Nick Power interviews Austin Collings

Nick Power interviews Austin Collings


Where will it all end? In a suitcase on Saddleworth Moor somewhere. In a Skelmersdale abattoir minus a limb. Selling our own hair to wealthy alopecia sufferers from a car boot. The boiler room of a black market betting shop, probably, rolling for our lives on a lopsided roulette. Where will it all end?

I got hold of a copy of Austin Collings’ book of short stories The Myth of Brilliant Summers around two years ago and was instantly hooked. It is a compact tangle of suburban nightmares, skewed memories and twisted coming-of-age tales. Once you've read Austin's work, it's hard to wash him off your brain. It's like he's carved words into it with a rusty shiv. Like finding an anonymous diary in the labyrinth of a disused subway. A book of secrets.

That said, he's not shy about letting you into his world. The man himself is an open book and a good friend- and if I ask for a literary or film recommendation, he'll fire at least fifteen things back off the top of his head. He can do this whilst drunk. He frequently wakes me up with texts and emails that seemingly come from other dimensions. Movie links, songs, news articles on anything from serial killers to Howard the Duck. They're all part of the soup. We go back and forth.

I've been pestering him, too, for around a year and a half now, so I thought it fair to return the superb interview he conducted with me a few months ago in this magazine. Here it is . . .

Q: We seem to talk mainly about sports and movies these days. So in the spirit of our conversations, what sportsperson, or team would you base a film/documentary around?

A: A few years ago I tried to get the Justin Fashanu story made as a documentary. It’s a compellingly sad story: Britain's first black £1million pound footballer and first player to 'come out' and reveal his sexuality, he eventually hung himself in 1998, after fleeing America on a rape charge; in his suicide note he insisted he was innocent.

As with his brother John, he was a Barnardo boy; brought up in Norfolk by foster parents. Before becoming a footballer he flirted with boxing. Aged 18 he scored that memorable screamer, live on Match of the Day, for Norwich against Liverpool in 1980. It would go on to win goal of the season. Brian Clough later signed him for Notts Forest, but Clough wasn't too sympathetic towards his homosexuality. 

Eventually he moved from club to club, racking up debts, annoying managers and falling out with people, before ending up in America and then fleeing. His name is still used by the Justin Campaign, launched in 2008, to campaign against homophobia in football. It’s a story that has to be told. 

Q: I struggle to trace your style of writing back to one source. It's somehow very dense yet sparse at the same time. It has an uncanny rhythm too, like a Carl Perkins tape that's been left out in the sun and warped, so everything is ever so slightly nauseating. Are these traits deliberate?

A: I learned that just beneath the surface there's another world, and still different worlds as you dig deeper. I knew it as a kid, but I couldn't find the proof. It was just a kind of feeling. There is goodness in blue skies and flowers, but another force - a wild pain and decay - also accompanies everything.

Q: Which has been your favourite series of Celebrity Big Brother?

A: I don’t go to the theatre. I prefer to read plays. Also, you can’t turn the volume down in a theatre or stare out of the window at warring dogs or the drama of rain. However, CBB works like theatre for me – a bizarrely catastrophic form of theatre - beamed into your home. 

I can recall certain hysterical, tense or humorous monologues – Perez Hilton, for instance - that rank with some of the best theatre writing I’ve ever read including Beckett, Pinter, Mamet etc. The words seem unbound: free and erratic. The drained voices of the tortured contestants, echoing down the tunnel of TV years.

Then there’s the lack of laptops and hand-held devices – which can be an assault on environment - their absence creates an unnerving sense of stillness like a Tarkovsky film, like Stalker. Watching it, I’m cured of innocence. 

And when the celebrities fall apart in the diary room sat in that chair their faces recall Francis Bacon’s howling Pope sat on his high chair and I can’t stop making the Bacon connection.  

Hero: Gary Busey – simply for wearing the same outfit throughout the series like an easily-identifiable cartoon character – Shaggy for instance.  

Villain: Perez Hilton – his camp dark persona wouldn’t have looked out of place as a villain in the original 60s Batman TV series. 

Best Season: 11 – The Year of Spied.

Q: Can you say something about forthcoming book of photographs of Prestwich psychiatric hospital that you've been involved in?

A: I’d rather not say too much because I generally work out the idea of a book as I’m writing it. The working title is GOD’S FOX and it’s an extension of this piece that I wrote for VICE late last year. 

Q: I'm sure that Peter Falk as Columbo is the greatest TV detective. Will we agree on this, or have a scrap?

A: No scrapping here. I’m in complete agreement. He’s not only the greatest TV detective but he’s also a great hangover balm like Heinz tinned spaghetti or chips & gravy. 

Q: Our band, BEAT-LES, have recently won a Grammy and two Brit awards for the triple-vinyl opus Exit Skeletor. Do you think impending fame will change you?

A: Yes. I hope to go full Spector or half Rik Waller. 

Q: One of your favourite authors, Malcolm Lowry, wrote (in Under The Volcano): "How, unless you drink like I do, could you hope to understand the beauty of an old Indian woman playing dominos with a chicken?" As a writer, do you think you're able to see things after a heavy session that you might not pick up on when stone-cold sober?

A: Without a doubt. You see new mysteries. After the doom has gone you are then resurrected. Your eyes are a carousel of awe. The glow of the fridge becomes the true lamp of art. The sound of a voice outside – any voice - is like the sound of a Polygamists 12th wife calling him back to bed. It all makes spiritual sense until you wake up the morning after and it’s back to what it was – what it is – but I don’t mind that as well. I’m used to the world not making sense.  

Q: What albums do you like to listen to when you're hiding things? Top five, in order of assistance to the hiding.

A: I hide in soundtracks:

Deborah’s Theme by Ennio Morricone (Once Upon A Time In America) 

I Knew These People by Ry Cooder (Paris Texas)

Spiege im Spiegel (3) by Vladimir Spiakov & Sergej Bezrodny (Gerry)

Caetano Veloso - Cucurrucucu Paloma (Happy Together) 

Yumeji’s Theme by Shigeru Umebayashi (In The Mood For Love)

Q: Is there a particular recurring nightmare that you have?

A: I sleep lightly but dream heavily. As a child, I used to have a recurring dream/vision of World War 2 planes attacking me, flying into my eyes – right into my eyes – it was as if I had no sense of scale - like the cover of a Commando comic come to life or death, bullets flashing in the dark. 

But for me, there’s no difference between dreams and nightmares. I died for a while as a child so maybe this is the next life or maybe I’m adrift somewhere like John Simm/Sam Tyler in Life on Mars. Nothing has ever felt truly real to me. 

I often dream of my old secondary school – the complicated hell of it – and of old loves, of one in particular who was terrifically kind to me – but maybe me not to her - and then I have these vivid visions of hideous faces – Goya-like faces, skeleton-like men who play the hurdy gurdy. The other night I dreamt that my mum was testing a gun out in my face. I also cry a fair bit in my sleep but very rarely in waking life. 

Q: Last time we met, you'd been up for two days straight. You thought you'd lost your voice, which wasn't true, as you were telling me you'd lost your voice using your voice. Did your voice ever 'return'?

A: I’d fallen into the neon epic of another wild weekend. It has never returned properly. It will always be scarred by those two-days-straight. I now sound like a weak Darth Vader. 

Q: Are women suspicious when they find out you're telepathic?

A: Deeply. They start wearing makeshift tin-foil hats. It became a local fashion one year. But little do they know my powers are beyond tin-foil.  

Q: A lot of the stories in 'Myth...' seem to be drawn from memory. I feel my own memory is about a fifty-fifty split on reality and fiction. Are you concerned with telling the whole truth as it happens, or how you perceive it? Or is there no difference?

If the BBC and co. can get away with consistently distorting the truth to their middle and upper-class capitalist whims then so can I. 

Q: If you could hold the residents of your hometown hostage in a cinema for a week, what movie would you force them to watch, on a loop? Think of the Clockwork Orange scene.

A: In no way am I fond of my hometown so I’d subject them to earnest dross like Slumdog Millionaire, which would go down a treat as 86% of my hometown have Klan-genes. 

Q: A friend of mine used to say he was visited regularly at night by a 'sex ghost'. Has anything like this ever happened to you?

A: Not a sex ghost but a writer ghost. I regularly dream I’m writing a book but I’m never sure what tool I’m using – pen, typewriter, laptop, quill even – the tool is always absent. It might be the best thing I’ve ever written. 

Q: Where will it all end?

A: At the back of ASDA next Wednesday the world ends when logic ends, on a sunless day.   

The Myth of Brilliant Summers is available here on Pariah Press. 

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