I disliked school, almost every day of it, and spent a great deal of time just daydreaming. I think I had a kind of unspoken pact with most of the teachers. I’d not bother them or the class and they’d kind of leave me to my own devices. My school, in the mid 1970s, was rough. A violent place with plenty of bullying to be had. Due to my catholic upbringing, I was ‘excused’ RE lessons, which were CofE, and instead spent that time (about two hours a week) in a remedial class (as they used to call them). This had a big impact on me as the teacher, Aubrey Pope, was a leading figure in the emerging Friends of the Earth. He used to spend the lessons talking about saving the whale but never in a preachy manner, always to start a debate. I respected him hugely and every week there would be a small line of pupils queuing at the staff room door waiting for Mr Pope to deliver copies of the FotE newspaper to us. I left school at the first opportunity and with no qualifications, and even now have a hatred for that time. I was recently contacted via Facebook by a contemporary from my class with the usual ‘friend request’. I refused.
I think I was lonely as a school boy, never really made friends whilst everyone else had a kind of gang to hang out with. Maybe that was because I failed the 11 plus type exam for entry to the local catholic grammar school that most of my primary class mates went to, so I went on my own to a secondary school up the road that had only that year been converted from a grammar school to a comprehensive. The five years of posh, educated kids above my year, aiming at Oxbridge, whatever that was, simply could not comprehend the new intake of Oiks, and the mistrust was mutual. Even the teachers found this change too much to handle and seemed to exude a sort of cynicism about the young unwashed in their midst. Occasionally I got to play the pipe organ at the daily assemblies. I played the school anthem, Jerusalem, at such volume it cracked the varnish on the hall floor.
In my primary school I acquired the duty of ringing the Angelus bell at midday in the church. This would ring out around the neighbourhood. It was supposed to be in a pattern of three and fours and then a long twelve beat sequence. Sometimes I’d vary this depending on my mood and whether I thought any of the convent nuns were listening. Subversion is always possible in a system of seemingly tight rules.
This was also the time of the growth in the National Front in the east end of London, and a number of my school contemporaries got sucked in to that kind of stuff. Racism was everywhere in London in that period, or at least it seemed to me to be like that back then. It was on the TV, too, in the guise of some kind of mainstream humour, and I despised the entire white suburban young male culture that seemed to be about at that time, at least in my school. That led to trouble and further distance from my contemporaries. I supported Dagenham whilst the bone heads seemed to support Romford FC. Until they went bust.
In your role as Writing and Publishing Director of Emergents, you are frequently the bearer of bad news for emerging writers. How do you deal with the emotional impact your words will carry?
Well, I don’t deliver bad news! The process is entirely developmental but with the caveat these days that the writers we work with must have projects that are broadly commercial in nature.
Do you ever feel yourself being sucked into the lives of the writers you work with?
Not really. Writing is a deeply personal activity and at times a complex one for individuals to manage in terms of such things as their time and family life, their creative and professional frustrations and other negatives that can make it difficult. So my work, meeting writers and their projects on their terms, does inevitably from time to time engage on a quite deep level about all these things and many others. But the relationship is always solely and entirely a professional one in nature with the boundaries that implies and requires. This is what I do for a living, That sounds a bit heavy given the context. The reality is that I am very lucky in my work. I meet a large number of amazing, creative people, who are tenacious and work hard on their projects. We all know it is not easy to make a living as a writer.
Have you ever had to deal with any bat-shit crazy writer behaviour?
Other than my own, no.
Has your work with Emergents impacted on the way you approach your own writing?
Indeed, mostly around the issue of finding any time to do any writing of my own at all!
What are you working on right now?
A fantasy thriller novel in the form of a post-vampire blood-fest set in a cold place and featuring possibly the coolest cast of pot-smoking, fashion-savvy undeads to ever walk a page after dark, and the biography of an avant-garde British jazz musician.
What is the Pete Urpeth writing method?
Make it up as I go along, generally. Then edit. Maybe weep a little, then edit again.
I read a lot of my work out loud as I go as I think that the intensity of the writing has to be contagious and immediate. That is a kind of rhythm thing, and the best test of that, for me, is the way words work when spoken. Anything awkward or jarring, or misshapen, can’t hide in the blind eye of the writer if the words are spoken out loud.
Do you have a favourite time of day for writing?
Early morning, when the unconscious mind still seems to have a slight grip on the woken self.
Are you a planner or a seat-of-the-pants writer?
I plan the seat-of-the-pants thing. By that I mean, I construct conditions of productive work but that is always spontaneous in nature. That said, I do a lot of research.
How much of the real Pete Urpeth do you reveal when you are writing?
None. Who wants to know that stuff?
What has been your best writing moment so far?
Not sure, but generally it reads something like this…’Dear Editor…I attach the finished article and my invoice as requested’ (repeat as many times as possible).
What are your ambitions, writing-wise?
None, just to do what interests me.
Are you inspired by any writers in particular?
Yes, but it is a quality of my own rapidly cooling bones that most of the writers that inspired me to start with are now, sadly, dead. Some of them were dead at the time. But the inspiration now comes from many places. Campaigning journalism and crap cutters in general, inspire me. Screen writing inspires me, especially Jonah Nolan and David Mamet. John Green is an astonishing narrative communicator, his relationship with his readers and viewers is inspiring.
Any advice for aspiring authors?
Oh great, the trite license – and I’m going to cut it with the kryptonite of succinct glibness – write as much as you can, freely and without any external concerns about form, culture, morality, writerly myths et al – and a closing maxim from the fabulous Thomas Howalt of the National Film School of Denmark – ‘shit is manure’.
Is there any one book you would like to have written?
The Moomin series.
What are you reading right now?
A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music by George E Lewis
If you could spend a day hanging out with any one person, past or present, who would you choose and why? How would you spend the day?
I’m answering this from the daft section of the spectrum, and I’d say Thelonious Sphere Monk. I’d spend the day in his flat, listening. Maybe later we’d take a walk in a park. It is a warm, late afternoon, and hopefully we’d just stroll about aimlessly, passing the time. I’d want the day to be genuinely, mildly awkward as I think TSM in his modesty would share my bafflement as to why I was there, bothering him. We’d part at about 8pm, and I’d find a bar and try and suppress passing frustrations about all the things I wanted to ask him about but forgot because I wanted the day to be normal not an interview and I’d made the mistake of wanting him to like me.
A few quick questions to finish with. Favourite book?
It doesn’t work like that, the entire point of narrative is its endless expandability.
I refer you to the note above.
A pint of Bitter & Twisted in Sandy Bells, or a pint of Maldon Gold in The Pride of Spitalfields.
Any combination of lamb, aubergine, dried fenugreek, garlic and chilli.
The Passion of Joan of Arc (Dreyer, 1928)
For all sorts of reasons, Katie Morag
Gnu High by Kenny Wheeler.
Great interview Pete, thanks for coming on the Literary Smorgasbord.