Thursday, October 13, 2005

Jake Arnott and THE LONG FIRM

Jake Arnott has written three loosely connected novels about criminals - THE LONG FIRM, HE KILLS COPPERS and TRUE CRIME. - all very successful and well-reviewed. THE LONG FIRM has been made into an acclaimed series for BBCTV. On the 18th October he too is giving a talk in Chester - this time on violence in the novel. Judging from his responses to my interview it should be very interesting.

First I shall review THE LONG FIRM (which I do not think contains spoilers but the interview follows after the photograph).

THE LONG FIRM by Jake Arnott

THE LONG FIRM is about crime but is not really a crime novel, it could be accurately described as a character study of a man who happens to be a criminal - ‘A Torture Gang Boss’ in fact who lives alongside the Kray twins in 1960s London. The Kray twins are not the only nonfictional characters who take a bit-part in this book: others are Judy Garland, Dorothy Squires, Johhnnie Ray, Mickey Deans, all of them portrayed as washed up and unsavoury characters - sad people clinging onto life through a haze of drugs and alcohol.

A large part of the adult life of Harry Starks is revealed through five people who are intimately involved with him: Terry, a young male prostitute and one-time boyfriend who escapes Starks’s clutches after being tortured with a red-hot poker in the mouth; another homosexual Lord Thursby who becomes involved in Starks’s dodgy business activities in a part of Africa; Jack the Hat, a heterosexual accomplice; Ruby a faded starlet who becomes Starks’s go-between with a corrupt policeman and finally Lenny who is a university lecturer and criminologist and is responsible for Starks’s interest in education once he is incarcerated in jail. Each of these people is corrupted by Starks, each one is tortured physically or mentally until they are forced to kill or torture others. Starks is charismatic, preys on those weaker than he is, which is just about everyone.

There is a lot of sex and violence in this novel. The first sex scene is on page seven. It is cursory, unemotional, it is only later on in the book that a couple of homosexual orgies are described in graphic detail. Starks is a homosexual (‘not gay’ he declares towards the end of the book) and one of the few things that disturbs him is the death of a young homosexual called Bernie. He is also Jewish, though this seems to have little bearing on his character, and a manic depressive - given to black periods when he retires to listen to recordings of Winston Churchill and punish the young men who love him. Harry Starks is overwhelmingly cruel and forces subjugation on anyone that comes close. The way he does this is convincing and extremely chilling.

Each of the characters in the novel has a distinctive voice. Terry’s is wheedling - unsurprising since he is in the middle of being physically abused. The Lord’s account is written in a diary form, which is quite pompous, while Jack the Hat’s is written in a fast-paced staccato. It is this voice I found the most sympathetic - Jack the Hat has motivation, some endearing qualities, weaknesses, a sense of guilt which were abjectly missing from any ot the other accounts. He is the one who doesn’t last. It is as if by showing weakness he condemns himself to an early death. Ruby’s account is written in a summarily fashion. She tells us how she feels about things rather than shows us; while Terry’s style is so full of jargon and correct-thinking it borders on the humorous and for a time is tongue in cheek - and I have to say I do know people who talk like that, so it is, unfortunately, realistic. Like Ruby, Lenny is forced to kill - in Ruby’s case the killing is accidental - while Lenny’s motivation is less apparent but equally believable.

I guess all this might make it sound distasteful, but it is not. The quality of writing lifts it from something sordid and makes you turn page after page. I didn’t think I’d like it, in fact I was prepared to hate it, but instead now that I’ve finished it I find myself looking at the other two books in the sequence with longing, wondering when I’m going to find time to read them. Like the characters in the book I too have succumbed to an addiction - but mine is of the literary kind.

Clare Dudman: Do you have any connection with snails?
Jake Arnott: I remember when I was young trying to catch a friend’s attention by throwing gravel at the window, and picking up a slug instead.

C.D: Have you ever had a life-changing event - if so what was it?
J.A: Most days seem to contain life-changing events - that’s how it should be I think. Probably the most important ones are the ones I can’t remember - like walking for the first time or saying my first word. But I can remember one early incident - the earliest I remember. My baby brother was crying about something and my mother tried to calm him down by saying, ‘Don’t worry it’s not the end of the world.’ And I remember it occurring to me that there could be an end. I must have been about four.

C.D: What is the saddest thing you’ve ever heard of or seen?
J.A: Lots of things. Some of them unrepeatable, heartbreaking.

C.D: What is happiness?
J.A: I don’t think happiness is something we can achieve. We can experience occasionally or fleetingly but yearning for happiness can cause unhappiness. I don’t think it can ever be a state of being. I feel quite strongly about that.

C.D: What is the first thing you do when you get up?
J.A: I get the porridge. I have a peculiar sort - a particular way of cooking it in a double boiler with no milk and sugar and not too much salt.

C.D: Do you have any connection with the north west?
Not much really except I used to got out with someone from Liverpool

About writing.

C.D: Have you always wanted to write?
J.A: In my mind. I didn’t always admit to it, I kept it quiet. Until I was published many people didn’t know I was at it.

C.D: How long did it take you to get your first novel published?
J.A: I was an overnight success after ten years of trying. Once I got an agent he sold it in a fortnight. Before that I’d had lots of stuff rejected.

C.D: Are you self-taught as a writer?
J.A: I prefer the term ‘self-learnt’. I try not to teach myself too much. I have given courses, but I’ve always said writing can’t be taught but it can be learnt.

C.D: What is your typical writing day?
J.A: I work until 5pm and then give up and hope that tomorrow will be better.

C.D: Why did you leave school at 16? You are obviously extremely bright. Why did you not stay on?
J.A: School and I didn’t get on. I couldn’t concentrate and I couldn’t fit in.

C.D: Do you think the great variety of jobs you had since has been beneficial to you as a writer?
J.A: Hard to say. I suspect that one day they will be useful. I have an anarchic c.v. and hope that one day all things will become useful.

C.D: Is there any one in particular that was useful?
J.A: Acting. I learnt the importance of finding a voice and hearing it in my head.

C.D: Was being arrested for suspicion of arson a pivotal moment?
J.A: It wasn’t so much losing my liberty as losing all my possessions. I lost everything. It was instant buddhism. It was useful in a way because it made me realise what is important. It made me realise how much we create problems and are stressed about things that are unimportant.

C.D: You seem to feel strongly about corruption in society in general and corruption in the police in particular. Do you think that the situation has changed recently? Is it getting better or worse?
J.A: I single out the police, but really nowhere in society is safe. We live in a corrupt world where everything is out of balance. It is hard not to be greedy and to resist corruption. We pretend we are immune that’s why we like seeing dramas where corruption is presented. As Shakespeare says in MEASURE FOR MEASURE ‘Some rise by sin, some by virtue fall.’ We quickly come to realise at an early age that being good doesn’t get us anywhere. Good deeds don’t go unpunished and the dirty scoundrels get on in the world. I explore that in my third book TRUECRIME - being good doesn’t get us anywhere.


C.D: I would say that THE LONG FIRM is not really a crime novel but a piece of fiction about a criminal. Would you agree? Have you any ideas about the difference?
J.A: Yes. I would call it historical fiction. It doesn’t follow the standard format of a crime novel.

C.D: Are the other two books HE KILLS COPPERS and TRUECRIME the same in structure?
J.A: Yes, they both contain different narratives.

C.D: How much of what is in your books is based on your life-experience?
J.A: Nothing is directly based. . It is all partly based on people I know at an emotional level. The emotional level is the important part. Also, sub-consciously, it is based on myself, I realise sometimes as I am writing that these things have somehow happened to me.

C.D: Were you happy with the result of the LONG FIRM as a TV adaptation?

C.D: Were you involved in the making? Or consulted at all?
J.A: I met with the people early on and kept up to speed. But really I let them get on with it. I was very happy with the writer, the producer, the director, the cast.

C.D: Did you ever go on set?
JA: Yes, much more glamorous than sitting at home writing.

C.D: Is there one voice in the LONG FIRM you liked writing more than the others?
J.A: Jack the Hat. He was furthest from me but he was the one I found came alive the most when I was writing him. He wrote himself.

C.D: Which voice was the most difficult?
J.A: (long pause) I think Terry. He was closest to me in character and was hardest to hear. It was difficult to distinguish his character from my own sometimes.

C.D: There is quite a lot of sex and violence in the novel, although it is no way gratuitous - given the topic, character and setting it is an essential piece. My final question then - given the topic of your talk is what is primarily your purpose when you write a violent scene. How do you go about imagining it? How do you go about making it so convincing?
JA: Gratuitous violence is unforgivable. I think it is important that people try to understand violence, its causes and effects. It is important to understand that it is not glamorous. It is a huge issue. We see violence portrayed as a firework we often don’t see where it has come from or its implications. It is too easy to portray. Real violence is messy, unchoreographed. It is difficult to tell what is happening in a fight.

Violence is ugly - implosive rather than explosive. What happens goes inside - in emotional, psychological and moral effects. It is claustrophobic.

I tend to avoid endless descriptions in my books. I like to use the threat of violence rather than describing actual scenes.


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