Out-selfing Will Self: An Interview With Austin Collings

Ahead of his talk at Manchester's Anthony Burgess Foundation this evening (26th June), Colm McAuliffe sits down with author Austin Collings — the man previously dubbed the 'crisp-packet Ballard' on these pages — to discuss musicality and musical influence in his writing, the futility of Next Big Thing lists, out-selfing Will Self and his book The Myth of Brilliant Summers

Austin Collings is best known for taking on the heroic task of becoming The Fall frontman Mark E. Smith’s biographer, a collaboration which resulted in the bleakly hilarious Renegade. This year, Collings published his debut collection of short stories, The Myth of Brilliant Summers, on Pariah Press. Writing with unbridled panache and guttersnipe brio, Collings channels and hones the boozy spirits of Jonathan Rendall and Alasdair Gray into his incredibly modern, often hypereal, evocations of life in northern Britain, equal parts Coronation Street and Twin Peaks.

The narrator of his stories stalks the urban city with a jaundiced eye and jackboot to nostalgia. “All the characters and places herein were once real”, reads the foreword as we are instructed to read the book in the pub or on the way home from work.

On June 26th, Collings – along with crime writer Mark Blacklock – will speak at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation in Manchester around ‘The Idea of Death’ – a talk on how death, shock, trauma, brutality and the most macabre figures in British crime history have informed Collings and Blacklock’s own writing. As a precursor, I met up with the dapper Collings – half-jokingly describing himself as ‘The Swinging Detective’ – to talk us through the stories in The Myth of Brilliant Summers, his own influences and the joys of out-Selfing Will Self.

The Myth of Brilliant Summers is split up into many stories with startling titles (‘The Mystery of the Half Nelson’, ‘Mother Brandy for Sorry Jon’), which read almost more like song titles than traditional story titles. Would it be glib to suggest a significant musical influence on the structure and creation of the stories?

Austin Collings: It’s hard for me to distance myself from certain albums because they’re on display deep in the museum of myself: The La’s magnificent debut, The Verve’s Northern Soul, Sunhouse’s Crazy On The Weekend most of The Fall…The list can and will go on and is not limited to just white men with chips on their shoulders and addictive natures.

Also, the Trent Reznor sequencing of the Natural Born Killers soundtrack made a lasting impression on me as a teenager. It’s absurd, scary and sad, like Eliot’s Waste Land. Watching Adam Curtis’ Bitter Lake recently I thought that he must also have been influenced by that album in some way and not just because he often uses Nine Inch Nails’ ‘A Warm Place’. Certain types of fractured poetry – the same type that Curtis is now employing – can depict truths that standard reportage can’t: Czeslaw Milosz or Don Delillo are perfect examples of this. And I’d like to think Myth…works in a similar way but with a different landscape of bus stations, canals and damp school fields.

There’s a staggeringly sustained intensity to the stories, an assault on the modern world – as exemplified by modern Britain – through the voice of the narrator. This intensity reminds me of Amis circa London Fields, and the cultural references dotted throughout seem reminiscent of a northern English David Foster Wallace. But, more than anyone, I think of Thomas Bernhard: the grim humour, the ever-impending sense of a deep depression, and the depictions of reality: admirable, weak, mean-spirited but always very true to life.

AC: Amis was a magnificent force in the 80s. Success, Money, London Fields; they meant a lot to me as a teenager and I still think they’re exceptional. The weirdly comic doom of London Fields has obviously seeped into elements of Myth. And Foster Wallace was a true great. I recently finished reading The Suffering Channel which is a novella or long-short story set in the summer of 2001. I have barely stopped thinking about it. That’s the intense quality of DFW. He works on you like a drug.

The artist Chloe Steele (who drew the illustrations in the book) introduced me to Thomas Bernhard five years ago. Within a paragraph I had another new friend who was going to sink me yet further into the exquisitely grim mire that is the truth. He is somewhere between those other two towering B’s: Beckett and Bukowski.

I always liked Jeffrey Bernard’s ‘Low Life’ Spectator columns from the 1970s that detailed his ramshackle life. Given the chance, he names names. Jonathan Meades described them as a ‘suicide note in weekly instalments’. And they’re suicidal in their honesty as well – or seemingly so – because he was clever enough to only ever reveal the things he wanted the reader to know. You knew there were other secrets, other witches and demons hidden beneath the bed.

BS Johnson was similar and even Foster Wallace. They found a way – call it post-modern or whatever you like – to turn themselves inside out with great style; at a cost of course, but risk and gamble make for great work.

How much of these stories is actually memoir? The narrative does seem uniformly one of a male, whose formative years align with late-Thatcherite, early post-Thatcherite Britain, which transposes well with your own adolescence.

AC: You could say the backdrop of Myth is England from the beginning of time till the end of time: a period drama and sci-fi dystopia, a sit-com and a war story, a work of experimental fiction and a self-help guide.

One modern book that really made an impression on me was Gordon Burn’s final work – Born Yesterday: The News as a Novel (2008) – which went beyond the idea of fiction. I’m sure it will be seen as a classic – or awkward classic – in years to come. He wanted to compete with the actual news – with the impact of news – to find the ‘dream life of the nation’. The ‘characters’ in it are the likes of Kate McCann, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown etc. It all takes place before the economic crash. Burn doesn’t predict this; however, knowing that the incidents within precede this global disaster by the matter of months only adds to its unnerving power. It works like an eerie whistle in the near-distance and is a book like no other.

The women you write about are often idealised and fleeting. Is this a reflection of the women you’ve encountered in your own life?

AC: Funny. I gained a book and lost a special girlfriend could be the subtitle of Myth. Interestingly, the girl I idolised as a teenager got back in touch recently. She is the root of all this, Graves’ original White Goddess – BS Johnson had the same problem didn’t he?

Back then at the age of fourteen, I saw her as a Laura Palmer-type. She looked a little like her as well: long creamy hair. The wonderfully mad black cloud of Twin Peaks – of Lynch-land – hung over a lot of my life at that stage. She used to drink a street corner cocktail of Hooch and Paracetamol. I wanted to burn all her boyfriends. I liked her so much I became her enemy. It was that sort of idolisation. John Fante writes well about that maddening sensation and the film Magnolia really nails it – that dramatically daft way of conferring yet more sadness upon yourself. It becomes addictive.

Similarly, a lot of the older people in the stories appear to be in varying states of peril, or simply fucked up (Sorry Jon’s mother, Pete’s dad, uncle Frank, the dad in night fishing…)

AC: I disagree. They may be imprisoned by circumstance like Beckett characters but they have deceptively wild qualities. Like Mariah Carey or Dave Lee Roth, they are full of themselves, which is one of my favourite clichés. The only problem is, unlike Carey and Roth, they’re skint.

There’s been a raft of memoir related writing in recent years, often aligned with this new nature-inspired writing. In comparison, the stories here are memoir-based but very urban, unsentimental, free of mindless nostalgia or ‘psychogeographical’ meandering. Is this division relative to a class divide? And/or a North/South divide?

AC: I like Francis Bacon’s irreverently dismissive comment about the countryside: “it’s a waste of space.” I think the whole Psychogeography school of writing (if you can call it that) wants to be modern and edgy – to use publishing parlance – but is in fact laboured and passive. I don’t think nature or the ‘outside world’ is as fascinating as the BBC and Will Self and co would have us believe. I miss litter. It told us a lot about people: what they eat and drink and where they eat and drink and choose to lay it to rest.

Like many artists nowadays who struggle with their own sense of learned awe, Self and co seem in awe of the template that Ballard and Sebald laid down so compellingly. They are the forever students. This is why I left college after two months and never set foot in a University. I grew up in an oddly working-class bohemian way and was able to grow into myself free from teachers. My mum and dad let me have a lot of time off school. They had no money – sometimes not even enough for dinner money – but they had a lot of style and taste and so I absorbed the books and films and records that surrounded me. When other people my age were in college I was smoking Benson & Hedges and writing notes in pre-Starbuck’s cafes and wandering, drifting: out-selfing Will Self, you could say.

Having spent a lot of time living in London on and off I’m not as anti-London as other northerners I know. Momentarily, it’s obscenely full of itself and has a spoiled outlook and, like Berlin, it has lost all sense of curiosity in anything but itself. But it is still fascinating maybe because it is stupidly gullible and powerfully arrogant. Tory governments are the same. They will always fuck themselves over eventually. The greed gene.

The problem is representation. If all you see of the North is Peter Kay or another Stuart Maconie book then the south have a right to sneer. But then there’s David Peace and Mark E Smith. Modernism is the song that never ends and those two just keep on singing. Peace has taken on Gordon Burn’s mantle and is the premier novelist of his generation and he doesn’t even live in England. It’s probably not as devastatingly telling as Joyce’s exile was but it says a great deal about our times.

Do you think this approach to the North/South divide was exemplified by The Guardian recently tipping a range of young writers as their ‘ones to watch’ for 2015 — a list including a literary agent, a descendent of John Le Carré and the co-writer of Peep Show. What does this say about the mainstream/London approach to new writing?

AC: I think it’s wise to remain stoically indifferent to these fashionable and pernicious lists, or maybe just remember the Peruvian saying: “Perseverance is where the Gods dwell.”

Such articles – or sophisticated advertorials (which is what they are) – work like TV adverts and are so obviously suffused with commercialism that they can only disappoint or enrage or simply misguide. I’d love to think that LeCarré’s descendant can write dialogue as masterly as LeCarré himself, but you read so many supposed Next Big Things that it just becomes senseless in the same way that adverts only make sense to the people that profit from them.

Robert Crumb recently said that America doesn’t have journalists anymore — just public relations people. And it’s not too dissimilar in this country, only the PR curse has also infected film, TV, music and books. The content is secondary to the marketing. Look at those awful book covers that are plastered with accolades. I admire Pariah Press (publishers of The Myth of Brilliant Summers) for taking their cover cue from the likes of Black Sparrow Press: the simple and stylish and hopefully timeless route.

There’s a wonderful line tucked away amid ‘Tommy V’: ‘A companion to guide me through the teenage wasteland’. Is this what this collection is? A companion to guide your younger self through the myriad trials and tortures of adolescence?

AC: Yes – and the other years as well – when you avoid opening envelopes and wonder if 11am is too early to start drinking. As a teenager I always thought that I should be in a teenage asylum. Maybe this is where Myth belongs. And in schools as well, as a warning to the curious (to nick the great MR James story title).

Austin Collings will be speaking on June 26th at the Anthony Burgess Foundation in Manchester. The Myth of Brilliant Summers is out now, published by PARIAH

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