Interview: John Osborne talks to Graham Tomlinson

 

John Osborne is a writer, poet and performer based in Norwich.  He is the author of two works of non-fiction, Radio Head: Up and Down the Dial of British Radio and The Newsagent’s Window, and two short collections of poetry, What If Men Burst In Wearing Balaclavas? and The New Blur Album.  He spent much of the first half of 2012 touring John Peel’s Shed, a show developed from Radio Head and based in part on his winning a box of records in a competition on John Peel’s Radio 1 show in 2002.  He’s a member of the performance poetry collective Aisle 16, and regularly broadcasts on Norwich community station Future Radio.

John’s next book is Don’t Need The Sunshine, a non-fiction work about the British seaside which will be published in May 2013 as part of a new travel writing series from the AA.  The title is borrowed from the Catatonia song on International Velvet, and among the resorts John visits in the book are Llandudno, Abergele, Talacre and Barry Island: all holiday spots his father went to as a child, and which the pair revisit to see how they’ve changed.

I interviewed John on the eve of his major tour of John Peel’s Shed.  We met in The Bicycle Shop, a café bar in Norwich where John has regularly performed at Norwich Poetry Club nights.  Over the sound of steam rushing from the coffee machine and after-work drinkers clinking glasses, we discussed Hefner, everyday epiphanies, and the acceptable side of consumerism.

John Osborne
“I heard The Smiths for the first time
when I was at Sixth Form on
John Peel’s Radio 1 show,
and that kind of blew my mind.”

Who were the first writers or artists you encountered where you thought to yourself, ‘That’s exactly what I want to be doing?’

This is something I discuss in John Peel’s Shed.  I heard The Smiths for the first time when I was at Sixth Form on John Peel’s Radio 1 show, and that kind of blew my mind.  I had very bland tastes in music at that time – Britpop and stuff – and I didn’t know that anything so personal and magical could exist as Morrissey’s song lyrics.  At the same time in our English Literature class in Sixth Form we started to read Philip Larkin poems.  My English teacher was a massive Philip Larkin fan, and he was so passionate about him, going, ‘This guy is going to change your lives’, so having that was just a big thing as well.

So in terms of music, you got into Britpop stuff first, and then found your way back to The Smiths?

 Yeah, it’s interesting, because the other person I really relate to is Ray Davies from The Kinks.  The first band I really loved was Blur – Parklife came out when I was about 14 or 15, and that was it.  It was the mid-90s, so it was Euro ‘96, TFI Friday, Chris Evans on Radio 1 – it was almost like it was designed for Britpop teenagers.  That was the first time I was really interested in music, and I just worked my way backwards reading interviews with Damon Albarn.  He would say how much he loved The Kinks, and so I’d then get into The Kinks.  And he would say that he loved Nick Drake. . . so I listened to a lot of music just because Damon Albarn had mentioned it in interviews.  So that’s how I got into The Kinks, who are lyrically a massive influence.

I’m glad you said that because I’ve written down Ray Davies’s name in connection with your stuff.  So how long or short a journey was it between being enthused by The Smiths and Philip Larkin and Ray Davies to actually writing your own stuff?  Did that come easily, or quickly?

I always had a notebook.  When I was 10 years old I had my own imaginary football teams that I would write the scores for and use dice for their fixtures, so I always loved having different notebooks for different football teams and things.  And then it was only when I came to UEA that I went to the Creative Writing Society, which anyone can go to, and you sit around in a circle and you read out a story or a poem you’ve written and people give their feedback.  The first week I went, there was a guy called Tim Clare who was also in his first week at university and he read out this story that he’d written when he was at Sixth Form, and I just thought it was amazing: it was funny and it was personal, and I was just like wow, I can’t believe that that guy wrote it.  I didn’t read anything out because I’d never really written anything other than an occasional little thing in an exercise book.

It’s quite a big deal – actually reading stuff out to people. . .

It’s a massive deal.  I was very, very shy and nervy in my first year at university and didn’t really leave my room that much.  I was always quite an inward kind of teenager, but that changed it, really.  I remember talking to Tim in the pub afterwards and saying, ‘I’ve never written a short story’ – because everyone there read out short stories – and he was like, ‘Why don’t you go home now and write one and email it to me?’  And so I was like ‘Oh, OK’.  And I went home and wrote one and emailed it to Tim, and the next time I saw him he said, ‘That’s amazing – you should just write loads of these and send me everything that you write.’

That’s a very generous offer.

It was incredible!  And so that’s what I did.  As the year went on I got to know more people who were part of the Creative Writing group, and I kept writing things, purely so that I had something to read out at these creative writing meetings.  It was always short stories – for a long time it was short stories and I started to work on a novel and things like that.  I was in the same year at UEA as a lot of people who went on to have kind of performance careers: people like Joe Dunthorne and Luke Wright and Tim Clare.  And they started to do gigs, and so I ended up doing that as well.  But yeah, it was from hearing The Smiths that I got into writing quite quickly, really.  Certainly without thinking about it too much.  It seemed at the time quite a natural progression.

it was from hearing The Smiths that I got into writing

It’s interesting you all came through at the same time – Joe Dunthorne, you, Aisle 16. . .

Yeah, I think a few years earlier Andrew Motion had started his residence there, and so for any aspiring writers, UEA was just the place that attracted them.  There were so many articles written about UEA and creative writing at the time, so it was quite a hotbed of new talent.

The biographers will love that – the idea of the Norwich scene of the early noughties.

I remember thinking it at the time.  I lived in a very small town in Lincolnshire – I’d never really met anyone with so much enthusiasm and ambition.  These people wanted to be writers, wanted to be famous, wanted to be on telly, and I knew that they would be.  They had so much enthusiasm.  I always thought that one day a book would be written about the Creative Writing Society – all that I want is to be in the index, even if it’s just like, ‘. . .and John Osborne was there’ (laughs).  That would be enough.  It really did feel like part of something, in the way that a lot of things evolve like that, don’t they?  Like alternative comedy and things.  It’s very competitive but very healthy.  One person will come in and they’ve written a short story that’s just amazing, so when you go home you can’t settle for just writing a good one, you have to reach their standard so it constantly pulls people up. 

Coming on to music a bit more specifically, it serves as a soundtrack to your own work in the ways you write about it: you often reference bands and obviously it’s central to John Peel’s Shed.  When I was listening to the Radio 4 version of John Peel’s Shed, there’s a point where you talk about the bands you’ve heard for the first time on the radio: Joy Division, The Ramones and Hefner.  And when I heard that I thought, ‘There are probably more than a few people thinking, “Hefner?”’.  So how do Hefner fit into it?

The reason that I mention Hefner is because I knew that most people won’t have heard of them, but that people who have heard of Hefner, who were Hefner fans, will just go, ‘Hefner have just been mentioned!’ It’ll be a big thing.  The Frasierwriters always described how important it was to have a ‘five percenter’ – a joke or a reference that only five percent of the audience will get, and that’s kind of crucial, so I’ve always had that in my head.  I think you can now buy t-shirts from Hefner’s website that say, ‘Britain’s Biggest Small Band’, and I think that sums them up quite well.  Hefner to me were as important as Morrissey, as important as Blur, in terms of the songwriting, the lyrics of it.  I think it’s probably my one biggest influence, Darren Hayman’s lyrics in Hefner songs.  They’re just stunning – they’re just little stories.  There’s a song on their first album called ‘The Librarian’.  It’s about a boy who keeps borrowing books from the pretty librarian.  To him she’s the whole world, but to her he’s just the boy who keeps borrowing books. . . but it’s so heartbreaking.  I think that was what I really associated with it.  In a three-minute song you can create this character and destroy him, you can really feel so much empathy for him.  There are so many songs that are like that with Hefner.  I always thought somewhere along the line that mentioning people like Hefner on the Radio 4 thing, someone would go, ‘You’re not allowed to do that’.  But no-one’s ever said that.

John Osborne
“Hefner to me were as important as Morrissey,
as important as Blur, in terms of the songwriting,
… I think it’s probably my one biggest influence”

Tucked away on your blog you’ve got a homage to their LP The Fidelity Wars, where you’ve written a poem for each of the titles on the album.  I thought that was a really good idea, especially given how unpromising some of the titles on that album are, like ‘Fat Kelly’s Teeth’.

I’m going to do that with more albums.  That was probably a couple of years ago now.  I think I just had a week with not that much to do, I don’t think I had any deadlines or anything like that.  It’s nice when you just have an idea.  I think I just wrote them in two days, listening to that album on loop.

The album is pretty alcohol-drenched and hungover, but you’ve created something far more gentle in comparison.  Once I’d read about the connection with Hefner, I started trying to detect the influence in your poetry.  And with something like ‘Confetti’ [from What If Men Burst In Wearing Balaclavas?, which features a couple on their wedding day vowing to be less than perfect in their future life together], there’s no jokey pay-off to it – it’s quite uncompromising.  Even though you can say it’s humourous in its intent, actually there are no gags, no pop cultural references as a let-off.  And I thought that was a bit Darren Hayman.

I hope so.  I know a lot of people who’ve worked with him, doing live entertainment and things like that, and they’ve always said he’s really nice, but I think I like him so much I don’t actually want to meet him, just because I already like him the way he is.

I guess I’m quite a specific audience for your work because I’m from Norwich, which is where a lot of your stuff is set or which you refer to, and my heart leaps when I see a reference to Chapelfield Gardens or Take Five in a poem or piece of writing.  But what do you think Norwich gives you as a writer that maybe other places wouldn’t?

Firstly, there’s a community of writers and audiences who want to see stuff, so you can always do things and have people you can run ideas by.  There’s quite a thriving community of people that I already know.  There’s a lot of nice bars, like here and Take Five and Frank’s Bar, which we’re quite lucky to have.  Also I’ve been able to survive for the last six or seven years doing temp jobs, just working at Anglian Windows, working in hotels, and being able to afford my rent – rent isn’t particularly expensive, it’s just the right amount for you to be able to have a job, pay your rent and still have money to live on.  And it’s two hours from London on the train, so you can get to London to do gigs.  I don’t know that there’s anything particularly about Norwich other than a general kind of positive atmosphere.  It’s fine to put on a poetry gig in a café or a pub; people expect that kind of thing, people are used to it.  I’d feel uncomfortable doing something like that in Hull, for example.  We did an Aisle 16 tour two or three years ago, which was called ‘Local Boys Done Good’, where five of us all organised gigs in our home towns, just because none of us had ever performed where we came from – we were all from quite small towns and we’d left to move to Norwich or London or Liverpool or wherever, and so it was about going back to where we were from, and getting our parents and their friends and our neighbours and people we were at school with to come along and watch it.  It felt so uncomfortable – it was horrible!  You were reminded of what a cosy atmosphere it can be in Norwich.  There’s a lot of pride in Norwich – it’s like there’s a decent music scene in the last couple of years, people want Norwich people to succeed.

John Osborne
Radio Head,
Up and Down the Dial
of British Radio

You’ve mentioned work and having to keep body and soul together.  When I knew I was interviewing you and re-read your non-fiction books, the cultural figure who seemed to loom largest across the two of them was Reggie Perrin.  Particularly in your more desperate moments in Radio Head where you’re temping in an office on an industrial estate, you talk about listening to the radio being a rebellion and your desperation to get out of a routine.  Was that in the back of your mind at all when you were writing the books?

When I was writing Radio Head I lived in a flat just down Magdalen Street, and I lived with my friend James who I was at university with.  And I bought him the boxset of Reginald Perrin for his birthday.  Neither of us had seen it but someone was saying how brilliant Reginald Perrin was, so we were like, oh, not seen that, and it was his birthday the next week and I had no idea what to get him, so I got him that.  And we watched it and it was incredible – we had no idea how good it was.  Stunning!  And that was when I was writing Radio Head, so obviously a bit of that has seeped in.

Obviously the world of work has changed since David Nobbs was writing about Reggie Perrin, when it was all about people in bowler hats and pinstripe suits, sitting on the same commuter train every day and doing the Financial Times crossword, but actually, the world of temping work you conjure up in your two books is not so dissimilar; you see the same people every day and you start counting out your life by your cheese sandwiches.

It’s something I’ve been really fascinated with in all of the temps jobs that I’ve had.  I’ve had probably eight different office jobs in the last six years or so, and I’ve not disliked any of them, just because they tend to be quite easy, and you’re allowed to just observe such fascinating things and people’s routines.  I think as someone who’s always working on a writing project, it’s been invaluable.  So many of the people that I mention in the books are just people I’ve seen in office environments.  I had a job working in a warehouse in Outfit, the clothes shop.  It was just me and this woman who was my boss.  She was really funny, and I would go home and tell my housemate all the funny things that this girl at work had said.  I really looked forward to going in every day.  She didn’t realise what she said was funny, it was just the rhythms of the everyday and I think that’s something I really enjoy – kind of like Blur did with some of their albums, certainly after ParklifeThe Great Escape is an album about travelling to work every day.  I’ve always known that it’s my destiny to have some kind of alright job.  And I always thought that I’d have a decent middle management job in some quite big office somewhere.  It wouldn’t be that great, it wouldn’t be that bad – and I accepted that at the age of about 15.  Because I was like, oh, it would be great if I could be a writer, but I won’t be because that’s hard; it’d be great if I could be an entrepreneur but I won’t be because I’ve not got the right character.  So I think if you accept that that’s what you’re going to do, then suddenly it’s much more interesting to observe.

And I always thought that I’d have a decent middle management job in some quite big office somewhere.  It wouldn’t be that great, it wouldn’t be that bad – and I accepted that at the age of about 15.

Office communities really are communities in their own right.  People stop realising the way they behave and they get into the same sort of routine – even down to when they make their first cup of tea of the day. . .

But also I want to emphasise when I’m writing is that I really like these people – it’s not, ‘Look at these idiots’.  There’s one guy who I remember when I was at Norwich Union.  He always had really scruffy hair and a really badly-ironed shirt, and he was about my age, and I always thought, ‘What a dick’.  And then after about a month of working there I realised that he’s the guy who organises the five-a-side football every Thursday, and he’s got a wife and a two-year-old kid, and he’s there to save up for a nice holiday every year, and I was like, ‘This guy’s got so much more than I have!  And also he’s completely happy in his job.  He knows what’s he doing, he’s got the confidence to do quite well in a few years – and who am I?  I’m earning less money than him, I’ve got a less stable personal life than him. . .  It’s kind of because I’ve got a pen and a laptop and – ’

 . . .and perhaps a better-ironed shirt. . .

 Yeah, and it’s like, ‘These people are dickheads(laughs).

I think that comes through; you’re not sneering, you’re just observing this micro-structure.

Certainly when I was writing Radio Head, which was when I was working at Anglian Windows, I only mentioned the office a few times, but then my editor said, ‘You need to keep mentioning these people every chapter’.  It was almost like she wanted it to be a book about the people I was working with and just kind of mention radio. . .  I wasn’t really comfortable with it at all.  I said, ‘It’s not about them – it’s about radio.’  But everyone who gets in touch with me about the book picks out the bits that she liked, the office workers and the data entry and the pretty girl on the other side of the office.  That’s what people relate to.

In both your non-fiction books you talk about finding beauty in mundane places, or perhaps beauty which has been created in a mundane place.  What does your notion of beauty consist of?  How does it feature in your mind when you’re writing?

I think a moment of beauty is just something – achieving something, or just seeing something – that makes everything else OK.  Those tiny epiphanies that happen every day, like if you have to get up early, but then something good happens at 2 o’clock in the afternoon, it’s to make sure that you remember that good thing, or make the most of it.  I think for a lot of people, good things happen all the time but they’re a bit blind towards it, they don’t accept it.  So I think it’s just the little things that happen every day – make sure that you cherish them, I guess – or not so much cherish them, but are aware of them.

I think that’s something that I’d picked up on in your work.  I was trying to boil down what I thought your take on it was when you were writing, and I got it down to two words: ‘At least’.  At least that’s happened, it doesn’t matter what else has gone on during the day.  In your short story ‘Redundancy is Beautiful’, the husband who’s been made unemployed gets to spend lots of time with his young son, which he wouldn’t have done otherwise.

That story is from when I was working in the warehouse, and the lady there had a three-year old son and her husband had been made redundant, and it was the best thing that had ever happened to him.  She increased her hours at work and so he just stayed at home with their little boy, all day, every day.  And she’d get home from work, and they’d have made a massive farmyard out of a load of cardboard or something.  And every day she got home and they were doing these amazing things, and he’d had quite a stressful business job and hadn’t been around at home at all.  And suddenly he was like, ‘I’m so glad that I lost my job – this is brilliant!’

One thing that comes out of your books is the idea of communities, and your making connections with people.  Not in the sense of ‘I’ve got lots of friends on Facebook’, but more genuine connections.  Even if you don’t want to see the 10 people who’ve put an advert in a newsagent’s window, you’re still trying to involve yourself in some kind of community.

I just think that people are fascinating – everyone’s got a story to tell.  It’s good to meet as many different people as you can, I think.  My natural inclination would just be to stay at home all the time and listen to 6Music and drink coffee and not have to leave the house.  But in all of the writing projects that I’ve been involved with, it’s almost like I’m pushing myself not to be that person, and try and reach out to different kinds of communities and things.

I was thinking today in a slightly facetious way that your books are almost self-help books, but that in writing them, the person you’re trying to help is you.  Because you’re making yourself do these things, even though actually your natural reaction is to hold back and not go out – as you say, not to turn off the radio or leave the house.

The book that I’m writing at the moment is about seasides.  When I first had the meeting with my editor – it’s a brand new editor, different publishers now – she said, ‘It won’t be like your last books – it’ll be you, at home, researching it, reading as many books on seasides as you can and then writing things up.’  And I was like, ‘Oh, that sounds perfect.’  But without her telling me to, I’ve just started to try and meet as many people as I can.  I’ve been going to Southwold to meet people who’ve got beach huts and things.  So yeah, I just think it is me – without realising it – wanting to engage with people and try and find out what’s going on in different circumstances.

My natural inclination would just be to stay at home all the time and listen to 6Music and drink coffee and not have to leave the house.

The other thing I wrote down in terms of beauty and your notion of it was domestic comfort.  You’ve mentioned that already with the drinking coffee and listening to the radio, and you make the comment in Radio Head: ‘I don’t like hip hop and R’n’B.  I like Cumberland sausages and armchairs.’  I responded to that when I read it.    

All my poetry books are published by Nasty Little Press, which is a company set up by Luke Wright, a Norwich poet.  He realised that there weren’t many beautifully-put-together poetry books, so he started his own publishing company.  But he said he only wanted to do it if I would be involved with it because he really liked my poems.  And the reason he said he liked my poems was because they’re kind of about the acceptable side of consumerism.  You’re allowed to buy a massive Toblerone, and watch The Apprentice and things like that.  You’re allowed to treat yourself occasionally and enjoy those things as well, because things like the BBC iPlayer are there for people, are there to be enjoyed, and you’ve got to look on that as a good thing.  So those domestic comforts. . .there’s something quite charming about making the most of them, I think.

John Osborne
What If Men Burst In Wearing Balaclavas?
Nasty Little Press

In terms of radio, you’ve crossed the divide from analysing the state of British radio to being a broadcaster yourself.  When the light goes on in the studio and you open your mouth to start talking, are you now hyper-conscious of what you’re saying and trying to stop yourself giving a timecheck every three minutes?

No, the only thing I would say about that is that it makes me feel bad about being critical about some people in Radio Head.  Certainly Jo Whiley and Edith Bowman I was quite nasty about, but it’s so hard being on radio.  It’s really difficult, especially doing it regularly like they have to do.  Maybe I’d have treated them slightly differently if I’d had a background in radio.  So maybe it’s a good job that I didn’t because I was treating Radio Head as a listener rather than someone in the industry.  I think that’s why people have responded to it quite well, because it’s not someone who’s worked in radio, and so there are no cliques involved, but also I didn’t come into it as someone who’s obsessed with radio.  When I was first doing interviews, quite often it was built up as ‘The Radio Anorak John Osborne’, and I was like, ‘I’m really not – I just quite like radio.’  With Radio Head I did research a lot of things like commercial radio and the different companies that owned it, but I left most of it out because it was quite boring.  There’s a lot of boring things associated with radio.

The listening stats the industry pores over every quarter, that’s quite dry for your general reader. 

I tried to put research and background information in where necessary, but I just wanted it to be about what’s happening on radio every day.  I think if you’d chosen specific days to do it, it wouldn’t have worked; it’s just about all of the nice things that are happening every day on radio, like if you switch on radio now there’s probably not a lot going on, but that’s more interesting I think than when there’s something massive.  I think as well a lot of journalists, like Louis Theroux, Jon Ronson – who I really admire, both of them – they’re in pursuit of meeting these super-eccentric, freaky characters or incidents.  But I think what I’ve always wanted to do with my writing is to go the complete opposite way and meet the very boring people.  That was certainly the idea behind The Newsagent’s Window – it was just meeting someone who was selling some tea towels or something, and they were at home.  When I met the lady who was selling her son’s Beaver’s uniform, she was at home doing her ironing, her son had just given up karate class and things like that.  It was perfect, it was what made me really think that could work as a book.  And again, that leads into the people who go to Anglian Windows every day and do their job and then go home; every single person’s got a story to tell.  And there’s really fascinating things going on in there.  I find that much more interesting than the families that Louis Theroux would spend time with.

John Osborne
The Newsagent’s Window

 

I think as well, in those situations, Louis Theroux walks a very fine line between doing something interesting and impartial and revealing about us as human beings, and turning it into a little bit of, ‘I’m standing a long way back from this and having a really good laugh for the benefit of my BBC2 audience’.

Yeah, absolutely, which is why I think Jon Ronson is amazing, because in terms of journalism he always gets it spot on.  And he quite often finds out the very ordinary things in the eccentric people as well, whereas Louis Theroux just sees the eccentrics.  That’s certainly something I’m fascinated in: there’s no such thing as a boring person.  Well, there is, but at least try and find out the bit that isn’t.

I saw a description of you on the BBC website a while ago as a ‘shaggy-haired nostalgist’, and I wondered if you recognised yourself from that description? 

(Laughs) I think that’s probably slightly over the top, but yeah, I can’t really deny that.  In the most recent poetry book at one stage, seven of the poems were on the theme of ‘Things were better in the olden days’.  And I had to take some of them out.  There was one about writing letters – one of my friends, her little brother is 16 but he loves writing letters to people.  It’s a really interesting idea, but I’d already got one about how the internet isn’t very good, and how I don’t like mobile phones.

And one called ‘Pages from Ceefax’.  There are children being born today who’ll have no idea what Ceefax is.

That makes me sad as well.  I was a massive Ceefax fan.  Whenever I do that poem live, people’s faces light up, it’s something people associate with idling their afternoons away. . .

 . . . waiting for minutes on end for their football team’s score to come up. . .

Oh God, yeah.  So yeah, I think – ‘shaggy-haired nostalgist’, was that it? – I’m quite happy to take that.  I think there’s a niche to be carved out as a shaggy-haired nostalgist.

 

John Osborne will be at the Laugharne Weekend, April 5-7 2013.

Banner illustration by Dean Lewis