Londoner Stewart Home discusses gentrification, gender, and getting into Kung Fu.
Stewart Home is a South London novelist, poet, artist and life-long champion of equality. Since the 1980s he has mediated between pulp, anarchism and punk – with a conscious effort to deconstruct genre, a concept he identifies as ‘socially negotiable’.
We negotiated socialism over a coffee in the heart of Islington.
What’s your relationship with the Prague Microfestival?
Well, I’ve known David and Louis for years and I’ve been to the festival before but don’t ask me which date it was…’cos everything’s a blur in my life. The last time I recall drinking absinthe, so everything’s rather vague…Prague’s a nice place to go.
Thinking about your recent work, where does your fascination with Kung Fu stem from?
That kind of comes from being a kid and watching stuff like batman in the 1960s. Then I guess when Bruce Lee came out that’s when the fascination [happened], or rather when he died. I lied about my age when I was rather young and wanted to get into his films… it’s all just about growing up getting into all that Kung Fu stuff. I did Judo [as a kid], I wanted to do Karate or Kung Fu but it’s what you could get access to.
What do you think about gentrification in London, take Shoreditch for example, and the mass movement of artists and people into this space, do you think that’s inspired you or affected you in any way?
One of the reasons I wanted to move out of Shoreditch was because by about ’99 every time you walked out the door all you saw was people you knew. I lived right by Brick Lane on a council estate, so you’d go out and see everyone. When you saw books like Monica Ali’s Brick Lane it really felt like she was doing a tourist thing, because if you lived on a council estate it was mainly people from Sylhet and Bengal and there’s a lot of discrimination, particularly in employment.
[People] tend to write about the more gentrified elements of it, that’s what this book’s about (Down & Out in Shoreditch and Hoxton). It came out of my experience, I’d be coming home at night and start work at midnight because no one bothered you then, and I’d go past all the crack whores and then they’d start disappearing with the gentrification. Rich middle class residents would complain to the cops and all those problems would get forced on the council. That gentrification really caused a lot of problems for the less well off.
Down & Out deals very specifically with gentrification so I just started wondering what would happen to the prostitutes, where they’d end up disguising themselves as widows and soliciting…you wonder what’s happening to all these displaced people.
You talk about smashing the bourgeoisie, which is one of my pastimes, how does your art or writing fit into the current political climate?
Well, I was in a protest exhibition that was on a council block around the corner from here [City Road], called Spectres of Modernism. There are also a lot of people writing ghost stories based on the same thing. The estate agents decided it was the last un-gentrified area to develop and they build a lot of housing to sell to investors. I’ve done a story, and a lot of other people are doing horror stories set in the block.
Set in the new block?
Yeah, they’ve demolished the old building but they’re finishing the foundations and want to start building the new one. Just south [from here] is the City of London crematorium, so it has all these associations. Plus, this area was called Cripplegate so it was one of the really poor wards. In the Great Plague there were thousands and thousands of dead, so there’s all these plague pits. There’s likely to be a plague pit under the building as well.
Do you have these issues in the back of your mind when you’re writing?
I mean you want it to have some effect otherwise what’s the point in doing it. So that’s precisely what those horror stories [are about], and although I didn’t intend it, in some ways all the early novels describe these parts of London before the process of gentrification.
The book I based on my mother’s life is just about what happens to a working class woman hipster who moved to London from South Wales, and came to the drug scene. It’s partly about the fact that [anyone] can be involved in the drug scene and anyone can die, but it’s disproportionately the working class who die young – like my mother.
How do you feel about the struggle of the working class in terms of gender?
I think that you have a hierarchical society, and you need to understand it in terms of class, gender, and race. Where you put those struggles in relation to each other probably depends on where you are at any one particular time. But of course there’s a quote everyone likes using at the moment, ‘there are no single issues because there are no single lives’. So when people talk about single-issue politics they do actually end up feeding into a broader political struggle, they’re not just isolated. You can’t have an equal class society without getting rid of gender inequalities because one inequality feeds into the other and they all reflect.
How would you describe your art? Do you identify with avant-garde?
I feel quite happy to flip around quite a lot of different things. My understanding of genre is that it isn’t fixed, it’s socially negotiable, and just a way of organising and categorising, but things can move from one to another.
If someone says avant-garde [to describe my work], I don’t mind. With the early books when the critics just thought they were meant to be pulp fiction that’s when I stopped using a linear narrative because it wasn’t really meant to be a linear narrative. It was meant to be so repetitious that it deconstructed itself, and stopped being linear. But as soon as I did the non-linear books the critics started saying ‘oh he’s influenced by…’ but so are the other books and they couldn’t see it!
What’s your relationship with critics? Do you feel misunderstood?
No one can get everything that’s in the books; I think critics read a lot of bad literature as far as I’m concerned. They read the genre known as literature, which is supposedly not a genre, so they get used to a certain way of reading and writing, which I have a more critical take on. They find it hard to go beyond that, a lot of the time. It depends on the critic; there are some more intelligent critics, like obviously the ones who regularly give me the good reviews…
I think The Independent said I was more interested in class politics than literary fashions- as though that was a put down. I was like that’s not a put down, I’m happy!
You mediate between art, film, writing, poetry- what form do you think best illustrates your inner workings at the minute?
I’m just finishing a fiction book that I’ve been redrafting, but I’ve got a whole lot of non-fiction books that I want to write on, several on film, several on exercise and several on witchcraft and the occult.
What’s your writing process now?
I like writing at night, no one disturbs you, and the phone doesn’t ring. The block I live in isn’t as noisy now. I usually stop work by about two or three in the morning -so I’ve mellowed in my old age.
In terms of the trajectory of your work, how has age affected what you do- from The Age of Anti-Aging until now?
In some ways, you draw upon what goes on around you even though it’s fictionalised. The characters in the books tend to get older as I’ve got older in the novels, and the subject of the non-fiction has tended to often go back to 60s, 70s, and 80s because it interests me. I still look out for what’s happening in film and music now but it tends to be less interesting [to me]. In terms of politics, it has to stay contemporary.
How did you get into writing? Was it a love of reading fostered as a child? As a working class young boy from London, was it difficult for that seed to flourish?
Everyone thought I was weird ‘cos I was reading a book virtually everyday when I was a kid but that was because I could read fast and I was reading all sorts of things, we all read Hell’s Angels and skinhead books at school. I think you’ve grown up in a different era because when I was at school all the kids read books, but I just read more than everyone else. Then I started reading weird shit that the other kids didn’t read.
It just kind of developed by accident. With the first story I literally took a book by Peter Cave called Chopper because I thought this would tie perfectly into anarchism. I just need to find the perfect book to rip off the structure.
So you have self-conscious ‘Uncreative Writing’, as Kenneth Goldsmith calls it?
Yeah, and it’s still creative because you’re transforming something. His is a bit less transformative…
It’s just learning how to do something and not being too hung up, I say go to the end [of the book] and don’t worry about how bad it is. Just keep going. And then correct it ‘cos the first draft is going to look like rubbish, don’t worry about it.