Rock Star Novelists: Cathi Unsworth

Thursday evening: I dodge the rain as it drenches a BBC film crew in Torrington Square. They’re filming an episode of Silent Witness, and there are signs around the square telling people to be aware that the people dressed as police officers are in fact actors.

In fact, I pass a real police officer on the other side of Senate House, and notice that as it’s raining, he’s wearing a proper Police Officer Anorak, in dark blue. The actor cops, meanwhile, have normal uniforms and use umbrellas between takes, as it’s not supposed to be raining in the story.

Suitably enough, I go to the Horse Hospital off Russell Square for the launch of a new crime novel: Cathi Unsworth’s ‘Weirdo’.

It’s set among goth teens in 1980s Norfolk, and the party’s soundtrack includes the likes of Echo & The Bunnymen’s ‘Killing Moon’: a moody, goth-compatible pop song from the 80s that goes on just that little bit too long.

Passages from the book remind of my own upbringing in Suffolk, and how teenagers in English villages were more likely to take to bands with strong visual looks and a sense of not quite being properly cool: Goth bands, thrash metal, prog rock, and most of all: Songs That Go On Too Long. Village teens were more like to be into Pink Floyd or The Sisters Of Mercy than The Clash or The Fall.

It might be argued that being a teenager in an English village is already doomed to a certain degree of Uncool from the start, being acutely aware that the more connected-up and hipster-type parties were always going to be London parties, or Manchester parties. Rural teens are forced to engage with acute externality, feeling as they do outside of not just children and adults but most of civilisation, so they often gravitate towards the more externally-distinctive bands. The Smiths and New Order could never have come from Diss. Cradle Of Filth and Extreme Noise Terror could never have come from Camden.

Echo & The Bunnymen were actually from Liverpool, but their fondness for long coats, long songs, big hairdos, and overwrought photoshoots in caves (oh yes!) gave them more fans in the shires than their less dressed-up urban counterparts. The Cure, meanwhile, were a group that managed to be just Goth Enough to appeal to those sort of teens, while having proper pop songs in the charts that didn’t go on too long. No DJ at a student disco in Ipswich was allowed to leave his post until he’d spun  ‘Lovecats’ at least seventeen times that night. The Cure’s late 80s album Disintegration is remarkable in that it includes big, overblown Gothic tracks like ‘Plainsong’ alongside simple pop songs like ‘Lovesong’, which could even lend itself to a 21st century soul rendition, courtesy of Adele.

Cathi Unsworth was once a rock journalist. Like Simon Price she is one of those writers who dresses more like a dandyish rock star than most actual rock stars:

I do, naturally, approve of Ms Unsworth. I’ve always warmed to writers who reflect their internal creativity by cultivating a distinctive external appearance, from Oscar Wilde to Truman Capote to even Alan Bennett (who admits somewhere that he doesn’t need to wear his glasses all the time, but they suit his face). And it’s no surprise that she was once a teenager in Great Yarmouth. Somebody has to be.

Tags: , , , , ,

Maundy Mopping-Up

I’m spending Easter writing essays for college and hoping a rather painful stomach ache goes away. Think it’s a return of the dreaded IBS, made worse by stress over the essays. Am hitting the peppermint capsules and hoping for the best.

Recent outings…

Saturday 31 March was another stint of DJ-ing for the Last Tuesday Society, at the Adam Street club off the Strand. After I’d finished I stuck around and caught a performance by an excellent African band, Kasai Masai. Their giddy, hypnotic music  fitted the atmosphere perfectly.

Sunday: tea in Highgate with Ella Lucas, then we both wandered into town, taking in the National Portrait Gallery and South Bank. I’d been reading Virginia Woolf – Icon by Brenda Silver (1999), which claimed Ms Woolf’s photo (this one) was the best selling postcard in the NPG shop. I ask the NPG staff whose postcard sells the most today. They’re not sure, but reckon it to be between Kate Moss, Prince William & Prince Harry, the Queen by Warhol, Lily Cole, and Darcey Bussell. Ms Woolf’s face still does well though – a Woolf-branded notebook has sold out.

Monday last was the launch of Richard King’s book about the story of British indie labels, How Soon Is Now. I was kindly invited by Richard himself, and I asked my old bandmate Simon Kehoe along (from the first Orlando line-up), seeing as he’d just moved to London and was looking for things to go to. Turns out Simon had been invited too –  he and Richard were once in the Bristol band Teenagers In Trouble during the 90s. Simon also brought another bandmate along, Kevin from The Foaming Beauties, whom I met for the first time. So at some point Simon managed to assemble representatives of all his past bands in the same room – and got a photo of all of us too.

Simon, Kevin and myself started the evening in Soho with drinks at the French House and dinner at the Stockpot (a deliberate attempt to have an Old Soho evening), before going on to the launch event at the Social in Fitzrovia. The launch included Bob Stanley DJ-ing, a chat about the nature of indie music between Messrs King and Stanley with Owen Hatherley, and a short but utterly fantastic acoustic set by Edwyn Collins, backed by James Walbourne and Andy Hackett. They performed dazzling versions of ‘Falling And Laughing’, ‘Rip It Up’, ‘A Girl Like You’ and ‘Blueboy’.

Chatted to Grace Maxwell (Edwyn Collins’s partner, whom I’ve met before when my brother Tom was playing for Edwyn) and Jeanette Lee (from Rough Trade, who signed Orlando to Warners, and was once in PiL). Bought a copy of the book from a lady who later turned out to be Louise Brealey, the actress who plays Molly From The Morgue on Sherlock. Just as well I didn’t realise this at the time, as I’d downed rather a lot of wine by this point and had reached that stage of solipsistic drunkenness which is just about acceptable for friends, but deeply tiresome for strangers. I realise now I must have annoyed Lee Brackstone from Faber Books too, which I’m rather shamefaced about (sorry, Mr B). Still, it was a rare event; a class reunion of a kind, and a celebration of past lives and passions.

Tom is currently playing guitar for Adam Ant in Australia (photo of him onstage in Perth here). So proud of him.


Some new works by other people worthy of greater exposure:

New albums:

CN Lester – Ashes (available here).
Stunning debut collection of haunting, late-night torch songs. I first saw the androgynous CN play at a Transgender Day Of Remembrance service, and am so pleased they’ve released  an album. Here’s to many more.

The Monochrome Set – Platinum Coils. (available here)
An unexpected, wonderful surprise; a brand new CD by the MS, their first since the mid 90s. Arch, crooning, twangy guitar pop, sounding just as fresh as their late 70s and early 80s records.

New books:

Richard King – How Soon is Now? The Madmen and Mavericks Who Made Independent Music 1975-2005. (Richard has a blog here)
As bought at the above launch. Satisfyingly doorstop-sized, engrossing account of the history of labels like Mute, Factory, Creation and Rough Trade. Focuses on tales of music and money (the lack of it, the making of it, the wasting of it) and the way indie labels and artists took on the mainstream, not always certain of what they were doing. The notorious appearance of the KLF at the Brit Awards being a case in point.

Jen Campbell – Weird Things Customers Say In Bookshops (Jen’s blog is here). Jen C works at Ripping Yarns, the used and antiquarian bookshop down the road from me in Highgate. The book collects some of the strange requests and utterations that she’s heard, illustrated with line drawings which are also rather weird, in a sweet sort of way.

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,