As a much published writer, Joseph Ridgwell’s novels, short stories and poems have muscled in and roped off a corner of the underground literary scene and claimed it as its own. His latest book of poesy, A Child Of The Jago, finds Ridgwell in nostalgic mood as he returns to his native East London and reflects on family, relationships and a disappearing culture. With his usual bolshiness and bravado turned down a notch this warm collection is probably his best yet.
As a long-time champion of his work here on Monkey Picks I thought it time to collar Mr. Ridgwell for a chinwag about his new book, poetry, the East End and the curse of the drinking classes.
Who are you? Explain yourself young man.
Ha, who am I? Fuck knows. You know, Monkey, each morning I get up and look in the mirror and this strange, somewhat desperate looking face leers back at me. Maybe I’m the devil’s footman, maybe I don’t even exist? Word on the lit-vine is that I’m the creation of some millionaire author living in Bermuda, who getting sick of writing safe formula mainstream pap, decided to create me to fulfill his or her inner crazy screwball artistic side? A sort of literary Frankenstein if you like. Or could be I’m just a kid from a small council estate in East London who one day decided he wanted to be a writer and my doodlings are a result of such an out of kilter audacity. A careers advisor once suggested floristry as a suitable occupation for someone with a constitution as delicate, sensitive and refined as mine. I remember walking out of that office with a very confused look adorning my boat.
I can imagine. This new book of yours, A Child Of The Jago, what's it all about?
The Jago is about my childhood growing up in East London in the 1970’s & 80’s and contemporary London, focusing on lost communities, culture, and a certain way of life that has all but disappeared. Where did all the indigenous Cockney’s go? It’s like they’ve been wiped off the face of history.
Actually, what triggered all this Cockney nostalgia and reflections were two incidents that occurred in my life simultaneously. One, I was posted to an office in Commercial Road, in the heart of the old East End and Jack the Ripper territory. The other was that I began dating a young Swedish girl who resided in a squat in Bethnal Green. Thus, after being away from the East End for decades, I was suddenly spending everyday there.
The job I had at the time was a cushy number, I operated like a lone wolf amongst the massed ranks of frosty adults feigning efficiency. Attached to three different locations nobody knew for certain where I was at any given time. Naturally, I took advantage of this anomaly and exploited it mercilessly. I came in late, left early, took entire days off, and took two to three hour lunches on a regular basis, sometimes never even coming back. I’d go to the White Hart in Whitechapel or the Pride of Spitalfields just off Brick lane for my daily constitutionals, and afterwards go to Kossoff’s for a salt beef roll, mustard and sliced gherkin, and take a stroll around the East End. It was during these mellow interludes, why the rest of the mugs were hard at it, that all the memories came rushing back. Visiting Petticoat Lane for apple fritters on a Sunday, trips to Hoxton Market, Manze for Pie & Mash, looking at the animals in Club Row, (there was a lion there once) etc. What struck me was that although the place was almost unrecognisable to how it had been as a child, if you looked carefully signs of the old way of life were all around.
But what the devil is a Jago?
The title for the collection was taken from a novel by Arthur Morrison of the same name. What Arthur thinks of me nicking his title is unknown as he’s long dead and almost forgotten. In Morrison’s novel the Jago is an imaginary area of the East End, close to an old rookery in what was then and still is, Bethnal Green. It you haven’t read it, check it out.
This sojourn in the East End also encouraged me to write a historical novel about the East End called, The Jago, which is a companion to A Child of the Jago. The novel is currently gathering dust in a forgotten drawer so if publishers are reading this and fancy a bit if it, then don’t hesitate to get in contact. Oh, and by the way, it’s only the best book written about the East End ever.
A Child of the Jago is full of poems. Who wants to read poetry? Isn’t that a hard sell?
Poetry, in my opinion, is often unfairly maligned. Think of poet and an image of an effete looking man, wearing a scarf or a cardigan, and sporting a mangy beard springs to mind, (wait up, that’s me) or some mad lesbian with crazed hair. Or all those really boring poems, especially WWI poetry, that we were forced to digest at school. Actually school is the problem, the traumatic experience puts people off for life. Then, there’s all the really bad poetry, for every good poet, there’s a million bad ones. Then there’s mainstream poetry, mostly safe, well written bits of nothingness. So, for any lit fiend looking for something a little different, a little dangerous, a little counter-culture he’s got to do a little bit of digging, a little bit of seeking to unearth anything worth reading. However, if the fiend does take the time to scrape under the surface it can be a worthwhile sometimes life changing experience. Added to this is the fact that poetry can be read fast, a collection easily read in under an hour, and in an age where time is precious poetry should have a far higher profile than is currently does.
What makes a good poem and what distinguishes it from simply being a few sentences of prose cut into tiny lines?
I think a good poem should leave a lasting imprint on the brain. It has to have one or more killer lines that the reader will not be able to easily forget. Where are the Rebels is a good example, not necessarily the poem but at the very least the title. People might say that anyone can do that, write a line that sticks in the readers mind for years afterward. My answer to that is go on then. Byron's So, We’ll Go No More a Roving; Keats’s La Belle Dames San Merci; Burns’ A Red, Red Rose; Bukowski’s The Days Run Away Like Wild Horses Over the Hill’s; Li Po’s A Quiet Night Thought; these are all classic examples of what I mean, but there are thousands of others. One of my personal fav’s is Baudelaire’s To A Creole Lady. The line – “Under a canopy of crimson trees” - is unforgettable. Also Swinburn’s Love and Sleep, Bukowski’s I Saw A Tramp Last Night, etc, etc...Keep digging fiends.
One of your earlier collections, you mentioned then, was Where Are The Rebels?, now you're asking where is the rag and bone man, the egg man, the pools man and the Hofmeister Bear. Are you going soft on us?
If anything my life philosophy is hardening. At the moment I’m going through an extreme anti-work phase. I read an essay by US anarchist, Bob Black, the gist of which rails at employment in all forms. Subsequently my latest novel is about work and the misery it creates. Of course I’m sure some work is very rewarding, like say the work of a marine biologist, or a classical conductor, but for the rest of us work is at best tolerable and at worse mind-numbing pointlessness. Unfortunately for those of us, the majority, the only option to being a wage slave is starving to death in the gutter.
And the rebels? Are you still searching for them?
I’m still wondering where they are, for they have to be out there somewhere. At the present time, however, I don’t see many. Life is short, enjoy it while you can. Get drunk, take drugs, be promiscuous, don’t work too hard, go dancing. Retain your inner child. Life makes people hard and they begin to take things way too seriously. Most jobs are utter nonsense so treat them as such.
Your books are published as limited editions by small independent publishers like Blackheath Books and Kilmog Press. They're lovingly and carefully produced; not least Jago with illustrations by your cousin Martin Ridgwell. When will we be able to buy your books at train stations and airports?
I’ve been fortunate enough to be published by a handful of maverick publishers who all produce beautiful artisan craft books. These are books you will never see for sale at train stations or airports. Sometimes I ruminate on why the mainstream has consistently rejected my highly stylised Cockney capers until it is pointed out to me that I never submit my work to any mainstream publishers. Maybe I’ll start doing that and discover that I’m discovered and shortly after this discovery my books, no longer beautiful, but mass produced pulp, will appear for sale in train stations and airports. Realistically though, I fear that I’m going to have to die a tragic death before anyone outside a select circle of sordid lit fiends, takes notice of what I’ve been trying to do for the last fifteen years.
One of those “sordid lit fiends”, Joe England, editor of litzine PUSH, gives you much credit in encouraging him to launch his mag, to which you contribute each issue. What is your role?
My role, if I had a role, was very small. Mister England got in touch and mentioned that he was thinking of starting a litzine. He then asked what I thought of such an idea. My response was to tell him to, ‘Just go and do it,’ which he took on board and within a couple of weeks the phenomenon that is now Europe’s best-selling litzine was born.
How important in a digital age is it for writers to have their work available in a physical format?
I think it is more important than ever for writers to have their work available in a physical format. I mean, what if we run out of electricity? Where would all those tech geeks be then? Sometimes you have to see the bigger picture and avoid a herd mentality, which is what most people working in today’s media are unable to do.
What kind of soiree have you planned to launch A Child Of The Jago?
No soiree Monkey, this is going to be what can only be described as “a do”. It might bankrupt me financially, but I believe that when embarking on such things, you might as well do them with a bit of style. The evening will feature Joe England, Tim Wells, Pepe Arroyo, Michael Keenaghan and Martin Ridgwell. Alongside readings there will be an art exhibition, book and art sales, and music supplied by Lord Monkey Picks and His Super Sounds. There will also be films of old vaudeville acts and some adult cabaret. No minors allowed. Canape sized pie and mash, jellied eels, cockles, whelks and winkles from Manze’s Pie and Mash Shop also provided. If anyone reading this is interested the shindig will be held from 7pm on the 20th March 2014 at Orford House Social Club, Walthamstow, E17.
A Child Of The Jago by Joseph Ridgwell is published by Kilmog Press.
For more Ridgwell antics see Lost Elation.