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26 August 2023

John Niven’s chronicles of chaos

The author on the hedonism of Britpop and the long shadow of his brother’s suicide.

By Kate Mossman

John Niven was working as an A&R man at London Records in 1995 when some men from America came to talk to his office about how the internet was going to impact the music industry. The men were looking for an investment of £200k in a start-up called Yahoo. “In the future, kids are going to download music on their computers and they’ll be able to do it anywhere – in a train station, on a plane…” they said. Niven and his friends were generally high on cocaine at work in those days. “What?” he replied. “So you’ll download it on to the CD, and the CD will come out of your computer?”

There won’t be any CD, they replied.

“What about the album artwork? Would you print that off separately?”

The men tried to explain that there would be no CD, no artwork, to people incapable of grasping the concept of the digital download: they left empty-handed. Over redundancy drinks a few years later, the staff of London Records agreed they should have put £200k into Yahoo rather than making the second Menswear album.

It wasn’t Niven’s only poor professional decision. He was a terrible A&R man. He threw a demo from Muse in the bin and turned down Coldplay because they sounded too much like a substandard Radiohead: “I didn’t understand the appetite for a photocopy of a photocopy, deep to the bottom of the barrel,” he reflects, in his rich Ayrshire accent, on the wooden veranda of his house in High Wycombe. Niven thought Mogwai would be bigger than Pink Floyd, and he signed Mike Flowers for his debut album, not thinking the world might have had enough of Flowers’ easy-listening covers after “Wonderwall” and “Light My Fire”.  

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He left the music industry to write a novel about it, and Kill Your Friends, published in 2008, turned him into a rockstar. I was working for a music magazine at the time and had never heard such hype about a work of fiction: we called it the best British novel since Trainspotting. EMI had just been sold to venture capitalists and sales of physical music were in terminal decline. No one was talked about the Nineties then. Niven’s book – a kind of American Psycho of the Britpop era – made clear we would never see such wretched excess again, and suddenly it seemed like a golden age: craven, peopled with revolting folk and as compelling as Eighties Wall Street.

Jason Arthur, new to William Heinemann at the time, was the man who decided to publish it. He read a proof on holiday in Rome in 2006 and cried with laughter, but also thought it unprintable. “It was too scabrous. The allusions were too obvious. There was a passage featuring the Gallaghers [eventually removed]. So many people had turned it down,” Arthur recalls. “I really think people were scared of it in some way.” He took it on for a modest sum.

Arthur describes Niven as a “gentle soul”. “I think he can be very profound on toxic masculinity and its dangers, and he can almost be a ventriloquist,” he says. “He can inhabit his characters and it’s not just for laughs. But like Irvine Welsh, he didn’t live the life to the extent his characters did. People can miss that nuance.”

During our interview, Niven has three cigarettes and two cups of coffee: he deliberates over the second cup, hovering mid-air above his seat as though concerned he might sit down on something unpleasant, then standing back up and sliding into the kitchen. As he works the espresso machine, he explains that apart from the coffee and fags he is on a health kick – a major one. The day after Glastonbury this year he flew to Austria for Esquire magazine, to take part in a phenomenal new weight-loss programme (you can’t combine protein and carbs, and must have broth for dinner). He stayed in an exclusive health farm peopled by the wives of Russian oligarchs: from his window in the mountains he could see the towns’ restaurants, their tables steaming with schnitzel. Esquire expected him to “annihilate” the whole concept of the place, but they didn’t realise how seriously he was going to take it, losing 2.5 stone in six weeks and ringing up a €1,700 bill for herbal treatments.

Lunch today will be poached chicken. His leafy garden is great for entertaining, but this summer he hasn’t done any – he can’t eat the food. He is very open about his physicality. Anyone who’s read Kill Your Friends would expect him now, at 57, to be teetotal: “As we used to say in the music industry, Kate, if you have to stop drinking you’re a fucking loser!”

The rave era, Niven finds it much harder to be cynical about today: a wonderful time to be alive, he says, for those who made it through. Then he adds, “Rave was a bit like the marines. You might love the service but the service doesn’t love you back. If you’re doing 20 Es over the weekend for seven or eight years, what are you marching out of that with, in terms of serotonin issues? A lot of people didn’t come out of that war…” His speech is full of military metaphors.

He talks, unusually, using the royal we. “We’re not that bad. I mean, obviously you can see we still have plenty of vices. It’s only a few months, we’ll be fine.”

Reading the first draft of a novel is like watching a video of yourself masturbating, Niven says. In fact, there are vivid, Nivenesque descriptions of masturbation in his new book, O Brother, even though it is a book about suicide. In 2010, his younger brother Gary hanged himself at the age of 42 in Crosshouse Hospital, half an hour from Glasgow; he had been left unsupervised in a side room, having called an ambulance following a failed suicide attempt. The intubated Gary in his hospital bed is the image with which the book begins and ends – Niven actually scribbled things down in a notepad at the time: “Extreme emotional events like grief quite literally widen the pupils,” he suggests. “You see the world more vividly, in a hyper-real way.” But his book is also an account of two brothers – the good one (John): an RAF cadet who’d go home at lunch to watch Pebble Mill with his mum and got a first in English from Glasgow University. And the “bad wee stick” as his grandmother named Gary in what Niven thinks was a formative moment: small, reckless, fearless Gary who’d do anything the other boys dared him. “The flag-bearer, the one that runs into the bullets first, you know?”

[See also: Celebrating failure is a mistake]

Niven was born in Irvine, Ayrshire, which became the fifth and last of Scotland’s New Towns in the year he was born, 1966. There was new building and new money to accommodate the Glasgow overspill. His primary school smelled of fresh paint. His father, who drank not in the pub but at the local golf club, was an electrician who got a good gig rigging up an entire shopping mall; the family’s house had two garages.

Niven wrote O Brother to investigate “how the black sheep acquired its colouring”. Gary fought endlessly with their father, then never recovered from his death. He became a raver, then a dealer, then a prisoner, increasingly debilitated by mysterious “cluster headaches”. When he took his own life he was living in a flat furnished only with an Xbox and sofa, a samurai sword under the bed, a replica gun in the bedside cabinet, a noose in the garage and £3.42 to his name.

“I’m not in the business of writing self-help books,” Niven says. Instead, he compares himself to Edward Smith, the captain of the Titanic. “I had all the information in my hands and I wasn’t reading it properly. Gary was 42, he was male, he was single, he was unemployed, he’s got drug and alcohol issues, health problems, he’s living alone, his relationship has ended. The instrument panel is flashing red, but I don’t know that, because suicide is one of those subjects that you become a PhD in after it happens to you.”

Gary’s age had something to do with it. “Do you know what a breeches buoy transfer is, in the navy?” Niven asks. He is referring to an old-fashioned rescue process at sea whereby someone was transferred, ship to ship, using a harness and a rope slung between the two vessels.

“You get in this little bucket and zip between them,” he says. “Sometimes you’d have to do it in a very angry sea. If the waves were big enough, you’d reach a point in the middle where you couldn’t see the ship that you’ve come from, and you couldn’t see the ship you’re headed towards. Age is like that. In your early forties, for a lot of men, I think you’ve lost sight of where you’ve come from and what you wanted to be – that’s all the way behind you, and you can’t see where you’re going, but there’s a lot of life still to live.”

Niven is getting reactions not just from people affected by suicide, but by another taboo: living with “chaotic family members”, as he puts it – those people for whom rules don’t apply, and around whom life revolves, managed by ageing parents and siblings for years with love and despair. “It is very draining, and they tend to be the loudest, angriest voices in the room.” He compares arguing with his brother to watching Donald Trump: “The three-second memory span, the imperviousness to logic and truth, the utter shamelessness, the way you end up getting sucked on to their playing field, where you’re having to fight to defend the utterly self-evident.” The last words he spoke to his brother, when both were healthy, were “just f**k off”. His mother will not read the book.

“I think all writers have what Graham Greene called the chip of ice in the heart,” he concludes. “I’d rather have written five novels than this book. Writing novels is play for me: this was work.” But the book was “a stray thought that became a recurring thought, that eventually became the only thought possible”. In 2015 he sued Crosshouse Hospital for negligence, and won.

Niven started work at 5am today. As well as his own fiction he’s got four screenplays on the go for British productions, just one in ten of which is likely to be released (“It’s like doing the blueprints for an architect whose buildings never get made.”) Does he think male novelists are in a difficult spot these days?

“I mean, we had a pretty good f***ing run! We can’t complain. The bigger point is, men don’t read fiction – women buy seven novels for every one a man buys. Men read a lot more non-fiction, which is its own kind of sad story…”

Niven reached nadirs of bad behaviour and ill fortune over the years that, now and then, made his chaotic brother look like a success by comparison. As he confesses in O Brother, Niven walked out on his wife and small child in order to immerse himself in his drug-fuelled life in London. Later, living rent-free with a girlfriend’s family for four years while trying to get a novel off the ground, he would steal her brother’s loose change for beer money. He fantasised about life in smaller cities – Salisbury, Exeter – where he might start again alone, anonymously. He nearly joined the army. His violent imagination (he prefers to call it “dark”) often produces characters who “are not where they really want to be in life and are trying to get somewhere else”. But while the characters use extreme means to raise themselves up, Niven wrote books – ten novels in 15 years. His next is about “two star-crossed fathers” who meet in a maternity ward in Glasgow and he has just finished the first draft. One pities him, when he reads it back: like watching a video of himself masturbating.

[See also: Catherine Taylor’s “The Stirrings”: a memoir of girlhood in a time of rebellion]

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This article appears in the 30 Aug 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Tax Con