Monday, 18 June 2012

Paris, John Calder and Kevin Williamson

Sixteen years ago this Friday I had a fall. Or should I say I was pushed off of a balcony in Paris having just played a gig there the previous night. Apparently I was lucky to survive; my head missed the kerbside by three inches. The culprit was a drummer who no doubt claims to this day the fall was a fall and not a push, how it was an accident. But we both know that it wasn’t an accident and if I had made contact with the kerb, right now I wouldn’t be sat here writing this and he’d still be getting away with murder.
          When I awoke in a Paris hospital, pumped with pellets of morphine – elbow fractured, wrists splintered, body swollen – and unable to communicate with staff who refused to speak English (which was fair enough) I decided when I got back home things would change. And that’s exactly what happened.
          I left the band. I started a new relationship with a wonderful young woman who became Mrs England. I began to write a regular column for the next three years in a football fanzine. I began to write fiction. But even more remarkable than any of that, was this. I began to read books.
          One of the first books I read was a book I ‘borrowed’ from the hospital in Paris. The book had a great title. It was called We Always Treat Women Too Well and was written by a French author Raymond Queneau and published in English by John Calder. My previous interest in reading was Roy of the Rovers and Viz so this was a major leap for me. The Queneau book was excellent, a lively short novel with humour and swearing and set during the Easter Uprising in 1916.
          I purchased my first John Calder in a Sue Ryder. 75p for a paperback edition of the Samuel Beckett trilogy (Molly, Malone Dies, The Unnamable). Mint condition. But I found at the time that the book was a hard read; I admit back then I struggled and could have easily taken the easy route and hooked back up with Billy the Fish. But I didn’t. I continued to satisfy this new thirst to read.
          I would eventually return to John Calder books and build a fine collection of first editions but what was to truly change everything came from another Scot. Kevin Williamson.

His excellent Rebel Inc Classic series all started for me with Hunger by Knut Hansum. Here was a novel so easy to read but so layered in detail. It was funny, brutal, heartbreaking. An honest book. You know you are into something when you quite literally don’t want to stop turning the page; you phone into work sick the next day because there’s still fifty-one pages left.
          Not only was the novel outstanding but I also learned about the importance of getting the translation correct. This translation from Norwegian into English by Sverre Lyngstad provided examples of how other editions had been appallingly tackled. I could provide examples here but recommend you track the book down for yourself instead. It’s out of print but still out there. With Hunger I was receiving an education.  With just one book I had learned more about the importance of good literature than I ever did in school. And then came John Fante. Obviously influenced by Hamsun, Ask The Dust and The Road To Los Angeles blew me away in the same fashion Hunger did and the ride got better when the next Rebel Inc book I read was Young Adam by Alexander Trocchi. These four brilliantly written books alone should make for compulsory reading in schools.
          But the journey didn’t stop there. Onwards they kept coming at me like interesting new mates popping round for a chat and with absolutely no threat of being thrown from a balcony. And so I read Fup and Not Fade Away by Jim Dodge, The Blind Owl by Sadegh Hedayat, Revenge of the Lawn by Richard Brautigan, The Man With The Golden Arm by Nelson Algren and the excellent book about Trocchi by Allan Campbell and Tim Niel, A Life In Pieces.
          The majority of these Rebel Inc books were true lost classics given a new life and it changed my whole perception of books as a reader and also helped me develop as a writer (I accept the argument that there is still little evidence of this in my fiction writing) and doubt without Kevin Williamson and Rebel Inc that I would have ever read these great writers or gone back to John Calder’s list for further inspiration. But I did. And at John Calder I found the following waiting for me: Berg by Ann Quin, Last Exit To Brooklyn by Hubert Selby Jr, The Wild Boys by William Burroughs, Europe After The Rain by Alan Burns, Jesus Iscariot by Anthony Storey, Providings by Elspeth Davie, Black Spring by Henry Miller, more Queneau and one of my favourite books of all time, Cain’s Book by Trocchi.
          I nearly met with John Calder in March. There was a series of readings and discussions at his shop – Calder Bookshop Theatre – but sadly he was unwell and unable to attend. It was a bitter blow. Kevin Williamson is on Twitter @williamsonkev and I have enjoyed being able to let him know what an important impact he made on me as well as Calder. Because I know for a fact that without the likes of Hansum, Fante and Trocchi, without the efforts of Kevin Williamson and Rebel Inc, there would be something missing in my life and to this day I wouldn’t have had a clue where to look to find it.

Joe England