Niall Griffiths Inaugural Lecture (Part 1)

On 8 December 2014, Niall Griffiths delivered his Professorial Inaugural Address at the Arena Theatre in Wolverhampton. The text of that talk will be serialised in this blog in 4 parts. In the first part, below, Griffiths reflects on his early inklings that the voices of literature need not be those sanctioned by ‘official’ culture.


Niall Griffiths at the Arena Theatre Wolverhampton

Niall Griffiths at the Arena Theatre Wolverhampton

Three decades on, I can still recall the thrill of discovering So Long, Hector Bebb by Ron Berry. It cost a few pence from a church hall jumble sale somewhere in Liverpool. What drew me to the book in the first place I don’t know, but I was an avidly eclectic and rapacious reader from a home that, whilst being full of stories, was unfurnished with books, apart from the Rothman’s Football Year Book and the I-Spy Guide to the Garden, which told me everything there was to know about the daddy-long-legs except why. My grandparents were geysers of narrative – the old countries, the war, ghost stories – but books were something rarefied, like foreign holidays or second cars, things which the exotic creatures who, say, read out the news on the telly had. Books – or, rather, Literature – were not for the likes of me; they had little relevance to my world. Picture books were good – of animals and dinosaurs – but big words and big themes? What did I need such stuff for?

And, to be fair, that did seem to be the case; the books that my mind and hands were latching onto – Shakespeare, Dickens, whose stories I knew through TV adaptations – were written in a language that meant very little to me, with a lexicon and a cadence that could be found nowhere within the boundaries of my worlds, which, both physically and mentally, comprised the Gateacre estate and small parts of north Wales, briefly glimpsed during family holidays. But then I met Ron Berry and he had this to say to me:

We’re each and every one of us shaped for muck and glory, thank the Jesus Christ All-bloody-mighty for it an all . . .

And he said this:

Hect just vanisht. Not so much as ‘So long then Lennie, see you in the mornin’. All cause Milly flasht her old twat inna Transport caff. Milly and her big greasy minj.

And the revelation hit me like a locomotive; that the funny grown-ups around me and the words they used, the way they spoke, utterly unlike anything that I was being shown at school . . . it could be Literature (capital L, italics, underlined). And I remember being amazed at the verisimilitudinous lack of authorial censure in that stuff about Milly – no, not really. I was about 9 years old. But it seemed to me that there was, after all, a slot in the world into which I could fit myself. And all of a sudden I wasn’t as confused, or as lost, or even as frightened, as I had been.

Ten Pound PomAnd then I grew up. I was taken to Australia as part of the Ten Pound Pom assisted passage scheme. There were insects and parakeets and snakes to be sought out and studied and made friends with and what was going on in my home country I didn’t really know, but I doubted if it was healthy and inclusive if it was producing people like the Sex Pistols – seeing them on a look-at-what-the-funny-Poms-are-up-to-now piece on the evening news was as seismic to me as reading Ron Berry had been – these young men who had made themselves look as ugly as possible screaming about how pretty they were. That unhinged fury and rage, that glorious capsizing of convention . . . to the boy I was, Ron Berry and Johnny Rotten had an equally strong impact; both were thrillingly transgressive. And reading itself was transgressive; being interested in books, on the estate and at the time I was brought up, was sound cause for a drubbing, so I had to keep it secret and hidden; it had a contraband attraction.

This generated a kind of ontological clash, not to mention a sense of betrayal, when I went on to study, after I’d returned to Britain; this was the 80s, when, curiously, the embourgeoising and widespread making bland of culture that occurred under Thatcherism produced nothing of the volcanic colour of Ron Berry or the Sex Pistols. Quite the contrary, in fact; much of the writing that appeared during that decade seemed as cliquey and closed and privileged and bullying as the government cabinet itself and the media that supported and promoted it. Not even Clause 28 or Orgreave galvanised cultural expression, certainly not in music or narrative prose (film and drama were quite different; Boys from the Blackstuff etc). And the tone of that expression, the tongue and accent of it . . . how samey it had become. How homogenous. How dull, as if some legislative body somewhere had decided that books had to be written that way, in a white, male, middle-class, Oxbridge-inflected monotone, and that any deviation from that was undeserving of attention or respect. It seemed that Ron Berry, and the vault of experience and knowledge that his voice unlocked, had, like Hector himself, just vanished. And that any other tongue that differed from the norm, and the individual expression to which it was affixed, had been gagged. Amis, McEwan, Barnes and the like, and, even more so, their crony champions in the media – their work was a scold’s bridle forced into the mouths of all those who weren’t like them. That was how it seemed.

AlbionWell . . . not quite. Not entirely. There were other voices out there, if you were prepared to dig to find them, and some of them were very much alive and kicking – James Kelman, for one. I had a good lecturer – John James – who steered me towards the Americans – Hubert Selby Jr, foremost – and some of the more neglected voices in these islands, as featured in such anthologies as Children of Albion. This brings me to Tom Pickard, and his work in that anthology – ‘Hunga’, ‘Shag, ‘Scrap’. Geordie phonetics:

theres a pain in my stomach called hunga
it happens six days of the week
on friday wi gan th’assistance
thi give us some money to seek
and to see some way of payin ma way
some way of payin ma way
fora day
some way of payin ma way
on monday wi gan wioot bacon
on tuesday wi gan wioot meat
on wensday wi gan wioot bread
on thursday wi gets nowt ti eet
on friday aa gans an aa begs
theres a pain in my stomach called hunga. . .

This forces you to adopt a Geordie accent when you read it. And it takes its beat from the blues, which itself recalls the Psalms in the questions it asks – why have I been forsaken? Who will hear my tribulations? The Psalms and Song of Solomon – perhaps the only poetry accessible to children on my estate . . .

So maybe there was some voice in the wilderness. Tom Pickard – for those who don’t know Hoyoot – [was a] big figure in modern British writing of the so-called ‘underground’, revered and reviled in equal measure. Utterly uncompromising. At 16 or so, he arranged the Morden Tower series of readings in Newcastle – Ginsberg peed off the ramparts, and if everybody who claims to have peed alongside him that night had actually done so, Newcastle would still be a drowned city. Gordon Burn wrote:

The series of readings and happenings in Morden Tower were the first sign to me that writing could be something more than a set text to be slogged through with dutiful encirclings and underlinings and comments of v.imp and signif. in the margins.

These events were before my time – but I have read at MT, and Tom’s a mate – but research into Tom awoke in me the same pleased response as it did in Burn; the same shock of recognition that Berry had made. I appreciated, and was deeply moved by, the way these events re-awakened interest in writing; took it out of the institutions and applied it to everyday, lived life; re-appropriated it back from the academic cliques. Isn’t this how it began? Homer, the Norse sagas, and, here, Beowulf, Gawain, Pearl, Piers Plowman, the Celtic oral tradition, these all came out of the entertainments and edifications of the common man, told and heard in inns, in private dwellings, on hilltops and in caves. They were for everybody to tell and everybody to listen to; the creative and critical apparati were assumed to be in everyone. Elitism was unheard of (court poets yes, but. . . ). Linked to this is the discovery of so-called ‘low’ or ‘primitive’ art; in this country, the Border Ballads (Tom’s Jamie Allen), which had fallen out of favour with serious scholarship but which were re-assessed to be troves of folkloric riches and socio-political commentary distilled through raw experience. Similarly, the explosion of dialect writing in the 90s – Tom Leonard, Kelman won Booker, Doyle, Trainspotting. . . more on this later.

End of Part 1 (go to Part 2)

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