licence: Attila the Stockbroker in live action (Photo: Attila the Stockbroker)

“I’ve always had complete self-belief and don’t have a self-doubt gene. I’m incredibly motivated and have always done what I wanted and followed my own path.

“Getting help from people like John Peel in the early days and a deal with Cherry Red ensured my early albums came out and got me a lot of mainstream coverage – albeit mostly negative!

“But that really set me on my way, and I’m a natural-born organiser. When I was at uni in Kent I was on the ents committee and learned more than anything else during that course how to organise gigs.

“I now organise my own festival, Glastonwick, and also have a sort of exchange system – I go and play in countries and they organise gigs for me, and when they come here I do the same for them. It’s all very DIY, but really works.”

While some of his more recent material is more personal, he’s still not above a little political targeting, as heard on a recent song about Prince Harry that you can find on his website, a poke at readers of The Sun ending with the line, ‘social justice – it’s not for the likes of us’.

“I describe myself as a social surrealist. There’s an old saying, one of my favourite quotes, from Mary Poppins, ‘A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down’. What I aim to do is give people a really good evening and at the same time give them lots to think about.”

He didn’t really say the word ‘really’ there, but you get the picture.

“And after 35 years my material includes pieces about my mother and step-father, and there’s a lot of humanity and very serious stuff – some of it very personal. The greatest compliment I get is when people say, ‘That was brilliant, Attila. You made me laugh and cry in the same hour.’”

Is he still as fired up about issues as he was back in the early ’80s?

“Of course I am, and there’s even more to talk about, with more injustice and shit going on. I get angrier as I get older. I’m far more fired up now than 30 years ago.”

As far as I recall, the first time I saw Attila live was in the acoustic tent at Reading Festival in August ’89 – barely four weeks before that Southwick versus Woking fixture he mentioned.

Cover Star: Attila the Stockbroker visits Whitby and the address that gave his forthcoming autobiography its name (Photo: Attila the Stockbroker)

Cover Star: Attila the Stockbroker visits Whitby and the address that gave his forthcoming autobiography its name (Photo: Attila the Stockbroker)

My diary entry lists the bands I saw that weekend, and I’ve actually added ‘Albania, Derek Pringle, Slough and Crystal Palace’ in brackets after his name, clearly aides memoire to writing a review for Captains Log at the time.

The mists of time have fallen since, and the fourth edition of my fanzine never got published, but I’m guessing each related to a song or a rant between songs, with the first and last pretty much self-explanatory and the third no doubt of its time too.

But it’s the third that sticks in the memory, his poetic response to Sir John Betjeman’s Slough. I applauded his view at the time, but was always in two minds, feeling the poet laureate was not only a force for good but also spot on about what the planners had wreaked upon that particular Berkshire town.

I don’t think it was a slight on Slough itself, but to Anynewtown, UK, and in that sense arguably a precursor to songs like Paul Weller’s Come to Milton Keynes, recorded with The Style Council.

I couldn’t draw Attila on Sir John though. Instead, he cited a poet that meant more to him.

“My sort of mentor, poetry-wise, was the great Sussex polemicist Hilaire Belloc.

“My Dad was a talented comic poet. He died when I was 10, but started reading me Cautionary Tales for Children by Belloc. That was what really got me interested in poetry.

“My first gig – rather than the one at Harlow – was really at primary school in Sussex at the age of nine, doing a Belloc poem and Heinrich Hoffman’s Augustus is a Chubby Lad (The Story of Augustus Who Would Not Have Any Soup).

Poetic Inspiration: Anglo-French polemicist Hilaire Belloc was a major influence for Attila the Stockbroker

Poetic Inspiration: Anglo-French polemicist Hilaire Belloc was a major influence for Attila the Stockbroker

“I’ve always loved words and try and use them in as diverse a way as possible. I’m also very fired up politically, but there’s no way that my aim is to shove ideas down people’s throats.

“What I want to do is make people think then draw their own conclusions from what I’m saying, but at the same time have a bloody good time.

“Some of it’s about football, some of it’s about disgusting sleeping bags, and of course I like a good nob gag!”

Moving on, I switch subjects to The Long Goodbye, a lengthy piece I tell him he should feel extremely proud of, incredibly powerful.

You can find a version for yourself on YouTube, recorded at a gig for Petersfield Write Angle in late 2009, and I put it to him that his Mum was clearly a remarkable woman.

“She was, and we had a fantastic relationship. I took her with me on tour at times, and right to the very end … the last thing she said to me was ‘have a good gig’.

“By that stage she didn’t know who I was, but we were determined to keep her at home. The other poem that goes along with that really was Never Too Late, about my stepfather.

“Until two years before he died, we just didn’t get on, then in that period – especially through his efforts to try and look after Mum, and they didn’t have the happiest of marriages, to be honest, although he always did his best – it really brought us closer together.

“There’s a real message there. However long it takes – in our case, 37 years – it’s never too late to tell someone you love them.”

Again, Never Too Late (also filmed by Petersfield Write Angle, in early 2013 this time) is extremely poignant, and like its predecessor perhaps all the more startling for the fact that it appears to be a major departure for someone more likely seen as a ranting poet once regular on the post-punk circuit.

Of course, some he shared the bill with in the past went on to bigger things. Was there ever any jealousy that the likes of Phill Jupitus became a bit more famous?

“I actually wrote a song about him once. But no, I have no desire – and I know that sounds ridiculous in some ways – to be part of the mainstream entertainment industry whatsoever.

“I just don’t like the celebrity thing. My heroes are people like John Peel, and I like being an underground performer.

“I love the feeling that people who find out about me do so not because they’re told to by some mainstream station but they mainly see me on YouTube or via Facebook.

Band Substance: Attila the Stockbroker with Barnstormer (Photo: http://www.stereograffiti.com/)

Band Substance: Attila the Stockbroker with Barnstormer (Photo: http://www.stereograffiti.com/)

“I love the underground nature of what I do. I don’t play to huge crowds, there’s normally 50 to 100 people turn up – and I’m very happy with that.

“All I’ve ever wanted to do is spread ideas, meet interesting people and make enough money to live on. I’ve managed to do that for 35 years, and I’m very happy with that.”

So does he keep in touch with any of those he worked alongside in his stockbroker’s clerk days?

“Good God, no! I came back from Belgium, where I played in a punk band, and registered as a translator – I speak fluent French – and they got me this job.

“As far as I was concerned, it was something I was going to do a few months to earn enough to live on while working out exactly how I was going to earn a living as a performer.

“That job gave me two things – my stage name and a poem I wrote about the people I worked with, called Every Time I Eat Vegetables It Makes Me Think of You.”

If people are finally catching up with his output over the years, where should they start – which book of poems, or which album?

“It’s probably best to go to my Facebook page, and at the moment perhaps Looters or my Prince Harry piece, whic his my favourite of the most recent material.”

At that point he starts to explain a bit about the background of the latter, but by then his students had clearly waited long enough for the Attila the Stockbroker take on football and how to save your club from oblivion.

Kindred Spirit: Attila the Stockbroker's latest publication

Kindred Spirit: Attila the Stockbroker’s latest publication

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists (by Robert Tressell) is my favourite book of all time and having come from a right-wing, upwardly-mobile working class ‘Hyacinth Bucket’ background, I find the number of people conned by these stupid tabloid newspapers is … anyway, I really have got to go now!”

True to his word, he was gone too, and consequently this scribe ran out of time to ask if he’s likely to stand for parliament in May – with or against the UK Gin Dependence Party.

If you find out before me, just let me know.

For the very latest on Attila the Stockbroker, head to his Facebook page or his official website.

* Also on the bill at the Hungry Monk poetry evening on Friday, March 21st are alternative poet/songwriter John G. Sutton and poet/crimewriter/songwriter Ron Ellis.

Former cotton weaver and prison warder John G. Sutton edits online magazine Psychic World and has written several books on psychic phenomena, including the best-selling Psychic Pets. 

He has his own show on US radio, operates fortune-telling puppet Mr Stix, and wrote and recorded an album with ‘60s pop legend PJ Proby as well as recording and performing songs under the name 2Hat John. Max Bygraves once described John as ‘psychologically damaged’, which he took to be a compliment.

Ron Ellis won the national Sefton Poetry Competition in 1992 and has published two books of poetry, Diary of a Discotheque and Last of the Lake Poets, also available on CD.

He has written for PJ Proby and Judge Dread and in 1979 recorded punk anthem Boys on the Dole under the name of Neville Wanker & The Punters.  Ron also writes crime novels set in Liverpool and around Lancashire featuring private eye Johnny Ace, plus the DCI Glass mysteries, and Southport Faces, a social history of his hometown.

The show starts at 8pm, with tickets £12 from the venue on 01704 809355 or on the door, with food and a selection of ales and drinks on the night.

 

 

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Picture the poet, greet the griot – the Benjamin Zephaniah interview

Poetic Licence: Benjamin Zephaniah (Photo: http://benjaminzephaniah.com/)

Poetic Licence: Benjamin Zephaniah (Photo: http://benjaminzephaniah.com/)

When I spoke to Benjamin Zephaniah earlier this week, he was between a BBC radio interview and two days lecturing at West London’s Brunel University.

The Lincolnshire-based dub poet, author and activist was then heading back for another radio broadcast in Birmingham, catching up with his Mum in the West Midlands before a trek up to Preston, my excuse for speaking to him.

Benjamin was set to headline the city’s Harris Museum & Art Gallery’s Picture the Poet Live event, one of six touring dates for this National Portrait Gallery exhibition.

While the Preston event is fully booked, the exhibition runs at the Harris until April 11, featuring around 50 living poets captured in high-quality photographs.

The live event, with backing from the National Literacy Trust and Apples and Snakes, also included performances by youngsters who have written work inspired by the exhibition, with musical interludes from slowcore folk outfit Horsedreamers.

Sharing the bill with Benjamin were ‘charismatic Mancunian motormouth’ Mike Garry, who previously impressed at Preston’s 53 Degrees with John Cooper Clarke and Luke Wright.

Then there’s fellow acclaimed performance poet Ali Gadema, described as a ‘hip-hop theatre practitioner and workshop facilitator’.

It’s not the first time Benjamin has been involved in a National Portrait Gallery project, having previously curated an exhibition with celebratory tie-ins to UK multi-culturalism.

But he told me: “This is a bit unusual because I’m not doing any poetry gigs at the moment. It’s more about TV and radio programmes and my students. This is a real one-off.”

Does he tend to flow straight back into the performance poetry though?

Think On: Benjamin Zephaniah during his last visit to Preston, Lancashire (Photo: Denis Oates Photography)

Think On: Benjamin Zephaniah during his last visit to Preston, Lancashire (Photo: Denis Oates Photography)

“If I try and think about what I’m going to do, I can’t do it. I have to step on a stage. It’s really weird, I don’t know what it is.

“Everyone’s got their own style, and half an hour is a very strange time for me. I usually do an hour or more.”

So will it be more like a greatest hits package at the Harris?

“I don’t know. I don’t really have any greatest hits!”

After more than 30 years on the road as a dub poet, author and activist, I put it to Benjamin that he must know the motorways and back roads of the UK pretty well.

“Yeah, every time I find myself in a city or town I don’t know, I’m really shocked – I thought I’d know everywhere by now. I’ve been on the road since I was around 22, driving around the country.”

Now and again, he turns up on our TVs too, last time as half-time and pre-match entertainment at the all-West Midlands FA Cup quarter-final between his beloved Aston Villa and rivals West Bromwich Albion on March 7th.

His Ode to Aston Villa and West Brom brought the hosts luck too in a 2-0 win. So is he on a high about Villa’s current run of form under new boss Tim Sherwood?

“I’m not sure if I’d call it a high, there are some tough games coming up, but it’s nice to see a new manager come in.

“I never believed managers could make much of a difference, but after Martin O’Neill I was really sad when he left, which was very sudden before the start of the season after some argument in the boardroom.

True Villan: Benjamin Zephaniah is a committed Aston Villa fan (Photo: http://www.avfc.co.uk/)

True Villan: Benjamin Zephaniah is a committed Aston Villa fan (Photo: http://www.avfc.co.uk/)

“It’s never quite been the same. But at the moment, it’s really good.

“There was an amazing atmosphere that night, and I think with the people running on to the pitch after it was more a relief of tension rather than anything else.

“I couldn’t leave the ground for ages, with people saying, ‘You brought us good luck with your poem. Come and do it again. We want a poem every game!’”

It may not be such a frenzy in Preston, but Benjamin certainly proved a big hit during a talk and book-signing session at the nearby County Hall in late September.

I’ve a photo of my youngest daughter and myself with Benjamin from that night, the launch of Black History Month and his most recent children’s novel, Terror Kid, one of many such signing sessions across the country.

What was the public reaction to Terror Kid from that tour?

“Every event was different, some concentrating on the terrorism aspect, some on the riots and why young people riot, some people talking about multi-culturalism, and the idea that you’ve got a Romany lead character – as Brummie as everyone else – and a Moslem girl who is a kick-boxer.

“I would sit there and talk about what I thought the book was about, but others found other things in there.”

On his official website, Benjamin is described as a ‘poet, writer, lyricist, musician and trouble-maker’, while various other labels over the years range from dub poet and playwright to political activist, animal rights campaigner and even ‘rasta folkie’. So which sits best with him?

Question Time: Radio Lancashire's John Gillmore with Benjamin Zephaniah at County Hall, Preston (Photo: Denis Oates Photography)

Question Time: Radio Lancashire’s John Gillmore with Benjamin Zephaniah at County Hall, Preston (Photo: Denis Oates Photography)

“One that’s never used, actually, a West African word – griot. The traditional African griot is someone who goes from village to village performing or reading poetry or playing music, like an alternative newscaster as well as a political agitator.

“They may be making people aware of a bad ruler or an illness spreading, going to villages completely off the electricity grid.

“I see myself as that too, because griots express themselves through poems or songs, but no one in the audience has to ask whether they’re a poet or a musician. They just see them as someone creative.

“Whatever they want to express, they’ll find their meaning. The word bard doesn’t say it completely, and a troubadour is not quite the same, but griot … yeah, we’ll add that to the English language!”

In a sense, I get the feeling that Benjamin is a poet and writer for those who don’t seem to think they do poetry or books.

“The majority of people that listen to my poetry will say to me, ‘I don’t really like poetry’, because of the relevance and subject matter.

“One guy came up to me at a university in Manchester and said he didn’t even like my poetry, but said, ‘I love what you say, and I love the content’. And I like that too.

“I can’t expect people to take everything I say in, but they remember little bits, and when I mention people like Marcus Garvey, they might remember that and find out who they were.

“One of my favourite intellectuals of all time is the American, Noam Chomsky, one of the most quoted too. But no one knows when they’re quoting him.

“When they look him up, they realise he’s done so much, in politics, linguistics and much more.

Rasta Folkie: Benjamin Zephaniah gets serious

Rasta Folkie: Benjamin Zephaniah gets serious

“If he books to do a talk in London or wherever, it sells out within half an hour, like a big rock concert. And that’s for a professor!”

That coming from someone classed as a professor himself these days, the Handsworth-born 56-year-old a key part of the creative writing course at Brunel University, and back in 2008 included in The Times’ list of Britain’s top 50 post-war writers.

Yet this is a man unlikely to wallow in academic circles, and he’s just as quick to quote comic genius Spike Milligan as an influence as Chomsky.

It seems fitting too, as Spike probably introduced many of us to poetry without us realising it.

“He was a lovely man, so genuine. I get emotional just thinking about him. When he wrote his children’s poetry, he didn’t really write it to get it published, he just wanted to impress his daughter. I liked that about him.

“Also, his war poems were anti-war poems, about what it was doing to him and to other people.

“I met him once, while making this really weird, independent film by a girl straight out of film school.

“He came along and came over just like one of the crew, and when he spoke to me he spoke as if he’d known me for years.”

That’s good, I tell him, because it’s not always a positive thing to meet your heroes.

“No, sometimes I’ve been really been let down by that experience.”

R-2522886-1394927632-2920.jpegSo how come this West Midlands lad who made his name in London, travelled in Palestine and recorded with Bob Marley’s backing band The Wailers in Jamaica, ended up living between rural Lincolnshire and Beijing?

“I don’t think you should really be surprised. I’ve always gone on about multi-culturalism, and multi-cultural Britain means I shouldn’t just have to live in areas that are seen as multi-cultural.

“I have the right to live in a small village, even if I made a few jokes at first, saying I was the only Black in the village.

“I was watching a TV programme about Smethwick in the 1964 election (Channel 4’s Britain’s Most Racist Election), following the story of how immigrants moved into that area and local people tried to get them out.

“Go there now and everyone gets on with one another, but someone had to do it first.

“I’ve been in this small village just outside Spalding for some time, and often meet people who say – if they’re relaxed enough around me – I’m the first Black person I’ve met.

“There are people there who have never been out of the area. I have a close friend who does my handiwork who’s never been out of that area.

“He’s a hard bloke and you’d want him on your side in a fight. But if you suggest going to London to him he’d get so nervous.

“The other thing being there has taught me is that people tend to think those that live in the countryside are all rich and privileged. But rural poverty is brutal, probably even more so that inner city poverty.

“If the lights go out, you can meet on the corner in an inner city. In the countryside it really goes dark, and places really close. If you miss a bus, you’ve had it!

“There are lots of suicides too, lots of quiet drug problems, and real issues.

“As for Beijing, I believe we should have a multi-cultural world, so I can go and live there too.”

Benjamin’s folks were among the earliest to arrive in the UK after the initial post-war MV Empire Windrush sailings, but with Smethwick in the ‘60s in mind, I put it to him that – for all the race relations problems in the decades that followed – his parents arrived in a very different Britain to the one we know now.

History Maker: Benjamin Zephaniah at County Hall, Preston in September 2014 (Photo: Denis Oates Photography)

History Maker: Benjamin Zephaniah at County Hall, Preston in September 2014 (Photo: Denis Oates Photography)

“I remember my Mum jumping out of her seat one day and celebrating, and I asked why, and she explained who Enoch Powell was and how that night a woman had thrown a drink over him.

“I didn’t quite get it at the time. When people tried to explain to me how some people hated you because of your colour, I didn’t get it.

“I could understand someone hating you if you’d stolen all their biscuits, but surely not because of the colour of your skin.

“And these were adults, supposedly responsible people. Weird!”

Benjamin’s Mum still lives in Birmingham, but he doesn’t seem to mention his Dad so much. So was he around to see his success and how he turned around his life after troubled early adult days before he headed to London?

“My Dad passed away a few years ago in Barbados, having been separated from my Mum. But he just didn’t care about my work at all.

“I was so proud when I took my first book to him, but he just said, ‘What’s that?’ as if it was a piece of trash. It was really embarrassing as well, because I’d gone with my girlfriend, and he just felt it was worthless.

“I went to visit him in Barbados not long before he died, and it was probably the best time I ever had with him. He had a new lease of life and I wanted to make my peace with him.

“Even then he just didn’t get it. But then he started this business driving tourists around in beach buggies around the island, and during a break he realised two people were reading my books.

“An adult was reading a poem and a younger one was reading a novel. He said, a little surprised, ‘That’s my son!’

refugee_boy“I heard from him and someone else who was there that these people told him what I meant to them and to the country, and it was the first time he went, ‘Damn, I didn’t realise’. That was just before he died.”

Does the 56-year-old Rastafarian think he’s more or less political now he’s reached such a relatively grand age?

“Not only am I more political, I’m more militant! I was told I’d get more mellow as I grew older, but I’m not.

“God knows what I’d be doing now if I didn’t have my poetry as an outlet and that platform to express myself on TV, radio and so on.

“And I am angry! We’ve come so far but still have racist groups and elections where we’re still talking about immigration and race.

“We’ve got governments of various colours and banks that have messed up and we’ve got to pay for it, and all of them are privatising the National Health Service slowly.

“Sometimes I just look at young people and think, come on – get angry! The angrier they are in their poetry, the better it will be.

“I have to teach my students to put something in their poetry. They all have some fine words but isn’t there something they really feel passionately about?

“It’s all kind of love stuff. That’s alright, but what about the love of humanity, a real love of your country and your people?

“Sometimes it takes a bit of time, as they think I’m their university tutor while the protest stuff I do is outside university.

”And with performance poetry you have to have something to say and have to be passionate about it, otherwise you may as well just be up there reading a book.”

Is Benjamin quite rigid in the way he writes? I can’t imagine him having too structured a day.

“I’m useless! I’ll say I’m going to write from nine until one and then decide I’m going to play football.

“I wish I had the discipline of some writers, but quite frankly a lot of people I know who write like they’re in a factory really don’t understand the realities of life, because that’s all they do.

51Qs3Zjq+7L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_“If they want to write about someone living in poverty, they’ll do some research, while I’ve got friends that live in poverty, so I’ll just go and talk to them.

“I think it’s really good for a poet to have other interests, like me in football and classic cars and clubbing. I can’t just write like I’m in a factory.

“When I got the deal for Terror Kid, I was offered a multi-book deal and said no. Everybody, including my agent, said, ‘What? This is what people dream of!’

“But I don’t want to be forced to write a book, I want to be able to feel like it, when I feel the political and cultural need to do it, I’ll do it, but not just because of some contract.”

Some of the issues raised in Terror Kid seem to have been replicated lately in the real-life stories of the Londoners making their way to Syria via Turkey.

When Benjamin last visited Preston, he talked about a teenage friend in London who headed to Syria, initially to fight Assad, but was quickly disillusioned by the reality of the conflict. Any word from the family since?

“I haven’t spoken to the parents for a while, but last time there was no news. I’m just hoping the feeling in the press about terrorism and people’s reasons for going out there is changing again.

“Some are just misguided and misled, and this lad went out there thinking he was going to be part of a liberation movement but then got in with people far removed from that, and wanted out.

“But he was scared of coming back because he thought he may be treated as a terrorist.

“It’s quite surprising just how many people have gone out there from this country, but – and this is the thing about the propaganda here – quite a lot go out to fight ISIS, and the guy who got killed the other day was seen as some kind of hero.

“I think that’s something that would just inflame the situation. They tell people in this country not to take sides, but if someone takes sides against ISIS we don’t seem to have a problem with it.”

Benjamin dedicated Terror Kid to the late, great left-wing stalwart MP Tony Benn. Why was he such an influence?

“He was a bit of a mentor to me, and sometimes if I had problems thinking something true I’d ask for his opinion.

“When Terror Kid was just an idea, I talked to him about it, asking about the use of computers in Government and how realistic that was.

Signing On: Benjamin Zephaniah poses with the blogger and his youngest daughter (Photo: Malcolm Wyatt)

Signing On: Benjamin Zephaniah poses with the blogger and his youngest daughter (Photo: Malcolm Wyatt)

“It was a slightly different story then, but he never lived to see it published. Yet he was the one who said I should write it, a long time before my editor.”

So what’s Benjamin working on at the moment?

“There’s a musical album that’s almost finished, although I’m not sure of the release date. And the new book’s in my head. I haven’t yet started committing it to paper.

“And I’m also off to China soon to do some kung fu.”

That’s another great passion for you, isn’t it?

“I’ve been a kung fu lover all my life, and can’t start the day without that. I’ve always been into kung fu, yoga, tai chi …

“I’ve never done drugs. I get high on learning how to breathe, I get high on pushing my body to the limit, I get high on learning how to be strong without using my muscles.”

Are you a family man as well?

“No. I’m tempted to say that one of the next things I want to do is … well, my Mum keeps saying it’s time for me to get married, and I think it’s about time. But who knows.”

Form an orderly queue, everyone.

“Oh, I don’t know about that!”

For the very latest from Benjamin Zephaniah, head to his official website here.

And for a writewyattuk feature covering Benjamin’s last visit to Preston in late September, 2014, head here.

Posted in Books Films & TV, Comedy & Theatre, Music | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

March on with The Stranglers – the Baz Warne interview

Marching On: JJ Burnel and Baz Warne up front for the Stranglers (Photo: Warren Meadows)

Marching On: JJ Burnel and Baz Warne up front for the Stranglers (Photo: Warren Meadows)

It’s not often a front-man is still regularly held up to scrutiny after 15 years with a band, but that’s how it often goes with Baz Warne.

To put it mildly, The Stranglers’ founder member Hugh Cornwell was a hard act to follow, even though he left 25 years ago.

Hugh’s legacy was certainly a difficult one to live up to for replacement Paul Roberts, but he stuck around nearly 16 years – more or less the same period as Hugh.

And when Paul departed, the band had a ready-made successor in the ranks, Sunderland-born and bred Baz having replaced guitarist John Ellis six years earlier.

By next year, Baz should have eclipsed Hugh and Paul’s time with the band, yet he’s still asked by prying journalists like me what it’s like to be the new kid with his head on the block.

He had a colourful enough background with other bands, but this is The Stranglers after all. Does he still have to pinch himself that this is all really happening?

“Well yeah, but I have been with the band 15 years.”

True, but there must be times when you look around the stage and spot iconic bass player Jean-Jacques Burnel, keyboard wiz Dave Greenfield and drumming legend Jet Black, wondering how this all came about.

“To be honest, I used to think like that, but probably just for the first three or four months. They made me feel welcome and a part of it right from the word go.

“As far as they’re concerned, this is The Stranglers, and this line-up’s now been on the go nine years and we’ve done more than we’ve ever done before.

download“The last two albums were very well-received, JJ maintaining Giants is probably one of the best.”

I agree, having listened to Giants a fair bit on the build-up to last July’s Preston gig.

“Thank you very much. Was that for the 53 Degrees show? Was that a good one? I can’t really recall.”

It certainly was, and Baz was on fine form, as were all his band-mates, as chronicled on this very blog in my review here.

So when did the 50-year-old – who was just 10 when The Stranglers first joined forces in my home town of Guildford – become aware of the Men in Black?

“As a very early teenager up in Sunderland, one of the ways I got money to buy a good guitar was by delivering papers, and a guy on my route ordered Sounds.

“I think it was about 40p or something. I thought that was quite a lot, but then I started buying it and remember seeing The Stranglers on the cover.

“They looked very different. And when I heard them …”

Either the line from the West Country breaks up there or Baz is still genuinely lost for words, but I plough on and ask what era he’s talking about.

“That would have been 1976 or 1977, and once I’d heard them and caught them on Top of the Pops I put two and two together and realised it was that bunch of guys I’d seen on the front of Sounds.

“I just loved them, although I was always more of a guitar man, really. They were never really a guitar-heavy group, so it took a while to realise.

“They had a keyboard player, so I thought they were going to sound like Yes or Pink Floyd. Of course, nothing could have been further from the truth.

“So I’ve been aware of The Stranglers a very long time, then the band I was with in Sunderland, the Smalltown Heroes, supported them in 1995 and 1997.”

Had he already seen them live by then?

raven“I saw them in Sunderland in 1980 at the back end of The Raven tour. The place they played is a Tesco’s now.

“I only saw the Hugh line-up once, and was with all my mates from school, having drunk a bottle of cider before we’d gone along. I know I was there though!

“I also saw them at Gateshead (International Stadium) with Paul (Roberts), the very first gig or major tour they did with him in 1991.”

Do the founder members – JJ, Dave and Jet – tend to talk about those old times a lot when you’re on the road?

“Not very often, they don’t dwell on that. It’s 25 years ago after all. People often look back through rose-tinted spectacles, but they were exciting times and they were all so young.

“Somehow, by total happenstance, they managed to chance upon a sound that is totally and utterly unique and hasn’t been replicated before or since.

“They’ve never rested on their laurels though, and we always seek to move on.

“Every now and again someone will talk about Hugh, but because I’m on the inside and have been a very long time now, I’ve heard the bad stories and crap that went on.

“For what he achieved Hugh was unbelievable. He has such an instantly-recognisable, quintessentially English and timeless pop voice.

“I’ve studied guitar playing and although it makes me sound arrogant I think I’m a far better guitar player.  But I can’t sing like him, and don’t think anybody could.”

Maybe the beauty of it is that you don’t try to – this isn’t a Karaoke Stranglers.

“I’m pleased you’ve said that, and I’ve said that when we’ve listened back to live recordings these last few weeks during rehearsals.

“Funnily enough though, we put a version of Down in the Sewer on and we all thought it was Hugh … but it was me!

Live Pedigree: JJ Burnel and Baz lead from the front for The Stranglers (Photo: Warren Meadows)

Live Pedigree: JJ Burnel and Baz lead from the front for The Stranglers (Photo: Warren Meadows)

“JJ said, ‘You remind me of him sometimes, with your voice’. But I can assure you it’s not a conscious effort, and there are only traces and little glimpses.

“Besides, I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t live with myself. I’d just be a clone.”

Soon, you’ll have put in the same amount of service as both Hugh and Paul.

“Yes, coming up, having joined in April 2000. And there’s not one thing I’d change.”

Baz was speaking to me close to the band’s rehearsal rooms, ‘in the countryside, about 10 miles from Bath’, where they were also based when writing Giants.

It was their last weekend off before their March On tour, although Baz – his Makem tones as defined as ever – was already a fair distance from his Sunderland home.

“I flew down this time, but I’m pretty sure my car knows the way now. I’ve lived back in Sunderland seven or eight years now, after a few years away.

“The world’s a shrinking place, and you don’t need to be in the hub of it all anymore.

I prefer not to be. All it takes is a phone call and I can be wherever they want me to be a day later.”

Baz recently underwent a second bout of knee surgery, two years after the first was operated on, but insisted he was ‘on the mend and won’t need crutches or a bloody stick anymore.’

Guitar Man: Baz Warne in action at Cardiff on the March On tour (Photo: Warren Meadows)

Guitar Man: Baz Warne in action at Cardiff on the March On tour (Photo: Warren Meadows)

So he won’t have to be wheeled on stage by anyone?

“I’m hopeful those days are way, way in front of me!”

Was that injury brought on from all the touring over the years?

“I honestly don’t know, but used to play a lot of football, and also have this bizarre stamping movement with my left foot, a bit like Joe Strummer, slamming it down.”

So it’s wear and tear, maybe?

“I think that’s exactly what it is. I’ve been doing that for 25 years.”

The tour started with dates in Brighton and their initial base Guildford, with 17 more following over a wide area and dates in Liverpool, Glasgow and London quickly selling out.

They also play Manchester Academy on March 21, with support from post-punk Blackpool band The Membranes and Scottish art-punk legends The Rezillos.

In fact, Membranes and Goldblade frontman John Robb, now perhaps best known for his Louder than War website, said of the band: “In 1976,The Stranglers were at the first peak of their powers and 40 years later the band is still on fire, with that powerful menacing sound. They are still one of the best live bands.”

As for the other tour guests, Baz added: “I’ve never seen them live before, but was a fan as a kid, and Can’t Stand The Rezillos, the first album, is still an absolute classic.

Destination UK: The Rezillos in live action

Destination UK: The Rezillos in live action

“We don’t know them, but they’ve still got Fay and Eugene and to my delight Angel Patterson, the original drummer. I’m looking forward to meeting them. It’ll be fun.”

As we discussed the tour schedule, Baz was interrupted by another call, quickly getting rid – and quite abruptly – a certain Jean-Jacques Burnel.

I point out that he’s playing a dangerous game, not least as JJ has a considerably larger understanding of martial arts than me.

Baz is dismissive. “Nah. Are you a karate man as well?

Not at all … in fact, I’ve never so much as a yellow belt, not even in the days when the New Romantic bands broke through.

I briefly explained at that point about my shared Guildford links with the band, and pointed him towards a previous interview with JJ involving lots of Surrey reminiscing (with a link here), while stressing that the legendary Stranglers bass player had a few years on me.

“Well, he’s older than you think he is, you know.”

It turns out that while Baz is happy with the schedule of the March On tour, he feels he’s missing out on a return to Ireland this time around.

“We don’t seem to do it as much as we used to. We’ve a lot of Irish fans and did a great festival there towards the end of last year, the last before my knee surgery, playing at The Electric Picnic.”

I read about that in a piece Baz did for the band website, talking about a bout of colourful language in a TV interview.

Ruby Quartet: From the left, Dave Greenfield, Jet Black, Baz Warne, JJ Burnel (Photo: The Stranglers)

Ruby Quartet: From the left, Dave Greenfield, Jet Black, Baz Warne, JJ Burnel (Photo: The Stranglers)

“They were asking me to relate a story, and I warned them that it involved swearing, but they said that was alright as they’d edit it out later.

“But they didn’t, and when it was broadcast there it was in all its glory, with all the effing and blinding.”

So have your family on Wearside disowned you as a result?

“No! They know I like to relax with a little more profane language from time to time.”

The Stranglers were set to play Moscow this April too, but – understandably amid the current political circumstances – cancelled.

“They’ve made it very difficult for musicians, artists and entertainers in light of the political situation.

“But it’s not completely cancelled and the opportunity thrown away. As and when we can we’ll go. I’ve never been before, and the band has only been once, in the ‘90s.”

Are there European dates in the offing beyond the UK tour and a few summer festival dates?

“As we speak there are some being put together later in the year, probably around November, and quite an extensive tour so I’ve been told, but it’s still very much in the planning stage.”

As well as his time with Smalltown Heroes and then Sun Devils, Baz was previously with cult punks The Toy Dolls, best remembered for one-off hit Nellie the Elephant.

Makem Past: Baz's old band The Toy Dolls seem to be managing without him

Makem Past: Baz’s old band The Toy Dolls seem to be managing without him

Baz laughs, then exclaims a blasphemic mutter.

“That’s a very long time ago! They were looking to expand to a four-piece with a guitar player. I auditioned, got the gig, then they decided they didn’t want to do that, so I was the bass player for two years.

“But that gave me the platform – it was when I first realised I could make a career out of all this.

“I toured the United States with them in the early ‘80s. You can imagine my mother and father thinking, ‘What’s he doing with this punk band? He must be mad!’

“But we played to up to 12,000 people. It was a real learning curve, tremendous fun …”

All part of growing up and being British?

“Aye, it was, and we had youth and exuberance on our side. And again that was a totally unique band – no one sounds like them. What more could you ask for?

“They’re still going to this day, and I still speak to (lead singer Michael) Algar every once in a while.”

Weren’t they a three-piece on Top of the Pops with Nellie the Elephant?

“Well, I’m actually on the record, but left before it was released. At the time I was horribly put out and very envious, but now I look back and think, ‘Thank Christ!”

Last year saw The Stranglers’ 40th anniversary Ruby tour, a major celebration which proved to be their best-selling tour in more than 30 years.

But it was also a tour slightly tempered by health problems for drummer Jet Black, punk’s first septuagenarian.

Luckily, Jim Macaulay was on hand, although Jet joined for the odd cameo. Is that how it will be this time too?

Lining Up: Baz, Jet, JJ and Dave ask us outside (Photo: The Stranglers)

Lining Up: Baz, Jet, JJ and Dave ask us outside (Photo: The Stranglers)

“In the last couple of years we’ve been bringing him on for a little session in the middle, and will do on this tour, when his health is up to the travelling and everything.

“But it’s going to be mostly Jim, and that kid inspires us all. He’s so powerful, such a good drummer and a very nice kid with lots of enthusiasm.

“The fans are very much starting to fall in love with him too, chanting his name at gigs as well as Jet’s. He’s thrilled at that.

“But Jet is very well, and I saw him yesterday for his weekly rehearsal and catch-up. He was in fine fettle and played very well.”

Baz and Jim, 30, certainly bring down the average age, with Jet now 76, Dave aged 65 and JJ aged 63.

“Aye, we do – which is much needed! We’re only 80 between us, not far off Dave … of course, I’m only joking.”

With no disrespect intended towards Baz and Jim, my abiding memory of the 53 Degrees show was JJ prowling menacingly at the front with that trademark bass growl, and Dave’s ear-to-ear grinning between sips of his pint from his keyboard tower at the back amid a fantastic wall of synthesised noise– two punk legends, even with Jet missing.

“Yeah, and I think we’re all happy to still be here. As Jet says, he wouldn’t have thought it would last for 40 minutes, never mind 40 years.”

How do they all get on behind the scenes? Baz’s bandmates can’t be the easiest bed-fellows.

“They’re not, and we have our moments, but you need a certain amount of friction to keep things fresh.

“To quote a really old cliché, it’s a family … and you never get on with your family all the time.”

Striking Chords: Baz Warne giving his best with The Stranglers at Cardiff University on the March On tour (Photo: Warren Meadows)

Striking Chords: Baz Warne giving his best with The Stranglers at Cardiff University on the March On tour (Photo: Warren Meadows)

Is work due to start on the follow-up to Giants soon?

“All I’ll say is that there are rumblings. We’ve been tossing some very sketchy sort of skeletons of ideas around.

“Things are starting to come up in rehearsals, always a good sign, moments when someone will play something and you’ll say, ‘Play that again’.”

I seem to remember that worked quite well in Casablanca once. Sorry .. carry on, Baz.

“Yeah, so it’s not entirely beyond the realms of possibility, but we’ve another solid, busy year of gigging ahead.

“JJ and I have lots of ideas, and we’re looking in Spring to go to his place in the South of France, spend time down there and write, as with Giants. So yeah, it’s all positive and upbeat.”

Finally, there’s a real love between The Stranglers and their audience. It’s a love crowd, as Otis Redding would say.

“It is. The fans have always been very much behind the band. The Family in Black, we call it. We see a lot of familiar faces and know a lot by name.

“They’ve always been loyal, but in the earlier days when there was still a lot of friction, tension and anger, some of the older fans said they would go along as much as anything to see if they’d start fighting each other!

“Now of course we’re more mellow, although there’s still the unexpected and we’re still unpredictable. I think people like that as well.”

For all the latest from The Stranglers and full details of their forthcoming live dates, head to http://www.thestranglers.net/

Meanwhile, for a Hugh Cornwell feature on this blog from July, 2013, including a few more Stranglers reminscences, head here.

 

 

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Feeding fiction to the 5,000 – my World Book Day 2015 encounter

Late Nerves: The authors get ready for kick-off at Deepdale. From the left, World Book Day's Kirsten Grant, Jonny Duddle, Cathy Cassidy's back (!), Frank Cottrell Boyce, Cressida Cowell, Danny Wallace (Photo: Malcolm Wyatt)

Late Nerves: The authors get ready for kick-off at Deepdale. From the left, World Book Day’s Kirsten Grant, Jonny Duddle, Cathy Cassidy’s back (!), Frank Cottrell Boyce, Cressida Cowell, Danny Wallace (Photo: Malcolm Wyatt)

As I turned down Lowthorpe Road on my approach to Preston North End FC, a ‘cattlepiddler’ of high-vis jackets from a nearby school heading the same way suggested I was definitely in the right place.

Close by, coaches belched out their own human beans, their titchy little snapperwhippers all set for a day to remember, celebrating the beauty of books and children’s lit.

I should apologise for the BFG wordsmithery there, but who better to plagiarise in a World Book Day feature than Roald Dahl, one of this global event’s main inspirations? After all, that appreciation of past and present children’s fiction makes this annual happening a winner – rather than the ‘off the peg’ costume money-market harassed parents are conned into.

I was lucky enough to join the VIP contingent in the Invincibles Pavilion Stand for this ambitious event, the flagship of the ten WBD 2015 happenings across the UK. Okay, so there wasn’t much evidence of national media interest – at least on the TV bulletins I saw – but those who were there seemed to have the time of their lives.

As I sat, pitch-side, I wondered what late, great England and Preston legend Sir Tom Finney – his visage picked out on the seats opposite – would have made of this spectacle. I like to think he would have been up for it though, as he was with anything helping spread the word about his beloved club.

Praise too for all at Deepdale  for their involvement in this project. Yes, there were headaches on the day, but overall it went surprisingly well considering the huge scale of this undertaking.

Even before I left our ‘green room’ – the PNE players lounge – I was aware of the sheer numbers of eight to 13-year-olds out there. A staggering 5,000 of them from 100 schools across the region were represented, and capable of a mighty racket.

Lining Up: Steve Butler, Deepdale Duck, PNE's Rachel Brennan and Jonny Duddle form an orderly queue, without a burger concession in sight (Pic: Malcolm Wyatt).

Lining Up: Steve Butler, Deepdale Duck, PNE’s Rachel Brennan and Jonny Duddle form an orderly queue, without a burger concession in sight (Pic: Malcolm Wyatt).

Treasured PNE mascot Deepdale Duck did the hard work with club colleague Rachel Brennan in the warm-up, keeping the crowd whooped up as the stand filled up, while our six performing guest authors built up the courage to get out there and face them.

It was interesting from an independent view experiencing the different approaches to stage-fright, from co-organiser Jake Hope through to the writers themselves – all displaying plenty of PMT (that’s pre-match tension for the non-footie fans among you).

First-time children’s author but seasoned performer and writer Danny Wallace seemed quiet and somewhat pensive, Cathy Cassidy carried a nervous smile, and Frank Cottrell Boyce was perhaps wondering if he should have worn a little more protection from the elements than his best suit.

Meanwhile, Jonny Duddle – in full pirate garb, complete with cutlass – looked like he might be searching forlornly for land ahoy, and when I finally spotted Cressida Cowell she seemed to be jumping up and down on the spot in her own particular warm-up.

Perhaps the coolest head – at least outwardly – was that of Steven Butler, and that was handy seeing as our top-hatted resident ringmaster just happened to be the master of ceremonies.

Even his pencil ‘tache pointed skywards on the day, providing a note of positivity to help encourage his fellow guests. And pretty soon – with the Alan Kelly Town End now full – he was ready for the off.

Ring Master: Steven Butler has a moment of reflection amid the mayhem (Photo: Malcolm Wyatt)

Ring Master: Steven Butler has a moment of reflection amid the mayhem (Photo: Malcolm Wyatt)

Steven proved a natural too, The Diary of Dennis the Menace series author giving his young audience a rowdy glimpse into the Butler family home in his youth, his audience almost spellbound and his excitable delivery proving infectious.

It’s understandable I guess, when you factor in that this was Steven’s ninth of 10 such Biggest Book Show on Earth UK & Ireland events, having started out on February 23rd in Norwich, a run leading to a big finish the following day at Newcastle City Hall in an event organised by the wonderful Seven Stories.

Pretty soon, he was introducing Jonny Duddle and the good vibes continued, this former Prestonian – now based in North Wales – making as much a verbal impact as a visual one.

Our resident salty cove rearranged his tricorn hat and talked passionately about his picture books and local roots, and whenever he felt things might be flagging he’d ask his audience, ‘What do pirates say?’ and received a mighty ‘Aaarghhh!’ in response.

Jonny also shared a little of his expertise with us, an illustration of a JD parrot taking shape on the big screen at the Bill Shankly Kop end of the ground as he worked feverishly, before the kids suggested – at his prompting – a ‘squawk’ should be added.

Between the guest slots, our red-coated MC returned for more crowd-whipping fun and introductions, giving us three lesser-known facts about each author before they were invited to step on stage, the goal-posts moved on the day in more ways than one.

Introducing Hamish: Danny Wallace is picked out on the big screen on the Bill Shankly Kop (Photo: Malcolm Wyatt)

Introducing Hamish: Danny Wallace is picked out on the big screen on the Bill Shankly Kop (Photo: Malcolm Wyatt)

Next up was Danny Wallace, who also proved a natural with this crowd, introducing them to his book character Hamish and life in the less-than-glamorous fictional town of Starkley, with a little help from Jamie Littler’s artwork.

We were also treated to a few headlines from The Starkley Post, the children invited to give their verdict on how interesting each was. And it’s not often a live performer invites his audience to shout ‘Boring!’ for a large part of his set.

Of course, Danny was anything but dull, proving a big hit with the kids, not least when he introduced us to his own children on the big screen, showing pictures of cute monkeys.

Cathy Cassidy had a hard task following that, but coped superbly, one of the event’s biggest sellers overcoming slight technical hitches to deliver a clear, impassioned address.

She encouraged those present to make sure they enrolled at their local library, shared with us her love of the wonder of books from an early age, talked about her Chocolate Book series and her re-imagining of Alice in Wonderland, then got on to the subject of day-dreaming in class.

In Wonderland: Cathy Cassidy addresses the 5,000, as seen on the big screen (Photo: Malcolm Wyatt)

In Wonderland: Cathy Cassidy addresses the 5,000, as seen on the big screen (Photo: Malcolm Wyatt)

Cathy was soon on such a high that she even asked if anyone liked football. The resultant roar led to her apologetic admission that she wasn’t such a fan, but she looked relieved to get a bigger response when she asked who loved books and who loved day-dreaming.

By the time Frank Cottrell Boyce took to the stage, the PA system was definitely playing up a little, and you got the feeling a fair proportion of his audience couldn’t quite make out what he was telling us – feverish running about following from the University of Central Lancashire technical team.

Meanwhile, Frank soldiered on tremendously, snapping a picture of the crowd before a book-related take on Rowan Atkinson’s ‘taking the register’ skit, involving Gandalf and many others dotted around the ground.

If I missed some of his words, it’s not because I was taking advantage of the green room facilities (although I did dart off at one point for a restorative coffee as the cold took its toll), but because we too were struggling to hear.

But Frank quickly had the audience on his side, introducing his latest fictional hero, The Astounding Broccoli Boy, while relating his own experiences of turning a different colour in public.

It was also noticeable after Steven had re-taken the mic. that Frank was fully relaxed now, walking along the stand and beaming smiles and waves to his new roster of fans as if he’d just won the Sherpa Van Trophy.

Broccoli Boy: Frank Cottrell Boyce on the Bill Shankly Kop big screen, treating the crowd to a reading  (Photo: Malcolm Wyatt)

Broccoli Boy: Frank Cottrell Boyce on the Bill Shankly Kop big screen, treating the crowd to a reading (Photo: Malcolm Wyatt)

That just left Cressida Cowell, and if the kids were starting to get a little cold by now through over-exposure to the elements on this early March morning, they were soon warmed up by her bubbly talk of dragons and much more.

She flashed up snapshots of her on a Scottish island hideaway as a child, the one where she first dared to dream of these wee beasties that would make her name. And if you’ve ever seen Cressida in action, you’ll know you can’t help but be inspired. Imagine Miranda Richardson’s Queenie in Blackadder II in playful mode and you’re not far off.

Cressida also treated us to a little live drawing, bringing Toothless to life on the big screen, keeping her young audience fully engaged when thoughts were turning to dinnertime.

Pretty soon, the young ‘uns were all filing out, the Preston Six taking a collective bow on stage after a farewell address from co-organiser Elaine Silverwood. We were soon back in the warm, and while the organisers were still not quite ready to relax, the authors were.

Danny and Jonny were in good form as we chatted over cuppas, Frank and Cressida were in deep conversation at the bar, and Steven seemed almost unrecognisable in his civvies, his circus redcoat now safely back on its hanger.

Candid Moment: Frank and Cressida compare notes in the PNE Players' Lounge (Photo: Malcolm Wyatt)

Candid Moment: Frank and Cressida compare notes in the PNE players lounge (Photo: Malcolm Wyatt)

I didn’t catch Cathy again, but later found out she’d been ‘ambushed’ by her adoring public, clearly having felt she’d missed out on her usual post-event meet, greet and sign, like that which kept her so busy in an event the previous year at Blackburn.

With the coffee running out and Jonny mentioning he was ready to change out of his pirate gear, I felt it was definitely time to leave, waving goodbye to Frank as he chatted on his mobile phone outside the stadium before heading back towards Leyland.

The sheer size of the event was still being brought home to me as I drove away, a vast convoy of coaches encountered en route heading back to their respective schools.

It might have taken the organisers a while to fully appreciate it, nut I should put in writing here that it was all a resounding success, and everyone could feel proud of their input.

You could argue that any one of these authors might have proved more personal and just as successful in front of two or three classes, but this ambitious event somehow worked a treat and should stay in the memories banks forever – for its authors, pupils and teachers alike.

Reading Matters: Danny Wallace casts a quizzical eye over his first children's book (Photo: Malcolm Wyatt)

Reading Matters: Danny Wallace casts a quizzical eye over his first children’s book (Photo: Malcolm Wyatt)

I was close enough to see just how much work went into the whole spectacle, from booking the guests and the venue to co-ordinating the school operation and ensuring pupils got their pre-signed books as a treasured memento of the day.

Last year’s King George’s Hall show was spectacular enough, yet this was five times the size, and just the sheer amount of St John Ambulance volunteers in the ground shed light on that.

To use the football vernacular, children’s lit and the love of books was the clear winner here. The boys and girls done good. Result.

wbdFor this blog’s WBD 2015 pre-event feature with Cathy Cassidy, head here, and for a Frank Cottrell Boyce feature head here.

To find out more about the World Book Day organisation, head here.

With thanks to regional co-organisers Jake Hope and SilverDell of Kirkham‘s Elaine Silverwood.

And for far better pics from the day than mine, head to Sara Cuff’s C Pictures site here when she’s got them online, and Michael Thorn’s own take on the day here.  

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Cathy’s Adventures in Wonderland – the Cathy Cassidy interview

In my second feature centred around World Book Day 2015, I talked about Alice, libraries, music, the power of dreams and much more with best-selling children’s writer Cathy Cassidy, in an interview a few days before her WBD appearances at Preston North End FC and Newcastle City Hall.

Creative Wonderland: Cathy Cassidy has a big 2015 ahead of her (Photo: Louise Llewelyn)

Creative Wonderland: Cathy Cassidy has a big 2015 ahead of her (Photo: Louise Llewelyn)

It’s been a busy 2015 so far for Cathy Cassidy, and promises to remain so.

The Merseyside-based children’s author is set to publish two new books in the next couple of months, her Lewis Carroll-inspired Looking Glass Girl in April followed by the final book in the much-loved Chocolate Box series, Fortune Cookie, in June.

But before all that she had a major date with five other authors, facing 5,000 kids from 100 schools across the North West at Preston North End FC.

And Cathy, talking to me from home ahead of her big day, was feeling the pressure – not least as she reckoned her football skills weren’t up to scratch.

“It’s a bit scary! I never imagined I’d be doing a talk in a football ground! For me, the best thing is not to worry too much about the logistics, and just assume the people organising it – who are brilliant – will make it amazing.

“I’ve heard from a lot of people going along. There’s a lot of excitement out there. As long as they don’t give me a football, I should be alright!

”Back at primary school, I played football with the boys sometimes and they put me in goal, which I felt really proud about. Now of course I realise they were just shoving me out of the way!”

So is Cathy not like Liesel in Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, who proved quite a handy player in her back-street games?

wbd“Sadly not!”

I’ve since caught up with Cathy and can confirm she survived that ambitious, ultimately successful PNE World Book Day event and one the following day at Newcastle City Hall organised by the wonderful Seven Stories.

But while you’re have to wait for the writewyattuk take on the Preston event, here’s my full pre-event interview with the lovely-as-ever Cathy.

First, we talked about two of her fellow WBD authors at Preston, Cathy taking – to use the football cliche, which seems apt in the circumstances – each game as it comes and only thinking about her next 90 minutes on the pitch.

“I know Frank (Cottrell Boyce) a little and think he’s amazing, very inspirational and possibly one of the nicest, kindest people in children’s books.

“And I met Cressida (Cowell) a long time ago and really liked her. She’s lovely, very quirky, and cool.”

As it was, there was clearly a spark with the other ‘players’ on the day too, talented writers and illustrators Danny Wallace, Jonny Duddle and the day’s MC, Steven Butler, all making a big impression on Cathy that day. But I’m getting ahead of myself there.

I put it to Cathy, also involved with last year’s successful Biggest Bookshow on Earth on Tour event for World Book Day at King George’s Hall, Blackburn, that it must be odd playing to such a big crowd for someone whose normal working day tends to involve just a writing room and a laptop.

“I know! How amazing, You can’t think too much about the numbers, but talking to your reader or a child who might not be a reader yet – helping them see how magical books can be, opening all kinds of doors to them.

“This is way bigger than any live audience I’ve done. I’d say about 1,500’s the biggest before. But there’s no point in worrying about it. You’ve just got to do your thing.

“What I you think is important is to hope some of those kids are going to find something they can connect with.

“With that line-up and all those amazing authors, there will definitely be something for everybody.

“And what an amazing, incredible event to pull together, with kids coming from right across the North-West region.”

Library Love: Cathy at Bannockburn Library (Photo: Stirling Council Libraries and Archives via https://www.flickr.com)

Library Love: Cathy at Bannockburn Library (Photo: Stirling Council Libraries and Archives via https://www.flickr.com)

It’s fair to say Cathy is a great believer in children’s lit, education and arts funding, and a fierce defender of our libraries, following recent national and local Government spending cuts.

And while it was inevitable that the subject would come up, the Coventry-born writer was quicker off the mark than I gave her credit for!

Asked what the first book she read that made her think a career in writing might be for her, she responded: “There were so many, it would be so hard to pick just one, but perhaps I could say it was down to libraries, because I was such a library addict.

“I would go to visit with my Dad and come out with armfuls of books. That was such an education to me, and libraries gave me all that for nothing. If you didn’t like a book you could just take it back the next week.

“I discovered so many things, unveiled by that ability to just go in and pick something randomly off a shelf.

“I could never have become the person I am today without libraries, yet they’re under threat right now – including three l regularly visited. That breaks my heart.

“They say kids don’t read these days, but we know different – not least through these bookshow events, experiencing just how much it means to these children.

“Only last night I had a sad email from a girl whose school library is being closed down, being turned into some kind of common room.

“They’ll be putting some books in the corner of a lobby and throwing everything else away – no school library, just a book corner.

“Along with her friends, she’s making banners, starting a petition, and asked me to write to her headteacher, which of course I will.

“Please, anyone who cares about our future should stand up for libraries and reading. Children are our fantastic, imaginative, creative potential, and we must look after them, protect them and nurture them.”

Big Break: Cathy Cassidy made the grade at her favourite teen mag Jackie

Big Break: Cathy Cassidy made the grade at her favourite teen mag Jackie

The 52-year-old wrote for Jackie and Shout magazines and was a primary school art teacher in Scotland before becoming a full-time writer.

She initially moved from Coventry to Liverpool as an art student, and after several years bringing up a family in Galloway, South West Scotland, is now back on Merseyside.

The mum-of-two has had more than 20 books published since her 2004 debut Dizzy, including three for younger readers about Daizy Star, which she also illustrated.

Cathy has sold more than two million books worldwide, and nominated three times over six years for the Queen of Teen accolade, winning once.

So tell me about The Looking Glass Girl, your modern-day re-imagining of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland stories.

“This year is the 150th anniversary of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland being published, and last year Puffin were asking about different children’s classics and I said how much I really loved Alice.

“It’s one of those Marmite things when you’re talking about classics, but Alice is one I really loved when I read it fairly young, probably aged eight or nine, thinking of all those quirky, fantasy bits, funny and quite cool.

“Then you read it again later and get all sorts of totally different things from the experience, in what is a very surreal almost-nightmarish story really. And that’s the take I’ve carried with me all these years.

“It was a library book and one I didn’t own myself at first, but I’ve various different copies now, and it’s one of those books you go back to, keep re-reading.

“If you talk about it to children, they actually believe it’s a fairy-tale. I love that, and it’s so ingrained in our culture.

“It’s a magical story and means an awful lot to almost everybody. Very few people know little about it, maybe because of various films, but that’s the power of that story.

“I’m not re-telling the original story, but have written the tale of a group of girls who have an Alice-themed sleepover which goes wrong.

“One of the girls falls into a world of nightmare and confusion in what is quite a dark story compared to some I’ve done.

“I think kids are really going to like it and connect with it though, and I don’t think there’s anything unsuitable for my younger readers. It’s just that there’s a little more of an edge, showing the darker side of bullying and fear, although there’s nothing graphic.

61Zr+mHBznL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_“A lot of the story is told through flashbacks and imaginings and this dreamworld the main character finds herself in, in which a lot of Alice imagery appears.

“No one falls down a rabbit hole, but there are big parallels to the original. It wouldn’t really interest me to just re-tell someone else’s story though.”

Is the story sullied by modern thinking on what Lewis Carroll might have been like away from his books?

“The story is so powerful and strong that you don’t think too much about the person who wrote it. There’s nothing in the story itself that makes me feel uncomfortable, although I feel that‘s the product of someone who was quite disturbed probably.

“The Tate Liverpool about three years ago did the most amazing exhibition of Alice-inspired art, with photographs from Lewis Carroll’s private collection, his manuscripts and early drawings, plus masses of work inspired by the stories.

“It was quite amazing – from the surreal to more decorative responses to the imagery. It’s in our society and in many others now, quite multi-cultural.

“I might not have necessarily wanted to hang around with Lewis Carroll, but it’s the story that matters, not the person that writes it.”

It also seems a perfect book to plug on World Book Day, a celebration of children’s lit over the years.

“Yes … but sadly it won’t be out until the start of April!”

A lot of readers know Cathy first and foremost for her Chocolate Box series, and the last instalment follows next month. What’s more, it appears that she has even more books coming out in 2015.

Fortune Cookie is going to be out at the start of June, and it’s a crazy year for me, with two other books coming out!”

The Chocolate Box series is largely set in the West Country, where I believe you saw out some of your student days.

“I worked one summer in Somerset when I was an art student, and deliberately went back to set the story in the village where I worked. I always like to have a strong sense of where a story is set.”

Is it sad to say goodbye to a few of your characters after so long?

Fortune_Cookie_web“That’s going to be really weird. I’m still putting finishing touch edits to Fortune Cookie now, and it feels so weird that this is the last edit of the last book.

“The character telling the story in the final book hasn’t been in any of the previous books, only being alluded to or hinted at the end of Sweet Honey.

“In that way it’s exciting – I wanted to tie up the loose ends and finish the story and it was nice to do that from outside the perspective of the sisters.

“But leaving the story behind and having it released into the wild to see what people will make of it, knowing it’s the last, is quite hard. A lot of readers have really loved that world.”

That said, it’s rumoured there’s a TV series in the offing for the Chocolate Box series (which started with Cherry Crush, published in 2010).

“It’s still definitely a rumour, I’d say. There is a TV production company with the rights to do a treatment for a possible series, but it’s very early days and I don’t really know enough about how that works.

“I imagine this is the kind of thing that won’t always come off. They’re working on it, really believe in it and think it’s amazing, but it then needs a broadcast company to put it out.

“The impulse would be to jump up and down and say, ’How awesome’, but until it actually appears on TV I won’t believe it!

“I think it would be awesome TV though, in the way it connects. The stories have such a big place in the hearts of the readers and TV would bring it to a much wider audience.

“It’s all about families and friendships, problems and overcoming them, lovely elements of that kind of Bohemian fantasy of the perfect life you’d love but that isn’t always so perfect under the surface.”

We talked about the fantasy aspects of Alice in Wonderland, but your books are more about real-life issues. Does part of that come from your past ‘agony aunt’ days with Jackie and Shout magazines?

“I don’t think it comes from that as much as it does from me, It’s a fair enough assumption, but it’s really the other way around.

“I’m fascinated by what makes people tick and how people react to things and manage to cope with the awful stuff life might sometimes throw at them.

“Then others look like they may have everything but inside are very damaged or messed up for no obvious reason.

All Set: The WBD 2014 team in Blackburn - (from the left) Cathy Cassidy, Jonathan Meres, Lauren St John, Laura Dockrill, Alex T Smith and Curtis Jobling

All Set: The WBD 2014 team in Blackburn – (from the left) Cathy Cassidy, Jonathan Meres, Lauren St John, Laura Dockrill, Alex T Smith and Curtis Jobling

“It’s just the complexity of the human condition in some ways. That’s a very fancy way of putting it – but I’m so fascinated by feelings, emotions, friendships, families, and the way in which we fix ourselves, glue ourselves together and find a way of making our lives worthwhile and happy.”

You do seem to pride yourself on ‘connecting’ with your fans, as you put it.

“Yes, and I think that’s very important, and matters to me. Everyone who writes gets a proper, personal reply, although it might take me some time – I’m so snowed under now.

“And if you take the reader out of all this, there really is no point. I get so much back from my readers, and this lovely feeling they get something wonderful from a book.

“Some have come to me at a signing crying, because a book has meant so much to them or has helped them with something. To know you can actually impact on someone in that way, it’s quite a powerful feeling.

“That does far more for me than being an agony aunt or being a teacher had – being able to write a book that can help kids.”

In a recent video interview, a young girl asked about Daizy Star, and you revealed how your Dad was part of the inspiration for Daizy’s father, who builds a boat ready to travel the world. Do many real-life family experiences cross into your books? Only there’s a thin line sometimes between personal and public. Do you feel conscious about writing ‘too personal’?

“Yes, I don’t think I would. Family is family, and there are always people who will be sad or unhappy or who won’t remember something a certain way. For me, fiction is the way to go about that.

“Almost every one of my books is about me in a way, stepping into the shoes of a different character.

“With Daizy Star, my Dad had died just before I started that series, and I was carrying an awful lot of grief. He was probably my biggest inspiration, a big hero and a big supporter of me as an odd child who had big hopes and big dreams.

n348816“He was definitely always in my corner, so it made me want to dig up some of the crazy things, because he was a very eccentric guy trapped in a little working-class place that didn’t give him many options for carrying out those dreams.”

What did he do for work?

“He repaired cars. He was a panel-basher. He was good, but it wasn’t really what he wanted to do. But there were so many things he wanted to do – it was a different thing every six months or so! Again, that’s something reflected in the Daizy Star series.

“My dad really did build a boat in our backyard, and it wasn’t even a boat like Daizy’s dad. It was a huge trimaran!

“I remember going with him to get the mast of the boat, choosing which tree we would have, carrying it back on the roof of the van with lots of rags on it. It stuck right out in our backyard towards whoever was behind us, who wasn’t very impressed!

“There was a garage next to our house that got deconstructed because it was so full of the hull. The whole house was ruined by it, my Mum hated it and couldn’t bear it. There was no way she was going to go sailing around the world in anything, let alone this.

“But I thought it was amazing and believed totally in it and that dream we would go sailing around the world. We never did, but it’s one of those things – that power of dreaming and power of belief that transmitted itself to me.

“Later in life, when he was around 55, Dad designed a 1930s-type racing car as a kit car. It never worked as a kit car, because it was so complicated to build and he was the only person who could build it!

“But in the end he built around 25, and they’re all around the world now, some in Australia, some in Europe. They’re the most amazing things.

“So there’s certainly no sell-by date on a dream. He finally got to do the thing he loved. He never made a penny, but he was happy.”

Did you inherit your love of folk music from your parents?

“I think it would be from my Dad. He loved American folk like Burl Ives and Woody Guthrie, while I discovered Bob Dylan later.

“He was also crazy about Hank Williams, and we had one of his songs at his funeral. All of these things you’re kind of brain-washed by as a child.

bragg-wilco-mermaid-avenue“I remember when Billy Bragg’s Mermaid Avenue (with Wilco) came out, we absolutely loved those songs and played those with our children around, who were then just toddlers.

“So they ended up being brainwashed by that! I think my Dad would so love the music my kids are making now. Unfortunately, he died at a point when they were still deep into deep emo/goth stuff.

“No one would ever have predicted they would turn out to be producing ballady folk. I love how things come round like that.”

Indeed, and I should plug at this point the work of Cathy’s son Calum Gilligan – previously with Subject to Change – and daughter Caitlin Gilligan, who both perform and record their own material.

In fact, Caitlin was featured on this very blog very recently, after her debut EP release with Finch and the Moon, with a link here.

Cathy and I have a lot of 1980s’ musical influences in common, from The Cure and Dexy’s Midnight Runners through to Echo and the Bunnymen and The Teardrop Explodes. Did those bands provide her art student soundtrack?

“Absolutely, and I hate to admit it, but the reason I went to Liverpool was because Echo and the Bunnymen and The Teardrop Explodes were there!

“I remember watching the Teardrops’ Reward video and thought I wanted to go there – as people would be walking around in air force jackets and hiring jeeps. So cool!”

Funny Cathy should say that (he adds, nonchalantly), with the tale of that very video told in a recent Julian Cope interview on this blog, with a link here.

Anyway, on with the story, Cathy …

”Liverpool was that place I wanted it to be. It felt like everybody was either in a band or designing dresses or painting things on walls. It was full of creativity.

“Those bands I loved and admired were there and that made you feel like you were part of something.

“You would see them when you were out and maybe talk to them. Some of The Bunnymen lived just down the road from me, while Julian Cope lived just across the back from one of my student flats.

Flying Days; Julian Cope in his air force jacket with The Teardrop Explodes

Flying Days; Julian Cope in his air force jacket with The Teardrop Explodes

“It was lovely, and music is the backdrop to your life. It was such fantastic, emotional music too.”

At the risk of over-doing the plugs here, I’ll also add that if you press this link, you’ll find an interview with Echo and the Bunnymen’s Will Sergeant, touching on those days. I’ll stop now though (honest).

Wikipedia suggests you’ve written 23 books now. Are you still keeping count?

“I probably lost count when I got to around 10, and I’m very challenged in the numbers department anyway.

“The problem is I’ve written short books too, and there were four e-book shorts last year, then there are non-fiction books, the Daizy Star series, the stand-alones, even some tiny books given away on magazines way back at the beginning. Do any of those count?

“Anyway, some say 23, some say 27, and maybe we’re getting into fractions as well.”

Whatever the number, that’s not a bad turnout in barely 10 years, is it?

“I think it’s pretty good going.”

I believe you’re Puffin’s top-selling children’s author too.

“Ooh, I don’t know about that. I think I am for girls, but they publish the Wimpy Kid books in the UK, and I don’t out-sell Jeff Kinney.”

Then there’s the Queen of Teen label. Does that must make you feel pretty proud?

“I think that’s hilarious, for me to be a Queen of Teen! Such a weird thing.”

I’m guessing you were more the quiet one reading in the corner at school. Is that why that seems so strange getting that accolade?

Mood Board: Cathy Cassidy inspires at Blackburn's King George's Hall in 2014

Mood Board: Cathy Cassidy inspires at Blackburn’s King George’s Hall in 2014

“Exactly, that’s always where I was and it’s still where I prefer to be!  I don’t actually feel comfortable in the middle of anything.

“I prefer to stand on the edge of things. That’s where you see everything. If you’re in the middle of everything for too long you begin to believe that’s where you ought to be, and I would hate to feel like that was my right.”

My girls talk about the ’popular girls’ at school, or the ‘plops’ as my youngest puts it!

“Ooh – I love that, and might steal that! Being popular doesn’t really mean anything. It’s only really when you’re a kid when you’re trying to work out where you are and how you fit into the world.

“School gives you this idea that the popular kids rule the school, but what you don’t understand when you’re that age is they don’t rule anything else.

“When you look back with the benefit of hindsight, those kids don’t actually come to anything after school, and that’s such a shame.

“You believe life’s always going to be that way and actually it isn’t. You have to adapt and change, and sometimes people on the edge of things are the ones that can use all that they’ve observed to move forward.

“Life is not a popularity contest, and that’s so hard to tell people now when kids are brought up and brainwashed to believe it’s the case with things like The X-Factor, Big Brother and every magazine that still exists which is full of gossip, Z-list celebrities and aspirations to be rich and famous.

“Instead, try and do the things that make you happy, because rich and famous won’t make you happy. I think it’s damaging to our kids to try and show them that’s the only way.

“So don’t aspire to be the person in the middle, aspire to be good at what you do and do the things that make you happy, and don’t worry if you’re the quiet one that likes to stand on the edge.

Teen Queen: But Cathy's not strictly sure about that label

Teen Queen: But Cathy’s not strictly sure about that label

“Being quiet is just as good as being confident and noisy! It’s about being you and using the qualities and skills you have.”

Quite right too. But did Cathy ever really think all those daydreams of being a writer when she was a schoolgirl might come to something like this?

“Not at all. I mean, imagine! I wasn’t filled with confidence as a teenager. I knew I wanted to give it a really good try and was willing to work for it, but when things begin to go right don’t necessarily think they’ll keep going right either.

“Having a journalistic career was lovely for me and felt like I was writing for a living, and I was illustrating as well. Those two things meant a lot to me.

“But then being given a book deal blew the whole lid off my world!”

Might you have ever stuck with being an art teacher, or would you have felt unfulfilled?

“Being an art teacher, if you’re doing it properly – why would you be unfulfilled? I loved every minute of it. It was very fulfilling and a wonderful thing to do.

“I still miss it, as I miss being a journalist. Lots of things I’ve done were fantastic at the time for what I needed to be.

“But – and I hate to be political here – I just wish the Government would leave teachers alone, because they’re squeezing the life and the joy out of teachers.

“That is so dangerous for our kids, destroying that for those that go into teaching for the love of it – which is most of them. I loved teaching art. It was one of the best things I’ve ever done.”

Chocolate Heaven: A Cathy Cassidy display at Wycombe High School's library (Photo: https://vle.whs.bucks.sch.uk)

Chocolate Heaven: A Cathy Cassidy display at Wycombe High School’s library (Photo: https://vle.whs.bucks.sch.uk)

You’ve been based back in Merseyside for a while now. Was it sad to leave Scotland, where your children grew up?

“I do miss that whole wild countryside feel of Galloway, that peaceful sense. It will always be number one in my heart.

“But it’s lovely where we are now, having the culture of a city right on your doorstep.”

Finally (wrapping up after around 40 minutes of our planned 15-minute chat!) I ask Cathy about her writing room, and whether she gets regular interruptions from her beloved lurchers, Kelpie, the senior, and young Finn.

“Kelpie does sometimes, and Finn, who is now three and much cheekier. The problem is that my writing room is now in the house and the dogs don’t usually go upstairs.

“They’re not encouraged to anyway. Kelpie will sometimes if she’s looking for me or looking for something to do. Finn will though. He’ll just stick his nose right on your knee as if to say, ‘What about me?’

“My writing room’s a little untidy, and always is. It’s full of my old books, all these things I collected that I didn’t have as a child. It’s kind of nostalgia all around me, like an extended version of the shed I had in Galloway really.”

You once wrote about your former shed that it was perfect because there was no internet connection. That seems to have changed now. I hate to sound like a stalker, but you do seem to be on social media sites a fair bit.

“Yes, I think I need to destroy the wi-fi connection. My output would probably go up 75 per cent! But when I’m writing I actually try to limit myself.

“I’ll look first thing in the morning and again maybe at lunchtime and later in the day, when I spend a lot of time updating my facebook fans’ page and Dreamcatcher blog.

Garden Idyll: Cathy Cassidy with her lurcher, Kelpie, outside her former writing hut in the Galloway Hills

Garden Idyll: Cathy Cassidy with her lurcher, Kelpie, outside her former writing hut in the Galloway Hills

“I kind of miss the shed on that basis. You really had to want to go off and check your  emails back then!”

Actually, Cathy was one of those who inspired me to kit out my own writing shed, although I have to admit I’ve barely been out there all winter, as there’s no heating or power supply.

In fact, I was relieved recently when I learned just how little Dylan Thomas wrote in his famed boathouse in Laugharne, mid-Wales. Word has it that most of his creative output came in the room he had at his parents’ house before all that. This gets Cathy thinking.

“I’d love to know the actual output of these sheds, especially for those people who live in the North!

“I was great in summer, and spring and autumn were fine, but winter in Galloway was just Baltic!

“The people who helped us with my shed up there said how well insulated it was and how it would be fine. But there were icicles inside! There was no way I was  sitting in there, not even with seven jumpers and scarves on!

“It’s probably my age, but it’s just fantastic to have an inside place now, where you still have all your lovely stuff around you so have that feel of the shed, but you’re inside!”

Looking Glass Girl by Cathy Cassidy is available in a Puffin hardback from April 2.

For all the latest from Cathy and various links, try her official website here.

Keep checking this blog for a feature on this year’s World Book Day event at Preston North End FC.

More Books about Chocolate and Girls, the first writewyattuk Cathy Cassidy feature, from July 2013, can be found here.

* With thanks to Carolyn McGlone at Puffin and World Book Day 2015 North West regional organisers Jake Hope and Elaine Silverwood. 

 

 

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Finally catching up with Frank Cottrell Boyce

Tracked Down: Frank Cottrell Boyce (and some might call him elusive)

Tracked Down: Frank Cottrell Boyce (and some – like this blogger – might call him elusive)

I won’t hold back. Lots of people who know about my love for children’s lit will have heard me talk in glowing terms about the work of Frank Cottrell Boyce, the respected film scriptwriter who turned to fiction with such success.

Ask me about my favourite contemporary children’s books and I’ll no doubt mention his first three novels.

In 2004 there was Millions, adapted from his own screenplay on the advice of the film’s director (and Frank’s good friend) Danny Boyle, a touching and funny story of two brothers who find a bag of money and work out how best to dispose of it.

Then there was Framed the following year, the author’s tale of a dying North Welsh community brought to life through an appreciation of art.

Next up was Cosmic in 2008, following a gifted and talented teen’s journey into space, one that might just have seemed a little far-fetched on paper, but was worked to seemingly-effortless perfection in the hands of this talented Liverpool-based writer.

There are others works deserving of praise too, not least The Unforgotten Coat, a 2012 Guardian Children’s fiction prize-winner.

And we also had a trio of books that should inspire a great love of reading for younger readers – his modern re-imagining of Ian Fleming’s Chitty Chitty Bang Bang story.

It’s not just about a great way with words either. All three books provide great examples of darn good storytelling, engaging and believable characters, with plenty of warmth and pace.

I’ve been hoping to get an interview since I first fell for Framed (which I discovered before I read and saw Millions), but he’s become increasingly busy, a victim of his own success maybe.

The fact that the 55-year-old is a true family man with seven children and two grandchildren probably means his available time for interviews is limited in the first place.

Hilary-and-jackie-posterThen you need to factor in that his public stock rose considerably when he was chosen to write the script for that memorable Danny Boyle-directed opening ceremony for the London 2012 Olympics.

Then there are all those films he’s helped pen since his formative days writing TV soap scripts for Brookside then Coronation Street.

I’ll mention here Welcome to Sarajevo, Hilary and Jackie, 24 Hour Party People, Grow Your Own, and last year’s The Railway Man. And there are plenty more. That’s some pedigree.

There was even a Dr Who last year, and you could argue that there’s a green-themed correlation between that episode – In the Forest of the Night – and his latest novel, The Astounding Broccoli Boy.

But let’s just cut to the chase now and point out how – after much negotiation – I finally managed to track Frank down to his publisher’s office in London on the lead-up to this year’s World Book Day, albeit while he was pre-signing books.

What’s more, a proper in-person meet followed six days later at that memorable event at Preston North End FC, with Frank just one of several high-profile children’s authors speaking to 5,000 North West schoolkids.

More will follow on that Deepdale extravaganza on this very blog within a couple of days. But for now, here’s the result of that first chat (bearing in mind that the WBD event mentioned has now happened!) – and plenty of Frank speaking.

Are you looking forward to World Book Day in Preston?

“Yes, it’s going to be brilliant, although I can’t imagine doing something like this in front of 5,000 kids! It’s going to be very different from reading to a class, but it’s such a great line-up. ”

I’m guessing you know most of the authors involved.

“Yes, and I’ve just been with Danny Wallace this morning. He‘s kind of a stand-up comedian anyway, and has his radio show, so he’ll be fine.

“Cressida Cowell’s seen a lot of success through the How to Train Your Dragon so she’ll be okay, and Cathy Cassidy’s just a superstar.”

And that just covers two-thirds of the day’s writing stars. Putting yourself into the shoes of the children seeing you on the day, was there ever anything like this in your day – seeing a hero or a writer?

wbd“You’re kidding me! I just assumed authors were dead, and I may well be by the fifth of March! I never met an author when I was a kid.

“I love the idea of going to a football stadium to hear stories. That’s fantastic! A brilliant notion.”

Would you have had a writing hero by the time you were crossing into your teen years (the event age range spanned from eight to 13-year-olds)?

“By year eight I was in love with Richmal Crompton, who wrote the Just William books and was from this region. I thought she was amazing. And although I knew she was dead, she was still making me laugh!”

Did you enjoy writing as a lad and your English lessons at school? And did you have inspirational teachers?

“Yes, I think it was around year six when I picked up the bug, doing that thing where you can make people laugh without being there.

“I had an amazing teacher, Sister Paul at my primary school in Rainhill (near St Helens), who if I wrote something funny, would read it out to the class.

“I would sit at the back, and even to this day if I’ve got a film out or a play or whatever, I’ll just sit at the back and think it’s just like being back in Sister Paul’s class.”

I know you’ve mentioned the humour of E Nesbit’s Treasure Seekers books as another major influence before now.

“I think Edith Nesbit is the funniest writer we’ve ever had, bar none. In fact, on the train down I was reading one of her books – and do that a lot. I was reading The Amulet, an amazing story.”

Any tips for budding authors or young readers about to discover The Astounding Broccoli Boy who might fancy a crack at this writing malarkey?

“Just read a lot – read, read, read! In fact, I’ve just been involved with the BBC’s 500 Words competition, offering writing tips, with the closing date yesterday.”

I know all about that, not least as my youngest daughter left it right until the last couple of hours before submitting her finished story.

In fact, I add, she made the schoolgirl error of going back and reading her offering after clicking the send button, spotting a slight mistake which made her think she wouldn’t win.

BBC-500-words“That really doesn’t matter at all. It’s not about that at all. It’s so great that competition. And you can reassure her that it’s around 60 per cent of entries that come on the last day, leaving it until the last minute.”

So is that how you work too?

“Yeah, definitely … on the bus.”

You must be good at this pitching business by now, so …. The Astounding Broccoli Boy – explain in a nutshell. Is it an everyday tale of a boy who turns green?

“It’s about a boy called Rory who’s always being picked on at school. He gets pushed into a river, and when he comes out he’s turned bright green.

“Everyone’s worried it’s some kind of infectious virus, so he’s locked away in a hospital, but Rory has a very positive outlook on life and looks at history to see who else has turned green.

“He comes up with The Incredible Hulk, Swamp Thing, The Green Hornet, Green Lantern, and decides he’s got to be a superhero.

“He decides there’s nothing wrong with him and he’s just got super-powers, and this book is about him trying to find out what his super-power is.”

How long did The Astounding Broccoli Boy take to come together? Was it an idea nagging in the back of your head for a while?

“It took forever, and yeah, very much so. In fact, I have a blood disease and actually turn yellow if I get stressed, so I have had that experience of people looking at me.

“I’m not aware of the condition, but if I’m in a motorway café I‘ll suddenly be aware of people staring at me and know I’ve done that Incredible Hulk transformation and look like a daffodil.

51XVhSewHOL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_“So it’s always been there, people watching me turn colour, and it’s taken me around four years to write this. And yes, it does takes me a while to write a book.”

What do you see yourself as first and foremost these days – children’s novelist or scriptwriter?

“Children’s novelist – first and last!”

Is scriptwriting just something you did in the past then?

“Yes, in quite a few cases it’s scripts I wrote a long time ago that have come to light, and sometimes someone offers you something that you feel you know exactly how to do, so you’ll do it.

“That’s fun too, and a nice thing to do … like Dr Who or whatever.”

Ah yes, Dr Who. I loved In The Forest of the Night on the last series. Any more Dr Who commissions in the pipeline?

“Not in this series, but I might in the series after.”

I see you recently succumbed to joining Twitter. Are you quite well structured with your writing days, or as easily distracted as most of us writers by social media?

“Well, there’s no internet in the house until the kids come home from school at around four o’clock.”

Are you an early morning or late-night writer?

“Definitely early morning.”

And do you write in long-hand or straight on to the computer?

“I’ve always written straight on to the computer, but the book I’m writing now I’m writing in a big notebook and I’m having such a great time.

“Maybe it takes you back to being at school, making you feel like a kid again. I’d recommend that.”

MillionsDid you have to fit it all around childcare for a few years?

“Well, the kids have been great, to be honest. It doesn’t really make any odds them being in the house, particularly with the last couple of books.”

How old are your children now (yes, you did read that right before – Frank has seven altogether!).

“My youngest is 10 now, and I have a girl who’s 14, and they’re really interested in what I’m doing and I read it out to them.

“They’re really good at remembering continuity things that you’ve changed, or telling you straight what works and what doesn’t work.”

How old is your eldest child now?

“The oldest is going to be 30 this year, which is shocking!”

Have you moved on to grandad status yet?

“I’ve two grandchildren, with one four and one …. new, around six months old.”

Any of your children following in your writing footsteps?

“I’m co-writing something with my eldest son at the moment, a TV series set in the 19th century, based on a story he’s always loved.”

I was watching the adaptation of The Railway Man recently, and those scenes where Eric meets his wife-to-be on the train (played by Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman) are so clearly Frank Cottrell Boyce-scripted.

“Ha! Yes, they’re very North-West, aren’t they! I think my favourite line in the whole film is when he says, ”If you think Warrington is fascinating, wait ‘til you get to Preston!”

I loved the films and books of Millions and Framed. Are we finally going to see Cosmic on our screens soon?

download (1)“I’m working on the script for Cosmic at the moment, and it’s obviously a much bigger movie because it’s set in space.

“I’ve had great luck and have an American producer called Janet Zucker, who just happens to know loads of astronauts, and is also involved in the SpaceX program, so it certainly looks like it will happen, which is amazing. And it’s certainly been fun working on it.”

There were author cameos in the Millions and Framed films, so are we likely to see you pop up in space too? And if so, will you have to undertake zero-gravity training for the job?

“Gotta do it! Got to have a spacesuit, yeah! Otherwise, it would be like doing Dr Who and not getting in the Tardis.”

How about a Chitty Chitty Bang Bang remake?

“I was talking about this recently, because the Broccolis own the film rights for that … and that’s a weird thing after just writing The Astounding Broccoli Boy!

“I actually sent Barbara Broccoli a copy of the new book, and she was like, ‘Oh! Maybe we’ll make that!”

There was quite a bit of media excitement recently about the EastEnders’ anniversary shows. Ever been tempted to get back on the writing team at Coronation Street?

“I had such a great time doing that! It was wonderful … but it was like a full-time job.”

And seeing as soap stars often come back from the dead, there could be a Brookside revival maybe?

“Yeah!”

What was Proper Clever about, the play what you wrote (as Ernie Wise would say) for a Liverpool Playhouse show during the European Capital of Culture celebrations in 2008?

“I wanted to get a play for younger people into The Playhouse, and it was a comedy set in school, with some of it set in cyberspace, with characters talking to each other but not always seeing each other. That was fun.”

Franks's Heroes: The Undertones

Franks’s Heroes: The Undertones

Then there was the 2013 City of Culture work in ‘Stroke City’ (Derry/Londonderry, Northern Ireland). I recently spoke to someone involved alongside you, my Undertones guitar hero Damian O’Neill, and he told me what a smashing fella you were.

“He’s a great guy! And the O’Neill brothers were just great for that. They did everything for their city at the drop of a hat. If you asked them to do something, they did.

“I rang them to ask about composing a special piece of music, and they were really apologetic, saying, ‘We won’t be able to do this until Monday’!”

So were you a big Undertones fan (he asks, already knowing the answer)?

“Yes! Huge! I chose the Undertones for one of my Desert Island Discs (My Perfect Cousin, incidentally, with Frank’s great 2010 selection still available on the BBC iPlayer here) and absolutely idolise them!

“For the Capital of Culture event they did a gig in the Bogside in Derry, and I had my two youngest with me. And they will never know how lucky they were for their first gig! Unbelievable.”

From the City of Culture work to the recent UK papal visit – co-presenting with Carol Vorderman – and the London 2012 opening ceremony, we seem to see you pop up in unlikely places. What’s the next big unexpected thing you’re likely to be involved with?

“Oh no, no, no! I’m just going to sit and write books from now on!”

On that fantastic London 2012 opening ceremony, it was a wonderful celebration of some of the best aspects of this multi-cultural nation, from nods to the NHS and Welfare State to a light shone on our industrial heritage, Shakespeare, children’s lit, and so on.  It should have been a proud moment for you. Did you get chance to enjoy it at the time?

“I think I did, because as the person who’s been doing the writing I had very little to do on the night. I was the only member of that five-man team that had any relaxation.

“That said, just before the event, I was queuing for chips with Thomas Heatherwick, the designer who worked on the new London bus and the Olympic cauldron, and we both said we felt really relaxed.

“But then I added, ‘As long as the cauldron doesn’t jam, because then that’s all people will remember’.

With that, the colour just drained from his face. So when the cauldron did close up, I lost my voice instantly. I must have been so worried.”

download (2)You’ve often spoken out on social justice issues and clearly have a campaigning streak, like fellow World Book Day star-turn Cathy Cassidy. In fact, both of you have strong views regarding saving the nation’s libraries.

“Absolutely. We’re living in a time of almost zero mobile mobility. And the one thing we know about libraries is that they’re key for that mobility.

“I know people who have extraordinary lives and have taken extraordinary routes, and anyone who hasn’t taken the normal route, when you talk to them, there’s always a library in the story.”

There are lots of other roles and accolades that have kept Frank busy in recent years – like his Professor of Reading position at Liverpool Hope University, his honorary Doctor of Literature title from Edge Hill University, and his patron’s role with the Insight Film Festival in Manchester.

So how do you fit it all in? Do Mrs CB and your children recognise you when you show up at home?

“I make sure that’s never compromised. I spend a lot of time at home.”

(I was starting to run out of time by now, but cracked on with my next deliveries, while Frank batted everything straight back at me with typical honesty and humour).

I believe it was Danny Boyle who first inspired you to write a children’s book. Are you still in regular touch?

“We speak a lot. He’s shooting at the moment, making a film about Steve Jobs. But he’s back soon.”

Everyone knows about Danny, of course, but you also worked alongside Michael Winterbottom a fair amount, another Lancashire lad – from Blackburn. I’m guessing you hit it off from the start.

“We did, and we made a lot of stuff together.”

At what point did you realise it was time to throw yourself in at the deep end and write full-time?

“I’ve never had a job, and I’ve never done a day’s work in my life!”

GrowyourowndvdWould you ever consider moving away from Liverpool?

“No … why would anyone?”

Did a new life in, for example, Hollywood never appeal to you?

“Not at all, and it’s give you an edge anyway, being here. “

At that point, Frank’s finally about to be whisked off and back to his huge pile of books to sign ahead of World Book Day, but I manage to ask him two more questions before he’s carried out by the ankles.

First, I have a big dilemma to address here. Should I file your books under C or B … or just go with F?

“Definitely C. Yeah!”

Finally, of all your big moments so far – from the first script commission to the Carnegie Medal (for Millions) and first public appearance, London 2012, and so on, is there a career moment that outstrips the rest?

“For me it’s always when you get the first copy of a book. There’s just something really amazing about that – bigger than any premiere or anything else, thinking, ‘There it is’.

916c2209-2aed-4f59-8b7e-534427bd4784-508x1020“And it will be there forever, even if it’s just in a second-hand bookshop in 20 years’ time. Someone on a rainy day might think, ‘What’s this?’ It’s a wonderful, wonderful thing.’

The Astounding Broccoli Boy by Frank Cottrell Boyce is available from Pan Macmillan in paperback and hardback from March 26.

Keep checking this blog for a similarly in-depth Cathy Cassidy interview and a feature from this year’s mammoth World Book Day 2015 event at Preston North End FC.

* With thanks to Catherine Alport and Leanne Bennett at Macmillan Children’s Books, plus World Book Day 2015 North West regional organisers Jake Hope and Elaine Silverwood. 

 

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