Interview: Stewart Home
The Mind's Construction talks with the novelist
Stewart Home’s reputation was established with a series of avant-garde novels that played with the genre fiction conceits of James Moffat’s skinhead books. It was stoked by a series of stunts, hoaxes, and pranks, including a three year art strike and a “psychic attack” on the Brighton Pavilion. But now, after years of people not knowing what to do with him, he is almost becoming an acceptable part of the literary establishment, writing edgy post-modern novels like the excellent 69 Things to Do With A Dead Princess (which is only prevented from being “a good read” by frequent pornographic episodes) and the modish Down and Out in Shoreditch and Hoxton. Almost. Having wound up so many people in the past, leading them astray by doing away with the ballast of obvious authorial intent, no one seems able to make ANY assertions whatsoever.
Home’s latest book, Tainted Love, was greeted by the critics with a cheerful reluctance to make any statements whatsoever. Whether this is because they fear being snared by him or because of the parlous state of book reviewing doesn’t really matter. What does matter is that such a reaction (or lack of) reduces the meaning of the work. Everyone remembers Roland Barthes’ idea of the death of the author, but few seem to understand that the author’s death means the birth of reader. And Stewart Home – who consistently evades having his “voice” pinned down – is, I think, the first writer to have given that new-born reader a really good time.
In print, particularly his non-fiction (most of which are collected in a stream of self-published pamphlets) Home is sharp, cynical and very funny. A nervous interviewer could be forgiven for imagining themselves being pulled up on some minor factual error and being subjected to a lengthy discourse. In person, he is more tolerant. I had been given three conflicting reports of what he was like. One person said that he was a deluded lothario, boasting about his conquests; another said that he was shifty and sinister; and another said that he was bookish and scholarly. I don’t doubt that he is all these things, but when we met in The Bath House in Soho on a chilly February evening, he was the latter. Unassuming yet funny, utilising the sarcastic tones of his south London accent to full effect. We began by talking about London, which I had left six months previously.
SH: London is not as nice a city as it was. You see the way that rising property prices just sort of gentrify everything. It’s not what it was. But then you are a different age than me, so you probably wouldn’t remember. From a guess I’d say you were probably in your twenties. How old are you?
NS: Mid-twenties. You think London is suffering an irreparable decline?
SH: Things come and go. The economy could well fuck up and then the property price would drop and leave space for people to do stuff. I mean, at the moment it’s all very blanded out.
NS: There was that thing in the paper about London being the most international city. How do you as someone who fictionalizes London deal with the proliferation of marginal subcultures?
SH: You have to do what you can to survive. Young people are using different strategies. In the art market – which is essentially feudal because its a luxury goods market where people buy an edition of one – you can still get experiments. The audience for art has expanded, which means you’ve got more shit to wade through these days. People don’t want to take risks so everything is blanded out. They’re looking to hit the maximum possible target audience, so they remove all the things that would engage a specific audience and replace it with something that anyone might want to see but no one actually wants to see. That’s what happens when you try to universalize things.
NS: You made a film recently, Cain’s Film, a remake of Alexander Trocchi’s film of the same name . . .
SH: I thought that would be funny to recreate, but that’s not my film. I’ve done a film called Eclipse and Re-emergence of the Oedipus Complex, which uses a lot of stills and is about my (m)other. It assumes the audience is intelligence. It’s not going to entertain you if you want to sit back and turn your mind off. People are shocked that someone would now make a film that assumes the audience is intelligent.
NS: The broadsheets have been really apprehensive about Tainted Love, they don’t really know what is going on and so they defer making any judgement. Does that bother you at all?
SH: The reviewers, because what I’m doing I doesn’t fit in with how you’re supposed to operate if you have a career as a writer (I do other things. For instance, I just got a live art grant, which probably makes me more of a live artist than a writer). For one thing, I’ve changed styles. I only started to have a certain cache with the broadsheets when I did a kind of pomo take on the classic linear modernist anti-narrative. [Imitates bourgeois critic:] “We didn’t get it when he was doing his earlier books” when actually I was appropriating the techniques of the nouveau roman and the surrealist’s anti-novel by using genre fiction, but having this insane level of repetition which starts pulling the simulacrum of the plot apart. But when I dropped the plot, they started noticing that I had read Robbe-Grillet.
With Tainted Love, they couldn’t understand why I wanted to have the film script or the two sections with RD Laing, but you just want to try things and be experimental. You know, Perec is my favourite of the Oulipo writers. He really has something to say, it’s not just style as dandyism. He confused readers and editors with every book. What your supposed to do, if you want a writing career, is to do one thing and stick with it.
N. With Perec there is a hook: here is a novel that doesn’t use the letter ‘e’, here is a novel with a catchy title set in a block of flats . . .
SH: The thing is, people are nervous of me . . . of being made to look stupid, they’re all so afraid, that when I write a book based on my Mother’s life they wonder if it’s not based on my Mother’s life. You get into a position where you tell the truth and people don’t believe you, which is a more interesting position than telling lies and having them believe you. (Laughs).
NS: It’s the idea that the truth is mixed up . . .
SH: The book is fictionalised. But it’s true that my Mother worked at Murray’s with Christine Keeler, then she dealt smack with Alexander Trocchi and that she knew Colin MacInnes. It’s quite interesting for me because my Mother’s life is just on the cusp between being in the public domain and not being in the public domain.
NS: Did you have much source material?
SH: I had my Mum’s diary, I had her letters. There’s a diary, but which only covers the period 1977 to 79 but within it she also writes about her early life.
NS: You deal with a lot of people of repute, like John Lennon and Brian Jones . . .
SH: The John Lennon part [which features heroin being injected into his balls] is absolutely true. I’m not saying that she had nothing to do with Brian Jones, but I put Brian Jones in there for someone else and, when you do that, you have to make him act like Brian Jones, who was a fucking twat who beat up his girlfriend. Which is a fact.
I mean, I can admire Trocchi’s books, some of them are very good, but as an individual . . . I’m not impressed. I don’t have a problem with the idea that Trocchi can be a complete twat and a bastard, but can also write good books. Certain things about him amuse me, but on the whole you wouldn’t want to be around him. Or I wouldn’t have done.
NS: This division between the author and their work is a modernist thing, that New Criticism thing of don’t study the author study the work.
SH: I’m not saying that the social conditions aren’t going to have some bearing on the work produced. Even looking a my own novels you can see that some of the changes are reflecting changes in society. For example, a lot of my novels go through describing the gentrification of certain areas of London.
NS: Talking of criticism, I noticed in an another interview you talking about writing a book about an academic writing a critical introduction to Stewart Home.
SH: In the end I decided it was too self-indulgent. One of those critical introductions. This academic got to know Stewart Home through his daughter. The Double Consciousness of Stewart Home.
NS: So what are you working on?
SH: I’m currently revising a book called Memphis Underground, which uses a science fiction technique, even though its not science fiction, where you have chapters intercut apparently describing two people’s lives but it is actually one person’s life 6 months apart, after he has taken on a different identity. Then the characters merge and you get me going on about what’s happening when I’m writing it. Me going around Germany for my publisher.
NS: And you thought the other one was too self-indulgent?
SH: Well . . . y’know.
NS: You mentioned this live artist award, do you ever deal with the paperwork that goes into arts council funding?
SH: Oh sure, youv’e got to survive any way you can. The money is there and I deserve it, so I might as well have some of it. I just got this £9,000 professional development grant, I’ve had £7,000 arts council writers’ award in 2001, which is the biggest award they give to writers. That’s the good thing about having a two track career, visual art and writing, you can apply for both. With the writers’ award I was on a 20 year project trying to prove that I couldn’t get it. But then they introduced blind judging panels and inevitably gave it to me. But what can you do: I failed in my project.
NS: So, what is your secret?
SH: You have understand that different parts of the form are read by different people. You have to describe your practices, so I give a description of my work as being fundamentally anti-capitalist. Then, in the professional development section you have to say how it is going to help you develop and how you’re going to generate this or that revenue stream. It’s the idea that in 2 year I won’t come back asking for another 9 or 10 grand. You have to meet a set of criteria.
The fact that my practice and my professional development contradict each other is funny, it’s a game. That’s how it works. That’s the contradiction of capital. I can live with it. I don’t mind that contradiction. I enjoy lying. I do it all the time. [Laughs.] But y’know to actually compromise what you do . . . well, some compromises are acceptable.
Some people get mad because they spend so long doing the application but then don’t get anything. Well it’s something you have to practice. It’s a learning curve. It’s whether you think its worth taking time out from the practice. You live in a society where you are asked to live in all sorts of contradictory ways – until we overthrow captalism, of course.
NS: But there are some people who are professional hoop jumpers, that is their art, they love filling out forms.
SH: Yeah, but I think it would be a better welfare systems if anyone who doesn’t want to work should be given benefit and be allowed to get things done.
NS: When was the last time you were on benefits?
SH: A long, long time ago now. Back in the early nineties.
NS: In Glasgow they all try to get on incapacity benefit because that’s where you get the most money for the longest time. You wonder whether people have actually injured themselves to avoid work.
SH: I know people who got themselves on F4, who go mental and get sectioned for the benefits, but its a high risk strategy. I understand the concept, but I also understand that if you’re living in a bourgeois society and are deprived of your rights you could be in deep shit. If you’ve been sectioned you don’t have any civil rights. If you suddenly get a repressive government, you’re going to be thrown in the slammer with no appeal.
NS: You mentioned in an interview that you worked briefly at a factory at sixteen and haven’t worked since. What did you do?
SH: Most of the people I knew at school went to work in a factory or joined the army. I never had anything to do with those people, I left everyone behind. I left at 16 because there wasn’t a sixth form anyway. I spent one year on the dole, then I went to technical college to do a one year A-level, then I went onto polytechnic where I studied philosophy. I went when I realised I could get a full maintenance grant. But then I got thrown out in my final year.
NS: What happened?
SH: It was because I was better at philosophy than the tutors. The final straw was when I went into this philosophy seminar and the teacher said “we’re going to talk today about philsophical knowledge, which is knowledge we can be certain of.”
I said, “Well in that case, John, we might as well go home because there isn’t any.”
He said “What about a triangle or numbers.”
I said “You’re talking Euclidean geometry, but what about non-euclidean geometry, where you can draw a triangle on a curved surface so that it’s corners don’t equal 180%.”
He said “I haven’t heard of this”, but other people in the class said “yeah, he’s right” and the guy broke down crying and refused to mark my work. And that was why I was thrown out. It’s not my fault that he was thick.
NS: You’ve also said that you liked playing dumb, to reveal people’s assumptions about working class people.
SH: People used to think that I was really stupid. You had these girls coming up to you, hippie girls would girls would say: “Violence is really bad”. Then you’d come out with long words and they couldn’t understand how someone who looked like a yob could know this. It was really funny.
NS: I read something in an interview about you having to be a psycho on your estate, having to have these fights so that people would leave you alone.
SH: Yeah, because you have to do that. If 20 kids attack, you fight back, and some of them get hurt. They’ll be more reluctant to fight you than if none of them get hurt. In Poplar, I hung a kid off the top of the railings over a balcony – for a good reason.
NS: What was the reason?
SH: He was nicking shit that belonged to someone staying in my flat and I basically told him that if he did it again I would fucking kill him. Not literally. But he was terrified by what I did to him. You always take a risk with that kind of thing because he might belong to a psycho family who are going to get you. As it was he shook like a leaf every time he saw me and all the local kids left me alone. And all because I hung this kid over the railings on the top level walkway of the tower block. Which I’m not advising people to do, but it made my life easier for nine years.
NS: Maybe instead of bullies, it’s the literary critical establishment who you have managed to get to leave you alone?
SH: I guess you could look at it like that. It is always good to be left alone. [Pause.] By people who you don’t want anything to do with. So yeah.
NS: Have you been back to Poplar?
SH: Yeah, it’s gentrified. There are still working class areas but . . .
NS: I was wondering what you thought about the non-working working class. Do you still call them working class? Or Neds and Chavs?
SH: They’re lumpen proletarians in Marxist theory. There’s still a working class. People can think they aren’t but they are. I mean, do you or do you not own the means of production? I still think class is a useful tool for understanding society.
NS: So what is your idea of a communist utopia?
SH: The definition I use is modeled on what Marx has to say in The German Ideology. Marx talks about being a hunter in the morning, a fisher in the afternoon and a critic in the evening. Whereas as a vegetarian, I would have to be an egotist in the morning, a pornstar in the afternoon, and critic at night. But it is about realising all the facets of what it is to be human, y’know emotional, sexual, physical, rather than being in a repetitive job that only works in one of those registers. It’s not fun to be purely intellectual. It’s bad for you health as well.
NS: Bad for your health?
SH: Yeah, it’s not good to sit at a desk all day and eat nothing but burgers. It’s bad for your mental health, because you’re a corporal physical being and you might have to shag to get some exercise. it’s about overcoming that canaliziation, which is why I don’t want to just do art or writing. The artist is a being who is supposed to realised all these facets of themselves, yet they are in competition with other artists.
NS: Flying into Stansted over Essex, you realise that not one piece of land is untouched, everything is part of the machine, that it’s all canalized. I wonder how that would be overcome?
SH: It would be a kind of overflowing, like the Thames washing over London, whatever you want as your metaphor. Um, it’s getting out of all these channels. I always like the image of the mudflat [first seen in Pure Mania, the sexual rhythms of the swamp], that freer landscape, where there’s a bit of danger as well, with quicksand or something. Just more possibilities to do different things. When I started writing novels you were okay to write 55,000 to 60,000 words, but now it’s 80,000 words. So if you want to live, you have to live with the contradictions of capital.
NS: Don’t you just insert repetitive pieces of pornography to get to the word count?
SH: Well, exactly, that was one of the ways I overcame the problem, but you have to deal with those things to get published.
NS: There’s a bracelet that you can get in America which has the letters WWJD written on it. The idea is that you look down at it and think “What would Jesus Do?” And I was wondering if you could tells us what the What Would Stewart Home Do bracelet would mean in various situations.
SH: Oh, I wouldn’t understand because when I see the letters JD I immediately think of juvenile delinquent.
NS: For instance, what does Stewart Home do over Christmas.
SH: I’ve never been very interested in Christmas, I tend to work. People don’t tend to phone you up very much. The main thing is to get together with your friends for the solstice, Christmas is just there to distract you from an important event
NS: So what events do you celebrate?
SH: Solstice, summer and winter. Equinox, to a lesser extent, spring and autumn. My birthday. Which is in March.
NS: I head that you were married for a while.
SH: No i’ve never been married. I have lived with people. I’ve got two children.
NS: Do you live them?
SH: No, but I see them all the time. My son specialises in coming up with plots about how to assassinate the royal family.
NS: How old is he?
NS: Do you still do conspiracy theories about the royal family.
SH: No that was something I did, but they’re such a fucking parody that they’ve got to go soon.
NS: How is Stewart Home as a father?
SH: You just kind of encourage them, let them do their thing and make sure you buy them enough Godzilla videos. The Japanese versions rather than the remake.
NS: Okay, so what would Stewart Home do about video games?
SH: I don’t play them, I find them too boring.
NS: There was a thing on edge.org about the reason aliens have never visited Earth is because they reach a level of technical expertise where their computer games are so good there’s no longer any desire to explore.
SH: My nephews get them for every birthday. But I was born at a different time. I would rather watch a seventies zombie movie. The other good thing about zombie movies is that they’re all about 80 minutes, so you know how long it’s going to take to watch.