Thursday, 21 February 2013

Nigel Jarrett, 'Funderland', the short story in Wales, fault-lines, schisms, and the knotty topic of hypergamous and hypogamous speech.

Nigel Jarrett

A while back, I promised here to turn the blog over to an interview with Welsh writer Nigel Jarrett, sparked by talk in Facebook's Welsh Short Story Group of Funderland, his short story collection, published by Parthian Books.  Funderland has had some wonderful reviews in the press,  (see here, again)  and I was intrigued to read.  Now I have - it is a very strong collection indeed - not a single weak link in the book - and I am very pleased to be able to natter to its author here.

Or maybe, on reflection, not ‘natter’. I don’t think Nigel Jarrett does ‘nattering’  much -  you will see what I mean, as we dive into an email question and answer exchange, me with the simple aim of spreading the word about a good book. 

VG: Tell me about the title story, and why you chose the title of that piece for the whole collection. Am I anywhere near if I take a stab and say it has something to do with the recurrence of a sense of your characters being so often 'on the edge'? And yet...

NJ: 'Funderland' is just unbidden neologism. When I was writing the story, one of the last before I put the collection together, the word wafted on to my desk like a soap bubble when no-one that you are aware of in the house is blowing them. It seemed appropriate and it sounded like something that might make a title for the book. As a Johnsonian and a journalist I would prefer to write only material I'm being paid for, however pathetically, so I'm always looking at the commercial side of things. Only later did I learn that several fairgrounds in Ireland were called 'Funderland'. I've been waiting for the writ to be served.  That's what I like about short fiction. What happened before you started reading and what's going to happen after the story's finished are part of the dynamic for a reader. So, yes - on the edge.  

VG: 'Funderland' seems to set up an expectation of something cynical (at least, it does for this reader). Life is anything but 'fun', as you explore the fault-lines that open up in relationships, destabilising them. Do you set out to knock your characters off balance, or does it just happen that way? 

NJ: There's no cynicism, though I'm a very cynical person. In relation to the book's title and its contents, I'd prefer the word 'irony'. There's not much fun to be had in my stories and there's certainly none in falling to your death from a water-chute or being abused by your new stepfather. I think 'fault lines' is a good description. But I'm not vindictive towards my characters: I don't deliberately open up schisms. They are just people with whom I sympathise. It's pretty clear to me that in every family there's some kind of difficulty, even tragedy. The idea of a family as the perfect unit of a civilised society seems under-rated but I've never tried any other sort of existence, like making my way alone up the Amazon or across some blood-deluged African republic and writing about it - the Bruce Chatwin thing. Yet I'm a bit of a loner as well as a happily-married family man. There's a recipe for disaster for you. Not in my case, though I've had my moments. Perhaps I've read too much Ivy Compton-Burnett.  I don't knock my characters off balance; I feel sorry for people who have been or are about to be thumped sideways.

VG: Can you talk a little about the unusual role music plays in 'Unfinished Symphony' and in 'Grasmere'? Far from being comforting/stimulating in Unfinished Symphony it seems to underpin a character's failings, perhaps. And in Grasmere, music goes hand in hand with yearning, or loss/displacement... so,

NJ: For many years at the South Wales Argus newspaper I shadowed the distinguished music critic Kenneth Loveland. When he retired I took over from him. Since turning freelance I've also begun reviewing and writing for Jazz Journal. Without music in my life I'd go mental. I learned from Ken that musical knowledge is nothing to do with musical 'appreciation', something we both detested. Musical knowledge is what gives rise to fears for one's sanity if one were to be deprived of music. Neither Ken nor I were musicians in the accepted sense.  'Unfinished Symphony' partly reflects learning music as a middle-class youngster, which was what I once was - well, lower middle-class. I began learning to play the piano very late and I had to give it up before I'd made much progress. That story is also about the way music suggests the eternal.  The coastal setting was deliberate. As I get older, music is having an even more profound affect on me. I now like compositions that I once found difficult or beyond my wavelength. I'm getting closer to where music is coming from though I'm not religious in the denominational sense. But 'Unfinished Symphony' is mostly the world seen through a child's eyes. I'm sure that for him, later in life, music will be the same as it is for me. Music is elusive, not to be pinned down in the way attempted by the narrator's father.
        The connotations of incest in 'Grasmere' are greater than its musical element. It seems to me that the different abilities of children in a family are difficult to reconcile, divisive even. (I've written a story about this called Mutual Friend, recently published in Prole magazine. Two siblings, one a 'worker' the other an academic, are unconsciously switching roles late in life and dealing in their different ways with the amnesia of their father.) 'Grasmere' ia about a lot of things I don't really understand. I've stayed in the place a lot. The incest thing and the idea of a waning prodigy perhaps suggests the Wordsworths. Who knows? Writers don't know. I enjoyed writing about the wild ducks on the lake.
       I'd give up everything, even writing, to be able to play the piano well and professionally. My idea of a musical hero is a jazz pianist who can sit down at a piano and launch into Love for Sale without knowing how it's going to turn out. The old tunes are the best. I'd even put up with deprivations.

VG: The Guardian said this among other things, " a music critic by profession, Jarrett has a marvellous ear. A shepherd's whistle is analysed as "B flat, then a glissando to the double octave, capped by a staccato triplet on D sharp." If you were to set the story 'Unfinished Symphony' to music, would you use the eponymous piece? If not, why not? And if another, 'Grasmere', was to be a short film, what music would accompany that one?

NJ: Oh dear!  Definitely not the Schubert piece because its title simply suggested that the child was at an important stage of his life, but only a stage. If the story were dramatised I might choose music by the Welsh composer Grace Williams, who was inspired by the South Glamorgan coast; she might even be the fictitious Alice Westerway in the story.  Either that, or a piece by Ken Colyer's Jazzmen, to set up resonances and reflect the boy's jazz-loving sister and her feckless swain. For 'Grasmere', a sad piece, it would have to be Chopin's Prelude No 4 in E minor, played by Alfred Cortot!

VG: I loved the story 'Mrs Kuroda on Penyfan', particularly, although it is hard to pick ones I like out of a strong collection I enjoyed so much. Congratulations on the prize it won. I can quite see why. Can you say something about this story and its inspiration? And also, if you could choose one scene from this story to be painted, which scene would it be, and who would you choose to paint it. (alive or dead...!). 

NJ: 'Mrs Kuroda' won the Rhys Davies Award for short fiction. Entries had to reflect an aspect of contemporary Wales - drug addiction in the Valleys, that sort of thing. I decided to write about foreign investment, particularly from the Far East. I'm always interested in the particulars that segue to generalisation.  Mrs Kuroda is a Japanese company boss's lonely wife but also a woman with the feelings of any woman anywhere, especially one in a subservient relationship.  The cultural aspect of that seemed to fall nicely for me, as did the suicide at the end, if it was suicide. One writer praising the story referred to the 'shocking' kick in the tail, which only registered on second reading. I still don't know what he meant. Ever self-critical, I sometimes regret the 'suicide' angle at the end. In a story about nostalgia for Japan, this can seem trite or contrived. Ditto the reference to the women attending a performance of Puccini's Madama Butterfly in Cardiff! At least it was all feasible.
The most pictorial scene depicts the Japanese wives flitting across the yard of a Valleys leisure centre in their kimonos. That might have interested Josef Herman, the Polish artist who lived in Ystradgynlais and immortalised its coalminers. 
Josef Herman

'In the Pitt' 1952 Image from Aberystwyth University website 

As someone who can draw and paint after a fashion, I'm as much interested in visual art as in music. I do see a lot of stories in terms of pictures. I also love the questions visual art throws up. There's a linguistic element to it. If a pile of bricks is not 'art', just find an alternative word for what it is. Only a fool would try to hoax the public in this way, and only a foolish brigade - the righteously indignant tabloid Press - would think there was an issue. What right do the red tops have to be indignant? 

VG:  You mention Arthur Smith and Cambrensis in the acknowledgements - what an inspiration that man was. I am very proud of my copies - the photocopying and cutting n pasting, done with such love! Bless the man. Who is carrying the baton for the short story in Wales these days? 

NJ: Funny you should ask. At the time of writing, the website of the New Welsh Review says the magazine is currently closed to fiction submissions. Planet has published my work, including a story. The Blue Tattoo also publishes stories. After that, the search for a Welsh outlet becomes desperate. As with poetry, there seem to be more people writing stories than reading them. No-one I know reads stories. What is about the the short fiction lobby? Is it stuffed with the opinions of teachers in those dreadful Creative Writing classes, whose livelihoods are at stake?  One does get paranoid about these things. The future is probably with websites or with print magazines that boast an online presence. I worry about this, too, because I see work of merit being buried in the midden that is the Internet. I mean, how will anyone know that your work actually exists? And who will distinguish it from the mountains of crud? And how will you know that anyone is trying to distinguish it from the rest anyway? Far from being a democratic haven, the www is likely to become an undifferentiated dump, where the good will swim unrecognised beside the gorblimey. It's already happening. 
       My theory is that the internet will eventually become mainly a marketplace, which is what it's already very good at, rather than a viable alternative to print culture. 
       Who's carrying the baton for the story in Wales? No-one. Three websites have recently accepted work from me. I don't know whether to leap about or cry into a Kleenex. I know one thing: Funderland is here in my hand with all its faults and finery. Barring flood and fire, I'll be able to pass it on.

Would you say that you're successful? How do you measure success?

NJ: I always tell people who are impressed by Funderland and any of my other published work that every month I receive rejections from magazines, newspapers, websites - you name it, they've ditched me. It used to put me off; now, I don't care and send the rejected work somewhere else. I also get acceptances but far fewer than the brush-offs. One wag famously sent already-published books, one of them a collection of Alan Sillitoe stories, to book publishers whose rejections were comic when they were not sad. It's only one person's opinion. If the same piece is rejected thirty times, of course, you might consider looking at it again.  Otherwise, keep churning it out. It's a mug's game, as there's no money in it - not unless you can write a bestseller. But I'm lucky: as a newspaper journalist I've been published and read every day. You never tire of that. I believe in what I'm doing and that's the only measure there is.  Parthian have agreed to publish my first poetry collection, Miners At The Quarry Pool. We press on, hands to the wheel, which nevertheless and often feels Inquisitional. (PS: I did once write a satirical critique of a magazine that once pompously returned my work. I offered the editor my professional services in improving his publication at a cost of £160 and therafter for each published issue £99.99. He didn't get back.)

VG: Some of your lines are so quotable - saying a lot in few words. Eg: "the... evasive way we diminish madness by calling it eccentricity" "the difference between love and the memory of love" and there are many more in that story - 'Nomad' - which seems to hold a particular resonance. Can you talk about that one?

NJ: I don't try to write quotable lines. I do try to write concisely, actually an effort after doing it hour after hour, week in week out, as a reporter and sub-editor. I crave Jamesian extension and have to suppress it. Turns of phrase do pop up as part of the exercise of avoiding cliché. It seems so right in a short story, where everything is suggesting things bigger than itself. I hadn't noticed a plethora in 'Nomad', which is about loss, the most searing of emotions. Moreover, it's about loss as differentially perceived by a mother and a father. It's accidental that the father is the more forgiving. Perhaps as a male he hankers after his nomadic son's wanderlust. You can't win in situations now shaded by gender bias real or apparent. Apparent in my case. 
       I've been criticised for allowing some of my characters to speak 'out of their class'. I don't do 'class' in that sense. If someone hasn't the vocabulary and the phraseology, I provide it. It's my duty to provide it. It's a writer's duty to provide it. Will Self said he wan't interested in character and therefore not interested in the questions of hypergamous or hypogamous speech.  I know what he meant. Do we despise Swift because he was similarly uninterested?  I've read enough accounts of the lower orders and their corny vernacular. 
       Families in my stories might be divided, or heading for division, but I'd prefer them to be happy - adventurous, loving, creative, un-repressed, undivided and happy. The odd affair on the way does make life interesting. So that's adventurous, loving, creative, un-repressed, undivided, happy - and broadminded. I think I jest.


Thank you Nigel, for a very interesting interview. Lots of good luck with both Funderland and the forthcoming poetry collection.


  1. Goodness - how creepy. Do leave a name if you comment again.

  2. What a fascinating interview - thank you Vanessa and Nigel - I'm interested to read Funderland, now.

  3. I also find anonymous commenters rather creepy - especially when they write in German!

    This sounds like an intriguing and accomplished read. As a classical pianist tied to music scores, I also think that skilled improvisation is the coolest thing out there.

    1. How funny- I just had a great long screed in German - I just zapped it, with great pleasure!