An Interview with John Murray.
John Murray has published eight novels and a book of stories Pleasure. He won the Dylan Thomas Award for short stories in 1988 and his novel Jazz Etc was Booker-longlisted in 2003. He was also founder-editor of the acclaimed fiction magazine Panurge (1984-1996) which he co-edited with David Almond. In 2007 Adam Mars-Jones nominated his satirical novel Radio Activity - A Cumbrian Tale in Five Emissions (1993, reissued 2004 by Flambard) as a neglected classic on Radio 4's Saturday Review. Jonathan Coe has described him in The Observer as 'one of the best comic writers we've got, the only natural heir to Flann O' Brien'.
Questions about 'The legend of Liz and Joe'.
CD: I was most impressed with both your knowledge and use of Cumbrian. Please would you tell me how you researched this aspect of the book. Do you speak it? How incomprehensible is it to someone who speaks standard English? Is it understandable to people who speak Icelandic (which I have heard has remained unchanged for a thousand years)?
JM: I was born in a West Cumbrian pit village in 1950 and grew up speaking broad Cumbrian dialect with my friends while speaking ‘proper’ English at the village school and elsewhere. Effectively I have always been a bilingual, but the dialect wore off as I progressed through the local grammar school and then to Oxford. However I studied Sanskrit and Old Iranian (i.e. Avestan and Old Persian) at Oxford, and daft as it sounds studying classical Oriental languages seemed consistent with having a Scandinavian-sounding dialect from my childhood! So I didn’t need to do any linguistic research, other than occasionally to check the Scandinavian etymological roots of certain Cumbrian dialect words.
As for Cumbrian intelligibility it depends which part of the county you are in. South Cumbrian sounds relatively Lancastrian and is relatively intelligible to outsiders. If ever there’s a telly play set in Cumbria, they usually do an all-purpose Lancastrian accent(as indeed they did in the cult film ‘Withnail’...I don’t know what accent ‘Cumbrian farmer’ Michael Elphick was supposed to be speaking, but it wasn’t any Cumbrian that I recognised). I live in North East Cumbria now, and as that borders with Scotland and Northumbria it is relatively gentle and easy to understand. It is my native West Cumbrian (think of Maryport, Aspatria, Wigton, Cockermouth etc) which is the closest to our old Scandinavian/ Viking roots and which regularly uses archaic Norse words like keav (kick) skop (throw), and laik (play).
With regard to standard English speakers, there are plenty of North and South Cumbrians who can’t understand the broadest West Cumbrian, and who would need a translation from a bilingual like me! I’ve been told that dialect speaking Cumbrians can make themselves understood in rural parts of Norway and Denmark where they probably sound like mediaeval Scandinavians! I’m sure the same is true of Iceland as there are a lot of cognate Icelandic words in Cumbrian dialect.
CD: I really liked the way you gave Joe and Liz desires and ideas that are not commonly associated with the old. How did you research this?
JM: I used imaginative projection! I am 58 years old and Joe and Liz are in their early 70s, so we are only about 15 years apart. To put things in perspective apropos age and senescence, in 2009 Germaine Greer is 70 and John Mayall is 75 and I think Bill Wyman is 73 and they are all going strong (John Mayall was recently giving them all he’d got at Maryport Blues Festival for example)!
The trouble is when you are young you see anyone over 40 as ancient and somehow imagine folk in their 70s don’t have dreams, don’t have passions, don’t have ambitions, don’t have anything to look forward to apart from residential care and dementia and dependence etc. My hunch as a novelist and as a human being, is that whatever they look like on the outside, old people feel absolutely no different on the inside from people in their 20s 30s, 40s etc. So just to prove the point I made Liz embark on her first extramarital affair at the age of 70 and I made Joe blow his legacy on his absurdly idealistic gourmet guesthouse. I wasn’t doing this in the spirit of some wild surreal fantasy but I wanted to turn the stereotypes on their heads and give my old characters some authentic dignity i.e. to make them more anarchic and original and outrageous than many people are in their 20s.
CD : I thought Liz's experience at her first concert with Reverend Wiley and the All Stars was a particularly evocative piece of writing, and found your comments on tribute bands very thought-provoking. Can you tell me a little about your research involving tribute bands. Any interesting anecdotes, perhaps?
JM: I didn’t need to do a vast amount of research on tribute bands if only because it’s worth pointing out here that some of my wildest sounding fictional ideas are based on real people and real events. I happen to know a real regional arts centre manager who really does stuff his programmes with tribute bands and clairvoyants and almost nothing else as he reckons they are the only events that are sure to make a profit! I just remembered one or two conversations we’d had and made the most of them as fictional material.
The other imaginative impetus came when I saw a poster in Alston, Cumbria for an event in Hexham, Northumbria for a tribute band called ‘Jimi Hexham’ i.e. where the town that the tribute band came from also paid tribute to the original musician! I then noticed that the ticket prices for some tribute bands are incredibly expensive...and fantasised that it probably would cost more to see the tribute band in 2009 than it would to see the original on which they are based, assuming the original (let’s say The Troggs or The Searchers) were still performing 40 years on. After that kind of reflection, all that apparently exaggerated stuff about tribute bands wrote itself so to speak!
CD: The descriptions of food are both mouth-watering and expert. Are you as good a cook as Joe Gladstone?
JM: If you can call cookery a manual skill then it is my one and only manual skill, and yes my friends and family tell me that I am a brilliant cook! It’s no false modesty though to say that the genius is the one who wrote the recipes, not the one who follows them. I only follow recipes and as I do a lot of Indian cooking where a single masala might have half a dozen ingredients, I’d be a fool to do otherwise. I’ve never invented a dish or invented a recipe but I don’t mind that. I just feel honoured to have discovered a dozen or so genius cookery writers (Nita Mehta, Diane Seed etc) and I am happy to be working my way through all their recipes!
CD: Joe's reasons for vegetarianism (and those of his guests - especially the passage on the Greek pigs) are among the most powerful in the book. Are these based on experience?
JM: Like Joe I was a meat eater for ages, in my case until I was 32. After that I was mostly veggie but would occasionally crack and eat a bacon or a sausage sandwich and feel ashamed of myself afterwards. The big point of no return for me was the 2001 foot and mouth epidemic which devastated much of Cumbria as well as lots of other places. I remember seeing a small pyramidal mountain of recently shot sheep in a field near the main road about a mile from here...it was the most shocking and unexpected sight... harrowing and affecting to the last degree. That epidemic was a direct and obvious consequence of the way the British meat industry works, cutting corners to get maximum profit by doing more or less whatever it likes to the animals in order to provide this thing called cheap meat. To quote Joe in the novel the meat industry is so heedless and disgusting in the way it operates, the real miracle is we don’t have foot and mouth epidemics breaking out in this country every couple of weeks...
CD: What do you like most about living in Cumbria? Do you ever feel tempted to move to 'Literary London'?
JM: I have to be very specific here and say I like living in North East Cumbria which means I am handy for remarkable places that have barely been discovered by tourism. Another way of putting that is that Cumbria is a massive county with lots of very different bits and that it means all things to all people!
I love the North Pennines, meaning everywhere between Brampton and Alston, and some of which is inside Northumbria. Alston is one of England’s highest towns and surely one of the loveliest, but a lot of people have never heard of it. I’ve been living round here for over 20 years but I’ve only recently discovered that WH Auden had a lifelong attachment to the Alston area.
The South Tyne Valley has a dull and dutiful kind of sound to it, but the parts around Eals and Slaggyford and Lambley are so beautiful and tender and resonant, they feel more like the Hebrides than mainland UK. Likewise we are handy here for the Debatable Lands, meaning that wonderful triangle between Brampton, Longtown and the Scottish Border. Anyone who hasn’t seen the completely unspoilt rural parts around far flung Roadhead and Bewcastle and Roweltown hasn’t lived. But as I say most folk think Cumbria is Keswick and Windermere and the Lake District that’s it...
As for London I really like to visit it but I think it would drive me crazy living there. The one time I did live there in 1974 I was always looking for somewhere to go for a decent walk! But I’m a big jazz fan and the record shops are better there than anywhere else, so I normally spend half a day in a London HMV etc. You would also think that would be true of things like second hand bookshops, but surprisingly it’s not. I looked round a lot of them in London a few years back and their stock was absolutely hopeless compared with shops outside of London. But yes I know what it is I like best about London, the foreign restaurants, especially the Indian ones! And the fact that the food in the London pubs is always cheaper than in the sticks. Pub meals in North Cumbria cost over twice what they do in Camden though the wages are probably at least a third less.
CD: And finally, a trivial question, but I have to ask: Do you wear braces?
JM: No, but again we are talking about mad and improbable anecdotes based on real events! It was my own mother once started an irrational tirade against me aged 10 back in 1961 in West Cumbria. She said that I looked very scruffy with the snake belt I was wearing while out playing football with my pals, and that I ought to be wearing something smarter like braces. I never did wear them though, and I doubt I ever will. But that knockabout childhood memory stayed there and eventually gave me some inspiration that surfaced in a novel 48 years later...
CD: Do you have any connection with snails?
JM: The honest response is it makes me think immediately of Portugal where the poor old snails are sometimes served in restaurants. They have signs in the restaurant windows saying ‘Ha Caracois’ which means ‘There Be Snails Here!’(you might have seen ‘Ha Sangria’ instead on your Portuguese holiday?). And of course Caracois is also a surname in Portugal as is Cao(Dog) and Carneiro(Sheep). I think I once saw the name plate of a psychotherapist in a Portuguese town and she was called Ana Caracois(Anna Snail). Good name for a professional like that I reckon...
CD: What is your proudest moment?
JM: When my daughter Ione was born in Carlisle hospital in 1989. I was so overcome with emotion I battered the walls of the delivery room and shouted and burst into tears!
CD: Have you ever had a life-changing event - if so what was it?
JM: I have had lots of life changing events or about 50 at any rate! I think meeting my wife Annie was the best one, the one that really mattered. We first went out on Boxing Day 1978 and were married in Wythop Church near Bassenthwaite on 3rd March 1979. We proposed to each other simultaneously in a pub in Leeds about 3rd February 1979. We had just eaten at a dirt cheap Indian restaurant called The Shalimar which I don’t think exists any more. I remember the cauliflower curry was 30p...anyway we were very enflamed by Indian food and decided we must get wed as soon as possible and have been married now for 30 years. But it was all done in such haste my mother and everyone else thought Annie must be pregnant... but no we just knew it was just the right thing to do...
CD: What is the saddest thing you’ve ever heard of or seen?
JM: I’ve heard and seen a lot of sad things in my time but one stands out for all its simplicity. In July1983 we had just moved up to Barrow-in-Furness, Cumbria after two years of living in a rough bit of East Oxford. We had a flat on a poorish estate and one sweltering night when we came back from town there was a rather shabby looking mongrel bitch had just given birth in the street to a single pup. There was a crowd of kids on bikes etc watching the mother and the pup and no one was harming or tormenting either of them, but the little pup was looking up at them and us and the hot July sky and the estate and the world around the estate with painfully innocent eyes and with an infinite vulnerability. It was a little homeless nameless mongrel pup in a depressed and deprived town in a vast and bewildered universe and its lack of power was absolute and irremediable. It was really harrowing to see that limitless innocence which was there in its little animal’s big eyes....because it seemed to emblemize the infinite vulnerability of all those in the world, human and animal, who are without any power. It could vanish off the streets tomorrow, that little pup, and no one would have noticed... just as there were lots of human beings, street children etc who were in that identical situation in the Third World in1983...and whose counterparts are still there of course, alive and kicking and more or less still without any power, in 2009.
CD: If there was one thing you’d change about yourself what would it be?
JM: I would forgive everyone everything instead of just forgiving some people some things. It’s no good being a bit kind or a bit unselfish...you have to go the whole hog. That’s a very hard lesson and it’s why Christianity is so unfashionable these days. It asks you to go the whole hog and nobody wants to do that. People prefer glamour religions, and to smile at themselves in the mirror and to suck their thumbs, but the trouble with real religion, the real thing, is it isn’t glamorous. If it were, it wouldn’t be religion.
CD: What is happiness?
JM: Giving to and helping others as much as possible, and having good sociable times with your close friends and your family. I used to think happiness was all about achieving fame and pursuing ambitions, but if you’re still chasing after a mirage like that at 58 you’re an idiot and make no mistake. That said there are people in the public realm in their 60s and 70s who are still chasing after honours and celebrity(see my comments above about old folk being exactly the same as the rest of us). There are writers for example who if they won the Booker Prize tomorrow would also want the Nobel Prize, and if they won that they would also want the Nobel Prize for Physics as well. It’s called wanting the sun as well as the moon, and there’s no satisfying some folk.
CD: What is the first thing you do when you get up?JM: Drink an entire cafetiere of Coop Fairtrade After Dinner coffee on an empty stomach. Though if I don’t feed the cat Anita first she lets me know about it.