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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

The Isle of Man, from where author Zoe Gilbert hails. CREDIT: GETTY
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Zoe Gilbert’s original debut novel Folk feeds our new appetite for myth

Is Folk a novel? Its publisher says so, but I’m not sure.

I’ll put up my hands and make an admission: I don’t read many contemporary novels. Most of them seem, well, too contemporary. For a long time, much “literary” fiction has skated along the surface of modern urban life, engaging with the “interiority” of the middle-class mind and whatever cultural brouhaha is currently in fashion among the progressive literati.

The result is a kind of placid, smug dullness about which it’s mostly impossible to care: an Ian McEwan-isation of the soul. For years, writers shunned or simply ignored the old storytellers’ realms of mythology, image and the collective unconscious; the strange, magical depths which underlie all things, but which our society prefers to pretend is not really there.

But something is stirring. In recent years, novelists have begun to venture out beyond the shores of reason, beyond the city and sometimes beyond the human, too. The result is a small blooming of books, and of films and music, which are exploring this strange otherness again. Writers such as Daisy Johnson, Andrew Michael Hurley, Sylvia Linsteadt and Ben Myers are pushing the boundaries of what has been called “folk horror”. They, in turn, are drawing from a thriving underworld of eeriness, folk culture and myth that is perhaps unparalleled in Britain since the 1970s.

What is going on here? Well, people are hungry. Hungry for real meat, and missing what they don’t know they have lost. What we might call the “folk soul” still undergirds our vision of the world, however many gadgets we use to navigate it. Why else would the likes of Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings continue to grip the popular imagination?

The surface is not enough. Our culture is starving people of spiritual and mythic nourishment. We barely even know what these words mean any more, so how would our writers know how to engage with them? Yet when our stories remain stuck in a permanent present, something is missing – something old, strange and sacred. “Fantasy” novelists such as Alan Garner, M John Harrison and the late Ursula K Le Guin, have long known this better than their “literary” counterparts.

In this vein comes Folk, the debut novel by Zoe Gilbert, a past winner of the Costa Short Story Award. It draws deeply from the old tales of the Isle of Man, from where the author hails, to give us a book which is genuinely original, disturbing, beautiful and gripping. It is both a joy to read, and –always a bonus – a tricky book to pin down

Is Folk a novel? Its publisher says it is, but I’m not sure. It has recurring characters, but no single storyline; each chapter could stand alone. So is it a collection of short stories? Yes, but no: the same characters recur throughout, popping in and out of each others’ tales and adding to the weight of the whole. That whole makes up a convincing world peopled with distinctive characters, a verdant, living landscape and a liminality of strange beings who regularly intrude upon the everyday lives of the humans.

Perhaps Folk is neither a novel nor a collection of stories; perhaps it is a map. Indeed, one of its attractions for me is that a map of Neverness, the fictional village in which the stories are set, is the first thing you see when you open the book. (I am a sucker for books with maps in the front: I grew up on fantasy novels, and the cartography was always part of the attraction.) Folk can be read as a map of the British mythic imagination: of the river under the river. Starkly original and expertly written, it draws you, like a faerie song, into a kingdom from which you may never escape, and may not want to.

Gilbert’s writing has shades of Le Guin and Angela Carter, and like both of those authors she knows that real mythology, real folk culture, has a core of darkness to it; a core that both repels and entices. True fairytales are not fluffy, and they often do not have happy endings. There is an undercurrent of earthy danger here; a raw sexuality too, unashamed of itself.

A young boy is burned alive in a gorse bush, seeing visions of angels; a girl’s father kills and skins her pet hares; a woman is kidnapped by a water bull and ravished beneath the waves; a girl drowns her father by mistake; a woman murders her sister to steal her lover. But the darkness is not revelled in or overdone; it is intrinsic to the book’s realism. “Realism” might seem a bizarre word to use about tales set in a mythic land in which men are born with wings for arms and women become hares. But in a book like this, it is imperative that the newly-minted world has an internal logic and consistency.

Folk succeeds triumphantly in this regard. Reading its chapters – which have titles like “The Neverness Ox-men”, “Fishskin, Hareskin”, and “A Winter Guest” – is like sitting by a fire with some old storyteller, listening to the strange tales of his people. The work that has gone into creating the world of Neverness has paid off. These seem like stories from a real place.

This is the marker of the novel’s success: that immersion in its world makes that world seem, for a while, more real than the one you are living in. More appealing, too. When you turn the last page, you may find yourself looking out of the window, or at the screen of your phone or laptop, with a pang of regret and a sense of loss. Then you might find yourself returning to Neverness, like the children return to Narnia. It beats what passes at the moment for “reality”, and it is more human, too. 

“Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist” by Paul Kingsnorth is published in paperback by Faber & Faber

Zoe Gilbert
Bloomsbury, 256pp, £14.99

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game