Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Real Ale (Samuel Beckett) vs. Craft Beer (Malcom Gladwell)

Originally published on Munchies.

Is anyone else unsettled by the amount of tasty, drinkable beers there are these days? Once, a voluptuous glass branded with the words “Stella Artois” was enough to make you think you were in an establishment that really knew its beer. Now, take your pick: bottles and cans, or pints or jugs, from cask, and, increasingly, keg.

Perhaps “choice” is what put me off the keg-happy craft beer scene to begin with: choices between the bright, popping, tangy flavours; the myriad colours and labels. One thing was constant: They were all seamlessly tasty, or at least interesting, and chilled. They’d even started becoming as affordable as the other beers. Yet the term “craft beer” floated around in my mind as some kind of post-subcultural access point to bourgeois hedonism. As a drink it was a digital download—hops bright like pixels, a citrus finish as crisp and as crunchy as a GIF—of a world that seemed a little too pleased with itself.

There is something intangibly morose in cask-made “real” ale that you can’t find in cans of craft beer—this bitter, smelly thing that has the potential to be rancid, but most of the time feels pretty affirming. Samuel Beckett as opposed to craft beer’s Malcolm Gladwell.

There is currently a raging debate within the world of beer about what’s better: cask or keg. Most small brewers I’ve talked to aren’t prepared to say either way—after all, they often sell both—but you could tell that the keg provides a more preferable situation in that it is more reliable. Beer in a cask has to be consumed within six weeks; with kegs, it’s six months. Ale drinking, and the wooden casks that facilitate a good sup, go back to the days of coaching inns and further, but with pure economics, the keg wins out.

London Fields Brewery started brewing the day the London riots started, growing from a kit-based small concern to producing 80,000 litres a week, growing from two to 50 employees in three years. The wood-furnished tap room functions as an impromptu office for staff for much the working week. They make six core beers, and a range of seasonal beers, packaged with colourful labels designed by local artists. I am given a half of “Grapefruit Dead,” a seasonal beer from a keg. It’s bright, as you would expect from a craft, and indeed it suits the summer in that it’s cool and refreshing and fruity.

“Craft beer is following the trend from America, where they don’t have casks, so the new beer style follows them,” says Andrew Turner, London Fields Brewery’s sales manager. “But I still like the British style, using casks, it allows you to do some interesting things. Even the North Americans have started using casks. We sent some over to Canada for their first cask ale beer festival.”

Like a subcultural movement enmeshed with a Silicon Valley startup, craft beer has brought a lot of its own language with it—jargon like “flavour profile” and “mouthfeel”. “When you first get into beer it can all sound a bit wanky, but after a while that sort of language can be very useful,” says Neil Hinchley, head brewer at the hugely popular Crate, which serves pizza along with its own brews on site at Hackney Wick. “Rather than trying to explain that a beer feels ‘too watery, washes away too quickly, not very satisfying’, you can say it ‘doesn’t have good mouthfeel’ and you are easily understood. It happens in all areas of food and drink, the more you get into it the more you appreciate the nuances and you want to be able to explain those finer details. Of course if you stick a lot of booze in anyone and they’ll end up taking a fair amount of bollocks anyway.”

Wild Card Brewery is situated in an industrial estate in northeast London, just a few minutes walk from the jewel in Walthamstow’s estate agent crown, a conservation area known, inevitably, as ‘the village.’ Like London Fields, the converted unit is put to dual use—on one side is the boiler, the masher and the kettle; on the other, a makeshift but sizeable bar, complete with furniture sourced from family and a wood-burning stove for the winter.

The company has grown out of the experiments of Nottingham university mates William John Harris and Andrew Birkby. They moved out of shed brewing at the end of 2012, and borrowed the money to start the business. As you might expect from a business that started in a shed, the vibe is shabby, unfussy and meticulous. Each pint is served dead-on 13 degrees. “In the midlands, we like eccentric men in their sheds, racing pigeons and brewery plans—but when we came down south there was more happening, more buzz, more demand, more people. The beer up north never went away, there are big regional breweries making really good beer, whereas in London there was only one brewery at one point.”

In many ways real ale is the drink of the measured English romantic. The cricket, the pint, the sun out but with a light chill that leaves one able to wear tweed. It suffers from these associations—petite Nigel Farages with their fag and their just-below-room temperature pint, cradling it like some kind of portal to a colonial England; that scuffed presentation case of Old Speckled Hen sitting in the reduced section of a department store after Fathers’ Day alongside Iron Maiden socks and a baseball cap that reads “IAM THE STIG”. Often when you are sticking up for real ale, you feel you might also be sticking up for real women and real men and real Britain and all the other prefixes that scream of a base need to make sense of his (and it’s always his) surrounds.

Harris doesn’t care to distinguish between craft or real. “The Campaign for Real Ale guys have done some smashing stuff over the last ten years and will continue to do so, If you look at how successful they are, overturning planning applications on pubs by turning them into flats, and campaigning at Westminster to produce advisory documents in favour of small brewers and pubs,” he says. “There are bad sides as well, but it’s the same with everything, there are purist nutters who are ruining it for the lot of us on both sides of the fence. I wouldn’t feel strange referring to our beer as either ‘craft’ or ‘real’ but if I was pressed I’d describe the product as beer and us as a brewery. The important thing should be that brewers brew beer they want to see, people drink from brewers they think are good.”

Wild Card is growing as fast as it can, while abiding by its status as a London Living Wage Employer. “It’s very difficult to access credit, which puts the stoppers on you, slows you down, which I guess stops you making mad decisions like borrowing money for a 60-foot brass bar.” The Wildcard brief is to make a limited a range of stuff, really well, all the time. “It might be a Nottingham thing. I know blokes who’ve had a bad pint of something and never drunk anything produced by that brewery ever again in their lives. ‘Ten year ago I had an awful pint of that in the Crown…’ I like the idea of something that you can always get hold of and is always reliable.” Wild Card make two main beers. The Jack of Clubs is a 4.5 percent ABV ruby ale, using the British crystal malt, which gives it a Coca-Cola red and a sweet range of flavours. Their second main beer is the Queen of Diamonds IPA, which is head brewer Jaega Wise’s stamp on the brewery. It is hoppy, but not too much like so much craft beer—it’s rounded, velvety and very drinkable.

Wise is finishing up for the day and comes over for a chat. Also from the Midlands, she studied chemical engineering at Loughborough University and worked as a water treatment engineer at General Electric before joining Wild Card. “I just love beer,” she says. “There are not that many women in the brewery industry, so it is nice to be able to represent that to a certain extent. Here at the bar, a good 50 percent of those coming to drink are women. It’s quite different to how it was even five years ago.”

Away from the bluster and bravado that surrounds beer and its varieties, it is this inclusiveness that makes the small brewery scene, whatever the terminology, so irresistible—so real.

INTERVIEWED: At Home with Iain Sinclair

Lunchtime in Hackney: the haves are long gone, leaving the haven'ts congregated around London Fields to enjoy their precious hours without bother. It has been a while since I actively bought into the myth of Hackney, as illuminated by Iain Sinclair: his walks, his talks, his layers of wayward, place-fixated prose. I arrived, today, by train from Walthamstow, where the priced-out E8-ers end up, endlessly arriving at and departing from Liverpool Street, sat between ASOS-sified and iPhone-tied office workers, and old ladies (Bernie Ecclestones in lilac) on a day out from the edges of London.

I ring the bell and Iain Sinclair ushers me into the pleasantly just-so interior of his unassuming but ample Georgian terraced house, tucked right inside the estate agents' sweet spot between London Fields and Haggerston Station in Hackney. He has lived here with his wife Anna ever since they bought the house for £3,500 from East End emigres inevitably bound for Essex in 1968. We shuffle in a half silence up the staircase, pass a room that seems to quake with books, and enter an upstairs sitting room, where Sinclair offers me a large comfortable sofa.

He has been here before: the interminable interview. Sinclair is a compromised yet industrious yes man, giving interviews away like they are going out of fashion. Though he frequently mythologises the recluse or outsider in his books – the Hackney Mole Man, Howard Hughes, a hermit in his hometown of Maesteg, Wales – he is far from succumbing to such a lifestyle himself. His eagerness to promote is a legacy from his years in the book trade, starting his own Albion Village Press in the 1970s, paying his way through odd jobs such as gardening in Limehouse to fund his feverish investigations of London, starting with the 1975 self-publication of Lud Heat, which set into motion his particular brand of prose-poetry, semi-fictionalised reportage featuring a cast of characters including Anna, and wildly acute asides.

His still seems a humble existence, despite the popularity of his particular brand of "psychogeography" – a term that has threatened to become an albatross around his neck. It doesn't seem that long ago that he had become a visible figure of dissent against the 'Grand project': books such as London Orbital (2002), Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire (2009), and Ghost Milk (2011) sniped at Thatcherite dealings and international bureaucracy while romanticising Sinclair's very personal version of the locale. It afforded him a greater platform, culminating with the run-up to the 2012 Olympics and the territorial, televisual barkings of Soundbite Era Sinclair.

After his moment at the forefront of a kind of protest literature, Sinclair seems somehow out of time again: a man of print on paper, predating the digitised, the constancy of the instant; the Century of the Self safely locked away from the Society of the Selfie. His face is set in a state of tense acceptance: grim yet kind, benign but in tune. The calm after the storm. He emanates a feeling of strange serenity, punctured by an active mind that is so obviously constrained by this perfunctory occasion. His sandled foot wriggles and waves up and down throughout the interview, while the effervescent bubbling of collective screeches and screams from the local school playground rises and falls.

Sat here, he seems more than two-years estranged from the cauldron of 2012. Since then, during this, the year of his 70th birthday (he is 71 next Wednesday, according to Wikipedia), he has looked back to his past, chasing the ghosts of the Beat Generation in American Smoke, and undertaking the impromptu film series 70 x 70, which has explored filmic inspirations and connections during seventy screenings of in out-the-way venues (usual suspects of Chris Petit and Andrew Kotting plus Herzog, Hitchcock, Godard, Fassbinder), culminating with an event at the Barbican this weekend, an undertaking born out of a long-term, shambling relationship with Blast First founder and Ken Kesey fanatic, Paul Smith.

Like Swans' uncompromising frontman Michael Gira, the pursuit of liberation that you feel guides Sinclair's artistic work comes from a very specific moment: the late 1960s. Gira's creative awakening was seeing Pink Floyd, Soft Machine and the Art Ensemble Of Chicago at a hippy festival in Belgium while tripping on acid at the age of fourteen; Sinclair's was the Dialectics Of Liberation conference at London's Roundhouse, where he filmed Allen Ginsberg and heard the anti-psychiatry teachings of RD Laing, a chance encounter that sparked a lifetime of circling this perceived moment of total freedom, what it means and meant. In many ways it is a moment he has never left.

So, is the 70 x 70 project Paul Smith's baby?

Iain Sinclair: It is, it is. He thought it up and suggested it and launched it, and he has been the eminence behind it.

Your relationship is an interesting one; it's one of London relationships that keeps bobbing along.

IS: It's quite strange in some ways, given Paul's background and mine – it's very different. It was the 1980s. Paul was living in Limehouse where I was working as a gardener. I was writing about Hawksmoor churches and all of that and he'd read my stuff – he liked the idea of me dealing with the territory he was living in and mythologising it, so he got in touch with me. I didn't know who he was. We met up in a pub there and he told me he had an idea of starting doing spoken word – CDs or LPs or whatever. But he was really interested in getting started on that label. I put him in touch with [writer and co-founder International Times] Barry Miles, there was an archive of stuff by people like Ken Kesey and Charles Bukowski, black power tapes, and Paul started talking about assembling this collection.

I didn't see him for ten years or something and I had forgotten all about it. And then he kind of came back one day, and said 'We're gonna go and record it in Harrow Road,' so I went off to this studio, and there was nobody there except an engineer. He said, 'Off you go,' and I said, 'Off I go what?' He said, 'Just do it'. So we made this series of recordings. I read bits of Downriver. Bruce Gilbert of Wire, who I met through Paul and got on well with, finessed sound interludes that went between these readings. CDs were produced but then they were rather mysterious in their release. Nobody actually got to see them. They still exist, I mean it was a very good collection of stuff. That was the beginning of the relationship with Paul. He had a subsidiary interest in live performance: cabaret-like materials that would involve music and readings, people like Stewart Home, Bill Drummond. It culminated with a week of events at Bridewell Theatre, in the city by St. Bride's Church, which had once been a printers' theatre with this swimming pool underneath, where there were some performance art pieces given. For a week he curated a series of events, with writers being interviewed and performing, along with Alan Moore and Cathy Acker, people like that. Derek Raymond gave his last reading there – he died two weeks after doing it. Chris Petit showed bits of film, there was music, the whole bit. It was Paul's vision.

Had you worked with Alan Moore before?

IS: No, though I knew him. I had worked with Brian Catling, who is a performance artist, poet and filmmaker, and I had worked a bit with Chris Petit, we'd started to make films together for Channel 4, one of which, The Cardinal & The Corpse, included Alan Moore and Derek Raymond in the film and is showing this weekend. That was the first film I did with Chris Petit, which was like a film that curated a particular group of underground, countercultural writers who were not very visible, resulting in a 35-minute film about them for Channel 4. Subsequently Paul did another series in The Slaughterhouse, which was a cellar beneath Smithfield, around the time that Lights Out For the Territory [1997] was published, so we had another week's worth of events in this cellar with a gallery space upstairs. The culmination of it all, I guess, was at the Barbican for the M25 book, London Orbital, in 2002, which was a big show, a kind of three-dimensional version of the book. Chris Petit had three screens with road footage playing all the time. Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty and Wire all played, Ken Campbell performed and I read, making it a complete performance event from the book.

Are you and Paul contemporaries, or is he younger than you?

IS: Paul is younger than me.

What is interesting – and it ties in with your most recent book American Smoke – is that kernel of the 1960s, when you are first moving to London: the "giant leap", as you wrote, of Camden's radical bookseller Compendium Books … People are always looking back to that moment; there seems to be an unwillingness of people who might be attuned to the idea of a poetic, radical London to let go of it.

IS: There is definitely a kind of movement here in Hackney, people like the Test Centre, who got in touch with me recently, to try and regenerate some part of that spirit: Will Shutes actually gets an old typewriter and physically types out manuscripts of the 1960s, which seems a weirdly retro thing to do, or produces vinyl LPs in this day and age. It has got this slightly retro-chic way of looking back at what they find to be an inspirational moment but to take it on into other things. The essential basic idea was you could just do things yourselves. You were in charge of production and you didn't need to waste endless time trying to get sponsorship or commissions because things could be done very, very cheaply. That's the difference now – to some extent with the internet and so on you can do things, but you can't actually produce the books and films in the way that you could at that time. Secondly, you had much cheaper places to live – it was very feasible to live for nothing. There was lots of squatting going on here, and communal housing. And to buy a house was incredibly cheap, virtually anyone could do it, whereas now, you'd have to be a millionaire to move here.

Which has fed into this increasing realisation that London does not have the spaces to explore that it once did. It is debatable whether you could find one of the places in the City to do an event like the collaborations with Paul, for example.

IS: The collaborations with Paul have been much more difficult to do because those kinds of spaces you are able to get are vanishing. We got old synagogues in Whitechapel; we did an event in the Tower House building down in Whitechapel, which is now converted into luxury flats, but was at the time a homeless people's shelter, just this huge, gaunt empty building. There were dozens of spaces in the city that you could exploit very easily. Now there are not. The same spaces charge you 1000 quid to have them for a night, whereas it was actually free at that time. This changes the whole way that you operate.

Though London acts as a barometer for you, do you think it is indicative of a more general global change in attitudes? Everything is priced up…

IS: Sure, everything is priced up. It just is utterly different culturally. I've just been on the Overground Railway now and looking at every single person in front of me is on this electronic thing. They are all woven into another kind of universe, instead of, maybe, at one time, more people were pondering the topography of the place that they are coming through and were interested in it. Now there is a sense that there is no history. You are literally living in a present that is self-erasing as the days go by.

I was going to ask you about technology. As a writer your research would have once been part and parcel of your book trade background, obsessively collecting material. But now, obviously, there's Google. I wondered how much you engage with that world?

IS: I don't really engage with it much at all, but I can appreciate that this is the way it is, this is the new world. For me, the whole fun of the book trading era that I was involved in is that it was like bounty hunting, scavenging – you could go out into the country, find things, and everybody didn't know everything. Whereas now, at the touch of a button, all knowledge is theoretically available. I am told that people are going into small bookshops, photographing title pages, and they'll check them before they buy a book, so there is this whole other process of discrimination, whereas once upon a time you just dealt with these objects as objects, and I'm still in that mindset, I can't really adjust. Although for pure research it is very useful to be able to check something instantly rather than my usual stumbling about through hundreds of books to check a fact.

There is an argument that the internet has allowed us to self-publish even more now – we're coming out of the end of the blogging boom, and now we in a social-media age. People constantly self-publishing what are essentially thoughts of 140 characters.

IS: It's so ephemeral to me it is absurd. For me, it is the kind of thing that you write in a notebook, look at it hard, and decide whether it is worth doing something with, whereas now, that process doesn't occur – you just spit it straight out: there it is. It is a slurry, this mass of endless stuff. It is actually rewiring brains in a new way, this instant-hit thing. The downside of it is you are not dealing with a known corpus of work or memory, that's gone, it is an instant series of flashes that have to register immediately. The actual process of having to work your way through the whole architecture of a book is disappearing.

In American Smoke, you mention visiting the place where Kerouac's diary is kept. These kinds of artefacts might be extinct very soon, with writers putting their thoughts online.

IS: At the actual place where I saw Kerouac's original in the Harry Ransom Centre in Austin, Texas, there was this huge, very rich depository of all this stuff. Piles of some stuff that you'd think was junk and actual libraries that belonged to Norman Mailer – and here's Kerouac's book. Upstairs, where I was looking at my old notebooks and things that were piled up on a table, they were beginning to sort through hard drives. I had thrown away my original hard drive. I just had it on a skip and it was going. I thought, wait a minute, this holds more material than those notebooks, so I rescued it and they bought that as part of my archive. It was sitting there on the table in Texas, a battered old hard drive, where they can extract all the versions of all of the books I had written on it. The first things were handwritten, typewriter all of that. Since Lights Out Of The Territory they have been written on a computer. The original one was this great big hefty thing. That's gone and it's now over there. But now, I can see those places will be accumulating memory sticks or whatever, I don't know what form it will take, but it'll all be electronic and it'll all be some massively weird place, rather than the idea that you can actually physically pick up old note books and sketch books, a little diary written by Charlotte Bronte, all those things that are quite exciting.

Do you remember which authors' hard drives they had?

IS: I remembered the one next to mine was Norman Mailer's. It was so old and clapped out. They had actually got this young woman who was the first person to be appointed, because it had never arisen before. I think Salman Rushdie was one of the first who had sold a hard drive to them. It really hadn't occurred to people to actually start acquiring these. And equally, people might be nervous of selling them because it might have all kinds of personal information, who knows what. The one I had only used for writing books on and stuff – apart from that it probably had my kids' homework on. Now people are much more conscious than that. There will be experts who will be accumulating electronic files and materials. Just imagine the sheer quantity of email exchanges that goes on. How will you ever sift through all that? I'm sure they will, but… Traditionally the estate of James Joyce or whatever always publish the author's letters at a certain point. Imagine the same information now, but through someone's emails. It will just be gigantic. What will you do? Would you sift through all that and try and extract a version that is worth publishing as a book, or will you let people roam through the whole thing? It's completely changed, obviously, and we are only at the very beginning of it, and it's happening so fast it is quite extraordinary.

While you were on the trip you were compiling and making notes yourself, for American Smoke. The resulting prose really reflects the fact that you are suddenly free from London.

IS: It was quite liberating. It had been such a battle in a sense, over the whole era of these projects that were being cooked up – from the Millenium Dome to the Olympics. The language around that tends to become polemic. You get drawn into a series of positions to be defended, and essentially you can't win, I know that. So I found something completely other, referencing earlier parts of my life; it felt like a really upbeat project to do.

How did it come about – was it your idea? I know you wrote some essays for London Review Of Books, on Gary Snyder and Edward Dorn…

IS: That was partly to help fund the trip. I was going to interview Gary anyway, but it just occurred to me that if I offered it to them, it might help me pay my way by doing various bits and pieces. I didn't do those bits and pieces and then think about the book. I had the book planned first and wondered what I could do to fund it.

Had you reached a kind of end point with Hackney: A Rose Red Empire and then Ghost Milk?

IS: Yes. Because so much of what I had done had grown out of the landscape and investigating that landscape, finding out about it, making fictions and documentary study, it was gone, it was all enclosed. It was like the moment of enclosures of the poet John Clare. So, ok, I'll go back to the New Old World and start again, somewhat as if it was that 1960s moment. But of course a lot of the people now were dead, they were ghosts, and the places they were in had changed massively. But nevertheless it felt like the right project to do to start something new, rather than the earlier project. It had finished. I really felt, that's it. After those books… Hackney had summed up my memories of this place and the Ghost Milk one was an end game. And so I started afresh with this book.

And that's an interesting thing to do for any writer I suppose – but for you, there is a concentrated 20-odd year period where you are stalking east London as far as Shoeburyness, almost as some kind of answer to the legacies of Thatcherism, questioning what was coming to pass and what seems to have come to pass irreversibly now. Did you just have to shed that and start anew?

IS: It wasn't an overnight thing. It was more a mood that evolved when I was writing Ghost Milk in particular. What happened at the end of that was when the Olympics came along I found, because I published essays in the LRB, I was getting asked a lot to be the token opposition to all this, and that was getting pretty insane. I was doing dozens of weird TV walks with people from Germany and Switzerland and Peru and God knows what. I just began to hate the sound of my own voice doing the same arguments over and over and over.

I was going to ask you about that, because there was a point when you and Will Self were alternated on BBC as the anti-Olympic voice.

IS: I think the final straw was with Laura Oldfield Ford; we were in Cheltenham for the literary festival and there was a medallist rower and a sports journalist from The Guardian, who were kind of saying how wonderful it all was. We were talking about very specific things that had happened and this mob really got ugly, really vicious. When Laura was in the green room to get food, she was physically attacked by these people. I thought, this is demented – they've actually swallowed it. They've never been anywhere near the places we're talking about, and yet you're not even allowed to make these arguments, which were not being made in any kind of vicious way. I thought, really, I've had it: I'm out. I'd been asked to go and do something in Gloucester Massachusetts, and off I went. Also I was working on a project with Andrew Kötting on the film Swandown, taking a swan pedalo from Hastings to the Olympic site, which we made a film about: a kind of absurdist anti-Olympic marathon.

And you literally make your exit on camera – you abort the project to go to Massachusetts.

IS: It took so long I literally had to leap out and cross London to get the plane out to America, so it was on my head very much as I travelled.

The Beat Generation have been regurgitated endlessly, but it is refreshing to hear their appeal to you at the time, as opposed to writers over here. It's nailed in a line or two, when you are talking about the anti-establishment English writers and playwrights, who within five minutes would get absorbed into the establishment.

IS: Yes, and they all tended to become very right wing. Essentially their criticism was based on their own exclusion and once they were included they wanted to defend the centre and were becoming great fans of Mrs Thatcher by the end, living in a disgruntled state, drinking in the country.

Are you referring to anyone in particular?

IS: Well obviously John Osborne became blimpish and angry, and the more interesting things he did were angry memoirs, his plays were not being done any more. John Braine was lumped together as being one of the 'Angry Young Men', but he never was: he was just writing about social climbing and social exclusion. And Kingsley Amis, above all others, became this terrible old drunk who was just being misogynist and vile about everything and making it into a comedy number. Martin doesn't have quite the same attitudes but he's continuing somewhat down the same road.

And to counter them, these figures that were floating into the bookshops from across the Atlantic seem much more stoic and rooted to place – and not compromised. They were something you could believe in as a student.

IS: And I think they had much more to react against. Talking to Gary Snyder, for having a trade union affiliation he loses his job with the Forestry Service. That kind of paranoia of 50s America – the anti-communist paranoia – was really extreme. They could be excluded from universities, lose jobs, all of that stuff. So, they were much more embattled figures than any of the British people were. But also there was this moment when they became more famous than anyone – rock-starry famous, Life magazine and Time magazine and all that, which Ginsberg had always wanted to do but it destroyed Kerouac completely. It absolutely killed him off. The mother-fixated life that he had, and his family histories of drink: he drank so much and he became so sour. It had taken him so long to achieve success and when it came it was overwhelming, and he certainly didn't ever find any way of coping with it. The interesting period for him was when he was completely unsuccessful, but he was producing most of the work in quite a short period of time, on the road. All of the things he would later mine. There was no second act; that was it. It was finished.

There are some interesting links that you make with the childhood of Kerouac and your own in Wales – the elders who have a different language to you – Welsh – whereas he was hearing French Canadian. Did you find these links during writing the book or much earlier?

IS: I knew it a bit. I started reading him when I was sixteen and I didn't know anything about him, but the particular book I was reading was set in an American industrial town, which felt very similar to the Welsh mining town I was growing up in: a kind of small place where everybody knew everything, there was a romance around the football team, all that stuff. And the fact that he was French Canadian and spoke this patois as his first language, in the way that my mother's family are all Welsh speaking and I'd just grown up hearing this other language as the first language all the time. I saw those parallels at that time, which was what interested me in his writing. And obviously the whole romance of getting out, moving off, doing these things which I didn't know how real or unreal it was, but it seemed like a frontier landscape with much wider possibilities than anything you can get in Britain.

I'm from Essex, and can see why you went down the Thames for Downriver [1991] and Dining On Stones [2004]. Was it to find a similar feeling, as if there is nowhere else in Britain to go in terms of freeing your mind?

IS: The Thames is a phenomenal freeing of the mind anyway, as there is the possibility of going out on the water. The Thames carries that with it, this incredible sense of exchange of all of these different cultures coming in. Anyone along that stretch could get on a boat and find themselves in Indonesia, China, Australia, wherever. It is actually open to the world in a way that other places are locked off and sealed – you aren't going anywhere if you are in an English country village.

Looking back at the feverish literary production of mid-20th century America from the vantage point of where you are today, is there a danger of becoming nostalgic?

IS: I don't think there is a danger of nostalgia for me – I've paid my dues to that period – and also I think there was a lot wrong with it. It was interesting to see some of these people and realise how difficult they were and how self-promoting they would have to be to establish their positions and survive. I was also interested in the ones who hadn't survived: people like Lou Welch, the poet who was a friend of Kerouac and Gary Snyder who just disappeared into the woods, presumably committed suicide, and there were a lot of other people like that, casualties of this battle of the weight of American paranoia, flag beating and all of that stuff that is much heavier there, because they are new people. They've got to go through those ways in a sense that we don't have to because we are old and corrupt in our colonialism. It's a different set up; it's a much richer, denser set up here. That's something else that struck me quite strongly.

Britain needs these kinds of influences for its intellectual health. At the moment we are going through this fairly strong anti-intellectual period in terms of culture…

IS: And also anti-European. We do [need that external input]. Some of the best energies coming into London come from other places: brief periods when the French poets Rimbaud and Verlaine were living here, doing lots of nocturnal ramblings in London and up the Thames, and create prose-poem form that gives a sense of the city which is much more dramatic and energised than anything people in England who are still bound to their forms are doing. Time and time again, that's the case; it goes right through. Céline, one of my favourite crazy French writers, was here during the First World War, and writes these incredibly dynamic books about London in a way that no local writers could dream of doing.

And I suppose you come from a culture that is 'other' to London. Do you think you benefit from not being from here, as opposed to someone like Will Self, who always seems to be wearing his 'I'm a Londoner' badge?

IS: Oh, yeah. It's a big advantage. Everyone from London is from somewhere else at some point, but there are definite advantages to arriving with baggage from somewhere else. It makes you a little wide-eyed about what London is, rather than that eternal cannibalising of London self. And London to me takes in all the territory to Southend and Brighton, there is a kind of circle, it still is this London thing.

Your film of Allen Ginsberg Ah! Sunflower is showing on Saturday at 70x70. Was that a formative event for you?

IS: My first book essentially was about that episode of filming Ginsberg in 1967, which was a really a crucial year for me and for that whole culture. All sorts of things from earlier periods came to the boil then, with the whole movement of anti-psychiatry with RD Laing and David Cooper and those people, who were operating in the suburban asylums of London, exactly the territory that was dismissed and decommissioned at the time I was doing London Orbital. That's where they were, and they were allowed to carry out experimental communities, using LSD and so on. It was a strange moment, that they should be combined with a poet like Allen Ginsberg, Stokely Carmichael who was the spokesperson for Black Power, Gregory Bateson the anthropologist, Herbert Marcuse the philosopher – all of these people were suddenly in London in one big hit, and that was a really major series of ideas that were churned up, and that people fed on for quite a while afterwards.

By an accident, I was there: young at the time [Sinclair was 24], I had got this commission by German TV to make this film with Ginsberg. So that provided me with a lot of material to think about for a long time, and also stimulated me into starting a small press to publish the account of what was going on during the filming, because I felt we needed to use all the tapes that had been involved, rather than the small bit that you can actually get into a film. That will be shown at the beginning of 70x70, and I'm also showing films from earlier than that, which I made as a student in Dublin after leaving London after my first stint studying film there. I came back to London to live, and got a job teaching part-time at the North East London Technical College & School of Art, I think it was called, in Walthamstow – this great long building. I used to go out there three days a week teaching and was working on documentary film and things the rest of the time. And in the summer of 67 I got this commission. It was really free: the people who were there were interesting students. In previous generations, Ken Russell had been there, and Patrick Keiller was teaching in the architecture department later on. It was an interesting place to be.

It is fairly unusual for an author known for writing novels and literary books to have such a close association with filmmaking.

IS: They are always combined in my mind. The writing was the more central activity, but a part of my research involved collaborating with people who might be involved in the book, to make a parallel film – to some extent that happened later on with works with Chris Petit and Andrew Kötting. In the earlier days when I was first living here, a bunch of people were making an 8mm diary project around establishing a life and community in Hackney – that was like the notebooks and things that I subsequently write.

What did it give you, shooting this stuff alongside your writing?

IS: It is like a memory, a living memory, and it's also a good way to test stuff that you are going to write and to look at it in a different way – and maybe it's going to be nothing to do with what you write, but it's the same process: the process of research, and seeing the dramas in situations. If you're filming you've got to get the essence; you've got to concentrate on getting key images, key moments, and be economic with the material because it was too expensive. All those disciplines are useful when it comes to writing. I think it is free-flowing: the grammar of film has been quite influential on the way that I write. One thing I hate writing is film scripts – partly because they are things that are probably not going to get made, so it's kind of dead writing, and secondly I've always found the structure depressing and formulaic. The films that I have made have never really had scripts as such. They evolve; there are things written, but nothing that looks like a film script.

What are you working on at the moment?

IS: I am finishing off another book at the moment, which having said what I did before seems a bit strange because it is back to London. But I was very struck by the new Overground Railway which became a complete circuit of London – the 'Ginger Line' as they call it. It changed things so dramatically around where my local station is, Haggerston: you get a particular kind of building. Flats grow parasitically on it. Activities that go on underneath the railway arches under it are extraordinary. Then I thought it would be interesting to go round this entire circuit in one day on foot. To walk from Haggerston right down to Peckham and Denmark Hill and Clapham, and right the way round in one day. Angela Carter lived very close to Clapham. I visited her when I was just starting out as a writer and going past her door conjured up interesting memories that I have never written about, that period when I started writing novels for the first time. The painter Leon Kossoff lives in Willesden on the railway again. A lot of his painting is about railways. He used to have a studio just up the road here in Dalston Junction: on the railway, overlooking it. He became the titular spirit of that railway. He figures quite heavily in the book, and JG Ballard wrote his book about Chelsea Marina not so long ago. All those people appear in the course of this book. And it is also sociologically about the incredible changes that the railway brings to London and how shopping malls grow up around them. Old businesses get dispersed, weird new things appear. It felt like an upbeat project, because the walk was done in a day.

So you are not moving away from London any time soon?

IS: No, I don't think so. I'm stuck here. But I think I'd like the next book after this one to be out there again. Somewhere.

Monday, 4 February 2013

We Need to Talk About Essex

Sorry it's been so long. I've been busy travelling to and fro from city to sea, back to Essex, to my hometown of Southend-on-Sea, or London's sphincter as one or two locals know it as. Essex has become one of the focuses of my writing in the past year, culminating in my recent article that was published in the Guardian's G2 supplement, a piece that was as inspired by Dawn Mellor's exhibition What Happened to Helen (example picture above) as much as my own fascination with the discrepancy between the Essex of 'structured reality' television and media myth, and the Essex that I had fallen in love with, estuarine Essex, iridescent creeks and beguiling marshes. It's a discrepancy that charged up the broadcaster Jonathan Meades to make The Joy of Essex for BBC4, a one-off programme that he had pushed to be made in three parts but could not persuade the BBC to give over precious repeat time to what might be assumed to be a niche concern. You can watch it here for a limited period.

Essex is a place that has tempted the wandering, often London-based writer (although Meades lives in France these days) for centuries, going back to Daniel Defoe who owned a brickworks at Tilbury. Later Conrad lived near Tilbury, writing Heart of Darkness in Thurrock in an association obsessed over by Iain Sinclair for many years. I met Sinclair a few years ago to interview him for The Daily Telegraph. He told me of his visit to Southend. "It’s a strange place. Such a long place. If you count Leigh-on-Sea and all the suburbs. I walked down the whole A13 one time, so I spent about a whole day walking through the ribbon of Southend and in the middle it got quite heavy, in the Casino area. There were lots of crazy people on the streets running about with wounds before it petered out again and I got out on the other side to the sea, suburbs, and then military stuff. I thought it was absolutely fascinating."

Similarly, I walked back home from London in two parts last winter for the magazine Pages Of. For The Quietus I wrote about the role that the suburban new town of Basildon had to play in Depeche Mode's underrated second album A Broken Frame. You can read it here.

Essex can be read as a kind of experiment, an embodiment of postwar popular culture but one with an obscured history. It is sustained by London but entirely other. Pop music and pub rock mix along with the natural elements, bird migration patterns and erosion, and thick old Essex clay. 'I have a theory that the Essex countryman’s character owes at least something of its quality to the nature of his landscape,' wrote C. Henry Warren in his book Essex in 1950, written just before the start of rock'n'roll boom. 'Clay and sky are all – the heavy clay that tears the soles off a man’s boots and the wide open sky where he hears the larks singing. And my theory is that just this combination helps to give the Essex countryman his odd mixture of harsh realism and tender poetry.' He could have been talking about ex-Feelgood machine-gunning guitarist, Wilko Johnson, in that last line. Johnson has been famously but no less sadly diagnosed with terminal cancer, and now, at the last minute, has become Media Britain's latest 'National Treasure'.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

SET VISIT: Behind the scenes of Fresh Meat, for the Telegraph Magazine

All photographs by Jonathon Williams

It is mid-August in a former electronics warehouse in east Manchester, and the filming of the second series of Fresh Meat – Channel 4’s comedy drama about six students mismatched in a shared house – is nearing the end of its three-month shoot.

The comedian Jack Whitehall, who plays the incorrigibly posh JP, wanders around the set in a vest and boxer shorts. The sneaker-clad feet of Joe Thomas, who plays Kingsley (an everyman similar to his character, Simon, in The Inbetweeners), stick out of one of the bedrooms (he’s trying to sleep off a hangover). Kimberley Nixon, the Welsh dentistry student Josie, ferrets around in a spotted dressing gown; Charlotte Ritchie, who plays the English-lit student Oregon, is in a long printed charity-shop dress; while Greg McHugh, who plays the bearded and bespectacled outsider Howard, struggles under the lights in a thick woolly jumper.

'We haven’t come here to play some cool, foam-party-loving students living it up and having a great time,’ Zawe Ashton, who plays the tough-as-nails Vod, says. 'Walk around the set and you will realise it is actually very smelly here. You don’t want to open that fridge.’

Fresh Meat was devised by Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong, the creators of the Channel 4 sitcom Peep Show. It was almost inevitable that they would tackle the subject of student life – the pair met at the University of Manchester during the 1990s. 'We wanted to try to create something that would feel unique,’ the co-producer Rhonda Smith says. 'Sometimes comedy can be really funny, but it doesn’t always look fantastic. We wanted to have really funny scripts but high production values and a dramatic element in it as well.’

Although critical reception was muted at first, the profile of the series grew, and it went on to be nominated for a Bafta for Best Sitcom, and to win Best New Comedy at the British Comedy Awards and Best TV Show at the NME Awards. Crucially, it won a sizeable audience: the average viewing figure for the first series was 2.7 million.

The masterstroke of Fresh Meat is its balance between comedy and drama. The plot feels as plausible as the situations it throws up are hilarious.

'Going to university has become a much more universal experience,’ the co-writer Tony Roche (The Thick of It, Veep) says. 'When I went to college it was still unusual, but now it is much more part of normal life – everyone has been or knows someone who has been.’ In the first series Josie repeatedly made a queasily-named recipe, 'vegetable munge’, which is veggies boiled to an unappetising gloop. 'I had a friend at college who made it,’ Roche says. 'She actually called it that.’

Aside from Roche, the team of writers includes Tom Basden (The Armstrong and Miller Show), and the playwright Penelope Skinner (The Village Bike). At the beginning of the first series there were regular comparisons to The Young Ones, whose four protagonists Neil, Vyvyan, Rick and Mike were notable for their unlikeableness. Fresh Meat works in a similar way – you notice the characters’ negative characteristics first, but it’s the slow realisation of their human qualities that creates the drama.

'Comedy drama is such a poisoned chalice,’ McHugh says. 'It makes you think, “Do you want to be funny or do you want to tell a dramatic story?” Obviously life isn’t like that at all – and that’s what Sam and Jesse and the writers have done so brilliantly. If you can buy into the characters, you can achieve pathos.’

The new series begins midway through the first academic year, yet each character has already been on quite a journey. In the first series Kingsley and Josie engaged in a messy bout of will-they-won’t-they that ended in Josie breaking it off with her Cardiff-based fiancé. JP has had to contend with the death of his father and – even worse – being snubbed by his peers from his former school. Howard has successfully made human contact with his fellow housemates, and, possibly just as life changing, Vod has read a book.

Perhaps the most spectacular strand is Oregon’s affair with her domineering English tutor, Professor Tony Shales (played by The Thick of It actor Tony Gardner). Real-name Melissa, Oregon is a bright English student from a privileged background who plays down her abilities and hides the fact that she owns a car and a horse in order to impress her peers. When Shales’s wife finds out and wants to arrange a coffee to discuss things with her, she is visibly thrilled by the adultness of it all. 'That’s so French,’ she says wistfully. 'What a total f***ing drama – it’s like something from a Woody Allen!’

Oregon is played by Charlotte Ritchie, who first made her name in the classical-pop crossover group All Angels. The youngest of the cast at 22, she graduated from the University of Bristol only in June last year. 'I didn’t have an affair with my English tutor, or have a friend like Vod who led me astray, but I have definitely met a lot of Oregons,’ she says. 'The character is perfectly observed. It’s so hedonistic, that first year of university – so much more about your own personal drama, how you feel about it from your own perspective.’

Whereas Oregon is all self-conscious statements and intellectual dreaming, Vod is a walking, sniping, powder-snorting embodiment of hormonal id. 'It is really nice to have a female character who is not always repenting their sins,’ Ashton says. '[Who is] sexually out there and slightly gross at times – there are a lot of sins that Vod should be repenting but she’s never made to do that. She has been allowed to develop and figure out things about herself and where she is in the world. She’s got real backbone.’

Whitehall’s character, JP, is more complex than he first appears. Educated at the Buckinghamshire private school Stowe (as was Whitehall), he is the embodiment of plummy privilege and instantly dislikeable. Yet by the end of the series he has become a fulcrum of the group. You learn that he, like the rest of the characters, is merely a product of his background; that university is partly about forging a new life and learning to rub along with people at opposite ends of the spectrum.

'The value of what this show projects is the friendships, and that’s really what you take away,’ McHugh says. 'Unless you are doing a vocational degree, often the best thing you get out of it is a sense of how to live with people and how to develop friendships and relationships.’

McHugh’s character, Howard, is a self-styled loner, part geek, part fantasist, and someone everyone who has lived in shared accommodation at university will recognise. 'I think I benefited from being a bit older than the rest of the cast. I have been in a lot of house shares through the years and lived with some scarily Howard-like people.’

The advertising teaser that preceded the first series showed the cast members naked in a tray inside a kebab-shop fridge. It perfectly articulated the predicament of the student that the show explores. Whereas once a person’s university years might have been described as a new dawn, these days the jump from school to university is more akin to a lemming-like leap into a life of debt. The cost of university per student was recently estimated at £60,000.

'I think that’s why students are humorous,’ 28-year-old Thomas, who studied at Cambridge, says. 'They realise the slight absurdity of their situation. In my case, I wasn’t exactly sure why I was there.

I knew I was getting into lots of debt, and the sense of why I was doing that was quite vague. Now the debt’s much higher [than when I went to university], and the sense of why you are doing it is probably not any greater. I think the humour, and to a certain extent the nihilism, of studenthood comes from that. That feeling that your life doesn’t make any sense.’

To ensure the setting’s accuracy, the production team found a suitably studenty property in Manchester and recreated its exterior and interior in the studio. The resulting set is an uncannily accurate imagining of an archetypal student dwelling, right down to the dry, musty smell that hangs thick in the air. On the landing, forgotten-about clothes hang over the bannister, a forlorn cuddly toy sits among beer cans and whisky bottles.

Each character’s bedroom is meticulously designed. In Oregon’s room, a volume of English mystery plays sits alongside a copy of OK!. In Josie’s (she fulfils the girl-next-door role in the show), Russell Brand’s My Booky Wook is on a shelf. A Florence & the Machine poster adorns her wall, whereas Kingsley inevitably has a Radiohead poster on his; JP’s room is decorated with lads’ mag posters and bottles of champagne; Vod’s is filled with vodka bottles, ashtrays and industrial boots.

'It was a huge amount of preparation,’ Smith says. 'Each room, every single thing that you see here has been thought about with regards to that character.’ Most impressive is the sense that the property has a history of its own. 'The feeling that lots of students had come and gone. Each year when a student has left, they have left a little bit of something. You can feel the history of the people who have passed through, hence the colour of the wallpaper, the shabbiness.’

One distinguishing feature of this season as opposed to last is that there have been more location shoots, including a lengthy trip to the Pennines for a geology field trip, which includes JP hanging off a rock at 30ft. Kingsley makes an ill-fated attempt to branch out from bumbling awkwardness into cooler territory. Graham Coxon, the lead guitarist of Blur, has written a song for the show, which Kingsley is meant to have penned, and which Thomas recorded a version of. 'It was really interesting because it was Graham Coxon deliberately trying to write a bad song. At times it slips into sounding half-decent, particularly when he plays it, because he can’t help embellishing it. It’s quite confusing to listen to because you think it’s bad – but it’s almost good.’

As I speak to each of the actors about the three months of long days in Manchester, what comes across most of all is the genuine sense of camaraderie that the cast and crew enjoy on set. The day before we meet, all six actors travelled down to London to see the Olympic closing concert at Hyde Park, which featured Coxon’s band, Blur, along with New Order and the Specials.

'One guy shouted at us, “Oh, my God, I can’t believe you all hang out together, that’s so cool!”’ McHugh says.

They didn’t get back home until 4am (which explains Thomas’s hangover) but they had to get up bright and early for the day’s filming. 'The six of us really like each other’s company,’ Nixon says. 'It’s nice to relax after filming as it is quite a mad day, especially for my character. She’s quite high energy.’

The cast all live in the same apartment block during the shoot. For Whitehall (who studied in Manchester – as did Ashton a few years before him), the art of playing a student for three months quickly merges into his life. 'It’s as if we’re in halls, only slightly more hygienic,’ he says. 'While I am up here I turn back into a student. Eating a Rustlers [microwave burger] because I can’t be bothered to cook anything after a long day’s filming. Not washing any clothing, and then at the end of the week putting all of my dirty pants and socks into a bag and taking it back to my mum’s house. How much can you pass off as method?’

INTERVIEWED: Martin Landau remembers filming Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest in 1958, for the Telegraph Magazine

This scene was filmed at LaSalle Street Station in Chicago. I wasn’t working on the first day of filming, and Alfred Hitchcock called me in my hotel and said, 'Martin, put on one of the suits you are going to use in the movie – I’d like to see it being worn in the [scene’s] surroundings.’ He had helped me choose the suits because he wanted my character, Leonard, to be better dressed than Cary Grant’s. He took me to a tailor’s called Quintino’s in Beverly Hills, which also made Cary’s suits, though Cary didn’t know about this. I arrived in the middle of a take, so stood on the fringe of a crowd of hundreds of Chicagoans watching the shoot. I was tapped on the shoulder. It was an English fellow called Ray Austin – I guess you could call him Cary Grant’s valet. He said, 'Excuse me, Mr Grant would like to know where you got that suit.’ I said, 'I beg your pardon?’ He repeated the question, adding, 'Only two people in the world make a suit like that, one’s in Beverly Hills, the other is in Hong Kong.’ Cary had noticed the suit in the middle of hundreds of people. I suggested that he had better have this conversation with Mr Hitchcock. He said, 'Oh! Are you in the film?’

North by Northwest took two and a half to three months to film. When I look back, I realise I wasn’t intimidated by Hitchcock and Cary Grant. They were so accepting of me. Cary was very generous, as was Hitchcock. And Eva Marie Saint (also pictured) played such a range of different roles throughout her career. The critics haven’t acknowledged her in terms of her ability.

I was 30 and it was my first film. I am sort of in awe of the fact that I wasn’t overawed by it. I think it’s because when I was a teenager in the 1940s I was already working in a 'grown-up’ job, as a cartoonist on the Daily News in New York. At the age of 22 I was offered a promotion but I knew if I took that job I would never leave, so I quit. Subliminally, I had always wanted to act. Although I had only performed in a couple of plays, I was serious about it, and was subsequently trained by people like Lee Strasberg and Elia Kazan. Hitchcock first saw me in an Edward G Robinson play in 1957. The character was 180 degrees from Leonard, very macho, a bit of a dope actually. When I asked Hitchcock how he could cast me in this part, as they were so different, he said, 'Martin, you have a circus going on inside you. If you can play that in the theatre you can play this role.’

I chose to play Leonard as a gay character. It was quite a big risk in cinema at the time. My logic was simply that he wanted to get rid of Eva Marie Saint with such a vengeance, so it made sense for him to be in love with his boss, Vandamm, played by James Mason. Every one of my friends thought I was crazy, but Hitchcock liked it. A good director makes a playground and allows you to play.

REVIEWED: Madlib's Medicine Show feat DOOM, Freddie Gibbs and J. Rocc for The Stool Pigeon

This is a gig needs that needs big and clear bass frequencies — but, as it’s a hip-hop showcase in dear ole London Tahn, we know not to expect passable sound quality. LA’s Stones Throw maverick Kutmah fills the large venue with choice beats, but the first thing you notice is everything else but the music. This isn’t One Audience Under a Groove, it’s the post-working week: the lager is flowing, bromance is in the air. Security guards stand around a patch of vomit.

DOOM doesn’t let it get to him and he paces the stage slowly, calmly. The US exile — he is living in South London after being barred entry back into the US — temporarily dons a high-vis jacket, and casually boshes out rhymes in the relaxed-yet-hard-boiled manner that has sustained his global cult. He isn’t known for decent live shows, but on ‘Gazzillion Ear’, for example, his thick’n’true flow and rhythmic about-turns are hypnotic. Like the best artists, DOOM achieves something others can’t while looking like he doesn’t care; the Usain Bolt of boom-bap hip hop. Before leaving the stage he performs a brief homage to another famous Olympian, by doing the ‘Mobot’.

After DOOM leaves the stage, his sometime collaborator Madlib (the pair will apparently be reuniting in the studio soon, and DOOM featured their shared Madvillain track ‘Rhinestone Cowboy’ during his set to a huge crowd reaction) cuts an estranged figure — almost anonymous behind the decks in the front of over 2000 worshipers. Some are talking over his DJ set, not through intentional rudeness but because it’s not cutting through. You feel the Forum is full of people wishing they were seeing their ‘Konduktor’ in a smaller club.

Next up is Freddie Gibbs, backed by J. Rocc. Like DOOM, Freddie’s flow is fluid, but Gibbs is a more menacing MC, all gym-prepped torso and aggro chants while J. Rocc provides cuts from Damian Marley and Nas, Dilla’s Ruff Draft, and Dizzee’s ‘I Luv U’. Down the front, joints and fags are smoked freely under the venue’s proscenium arch. It’s like 2006 all over again. Which might well be back when the cult of Stones Throw peaked. No, this isn’t tonight’s hot new thing in town — that’s Azealia Banks at Shepherds Bush. In this hulking former cinema, the sample appreciation/inebriation axis rules – a modern-day Wigan Casino with spaced-out, ketamine’n’lager-fuelled lurching replacing speed-propelled northern soul dancing. An unabashed, imperfect, collective show of love for mixology, soul samples and boom-bap beats by the tired and emotional. AKA a lot of fun.

Originally published on the Stool Pigeon website

Monday, 8 October 2012

INTERVIEWED: Dan Hancox for Dazed & Confused

Dan Hancox has long been fascinated by Marinaleda, a small communist utopia in Andalucia, southern Spain. Last winter he travelled there to meet its crusading mayor, Juan Manuel Sánchez Gordillo, and has since written a book, 'Utopia and the Valley of Tears', about his trip into the unknown. More recently, Gordillo has become the subject of international news, dubbed Spain’s “Robin Hood” after staging robberies at supermarkets to feed poor families suffering under Spain’s economic crisis. Andalucia is one of the regions hardest hit by the crisis, with 34-per cent unemployment. In Marinaleda, thanks to a system that values jobs over efficiency, unemployment is only six per cent.

What brought you to Marinaleda?
I heard about it a number of years beforehand, but couldn’t work out a way of getting there. It was only last year that I was lucky enough to happen upon someone in London from Estepa, the nearest reasonably sized town. He couldn’t believe I had heard about this crazy local curiosity. But now Gordillo has risen to such prominence. He’s regularly on the front page of the Spanish newspapers – a kind of rallying figure for the anti-austerity movement. It has been amazing to watch him emerge in the struggle against [Prime Minister] Rajoy’s cuts, which are only just beginning.

How successful do you think he can be with that?
It’s a good question – can this bizarre but completely, I think, successful experiment in creating a communist utopia in a small town be replicated? He would say; 'yes, of course it can be replicated all you have to do is struggle hard enough'. He is full of this fantastic rhetoric about making the impossible the reality. The conditions that allowed Marinaleda happen were unique to that town. After the death of Franco there was a lot of confusion. They took advantage of the situation but they struggled extremely hard. It took them about 12 years to get the land around the village by repeatedly occupying it and being arrested and being imprisoned and doing it again, as well as occupying airports and going on hunger strikes.

Do you think the authorities will eventually get tough on Gordillo, because he is showing an alternative?
Gordillo must worry them immensely. The fascinating thing about Marinaleda is the message they’ve been pushing for some time: to make the lives of the people in this small town better. They did that during the Spanish economic miracle, when capitalism was bringing fresh riches to everybody. Its complete collapse has left Marinaleda standing strong, surrounded by places with abject levels of poverty and unemployment. As a beacon in the darkness of capitalism, it’s no wonder it’s shining stronger than ever.

The end of the book feels like a bit of a call to action, to get people thinking of alternatives in the UK.

I think what has underscored the fight against austerity in this country is the constant argument of ‘Well this is what you are against but what are you for – what’s the alternative?’ This is part of the reason I was so eager to go and visit Marinaleda. How could you come up with an alternative to capitalism? Well someone already has! You could argue about how possible it is to apply the model they have there in other places, but in that context it works very well and that’s a really good starting point. Just a glimmer of possibility. The awareness of another way of organising economically and socially, with different principles other than ‘profit’ and ‘efficiency’. The crops that they grow in Marinaleda are deliberately not efficient. They want to create enough jobs for everyone, so they’re planting artichokes and tomatoes and other things that are quite labour intensive and need canning afterwards.

Is it something you will go back to after this book?
I’m going back over the winter to write the full history of Marinaleda as a book for Verso which will be published at the end of next year. While I am in Spain I hope to meet the protesting miners, student protesters and visit the places where they have abolished money – they are now trading in kind in some villages in the north. There a lot of really interesting things going on in Spain at the moment and this is just the beginning.