Craig Austin recounts his interview with Niall Griffiths an English novelist as an enjoyable conversation about the humanity of his works.
As the train that I’m travelling on prepares to alight at Shrewsbury railway station a furtive middle-aged man enters the toilet carrying an open laptop. Though amused by the visible consternation of his fellow passengers my initial reaction is to question his faith in Virgin Trains’ notoriously abject Wi-Fi service. Despite myself I then pause to imagine how this unbecoming scenario might now play out, the potential ramifications of the course of events that has just been set in motion, the unseemly accumulation of things. At the same time I make a mental note to generously offer up this real-life scenario to the writer Niall Griffiths who I’ve arranged to meet in a local pub in the hope that he might work his twisted mercurial magic upon such deviant source material. Three pints into our discussion I do just that, noting his graciously engaged reaction at the point at which my idea is in all likelihood tossed onto some abstract, towering slush pile.
This pretty borders market town exists midway between the writer’s Aberystwyth home and the West Midlands university at which he currently lectures. We meet in a historic local boozer – because this is a pretty borders market town, and thus all boozers are historic – on the corner of Grope Lane, a quaint cobbled thoroughfare that has spent centuries seeking to divest itself of its carnal, but equally historic, moniker. Niall bounds in only moments after I’ve secured the only available table, his infectious and genial Niall-ness – the flip-up sunglasses, the familiar flat-cap of the hedonistic squire, the soft Scouse brogue – immediately evident. We order pints of what used to be known as ‘continental lager’ which arrive housed in heavy rugged Northern European glasses with robust Viking handles. It aids what proves to be a lengthy and – for me at least – wholly enjoyable conversation that takes in music, football, film and politics; that, and a delightfully uplifting short story that Niall has recently written for Wales Arts Review in which part of a fella’s face is incrementally gnawed away by a rat.
There is humanity in Niall’s tale however, a sense of purpose and self-determination, however ill founded. It’s a dark and unforgiving yarn, but in no way as miserable as the source material that it seeks to reimagine; Caradoc Evans’ ‘Be This Her Memorial’, a key component of the seminal ‘My People – Stories of the Peasantry of West Wales’. Why, I ask the writer, did he gravitate towards a story in which everyone, save for its vulnerable and cruelly exploited elderly victim Nanni, would appear to be so unapologetically loathsome? ‘Well I’ve always loved Caradoc Evans’, Niall explains. ‘Without wishing to self-aggrandise he’s always been a big influence upon my own work. I love his use of language, the way he transliterates. It’s an extremely strange take on English, a kind of Wenglish before that term even existed. I love the dark themes he sought to explore, the puncturing of pomposity, privilege and entitlement. Evans just destroyed it’.
‘I like to think we’re quite similar in the consumption of our work in Wales,’ he continues. ‘A lot of people liked Grits when it was first published, the idea that Wales needed it’s own Trainspotting, but equally a lot of other people really hated it. They really did take great offence to it. So I’ve always felt something of a literary affinity with Evans and I was really inspired to re-tell this particular story. My story (‘Obviously a Phrase of Which He Was Fond’) is actually very loosely based on something that did happen to me. There was a guy, the rats got involved shall we say, and I find the bleakness of it all quite free in a way. It’s quite League of Gentlemen in that sense. It’s so grim, so extremely dark, that the instinctive response can often be to laugh. The idea of a rat eating your own face when you’re still alive – you’ve just got to laugh at that! It’s very much in keeping with Evans’ dark humour, his tar-black humour’
I put it to Niall that ‘Be This Her Memorial’ offers up an allegory for our times, the manipulation of deference, the exploitation of perceived weakness, and a nation that seems to have a permanent hard-on for serfdom. ‘Yeah’ he nods, ‘ you could well say that Nanni is eaten by rats before she’s actually eaten by literal rats. It’s kind of a precursor to Jaws in a way, the notion that the sharks on land are just as ruthless as the ones in the water’. Yet whilst Evans’s story talks about the perils of deference, the notion that conformity can consume you, Niall’s tale almost borders on escapism; the exploration of an alternative lifestyle, the renunciation of a life of conformity and the decision to actively flee from it. ‘That’s very true’ he nods, ‘but Mani is still conforming in many ways via the escapist notion of fleeing to the wilds of Wales. Over time it’s become kind of a cliché and something that people tend to do on a whim without ever stopping to consider what it actually entails. The kind of Winters you can get in West Wales are a world away from the idyllic scenes that a visitor might encounter in the Summer. It’s not a hostile environment but it is one that can have an utter indifference to your very wellbeing, and that’s something that you see play out within Mani’s situation. The idea that we live in harmony with nature is absolute bollocks I think, and the notion of it being just somewhere that you can escape the rat race does it a great disservice. It’s something I sought to confront in Sheepshagger. It’s a deluded view that goes back to the likes of Above Tintern Abbey and How Green Was My Valley, the latter being a deeply offensive book in its patronising presentation of workers marching home in song’.
‘That kind of thinking’, he continues, ‘that childish naivety, can be very, very dangerous both culturally and on a personal level. We see it with the Tories who see Scotland as their personal playground. It’s where they go and shoot birds and stags and have their second homes. It’s much the same with mid-Wales. The kind of people you only see for two months of the year, who don’t shop in the local area, and make no attempt whatsoever to engage with the language. It bleeds the economy dry. It adds absolutely nothing. Mani’s kind of guilty of that. He’s called Mani for a reason; his name is intended to echo mankind, our yearnings for a better life. It’s also the name of the drummer in The Stone Roses but I’m not going to change it just ‘cos of that’.
We drink up and hunker down in a more accommodating hostelry; in this case one that provides an outside seating area in which the writer can tear through his chunky pouch of American Spirit rolling tobacco (which at this point he has yet to realise he’s left behind), a therapeutic ritual that provides him with ‘a little parenthesis’ in his life. I move on to the local ale. Niall does not. His gasoline is lager and he refuses to deviate from a regimen that has served him well. Ultimately, his wisdom will win out. Tobacco successfully retrieved we move onto the writer’s captivating use of colloquial language, the evocative attention to detail that for me is best embodied in his use of the phrase ‘mushy-picking’, a term I’ve not heard since the same hallucinogenic fungi drove a seasonal cottage industry at my school. That, and the often purposefully unpleasant descriptive terms that tend to pepper Niall’s work like spores. Mani’s teeth are ‘dog-ends floating in beer dregs’, his exposed testicle like a ‘hairy giblet’. ‘Yeah, I’ve got to admit I was really laughing when I wrote that’, Niall grins. ‘Giblet is a really horrible word. It has no redeeming features. I love it when these terms rise up in your mind, it really does make me laugh. I often wonder where these terms come from, but yeah, I do find them really funny’.
We delve further into the realms of black humour, taking in the travails of our mutually beloved Liverpool Football Club, the still-raw General Election result, and the comedic genius of Kevin Eldon’s ‘Amish Sex Pistols’ sketch until some time later, at a point just prior to bidding Niall a reluctant adieu – my train awaits, and the cumulative effect of the afternoon’s alcoholic assault is beginning to take hold – the writer loops back to his recent inspiration. The magnetic hold that the work of Caradoc Evans clearly has upon him: ‘I re-read Memorial and thought this is it. It’s just so kind of ghoulishly gorgeous and ghastly and attractive. I knew I could do an awful lot with it and the core of it is so horrible that it worked perfectly with the way I’ve chosen to reimagine it, the elements of fact fusing with the elements of fiction. The real-life guy wasn’t called Mani, he was called Bill. I’d heard that he’d frozen to death and the rats had eaten his face. There’s an element of truth to it. A guy who took it to a real extreme, someone who had deliberately attempted to drop off the grid completely in terms of straight society’
We exchange goodbyes in a series of beery hugs, as I meander off in pursuit of a railway station that appears to no longer exist. Yet with the assistance of some kind-hearted Shropshire souls I make my ride with only moments to spare. An hour or so later I receive a text message from Niall who has seemingly found himself caught up in the hedonistic maelstrom of a Carmarthen hen party, having been cruelly abandoned by his evidently insubstantial drinking partner. It’s the presumably positive flipside to the terrible news that his literary career may have been tragically curtailed as an unintentional consequence of my shamefully lightweight tendencies:
‘I’ve just been mugged and buggered by Shropshire maniacs! Brain damage!’ he howls, via the medium of SMS. ‘I’ll never be able to write again’ he continues, ‘and it wouldn’t have happened if I wasn’t on my own. Ah well’.
So enjoy Niall’s story, and hold it dear. For not only is it an exemplary slice of eerie Welsh noir, an ingenious reimagining of its befittingly bleak source material, it may also be the last thing that the writer ever commits to paper.
If that be the case, then be this his memorial.
Illustration by Dean Lewis