BIKE BOYS, SKINHEADS & DRUNKEN HACKS:
LAURENCE JAMES INTERVIEWED BY STEWART HOME AT THE CREATION BOOKS OFFICE, CLERKENWELL, 9 AUGUST 1994.
Among other things, Laurence James is the author of the legendary 'Mick Norman' Hell's Angels books, which rank among the best English language youthsploitation novels of all time. Before becoming a full time writer, James worked at New English Library where he edited the early Richard Allen books and a lot else to boot. The four Mick Norman novels - "Angels From Hell", "Angel Challenge", "Guardian Angels" and "Angels On My Mind" - were very successfully republished in an omnibus edition by Creation Books in 1994. I talked to Laurence James shortly after the Mick Norman books were reissued but the disappearance of the tapes prevented me from doing anything with the interview. By the time Simon Strong returned the two ninety minute cassettes to me six months later, I'd missed my deadline for "The Modern Review" and was in no rush to transcribe them. Instead, I consoled myself with the thought that at least Simon had satiated his curiosity about the author of his favourite Hell's Angels novels. Recently, I stumbled across an analysis of the 'Mick Norman' output in "British Low Culture: From safari suits to sexploitation" by Leon Hunt (Routledge, London & New York 1998, p.74-90) and decided it was time to dust down the Laurence James interview tapes.
Shortly after this interview Laurence's health collapsed. He was taken into hospital in Oxford, where he then lived, with chronic renal failure. This was diagnosed as being linked to terminal myeloma, or bone cancer, and he was given a prognosis of no more than a couple of years to live. During this period he finished off existing contracts but took on no new work. In the autumn of 1997, well past his literal deadline, his specialists told him that he didn't have terminal cancer, and indeed had never had one. It had been confused with an extremely rare condition called light chain deposition. In the late nineties Laurence was hoping to be put on the waiting list for a kidney transplant. He was looking forward to resuming writing, concentrating this time on children's books. Very sadly Laurence died in February 2000, leaving an extraordinary body of work with us.
HOME: Where did you grow up?
JAMES: In the Midlands. I was born in West Bromwich and I spent my first 18 years in Birmingham which is why quite a chunk of the Angels quartet is set in and around Birmingham. I went to a minor public school there.
HOME: Which one?
JAMES: King Edward's.
HOME: It's notorious because Tory racist Enoch Powell is an ex-pupil.
JAMES: It's a place that always finishes at number two or number three in the league tables for state scholarships to Oxford and Cambridge. It's a great scholarship school. I wasn't very successful. Rather than going on to Oxford or Cambridge, I finished up training as a PE teacher at Goldsmith's in New Cross cuz I didn't have the Latin, which was a shame. After a year, I decided teaching was not for me and I went to work in Foyles bookshop.
HOME: So when was it that you came to London?
JAMES: I came down to London at the beginning of the sixties and dropped out of college about '62, Then I worked in Foyles and Harrods, that was in my short hair days. After that I worked in publishing for ten years off and on till about 1970 when I went to New English Library and ran the editorial side of NEL for three years.
HOME: So where were you working before NEL?
JAMES: Before NEL I was working for a firm called Leslie Frewin
HOME: What sort of operation was it?
JAMES: It started off as a small publisher and was very successful, but then, as time went by, every year there'd be slightly more put out. 6 books, then 12 books, then 24 books. There's a point at which you're not getting good product in at all and Leslie Florin reached that point and he carried on publishing. I was really sorry he went bust.
HOME: You were in London in the sixties, rumour has it there was a lot happening.
JAMES: There wasn't a lot happening in Hither Green. Not down in south London. I hung around with a lot of friends living down in New Cross. I had a girlfriend down there at the time. I don't think very much was happening outside the centre. It wasn't a drug crazed heaven at all.
HOME: But presumably every now and then you were going down some of the clubs in the west end.
JAMES: Not very much. We tended to stay local. We tended not to go to the west end a lot. I had friends in Chelsea, so I used to go and play around there. I was playing rugby at the time as well. I was kind of rough trade for these friends in Chelsea. They had a flat just off the King's Road and they were all very nobby and I was kind of rough trade, you know what I mean. We used to play a game called Indians where you gave everybody one card face down, you pick it up and you hold it against your head and you can see everybody's card, but you can't see your own. We used to make money out of these people. We used to cheat by working together. They were terribly upper class.
HOME: Did you know any of the beat related writers like Alexander Trocchi?
JAMES: No, I met him in a bookshop just off Charing Cross Road, Indica. Miles used to work there.
HOME: Did you feel part of that scene?
JAMES: No, it was a small literary scene. People like Ginsberg would come over, Burroughs would come over, you know and read, but it was a very tiny clique. Wholly Communion at the Albert Hall was an amazing one off. It was a good thing to go to because suddenly you realised that actually there were two and a half thousand other people in London who liked the same things as you.
HOME: So this is the kind of stuff you were reading, American beats.
JAMES: Yeah, I was working for Foyles and my predecessor was the post manager there. I was at Foyles for three months, I'd been there for 3 weeks as a post clerk. The post manager was sacked and so the shop manager came and said, "has anybody got a degree?" and nobody had. He said "has anybody got A levels?" and I said "yes, I've got A levels". He said "right, you're post manager" and so I took over that department. And in the desk I found a copy of "Kaddish". That was the first thing I read by Ginsberg. That was about '62 and that's when I really started reading. At NEL I got to edit a book called "Electric Underground", which was a best of City Lights anthology, all the beats were in it. That was a great book to do.
HOME: Right, so another question about the sixties is did you have any run ins with motor cycle gangs.
JAMES: Absolutely none, not at all. I mean what really started the motor cycle thing was Hunter S. Thompson's Hell's Angels book. It was very successful and then at New English Library we published Jim Moffatt's skinhead books which were very successful, so we looked for another area of youth culture and the motor cycle gangs were an obvious area for that and I think Peter Cave did the first ones and also a guy called Stuart Gordon who wrote some bike books under the name Alex R. Stuart. At the time I was getting disillusioned with publishing, I was not quite 30 and there wasn't really anywhere higher to go. In a sense I was almost at the top of my profession and I thought, christ. another 35 years. This is tedious. And I'd take guys out to lunch and I'd give them ideas for books and they'd go and write them and they'd make £150, £200 out of these books, and I thought, I could do that and so I wrote the first Angels book and sent it in through a friend anonymously to the other editor, so I actually never touched it. NEL bought it and after that I did three more. They all did well, they sold about seventy thousand copies each, which was good sales even then.
HOME: Could you tell me about James Moffatt who wrote the Richard Allen skinhead books?
JAMES: Yes, I inherited him as an author cuz the guy who ran NEL was Peter Haining and Moffatt had written for him, and in fact the first book I was ever involved in at NEL was a book called "Satan's Slaves".
HOME: Moffatt's highly collectable Manson cash-in
JAMES: That's right, the Manson book. I'd either just started at NEL, or I was about to start and Peter Haining and his wife were round having supper at our house and we were talking about Manson and Peter said: "We'll get Jim Moffatt to do a book on the murders". And so Peter got me to ring Jim, who was living in Cheltenham at the time and I said "do you fancy doing a book about Manson?" That was all I had to say and then four days later the manuscript arrived on my desk.
HOME: It's an extraordinary production because the first two chapters are about Manson and then he goes on about Amie Semple MacPherson and other people like that for most of the book.
JAMES: That was my fault. I think he was inadequately briefed for that one. You know his research methods. The research he did for the skinhead books was like 2 hours in one pub talking to half a dozen skinheads. He hated skinheads, he hated kids. He was not a youth oriented man, Jim really wasn't. I can't remember now who had the idea for the skinhead series, it may have been Peter Haining. It may have been mine, it may have been Jim himself, but the first skinhead book came out and sold extremely well.
HOME: The story Moffatt always told about it was that some Chelsea fan had been commissioned to do the first book and hadn't come up with the goods, and so he got in at the last minute I've no idea if this is true but this is his story about how he got to do the book.
JAMES: I have no recollection of that at all. I'm not saying that's not true. But I can't remember how it did actually come up, where it came from. I can't remember the catalyst for the skinhead books but Jim started doing them, and he was a terrible old man. He was unreliable, extremely right-wing, a terrible drunk, a liar, he hated kids. What more can I tell you about Jim Moffatt?
HOME: He was a talented hack with reactionary political views and a drink problem.
JAMES: In his early days he was an extremely talented hack, a really good hack writer, but unfortunately, as it went on, he began to believe that he was in touch with youth culture. And youth culture to him was fascist skinheads. He started putting masses of terrible racism in his books. His manuscripts were just completely racist. And I was labouring away trying to get rid of all this from his prose and saying "Jim, sorry, you can't keep kicking the heads of asians, no, sorry Jim". And in the end, after "Skinhead Girls" I actually refused to deal with him any more because of his drink problem. He'd ring me up and say "Have you got the manuscript?" and I'd say "no" and he'd say "well I posted it yesterday. I'll post you another copy." And I actually knew that all the time he was sleeping on the floor of his agent's office in Bloomsbury in Great Russell Street writing the books. He hadn't even started some of these books. He became terribly unreliable and in the end I wouldn't have anything to do with him. I had him moved to another editor. I'd had enough of Jim. One of the worst things for an editor is to have an author who lies to you. I mean if an author says "look, I'm really in the shit here. Can we meet? I'm going to be 3 weeks late, or I'm going to be 6 weeks late or whatever. As long as he gives you warning, it's okay. But when you get an author who says, "yeah, nearly finished it, it'll go in the post tomorrow" and this isn't true and you're bound by a production schedule for the book and you've got your slot at the printer's and if you miss that slot there isn't another slot. The next slot's probably down along here. And that was a terrible problem.
HOME: Do you know anything about Moffatt's father who was supposedly a serious literary writer?
JAMES: No, he never talked about his father. I met his wife because his wife did a bit of writing as well. Jim did a lot of books apart from the skinhead series. He did "The Gold Cup Murder" set at the Cheltenham races. There was "The Sleeping Bomb" which is one of the great covers of all time. That's one of Dick Clifton Dey's first covers for NEL. The cover was wonderful. Jim did "The Marathon Murder" which was the book he supposedly wrote in a week.
HOME: I've heard some interesting stories about that book because it is the one where he went on "BBC2 Late Night Line-Up" and was given a plot outline, then had to go back a week later with the completed manuscript.
JAMES: I think it was Jim's idea to pretend to do a book under great pressure, as a media stunt.
HOME: I think as far as the TV audience were concerned, Jim went on the show one week and was given a plot outline and then wrote the book in a week and then NEL got it out the week after that. I've been told that the book was written and ready for the printer before Jim was given the outline on air.
JAMES: Yes. I mean he cheated slightly because the brief he had was very loose and sloppy and so Jim just fitted in something he was going to write anyway.
HOME: How did the book actually do?
JAMES: It was a total disaster, an utter disaster. I think we probably printed something like a hundred thousand and sold about twenty. It seemed a good idea. Jim fulfilled his part perfectly well. He wrote a perfectly acceptable book but it had a very dull cover. It's a perfectly competent piece of writing but Jim did get worse and worse as he went on.
HOME: There are a few other figures I'd like to ask you about. Did you have anything to do with the Sam Fuller book "144 Piccadilly"?
JAMES: That was mine. I bought that book. It didn't do very well. I thought it was a smashing book. I bought it really cuz I thought I'd got a chance to meet Sam Fuller and I never did. It was a lovely book.
HOME: So how did you get offered it?
JAMES: It was published in the States and it was sent by an agent in a big box of stuff. I fought very hard to do it because I thought it was a great idea and there was talk of a movie as well. Sam Fuller was going to make a movie from it, which he never did and he was going to come to London which he didn't. It's a good book, an interesting book. It's clearly an American's book looking at the London situation, so in some sense, it's slightly flawed. If I wrote about Los Angeles gangs I would obviously make some mistakes and Fuller does this occasionally, he's not always quite on the ball.
HOME: How many books were NEL publishing a year?
JAMES: Probably something like sixty or seventy hardbacks and one hundred and fifty to two hundred paperbacks. And there were only two of us. I was working much of the time with a bloke called Mark Howell who's now editing a newspaper in Key West. We had a good time at NEL, we were doing all the commissioning, we were doing all the contracting, we were writing all the blurbs, doing any editing, proof reading that went on as well. It was good. An astronomical amount of work.
HOME: For what was supposed to have been a hack operation, you had a few writers who are now quite well respected by the literary establishment. You had Chris Priest.
JAMES: That's right. Chris was doing hack writing all the time under a variety of names and I bought him as a serious writer, books like "Fugue For A Darkening Island".
HOME: Who wrote the NEL horror books?
JAMES: I think they were mostly bought in from America. An agent called Singer used to handle a lot of stuff like that. Horror generally wasn't selling all that well. Not as well as science fiction in those days. We did things like re-publishing the Asimov juveniles, which weren't actually great literature but they were quite fun. They'd never been done before in England and you could sell forty thousand of them effortlessly. We did Heinlein juveniles as well.
HOME: Also, you had Peter Haining at NEL who edited some very impressive horror anthologies.
JAMES: Yes, he's a great anthologist, a brilliant anthologist. He included the first story I ever had published in one of his anthologies, a story called 'Mercy' and it's in "The Unspeakable People" that he did for Leslie Frewin.
HOME: So that was in the 60s.
JAMES: That would have been in the late 60s. That was the first story I had published. Then I had stories published in New Worlds and in Corgi New Writing series, I had short stories published. Then I more or less gave up short story writing.
HOME: Another person I wanted to ask you about was Tony Lopez who wrote a gangster series called 'The Hoods' and is now a well respected academic poet.
JAMES: He was after my time. There was a very hectic period during the early seventies when the Los Angeles Times Mirror who owned New English Library and New American Library as well, they came over intending to close down New English Library because it was a loss making operation. Bob Tanner had just been managing director there and he'd come from wholesale newsagenting and he brought Peter Haining in as the editor. Anthony Cheatham worked there for a time as well and it was such an incredibly low budget operation that year after year it made money. Very few of the books I bought lost money. There's a book by Mervyn Peake's widow Maeve Gilmore, I think that probably lost money, but it was still a nice book. We published Mary Whitehouse as well. To have Mary Whitehouse on the same list as the skinhead books and Harold Robbins, I thought was quite cool.
HOME: You reprinted "The Hell-Fire Club" and "The History of Torture" by Daniel P. Mannix.
JAMES: I love Mannix.
HOME: Did you ever have any direct contact with him.
JAMES: No. Mannix wrote a book called "Memoirs Of A Sword Swallower". That was one of my great seminal books when I was about 14 and it was a time when they were bringing out books like Stetson Kennedy "I Rode With The Ku Klux Klan", these really weird American pulp non-fiction books and "Memoirs Of A Sword Swallower" is a classic of the genre. But I don't know anything about Mannix. or if he is still alive.
HOME: You were involved in producing jacket copy, have you got any particular favourites that you wrote?
JAMES: At the time, because there were only two of us, we would have to do as many as twenty or twenty-five blurbs a month. You were supposed to spread them out over the month and in fact you had the big production meeting on the last Friday of every month, so normally on the last Thursday of each month, after lunch, Mark Howard and I would do all the blurbs which would be about twenty-five blurbs between us. We would pass them backwards and forwards to come up with minimalist copy which would say things like "Two men, a town, the gold. They'll come together at rainbow's end" That would be it.
HOME: NEL blurbs often took a paragraph out of a novel and stuck it on the back cover.
JAMES: In fact that still goes on. English publishers don't use it all that much but at NEL we'd try to find a nice paragraph to stick at the top of the back cover and that was a third of the blurb done.
HOME: I think NEL had more in common with American pulp publishing than a traditional English approach.
JAMES: Mark Howell was an English public schoolboy who came from a background in American mass circulation journalism and I'd not been involved in paperback publishing before. The traditional paperback end of publishing was simply to publish hardback books in soft covers. You'd go to publishers like Michael Joseph or whoever and they'd send you their hardbacks and you'd buy them and put them out in paperback. That was the traditional way it was done but that was too expensive for NEL so we originated an enormous amount of material in-house and we had people like Alex R. Stuart, Peter Cave, Chris Priest, Terry Harknett who did the Edge western series and they were extremely successful. In the end even the authors made some money out of it, they earned royalties. Even Mary Whitehouse made money. Mary Whitehouse's great skill was she'd give talks, and authors, as you know you're allowed to buy copies at trade, most authors now and again might buy about three copies of one of their books to give to their relatives or whatever, but Mary Whitehouse used to send for about twelve hundred copies of her books at trade price and then she'd sell them at her talks and lectures. She did very well out of it.
HOME: Was publishing Mary Whitehouse your idea?.
JAMES: Yes. My idea originally had been to do a biography of Mary Whitehouse because I thought it would be really interesting to see what the lady was really about. I thought I'd write to her first and ask if she wanted to do an autobiography and when she said no, I'd then go ahead and get a journalist to do a biography. To my amazement Mary Whitehouse agreed to do an autobiography. She was a very enthusiastic, very nice lady. I think a lot of her ideas are incredibly extreme but she is inherently a decent person. I can't mock Mary Whitehouse because she has decent beliefs although she carries them too far. Her ideas about censorship I can't agree with at all, but her basic ideas of protecting young children, you can't really argue against it. As I say she took her ideas too far. But she was good, we got a Foyles literary luncheon for her. The only Foyles literary luncheon NEL ever had in those days. Lord Longford was there, it was good.
HOME: To move on to your own writing, how did you get the idea for the first Angel's book?
JAMES: I thought I could write, I wanted to try it. I always think the great trick about writing is you can either do it or you can't, like creative writing courses seem to me a waste of time because I genuinely believe you either have the talent or you don't and you can improve that talent, you can hone it a bit, but if you can't do it, you can't do it. I didn't know whether I could do a novel or not. I'd done short stories and I thought I'd try a novel. The Angels books were about fifty thousand words, and so I did the first one, which as I say was bought and was successful and then I did the other three which followed on and they were all successful, they all did well.
HOME: So how did you actually set about writing the first one? It was your first novel. What was your actual modus operandi for its production?
JAMES: It was triggered by the opening episode at Hither Green station, where there's this long tunnel, because I lived in Hither Green for a time and I always thought it was really creepy, this pedestrian tunnel that ran under the railway. The tunnel was only about five or six foot wide and I always had this nightmare that you'd be walking along late at night and some guy on a motor bike would come thundering down the other way. That was what triggered the opening scene in the book. Everything else came from that. As I say, I'd read Hunter Thompson's book and I'd seen some of the Angels movies We also wrote two Hell's Angels magazines in-house at NEL. Mark Howell and I wrote those.
HOME: I understand you actually made up the interviews with the bikers and angels.
JAMES: Yes (laughter), yes. I'm sorry, yes I did, this is true.
HOME: No, no I admire that approach.
JAMES: We started off by doing a Johnny Cash magazine. That was the first magazine we ever did in-house cuz Johnny Cash was booked for a big tour and so we wrote this magazine and it had lots of personal messages to his fans from Johnny and we made all that up and in the end he didn't come over but we still sold a lot of magazines, which was really interesting. The Hell's Angels magazines sold extremely well, I mean very, very well.
HOME: The Angels magazines are very straight fake reportage, your Angels novels are much more interesting.
JAMES: What I wanted to do was shift the genre a little bit, kind of move the genre sideways from just the straight Hell's Angels narrative to something that was, in a sense, subversive, slightly more political. That was why I set it in the future. A much more reactionary future, which now, I mean, a lot of the things in that did come true in terms of the new Criminal Justice Act which is gonna go through. That's the kind of Act that is imagined by making the Hell's Angels actually outlaws. I mean genuine outlaws, not just disliked, but actually illegal. In the same way the Criminal Justice Act will hit at raves and that kind of thing.
HOME: So to go back to the first book, you said you got the idea from the opening scene. Before you wrote the book did you know how it was going to end?
JAMES: It wasn't actually going to be a series. I didn't see it being a series of books. I thought there was always a chance. As far as possible, you keep your hero alive. By the time I'd finished the first book and they'd bought it, it then seemed to me there was a strong possibility I could do at least another two. Current events that were happening then find their way into the books. Particularly the police, the power of the police, the increasing power of the police. It was nice to be able to use the Angels. I think the thing about the Hell's Angels is that they are uniquely tribal. There were probably no more than a thousand serious registered members of the Hell's Angels in America even in their hey-day. In England there was only a tiny handful but what they represented was this incredibly close knit, Samurai-like closed warrior cult, with their own laws, their own rules, their own ideas of chivalry in the sense of protecting each other. The nearest parallel is probably the masons. A masonic order is a closed order whose members mainly help each other, help themselves and they have their own rules and their own rituals as well. Masonic rituals are actually no more arcane than the rituals of Hell's Angels marriage. I think that's what attracted me, the idea of an outlaw group operating on the very fringes of society.
HOME: You allude to the Angry Brigade in the books and say that the anarchists had once been a beacon of hope but now the Angels represented the only hope for freedom.
JAMES: That was never a realistic thought, it was an image. I think tiny fringe groups are a political hope because they're not leaned upon by other large organisations. Groups like the Angry Brigade.
HOME: You had no contact with that Notting Hill/Stoke Newington scene?
JAMES: No. Obviously I was aware of it through newspapers and television, but not directly. They were no real influence on the books in that sense at all. One of the things that I enjoyed in the Angels books was putting the small chapters in between which are kind of media parodies of television, film, newspaper interviews.
HOME: I thought that was one of the nice things about those novels.
JAMES: Yes. One straight chapter and then the little chapters which I would cut in. I enjoyed doing that. I always enjoy pastiche and parody. You can actually have fake government documents saying really extreme things and you could get away with that and it would work within the structure of the books.
HOME: I really like the poem supposedly written by a schoolboy.
JAMES: Funnily enough, last night I was reading through the end of the last book again and I really got quite moist eyed at the end of it and I thought I like that, because that of course was Brian Jones's death and Jagger reading Shelley at Hyde Park and releasing butterflies. Most of them were dead and they just fell out of the boxes onto the floor, but the idea was nice. That was what triggered that poem in the last Angels book.
HOME: I understand you were going to do a fifth Angels book but it was never written.
JAMES: Yes, John Harvey did a couple because by then I'd gone full time. I quit publishing and decided I wanted to be a full time writer and I got contracts to do books for Mayflower and another series for NEL. The NEL series was "Wolf's Head" which was the Saxon and Norman series which I did with Ken Bulmer and I did another series for Mayflower called "The Killers" under the name Klaus Netzen and I did a series for Mayflower about gladiators which was "The Eagles" and that was written by Andrew Quiller which is a nice pun producing 'aquila', the Latin for eagle.
HOME: When I was at school, after I read your books I read the two Harvey novels which were published under the name Thom Ryder. Harvey's prose was much softer than your writing. One of the things I noticed upon re-reading them when I was older were things like the T. S. Eliot references. For example, Thom Ryder has a character called J Arthur Prunefork who'd say things like "that was not what I intended".
JAMES: Yes, John had been a school teacher. I've had a crack at a similar kind of thing, in this series I'm currently doing, this American male action adventure series called "Deathlands". I'm constantly putting in references and my American editors love it when I put in a little bit of Schiller or a bit of Eliot, bits of Robert Frost and you know, "the woods are silent, dark and deep, I have promises to keep". The editors just love this and I love doing it. I can't resist putting in quotes and pastiches, I put a Mervyn Peake pastiche in the last "Deathlands" book. It's a nice self-indulgent thing to do, but it mustn't ever intrude. You mustn't ever have the reader thinking "Christ, what's going on here, I don't understand this bit, this doesn't make sense". It's got to be part of the book, it's got to work within the structure of the book. So, if people get the joke, that's fine and if they don't it doesn't matter.
HOME: To go back to your Angels books, there's the obvious Stones reference with the Angels doing the security at gigs but are the bands actually based on anyone in particular?
JAMES: I think the glam band was probably based on The Sweet because they were really very heavy glam rock, lots of glitter at the time, but the main band wasn't really based on anybody at all. It was a totally fabricated band. In fact the band has loads of private jokes in it. Isn't the drummer called Chris Rees? Chris Priest. I've got a feeling he is, if I remember rightly. And some of the band tracks have family references and things like that. I think one of the band is Matt David and my two sons are Matthew and David and it's full of stuff like that. Obviously, there are a lot of Dylan references as well.
HOME: One of the other things I think is very impressive in your Angels books is the sex. I could imagine you having problems with people at NEL with the levels of sadism in some of the sex. The scene that always stuck in my mind was the young girls who tried to sneak into a pop concert and after getting caught by the Angels they are punished by being shaved, covered in glitter and marched naked onto the stage with a whip swishing behind them.
JAMES: Yes, that in a sense spins off from stories like Plaster Casters and "Groupie". Jenny Fabian's book "Groupie" was one of the great books of the time. I read a lot of books about Stones tours and what goes on but I think, in a sense, that's the defence. If people criticise, you say, yeah, but at least I haven't got anybody fucking a dead fish. I mean this is really quite moderate compared to what really goes on.
HOME: You had an MP stroking a dog while being beaten by a prostitute.
JAMES: That's utterly realistic.
HOME: You never had any criticism over that?
JAMES: No, none at all.
HOME: There's quite a lot of cunnilingus in the books, and a lot of homoerotic material, was that a problem at NEL?.
JAMES: Bob Tanner found gay sex quite a problem and we always had to slip that through. The Angels books weren't read by the senior directors. I consciously put in things like the oral sex. People were much more worried about the violence.
HOME: What actually gave you the idea for having a chapter of gay Angels in satins who were harder than the straight Angels in leathers?
JAMES: One of the things I always try and do in all my writing is actually to subvert expectations. I thought gay Angels would do that.
HOME: You've written a lot of novels since you did the Hells Angel books.
JAMES: I've done a lot, 165 books in twenty years. At times I was doing 14 books a year, westerns, they're only about fifty thousand words. Currently with the "Deathlands" series which is this post nuclear holocaust series set about ninety years after the world has gone, civilisation has vanished, which is really just a futuristic western series. I'm on number twenty-eight. These are much longer novels, one hundred and twenty-five thousand words, so I'm doing six of these a year which is actually more than when I was doing fourteen westerns a year. It's all relative. I did twelve "Confessions" books which was fun to start with but it got very tedious. A lot of westerns, children's books, some with my younger son Matthew that did very well, some horror books, women's fiction under pseudonyms. Altogether, over 150 books under about twenty pseudonyms. Whatever the publishers wanted. Westerns when the publishers wanted westerns, then I moved on when they wanted something else. Films were always a big influence, I'd extrapolate scenes from stuff I'd seen and liked in movies...
There's a lot more on tape after this but it seems like a good place to end because from here I can loop back to my introduction. As I've said, Leon Hunt's "British Low Culture" spurred me into transcribing this interview and he quite correctly observes that film more obviously influenced 'Mick Norman' than 'Richard Allen'. Chapter 5 of Hunt's book " 'Knuckle Crazy': 'Youthsploitation' Fiction" is a suggestive overview of the relationship between the 'Mick Norman' and 'Richard Allen' books. However, it does me no favours by citing the use I make of 'Richard Allen' in my novels as proof of the greater cultural cachet of the skinhead series. Hunt may be correct about 'Richard Allen's' current standing, but in my early fiction I was making critical use of books James Moffatt wrote under a variety of names, as well as the work of many other authors, most obviously the likes of Peter Cave and 'Mick Norman'. I have read a great many books since I first came across 'Mick Norman' as a twelve year-old schoolboy but few have had the impact "Angel Challenge" and "Guardian Angels" had on me at that time. I was reading 'Richard Allen', Peter Cave and Michael Moorcock, but I'd never read anything like 'Mick Norman'. Back in 1974, his books were both thrilling and shocking. This may or may not be nostalgia for a time when there really appeared to be 'no future'.
An abridged version of this interview appeared in Entropy #6 Summer 1998.
Richard Allen, Mick Norman & Other New English Library Youthspoitation Novelists of the 1970s
Some reflections of on work of James Moffatt (AKA 'Richard Allen')
Jazz Clubs, Drugs and Proto-Mods: Terry Taylor’s seminal London youth culture novel “Baron’s Court, All Change”
Books & Writing
Writer Laurence James (1942-2000) circa 1980.
Writer Laurence James (1942-2000) circa 1970.
I got to know Laurence James in the mid-nineties after I'd mentioned the novels he'd written using the pseudonym Mick Norman in an interview with "New Musical Express" stringer Steven Wells. Laurence's eldest son DJ spotted my enthusiastic words about his dad's early novels and he showed them to his father, who then got in touch with me. I suggested to Laurence that it would be fabulous to see the Mick Norman books back in print, and when he said he didn't know anyone who'd be interested in republishing them, I replied I knew people who'd love to reissue his early work. I took him to independent publisher Creation Books who very successfully reissued all four Mick Norman Hell's Angels novels in an omnibus edition. I spoke to Laurence pretty regularly on the phone after this, and saw him in person more sporadically. After a mystery illness lasting many years, Laurence died on 10 February 2000, but he lives on in the memory of his family and many friends, as well as through his books.
STEWART HOME'S INTRODUCTION TO ANGELS FROM HELL: THE ANGEL CHRONICLES by Mick Norman (Creation Books, London 1994)
"They both thought there had been something in the ideals of the old Angry Brigade, but that was long over. Now there really wasn't that much left." Mick Norman.
Looking back, I'd say '74 was a frustrating year. I was stuck at Sheerwater Secondary School, geared up in Oxford bags and tank tops. The really hip kids wore cherry red DMs but all I had was a pair of army boots and some wedges. Glam rock was on the wane and there was a fifty fifty chance of being turned away from the cinema when I lied about my age as I attempted to get into Bruce Lee flicks.
At school, various paperbacks were passed around beneath the desks. The "Confessions" books were popular, but I got bored with those and took to reading youth cult stuff by Richard Allen and Peter Cave. One day I wandered into Woolworths and left with a copy of "Guardian Angels" by Mick Norman. At the time, I thought it was the strangest novel I'd ever read. Set in the near future, it was both apocalyptic and politically progressive.
Today, Mick Norman's bike books appear prophetic, imbued as they are with the atmosphere of a country reeling under the blows of unemployment and economic decline. Re-reading these novels makes the boom years of the eighties seem like a mirage, an unrealisable dream. It's as if the imminent threat of political violence and social breakdown has been hanging over us for the past twenty years.
Mick Norman is a pen-name of Laurence James, who was an editor at New English Library in the early seventies. "Angels From Hell" was his first book and once a colleague accepted it for publication, Laurence revealed to his startled work-mates that he'd authored the novel and submitted it under a fake name. Back in the seventies, New English Library was a creative hot-house. The legendary Peter Haining was in charge of the operation. Under his direction, a handful of talented authors, such as Christopher Priest and James Moffatt, hacked out endless youthsploitation novels using dozens of different pseudonyms.
As an editor, James cleaned up innumerable manuscripts prior to publication, including such million-sellers as "Skinhead" and "Suedehead". However, with the success of his Hells Angels books, he swapped his editorial duties for the life of a professional writer. Soon he was churning out a slew of cowboy novels. More recently, Laurence has been hard at work as James Axler, authoring the excellent "Deathlands" survivalist series. But that's another story. Right now, all you need to do is sit back and enjoy the best biker books ever written...
High Art Lite: British art in the 1990s by Julian Stallabrass (Verso) and Nobrow: The Culture of Marketing the Marketing of Culture by John Seabrook (Methuen).
Heated debates about the influence of the market on cultural production have been raging for several hundred years. No surprise then to find two recent books exploring this territory, albeit from rather different perspectives. Despite the erosion of cultural distinctions being noisily denounced for centuries, the fact that John Seabrook specialises in lightweight journalism, while Julian Stallabrass produces serious art criticism, shimmers through every sentence of their respective tomes.
High art lite is the term Stallabrass uses to describe what more often (and less accurately) goes by the name of young British art. For Stallabrass, this is conceptualism with a pop content calculated to attract media attention and facilitate sales in the art market. Exhaustively listing my disagreements with High Art Lite isn't possible here, but some of the problems Stallabrass needs to address can be seen in the following passage about Sam Taylor-Wood: "She fly-posted the Brick Lane area of London, an area where the population is largely Asian, with a picture of herself wearing a T-shirt bearing a swastika and the name of the symbol written in Sanskrit. While the swastika was the original kind, not the reversed version used by the Nazis, such niceties were lost on the inhabitants of the area, for the posters were swiftly defaced... To paste such a work up around Brick Lane which, though subject to a slow process of gentrification, is still the site of potentially murderous conflict between its Asian and white population, was... not perhaps effective enough to be dangerous but nevertheless frivolous and irresponsible."
The problem of overt racist intimidation in the Brick Lane area has to a large extent been resolved not through gentrification, but by community self-defence against fascism. Here, as in other places, Stallabrass can be read as equating racism with the working class - although it seems unlikely this is something he consciously intends. In fact, the gentrification of Brick Lane may well have served to exacerbate the effects of the systematic discrimination suffered by the local Bangladeshi community in terms of both housing and jobs. While Stallabrass acknowledges what Eddie Chambers and others have to say about institutional racism in the art world, his readiness to assume that individual cultural workers are innocent of (what is often unconscious) bigotry, indicates he hasn't properly worked through the issues involved.
In the instance of Sam Taylor-Wood plastering Muslim homes and businesses with swastikas, Stallabrass should not presuppose that because her posters were defaced, those targeted missed the 'niceties' of the symbol being used in its Hindu form. Thousands of people died in Hindu/Muslim conflicts on the Indian subcontinent before Pakistan was established as an Islamic republic in 1947. Eastern Pakistan broke away to become the separate state of Bangladesh in 1971. These events would have formed an important part of the background that shaped the reception of Taylor-Wood's 'art' among Brick Lane's Sylheti speakers. Long-standing Hindu/Muslim conflicts mean that members of Brick Lane's Islamic community were likely to have had a more nuanced understanding of the Taylor-Wood piece under discussion than those who attend her private views. Likewise, it shouldn't be forgotten that high caste Hindus have been configured as 'Aryans' by fascist race theorists, while some of those consigned to the untouchable caste denounce the Hindu BJP as a Nazi political party. By not addressing the specificities of Brick Lane's Bangladeshi community, Stallabrass avoids making a critique of Taylor-Wood that might undermine his assumptions about the art world having less need to tackle the issue of racism than working class communities.
Elsewhere, after mentioning hybridity theory, Stallabrass claims: "multiculturalism... is just what the establishment wants to hear from black artists, being a good deal less threatening than the cultural expression... of separatist and Afrocentric ideas..." Since separatism cannot exist without hybridity and vice versa (they are two poles of a single struggle for black liberation), to claim that one is more 'threatening' than the other is pointless. Hybridity and Afrocentrism usefully produce different effects in different places. Likewise, Stallabrass has been seduced by right-wing rhetoric when he defines so called political correctness as inverted vulgar Marxism. Political correctness is a term of abuse designed to short-circuit debate and derail social struggles. Obviously, it is foolish to let reactionaries cede off whole swathes of everyday life with empty sneers about whinging and ideological irrelevance. Addressing specifics, while simultaneously making sure that contestation takes place on all fronts, is infinitely preferable to indulging in arid abstractions about superstructural redundancy.
Having set out to attack commodity culture, Stallabrass would have made a more effective critique if he'd stepped back from the art world. His academic rigour is undermined by the weakness of his social thinking and a lack of interest in popular culture. Nevertheless, Stallabrass pisses over John Seabrook's Nobrow, which reads like a cross between Dick Hebdige's Hiding In The Light and Joan Shelley Rubin's The Making Of Middle Brow Culture, recast in the form of the autobiography of a style journalist. Seabrook turns what might have made an acceptable 500 word article about Tina Brown's stint as editor at the New Yorker into an unnecessarily distended book. Reading Nobrow I was somewhat puzzled as to who Seabrook thought he was writing for, until I hit page 56:: "...one thing I had noticed about The New Yorker under Tina Brown - she definitely put the magazine on my parents' social map even as she marginalized their way of life. The fact that my parents had a source of inside information on the goings-on at Tina's much-talked-about New Yorker was a status advantage in their circles."
It is unlikely anyone who isn't part of John Seabrook's family circle will find much of interest in Nobrow. In the final chapter Seabrook writes about the failure of his first book Deeper, complaining he got a huge advance but didn't make the best-seller list - to which I can only say 'didums'. Precisely because Seabrook is desperate for a place in what he styles 'the buzz', he is unable to create any distance between himself and the culture he sets out to explore. While Stallabrass doesn't always succeed in shaking off the ideological baggage that comes with his background, he at least attempts to do so - and with the help of constructive criticism, he will hopefully work through some of the issues he urgently needs to address. Seabrook, unfortunately, never does more than go through the motions of 'producing' 'critique'. Despite serious flaws in his thinking, Stallabrass puts a great deal of effort into dealing with art historical issues, whereas Seabrook's autobiographical musings make cultural studies plodders like John A. Walker appear sophisticated in comparison.
First published in Mute #17 June/July 2000.