Robert O'Connor's first book Blood and Circuses charts his journeys through the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, looking at how football culture is tied up with ideas of nationhood, history, and power.
For the Artellus blog, Robert talks about how he went from rookie sports journalist in the UK to writing a book about footballing culture in remote corners of Eastern European.
Blood and Circuses is out now on Biteback Publishing, and can be purchased here.
“I knew from the earliest days of my career as a football journalist that I wanted to write about more than just the domestic game in England.
It’s not easy as a young writer (relatively speaking – I was 25 when I first turned my hand to scribbling about football) starting out in this business. The sheer breadth of competition that you’re up against is daunting. Finding a unique angle on something like the Premier League in the Sky Sports age is next to impossible.
All the biggest news stories are being covered by the heavyweight personalities at the national newspapers, and getting access to big names for interviews can be hellishly hard, even for those blessed with initiative and the fearlessness to stick your neck out (of which I had neither).
My solution was to pack a bag and fly off to Eastern Europe to look for stories that hadn’t been told. Football behind the old Iron Curtain has been quite well documented if you know where to look, so I had to look between the cracks of the cracks and go where virtually no English football journalist had been.
So in March 2016, scraping together a couple of hundred pounds from my meager income as an ad hoc freelancer, I got on a bus from Sheffield to Heathrow and flew to Pristina – the capital city of the former Yugoslav republic of Kosovo. It was the first time I had left the country alone, and I had no idea what I would do when I arrived. A couple of emails placed to the local football authorities hooked me up with a few names to interview and matches to attend, and within a week I had the foundations for what eventually became Blood & Circuses.
I’d made the transition to writing full-time only about six months earlier. I’d gone back to university at 26 to train properly as a journalist and jump through the NCTJ’s educational hoops, which gave me a bit of breathing room to start doing my first paid writing, at FourFourTwo and VICE. My first proper break came when I was offered a freelance job with the Bleacher Report doing these huge in-depth, 4,000-word investigations, which enabled me to finally quit the myriad part-time jobs I had stayed on in after my studies.
Freelance jobs came and went over the next few years. I moved back to London but eschewed pursuing staff work as I needed the freedom to be able to disappear for weeks at a time to obscure outposts in Eastern Europe. But my travels meant I was able to get my first heavyweight bylines; The Times, the BBC, The Telegraph and The Independent all carried my reporting over the next few years, and I was finally able to articulate exactly where my work as a journalist was leading me. Currently I contribute ad hoc as a freelance reporter to the i, The Times and TheSun (if any of my editors there are reading this and would like to take me on full-time, you’ve got my number).
I continued to write from wherever my travels took me up until the end of 2019, which by then included each of Europe’s separatist statelets; Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Transnistria and Donetsk – the principal subjects of Blood & Circuses.
I believe I got the green light that the book was going to be published whilst half asleep in a backpackers hostel in the Ukrainian capital Kyiv. That night at a snow-swept Olympiskiy Stadium as I watched a drab Champions League game between Shakhtar Donetsk and Lyon, the perishing cold didn’t bother me at all.”
Juliet Bates hails from the North East of England and lives in France teaching art at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Caen in Normandy. Her debut novel The Missing was published in 2009 on Linen Press, her short fiction has appeared in various publications.
Bates' latest novel The Colours is out now on Fleet Reads, an imprint of Little Brown. This sweeping novel features a mother and son separated in the early 1900s. With its rich visual descriptions the novel is an exploration of looking differently at our surroundings and relationships to place.
Juliet, your latest novel The Colours has just come out, what’s it about?
The Colours is a novel about a mother and a son, Ellen and Jack. Despite their intimate connection they’re separated for most of the novel which explores Jack’s slow reconciliation with his mother’s condition and, not unconnected to his mother, Jack’s reconciliation with his hometown and the landscape and environment around it. That’s at the centre of the novel, the people part.
And the non-people part?
The town itself is a fairly important character and I was interested in the way in which the environments and landscapes changed over the period of the 70 years of the novel: socially and geographically. It’s also a novel about looking. Looking in the context of being an artist in Jack’s case and in terms of Ellen and her synesthesia. Ellen sees things in a slightly oblique, strange, oddly coloured way. I suppose it’s also a book about the way in which people perceive the same things differently. In this novel you have these two characters in parallel seeing this landscape and environment in very different ways.
So there’s a connection to your last novel, The Missing, when it comes to themes of people’s ways of processing and perception?
Yes, and understanding things that have happened in the past in various different ways, which I hadn’t picked up on when I was writing The Colours, but there you go!
Well now we’re all cooped up in our homes it’s a great time to release a book about seeing things differently.
Absolutely. Everyday I get emails from students sending me pictures of stuff that they’ve been doing and it’s great. I hope that other people are doing the same, where they’re nudged into creativity using a very minimal amount of materials and things they’ve got to hand. I sense that a lot of people, not just my students, are experimenting and being inventive. I’m sounding very positive, but I think that’s true!
Maybe now everyone’s had a drop in quantity of visual input they’ll think about ways of upping the quality?
Let’s hope so, we’ll see how it goes! That’s something that Jack talks about himself in the novel where he tries to get students to look more and look closer and look better and it would be nice if people did that. I take the train to work and on French trains there are blinds, and people pull the blinds down! I find that…
I know! I don’t understand it at all so the book is an attempt to encourage people to keep the blinds up.
Can you tell us a bit about your career and how you came to write novels?
I have spent all of my adult life in art schools in one way or another. I studied Graphic Design, although I was never a graphic designer. I worked as an illustrator for a while. I did an MA in art-history and I started teaching fairly early on in Britain. I then moved to France and started teaching in France. I started writing just after moving to France, in 2003/2004 and I had my first piece published in 2005. I think the writing in English really came as a consequence of living in France and struggling with the French language and English became this space that I could feel comfortable with.
Like a linguistic refuge? Did you speak any French at all before you went to France?
Yes, I did. But when you’re working you then you realise the enormity of the task, you realise how much you don’t know! I think I still struggle, after 20 years. I live with an English person and I work with, oddly, I happen to work with a lot of English speaking colleagues, which doesn’t help. French has always been a bit of a struggle for me.
But it helped you develop your English?
Very much so, yes. It gives you an awareness of how a language functions and I went to school in the 70s when we didn’t do anything to do with grammar, and very little to do with punctuation. It was a huge learning curve for me to properly learn a language.
In a way, when you learn a second language you also re-learn your first language.
Yes, certainly. And I was widening my vocabulary. You become aware of language in a way that you weren’t aware of it when living in your own country. On top of that you have the added benefit of learning culturally, learning about other writers for example. I would have probably written stuff had I stayed in Britain but I think it was more of an imperative in France, it became more important, I became more motivated to do it.
Your new book The Colours is steeped in art and visuals, was it a challenge to be writing about art?
It came fairly naturally to me, I don’t think I would have been able to write in any other way. That comes from the Art History background where you spend a long time writing about paintings. The issues begin when I stand and stare at things too long which means the pacing slows down quite a bit. I also felt I wanted to write a lot about the technical aspects of painting. And once the novel went to Rihannon, my editor, it needed to be pruned of those bits.
What sort of technical details?
Oh I had a whole scene, page after page of stretching canvases and working on two at the same time because the oil paints dry slowly so you need to work on several paintings at the same time. Or mixing paint: what sort of surface do you mix paint on? I have friends who use glass because it’s a very smooth surface to mix paint on and what colours do you want to mix and then again what paint brush sizes and diluting, how much do you dilute the paint? Do you want something watery, or more thick, even moving your body or moving your arm when you’re painting, depends very much on the quality of the thickness of the paint that you’re using. I had all this stuff!
I guess if you have such a sense for the technical intricacies and the really dense visual descriptions it must be easy to forget that there’s a plot!
I think that’s certainly true! I don’t know whether I should say this, but I didn’t plot the novel really, I just sort of started writing and let it develop in its own way. Obviously I got excited about long passages of description.
That’s where editors come in handy!
Exactly, and you’re always in that half way mode of thinking ‘yes well, they’re right’ and ‘aaaaarrghh!’.
But how will people understand how to stretch a canvas?!
Exactly! It feels important! To be fair my editor was very sensitive and it was always ‘if you want to’ or ‘if you think it’s a good idea’ and I think knowing that it was a bit loosely plotted it was a good idea to tighten some of those things up. They did slow things down quite a lot, so I’m happy with it.
Now our final question: Lockdown Literature, what are you reading right now?
Ok I am embarrassed about this…I’m in a writing mode at the moment. A lot of my reading happens on the train when I go to work. I have a 40 minute journey which is perfect for proper reading and I’ve missed that since the lockdown. I find it very difficult to read another novel at the same time as writing my own novel. I had a whole year of proper reading last year and up until the point when I started writing the novel.
And once you’re writing you steer totally clear of any other books?
Now I’ve got three novels by the side of my desk, which are like talismans for me. One of them is Brighton Rock by Graham Greene, just so good. And another is Virginia Woolfe’s Mrs Dalloway, and Herta Müller’s The Appointment. And I dip into them, open a page randomly and read a passage. Sometimes I read a passage aloud, because it helps one understand the language or understand the structuring a bit better or the pacing or whatever.
Aha, they’re your literary muses!
They’re my muses! And I also noticed, I have Atonement by McEwan, which is the period that I’m dealing with, which is why it’s sitting on the desk. I’m also in the process of reading a biography of Oswold Mosley which is called Black Shirt: Oswold Mosley and British Fascism, and it’s by Steven Dorril.
Oh a nice bit of light bedtime reading…
Oh yes, the intricacies of British government in the 1920s and 30s…
That’d send anyone to sleep!
I can do about two or three pages at a time! It gets a bit more racy when he moves onto Mosley’s affairs but it’s pretty dense stuff. And that is research for the book which I’m trying to write, for which I manage a paragraph a day at the moment.
Another book set in the first half of the 20th century then?
The 20th century is the place I want to be, so it’s another 20th century novel. I vowed I would not do what I did with The Colours which caused me a bit of trouble which was dealing with such a long period of time because that caused me difficulty with pacing. So this novel is set in a single year, 1936.
Would you only write about the first half of the 20th century?
Well or the second half, but it would always have to be before I was born. As soon as it gets to the point where I was born I can’t handle it. Contemporary life: I can’t handle it! I don’t want to be the subject of my own novel so it always has to be before. I think it’s about trying to work out where you come from, what’s the world you came out of?
Inaugurated in 1986, the Singapore Writers Festival celebrates South East Asian literary talent as well as bringing together writers, speakers, and delegates from all over the world.
Artellus director Leslie Gardner made the trip across the globe to attend workshops on Science Fiction, hear talks by Roxane Gay and Marlon James, and buy more books than she should have...
The week-long writers festival was packed with great talks and vividly attentive participants. All was spread out among three venues: The Arts House at the Old Parliament Building, the National Gallery of Singapore (a staggeringly innovative architectural gem), and the basement of the Asian Cultures Museum – across the bay from colonial reminders of earlier times, Raffles Hotel and the Fullerton Hotel – formerly Post Office for the nation. The festival could not have been placed in a better spot in this tropical city-state replete with food stalls and shopping malls.
Before the festival however, a quick visit to the big Japanese owned bookstore Kinokuniya in the Takoshima Mall on Orchard Road, where I picked up all the brochures required. It’s also a great spot to buy and browse for books in Asian languages and English – they pushed and supported the festival with great promotional skill, and had extensive information on the festival and Singapore’s local writers.
Onto the Festival proper… My interest in Science and Speculative Fiction was evidently shared. Impressive numbers attended talks on things such as ‘The Future of Science Fiction’, ‘Chatbox and fiction’, or ‘Invisible Cities, Memory and Fiction’. There were workshops with enthusiastic participants such as ‘Postcolonial Criticism and Southeast Asian Speculative Fiction’. The big questions were tackled with gusto: how the future would look, the impact of video games on plot and character, and what’s science and technology got to do with fiction? All in the presence of such writers as Boey MeiHan who writes Science Fiction in all-women and all-Asian universes, and the veteran writer, Pang Hee Juon.
The dilemmas all science/speculative fiction writers wrangle with were reworked, and refreshed at the same time. These workshops and talks about Science Fiction – and the carefully distinguished ‘Speculative’ fiction – dominated the schedule and were rightfully jam-packed. The excellent attendance did not preclude fun individual encounters, including one memorable talk in the corridor with Malaysian Science Fiction writer Ahmad Patria Abdullah about his rather more traditional view of Science Fiction. A genre that, in his view, should be founded not only in the time the novel is written but also bounded by technology of the time. In vain I advocated for Science Fiction having actually contributed ideas to real-life scientists! Technology and aliens are what we make of them…
Of course the crime novel is my other personal passion. I walked away with bags of crime books by local Singaporeans. One author, Nick Humphreys, was sitting at the table signing his books. I purchased Marina Bay Sins, the first in a dark satirical detective series set in his native Singapore and published by Marshall Cavendish. And then, well, I purchased Daren Goh’s ‘The HDB Murders’ (also set in Singapore) published by the local branch of publishing house Math Paper Press. These texts are a great way to get to know the seedy sides of the place, which Singaporeans are eager to disclaim(!) In conclusion: my bags were much heavier on the return to London.
Back in the festival ‘Bad feminist’ Roxane Gay brought much laughter in her session, and Marlon James spoke – his speculative works are all on sale along with his Man Booker-winning novel, ‘A Brief History of Seven Killings’ – and essayist and travel writer Pico Iyer – both spoke to engaged audiences, admirers through and through.
As well as Singaporean branches of UK-based publishing, there are also those small local houses which for me are a great discovery. This is another indication of their seriousness in distributing into South-East Asia. There is a plethora of publishing houses in the city-state: Marshall Cavendish (SA branch), Penguin Random House (latest to the party in SA), and Math Paper Press, etc. There is still the ancient and noble tradition of publishing houses linking to bookstores, with the result of bookstores everywhere. Singapore dollars being reasonable value for my sterling-based budget, I bought a few more than planned (eek). The wonderful ‘Books Actually’ had a stand at the festival – we’d wandered its shelves already – and bought poetry published by their ‘ Math Paper Press’, which they run out of their backyard. The ‘Closetful of Books’ shop had a spread of local and international writers’ books that were irresistibly placed right at the entrance to the festival; Temptation was everywhere.
Organised and financed (alongside income from tickets) by the National Arts Council, the festival brings together multiple languages: English, Slinglish, Malay, Chinese, and Tamil among others. The mix of cultures is a core value in Singapore – and it is reflected in the literature. The festival was a celebration of global literary talent, billing the likes of home grown Singaporean writer and poet, Rex Shelley, (author of the classic The Shrimp People) alongside Canadian, Jamaican, British, and umpteen other nationality writers and speakers.
It was an atmospheric festival figuratively and literally: peppered with sporadic claps of thunder and lightning, the heavy tropical heat outside which meant hustling from one venue to another to be blissfully alleviated by air conditioning. I left with a head full of ideas, an armful of books and every intention of returning next year.
Paul Wilson's incredible career has given him a ringside seat to many of recent history's flash points. His work as a soldier, diplomat, and agent of international commerce has taken him from Afghanistan to Zambia and everywhere in between.
Paul Wilson's expertise on global politics and finance has been distilled into his debut book Hostile Money: Currency in Conflict, published on The History Press. Here, Paul Wilson talks us through the spectacular career that made him the expert on global finance and war.
PaulWilson, you’ve had a remarkable working life, how did that happen?
I’ve been really lucky to have had the professional life that I set out to have when I left school decades ago, which was to have an interesting one. My principal objective was not to make lots of money, which is a good thing because in writing books I’ve discovered you don’t make a lot of money, not in writing the sort of books that I want to write anyway(!)
How did it all start?
After a very brief spell in London I went into the army and I served in all the usual places you’d expect: Cyprus, The British Army of the Rhine, and so on. It was really answering an urge to travel that I had already developed because my family had emigrated to Australia when I was 13 and come back when I was 16. So I’d already literally been around the world by the time I was 16 and that left me with quite itchy feet.
And you ended up in West Berlin?
The last post I was posted to was in Berlin and was called BRIXMIS, the Commander in Chief’s mission to the Soviet Forces in East Germany. The original purpose of BRIXMIS was to liaise with the other side, the Soviet Army. The unit had other responsibilities which included supporting the management of Spandau Prison where Rudolph Hess, the last remaining living Nazi, who was imprisoned there after the Nuremberg trials. It was extraordinary for somebody of my era then to have the opportunity to censor the correspondence of Hess, and agreeing with a soviet counterpart what television or radio programmes he was permitted to watch or listen to, these were really enriching experiences.
How old were you at that point?
I was about 27 at that stage. Hess was already a very old man by that time. That was the end of my army career, I came out after that because I thought there’d be nothing equally interesting to do.
So you moved on from The British Army and into the diplomatic service.
Yes. At the end of my time in Berlin I moved into the diplomatic service. And again that was a hugely enriching experience. I had two spells working in departments relating to Eastern Europe and southern Africa. This included responsibilities for the London end of relationships with the ANC. A lot of ANC members were at that time still in exile in Zambia, so I got a trip out there to see some of these young ANC types who were going to benefit from scholarships to the UK. But I also had opportunities to visit other places like Angola which was also on my patch to look after. The foreign office did try to tempt me with a posting to Angola, but that didn’t strike me as quite so attractive, and instead I got posted to the British High Commission in Islamabad, Pakistan.
So from Eastern Europe, to the south of Africa, and then to Pakistan?
Pakistan was extraordinarily interesting because my responsibility was to look after our reporting on Afghanistan. At that time there was no British Embassy in Afghanistan, the building was there, looked after by a skeleton staff including Gurkha guards, but there were no British diplomats in Kabul and all the coverage of Afghanistan was done from Pakistan, and that was my responsibility. So I was travelling up to Peshewar on the north west frontier every other week; it was extraordinary to cross the confluence of the Kabul and Indus rivers and then to enter the North West Frontier Province. I had one trip travelling through the Khyber Pass with the United Nations on a visit to a de-mining operation in Afghanistan. And in 1992 I went on the Foreign Office’s mission to Kabul to establish relationships with the new Mujahidin government which had overthrown the old socialist government. So it was again, an extraordinarily exciting time. The time in Kabul with my colleagues from the foreign office had many interesting moments.
You were put into these very politically active situations in foreign countries, do you feel you made any progress there?
No, absolutely not. I think at the end of the two years clearly the old socialist regime that was just clinging on to power after the Russian withdrawal had been overthrown but it hadn’t been replaced by a more stable regime or a regime that was able to drag Afghanistan out of its terrible conflict which was initiated by the Russians in 1979 when they invaded. Whenever I think about it since I see very little to believe that we’ve made progress. When I came back after Islamabad I went back into the Eastern European section. I had more or less concluded that I was going to go out into the private sector.
So this is the next career transition, from the Foreign Office to the private sector…
The transition could hardly have been better, because I moved to De La Rue, a company that has been around for over 200 years. Its principal business is supplying printed currency to countries all the way around the world. So that means dealing with ministers, central banks, presidencies and so on in all sorts of different countries and the experiences of the army and the foreign office gave me a huge leg up in trying to work with people from quite different societies, conducting oneself cautiously with the top decision makers in those countries.
Were you interested in money before that?
Well I had no more interest in money than the average person, who looks forward to receiving some of it at the end of every month(!) But what was striking about working for De La Rue was just how interesting the company was. It was always very closely involved when something new was about to happen: when a new country was about to born, or a country was collapsing into turmoil, or emerging from turmoil. At one point in the late 80s early 90s it was managing elections for countries coming out of conflict: Angola, Mozambique, Bosnia, Cambodia. They also helped produce ballot papers for the first post-apartheid election in South Africa so it has this tremendously exciting world in which it plays, dealing with currency, passports, and elections.
Sounds perfect for someone who likes to be in the thick of the world’s current affairs!
That’s it. And I was fortunate to rise up the ranks of the organisation and find myself running the sales team for currency division which at various times was supplying to Iraq and Afghanistan, as they emerged from conflict, and that has definitely been drawn on for my book. Not only the broad experiences of the sort of things that happen when people have to make these decisions: ‘are we going to introduce a new currency or not?’, but also just generally it fired up my thinking in a load of these areas where I was responsible for advising the most senior people in the company: ‘should we be going down this route?’ ‘Is it appropriate?’ ‘Do we have to wait a little longer to see what pans out in this particular country?’ So that kind of political sensitivity, understanding what’s going on and how far you could and should go was definitely left over from the foreign office.
A childish question, but do you have a favourite currency?
Funnily enough I was always struck by some of the work that had been done by one of De La Rue’s managers for Cape Verde. He was very uncompromising in achieving designs for currency that were really world leading. Beautiful designs. It’s very attractive and it has an impact on people when they arrive in a country and say ‘Wow that’s beautifully designed!’. He ended up producing some really fine designs for Cape Verde, so they always struck me as really fascinating, very attractive.
Cape Verde! That’s a great curve ball answer, who’d have thought!?
Sometimes the more powerful countries have the more boring designs.
That’s interesting actually. It’s true that US dollars are very boring, and the UK’s always had quite conservatively designed currency, although I like the £2 coin. Why is that?
Well, I think some countries see the currency as more of a necessary statement about national pride, culture, ethos, and so on, than other countries do. It’s almost in almost inverse proportion to the power of the country.
And in this long career working in places around the globe, where have been some of your favourite spots, that still have a place in your heart?
Well, Berlin was a fantastic place in the 80s, and it’s still a fantastic place now. But I spent a lot of time in Central Asia covering Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and I think if I went back there tomorrow, I would not be lost. It would be pretty comfortable for me.
I imagine not many Brits can say that about Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan! And where should we be paying attention to now?
Now I’ve spent a lot of my time outside of the currency world, outside the world of De La Rue, and now I’m very focused on Iran. Since last year I’ve been running the British Iranian Chamber of Commerce. And in the time I’ve been sitting in the hot seat, it really has sharpened up, the whole US-Iran position. As you can see from the news these days it’s getting more and more fraught, more and more tense.
And once again your job’s given you a ringside seat! But Iran’s the place to keep an eye on right now?
Oh yeah absolutely, it is a test case for Trump and his whole style of government. It’s a test case for the UK which lifted sanctions on Iran in early 2016 in return for Iran giving up its nuclear programme. And everybody has agreed, the international atomic energy authority, and most national governments agree that they (Iran) have performed their part of the deal, whereas the reality is that I think they’ve got good grounds to believe that The West has not fulfilled its part of the deal, so it’s a big test case. And of course, we all hope that it doesn’t decline into open conflict.
And any other things we should be worrying about?
The thing that really gives me pause for thought at the moment is the dependence on the internet as a platform for our monetary systems. Everything we do now with telephone banking, and internet banking etc – we’re so dependent on the internet that that leaves us, our monetary systems very vulnerable to attack by cyber hackers. We’re now moving into a brave new world but one where our fundamental way of doing business is open to serious attack. The point is that governments need to have a plan B in their pocket. Because if someone decides they’re going to mount cyber attacks on an unprecedented scale to bring down a country’s economy, then you need to be able to have good old fashioned currency to hand. It’s no good leaving that to another day.
You’ve worked all over the world, you’ve been involved with some of the major global political issues of our age, when did the penny drop that you really ought to write a book about all this?
In my De La Rue time I looked at a lot of these issues not just as a sales opportunity but I was always interested in the political, military, diplomatic dimensions of what was going on. I was Director of Government Relations, when there was a lot happening in the world. There was a civil war erupting in Libya where the currency had a part to play, South Sudan emerged as the world’s newest country. And I had ringside seats in these things. And I was accumulating by that time so much knowledge and experience and expertise in the crossover between the commercial and the political worlds that quite a senior civil servant said to me, ‘You’re the guru on this sort of stuff’, this was around 2011, and I suddenly thought, ‘well perhaps I am, and isn’t this something I should be writing about?’. ⬛️
Our thanks to Paul for letting us interview him, and for the on-going pleasure of being his literary agents. Interview edited for clarity.
PaulWilson’s book ‘HOSTILE MONEY: Currencies in Conflict’ came out in May on The History Press. The book covers the interplay of money and power across centuries of world history; from civil war in Ancient Rome to today’s economic sanctions on Iran. ORDER YOUR COPY HERE.
Friday 8th - Sunday 10th of March 2019 saw Belfast host NOIRELAND, a new International Crime Fiction Festival. The three day festival celebrated all things crime with panels, workshops, and talks.
Artellus director Leslie Gardner was in attendance. Here she reports from the bustling festival in mid-Brexit Belfast.
A day in Belfast for The Noireland International Crime Festival. Decades after my first visit, it was an entirely refreshing occasion and a changed city. Last time when I was attached to the BBC Radio Drama Department police were everywhere on the streets, and you were constantly frisked. No photos then or your film would be confiscated – this time: sweetness and light, friendly locals, and I took a slew of pictures.
The organisers, like good detectives, had left no stone un-turned when it came to content: True Crime, the role of mothers in crime, the Victim Point of View, and talks from top crime writers like Stuart MacBride and Belfast’s very own Adrian McKinty (a revelation – as smart and funny as his main protagonist Sean Duffy, a Catholic cop in a Protestant town when the Troubles were still in the air). The evening only built on the successes of the day– Gothic crime, social media crime, ‘outside’ crime, a rageful Brexit panel … and at the end of each event we were (quite rightly!) exhorted to go drink-up and buy their books.
Karen Sullivan, founder/editor Orenda Books was in attendance and particularly entertaining, cheering on various authors in the panels on her list. Seasoned readers, practising new crime writers, and published authors peppered the panels with questions. Attempts to hold down the rabble rousing in the Brexit meeting, and a pitch to create a viral event when two panellists threatened to get into a fight, were the tamer parts of the discussions.
The day was as relentless as the reading experience of these crime stories – dark and tough for the most part. No ‘cosies’ here! Darkened rooms, spotlit panellists, and no time to eat contributed to a dynamic and intense day. The quality of the talent and content on offer made it all worthwhile.
Adam Hamday’s scary explorations of the crimes on the internet caused many parents to think of denying their children smartphones.
Take, for example, Alex Reeve’s exploration of historical transgender issues in his crime novel. Set in a remote corner of the Scandinavian forests, the deaf and transgender Will Dean must hide who they are to escape being hanged as a murderer. Claire Allan’s ‘dark domestic noir’ is perhaps a new genre unto itself – and the involvement of children adds a new level of tough. Adam Hamday’s scary explorations of the crimes on the internet caused many parents to think of denying their children smartphones.
Brian McGilloway, Martyn Waites, and Declan Hughes warn us of the changing nature of crime with advent of Brexit (of which they are deeply critical). The current political dramas may be notable for their presence in the press, but for their absence in their novels; domestic and familial crimes instead of international thrillers and crime stories will prevail they determined… escapism. Spooky crime stories like Laura Purcell’s increasingly introduce the Gothic supernatural into the genre. In the process they supplanting traditional thriller themes, making it all much more up close and personal.
Throughout the day there were constant references to the trusted friends their editors had become in the writing process. Indications that agents were dampening (yet necessary) while editors more receptive. Once I’d had my fill I left those still standing to their drink and late-night final event of the day, listening to John Connolly’s new one. I trekked across town to my hotel behind Belfast Cathedral, thoroughly satisfied at the good talk and company. Here’s hoping Noireland Crime Fiction Festival proves to be a repeat offender⬛️
Saira Viola is a pioneering writer of fiction and poetry who splits her time between Italy, London, and Baltimore. Her experimental ‘Sonic Scatterscript’ style has been critically acclaimed by the likes of Benjamin Zephaniah and Heathcote Williams. Viola’s two novels Jukeboxand Crack, Apple, Pop are published by the fiercely independent Fahrenheit Press who celebrate ‘Fahrenbruary‘ this month. For this month’s blog post we asked Saira to list three of her literary influences…
Dickens has been a major influence and continues to provide me with a rich vein of source material to tap into. Few can equal Dickens when it comes to vibrant and eccentric characters, revealing the darkest of humours. Dickens has a Shakespearean heft and scale when describing villainy across the various strata of society. The characters bear the physical marks of a deformed society. Daniel Quilp, the shady money lender and ship breaker in The Old Curiosity Shopis a perfect example, with his ‘black sly eyes crooked long yellow nails,’ and ugly grin. He eats hard eggs shelland all and bites his fork and spoon until they are bent again. His protagonists experience a corresponding identity crisis as they struggle to reconcile the social conflicts that define their environment and inform their individual being. They provide a connection, a portal into the novel, to the reader who, even at this late date, experience much the same tensions. When I was ten, I was given a copy of Great Expectations. My family and I had recently settled in England after a blissful few years in Africa. I felt an outsider in English society alienated and alone, and so I immediately connected with the protagonist in the novel. Pip is unclear about his identity and desperate to leave the brutal poverty of his childhood and establish a new identity on the glittered streets of London. When I was mercilessly teased at school about where I came from Pip’s words struck a chord “It is a most miserable thing to be ashamed of home.”
William S. Burroughs
But for tone and style I turned to William Burroughs. I bought a copy of Naked Lunch during my angst ridden teens, going through a punkish phase. Reading Burroughs’ pyretic prose, for the first time was revelatory to me and ultimately freed me from self-imposed conventions I never even knew existed. The raw sex and violence inspired me to write without fear, to try a riskier style of prose. The poetic punch of Burroughs’ novels propelled the rhythmic style of my own work and much later, I developed and experimented with my own writing resulting in a style I dubbed ‘sonic scatterscript’.
I am often drawn to art-forms outside of literature for models that suit my purpose. Which brings me to the importance of music. Certain musicians have been as important to me as the authors I admire, because the music of language is key. Take someone like Marvin Gaye, whose poetic street idioms, though deceptively simple, are weighted with greatemotion and honesty. ‘What’s Going On?’ is a perfect example of Gaye’s song writing technique. The song is eternally fresh and manages to convey in only a very few lines the civil unrest and mood of dissent that characterised the end of the 60s. My favourite lines of the song are :
Picket lines and picket signs Don’t punish me with brutality But just talk to me So you can see What’s going on…
Thanks to Saira Viola for the pleasure of being her literary agents, and for providing us with February’s blog.
David Coward is a professor of French literature at the University of Leeds and veteran translator of French literature. His translation of Arthur Cohen's Belle du Seigneur won a Scott Moncreif Prize. He is currently translating Georges Simenon's popular Inspector Maigret series for Penguin Classics. A Maigret Christmas is available now.
We caught up with him to talk translation, his newest Inspector Maigret, and the impossibility of exact translation.
David, could you start with a quick summary of how you got into translating?
I was teaching French at the University of Leeds and in 1986 OUP rang me up and asked would I translate The Lady of the Camellias, which I’d never read. I thought it might be quite dreadful, but of course I said yes. Later on I was asked by Penguin to translate a book by Albert Cohen called Belle du Seigneur which was really rather long and quite hard, it came out at about 1000 pages, but it won the Scott Moncrieff Prize. Anyway I’ve now translated about 30 books. I fell into it, if you like.
And how long did 1000 pages of Albert Cohen take to translate?
Oh god, years. I was working at the time, it was about 5 years on and off, I did other things as well.
What do you enjoy about translating?
I quite like translating because being a bit of a ham, I always think the translator gets to play all the parts, you can do all the voices you know? You are the narrator, all the characters, sometimes you talk in different accents, but that in itself can be quite difficult.
Talking of difficulties, what’s the biggest challenge?
One of the things you have to do as a translator is clear up the vague bits in the original text, because authors try it on, sometimes they will try an image and you’re not quite sure what that image means. You then have to interpret it and force a meaning on the reader and hope to goodness that you’ve got it right(!)
Then there’s the cultural challenges: for example how do you translate ‘bread’? Bread in English conjures up in the eye of the average British reader something that is square that you make sandwiches with and form triangles, whereas bread in french is something long you put under your arms. When you change the nationality of objects, then of course all the historical references that every nation has change with it.
Can you give a good specifically historical example?
Well, in terms of translating a French book from the German occupation of France, you talk about ‘semelles de bois’: The merry sound it made as you crack along on your wooden shoes because there wasn’t any leather around. But in England we wouldn’t understand that so you have to convey that without putting a footnote, which is terribly boring and taboo as far as I’m concerned(!)
Right! 100% direct translation is basically impossible, isn’t it?
Ultimately I suppose, direct translation is not possible. Somebody in the 16th century said when you read a translated book it’s really rather like looking at a Flemish tapestry from the back, you get a lot of fluff and inklings and the broad idea but the finer points skip you.
Can you think of any phrases or passages that really gave, or give, you a headache when it comes to translation?
Oh gosh. Well, ‘the cat sat on the mat’ is a bit of a snorter to put into French. Is this cat a male cat or a female cat? And when it sat, was it sat sitting? Or did it sit down, at that moment? These tenses are much more distinct in French than they are in English. Now what about your mat? What sort of mat are you thinking of: something behind the door? In front of a fire?
If you wanted to put that into French you’d bear in mind the general sense of what this sentence means, it’s heavily rhythmic and alliterative isn’t it? Now instead of making the cat sit down on some mat or other that I can’t actually translate, I would call it a female cat, ‘la chatte’, and then there’s a verb in French which is to scratch, which is ‘se gratter’, and then the word for a cat’s paw is ‘la pate’. So I would translate that as ‘la chatte se gratte la patte’ which gets the rhythm of ‘the cat sat on the mat’, and it’s just as nonsensical. But you see how something that appears to be quite simple is in fact fiendishly complex.
Sounds like a headache…
It does take a bit of time, absolutely. I mean, to talk about Simenon, it was his habit to lock himself in a room for 10 days with a pencil and paper and he would emerge with a novel ten days later in 20 chapters, and it took him less time to write the damn thing than it takes anyone else to translate it!
When it comes to Simenon, you’ve translated many books in the Inspector Maigret series, which is your favourite?
I think this Christmas one. It’s three longish short stories. The variety is very interesting and the stories are very compelling. It’s good Maigret stuff, it’s about the psychology of the individual, tracking what they do, judging them by what they’ve done, and then trying to second guess what they might do next. French detective fiction is very different to ours, we tend to go by ‘there was blood on the floor’ or ‘the train went at six forty five that day instead of half six’ therefore the butler is lying!
More quantitative clues?
That’s right! The french have gone according to the psychological makeup of the criminal which can be deduced from his actions.
Are the three tales straight up detective stories?
One is not really about crime at all but is a very subtle short story and full of humanity, which people don’t often associate with Simenon, because he has this terrible reputation for being a rather louche character, and the others are plain detection. They’re very satisfying because the wicked are brought to justice.
A big Scooby-Doo resolve at the end?
Umm, not my generation I fear…
I mean… a good Shakespearean resolution at the end?
Much better! Yes that’s the one.
Finally, the big question: French or English?
Oh English every time! Oh yes, English has got a wider vocabulary and is much more down to earth and its range is wider. The reason why the French have so much slang is because they their vocabulary has been reduced whereas ours continues to proliferate. It seems to me English is much more wedded to practicalities, whereas french is a language of abstraction. There are times where French can be opaque, although it seems clear, which explains I think, why until the early 18th century French was the international language of diplomacy because you can say nothing more elegantly in French than in any other language ⬛️
Thanks to David Coward for speaking to us, and of course the pleasure of representing him as literary agents. Interview by Angus MacDonald; transcript has been edited for clarity.