By Edward S. Robinson
Over the course of a career the length of which has doubtless surprised many, Stewart Home has adopted many styles and left an ever-extending trail of confusion in his wake. From his early parodies of pulp youthsploitation novels to the campus novel on drugs that was Mandy, Charlie and Mary-Jane, Home has revelled in the contradictions of postmodernism and late capitalism. His tendency toward playfulness and pranksterism is given credence by an almost encyclopaedic knowledge – and more significantly, comprehension – of a vast swathe of literary theory and socio-political ideologies. Frustratingly for many, as soon as Home appears to have settled into a certain groove, he completely changes his trajectory.
His latest novel, The 9 Lives of Ray The Cat Jones represents yet another radical shift, at least on some levels. Yet it seems entirely fitting that an author who is a keen celebrant of plagiarism, appropriation and literary theft should produce a novel about literal theft recounting the life story of a notorious burglar.
Only one person could possibly unravel the multiple layers of the book’s narrative constructions – or add to them further. The following exchange with ‘Stewart Home’ took place by email at the end of December.
ER: Your latest novel, The 9 Lives of Ray The Cat Jones follows an overtly straightforward narrative trajectory, and also clearly adheres to the tropes of ‘true crime’ writing – superficially, at least. The Sensitive Skin review picked up on the way you framed the text as being ‘framed’ as having been sent to you anonymously, which is presumably designed to give it some kind of ‘authenticity.’ Are you interested in creating some kind of (urban) mythology?
SH: As I tried to make clear in the epilogue, I was more interested in deconstructing the urban mythology built around ‘celebrity’ criminals like Mad Frankie Fraser than creating a new legend. Likewise, even if Ray Jones wasn’t as well-known as Fraser, there was already a mythology wrapped around him, particularly in south Wales. When Fraser died recently his family stated what was already obvious to many, viz that the story of his life as he told it was not true. Of course Fraser’s family wanted him to appear less of a psychopath, whereas I view him as an anti-social and reactionary bullshitter. But however you see him, it is clear nothing that appears in his various ghost-written ‘autobiographies’ can be taken at face value.
One of the things I’m trying to draw out in the epilogue is that true crime writing (or at least that about London in the twentieth-century) has its origins in the earliest English fictional forms, and I explicitly mention Robert Greene’s Elizabethan cony-catching pamphlets and Richard Head’s An English Rogue. The framing device of creating a story about how I ‘acquired’ a manuscript (that I’d hope most readers would recognise as being actually written by me – after all the book is published as a Stewart Home novel) was intended to underscore this. I’m using a trope that is typical of early book length English prose fiction, it can be found in Daniel Defoe for example, and one that became less popular once the novel in the nineteenth-century acquired the form that has been handed down to us today (I mean here handed down in the form of run of the mill popular and literary ‘contemporary’ fiction – not self-consciously modernist and post-modernist prose). In doing this I intended to emphasise the inauthentic nature of the true crime genre en bloc, it was not my wish to make what I’d written appear ‘authentic.’ In fact I’d view as having quite the opposite effect!
True crime writing, which is largely ghost written when it comes to autobiographies, is simply a genre in which the difficulty of disentangling fiction from non-fiction is perhaps more readily evident than in many other areas that are just as problematic (such as academic ‘history’ or psychology). So I’m not suggesting that true crime is unique in this blurring of ‘fact’ and fiction, since the lines between these supposedly separate realms are fuzzy everywhere (and are far more problematic when it comes to academic genres since professors are even more adept at deluding themselves and their student followers into thinking they have an ‘objective’ overview of their subject area than criminals).
Why did you chose Ray Jones?
Perhaps Ray Jones chose me! Writing this particular novel wasn’t really something I set out to do, it was more of a project that emerged over time as something I should do! It is tied to my being distantly related to Ray Jones and being a bit of an information junkie who likes to turn over material until I have a different story to the one that is easily available to me. Jones is one of a number of thieves in my family, and by far and away the most famous one. So some of my uncles have talked to me of criminal activity among the immediate family circle (two of my uncles – both now dead – went to jail for burglary and possession of stolen goods), but they were more excited by the activities of their cousin Ray Jones, I think largely because of the extensive newspaper coverage he generated in south Wales (where my uncles live or lived). However, while I knew about Ray Jones and I was aware he’d wanted his autobiography published (ghost written of course), I hadn’t intended to do a book about him. My interest was aroused after I followed up on the information I got about Ray Jones from various people who contacted me after I’d posted a series of blogs about him. The first time I blogged Ray Jones was on 24 January 2009, and the piece ran in part like this:
“I’ve known Paul Buck for years and the other day I went to see him do a talk in which he covered his entire career as a writer, from a recent true crime book to his involvement with heavy weight French theorists back in the day. While Paul has endless tales about the innumerable highbrow chancers he has known, when we spoke after his presentation I asked him about The E… List: Notorious Prison Escapes, and specifically whether my relative Ray “The Cat” Jones had featured in it. Paul said he had covered Raymond Jones. I’ve never met Ray but he is one of my mum’s many cousins and my uncles like to talk about him. Indeed, my mother was named Julia after Ray’s mother. This is what Paul has to say about Ray in his book (with a sentence from me at the end):
“‘Frankie Fraser gives cat burglar Ray Jones his vote for the best single-handed escape, when he went over the wall at Pentonville Prison, breaking both his legs in the process and yet still getting away. Fraser gives scant details, but somehow, in 1958, Jones managed to climb onto the prison roof and, in scaling down the sheer face of the outside wall, smashed one kneecap, then fell and broke his ankle. Nevertheless, he continued, scaled another wall, and broke the other leg when he jumped.
“‘Still he persisted, crawling into a block of flats and making his way onto a roof, where he fell headlong through a skylight as he tried to prise it open. When he regained consciousness he made his way out of the building, pulled himself along using the railings on the Caledonian Road, crawled across the road to King’s Cross station, over the railway lines and into someone’s garden. Eventually he decided to seek help and attracted the attention of some young men, asking them to give him a lift “because I had had a bad fall.” They guessed who he was, but didn’t betray him. After they left him at his relative’s flat, his wife arrived and arranged for him to stay elsewhere, where he remained for five months while recovering from his injuries. He was not recaptured for two years.’
“I’d seen the Frankie Fraser book Paul picked this up from, and I’ve come across stories about Ray in various other tomes….”
This first blog caused a few people to contact me with more information about Ray. I knew that Paul Buck doubted the veracity of the details of Ray’s escape but he gave his reasoning for including it in The E List to me a number of times, most recently in an email of 7 November 2014: “I was searching fast (as Cass Pennant wanted me to do a book for him) to see what came up on the different methods of escape. I had to select down, particularly as many foreign escapes were too scantily written up. & I was talking with various faces & walking on a few shaky edges. I have conveniently ‘forgotten’ things that I was told & which I refused to commit to paper. But Ray couldn’t be ignored because the escape details as most publicly presented by Fraser made it worth including.”
I did a series of blogs on Ray Jones in 2009 (because I was getting sent information about him, and since I blogged regularly at that time I tended to use whatever material was to hand), the last on 5 December, which described my visit to the flat in Hackney of Michael Morgan (who’d been Ray The Cat’s press spokesman). While Morgan was likeable and clearly believed what he told me, I was not convinced that everything he told me was true. Because like Paul Buck I also doubted the veracity of the prison escape tale as relayed by Frankie Fraser (and which Morgan more or less repeated for me, possibly because he’d read it in Fraser’s book, or in a later press piece that relied on this unreliable source for information), I decided to search through newspapers in the British Library for older stories about Ray Jones.
As well as telling me many tales about Jones, Morgan also gave me a treatment that Ray had prepared with a writer for either a book or a film about his life (neither ever got beyond very the early stages of execution). Morgan also gave me a lot of press cuttings about Ray, but these were all from after his retirement from a life of crime. The bulk of what I found in the British Library when I followed up my encounter with Morgan with a visit to this institution, is reconfigured in the appendix of The 9 Lives. These are the four occasions on which reports of Ray’s life and crimes appear simultaneously in a number of British national newspapers. So there are the 1940 court reports of Ray being imprisoned for GBH after his 1937 assault on PC Spratt (he’d been on the run for a few years before being caught); the 1952 court reports of Jones being jailed for a burglary he committed during on a Hampstead new year’s eve party (while the guests were living it up downstairs, he stole their fur coats and valuables from an upstairs bedroom); his 1958 prison escape and his 1960 recapture after 25 months on the run.
The details of the prison escape as given by the UK national press back in 1958 struck me as far more credible than Mad Frankie Fraser’s account. These had Jones escaping uninjured but another man who failed to get away with him breaking an ankle and giving up. The discrepancy between the contemporary newspaper accounts and the much later one by Mad Frankie Fraser didn’t really surprise me. I’d had a conversation with Fraser about Ray Jones and various other members of my family (gangster Dinny Callaghan and his sons) circa 2002, and Fraser had struck me as an unconvincing bullshiter who was unable to admit that he didn’t know something, and he clearly knew nothing about Dinny Callaghan who’d been based in west London for much of his criminal career (I at least knew a little from hearing stories from members of my family).
So basically through a mixture of information coming to me via comments on my blog and through the webmail contact form on my website, and my own quite traditional research, I ended up with enough material to write a book, and I thought the story was really fabulous although I hadn’t set out with the intention of doing a novel about Ray Jones. In 2009 when various people suggested I do a book about Ray Jones (they tended to be talking in terms of a ‘non-fiction’ biography), I told them I wasn’t interested. It wasn’t until my visit to the British Library to further research Ray Jones in 2010 that I decided the material did merit being worked into novel form. Precisely because I was interested in the slippage between fiction and non-fiction in the ghost-written gibberings of idiots like Mad Frankie Fraser, and because I knew that when talking to criminals you were unlikely to get to the truth of certain matters (although obviously they aren’t quite as bad on this score as politicians, show biz celebrities or businessmen), the book had to be done as a novel. Among the things that attracted me to Jones was that he was unusual as a career criminal in having explicitly left and socialist views. Most career criminals are conservative reactionaries. Given that Jones spent about half his life in Hackney I was also surprised that Iain Sinclair – who specialises in writing about this part of east London – had never written about my relative, so it seemed a good idea for me to make up for this omission on the part of another writer friend!
How much research did you do? What kind of research did you undertake, what kind of sources did you work with, and did you uncover anything surprising or unexpected?
I did some quite varied research. I read hundreds of true crime books (with the focus on the mid-twentieth century London but also looking more historically). In the British Library I read through a lot of crime reports in old newspapers from the 1940s to the 1970s. I had a list of people Ray claimed to have robbed in the treatment for a book or film of his life, so among other things I was looking to see if I could find reports of these crimes. As mentioned before, I talked to people who knew Ray Jones or exchanged messages with them. From the blog I had quite a few people contact me with Ray Jones stories many of which weren’t very believable. As well as the material Michael Morgan gave me. So to give another example, through the blog I came into contact with an academic Ray Newton. He later scanned for me a letter from Ray outlining his life and a couple of press cuttings. Jones had contacted Newton n 1994 to see if he’d like to ghost-write his autobiography. In a blog comment posted on 24 May 2009, Newton told me: “He (Ray) spent six pages giving me a brief account of his life which at first seemed a little ‘way out’. He invited me to go round to see him. I didn’t dismiss it, but thought I would look into it more later. Unfortunately, I was busy at the time attending Kingston University as a mature student reading psychology. It slipped my mind… Today, I have been reading his letter in depth. I am so sorry now I did not take him up on his suggestion. He interests me from many points of view, particularly from a psychological one. It appears to illustrate just how much unsought, negative, events in our life can turn us from to what we aspired, and possibly could have achieved with a positive influence, had we not experienced them, instead of the road that leads us to at best, penury, or at worst, perdition (in some cases the two can be indivisible).”
Since many of the Ray Jones stories I acquired as a result of my blogs and from other sources weren’t very believable, I decided that I’d try to disprove them and if I couldn’t do this relatively easily then I’d use them in a novel even if I didn’t think they were true. Some things, such as Ray going to his mother’s funeral while on the run dressed as a woman might have been disproved by searching through official records (if Ray’s mother hadn’t died while he was on the run, clearly that story couldn’t be true). However I knew from researching my mother’s life that it was not uncommon in my family to falsify names and even dates and places of birth – both my mother and my maternal grandfather consistently used a false date of birth, and a false date of birth and a false place of birth appear on my grandfather’s death certificate. There is quite a lot of criminality in my family so this falsification of records is not particularly surprising, it was just a way for people to cover their tracks. When I started looking at birth, death and marriage records in regards to Ray and found it hard to locate the items I was searching for, I decided not to pursue this line of investigation because I knew it had taken me years to find some of the certificates of my more immediate family in the official records thanks to the way they deliberately occluded aspects of their lives. With persistence I’m sure I could have found what I was looking for, but I decided it wasn’t worth spending huge amounts of time on this. So I went with certain stories I had that might have been disproved with more research despite my having a lot of doubts about their veracity.
I wrote The 9 Lives of Ray The Cat Jones as fiction because this was the only way to arrive at the ‘truth’ that there is no truth; therefore it didn’t matter too much if elements of the book were untrue since this ‘flaw’ was built into the theoretical model I worked from. Likewise, I wasn’t so interested in Ray’s immediate family, and just as with the novel I wrote based on my mother’s life Tainted Love, I largely redacted them from the story. Of course, because of what Ray had to say about his mother, I couldn’t ignore her. And because my mother was named Julia after Ray’s mother, Julia Jones held a bit more interest for me than other members of his immediate family. And while some of Ray’s immediate family seem willing to believe unquestioningly all sorts of stories about him from dubious sources like Mad Frankie Fraser, they don’t want to believe what he said himself (as reported in the press) about his own mother beating him. I don’t think this is surprising, it simply demonstrates that generally people believe what they want to believe. Likewise, just because Ray claimed his mother beat him viciously, this doesn’t make it ‘true’.
Moving on, while it seems credible that Ray did learn how to box as a boy (and that he was a capable street fighter), I was unable to find any trace of a professional boxing career from my searches. This does not disprove that Jones had a professional career, although I have serious doubts about his claims on this score; it remains possible that he was using a name I haven’t uncovered or there is something else making it hard for me to find evidence of the boxing career Jones claims he had. Ray’s boasts of boxing glory were a major part of his life-story as he told it, and as I wasn’t able to conclusively prove he didn’t have a professional career, the stuff in the book about that is completely fictionalised by me (as I assume it would have to have been fictionalised in some way had an autobiography been ghosted by anyone else). While I enjoyed watching big boxing matches as a boy, and still watch both boxing and mixed martial arts on occasion, I was no expert on this subject and had to read up on it. So that was more research.
To get a better handle on what I was doing as regarded boxing in my novel about Ray Jones, I also went to some boxing classes. I guess what I discovered that did surprise me was that I drove conventional boxing instructors completely crazy because I’d continually switch from leading with my left to my right and vice-versa. The instructors would demand to know if I was right or left handed, and I’d tell them I was right-handed for some things and left-handed for others but could use both hands for most things (which is true). I think a less conventional instructor like Howard Rainey (who one of my friends had the good luck to train with as a boy growing up in Islington) would have liked this rather than finding it a problem. That said, I don’t think I’d make a good boxer, because as my coaches pointed out despairingly, I like to use a lot of force with every punch rather than being tactical. That said, even if I drove people crazy at the boxing classes I attended with how I chose to fight, they did admire the strength of my punch and were surprised by my core strength (but then that was something I’d already been working on way before I went to these classes). So not all the research for the book was cerebral, some was quite physical!
There’s mention in an article published in 1998 of Jones handing Will Cohu, who interviewed Jones for The Independent, a chapter from his autobiography, My Life. Did you manage to see any of the manuscript?
From the description Will Cohu gives of the written chapter of Ray’s autobiography, and another summary of it by Nathan Bevan in Wales On Sunday of 29 March 2009 (although possibly Bevan copped what he had to say from Cohu’s earlier piece), this does not seem to be the same document as the outline treatment of Ray’s entire life that I got from Michael Morgan. So unless the document I have is an extended version of what Cohu was handed, I haven’t seen this. Had Michael Morgan had a copy of it, I’m sure he would have let me have one. I’m not too bothered about not seeing this document (assuming I haven’t seen it), because what really interests me about Ray and also my mother, is not so much their childhoods in south Wales, but their life stories after they arrive in London. And the sample chapter Cohu apparently saw was about the former and not the latter.
I wanted to talk about the form – true crime writing – and its subversion: to begin with, the text is a first-person narrative, an autobiography – or memoir as is the current vogue – but it clearly isn’t, because the narrator and subject of the book is not the author, or even ghost written to appear as though the subject has authored it…. Ordinarily, any biographical work requires extensive research. However, you’ve long demonstrated a tendency to blur ‘fact’ and ‘fiction,’ using the slogan ‘belief is the enemy’ favoured by the Neoists, through the 90s.
Producing the book as a novel was as I hope is now clear, a way of exploring the fictional nature of true crime as a genre – and the impossibility of successfully navigating all the fuzzy borders between fiction and non-fiction. I suspect my book is probably more accurate about what I was able to pin down than most ghosted true crime autobiographies. Certainly I was happy in the course of the book to point out the utter bullshit Mad Frankie Fraser and Peter Scott had ‘written’ about Ray Jones in their ‘autobiographies.’ My book was extensively researched. I could tell you where it veers into fiction and what is based on archival research and what is drawn from oral history or internet messaging etc. However, that’s not really the point. The point being, of course, that the safest course of action is to treat true crime autobiographies (ghosted or genuinely written by their alleged ‘author’) as being entirely fictional. Likewise, the only credible way to tell these stories of criminals while sticking to the conventions of the genre is to ficitonalise them, real life is much messier and far more complex than the way it is portrayed in this type of book. The impression I get is that a lot of true crime biographies and autobiographies are based on 20 or 30 or whatever number of hours of taped interviews. My research was a lot more extensive than that – and as I’ve pointed out entailed trips to archives as well as a lot of reading. Some of the information it was necessary for me to track down, such as whether Jones escaping from prison in 1958 was a criminal offence (it wasn’t although it broke prison rules, and this was due to how he escaped), took me months to find – but I got there in the end!
With regard to the impossibility of separating fact from fiction, the appendix serves to underscore what’s happening elsewhere in the book. As I mentioned before, this section gives an overview of Jones’s life through the device of a series of newspapers pieces about him from the fictional London Evening Chronicle newspaper. While the newspaper is fictional, I’ve simply produced my own (‘original’) versions of press reports about Ray Jones that appeared in various British newspapers anything up to 75 years ago. Two of these pieces are court reports and the earliest one is a case in which Jones insists he was fitted up for assault, but the contemporary national press coverage painted him as a thief despite the fact he was found not guilty of the thefts he was tried for. It is difficult to know what to believe here because while Jones doesn’t always appear credible when describing incidents in his life, the press reporting on this case is unbelievably subjective and biased (and is obviously based on claims made by the police which were ‘disproved’ in court). As a consequence, everything here is called into question. I’ve fictionalised ‘non-fictional’ material, the veracity of which is highly questionable. Likewise, on one level I am the author of this section, but I am clearly drawing on the work of other writers (journalists) for its spin and details, even if I don’t use their actual words (which I avoided because conceptually the section worked better by my doing this, and it simultaneously headed off the necessity of having to seek permissions to use someone else’s copyrighted material).
The authorship slippages I’ve just raised, mirror what is happening throughout the book. I’m telling someone else’s story, although while they provided the narrative arc, I had to fill in a lot of the details myself because, for example, I was unable to find any record of Jones having a career as a professional boxer. I am also using words that I didn’t coin and the whole thing is shaped by genre conventions that I didn’t create. So just who is the real author of both the appendix and by the whole book? Ultimately I’d say no one because the very idea of authorship is just as fictional as the coherent life-stories we attach to ourselves. In the appendix even more obviously than the rest of the book, everything is up for questioning and everything is up for grabs.
Those readers who’ve wanted to know exactly what is true and what isn’t true in the book seem to find the appendix even more troubling than the main text since the journalistic form of this section (which they want to read as non-fiction) leaves them all at sea because it is presented as fiction and attributed to a fictional newspaper. Of course, not even I (‘Stewart Home’) as the nominal ‘author’ of this text know exactly what is true and what isn’t true in the book. I can tell you what I think is true and what I don’t believe, and I can give you my reasons for thinking something is or isn’t true, but ultimately in many (if not all) instances this doesn’t actually constitute proof. By abandoning at one level the postmodern forms that characterised some of my previous novels, I seem to have created something that is even more problematic for conservative readers than those types of self-consciously ‘experimental’ fiction they’d probably try to avoid. Therefore by not being ostentatiously postmodern, I’ve actually become even more postmodern than I was previously….
Your mother and your own lineage has been something of a preoccupation of yours through the years. While Tainted Love and the ‘Becoming (M)other’ series of photographs are the works that tackle this most explicitly, earlier works such as Red London and 69 Things To Do With A Dead Princess cite (fictional) seminal works by an infamous K. L. Callan. Obviously, it’s a subject that’s very personal to you, and also close to your heart. Could you explain how you came to incorporate the connections between your mother, Julia Callan and Ray Jones within the book?
In terms of my mother Julia Callan-Thompson, I’d also cite The Eclipse & Re-Emergence of the Oedipus Complex as another piece of mine that explicitly addresses her life and death and the fictions around her. That film can be seen on the Ubu platform although it was originally made to show in art galleries. There is also quite a lot of ‘non-fiction’ about my mother on my website but this is more fragmented than the novel Tainted Love – since I don’t think it is possible to grasp my mother’s entire life story as anything other than fiction.
Obviously K. L. Callan is me, or at least certain aspects of me that I then chose to fictionalise and make monstrous. Kevin Callan is the name that went on my birth certificate immediately after I was born. But I’m also ‘Stewart Home’. In so many ways I’m more than one person, so I reference one of my names in my novels but not the one I’m writing under (I have no real name), as among other things a way of indicating that the very idea of an author is fictional. But then again, these fictions are also tied to a very personal history. Which is why K. L. Callan appears in many of my books, starting with my first novel Pure Mania. As is the case with William Burroughs, the most fictional passages in my novels are often also the most autobiographical aspects of my books.
The interest in Ray Jones came from looking at my mother’s life. Ray was her cousin, and while our family is mixed in what its members did to survive it contains its fair share of criminals. My mother, like most other members of my family who ended up in London prior to my generation, engaged in some ‘professional’ criminal activity. Among other things she was a good pickpocket and was also adept at cheque book fraud. However, my mother wasn’t really interested in the criminal life-style favoured by parts of the family and particularly those parts that came to London, she was instead far more taken with bohemianism. So my mother with her interest in books and expanded consciousness is not at all typical of my family. Nonetheless, about a decade and a half ago I began try to work out what level (if any) of support my mother got from other members of her family in London as far as her involvement with various illegal and semi-legal activities went. Clearly they wouldn’t have been sympathetic to her involvement in drug dealing, even when she was dealing LSD before it was made illegal. As far as I could make out in the sixties she had more contact with Dinny Callaghan and his family than Ray Jones.
Moving on, west London criminal lives are generally less well documented in terms of popular culture than those of east and south London ‘gangsters’. Dinny and his family were west London based, whereas Ray Jones spent much of his adult life living in east London, and this may in part account for why it was easier to find out more about him and why he is more famous than Dinny Callaghan (the most successful gangster in my family) and his sons. Since there was a connection between Ray and my mother, it seemed natural to use it in the book. The story of my mother smuggling whisky into prison is a true one as far as I can tell, but I’ve been told she did this for one of my uncles rather than Ray Jones. It is a good story and since I see so called true crime books as blending elements of different lives into one life story (making their subjects fictional multiple identities), I saw no reason not to transfer the story to Ray Jones. Of course it is possible my mother smuggled whisky into prison on more than one occasion (I would think that likely in fact), but I just have the one story about it and I altered it slightly to make it fit in with the novel I was writing.
To try to answer your question, my interest in Ray Jones emerges from my interest in my mother, I would not have blogged about Ray Jones and subsequently researched him had he not been my mother’s cousin. So from the start I wanted to emphasise that connection. My mother’s connection with Ray Jones was where I began rather than something I had to incorporate into the book later.
One thing that can never be said of your books is that they’re predictable, in that even when you’re working within genre writing, you’re playing with the form, and stylistically, your output has been extremely varied. One thing I did notice in The 9 Lives were a number of phrases that proliferated in your earlier works – ‘gouts of blood’ for example. Is there a suggestion here that your writing has in a way come full circle, or is there something else to the inclusion of ‘depth charges’ like this, that will be familiar to readers who have read those earlier books?
The use of those phrases in the earlier books was to create a humorous but poetic repetition within a single novel. With 9 Lives I use some of those phrases to invoke the earlier books but in a way that will only resonate with those who have read them. For people who come to me cold with 9 Lives these phrases won’t have the same effect. So in some ways we have come full circle because I noticed repetitions of phrases and even whole paragraphs between different books by many pulp writers, and figured if I used the same repetition in a single novel it would be very funny and very postmodern and a way of simulating but simultaneously deconstructing a pulp narrative.
That said, I go through different periods with what I do, so there were the earlier third person narratives that used repetition, then because I’d taken the trope as far as I wanted to take it in that way with Slow Death, I adopted a more experimental first person form, so suddenly reviewers said I was influenced by Robbe-Grillet (which had been the case in all the novels up to that point but they only noticed when Come Before Christ and Murder Love came out). However I felt like I finally expelled myself from what I’d been doing fictionally when I switched to second person narration with Blood Rites of the Bourgeoisie. But this isn’t so linear because Tainted Love, which I wrote before Blood Rites and Mandy, doesn’t fit so well with the rest of my novels – and Whips & Furs is an oddity that exists on its own really too. Tainted Love dovetails more with 9 Lives, although it still retained some experimental elements with the R. D. Laing and film-script sections that break up the narrative.
Currently I don’t think I’m working through tropes as much as exploring fictionalised versions of true-life stories that I can tell more honestly as fiction than non-fiction. But this is definitely at a complete remove to everything I was doing earlier on with ‘my’ writing. That said I have certain interests and certain ways of writing. So I still think you can recognise a ‘Stewart Home’ book when you read it – although as you say my work is way more diverse than that of most ‘authors’ (probably because I’m hyper self-conscious about the fact that ‘Stewart Home’ is a fictional construct and therefore I can do anything I want in terms of prose really). I like a spare prose style and economy of expression, saying everything in the simplest way possible (which isn’t necessarily simple if what I’m dealing with is complex). While I’m from London and I use a lot of London slang, I generally feel more at home with North American writers than British ones, since the British literary establishment puts such a premium on awful prolix prose. And that just ain’t my thang!
There’s a distinctly political aspect to the book: the narrative shows Jones to have been a politically motivated thief, who undertook his robberies as an act of revenge on the bourgeoise. The way he articulates his motives in the book shares much common ground with your own earlier, more overtly political writing, to the extent that Jones feels as much of a vehicle as your earlier ‘characters’…. But what I really want to ask is, do you think the class divisions and left / right political ideology which were a key focus of your earlier works are perhaps even more of an issue now than in the 80s and early 90s (or the decades in which Jones was operating, for that matter)?
I don’t think I’d have written a novel based on Jones’s life if he hadn’t been my mother’s cousin and if he hadn’t emphasised himself the class warrior ideology that animated his criminality. It makes him quite unusual. But I definitely didn’t lay this on him, it was his own thing. And it did make this book fit more easily with some of my earlier novels. What Jones would have done differently to me is present himself as a warmer character than I do. I felt showing Jones to be a cold character and not a particularly sympathetic one got beneath his front and away from how he wanted to present himself to something more interesting about him. That said, I think he was capable of warmth, after all we wouldn’t be anything at all if we weren’t a bundle of contradictions! Most career criminals appear to be cold and cunning (if not always clever), and I was more interested in this than the utterly false way in which former cat burglars tend to present themselves to the public (see for example the thoroughly dishonest Gentleman Thief by Peter Scott). I was going for what I saw to be the more interesting version of the story – and by ignoring the warm front Jones wished to wrap around himself, I’m convinced my fictionalisation of his life is a truer portrait of him than the way he presented himself to the press.
And yes I do think that growing inequality in the overdeveloped world makes the class divisions I delineate even more glaring than they were in the 80s and 90s when I wrote my earlier books; or indeed for most of the time when Jones was operating as a criminal. After the end of World War II inequalities in the overdeveloped world were slightly attenuated. This was because you had all these working class men returning from the front trained in arms and often with access to them (in terms of weaponry they brought home), which is essentially why the British bourgeoisie had to make concessions to them in the form of the welfare state. That’s being dismantled now. Nonetheless, looking at class has always been crucial to understanding how capitalism operates; it is just that in some periods its importance is easier to grasp even for those not really interested in addressing political issues.
Another thing that of course links 9 Lives to your existing output more broadly is the location. You once said “The only character in my books is really the place, the setting, that is to say London. The ‘individuals’ featured in the prose are just cardboard cut-outs, vehicles with which to move the plot along.” This may not be strictly true of 9 Lives, but would you still consider it to be a ‘London’ novel?
It is probably less of a London novel than the earlier books, or even Tainted Love, but it is still a London novel in that much of the action takes place in and around London. But then after arriving in London in 1935, Jones makes forays out of the city for various reasons, and for other periods is imprisoned out of London. However, I don’t think I’d have written the book or anyone would have heard as much about Ray Jones if he hadn’t, as I’ve already pointed out, spent much of his adult life living in Hackney.
You’ve long espoused – and simultaneously parodied – postmodern fiction, and this was perhaps nowhere more apparent than in Blood Rites of the Bourgeoisie and your last novel, Mandy, Charlie and Mary-Jane. Although there are elements of intertext and criticism in the book, The 9 Live of Ray The Cat Jones doesn’t sit readily within the ‘postmodern’ field. Is postmodernism dead, or if not dead, then passé?
Mandy, Charlie & Mary-Jane was actually written before Blood Rites of the Bourgeoisie, as sometimes the books get published in a different order to their production (this has happened before in that Blow Job, for example, was written after Red London, but published after both Slow Death and Come Before Christ & Murder Love). The 9 Lives of Ray The Cat Jones is however my most recent book.
To answer the question, I don’t think postmodernism is dead or passé, it’s more that I believe that in order to be truly postmodern you have to be eclectic, and to be truly eclectic it is necessary sometimes to drop the postmodern tropes. Likewise, as I’ve been saying since the 1980s, I see modernism and postmodernism as two stages in a single trajectory with no real break between them. Really we’re still living out the death of modernism, which is what postmodernism is all about. And it should go without saying that the worst kind of master narrative is the postmodern master narrative that opposes all master narratives in theory but produces one of its own in practice! So because I am continually reforging the passage between theory and practice it was necessary for me to write a book like The 9 Lives of Ray The Cat Jones.
The discourse on the art of Picasso, the writing of Karl Marx and various films starring Richard Burton, Liz Taylor and Sophia Loren feel, is at best, incongruous to the rest of the narrative, and also Jones’ background. Do you think that this will confuse certain readers, especially those unfamiliar with your work?
I’d disagree. While I don’t think Jones would have talked about these things in quite the way I have him do this in 9 Lives, my mother knew a lot about visual art and film (and she grew up as a child sleeping four to a bed in overcrowded conditions not so dissimilar to those Jones suffered as a boy). My mother was not interested in Marx (her interests lay elsewhere since she was a beat and into books by the likes of William Burroughs), but if Jones had been as well read as my mother was, he would have been talking about Marx in the way he does in the book since his interests lay in that direction. So I don’t think Jones’s background makes such interests incongruous. Likewise Jones and his circle including Taters Chatham knew a lot about the things they stole, antiques and silver, and clearly would have been able to talk knowledgeably about the depiction of crime and criminals in film. But if this confuses people, great! I like confusion! It is a way of opening thing up!
A popular adage is that you should never judge a book by its cover, and in the case of your last few novels, the cover has given away very little about the contents, and this is no more true than of 9 Lives. I understand the cover art – which is certainly striking – is a little different from how you conceived it. Could you talk about that, and the image itself?
I was very happy with the cover for Blood Rites of the Bourgeoisie, which was totally to my taste (and the text design which, like the cover, was by Fraser Muggeridge was my idea of perfection). The covers for Mandy and 9 Lives were not as they’d have been if I’d had any say over the design. That said different things appeal to different people, so maybe it is good to have covers I don’t like. With 9 Lives the publisher Test Centre originally asked me if I had an image I’d like used on the cover. I came up with a photograph by Marc Blondin of a prisoner doing a one-arm handstand push up in a San Quentin jail cell. The publisher liked this and I assumed it would be used in its entirety on the front cover and with a decent contrast. As a photographic image I found it very powerful and it conveyed something of the book’s contents for me. Although obviously it wasn’t a picture of Ray Jones, it did demonstrate convict determination and Ray had plenty of that!
You can’t improve on perfection as they say, but designers like to put their own stamp on things, so the designers Traven T. Croves cut the image up across the front and back covers and inside flaps. For me this lost most of its impact. Test Centre loved this. I didn’t. The designers also knocked most of the contrast out of the photo and used gloomy tints. To me the cover looks like an imitation of a late-1970s Peter Saville album design for some indie goth band. While I wasn’t taken with the design for Mandy, it didn’t have negative connotations for me, but this one definitely did. It really looks like bad artwork for a band I’m never going to like musically either. I’d have preferred something that either looked like it had a connection to the art world, or aped and parodied commercial design, rather than what we have which to me signifies goth pretension (aspiring to art but miserably failing to get anywhere close to it – but then maybe that’s ‘truly’ postmodern). If Test Centre can use a design I hate to attract new readers to my books then that’s cool. I also think it is good to have some book designs I loathe – it makes my covers more eclectic and my output appear even more postmodern. And while I’m at it I might as well add that I didn’t like the font the same designers used for the text of 9 Lives either, and in my opinion the guttering was inadequate too. I’m actually more concerned with text design than cover design when it comes to books, so the text design was the bigger blow as far as I was concerned. But again, I guess the designers and publisher see this as ‘quirky’ or something. If it attracts new readers then great, but it beats me why anyone would want to layout a text like that. Nonetheless, I love the cover Test Centre did for my 2013 album with them Proletarian Postmodernism (but then they let me have a lot of say over that one).
You started out as a performance artist before focusing primarily on writing (I say primarily as you’ve always pursued other forms, including art, film and music). However, there’s often been a performance element to your work, in particular your readings, including ventriloquism, book-shredding and currently head-standing. Is it something of a gimmick, and does it help to sell books? Or is it perhaps more of a distraction, but part of the necessary circus that’s part and parcel of having any kind of a profile now?
I just think if you’re going to do a reading you might as well make it more interesting than mumbling into your chest as you read off the page. Which is what a lot of British writers I see reading tend to do. North Americans are on average a bit better at it! I also enjoy shredding books, standing on my head and doing ventriloquism. I think it helps people remember me. I’m not sure if it sells books but I have fun doing it. The shredding possibly has a negative impact because it demonstrates that I’m not too precious about my own work, although I guess even the headstanding and ventriloquism could have a negative impact for the same reason too. But promoting books is a circus and if I have to do it then I’ll show it’s a circus and have some fun while I’m at it! Most writers are just so boring because in order to get on they tend to promote themselves as serious, whereas I have always stood in intransigent opposition to all serious culture.
You earned the accolade of ‘Blog of the Week’ on MySpace and caused a number of virtual riots on there before deleting your profile, and you’re extremely active on Facebook. How useful is social networking as a promotional tool, or do you view it as a project in itself? I think for a while around 2006 social networking worked as a promotional tool, now everyone is at it and the platforms have worked out how we do it and insist we pay them to do it with any chance of reaching a new audience. So since I won’t pay Facebook or anyone else to promote myself, these days it is better to view it as a project in itself. You have to do it anyway because the audience you already have expect it, but I think it has become pretty redundant for reaching fresh readers: unless you want to pay to promote yourself (and even then I think it will mostly reach people who aren’t interested).
You told Dazed that the future of publishing was likely to lie in limited-edition hardbacks, possibly all numbered and signed – much like the art edition – and, of course, downloads. Test Centre’s print run of The 9 Lives of Ray The Cat Jones is comparatively small – 500 copies – and the presentation makes it feel like something more than a run-of-the-mill mass-produced paperback. There were also 15 copies which were signed and numbered, with additional material and a special cover. Is this a partial realisation of what you were talking about in 2011, and are there any plans for an e-book edition of 9 Lives or any of your other books?
Yes indeed it is the way things are going. And printed books are going to cost more but I think the price of eBooks needs to come down. 69 Things To Do With A Dead Princess, for example, is already available as an eBook. But I’m holding back on doing more eBooks until I can see what deals I might get for reissues of my books and whether these will necessarily entail electronic rights. Defiant Pose will be reissued next year (2016) but that is just a limited print edition. There is interest from independent publishers in a number of my old titles. I’d prefer to find one publisher who could deal with my entire output in English (or at least those parts of it where the rights aren’t already tied up).
Part of your reputation is based on the relentless volume of your output. What have you got in the pipeline?
I think I’m slowing down. The 9 Lives of Ray The Cat Jones took two years to write but that was in part because I had to do ongoing research while composing the book. The book about my mother Tainted Love was written in about six months but it was still the product of more research than 9 Lives, but that research was carried out before I got the idea of using the material I’d uncovered to write a novel. My book on punk rock Cranked Up Really High was written in three weeks but obviously I’d been immersed in the subject for years…. My current project has the working title of My Girl. It’s a love story in the form of a novel incorporating as many themes as possible from my earlier work. So there will be punk rock, heroin, the occult (in the form of the tarot and tantra), gyms and exercise etc. I like to keep changing what I do and doing the unexpected. The closest I’d got to a love story before was in my first novel Pure Mania with the relationship between the characters Tracy Smith and Paul Johnson, but this will be much more explicitly a love story and focussed on that. I asked myself what do people think Stewart Home doesn’t do, and the answer seemed to be that I didn’t do love, so I figured that’s what I should shoot for next!
The 9 Lives of Ray The Cat Jones is available from Test Centre: http://testcentre.org.uk/product/the-9-lives-of-ray-the-cat-jones