Literary hooligan: an interview with John King

Headhunters, White Trash, Skinheads and, most recently, The Liberal Politics of Adolf Hitler – as the titles of John King’s novels alone suggest, the godfather of hoolie lit is not one to dodge controversy or trouble. Living it as he’s writing it, the same has certainly been true for his real life persona.

King is something like British literature’s face of Oi. As many Londoners will know, this connection extends to the live events he puts on at the 100 Club. Named after his fourth novel, Human Punk, King’s night frequently features prole punk icons such as The Last Resort, Cockney Rejects, Ruts DC and Sham 69.

Stevo spoke to him on everything from Oi through Bowie to Orwell. We can’t say we aren’t honoured to interview the legendary author of The Football Factory for our humble blog.

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You copiously mined both punk and Oi! for your novels Human Punk and Skinheads. How did you go from writing about the likes of The Ruts and the Rejects to putting them on at the 100 Club?

It was through a couple of friends – Mark Wyeth and Andy Chesham – conversations we’d had, our mutual interests in music. Mark used to run Club Ska from the Rayners Hotel, a fantastic venue in West London, putting on the likes of Laurel Aitken and Prince Buster, and he created this warm atmosphere and a focus for skinhead reggae. Club Ska played a big part in reviving interest in the music, pulled new generations in as well as longer-term purists, plus Mark showed the originals great respect.

We put on a Football Factory night at Club Ska with Bad Manners headlining back in 2005 to celebrate Chelsea winning the Premiership, and before that, when they did a show for Malcolm Owen of The Ruts in 2001, to mark the 21st anniversary of his death, I put together a special edition of Verbal – The Human Punk Issue, with Mark contributing. Andy had started working with Mark and the first time I met him was at that Bad Manners gig. He was DJ-ing and showed me the decks and how they worked, coaxed me through Emotional Hooligan by Gary Clail.

Andy runs the record shop Vinyl Revelations in Luton and like Mark has promoted and DJ-ed for many years, and I got on well with Andy too. So I think I had it in my head that it would nice to do a punk night in Central London, and I mentioned the 100 Club to Andy at his London Punk Festival in 2012 or thereabouts. Pretty sure Infa-Riot and Case were playing. I first went to the 100 Club in the late 1970s and have always loved the venue.

Maybe a year later they put the idea to me of actually doing the night and suggested calling it Human Punk, and off we went. Our first show was in August of 2014 with The Old Firm Casuals headlining, and right from the start it worked. We have our regulars, and there’s a very positive feeling about it all. It’s like those two novels have come to life in another form.

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Do you see any connection between the gigs you put on and others’ novels you put out through London Books?

There are books in the London Classics series that connect – definitely. We are talking about the same streets and ‘Jack the Lad’ element, for a start, though the novels I am thinking of tend to link with villainy rather than music and football. But on a deeper level, there are similar social concerns and the same sort of roots, and I see these things as part of a wider culture and history, a tradition that has been marginalised and in some cases distorted.

Walk out of the 100 Club and cross the road into Soho, and you are in the setting of several books we have published from the 1930s –The Gilt Kid by James Curtis, Night and the City by Gerald Kersh, Wide Boys Never Work by Robert Westerby. Turn left and walk five minutes to The Fitzroy Tavern and you’ll be drinking in a pub used by Curtis and Kersh.

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Wide Boys… is based around a gang that operates at dog-tracks such as White City. Kersh’s character Harry Fabian is essentially a ponce, going back to a time when the streets were busy with prostitutes. The Gilt Kid is more of a loner, a screwsman, but again, a familiar face. As with Oi, these tearaways have their own views on life, which express those of the authors. There are political points being made, but in a free-thinking, non-party sort of way.

The London Classics cross into all sorts of areas, but the threads connect, and if you look at May Day by John Sommerfield or Doctor of the Lost by Simon Blumenfeld, the focus shifts and becomes more directly political. Sommerfield was another regular in The Fitzroy, would probably have known Curtis and Kersh. Maybe Orwell and the hangman Pierrepoint, who also drank in there.

The London Classics see working people presented in human fashion. They are not caricatures or bit-players, but the core of the stories. A rich and vibrant and diverse culture is captured, which sets the books apart from much of the official canon.

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Speaking of Orwell, who’s present in several of the novels of yours I mentioned and your most recent, where does he fit musically? For instance, recent discussions on The Jam’s 40th anniversary and Weller’s literary influences.

I can imagine George Orwell was read by a lot of those early songwriters, and Paul Weller was clearly one of them. I can remember hearing that line in ‘Standards’ on the second Jam album, This Is the Modern World:You know what happened to Winston.’ There was a jolt of recognition. I had to make sure I had got it right. So Weller knew Winston Smith and had read Nineteen Eighty-Four? I think that link is something we look for in our lyrics and our novels, we want stories that relate to our lives and our ways of thinking, maybe focus our thoughts. It is a two-way exchange.

I know Weller references Orwell elsewhere, but it is much deeper than that I feel. They both mix a love of their culture and country with a relaxed sort of socialism. They are very English in their individualism, see life in an open-minded way. Again, people can relate to this, and back when those books and albums were first released I don’t think there was the same group thinking and fear of having a different opinion that we see today.

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Another interesting link is their understanding of the London satellites and the sprawl of the suburbs, and while they reflect these modern worlds of the 1940s and 1970s, their impressions are similar. There is a merging of town and country, a future Orwell talks about in his essays which is then written about by Weller in Woking, a town known for HG Wells and War of the Worlds.

For me, though, Orwell fits more closely with David Bowie. This could be because I heard his Diamond Dogs album first, but really that LP is all about Nineteen Eighty-Four. The tracks ‘Big Brother’ and ‘1984’ couldn’t be clearer, but again it is deeper, beyond the lyrics even, embedded in the atmosphere of the record. There is the same paranoia and sense of dread you feel when you read the book. Have a listen to ‘We Are the Dead’ and ‘Chant of the Ever Circling Skeletal Family’. Yet there is hope in there as well, a belief in the human spirit.

There are similarities between Paul Weller and David Bowie as well. They differ in their sound and styles I suppose, but they have always looked to try new approaches and take chances. A pair of mavericks. So was Orwell, in his own way. Free-thinkers. That has to be admired.

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Less so Bowie, who was very fluid on it, but a major part of Orwell and your own work address national identity.  Do you see anything problematic there as far as Oi! goes?

You can read essays by George Orwell on Englishness, where he talks about the distaste wealthier ‘intellectuals’ have for the people and the culture of this country, and that same prejudice remains more than 70 years later. Their outpouring of scorn following the EU referendum result showed off that hatred, as in the eyes of a small but vocal bunch of careerists, those who voted for what they regard as their independence and democracy were uneducated, thick, racist, too old. These are familiar smears. On a much smaller scale, most of those insults were applied to teddy boys, mods, punks and Oi! in the past.

Orwell challenged the snobs and cynics. He refused to let them hide behind their fake-liberal masks. He saw England and Britain as genuinely liberal and open-minded, the people as essentially decent, but that negative propaganda can be very hard to beat, and much more so today with the herd mentality and bullying of social media. I see nothing problematic in celebrating your identity and culture. Depends what you think your culture is of course, and how you do it, but when it comes to music I would always say listen to the lyrics, hear what is being said, then make your own mind up, because that was the whole idea of punk. Think for yourself.

Are the Human Punk nights punk, Oi! or both?

Punk is a broad church and Oi! is a part of that, and while we have put on a fair bit of Oi! we’ve had a range of styles – The Professionals with Paul Cook, Ruts DC, Heavy Metal Kids, Morgellons, Newtown Neurotics, The Members, Dirtbox Disco and so on. We want to go into other areas as we build up, but there’s a real energy about Oi! at the moment, with established and younger bands producing great new music, and we like the people involved, have a laugh. Just love the music.

The idea of Oi! was that it stripped punk back when some of the earlier bands were taking themselves far too seriously. This new lot were the fans, the real punks if you like. And the look was going to be different, because there was a clearer football link, and nobody was going to turn up on a Saturday dressed like Sid Vicious. It was the same with other forms of punk that evolved, people going in different directions, which I think is the magic of it all. I like most of the different takes on the music, to varying degrees, and really, it is about the spirit.

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OK, so what should the sussed London skinhead be reading or watching in 2017?

They could come to Human Punk on April 21st for a start. We have Booze & Glory headlining, supported by The Warriors, Knock Off and Angry Itch. And before that definitely go and see Roy Ellis on April 14th at the Islington Assembly Hall. Roy’s a brilliant bloke and one of true greats of ska. You will find Mark playing with him in The Moonstompers.

In terms of reading, you can’t do much better than Street Sounds, edited by the Godfather of Oi! himself, while a visit to Oi Oi The Shop in Camden is like walking into a treasure cave, and will bring everything together – clothes, records, books, plus there are cabinets that record the history of the culture, with the walls and ceilings covered in posters. It’s a special place.

We put our first single out on the Human Punk label a short while back, Knock Off’s ‘Football, Beer and Punk Rock’ with a double B-side ‘Bay 77’ and a version of ‘Jack The Ripper’ recorded at one of our nights. Knock Off are one of my favourite bands. Again, you can call it punk or call it Oi!, but never call it jazz funk. The music and lyrics will appeal, I think.

Interview: Stevo

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