Music journalist turned crime writer Cathi Unsworth’s first novel, The Not Knowing was published in 2005. A dark, noir expose of the psychopaths of the London media world with a female protagonist more ballsy and brilliant than most male writers could come up with, it was a calling card announcing a major new talent in crime fiction. Her new novel, The Singer, is a quantum leap on from that. Starting in the late Seventies, it charts the rise and eventual crash of punk group Blood Truth. The band begins to dissolve when Vincent Smith, the charismatic and psychotic lead singer, marries Sylvana, singer for the ethereal Mood Violet. Six months later Sylvana has committed suicide and Vincent has disappeared. Twenty years later journalist Eddie Bracknell is trying to find out just what happened to Vincent Smith. He should be careful what he wishes for . . .
I caught up with Cathi at her bijou West London apartment where, over an indoor picnic and much red wine, we chatted. There was loads more, but I don’t think the world is ready (or even remotely interested) to hear our Alan Bennett and Thora Hird join the Buzzcocks impressions . . .
Right. Music journalist background. Tell us about that.
I had an interview with the inimitable Tony Stewart the editor of Sounds, otherwise known as the Brummie Bruiser, in which he went, ‘That’s a good line of bullshit you’ve got there, which book d’you learn that from?’ (Laughing) I said, ‘I’m talking from the heart’. He gave me two weeks trial and at the end of it he was satisfied that I wasn’t full of shit so he let me carry on. And that was in 1987.
And he gave me a very good training in journalism, cos he really wouldn’t tolerate that ‘me me me’ journalism that infected a lot of the music press. You know, he wanted you to write not about yourself but about to convey your enthusiasm for the music, why it’s brilliant. He just wanted you to be out there finding new bands the whole time.
Sounds was a fucking good crew and I’m still friends with all of them. It was like a little mafia.
I always preferred Sounds to the NME. And they had a better sense of humour.
Yeah, it’s true. It was kind of like . . . this is one thing that I’m quite pleased I put into The Singer. You know history is always written by the victors, as they say, every time they get someone on TV talking about the time of punk it’s always someone from the NME talking about it and no one ever says, actually, the NME and Melody Maker were lagging behind with ELP on the front cover when Sounds had the Pistols. And when I worked at Melody Maker they were totally paranoid about that ever happening again. So they seized on anything after that that seemed remotely . . . they were so scared from missing out on punk.
I did write the first interview with Pearl Jam and Smashing Pumpkins in that era. Cos no one was really interested in them, apart from myself and Ann Scanlan who’d also come over from Sounds. They weren’t particularly interested until it became really popular. But y’know, Melody Maker preferred the stuff like Blur which they thought was more intelligent and I don’t agree with that at all. I’d rather listen to Kurt Cobain screaming . . .
Than Alex James wanking . . .
And then Bizarre.
Bizarre was brilliant. I’d had this attempt at a magazine which was fairly like Bizarre called Purr. That’s why I left Melody Maker. I got some funding to do it with my friend Billy Chainsaw but unfortunately it didn’t pan out. For reasons you probably shouldn’t print for fear of the law of libel.
And that ended up in your first novel.
Mmm . . . a version of it, shall we say.
Yeah. With a redemptive ending that didn’t happen in real life, sadly. Anyway, I had this idea of a magazine. There wasn’t much music press left by then because Melody Maker had shut down as well as Sounds and NME had turned into fucking Smash Hits and having grown up with this fairly literate music press I thought, what would you want to read next? And it wasn’t just about music but about film and books and current events going on in the world . . . fetishistic things, cult things . . . a sort of lifestyle for the modern freak, all in one place. (laughs). And I saw Bizarre when I was working at Mute Records and it had Betty Page on the front cover and it had a feature on black magic in New Orleans and all these brilliant things I was interested in. And then luckily enough I saw an ad in the Guardian. And I am living proof it’s possible to get a job from the Guardian. No one believes it’s possible.
I’ve done it.
Yeah. That’s how I ended up in prison.
(Laughs) Good old Guardian, they saw you coming . . .
And of course Bizarre was a kind of, well, I can say this now because I worked for it along with you, it was kind of a high point for counter culture contemporary British journalism, I think, before James Brown got a hold of it . . .
And destroyed everything. Turned it into Nazi Reader’s Wives. We had a very high calibre of contributors. We had some of the finest minds of our generation . . .
Well we fucking did have . . . you were working for us, Stewart Home was doing stuff, David Peace was doing stuff. I think I worked up this collection of fantastic writers that he was totally unappreciative of and he just wanted meaningless shite. Unfortunately my time ended as horribly as my time at Purr did. After that happened, I didn’t want to be at the mercy of a magazine publisher. One minute I was having a fantastic job and the next minute you’ve been sold to someone who just doesn’t get it. Or appreciate anything you’ve done. And everything you’ve worked on. I was so close to Bizarre, it was like having my child taken away from me. Really. And my freak family. And I just didn’t want to put myself in that position again so with the help of yourself and Mr Bruen encouraging me, I thought I’ll write a fucking book, cos I can’t get fired from myself.
And the result was The Not Knowing, which, in my humble opinion, was one of the finest debuts of at least the last ten years. I absolutely loved it. So what made you choose crime fiction?
Because of Derek Raymond. Rewinding back to the Melody Maker years, my favourite band was Gallon Drunk and they made a record with Derek Raymond who I hadn’t heard of until then and I got hold of the book Dora Suarez that they were going to do and I thought, fucking hell . . . I didn’t think crime fiction could be like that, actually. I really hadn’t read much since I was young. You know, I always liked Sherlock Holmes more for the atmosphere of olde London town than for the actual plots.
I just thought that crime novels were crap, you know like Colin Dexter, like crossword puzzles, that I found quite pompous and suddenly there was this book . . . the first thing that hit me was it was so compassionate for this woman who was killed. You know, they’re not normally like that, and such a brilliant description of the fucking bleakness of London and such a strong voice, I was amazed and had had loads of weird nightmares.
And I just never met such a brilliant person before. Derek Raymond. He was so fantastic. So intelligent and, for a man in his sixties, so young. Such an enquiring mind. Raged up . . . almost like Johnny Rotten, actually, that rage that fuelled him and the way articulated it. Almost exactly. They almost used the same phrase, the mistreatment of peoples, what made them fucking angry.
You know, we’re such an old and supposedly sophisticated race now and we still haven’t the eternal dilemmas that afflicted the Greeks and the Romans. Things we can’t resolve, like why are there still evil people out there, why people enjoy causing damage and hurt and pain. Why we can’t live happily. Why can’t we? Derek Raymond’s idea, which I agree with, is that for every five normal people, say, there’s one psycho in our midst. Stirring up shit and making people behave in a manner they wouldn’t normally but they almost feel obliged to do so to be nice to the person telling them to do it. And that’s how whole country’s get in worlds of shit.
Look at reality TV, like The Apprentice or Big Brother. One in five. That’s a good theory.
It is. I think there’s this theory . . . I think Julian Barnes has used it. He used this data that this scientist had been working about how what blessed us with speech afflicted us with mental illness. That’s how there’s always going to be a certain amount of psychos.
In my books I use the entertainment industry as the place where psychos thrive and I think that is a fucking good environment for them. Because you have to be such a ruthless bastard to get through it unscathed. It’s interesting, isn’t it, all these stories about Charlie Manson wanting to be a rock star, if he had done no one would have died. Because there are quite a few rock stars that I’ve met, who if they hadn’t have become rock stars . . .
So you didn’t fancy chick lit, then? Obviously because you’re a girl . . .
Yeah, that’s right. If I have five cigarettes a day and two cups of Twinings, I feel really awful . . . I did actually want Diana in The Not Knowing to be a big ‘fuck you’ to Brigit Jones because she doesn’t count her fags or her beers. She just never stops drinking and smoking and fucking up. She’s more brave and has more soul than fucking stupid Brigit, who’s always bitching about her mates being married and being a fat lazy cunt and expecting things to just turn up on her lap without having to work for it. And that’s a fucking good role model for women? I think not. ‘You know, if I’m really lucky, I might get fucked at the weekend by Hugh Grant . . .’ No thanks.
And The Not Knowing was published by Serpent’s Tail.
Thank God. After being turned down by every publisher out there. Because they all said, we’re not really sure what this is or where it fits in. And Serpent’s Tail is just a publisher for all that shit that just doesn’t fit in. That’s what I love about Pete Ayrton [publisher at Serpent’s Tail]. He’s like Daniel Miller [head honcho of Mute Records]. He likes stuff because it’s fucking good quality, that’s saying something powerful and different and interesting and he supports you and lets you become a good artist. Not like the major label way, get someone, throw loads of money at them and if you don’t recoup it instantly you’re dropped.
Serpent’s Tail took my book, two blokes, Pete and John Williams, my editor, and all the people who turned me down in the majors were all women. John said if I had submitted The Not Knowing with a bloke’s name I would have got a deal for it. He actually reckons that they don’t want women to do pop culture cos that’s a bloke’s thing. I should have done forensic psychology, shouldn’t I? Because that’s what girls are allowed to do.
But John’s the best editor on Earth, I’m sure. And the only editor who could have possibly done The Singer because he was in a punk band himself in the Seventies. So I didn’t have to explain anything, in fact he had to explain a few things to me. I almost freaked John out by changing things round and making my band live in Queensgate Gardens in South Ken where he actually fucking lived. Three doors down from Ari Up, from The Slits. Our ley lines were connecting . . .
Now, The Singer. An absolute rock ‘n’ roll opus. Possibly there’s no point now in anybody else writing a punk rock crime novel.
Well I’d hate there not to be. I was thinking about this. Dave Peace gave me this quote saying he could wipe it off his list of things to do and I thought, please don’t. Because there’s more than one fucking brilliant post-punk album, isn’t there? I think maybe I’ve done The Scream, someone else could do Metal Box or Unknown Pleasures. There were quite a lot of different voices in post-punk which is what I liked about it as well.
Without being libellous, who’s who? Oh go on, be libellous. I’ll take it out later.
None of them are really directly based on anyone. They’re inspired by a collection of types that you get over and over again in the music business, I think. Part of the idea was to mess around with those stereotypes as well. My first band, Blood Truth, are a bunch of schoolboys from Hull who form their band at school. Steve starts the band off. He’s the archetype. Every band needs to have someone like Steve. He’s the thuggish big brother who makes everything happen but who looks after everyone else. He does owe quite a debt to Steve Jones who I think is fan-fucking-tastic. There is a kind of Steve Jones in every band. Captain Sensible is quite a similar type. They’ve all got to have that one brawny older brother who’s got a heart of gold but comes across as a bit of a yob. And without Steve they wouldn’t have had that band in the first place. They’re all misfits in their own little ways. Steve is born into this mad family, his dad’s a trawlerman who fought in the cod wars. But Steve doesn’t want to end up on a trawler in the North Sea. He sees the Sex Pistols on TV, hears this sound, this music, and Steve Jones has got the same name as him and he thinks, I want to be him, I want to be a guitarist in a band.
Then we’ve got Lynton the bass player and he’s an adopted black guy transferred to Hull at a very sensitive fucking age. I think it’s very important to have a black character in that time because race relations were so fucking bad at that time. 1977 wasn’t that far away from Enoch Powell and his rivers of blood speech. Mike, my boyfriend, comes from Hull and he said there was one black guy at school and he was the best musician there and everyone wanted to be in a band with him. Imagine the most horrible thing in the world being the only black person in a school full of fucking thugs. And those two bond because they’re really into music. And I think it’s really necessary for every brilliant band to have a black person. (She laughs) Preferably more than one, actually. Look at the ratio of good music played by black people to good music played by white people. Bit of a higher tower on one side only.
Then we’ve got Kevin. And at the start every fucking cliché about drummers comes out. He’s a little twat, no one wants to speak to him, he’s bullied into being in the band by Steve in the first place because he’s too scared to say no. And Kevin’s being bullied at school and he doesn’t want to be trapped in Hull being a docker, working the trawlers . . . there aren’t many opportunities in Hull and there were even less in the Seventies and he’s a quite sensitive little flower and music was his way out too.
So unlikely though they are, I was talking to a friend of mine who was slightly older who did form a punk band and that was exactly the sort of little emsemble of people. And that to me was the positive thing about punk. If not for that they wouldn’t have had any thing. This sudden surge of ‘you can do it yourself’. Pete Shelley and Howard Devoto put their own record out and got it into the shops for five hundred quid and they made their money back immediately. That was the basis for my character Tony borrowing a hundred quid off his dad, setting up his record label and paying his dad back almost immediately.
I just wanted them to come from a really hard city in the North, not a cool Northern city like Liverpool or Manchester.
And then they just bump into this Sid Vicious-lookalike psycho at a Sex Pistols gig. One of the things I wanted Vince to be is if Lord Byron the original mad, bad, dangerous to know motherfucker, was reborn in a punk body . . . I do allude to Lord Byron all the way through and he would have been reborn in the body of Lux Interior, or Nick Cave . . .
Not Pete Shelley . . .
No. (adopts camp Manchester accent) ‘Oh no, please don’t spit on me . . .’ No, one of those scary motherfuckers. And Vince plays a trick on them all along. He’s from a very privileged background but they don’t realise. He does all the really mad, far out things. I think that’s born of a self-confidence that only people born in the upper classes have. As Derek Raymond said about Eton, that’s what it’s there for. To make you into a future bastard. A future business leader, a good all-rounder, a bastard. And I think Vince has got that. But early on he does something bloody brilliant it unites the band. He’s bloody charming. I hate using that American expression, kiss up, kick down.
One of the characters you clearly love writing about was Donna, goth hanger on turned record industry entrepreneur.
I love Donna. She was my favourite character in the whole book because I didn’t think of her when I started writing. I thought I’ll make the first bit where the boys get their punk band together and then because Vince has to marry Silvana I thought I had to get her band in, so what were they going to be like? I knew vaguely what Silvana was going to be about, which was nothing at all like she was painted by the blokes. And I’d worked out her flatmate Helen who she’d been to college with and I started writing this scene of them getting ready to go and see The Damned and then Donna just walked into this scene and overtook it. She just appeared. And honestly, it sounds a bit mad. I don’t think I invented Donna I just channelled her from somewhere. I think there might be some dead goth who never got her due in life. Who channelled me . . .(she laughs) She’s very complex and plays a key part without anyone noticing.
I liked her a lot. It felt like she just muscled her way in.
If this had been written by a bloke, it could have so easily been like a copy of Word or Uncut or Mojo. Heritage rock.
It would have had no interesting female characters.
It would have been about pressings and set lists . . .
I agree. And it would have been trying to say, ‘I know more about this than you’, that sneering tone . . . I always think of myself down in the mosh pit. When I worked for Sounds and Bizarre I never thought there was any difference between me and the people I was writing for. I thought they were me.
I think one of the great strengths of your writing is that you can write well for men. Because there’s so many male writers who can’t write well for women. Or they can write a male version of a woman.
What does that tell you about them, though? The main point of the Singer was to stick up for women who get treated like shit in the music business. To show how casually it is that women are treated so mysoginistically. And that’s why the lead had to be a bloke. I couldn’t have another Diana character. She wouldn’t have got through the door with those guys, into their little world. And not only that, she wouldn’t have got to hear them discuss women the way they do in the book. At the end of the day, what are women there for in this book? Just to have money made off them.
Sylvana and Donna are polar opposites. Sylvana’s vulnerable and fragile from the get go because she’s got no defence mechanism. She’s from a world of rarified privilege but she hasn’t fitted in to that world, poor cow, cos her mum wanted her to be this perfect little Jewish princess. She already feels that she’s failed and she’s brimming over with this talent. I’ve seen this so many times in the music industry, people who are really talented like that are really vulnerable because somehow they don’t seem to think they deserve any success that comes their way and they’re never any good at business and they’re never any good at protecting themselves.
I felt so sorry for her.
I know. There are actually bits of this book I don’t want to read again. It made me feel sick.
So who is Sylvana based on? I got a bit of All About Eve or . . .
She does have that ethereal Cocteau Twins thing . . . or the March Violets had a red-haired female singer who was a bit dreamy. Where did she come from? I don’t know. I wanted her to be American because it would give them an excuse to say she was just like Nancy Spungeon. Some bloody groupie who came over. I wanted her to come from a different world to everyone else because she wasn’t as savvy and streetwise as everyone else in this book.
The difference between Donna and Sylvana is that Donna is hard as nails and takes precautions all the way through not to let herself become used and fucked over and in the end she gets just as hurt, really.
But this was the first time that women were able to do this stuff and that’s very important to me, that’s why I wanted to put that in. Not only the first time that these little working class boys could escape the docks, but the first time these women could do anything. And the other brilliant thing is, and Donna exemplifies this, that she looks so fucking scary, you wouldn’t want to start on her. I used to find when I was young that beer boys would leave me alone for having spiky hair. And that was such a beautiful thing.
So, bearing in mind your music biz background, I’m going to come over all fanzine boy now. So, what are your influences?
We’ve done this already . . . (laughing) . . . Derek Raymond, his brilliant third album I Was Dora Suarez, this punk called Martyn Waites, he’s like The Clash . . . David Peace. He’s like Public Image Ltd . . . I do think of people as being like certain kinds of music I like.
So who are you then?
I’d like to think Siouxie and the Banshees.
Thank God you didn’t say Bow Wow Wow. Right. Big question. US versus UK crime. Fight! Who would win?
At the moment, the UK would win. Cos all the best writers are here. But they’re all influenced by the best American writers. You know, it’s like a generation thing, like the Beatles and the Stones selling the blues back to America. I think that we’ve all devoured James Ellroy and he’s been massively influential, Charles Willeford, James Lee Burke, Daniel Woodrell, James Sallis, all these fan-fucking-tastic American writers have shown us a different way to write and we’ve basically taken their lead. I think on both sides of the Atlantic and everywhere else in the world, the best writers are the ones writing because they need to. Not purely looking at it as a career. And by the way, if you are looking at it as a career, good fucking luck. Hope you’ve got a trust fund . . . (laughing)
Where d’you see yourself fitting in in British crime fiction?
I think I’m not that far away from what you’re doing. There’s a little circle of us with an affinity. And Joolz [Denby] as well, and David [Peace] and Jake [Arnott] and Nick Stone who I’ve just met. I knew he would be cool because he called his book after a Birthday Party song. And it’s interesting, I think there’s quite a lot of us that have come up being obsessed with music. And it’s made a difference to our writing because we’ve been growing up in that time of punk where the whole idea was to question everything, look into the ills of society, write about it.
Are you happy being considered a crime writer? Or would you rather be known as a writer who writes crime?
No, because I agree with you that crime writing stops fiction from being self indulgent because you have to have fucking good plots to keep people interested. And I’ve never seen crime as a dirty word or as a minority thing. But even if it was a minority thing that would be good cos I’m a goth and we’re elitist bastards . . .
I think the whole of our society is one big fucking crime, anyway. For the last thirty years we’ve been on our backs getting fucked by Thatcher, Major and Blair in succession, eager pimps who’ve raped this country for anything they can get out of it. That’s another thing I like about what you do and what David does and what Derek Raymond did, the biggest criminals in our society are at the top of it. It’s frankly depressing but it’s true.
In crime fiction you can give a voice to people who’ve been mistreated and marginalised and brutalised and make people think about them as human beings which I guess is the opposite of what mainstream crime books do which are all either about this fantastic serial killer, what a genius he is, and this detective after him with no fucking insight into the human condition or anything. Sitting in their lonely garret in Cambridge, listening to jazz . . .
And why is always the cool jazz they listen to? It’s always Charlie Parker, Miles Davis. Never Kenny Ball . . .
Mister Acker Bilk, where is he on their playlist? I bet he’s fucking there. I bet when someone comes round they shove Charlie Parker on top of this stack of Acker Bilk. (laughing)
Let’s face it, Martyn, we are punk at a time of very fucking prog crime writing. There’s the Rick Wakeman of the crime writing world standing before us in the shape of Dan Brown . . . The Da Vinci Code is King Arthur On Ice . . . (laughing) That’s what we’ve got to destroy . . .
Serpent's Tail (7 Jun 2007) ISBN-10: 185242933X
The Not Knowing
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Capital Crime Fiction
Serpent's Tail (7 Aug 2006)