Show Hide image

Wilko Johnson: “It’d be hard to make a living with a lute and curly shoes”

Wilko Johnson answers the New Statesman Q&A.

What’s your earliest memory?
Running down a hill and shouting, “I won’t be long!” Of course, there are no hills on Canvey Island. This must have been a heap of detritus from a building site but, to my three-year-old self, it was a Kilimanjaro.

Who was your childhood hero?
“Bill”, the captain of the Queen Mary. My adult hero? The guy who stood in front of the tanks in Tiananmen Square. I can never watch this footage without choking up, and I don’t even know his name.

What was the last book that changed your thinking?
Lately, Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban, Moby-Dick, and The Third Policeman by Brian O’Nolan. Every one a winner.

What politician, past or present, do you look up to?
How do you look up to the shit on your shoes? Politicians past are the fabrications of historians. Politicians present are squares, mediocrities, liars, time-serving cowards, thieves, dimwits and [consults thesaurus for suitable epithets and finds it wanting].

What would be your Mastermind special subject?
My recent appearance on University Challenge would discourage me from any such attempt. Maybe the works of the food engineer and science-fiction author E E “Doc” Smith, which I sometimes read compulsively. It’s like feasting on dolly mixtures and is not to be recommended.

Which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live in?
Shakespeare’s time. I could verify all the disputed texts of the plays, or I could be a groundling and piss off Burbage by shouting out, “That is the question!” at the appropriate moment. Making a living might be a problem – hard to play “Johnny B Goode” with a lute and curly shoes.

What TV show could you not live without?
Family Guy, though I think my family could live without the theme tune bellowing through the house at 3am.

Who would paint your portrait?
Salvador Dalí. I first experienced Dalí on a school outing to the Tate Gallery in the Sixties, and I still remember the thrill of finding there was a world full of colour and mystery and laughter far away from GCEs. Give me the Spaniard. Exhibitionist, charlatan, vulgarian? “Avida Dollars”? I’ve got the money.

What’s your theme tune?
“Greensleeves”. So stately and mysterious. Who would not die broken-hearted for the Lady Greensleeves?

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received? And have you followed it?
“Never listen to any prat so pretentious as to give you advice.” I have followed this advice unswervingly, which is why I’m so rich and famous.

What’s currently bugging you?
The fecundity of the vegetable kingdom. My garden is turning into a dangerous jungle.

What single thing would make your life better?
If my dear wife, Irene, could rise from her grave and tell me, “Everything’s all right.”

If you weren’t a musician, what would you be?
I’ve always been deficient in ambition or aspiration and I’ve just gone where life took me. I became a musician quite by accident.

Are we all doomed?
Of course. As William Burroughs said, “the planet drifts to random insect doom”. 

Wilko Johnson’s memoir “Don’t You Leave Me Here” is published by Abacus

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

Show Hide image

Edinburgh in the time of Harry Potter - growing up in a city that became famous for a book

At first, JK Rowling was considered a local author done good, rather than fiction’s future megastar. 

In an Edinburgh playground, circa 1998, I found myself excluded from one of the world’s first Harry Potter cliques. My best friend Sophie had a copy of a book with a title which seemed indecipherable to me, but she insisted it was so good she couldn’t possibly let me read it. Instead, she and the other owner of a book huddled together in corners of our concrete, high-walled playground. I was not invited.

Exclusion worked. Somehow I procured a copy of this book, rather sceptically read the praise on the cover, and spent the next day avoiding all company in order to finish it. After my initiation into the small-but-growing clique, I read the second book, still in hardback.

Edinburgh at that time was something of a backwater. Although it still had the same atmospheric skyline, with the castle dominating the city, the Scottish Parliament was yet to open, and the Scottish banks were still hatching their global domination plans. The most famous author of the moment was Irvine Welsh, whose book Trainspotting chronicled a heroin epidemic.

In this city, JK Rowling was still considered to be a local author done good, rather than fiction’s future megastar. She gave talks in the Edinburgh Book Festival, a string of tents in the posh West End Charlotte Square. By the time I saw her (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, hardback edition, 1999), she had graduated from the tepee to the big tent reserved for authors like Jacqueline Wilson and Michael Rosen. At the end we queued up for the book signing, and she told me she liked my purple dungarees.

At that time, there were no films, and what the characters should look and sound like was a constant playground debate. Another member of the Harry Potter clique I spoke to, Sally*, remembers how excited she was that “she did the same voice for Hagrid that my mum did when she was reading it to me”.

About the same time, a rumour spread around school so incredible it took a while to establish it was true. JK Rowling was moving to the street where some of our Harry Potter clique lived. We started taking detours for the privilege of scurrying past the grand Victorian house on the corner, with its mail box and security keypad. The mail box in particular became a focus of our imagination. Sophie and I laboured away on a Harry Potter board game which – we fervently believed – would one day be ready to post.

Gradually, though, it was not just ten-year-olds peeping through the gate. The adults had read Harry Potter by now. Journalists were caught raking through the bins.

Sally recalls the change. “It was exciting [after she first moved in], but as it was just after the first book it wasn’t as much of a big deal as it soon became,” she recalls. “Then it just felt a little bizarre that people would go on tours to try and get a glimpse of her house.

“It just felt like an ordinary area of town with ordinary people and it made me realise the price that comes with fame.”

Edinburgh, too, began to change. As teenagers (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, 2003) we liked to gather at the Elephant House cafe, on the bohemian George IV Bridge. We knew it was one of the cafes JK Rowling had written in, but we also liked its round wooden tables, and its bagels, and the fact you got one of the hundreds of miniature elephants that decorated the café if your bagel was late. It became harder and harder to get a seat.

We scoffed at the tourists. Still, we were proud that Harry Potter had put our city on the map. “As I grew older, it was fun to think of her writing the books in local cafes and just being an ordinary person living in Edinburgh with a great imagination,” Sally says. As for me, it was my trump card during long summers spent with bored Canadian teenagers, who had not heard and did not care about anything else relating to my teenage life in Scotland.

The last in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, was published in July 2007, a month after I left high school. Not long after that, I left Edinburgh as well. The financial crash the following year stunned the city, and exiled graduates like me. I fell out the habit of reading fiction for fun. JK Rowling moved to a house on the outskirts of Edinburgh, ringed by 50 foot hedges. The Scottish independence referendum divided my friends and family. On Twitter, Rowling, firmly pro-union, was a target for cybernats.

Then, two years ago, I discovered there is another Harry Potter city – Porto. As in Edinburgh, medieval passageways wind past stacked old houses, and the sea is never far away. JK Rowling lived here between 1991 and 1993, during her short-lived marriage, and drafted the first three chapters of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. In the university district, students wear black, ragged gowns, and the fantastical wooden carvings of the Livraria Lello bookshop is tipped to be the inspiration for some of the aesthetic Rowling applies to the books.

I don’t know whether it did or not. But it made me realise that no city can possess an author, and not only because she could afford to any part of the globe at whim. Standing in the bookshop and watching the students drift by, I could imagine myself in some corner of the Harry Potter world. And simultaneously, perhaps, some tourists queueing for a table at the Elephant House were doing the same.

*Name has been changed

Now read the other articles included in the New Statesman’s Harry Potter Week.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

0800 7318496