You’ve all been writing and producing novels for a long time now, and have (presumably) known each other quite a while too. Was working together on a book something you always wanted to do? And why now, what brought The Seal Club together for publication in 2020?
Personally speaking I’m a big fan of John and Alan’s work and they are good friends, so it’s not a tough choice to get involved.
We have known each since the mid-1990s more or less, and as well as Irvine and Alan being my friends I think they are two of the best writers around. I first met Irvine in person in The Ship in Soho in London around that time, and it was in the same pub that he suggested the idea. It wasn’t a long-term plan. We decided to go for it in January. Everyone contributed a story and they naturally fitted together as a collection. It was a dynamic process. Knowing a book is going to come out so fast drives you on, makes the whole thing much more exciting. The Seal Club
has been a pleasure from start to finish.
I would always be happy to do something with these two lunatics and I’m flattered they put up with me; writing is a lonesome gig, so it’s nice to get that ‘being in a band’ feel when you can. Don’t you think we sound like a 70s hard rock power trio? “Warner, Welsh, King: Revenge of the Middle-Aged Blokes
. New Album and Tour.” In fact Irvine and I were actually in a planned anthology before: the infamous Children of Albion Rovers
anthology, and John contributed to the follow-up publication, Rovers Return
. This was back when dinosaurs roamed the earth in …eh, either 1967..or maybe it was 1997? I am so fossilized I can’t reach for the calendar. You would need to ask Kingy about why we are doing The Seal Club
now – eh – I can’t remember when he first raised it. Was it just before the Planetary Pandemic struck? I said yes without a moment’s hesitation. I have always admired what John and Martin were doing at London Books, and I had read quite a few from their fascinating back catalogue. I suppose when you look at it now, it’s amazing we didn’t do it before.
Why The Seal Club – does this title have a particular meaning? What are your hopes with this book?
Well you said it best Brian; we are all big fans of Kiss From a Rose
; it’s such a beautiful song. The Seal Club
has a deeply secret meaning between the three of us – if I revealed it, Welshy would have me hunted down. Might I say though, I am a guy who cries the minute I see any footage of the koalas after the Australian fires. That was too much. I mean that. John is a vegetarian – I am a struggling ex-vegan. I wont have any cruelty to the beasties of the world if I can help it – oh no.
My hopes are for sales figures in the English language edition of, say, roughly around 1,456,376. It’s been interesting actually, not doing this through a major publisher. It’s amazing how slowly the big publisher operate these days, but John and London Books were just so quick and efficient. Well, you know. The punk rock D.I.Y ethos that John embodies. He’s a guy that just gets on with it.
Best to let people break the seal and read the book for their answer. As for my hopes, I just want people to read and enjoy The Seal Club
, get something out of the stories.
The Seal Club
– my lips are sealed. I would hope that the book finds an audience. It’s a tough time but we’re trying to keep the flag flying for our idiosyncratic brands of fiction.
- 'Those Darker Sayings' ● Alan Warner -
The object of much of the narrator’s thought and focus is the character of John Robert Slorach, a railway phone operator. It seems from early on that Slorach is bound for tragedy – all too ready to retreat into schemes and dreams, not cut out for this modern life. Do you think he represents a certain type of person who can never prosper in our society? Did you ever consider anchoring the story within his consciousness, or was making him one character among the cast a way of retaining (and respecting) the mystery of his struggles?
I guess we have to be cautious of what you mean by ‘prosper,’ but as a figure of speech yes, Slorach probably is doomed to collide with social demands. Yet. Hell. I think more and more of us are inevitably on a collision course with society, as what society demands of us becomes more and more specific and clamouring. (I am not, for a moment, of course referring to the necessary and deadly-serious Covid situation. In fact perhaps this terrible time will, if we can get through it together, actually make us all reflect a little bit more on what our collective goals should be and pull us together more as a society – and accept we had probably all lost touch a bit). I think there is a fair amount of shameless middle-aged nostalgia evident in Those Darker Sayings
, which is of course to do with my age but also, my generation has seen a fabulous amount of social and cultural and technological change. I suppose every generation does.
Part of this nostalgia for me is that, when this story is set, in Slorach’s time in the early 90s, I think we had a little more variety as to what sort of life we wanted to choose to try to lead. It seems to me, in the past we had a sort of choice as to live our lives in 1st 2nd 3rd or 4th gear and that could be done, we wouldn’t be particularly castigated nor in fact obstructed, and we would get along in out chosen gear with our just rewards – which might well be modest but we might have a crack at a life that fitted our personality. Seems to me society has got increasingly intolerant of alternative, or less compulsive lives, it’s quite extreme now – your personality and inner happiness are nothing to do with it! Real term wages have crashed. We must either be in 1st gear or 5th gear and there is nothing in between; individuals are castigated by a built-in, seemingly irreversible system. I am not saying we should be allowed to sit on the dole, or tune in and drop out. I’m just saying things have got quite sad – look how workers get treated in jobs there days. I know women, friends of my wife, who have been working in high street retail for forty years with the same company. They used to have canteens at work, weekend working rates, double time payments, guaranteed holidays, Christmas bonuses, bus-party weekends away with fellow staff, which the management actually encouraged to get a camaraderie going. Eh. That isn’t going on anymore. People are on cut-throat border line or real zero-hour contracts, terms and conditions are sliced and chopped on a yearly basis – forget about canteens and work-do’s, you dreamer. This labour market jungle is complex. And controversial. The competitiveness of contemporary life – it’s sink-or-swim rhetoric is pretty merciless.
I think back in the early 90s there was more choice, basically. But I think in this story in The Seal Club
you are just getting the feeling of that past being shucked off forever, and us all getting onto a very slippery slope; this was just before the dot-com boom came in the later 90s and computing changed our lives. our personal and our working lives, forever. Slorach and the other characters work in a Nationalised industry, and they see that deregulated world coming at them, yet ironically, they are making their own honey – they are sort of, rather modest beneficiaries of the coming dot com speculation, ha ha!!
I did consider telling the story from Slorach’s point of view for about 3.2 seconds. It’s not about respecting the mystery of his inner life. Imagine being inside Slorach’s head for the whole story! He seems to know so much. I am just not smart enough it would have been hard work indeed and may have needed a novel. Or two!
The narrator is similar to Slorach in some respects – they both seem to yearn for a different existence to the one they’re in. They both have a reverence for the natural world, they both welcome a morally dubious scheme as a way of breaking the tedium. When the narrator states: “You only get a few brief spells in your life when you really are living in truth – authentically”, Slorach is the example of this he cites. How would you characterize their relationship? Their endings are very different, but do you see them as intimately or directly connected?
I think Pete sees Slorach as a romantic character, but he IS a romantic character. I think Pete, like me is a romantic, and he admires Slorach but is sort of in awe of him. Pete is more laid back than Slorach – it’s a good mates thing, I think he really cares for Slorach and admires him and I think he is more damaged bu what happens than might be apparent.
I found the structure of this story very interesting – what opens out as a funny and entertaining caper then takes a turn closer to the narrator, and becomes about a darker aspect of life. Near the end of chapter 3, he notes: “Sometimes I worry about myself”. Is Those Darker Sayings about the journey from innocence to experience? Is it the ability to worry about oneself what sets the average well-adjusted person apart from the Slorachs of the world?
That’s an interesting question. I suppose it’s about trying to find a way. Apart from Lorimer they are all in their 20s, they haven’t fallen in to the kids and mortgage life yet – but they have come out of University to find the world isn’t really waiting for them, but there they are. Holding down jobs and good on them – in a way it is Pete’s story of when he got bound up with Slorach and in a way – it almost kills Pete and – then there’s Slorach. Sometimes I find life just too cruel myself.
- 'The Providers' ● Irvine Welsh -
The fact that virtually all of the drama takes place in one room, that the narrative doesn’t follow Frank and Joe when they go out, and the constant arguments that take place between all of the various characters, this really gave the story the feel of a drama for the stage, similar in many ways to a Harold Pinter play, where the reader is just listening for the next point of conflict to emerge as the characters speak. Did you approach the writing of this piece differently as to when creating stories made up of separate vignettes, settings and scenes?
It was originally a story which I developed for the Big Issue. Then I turned it into a stage play. It seemed that theatres aren’t going to open anytime soon so here I go with it reconditioned and extended into novella form.
The re-branded ‘Frank’ Begbie seems quite inscrutable at times; you’re never sure if he’s having to fight to keep his composure, or not. Had you already thought about how Frank was going to be at each stage in the story, or in the act of writing did he surprise you with how he was acting, and reacting?
Yes I’ve had a dramatic trajectory for him worked out over several pieces of work. This is him in the relatively early stages of his supposed rehabilitation.
Val repeats the phrase “That’s aw ah’m sayin” a few times, but she actually has quite a lot to say over the course. Although Val seems like an invalid, she does have some power over the other characters, because she’s the only one with full knowledge of the family past. How significant is the weight of family history in The Providers? How much is Val to blame for the unhappiness that has blighted these lives?
Well, you have to allow the reader to judge the characters, it’s not really the place of the author to do that. I really just see Val as someone in pretty difficult circumstances trying to make the best of things. Yes, the weight of history waves heavily on all families. I think we forgive more as we get older and understand the circumstances people operated in. It can be devastating at the time though.
- 'The Beasts of Brussels' ● John King -
The story is divided into several different narratives told by several different voices, encompassing very different outlooks and contrasting opinions. On account of this contrast, I’d imagine some of the views expressed are very much opposed to your own. Do you find it more challenging to get into a character’s mind and formulate what their voice will sound like, if their way of thinking and manner of expressing themselves is anathema to yours?
Writing this novella was an education, thinking how it might work, and in the end I went for a range of characters and narratives, with a variety of styles reflecting their personalities and opinions – different pacing, uses of language, moods. There’s Matt’s surreal trip through Brussels that draws on the city’s bande dessinée
tradition; Pat’s flashbacks and mental journey after he is beaten up; Tommy doing a Jack Kerouac with his version of On The Road
; Robert Marsh and Chris Bradley acting out their snobbery and arrogance.
Those two were the biggest challenges in terms of their views and voices, but not in a bad way. They are working for me, remember, making my points and underpinning the bigger story. Some humour helps in these situations I find. After a while I started seeing the novella as a series of layers building up on top of each other, rather than the collage of a full-length novel, and those two characters are essential. I learned a lot writing The Beasts Of Brussels
. There are two other half-done novellas been sitting here and I think I know how to finish them now.
There’s a really interesting study, The Intellectuals and the Masses by John Carey, in which Carey looks at how modernist artists in the early 20th century would condemn the working classes as one homogeneous, brutish multitude. By Carey focusing on this period in particular, the implication is that the situation has changed/improved since then. In your story, it feels like this prejudice still exists but has been transposed onto football fans – they are referred to as the “rabble” and “animals”. To what extent is The Beasts of Brussels an examination of this kind of discrimination/stereotyping?
It is one of the core elements of the story. That idea of one homogeneous, brutish multitude still exists – definitely – even if the nature of work and easy credit have changed its appearance. That prejudice is still there in the arts and our so-called intelligentsia. Pat’s story focuses on this – he is a decent, thoughtful man who works in the care sector but is abused for having ginger hair. He is a smeared face in the crowd. There is no lobby group and few politicians who will ever stand up for him or his friends. There are no consequences for those who insult them. And a bully is a bully, irrespective of age, sex, background, politics. Mental, verbal, physical. Some are big mouths like Chris Bradley, others are sneaky fuckers like Robert Marsh.
Football supporters have long been seen as a homogeneous, brutish multitude. From the start by the upper-classes I imagine, with the game having its roots in industry and community, but since the mid-1960s this went into overdrive with the mainstreaming of youth cultures and the expansion of television. Plus there was the World Cup in ’66. Football and the surrounding culture was an easy focus for this condescending mentality. The mass media sold a lot of papers on the back of their sensationalist reporting. Original clickbait. This all carries into The Beasts Of Brussels
One of the most interesting points in the story is where Chris, the photojournalist, describes his manipulation of a photograph as “visual storytelling”. Chris sees no ethical or moral issue at all in purposefully doctoring a photo of someone to present a certain image. Is The Beasts of Brussels, and writing in general, your way of exploring full stories, real stories, and exposing the way that events and people are misrepresented in the media and in politics in this part of the world?
Chris doesn’t care about the ethics or morals involved, he only cares about his career, which is a means to making money. I think he is probably aware that his actions are wrong, though – deep down. There is a line where he remembers his dead father, someone he respected for his decency but regards as a fool and a failure for working hard his whole life and, in Chris’s eyes, ending up with nothing. Chris is a nasty bit of work, but more honest than his friend Robert, who preaches ethics and morals but doesn’t live by them. He can justify anything.
This distortion of truth has always existed, obviously, and in our system and in our lifetimes I suppose we saw it clearest in the tabloid press, while it existed more subtly in the broadsheets. The internet and social media has made these manipulations easier, and maybe more accepted. This has seeped back into the mainstream media so there is a lack of objectivity in those places where we once expected the best reporting. Dedicated, honest journalists have been under siege for years. Others have lost their impartiality. A lot of what I have written tries to go beyond these misrepresentations. It is something that has always driven me.
- CLOSING SECTION -
Of course, as Alan mentioned earlier, Alan and Irvine have taken part in a similar collection of longer stories before, the seminal Children of Albion Rovers, published by Rebel Inc in 1996. Are there any particular collections of stories that any Seal Club members have read and loved over the years, ones which have united many writers that you admire?
I think the ones that are written for good causes are worthy of our support. But I like the idea of a book of three novellas rather than twenty voices with short stories. You can get your teeth into them. I like Lean Tales
with Gray, Kelman and Owens.
The best short-story collection I have read is probably The Oxford Book Of Caribbean Short Stories
– over 450 pages and fifty writers. I like Caribbean literature, especially Roy Heath, and this book is special. The Seal Club
idea has worked very well, as Irvine says. The stories have more room and therefore more depth, and the way things have gone I feel they complement each other, and so the collection works as a whole.
The Faber Book of Scottish Short Stories
, from 1933 in a cracker. Got from a Red Cross shop in 1980. Dorothy Abbot’s anthology of Southern Short Stories
, was my pub book for a while just around the time Those Darker Sayings
Not prose fiction, but, The New Poets
edited by Al Alvarez opened a whole universe to me when I was 16 and then in fiction, there was Lean Tales
, with Alasdair Gray, James Kelman and Agnes Owens in…was it 1985?
What are your individual writing plans and projects for the near future? Should we be expecting some new novels soon?
My next novel is London Country
, which I hope to have out next year, and there are those two novellas I mentioned earlier that I want to finish. I have enough for a short-story collection, but maybe those will have to wait. I am hoping Slaughterhouse Prayer
will be developed for television, but you can never tell with those things. I am optimistic though.
Well it’s not writing, but it came from writing. Michael Caton Jones has made this fabulous film of my novel, The Sopranos
with all these great actors, it’s called Our Ladies
, but much like our close rival - the new James Bond film - it’s, sort of floating around in Covid Purgatory awaiting a release or a virtual release. I have no idea when and Sony Pictures don’t seem to know. I also have a new novel out in March 2021 called Kitchenly 434
. I am working on some new things I am excited about and I am never excited.
Yes I’m doing tons of TV but have novels on the go so will probably have one a year out from 2022 to 2026. ●