Friday, October 30, 2009

Interview with Bill James 2004

Here's an interview I did with crime writer Bill James back in 2004:

Can you tell us a bit about your Cardiff background?

Impeccable. I was brought up around Grangetown and the docks. We lived in Grangetown and my father's parents and others of his family - my uncles, aunts, cousins - lived not far off over Clarence Bridge in the docks (I used Clarence Bridge as a pen name in journalism for a while). My father worked on a sand-dredger which was in and out of Cardiff, and I'd spend part of my holidays aboard her. I went to school at Grange Council and Cardiff High and afterwards graduated from University College, Cardiff, as it then was. I spent a slice of my childhood with diptheria in what used to be Cardiff's most famous and feared hospital, the 'Sana' - the isolation sanatorium. I left Cardiff to work in London but returned to write and do some journalism and television and have remained in South Wales since.

What inspired you to take up writing in the first place?

I always fancied writing, but to think in terms of authorship would have seemed crazily vain, so I decided on journalism, believing that had something to do with writing. It has, of course, but the kind of journalism I became mainly involved with was more like private eye work - getting people to tell you things they didn't want to. Journalism seemed attractive anyway to me as a boy because, in a careers guidance book, I saw that the London minimum weekly wage for reporters was 9 guineas - about £9.50. It seemed so lavish.

Did your career in journalism influence your prose style or approach to writing in any way?

The biggest influence on my style probably came when I worked for the Daily Mirror in London. Tabloid style is terse and plain. I think I try for these qualities in the books, though I can fall into wool now and then. On the other hand journalism hates irony - because readers might take leg-pulls literally. But I feel free to do a bit of irony now. Also, many newspaper 'stories,' as news reports are known in the trade, are to a formula. I've had to try and get out of that with made-up stories meant to go between covers.

Before the success of your Harpur and Iles series you wrote numerous books, some of them non-crime - how do you view those early works now?

How do I view my early stuff? From a safe distance. I don't think I could be bothered to read it.

Why do you think your Harpur and Iles series has struck such a chord with the public?

I hope the books are funny. I hope, also, they surprise. They are not laboriously realistic. Some would say not realistic at all. Luckily, there are people who appreciate that touch of the unlikely, even fantastic. My agent used to go nuts about it. He'd complain, 'Television producers say your books are incredible'. And they didn't mean incredibly good. Just incredible. I'd answer, 'I know'.

In 1976 you wrote a book on the novels of Anthony Powell - it has even been suggested that the Harpur and Iles series is a kind of inverted A Dance to the Music of Time. Has Powell influenced your approach to series writing?

No stylistic influence, I hope, though I do, in fact, love Powell's style: it's elaborate, witty, mandarin, nothing like crime writing. Someone did an article in the Boston Sunday Globe in the US trying to square my interest in an author who writes urbane prose about the upper classes with what I do in my own lowlife books. He thought the relationship between Powell's narrator in A Dance to the Music of Time, Nick Jenkins, and the villain of the Powell novels, Widmerpool, mirrored the way my detectives Harpur an Iles operate alongside each other. The other Powell influence would, of course, be that he deals in characters who continue through a series, as I do. This can be good for reader loyalty. It can also make readers sick of the same recurring figures. I'm ahead of Powell numerically: his A Dance... is 12 novels; Harpur and Iles will be 22 next year.

Your criminals display good as well as bad qualities and your policemen (Harpur and Iles in particular) are often rather unpleasant. This blurring of the boundaries between good and evil is obviously important to you - what are you hoping to achieve by doing this?

I think this makes the writing a bit easier. It gives me more material to play around with - the contrasting qualities in character means, I hope, that they're more interesting. It certainly makes them more interesting to me. It's a risk. One of the standard reasons given for the popularity of crime fiction is that readers can enjoy the excitement of watching illegality, knowing everything's going to be tidied up and good order restored. If you blur, you compromise to some extent this move towards the comfort zone.

Do you think Wales has generally been under-written in crime fiction?

I write about organised crime, not single murders. I didn't think organised crime would be credible in Wales. We don't have cities like Glasgow, Manchester, London where large scale criminal operations happen. This is good from the point of view of living here; not so good from the crime fiction point of view. But I thought that once the Bay got going, with the huge sums of money involved, then organised crime became a possibility. So, I started the Brade and Jenkins books. Whereas Harpur and Iles are in a nowhere city, Brade and Jenkins are very Cardiff. I have another Cardiff book coming out in January, 2005, with a girl detective leading. It's called Hear Me Talking To You, and appears under my David Craig pen name. Brade and Jenkins get a mention in this one, but that's about all. So, if Wales has been neglected for crime, i'm working on it at the Cardiff end.

There's a lot of sex in your books.

Most fiction has sex. It's sometimes disguised as romance or love interest. Where would Madame Bovary be without it, or The End of the Affair, or Romeo and Juliet or Anna Karenina or Mills and Boon or Lady Chatterley or Anthony Powell?

You've recently created a black Welsh spy Simon Abelard (Split and A Man's Enemies) - how difficult is it writing interesting espionage fiction post-fall of the Berlin Wall?

Yes, the Berlin Wall is a loss. But Split takes up that problem head on: it's about a spy who gets fed up because there's nothing to do post-Wall (this was written pre-Sept 11, of course) and who therefore turns his skills to criminality as a drugs dealer. Abelard has to go and net him. A Man's Enemies is about civil war inside the Secret Service caused by ex-officers writing memoirs, as so many of them do now. (Odd Cardiff reference about this book - I called one of the characters Iris Insole - the name Insole taken from the Cardiff estate and pub. Someone wrote to me on behalf of a Mrs Iris Insole wanting to know how I'd picked up this name).

Which other crime writers do you most admire?

I don't read much crime, for fear of aping someone else's tone of voice without knowing it. I do remain bowled over by The Friends of Eddie Coyle, by the late George V Higgins, a stupendous US novel (and Mitchum film) which can make that most despised of creatures - a grass - sympathetic.

Outside of Britain where do your books sell best?

France does me proud. The Harpur and Iles novel Protection has just won the Prix du Polar Européen 2004 (prize for the best crime novel of 2004). Actually, it means the best published in French. France are working through all the Harpur and Iles books and are only up to Protection, which came out here and in the US in 1988. Seventeen to go.

One of your novels Whose Little Girl Are You? was filmed back in the Seventies - do you think more of your books have cinematic potential?

Several books have been optioned for possible film: that is, people pay a fairly minor amount to have the rights of the books for, say, a year while they try to set up finance etc. I think Halo Parade (number 3 in the series) is at present under option. There were also approaches for Split and Astride a Grave. BBC 1 televised Protection (incidentally, setting it in and around Cardiff, since it was BBC Wales who made it for the network). I don't know that I'm an especially 'visual' writer but some of the characters are reasonably strong and make decent acting parts although, as we've said, none of them are through-and-through virtuous or even entirely likeable, so James Stewart wouldn't have been cast.

Finally, given that you spend a lot of time writing about unsavoury criminal behaviour do you have a jaundiced view of society and mankind in general?

I'd like to think I have a comic view of society and mankind in general and that I sometimes get this across. The humour is meant to come from the sight of people struggling towards an objective, even an ideal, and, of course, making a muck of it. For instance, the crook, Panicking Ralph, yearns to make his thieves' kitchen club into something like the Athenaeum. And, for example, Assistant Chief Constable Iles is supposed to represent the law and acceptable behaviour, and is inclined to fall short.

*Bill James's latest book Full of Money is available now from all good bookshops.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Rachel Roberts v Gene Hackman

I think it's fair to say that this isn't one of Rachel Roberts's finest cinematic moments. Doctors' Wives (1971), is fairly typical of many films made during this era in that sex is the salient subject matter. Having it off had become an acceptable topic of cultural conversation - it had gone mainstream. Such sex-oriented movies anticipate the glam s'n'f soap operas (Dallas, Dynasty) that would raise their vulgar heads later in the decade.

This excerpt is unintentionally hilarious. Roberts, sounding very Welsh, fesses up her hot lesbo affair to shocked screen hubby Gene Hackman. So angry is Hackman that he attacks his wife with a rolled up copy of the Daily Chronicle. Having to deliver lines like: "It was a hot night and I... I wore a... thin blouse and no bra," they might have been better advised dishing out the newspaper treatment to whoever wrote the script. One for the Bad Film Club.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Bruce Davidson in Wales

1965 was an interesting year for American Magnum photographer Bruce Davidson. He managed to finish his epic documentation of the Civil Rights Movement - a 4 year project that, in pictorial terms, continues to define that troubled era. He also found time to snap famous figures from the arts world: Truman Capote, Paul Newman, Joan Crawford, Anthony Quinn, John Cage, and The Supremes. In San Francisco he did a shoot for Esquire magazine in which he captured the daily routines of workers in a topless restaurant. Then, in the autumn of that same year, he came to Wales to do an assignment for Holiday magazine. The brief was to photograph some picturesque castles but Davidson got sidetracked and began shooting scenes from mining communities instead. I've no idea which mining towns formed the locations for his pictures. Davidson wasn't the first snapper (nor would he be the last) to see the aesthetic potential of these kinds of industrial settings. I really like Davidson's south Wales mining pics, even if, at times, they seem a tad heavy handed with their symbolism, such as the photo of an innocent child standing beside a gravestone. If you like the above picture have a look at the Magnum website to see the rest of his 1965 Welsh photographs.

The above photograph is the copyright of Bruce Davidson/Magnum

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Robert Bloch's Weird Welsh Tale

This May, 1939, edition of American pulp magazine, Weird Tales, is notable for containing a Welsh story by Robert Bloch. Bloch, who would later go on to pen Psycho, was always a prolific producer of pulp fiction. His Welsh tale is entitled, The Dark Isle, and is set on Ynys Mon (Anglesey). Featuring bloodthirsty druids, sacred groves, and human sacrifice, it essentially retells the legend of how the Romans defeated the last stronghold of Welsh druidism. Whilst it was never going to win an outstanding literary achievement award, The Dark Isle, is nonetheless an interesting curiosity.

Welsh Tales of Terror

Some Halloween reading picked up, this morning, from the normally barren pastures of the PDSA charity shop on Albany Road. Amidst a well-thumbed phalanx of discarded Barbara Taylor Bradfords and Dan Browns nestled this splendid copy of Welsh Tales of Terror (1973). This particular edition - with the fantastical cover - is the 1975 Fontana reprint. And what a stunning cover it is too. I imagine the subterranean landscape of your average Valleys town to look exactly like this. The actual stories contained within are a mixed bag, but The Shining Pyramid by Arthur Machen; Jordan by Glyn Jones; and Be This Her Memorial by Caradoc Evans are well worth the £1.80 forked out for the paperback.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Lustmord and the Church of Satan

With Halloween almost upon us you'll be requiring some scary music for the occasion. Step out of the shadows Welsh prince of musical darkess, Brian Williams, aka Lustmord.

The Lustmord project began way back in 1980. Basically it consists of Williams recording dark, experimental, soundscapes, then allowing his listeners to interpret them as they please. These interpretations are often of the morbid variety as a quick scan of his internet fanbase soon demonstrates.

But Williams is no po-faced artist. Early on in his career he acquired a degree of notoriety for turning up at other people's gigs, sneaking onstage and performing, until security would get wind of what he was up to and eject him.

It was only a matter of time (1982) before he began working with noise terrorists SPK. His second Lustmord album, Paradise Disowned (1984), featured sounds recorded at his local abattoir in Bangor. His breakthrough album was Heresy (1990) which is now regarded as a milestone in the 'dark ambient' musical genre. At some point in the mid-nineties Brian upped sticks and moved to LA where he continues to work on soundtracks for movies (The Crow, Underworld etc) and various TV programmes.

Down the years the Welsh-speaker has worked on a wide variety of musical projects and has collaborated with such left-field luminaries as Robert Rich, Jarboe, Clock DVA, The Melvins and John Balance of Coil. My personal favourite Lustmord collaboration, however, was his link-up with the Church of Satan.

On 06/06/06 Brian played live for the first time in 25 years when he performed at the Church of Satan's historic first ever public Black Mass. What a gig! Even in LaLa land the ceremony raised a few eyebrows. A limited edition album, Rising, was released to celebrate the event. You can hear a track from it here.

Be sure to investigate Lustmord's other work on YouTube/Spotify - it is genuinely impressive stuff. And remember to play it very loudly when those pesky trick or treaters come knocking at your door.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Blown Away

What do you require from a new magazine? Me, I want boldness of vision; quality writing; and arresting images. Simple. It also has to smell lush. Blown - with a confident flourish - ticks all of the above boxes, and a few more besides. Its roots may be in Wales but the magazine stretches its cultural tentacles as far afield as Venice, Arles, Romania, Gijon and Mayo. And that's no bad thing.

Mixing fashion, music, photography, literature, art and performance, Blown manages to be intelligent without disappearing up its own cultural fundament. In fact, it's a fun read. Some of the characters you'll encounter within its glossy pages are John Cale, Nick Cave (and his photogenic sprog), a pair of well turned-out football hooligans, Basement Jaxx, Diane Arbus, Rachel Trezise and the delightfully pervy, Paul+a.

Blown is funded, to some degree, by the Arts Council of Wales which means that it is mercifully free of the relentless tyranny of advertisements - the ruination of many a magazine-reading experience. So, why not give it a whirl? Check the Blown magazine website for your nearest stockist.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Kim Newell

When it comes to bad behaviour Welsh women leave their male counterparts standing. Your average Cymro is quite good at drinking himself to death but that's about it. Take a peek at the distaff side and you'll find all kinds of mayhem. The ladies have been busy shagging famous artists and getting sued by Aleister Crowley (Nina Hamnett); conning Marlon Brando into marrying them (Anna Kashfi); and calling Russell Harty "a silly cunt" on his own TV show (Rachel Roberts). Even today hardcore houris like Isabel Ice, Sophie Dee and Shay Hendrix easily outstrip the men when it comes to naughtiness.

Another name which belongs in the great pantheon of Welsh women behaving badly is Kim Newell (see pic). This blonde, sexy, scheming, seductress was at the centre of one of the most sensational murder trials of the 1960s. The 23-year-old former sweet shop worker from Wrexham, it seemed, could wrap any man she liked around her little finger. She also had the morals of an alley cat. When, aged 16, she became pregnant by her married lover, Eric Jones, she got him to perform the abortion. She would later blackmail him into carrying out a murder.

Newell took up a career in nursing and moved to Reading where she soon found a new lover, Raymond Cook. He too was married. In 1967 they hatched a plan to bump off Cook's wife in order to get their mitts on her £10,000 savings. She contacted Eric Jones in Wales and suggested he do the dirty deed. If he didn't she would make it public that he had performed an abortion on her. The gruesome threesome decided to fake a car accident. Cook and his doomed wife drove to the spot on a deserted country road where Jones was waiting. Pretending that his car had broken down he forced the couple to stop. He then proceeded to batter the poor woman to death with a car jack, handed to him by treacherous Raymond Cook. Afterwards they drove the red mini into a tree.

Police suspected foul play. Discovering blood 70 yards from where the vehicle ended up made them instantly sceptical. Newell, Cook and Jones were arrested within days. At the murder trial Newell attired herself in tight-fitting clothing that showed off her ample bosom. Her hair, too, was immaculately coiffeured. Observers could have been forgiven for thinking that she actually enjoyed being in the limelight. She spent almost nine hours in the witness box. The prosecution quoted extensively from Macbeth in order to portray her as a scheming and avaricious woman. The national press dubbed her the Lady Macbeth of Berkshire. When she was later found guilty of being an accessory to murder they called her the most evil woman in Britain.

Newell and her co-conspirators were jailed for life. Pregnant by Raymond Cook, she gave birth to a son in prison. The boy was looked after by Newell's mother in Rhosymadoc, near Ruabon. Newell would serve 12 gruelling years behind bars before being freed in 1979. Upon release she said: "I am thinking of writing a book about my 12 years of hell." She never did. Instead she moved back to Wales and worked in a local school. She cooked meals at her mother's charity functions and even provided shelter to another ex-prisoner. In 1990, aged 47, she died of cancer. Just before her death she expressed remorse at June Cook's killing, saying: "She didn't deserve to die." As for her former lovers, Eric Jones and Raymond Cook, she was less generous: "I never loved them. I only loved my dog."