B. From what I've heard, the English literary press is a little afraid of you. What was their reaction to the publication of Tainted Love?
H. I’ve got the press cuttings somewhere but I’d have to look them out. The book that really made a difference to perceptions of me as a writer was 69 Things To Do With A Dead Princess, which was my seventh novel. Tainted Love was my ninth novel but I was doing non-fiction books as well, cultural commentary on anti-art movements and punk rock. Before Dead Princess I just had a reputation as a troublemaker among literary types but when that book came out I got praised for having a subversive grip on literary form. Tainted Love is one of only two books of mine that was sold in English through a literary agent, so it was on a corporate publisher Virgin. I don’t think people were really expecting to find me on that type of publisher or to do a book based on my mother’s life. I don’t remember much about the reviews but I do remember my agent saying Virgin had done a really good job of publicising the book which made me laugh. I don’t think their press department knew what to do with me but they got some radio coverage on the BBC and even sent a new PR girl they’d hired to take me to the radio station… that was unusual too because I was used to going and doing those things on my own rather than than having someone from the publisher to hold my hand. Of course it is nice to have someone looking after you every step of the way but it isn’t necessary. Anyway all the coverage the agent liked I engineered from my own contacts which were pretty good by that time, and of course because the press came through me it was positive. But even today I think a lot of literary types are still frightened of me - and also puzzled by some of my friendships with other writers because they don’t understand what I have in common with say Lynne Tillman or Chloe Aridjis.
B. I can imagine many were surprised to read that Tainted Love's main character is your mother, Julia-Callan Thompson, although it's not exactly biographical. How much of the book is true, and how much is fiction?
H. As far as I can tell it’s mostly true, the fictional element comes from me writing it in the first person as my mother to tell the story, although she is renamed Jilly rather than Julie because I’m treating it as fiction. About 20 years ago I did a lot of research into my mother’s life and talked to everyone I could get hold of who knew her and was willing to chat. It was difficult to get people to go into any detail was her sex work, although it was obvious to me she’d been doing that. Her friends mostly didn’t want to talk about that aspect of her life but I forced the issue with a few of them. With a lot of people I had to keep going back to them to get fuller stories, and of course in some instances it looked to me like they or their partners were also doing sex work but I wouldn’t challenge the sometimes utterly unbelievable tales some came up with to show this wasn’t the case.I was interested in my mother and not bothered about getting to the bottom of her friend’s lives.
I spent years trying to get hold of Terry Taylor and when I finally did he was much more frank about my mother and sex work for the simple reason that I was, as he put it, hip enough to appreciate her. Of course there were variant versions of stories about my mother and instances where different sources or even the same source at different times told contradictory tales. I often had to make critical judgements about what was and wasn’t true, on the whole those weren’t hard calls as some sources were obviously more reliable than others. I also had my mother’s diary, address book and some other papers that all helped. I’ve put some non-fiction about my mother and that probably gives a good idea of how I arrived at the version of her life-story I used in the novel. There was an enormous amount of research involved. In terms of the non-fiction about my mother maybe a good place to start is with The Real Dharma Bums (https://www.stewarthomesociety.org/praxis/dharmabums.htm) and to then move on to 2 Ladbroke Grove Hipsters of the 1960s (https://stewarthomesociety.org/blog/2009/03/18/grainger-trina-2-ladbroke-grove-hipsters-of-the-1960s/). Those are about the two great loves of her life. That said, I’m not claiming to be right on every detail of her life.
B. The novel portrays London's subcultures of the sixties in a different light to the usual – less sugar-coated if you will. Do you think that people often view the different subcultures of that era as having little to no correlation, when the reality was rather the opposite?
H. I think the problem is that people like things they can recognise and so they want a familiar story and recognisable names. But if you actually examine the historical evidence things turn out to be very different to the fairy-tales that are told again and again. That’s obviously in terms of drug culture to take just one example. When I was looking into my mother’s life I knew she knew Terry Taylor and I knew he’d been the real-life inspiration for the main character in Absolute Beginners by Colin MacInnes. Since Terry had written a book Baron’s Court, All Change I thought I should read it and was really surprised to discover it was a lost classic about the birth of British mod culture. Now the standard understanding was that stylish mods took amphetamines and the sloppily dressed kids were into dope. But in Baron’s Court it’s the other way around and Terry obviously knew the score on that and was giving an accurate albeit fictional description of those scenes. Terry, my mother and various other characters were also connected to Victor James Kapur. Back then the story was Operation Julie in the 1970s was the first big acid bust in the UK. Talking to people from my mother’s circle I got to know about the big bust of Kapur’s two London labs in 1967, although no one I spoke to could remember the name of the chemist and I had to chase it up in old newspaper stories (which weren’t hard to find). When I finally spoke to Terry Taylor, he of course remembered Kapur and was able to name him, but I’d identified the chemist from press reports by then. I brought the story of the UKs first major acid factory bust back into circulation in an essay I did for the book Psychedelic Art, Social Crisis and Counterculture in the 1960s edited by Christoph Grunenberg and Jonathan Harris in 2005. Subsequently it was taken up by Andy Roberts in his 2008 book Albion Dreaming: A Social History of LSD in Britain and has subsequently spread further. So now anybody who knows anything about UK acid culture knows Operation Julie wasn’t the first major manufacturing bust but for about 30 years that fairytale was the dominant story in the media at least.
That said you can go to other areas of British subculture and discover the dominant stories about them aren’t true. For example the idea that the skinhead cult started in the east end of London in 1969. Anyone who cares to look at photos of the Hounslow mod/skinhead band Neat Change can see a couple of members of this group were west London skinheads before they broke up in 1968, and their singer Jimmy Edwards told me they were skinheads in 1966! No one was much interested in that until I put an interview with Jimmy Edwards on my website in 2010 alongside some pictures of the band which I got from their guitarist Brian Sprackling, I don’t think they’d been published before I put them on my site, they certainly weren’t online. Since the band broke up in 1968, it’s obvious they adopted the skinhead look before then and probably by 1967 and at a stretch in 1966 as their singer Jimmy Edwards claimed. Whatever way you look at it there is clear evidence there that there were skinheads in west London before 1969, so skinhead didn’t originate in east London in the last year of the sixties as is so often - and completely wrongly - claimed. I only had small versions of the photos on my site but a few people picked up on what I’d done and reused them larger elsewhere (as I had bigger versions from Brian). The original interview I did with Jimmy Edwards is here, sadly he’s not alive any longer: <https://www.stewarthomesociety.org/interviews/edwards.htm>
So the history of these subcultures is totally mythologised and most people don’t understand much about their real evolution. They are more closely connected than many of those involved in them want to admit. In the late-seventies, I’d switch continually between punk, mod, rude boy and skin styles - I couldn’t see the point of getting hung up on just one. Some where less fluid in the adoption of subcultures but. minority were like me. One of the reasons my book has the title Tainted Love is because when I was at school I had a friend whose older brother worked in a factory and would come home while I was hanging out with his sibling. In the mid-seventies a lot of the kids at my school were into boot boy culture which had evolved out of skinhead and suedehead, and although we were down south a lot of the boot boys were also into northern soul. My friend’s brother really liked northern tunes and in the mid-seventies Tainted Love was considered a hot northern soul spin, although obviously later it became too well known to be considered very cool on that scene. Anyway, my friend’s brother would come in from his factory job and put on a record and drink a cup of tea before going to tinker with his motorbike or whatever, and the record he put on most often was Tainted Love. The older brother had been adopted so I always associated that tune with kids who’d been separated from their mothers. But one of the oddities about my friend’s brother was that apart from northern soul, he was really obsessed with the prog rock band Greenslade, so aside from some northern tunes, I first became acquainted with a some of the more obscure progressive rock bands because of him too.
B. In the book you state; "Anyone who thinks you can understand the history of London in the sixties by looking at the lives of Mary Quant, Twiggy, Bailey and The Shrimp, Mick Jagger, Michael Caine and Terrence Stamp, is sadly deluded". Could you elaborate on this?
H. History from below is always more interesting than the stories of so-called ‘great’ men and it usually is men, although I’ve quite consciously pulled out the names of some well-known women from the sixties. There’s a much more interesting story to be told about the sixties than that to be found in the memoirs of the more prominent sixties figures and those who are impressed by them and write about that decade as if it consists only of them. That’s partly why I wanted to tell my mother’s story but as fiction, because biography and autobiography always and already is fiction. I also remember the sixties since I was born at the start of the decade and for me it wasn’t all about The Beatles, I remember waiting for the bus to go to school when The Beatles broke up and some of the older kids were really cut up about it but I didn’t give a damn coz I wasn’t into The Beatles. In terms of media the sixties for me was much more about spy flicks and TV shows and stuff like that. I really used to love The Man From UNCLE, I used to stay up late to watch it when I was five years old. So there isn’t just one sixties, there are many sixties that people experienced in London, and even more variations of the sixties experienced around the world. Nearly a decade after I did Tainted Love I wrote a book based on the life of my mother’s cousin Ray The Cat Jones who was a well-known burglar who made a front page headline grabbing escape from Pentonville Prison in London in 1958. He was a lot older than my mother and his life covered a longer time period, but in my book he encounters my mother’s world in the sixties and seventies and its completely alien to him and his experiences. His sixties is very different to my mother’s sixties. But again it’s a history from below and while The 9 Lives of Ray The Cat Jones is a novel and fictional, it’s probably truer to life than vast majority of ghost-written criminal autobiographies.
B. Lots of celebrities appear, though many of them in very questionable situations. The John Lennon and Brian Jones cameos come to mind. Weren't you afraid of getting into legal problems?
H. I have my mother’s address book and John Lennon is in it alongside a lot of other pop musicians and cultural figures, there are an incredible number of well known people in there - but I found the lesser knowns more interesting to research. One publisher rejected the book because they didn’t like the stuff about Lennon which is as far as I can tell pretty true to life. I thought everyone knew Lennon could be a complete arsehole. However there were no libel issues with Lennon because the dead aren’t protected by libel laws and he was dead long before I wrote the book.
There were two other figures I wanted to include from the pop scene of the sixties but both were still alive when I wrote the book - and still are now - I’d heard stories about them and my mother but couldn’t use them because they are rich enough to sue and in England the libel laws are about protecting protecting the rich not the truth. One of them is nearly as well known as Lennon so including him would have been a huge risk and probably no publisher would have taken the book if I’d insisted he was in it. So Brian Jones was a substitute for these two figures and he behaves like Brain Jones - I read several books about him to get a grasp on that - rather than those he is a substitute for.
If you read the pop picker sections of Tainted Love and look at Robert Frank’s Cocksucker Blues documentary of the Rolling Stones 1972 US tour, then you’ll see how you might re-read the film to make it as true to life as my writing. There’s a woman presented as a groupie but she’s a junkie and to me looks like a pro. My impression is the managements and record companies preferred professional sex workers to groupies because they didn’t expected to be treated as special or for some kind of lasting relationship to develop, so they were generally much less trouble than groupies. As a result pros would be put in for the band by those working with them because it was considered safe, and of course a lot of sex workers used drugs and would deal them on the side, so it was all handy. That’s not to say the pop star in question necessarily knew they were dealing with a sex worker because they weren’t the person parting with dosh for the service.
Eckhart Schmidt’s 1982 movie The Fan doesn’t deal with the pro side of things but it’s a fictional exploration of just how badly things can go wrong with when a pop musician sleeps with a fan. I see fiction as a much more direct route and honest way to get to the truth in terms of individual lives than biography and especially autobiography where you couldn’t substitute Brain Jones for those who are still alive and protected by wealth. Another figure I didn’t put into Tainted Love because they were living when I wrote the book is Sean Connery. My mother claimed that the Bond actor paid for a good time with her when she was working as a hostess at Churchills in Bond Street in 1964. Of course, the fact my mother said this doesn’t make it true but since it would be hard to prove one way or the other, it would have been tempting to use if Connery had died younger than he eventually did. That said, there’s more evidence for the pop musicians than the actor.
B. The novel's timeline reaches the end of the seventies, with counterculture already fully amortised as a mass phenomenon. In your view, was it a failed revolution or just a by-product of the birth of the late-capitalist consumer society?
H. Elements of the counterculture were revolutionary but it wasn’t revolutionary across the board, in fact it was quite a mixed bag but under capitalism we all reproduce our own alienation. I do think en bloc it was more than just a a by-product of late-capitalist consumerism, although the latter is characteristic of parts of it. But there’s also a danger of fetishising the sixties and overlooking the flappers and cocaine frenzies of the twenties, or the Zoot boys of the forties.
B. The use and abuse of drugs is a recurrent theme in the novel and, for that generation, was more than just a hedonistic escape. The use of illegal substances is probably more widespread today than ever but detached from these countercultural or psychedelic values. What do you think about drugs and their relationship with counterculture?
H. Drugs were absolutely crucial to the counterculture, alongside sex work they financed a lot of it but of course they were more than that since there was a deep interest in expanding consciousness in parts of the beatnik and hippie subcultures. That’s one of the things missing from the straighter parts of the revolutionary milieu, the understanding that mature communism isn’t just about the return at a higher level of the anti-economic forms of primitive communist societies but also about reclaiming the characteristic modes of consciousness of such social forms, which we could say is characterised by shamanism. I’d agree drug use is more widespread today and also largely detached from a psychedelic desire to expand consciousness. My most recent novel in English She’s My Witch addresses that in an oblique way, since the main character Maria is into both occult modes of consciousness and drugs but they are separate pursuits to her in a way they were not for my mother in the sixties. She’s My Witch is very much an attempt to take a subcultural life-story that is similar to my mother’s but a generation down so it is punk rock and witchcraft rather than beatnik jazz and Indian gurus that fire Maria’s imagination. Despite my mother coming from South Wales and Maria in Witch from the mountains to the west of Valencia, they both end up in London and die prematurely from a heroin overdose. The style of the books is rather different but thematically they are very much linked but with the crucial different that in the earlier one an interest in drugs and expanded states of of consciousness are linked in a way they are not in the more recent novel.
B. Paradoxically, drug usage was utilised by the authorities to justify repression and abuse. The toughest parts of the novel are those in which police officers appear.
H. It was very hard to get out of my mother’s friends how badly she was abused by the police. Terry Taylor had left London and wasn’t in regular touch with her when that was happening, so I had to get it from other people. In Tainted Love I’m recording what I dragged out of people since they weren’t too willing to tell me. But I don’t think that level of abuse will surprise anyone whose been at the sharp end of London policing. Strangely at the end of September 2020 one of the most notorious of the bent coppers as far as the London counterculture goes, Norman Pilcher, put his name to a book called Bent Coppers: The Story of The Man Who Arrested John Lennon, George Harrison and Brian Jones, I haven’t bothered to read it because while he tells of corruption all around him, he now claims he wasn’t involved in it, which is a blatant lie. Nearly 20 years ago I asked to speak to one ex-cop who’d lodged a blatantly false report about my mother. He refused to talk to me but I hope I made this retired thug feel uncomfortable. I would have done the same for others if I could have got hold of them. I assume they’re mostly dead now.
B. Tainted Love was published over 15 years ago. Do you think the sixties still have something to teach us?
H. Every age has something to teach us, so of course the sixties does too. As Marx famously said: “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.”
Interview by Alejandro Alvarfer. A slightly shortened version of this interview can be found in issue 7 of Bruxismo which at the time I of posting it here was still available for sale from the following link. https://colectivobruxista.es/producto/bruxismo7/?v=a33c1ea972fc