The Gentle Author Speaks
This interview, conducted and edited by Tim Rich, was first published last year in Random Spectacular, a limited edition magazine with a circulation of seven hundred and fifty, and I am republishing the piece today so that those who were unable to obtain a copy may read it here. The print which was commissioned to accompany the interview was created by Justin Knopp of Typoretum.
I wanted to find out more about the writer whose words transport me each day, whose stories take me through previously unseen doorways in my own neighbourhood in the East End. But that also required a promise from me – that I wouldn’t reveal the identity of The Gentle Author. I feared that this guarding of the person behind the pen might go hand in hand with a reticence to talk. What I encountered was something else entirely. Here are some of the words we exchanged over a pot of tea in East London.
Tim Rich – Your promise to readers includes a picture of a sundial on Fournier Street that features the words ‘Umbra Sumus’ – “We are shadows.” Reading your writing for the first time, I had the immediate feeling that you were either pursuing or escaping something.
The Gentle Author – Well, there’s a wonderful notion that Kierkegaard described – that being a writer is like being in the continual state of running through a burning house, trying to decide what to rescue. I do feel that sensation a lot of the time. Also, that people’s stories go unrecorded is a matter of grief to me. I think that arose after the death of my parents. I grew up in Devon around old people, and I used to knock on their doors and ask to spend a day with them. I suppose I have a vertiginous sense of all the stories in the world, and accompanying that is a sense of the loss of all the stories. So I have a compulsion to collect as many as I can, for as long as I can.
Tim Rich – Your stories became longer after a couple of months of the blog, and that coincided with you writing more pen portraits.
The Gentle Author – I have a personal sense of responsibility to people that I’ve met to do them justice. The idea of trying to sum someone up in a thousand words is terrifying. That was why the stories got longer and longer. The other thing that happened in the first year – unexpectedly – was that a lot of readers came along. It gave me a different responsibility, to not disappoint the reader. You want to give them something wonderful. So I became more ambitious.
Tim Rich – That is a terrific counterblast to the common, pessimistic notion that people don’t read much any more, and that writing for the Web should always be short. You show that the Web can be a place for a longer and more personal form of writing.
The Gentle Author – I respect the discipline of writing, that a piece should be well structured and a story well told. But I also aspire to write in an unmediated way, and to not withhold an emotionalism if that’s how I react to a subject. I am also attracted to use vocabulary in a way that it is not used in journalism, but is perhaps more common in fiction. I chose to be this voice speaking from the darkness, because I want to be in private with the reader. I want the reader to understand that the writer’s intention is benign, and that we can trust each other. And I hope the readers create their own sense of who they are listening to and take ownership of what they read. In this sense, the Gentle Author is a conceit to bring readers closer to the subject, and I want the subject to be the people I’m writing about, not me.
Tim Rich – Do you have to get into the character of the Gentle Author when you write?
The Gentle Author – Graham Greene said that reading Charles Dickens was like listening to the mind talking to itself. It is the internal voice that I aspire to in my writing – what I hear inside my mind.
Tim Rich – Tell me a little more about the ‘hare-brained’ task you have set for yourself.
The Gentle Author – I wanted readers to know they could rely on something new every day. And I felt that if I created this cage for myself, then I could have no escape. I have written more than 800,000 words in the last two years, so it has worked to that degree. It’s a miracle. I spend most of the day running around the streets after people and doing interviews. In the evening, I sit down to supper, and then I write. The golden rule is that I can’t go to sleep until it’s done. People sometimes think that I knock off six stories in advance and press a button each day, but it isn’t like that at all. I may write interviews up a few days later, but it appeals to me that the Gentle Author has no choice but to write a story every day. I’m aware that it’s an excessive way to live but my experience has taught me that life is excessive.
Tim Rich – Your interviewees tell you remarkable things about their lives. How do you earn their trust?
The Gentle Author – You have to be open-hearted and honest, and you hope people see that it is just you, and that there’s no ulterior motive – and that no one’s paying you to do it. That you are doing it for love. People are wisely suspicious of writers, so I commonly send someone a piece I have already written and they can see what the outcome of being interviewed will be like.
Tim Rich – You write about the tension between tradition and change, such as the spiraling rents that have threatened to push out merchants like Paul Gardner.
The Gentle Author – It’s very difficult to trace what’s a right or wrong way for change to happen, but it’s vital that good things don’t get destroyed. For me, Paul Gardner, the Market Sundriesman, incarnates the essence of Spitalfields. Unless you have gone and shaken hands with Paul Gardner you can’t really say you have been to Spitalfields. His shop is where all the small traders in East London go to get their bags. What happened in Paul’s case was that, after my story, the landlords relented in their original demand for an excessive rent increase and showed themselves to be enlightened, recognising he is a special case. I hope people appreciate that the things which make this place distinctive are worth holding on to. One of the lessons revealed by the crash in the City was that the short-term profit motive is destructive and people need to take a longer-term view.
Tim Rich – You seem to revel in those lively nights out with the Bunny Girls and the trannies and the boys’ club reunions, but how do you feel about Spitalfields on a Saturday night – the drinkers and clubbers?
The Gentle Author – I think it’s a beautiful phenomenon. I often go out and walk the streets just to see the crowds on a Saturday night. Nothing has changed much there. In the 1860s The Eagle Tavern on the City Road was getting 12,000 people turning up a night and there were complaints about the crowds then. I think the young people who dress up and come to show off their outfits on Brick Lane embody a wonderful flowering of culture. So many people compete for ownership of this place, but the truth is that it belongs to everybody and nobody. There is a magic in Spitalfields, but if you love the area you must also be generous to others who love it too.
Tim Rich – Will there be enough space in your life to do other types of writing, as well as your daily report?
The Gentle Author – Dickens wrote six or seven stories a week for Household Words, but he also wrote the novels of Dickens as well. My background is in fiction, and originally I envisaged that there would be a chapter of a novel by me on the first of the month through the year. That has been sidelined, but as I get more confident and more in control of what I’m doing it could resurface. I’m attracted to the idea that the Gentle Author might have fictional adventures.
Tim Rich – What about visits to other places far from Spitalfields?
The Gentle Author – I am a favoured person in that I have had so many experiences and lived so many lifetimes in my life already. I remember, I went to Los Angeles for the Millennium and I was with a friend in a car on New Year’s Eve, and we turned left onto the freeway into oncoming traffic. She said, “We’re going to die.” And I said, “I don’t mind because I’ve done so much in my life, but what about your son?” There are lots of places I would like to go back to – Beijing, Cuba – but what I do now forces me to live in the day. My mind is so crowded I don’t have much space to think about anything else.
Tim Rich – You said something curious in a story on Dennis Severs’ house, which was, “Much as I love a good chat, I have many times wished that I never had to speak again.”
The Gentle Author – I think talking is hard. We take people’s words to be the expression of who they are. But I have always felt, with me, that was a contradiction because I didn’t feel that in speech I could represent who I was. That was why I began to write, because by writing down I could wrestle with words and become more truthful to who I am. So yes, I think it would be wonderful if I could get through the rest of my life without talking. I once lived on an island in the Outer Hebrides. I was the only inhabitant and I had to row forty-five minutes to the shore to get my mail. I would not see people for months on end and I did so much writing then. Your internal monologue becomes much more apparent when all the interference of external conversations is gone. Walking is very important in that respect too. I long for the release of the mind.
Tim Rich – So, writing is a release from the deluge of thoughts in your head.
The Gentle Author – Yes. For me, the act of writing is writing it down. There are no drafts. Writing is the act of recording an internal monologue. Coming back to the notion of the mind talking to itself – for me writing is the outcome of an unquiet mind, I suppose.
Tim Rich – How has Spitalfields Life changed your life?
The Gentle Author – I walk down the street and sometimes people lean out of windows to wave and come out and shake my hand. It is a beautiful thing, yet for that to happen in the middle of this huge city is bizarre. Generally, I don’t understand why people don’t talk to each other more. I think this is a political construct, this situation where we are all alienated from one another. A book that was important to me as a student was Raymond Williams’ Culture and Society. I think one of the outcomes of mass distribution through the printing press in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was that it made everybody strangers to each other. We see all those people out there as ‘the masses’. It’s rubbish. It’s a lie. The hope of the internet is that it allows everyone to talk to each other again, and not be strangers.
Tim Rich lives in Bethnal Green and writes at www.66000milesperhour.com
A few copies of Justin Knopp’s print are still available from the Spitalfields Life online shop.