Interview With Ted Curtis

 

I popped round to see Ted in his humble abode in Seaton Point, a tower-block in Hackney, north London…..he showed me the view across London, made me a brew and we got talking……

 Can you please introduce yourself and name a few of your publications.

 My name is Ted Curtis, I’m 50 and I’m from the West Country. I’m a failed writer, a failed drinker and a failed punk rocker. I wrote the darkening light and a non-fiction book about Palestine and various short stories, which are in various publications. I also co-wrote a 261563.jpgnovel, Seaton Point, which is where I live.

You also have chapters in Mad Pride: A Celebration of Mad Culture and Gobbing, Pogoing and Gratuitous Bad Language!: An Anthology of Punk Short Stories. You’ve said that Seaton Point was named after the block of flats where you live in Hackney. How much of your work is autobiographical? Let’s begin with the darkening light for instance.

I would say that the darkening light is 50/50 autobiographical. In terms of the story itself there is a cut-off point and a come back-in point. So, this was a real gig, although I can’t remember who the people I’d gone to it with were and I can’t remember who played. But I know that we got into this van at ten in the morning and I started drinking and I immediately went into an alcoholic blackout, which I didn’t come out of until the early hours of the next day. So, this gig happened, and I thought that I would build the story around the event. I picked a number of different people who would have been likely to have been there, mostly changing their names, and I picked out bands that were popular at the time. So there was a gig, but not all of those bands would have played. There might have been a big band who played whom I wasn’t aware of, ‘cos I don’t remember seeing any bands there to be honest! [Laughs] All I can remember is bits and pieces. I remember seeing Monty from the [Hackney] Hell Crew on the stairs, which is in the book, and that’s it really.

A huge chunk of it really is fiction, but the general narrative isn’t really about real events and it isn’t about the music, the whole thing is about how I feel about it now, and how I probably felt about it deep down all along. Which is people running away from themselves because they can’t cope with the lives they’ve been dealt. So at the time, on the surface I thought there would be a vegan revolution in a couple of years, and everything was gonna be swept away and it’s gonna Year Zero, but in reality, deep down I knew that nothing was really going to change, that this corruption wasn’t gonna go away. But it’s about the ‘80s as well, there’s stuff about Thatcher there in the narrative at the beginning, before the story starts, in the description of Swindon as this virtual capitalist new town for temporary workers and so on.

What was the question again? [Laughs] I started talking about something else, and I’m not sure that I’ve answered it!

Yes, I asked about the autobiographical nature of the darkening light….

Yeah, so it’s mostly autobiographical, and then things kind of get made up, or twisted, or changed for the convenience of the narrative or to give things a more coherent plot. Despite my cynical take, the anarcho-punk scene was such a rich and vibrant world, and it’s virtually unplumbed in the mainstream, people just aren’t aware of it. I mean, you get people writing about it now, like some 25 year old Oxbridge journalist in The Guardian saying ‘yeah man, I remember the Crass,’ – I mean, how does that fucking work? But on the whole, it’s pretty untouched. It’s unmined material. I mean, thanks to the Punk Scholars Network and other writing, there’s been an increased awareness over time, but to me, it was such a complete world. I mean I didn’t feel part of society….

Cos you mention in the book about Frank, the main protagonist, being an ‘anarcho-punk.’ In other words, you solidify Frank’s identity within that subculture.

A friend of mine has read the book said it’s about being a stranger in a crowd, and other people, who have nothing to do with that scene, a writer friend who’s 15 years younger than me and a friend a couple of years older than me, have said that it’s not important, it’s not about the anarcho-punk scene per se, but it’s about being an outsider in a sea of purported outsiders, and you know it, and there’s nothing you can do about it. You can’t fit in anywhere.

For me, the book epitomized loneliness, of how lonely someone can be in a crowd. Do you feel that being part of a subculture paradoxically heightened your loneliness?

I don’t think it was possible to increase my loneliness, but what it did was to lay it bare. This was the bare-bones, you know, it was bare-bones gigs, a Scout Hall, 50p entry, a basic PA and bare-bones music, and everything was laid bare. I could see it for what it was, and I knew that it was never gonna cure my loneliness, cos there’s really no cure for loneliness. I mean, if there is a cure, it’s get used to yourself. Having a lot of people around you won’t ted curtis1.jpgmake you less lonely, nothing will. If you are that person, you are that person.

Did it help your loneliness in any way?

I don’t think I could have done it differently. Every so often I read some new statement from Penny Rimbaud, and I remember how I was at school. Cos at School, I liked Blondie and the Jam and suddenly I discovered Crass and really too late for most of it. And people at school were shocked at my changed personality, it really was an overnight thing and I absolutely threw myself into it as I later threw myself into other things. So, I can look at Crass and, despite the ‘everyone can do it’ kind of ethos, they were really mostly these middle-class drop-outs, and my major criticism of that is that if you’re working class you’ve got no connections, and if you drop out for any length of time it’s difficult, if not impossible, for you to drop back in again. But for those people it was always something that they could do, so from that perspective Crass ruined my life. If I hadn’t discovered them, then I wouldn’t have discovered this other world and I might not be unemployable today and thinking constantly about suicide because my dole’s gonna be taken away. But then when I look back again, I think that, if it wasn’t that, it would have been something else.

As with any subculture, there were those who were the ‘in crowd’ and those who were part of the periphery. Do you think that this had something to do with class?

Yeah, I think it was a class thing, as I’ve said, but there was more to it as well, like being a drunk. I couldn’t take all the other drunks seriously, because most of them weren’t that intellectual, I thought that I was. And the intellectuals who weren’t alcoholics couldn’t take me seriously because I wasn’t that bright and I always had a can of Special Brew in my hand, so why would they? So there was that, and there’s the added layer of the class thing, and stuff like accent as well. If you have a west-country accent you’re an idiot, you know what I mean? You’re like that family out of the Archers, and country bumpkins in popular culture always have west-country accents.

The review for your book in the fanzine Ticket to Cubesville said ’it’s ‘a story about DIY culture at its most abrasive [serving] as a prelude to alcoholism and mental health issues.’ Do you think that’s a good description of the book?

I don’t think it was much of a prelude; I was already there! But I know what he means. Thanks Rich! I didn’t know what the book was going to be about specifically, it kind of just came out of me. It was painful to revisit the past, though. I mean, there was stuff that I took out, although it still reruns in my head in an existential-horror-show-type-of-way. ‘That thing I said to that person in 1985. God, I was such an idiot!’ I think that most people can kind of just forget those things, or at least keep them in the past. But being a writer means that I have to keep revisiting them, to make sense of my own feelings and experiences, the good and the bad.

It doesn’t help that a lot of what happened was in blackout. A lot of people seem to think that a blackout is when you go to sleep or pass out because you’ve had one too many, but it’s not. Instead, you kinda go on auto-pilot. Robin Williams described it quite well, he said it’s like your brain sending orders to the rest of your body, saying ‘right, you’ve gotta do this, but it’s up to you, I’m checking out, I’ll see you when you come back.’ You’re doing all this stuff but your brain isn’t registering it. When I was living at Brougham Road, there was this guy who was writing this fanzine interviewing people who weren’t in bands. And there was a bloke who he interviewed called Steve, who was an alcoholic. He used to roadie for Crass and was good mates with Steve Ignorant. He told the story of sitting in a pub in West London drinking one minute, and the next thing he knew it was three days later and he was in a pub in Derby playing pool with Anti-Pasti. He had no idea how he’d got there, as he’d never met them before. That’s what it’s like. That’s your alcoholic blackout. And you never get those memories back.

I knew from very early on that I was in trouble with alcohol. I knew that within a year of drinking, when I was about 19, that it was obvious other people didn’t drink in this way and I couldn’t have a quiet pint. I didn’t drink like other people, I drank for a purpose, to try to shut everything down, to escape. It was clear to me quite early on that I could only drink destructively and that was why I drank: it was a destructive process. It was because I hated myself and I didn’t want to be me. Most people, if they realized that, would stop. But I didn’t consider I had a choice. I just thought, this is how I am. My view was that I’d been dealt a terrible hand in the genetic lottery and I didn’t have a choice: I just had to go through with it. In the end it was gonna be painful and horrible, but that had nothing to do with me, I couldn’t just decide to stop. I This was how I was, and it was just tough shit.

It was obvious that you felt alienated and alone during the heyday of the anarcho-punk scene. What happened when the scene began to shift and decline?

As the scene started to shift, I still went along with it. I went along with it cos you get ostracized for drinking the way that I drank, but not as much as you would in any other world. I was called a fucking waster who didn’t go [hunt] sabbing or anything, just lives in a bottle. But I would have got more ostracized in straight society for that sort of behavior, so it was the easier to do it in that world than any other. I’d lost interest in the music quite quickly and by the end of the 1980s I’d alienated loads of people where I’d lived and then I got into a dangerous situation and I ran off to London.

I think when I first came to London I was still going to punk gigs but I didn’t really know why. I’d sort of go and think ‘this band can’t really play’, or ‘this lot are awful’, or ‘these are good, but then their recorded stuff sounds better so why don’t I just sit at home and listen to that?’ The social aspect was gone. And so I just sat at home and wrote and read. When I moved here I met Robert Dellar the first night so I got into the writing thing with him. But really, I became a hermit, just going to a few writing groups and that.

When did you know that you could write?

I think I was told it at school occasionally, but I was told so much negative stuff by my parents that there wasn’t much balance. When you’re in the middle of it, the act of writing, that’s when you know. I remember Alan Bennett saying that he still feels like a fake, after all the stuff he’s done and how brilliant he is, he says that he feels like a phoney all the time, as if he’s about to be found out. That’s how it is. The only time I feel like a writer is when I’m writing, when I’m actually doing it. Right in the middle of doing it, it’s like meditation or cycling, that’s when you’re a writer, when you’re doing it. Because any other time you’re not, are you? I’ve got a driving license, but am I a driver now, sitting in this chair? No, I’m a bloke sitting in a chair.

When I was living in Swindon there was this place we used to hang out called a drop-in centre – we used to call it the drop-out centre – we used to go there and drink tea and stuff. There was this woman from Oxfam who used to come in she told us that they were launching a youth magazine called Bother and I said I’d write something for it. She seemed quite impressed by it and I’m sure she was just buttering me up but she wondered whether I’d written before. It was about then, and later after meeting Robert, but I’m not the sort of person who, when you see interviews with new writers and they say ‘yeah, I’ve always written, I’ve been writing since I was five’, and all that bollocks. I watched telly when I was five like a normal fucking kid, you know what I mean? But I’ve been writing for half my life I suppose, from when I was 24 or 25. On and off, haha.

I came across your work through reading Seaton Point. What was it like writing with six other authors? Can you give me a brief overview of the creative process?

It was all Robert, really. He decided that he wanted to write a novel with a select number of contributors [from Gobbing, Pogoing & Gratuitous Bad Language], he wrote a structure for a novel and assigned scenes. But we’d all developed our own individual characters first. We used to meet in the pub once a month, or at somebody’s house, and he’d say right, you write this scene, you write this scene and we’d mix up the characters, but it was all him really. He really knew what he was doing and, although I’d learned a little bit about novel writing before, I thought that a novel was just a short story that had got out of hand, which is what the darkening light is really. But a novel has form and structure and certain elements that reflect each other through the course of the arc, and I didn’t know that before.

We rewrote some of each other’s scenes and it ended up about three of us writing about images.jpgthree-quarters of it. So yeah, in terms of the creative process in making that a novel, it was really all Robert.

How does this compare to your own creative process?

When I write something I don’t sit down before and think ‘this is what this is gonna be about and these are what the themes are gonna be’. I just start telling the story and it grows from there. Stephen King has said that he doesn’t plot anything, he just sits down day after day and it comes out. Lee Child is like that as well and their stories seem so intricate and plotted to me. The thing I’m doing at the moment, which is all about word count, is turning into something bigger. I was just sitting down and saying well, what would I do if they took all my dole away and I had to live in a truck somewhere? How would I do it? What would the practicalities be? Who would I meet along the way? And it’s turned into this story with subplots and a mystery underneath it all, cos I buy this truck off of somebody and it used to belong to someone else who mysteriously disappeared.

Which leads us nicely to my next question. So what are you up to at the moment? What does your current writing project involve?

I’m currently doing NaNoWriMo. It stands for National Novel Writing Month, they have it every November and you have to commit to writing 50,000 words in the month of November. No-one wins anything, or anything like that, but I wanted to see if I could do it – to write 2000 words day after day after day. The book I’m working on references back to what were called the New Age Travellers, because that’s what I see I’d have to do to survive with the dole being abolished. I’d have to get a truck, which I wouldn’t be licensed to drive, and work out how to live in it and drive it to a place where I wouldn’t be hassled for living that way and have a little bit of money saved up to see me through the first year. Hopefully, by the time the money runs out I would have worked out how to survive without money.

And how’s it going?

Well, I’ve been buying stuff. I’ve bought a waterproof trunk that can house my laptop and paperbacks and stuff, I’ve bought a pair of binoculars, a pop up tent and the alcohol for emergencies! [Laughs]. And of course the penguins, cos you always need someone to talk to! Currently, I’m getting up and writing 2000 words a day. I mean, it is a lot, effectively it is 3 hours, but the hardest thing is the actual sitting down and writing. Almost all professionals say that, in fact another thing that Alan Bennett said was that you just have to sit down and become the radio operator, put on the headphones and transcribe the messages. It’s not really anything to do you with you. But the biggest problem is the actual sitting down, the procrastination.

There’s this really interesting guy that writes about procrastination. He’s written a couple of screenplays, he’s an ex-marine and I think he’s a recovering alcoholic. My dissertation supervisor told me about him, his name’s Steven Pressfield and he’s written a book called the The War of Art, where he talks about this force that’s working against you, wanting you to stop doing what you were born to do. He calls it ‘resistance’ – and it’s just like procrastination I suppose – but it’s like the self-destructive, the ying and yang. Part of you wants to sit down and write, and although I don’t know what I’ll write, I know that it will probably make me feel better than I did a couple of hours before. But there’s that other thing in you thinking, why should I bother? Why should I do it? No-one’s gonna read it, what’s the point? What a waste of time, watch some TV instead.

So, are you on course to finishing it by the end of November?

I’ll definitely have 50,000 words by then but I don’t know if it’ll be finished. Also, because it’s about getting in this van and driving, there are sections that I don’t think people would want to read, like lists of B-roads and how to get from this place to that. But that’s almost like a metaphor for the writing itself. I remember an interview with Alex Garland, writer of The Beach, who said that the hardest thing for a writer is getting from A-to-B. You know, you’re in this place and something happens, but then how do you get from that place to the next, and it’s quite literal this thing, because it’s about driving from Brighton to the top of Scotland. It’s like the furthest you can go without crossing water. I mean, I can’t swim [laughs]. It is based firmly in reality though, in that the character is not legally entitled to drive the vehicle. That’s why he has to drive on all the B-roads, cos he hasn’t got a license to drive it legally and he wants to stay away from cameras and whatnot.

Of course we are talking about a ‘character’, but how much of this is autobiographical? I mean, very much like the darkening light, there is, once again, that essence of ‘journey’.

1-nanowrimo.jpgYeah, it’s maybe future autobiographical. But it is me all over again. Maybe when I’ve written a whole novel, a full length one that’s just about me, I’ll be able to write proper fiction, but for now, I’ve just gotta get that stuff down, and yeah, he’s called Frank Smith again. So it’s kinda like Bukowski and Henry Chinaski, but it’s like an update to Frank – it’s what happened to Frank after that terrible night in 1986 folks! Stay tuned to find out more! I mean it references back to people who he used to know in the past and it’s topical because there are rants about the DWP. I have an idea for the ending, in that when he’s on the road he becomes out of touch – he hasn’t got a radio or anything like that – and he’s gonna be in a town and he sees a TV and he sees something about Trump being the president. Of course, if I’ve started writing the book on November 1st – if Frank had started his journey on November 1st – then he thought that Hillary Clinton would be president. So, it’s kinda written in real time, in that way.

After the cathartic process of writing about the continuing escapades of Frank, of getting all this shit out, do you think you will be a so-called ‘proper fictioneer,’ instead of an ‘alternative fictioneer’?

No, not really. I suppose that was what I wanted at one time, and that was why I took the writing course recently. But not anymore. Of course I’d like to be able to pay the bills, etc., but very few people earn a living through writing. But it’s something that I need to do, something that helps me control my head.

And can you see yourself running off in a truck?

I’m a bit old for that probably, I don’t think I have the long-term life experience of that world. But you know, it could happen, the point of the novel is that he really doesn’t have a choice. Just like in The Darkening Light, where he doesn’t have a choice, his mad head has kind of pushed him into this subculture, and with his life experience and his childhood experience up to that point he doesn’t have a choice in his actions on the macro level. In fact, the new book starts with an abortive suicide attempt and then he’s got this plan where he’s got money put away to fly to Los Angeles where he can rent a car, fill the trunk with vodka, drive into the desert and have visions and just go out that way, instead of starving to death in a Hackney tower block. But he buys the truck instead and heads up to Scotland. It’s just more running away from yourself.

Well, good luck with the book Ted and please keep us up-to-date with publication date etc.

Thanks, will do!

With that, Ted put the kettle on and we talked about Mo Hayder, a ‘proper’ writer. I’m not sure whether she is a ‘proper’ writer really. To be honest, I’m looking forward more to reading about a bloke who has bought a truck and who has fucked off to Scotland…….that’s if I can catch him……

 

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