This interview appeared in 3:AM Magazine on 11 February 2008:
Sam Jordison interviewed by Andrew Gallix.
3:AM: You live in Oxford but went to Cambridge. What’s that all about, Sam?
SJ: Haha! I’m painfully middle class is what it’s about. I don’t have any middle class guilt, however. Plenty of my ancestors were coal miners and worked damn hard just so that I could have such a privileged existence. So did my parents, in fact. Meanwhile my granny on one side worked as a servant when she was 14 and had to watch all the kids she had to look after go on to University when she knew she was brighter than them. Not going to Cambridge when I had the chance would have betrayed all that work and effort…
Plus, you know, I feel like I earned my place. I didn’t go to a public school (although I was lucky enough to go to a very good state grammar, so had a bit of help in that way) and worked hard when I was teenager.
Plus, Cambridge is a beautiful place. I spent three years feeling like I was chasing Byron and Milton and Newton’s ghosts and I got a great education. Amongst other things.
Plus! Why not?
Oxford’s the same. A beautiful city, well-connected to London. Great for cycling (which I love). I’m also lucky enough to have a wonderful generous landlady who doesn’t charge anything like the market rent, so I could afford to live here for a long time. Although now, my little house is bursting at the seams with books…
3:AM: What did you study?
SJ: Classics… Latin, Greek, Ancient History. I’ve loved Catullus, venerated Virgil and loathed Christianity ever since. Honestly, I really think that the 4th Century AD and the crazy emergence of Christian faith should be compulsory subjects everywhere. Why so many people are Christians and don’t have a clue where their beliefs have come from is beyond me.
3:AM: On Facebook, you write that “Freelance writer is a euphemism for always desperate for money / work”: when and why did you choose to write as a living? How difficult is it?
SJ: I don’t know really. It’s what I’ve always wanted to do. Or at least, I get a kind of sick, guilty feeling of failure if I haven’t written something every day. Writing toilet books isn’t the be-all and end-all of my ambition, of course. Like every journalist, I really want to write that novel and I’m working on a far more involved travel book at the moment…
Actually, saying it’s what I’ve always wanted to do is not entirely true. I had a period — when I was a teenager — when I wanted to be a rock star. But I couldn’t play an instrument and couldn’t sing and would only have put up with being the lead singer because of my ego. Aged about 20 I had, as most people must, the sad realisation that I was never going to be Mick Jagger, so I started taking writing a bit more seriously again.
It is hard! I’m aware that when I say this, I always sound like the guy in the Monty Python Tungsten Carbide Drill sketch, but I don’t feel like there’s much of a space for freelancers and writers in New Labour Britain.
I’m struggling still and I’m doing comparatively okay. I’ve got some great regular work at the moment with The Guardian, that I’m really interested in and I really enjoy, but it doesn’t pay the bills. I have to do all kinds of other stuff on the side to keep going and I still can’t afford to live in the UK with prices like they are at the moment. I don’t know how poets survive!
In fact, I’m going to be one of the new wave of economic exiles soon, shipping out of the country because the baby boomers have snaffled all the houses and the government have destroyed all the service industries. I’m off to France which (Sarkozy aside) I’m hoping looks after its citizens a bit better. I guess I’ll see about that when I get there… If things don’t change I imagine plenty more will follow me.
3:AM: How did you get involved with The Idler?
SJ: I picked up the magazine by chance once and found a feature they did called “The Fine Line” absolutely hilarious and thought I’d like to work for whoever wrote that… To learn a few chops. I was quite seduced by what I took to be the philosophy of the magazine too — not so much laziness as only working for what you truly believe to be worthwhile.
I got my chance when I did an MA in journalism at Goldsmiths and was able to get some work experience there… After a while I guess I became quite useful, running a few things on their new website, writing a few articles and co so they started paying me. They were very happy days at first. The person who wrote “The Fine Line”, Matthew De Abaitua, also got me a job working for Channel 4’s film website so I was able to pay my rent properly and had a great time working for him, picking up the odd nugget of wisdom, the odd completely crazy idea and occasionally getting real drunk because his capacity to put down beer is way beyond mine. He was the ideal first boss really.
The short answer I always give is growing up near Morecambe. I’ll cut and paste the Morecambe entry that started everything off:
“A Northwestern seaside resort that has until recently promoted itself as a small version of Blackpool. It offers a spectacular view over its sandy bay to the stately southern fells of the Lake District. After a brief heyday in the 1930s the town has suffered a long, sad decline.
Poor old Morecambe. The seaside town they should never have opened. Where a silent and grey day comes as a blessed relief from the gales of black depression that generally batter its desolate promenades. I can’t possibly think why anyone would ever go to Morecambe, unless of course they’re unlucky enough to live there, or are attracted to misery and squalor in the same way hearty moor-walking Victorians used to be attracted to graveyards and consumption. It long ago seems to have forgotten about being a holiday resort. Its attractions hunch empty and unused on the seafront.
The town would be almost entirely empty if it wasn’t for the fact that the DHSS have put its Bed & Breakfasts to good use in housing the Northwest’s homeless and hopelessly addicted. You are now more likely to find needles on the prom than lollipop sticks, and the cheery face of naughty holiday sex that Morecambe once tried to show to the world has been covered in lesions.”
Of course, the truth is slightly more complex than that piece suggests. I actually quite love Morecambe, in a way, which is why I was so sad and angry that it had been so dumped on and destroyed. It really has the potential to be a beautiful place. There’s an incredible view of the Lake District hills, amazing old Georgian houses with lovely, huge windows and all these incredible art-deco buildings. Even when I was there as a teenager, trying not to get beaten up, I knew it was special in a way. The Midland Hotel is one of my favourite buildings in the world. When I went there while researching the books, all the windows had been smashed, paint was peeling off its walls, birds were its only residents, and it looked like it was going to fall down. Really tragic. Someone had even left a dirty protest on the steps leading up to its once lovely entrance. It was really quite sad, although it did make a great final — literal — image for Crap Towns.
So that’s the thinking behind the idea. That these places could and should be better and that their awful condition has a real effect on people’s lives. Of course, I don’t want to make too much of that. It is a pretty daft book after all. But I do hope it was kind of a wake up call for a few town planners and co.
On a more practical level, I’d already helped set up and run a feature on the site called Crap Jobs, which had worked fairly well, but I wanted something with broader appeal. I thought that everyone would have shared that teenage “got to get out of this place” feeling and you could find crap in just about any town anywhere if you looked at it hard enough. So I put the Morecambe thing out there, got the other guy who worked on the site to write about his hometown, and pretty quickly it caught on.
The great thing was of course, was that I’d phone up all the local papers and say “Do you know what this posh-twat magazine is saying about you?” and, of course, they’d all jump on it. It was the perfect local pride story. I’d have these great conversations with journalists who’d say they completely agreed with me — and then the next day be splashed all over the paper as public enemy number one.
It also spread really quickly around chat boards and things like that and the momentum just kept going. So I guess by the time the book came out I knew it was going to be pretty huge. That’s not to say it wasn’t an amazing feeling. I thought for a while I was going to be rich enough to be able to write full time and I’d never have to write a toilet book again… In the end, I was just about the only person who didn’t make any money from it. But that’s what always happens to naïve young people with more ideas than practical sense, I guess.
SJ: Absolutely. I’d had it even before studying early Christianity in Classics. I don’t know where it came from really, other than this feeling that all those Bible stories just didn’t ring true and that every vicar I’d come across or seen on TV or heard on the radio was kind of a pompous ass…
… but I digress. Faith with no basis in reason. I’m sad to say events have borne out my conviction that it’s dangerous and foolish, in recent years, have they not? George Bush, Al Qaeda… No one needs me to remind them of the root cause of all that.
3:AM: Then it was Bad Dates…
SJ: Yes, that was a case of seeing just how low I could take the toilet book thing. I wanted to write a book called “The Bible Basher” following on from The Joy Of Sects, but my agent — I think rightly — told me that it wouldn’t stand much of a chance… As it turned out I’d have been up against Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens that year, so mine would no doubt have completely disappeared. Plus, I got to write a couple of long articles in a Disinformation book, Everything You Know About God Is Wrong, which kind of satisfied that yen for a while.
Anyway, Bad Dates came out of this idea that I wanted to go as Heat-tastic as possible, just for the fun of it. Plus, of course, as any girl unlucky enough to have gone on what passes for a date with me could tell you, I was absolutely hopeless at that kind of thing myself. It was an idea I felt personally close to. It was really a lot of fun to put together. Nice and easy — the website I ran to put it together became the big anti-Valentine story of 2006, so lots of people wrote in, I had lots of laughs… It’s coming out again in paperback next Valentine’s Day so I’m hoping it will have something of a second life too.
Strangely, the book also helped me realise one of my true and serious ambitions of writing about literature. I’ve been writing for the Guardian books blog for about a year now — and the articles that got me started were both about Bad Dates and the unscrupulous marketing methods, all toilet authors seem to be reduced to… Shelf rearranging in bookshops, writing my own amazon review. That kind of thing. Somehow that led to talk about literary groups, obscure lost authors, new unheard voices, Zelda Fitzgerald, Tony O’Neill, Oscar Wilde, Ovid, The Bright Young Things, The Booker Prize, Henry James… lots of fun.
3:AM: And now Annus Horribilis: so far, you seem to have based your whole writing career on Schadenfreude…
SJ: It’s true. I guess it must be a feeling I enjoy. Also, being something of a klutz myself, always prone to dropping things — both of a physical and verbal clanger nature — I guess I sympathise with life’s losers. I share their pain and that makes it all the more piquant and funny for me. I also hope I show they often have some kind of dignity in defeat. And that there’s a much finer line between spectacular success and humiliation than is often supposed.
SJ: Yes, I liked that. I think that one’s especially fun, because Gertrude Stein, of course, went on to do rather well in the end. I also love some of the madder, older stories. I think my current favourite is about the man who first came up with the idea of the submarine. The only possible use he could think of for it was to take bets from his friends about how long he could stay underwater. And the biggest problem with it was that — as his 19th century chronicler explained — he forgot to allow for the influx of “fresh air”. So the story has a sad ending… But at least the chap has gained some kind of immortality through his actions.
3:AM: Isn’t there something slightly reactionary about these feelgood books in that they encourage people to accept their lot. In the book, you write: “One of the great things about life is that — no matter how bad things get — there’s generally someone worse off than you”; “We can’t all come top of the class”…
SJ: Reactionary! Oh God. I used to be so cool. Haha. But yes, I take your point. I guess there is in a way.
Er… I suppose I could provide some kind of justification. In a sense it’s a kick back against the misdirected ambition nowadays. I get very troubled by all those surveys of kids who seem to assume they’re going to be famous — and famous in the Paris Hilton, Big Brother kind of sense. Famous for doing absolutely nothing of worth. That’s crap in itself. But I also worry about how they are going to feel in twenty years when all they are is notorious in their small town and prematurely partied-out…
So putting ideas like those in Annus Horribilis out there might redress the karmic balance in a small way. It says the majority of us don’t get anywhere really, and that’s fine too. We can’t all be The Beatles after all.
3:AM: On the other hand, one could argue that the “democracy of misfortune” you mention is a great leveller…
SJ: Heh. Should have read this question before giving my previous answer. Quite agree.
3:AM: The stories you’ve compiled are not only hilarious (the index alone is laugh-out-loud), but they’re also fascinating from the point of view of comic devices — they’re all in there. Did you ever approach it as research for future fiction writing?
SJ: Thanks! And, yes. That’s the plan behind all these books. I enjoy writing them for their own sake, of course, but I look on them as a good way of getting paid to hone my craft as well.
Whether anything will come of it is a different question, but the hope is that they’ll give me a few tools. There’s lots of direct quotation in Annus Horribilis, for instance, which I’m hoping will help me with my dialogue (which I’m currently still pretty terrible at writing…) I think it has taught me something. Especially all that re-arranging of other people’s words and positioning them for comic effect. I’m hoping it’s improved my timing. We’ll see.
3:AM: Your girlfriend, Eloise Millar, is a novelist. Do you intend to follow in her footsteps?
SJ: Yes, I’d love to. If I can write a book half as good as hers, I’d be happy.