(I wrote this in 2004)
‘When I write a chunk of it, I write for the punk of it,
The unpacking, restacking, bone-cracking funk of it
I write for the spaces, the unwritten traces
Undisclosed faces, undescribed places between writer and reader...'
UK-BASED Patrick Neate’s staccato evocation of a writer’s life rings out at Spinn, Bangalore’s swankest nightspot, on March 19, taking the Friday night goodtime crowd by surprise. What’s a spoken word artist doing in their midst, disrupting DJ Ivan’s house music? Two scintillating poems later, Neate joins the unreceptive onlookers, guzzling beer, drifting out of his challenging role.
But who is 33-year-old Neate? In 2001, he won the Whitbread Novel Prize for ‘Twelve Bar Blues,’ besting Ian McEwan’s ‘Atonement’ and Helen Dunmore’s ‘The Siege.’ A funky epic spanning three continents and two centuries, it foregrounds characters in search of their own stories, like cornet wizard Lick Holden or the English prostitute Sylvia di Napoli. Its improvisatory, jazz-bright narrative crisscrosses Chicago, New Orleans, New York, London and the imaginary African republic of Malawi.
In 2000, the prolific, hip hop-centric music journalist, who has a Cambridge degree in social anthropology and taught high school in Africa, published ‘Musungu Jim and the Great Chief Tuloko.’ His fictional debut won a Betty Trask award. Some of its unforgettable characters spill into ‘Twelve Bar Blues.’
Last year, Neate ~ who opted to spend over half of the past decade in southern Africa ~ published a fictional critique of his generation of Londoner, ‘The London Pigeon Wars.’ In 2003, he pulled out another ace ~ ‘Where You’re At: Notes from the Frontline of a Hip Hop Planet,’ a non-fiction romp through his favourite musical form. Japanese film buffs recently watched ‘The Tessaract,’ based on Neate’s screenplay adaptation of novelist Alex Garland’s ‘The Beach.’
Neate is currently working on a verse documentary for Channel 4, a political polemic on the lack of British public debate. Once a month, he hosts London’s only literary nightclub, Book Slam @ Cherry Jam. That cues into Neate’s initiation into India as part of the British Council’s Vibrant Viewpoints programme.
Here are glimpses of Neate’s world, excerpted from a rollicking, hour-long interview at Bangalore’s Hotel Grand Ashok, the morning after the Spinn event:
The idea of a literary nightclub is tantalizing. What sparked it?
Ben Watts, a friend who owns some London nightclubs, suggested it. I find the gravitas with which British writers approach their own work a little embarrassing. So, I suggested something closer to a cabaret, while people sit around at little tables with their drinks. Usually, I have one novelist, one or two spoken word artists, some acoustic music, a comedian. It’s a fun evening, not a highbrow one. It’s caught on…
‘Twelve Bar Blues’ was your only book I could access here. It brilliantly brought alive New Orleans, a city whose high spirits I love… Did it take off from your first novel?
After my first novel, set in a bizarre, parodic, post-colonial African state, I felt there were some unfinished stories I wanted to write about the African diaspora. I extended it into this rambling tale of jazz, witchcraft and lost families. (Chuckling) To an extent, as a relatively young, unheard-of writer, you have a slight idiot’s freedom…
Wasn’t it daunting to venture on such an epic novel?
Not really. I don’t like the navel-gazing stories often written in Britain today. My grandfather was an Irishman, full of blarney. I’ve always admired broad, sweeping narratives, like Toni Morrison’s. I wanted to be brave enough to tell such stories… I think most of the characters in ‘Twelve Bar Blues’ stand up to examination.
I admired its authentic detailing. Did it entail much research?
I read a lot, listened to music, but I didn’t go to New Orleans. The thematic premise of the book is the idea of stories being lost. When Lick meets Louis Armstrong, they witness a fight between two prostitutes. That’s a true story from Armstrong’s memoirs. These details are like a calling card you leave for the reader to pick up… I’ve had people ask me: is Lick Holden about a real character? I’ve also had criticism for being too free with history and politics.
How did the hip hop book happen?
When I was growing up in Putney, a boring white suburb of London, it was a culturally bereft place. I’m just a product of my generation… I pitched the book idea to Bloomsbury, who went for it. I spent six months traveling around the world, listening to hip hop. It was fun, but bloody hard work. Imagine turning up in Rio, going: ‘Take me to a rapper.’ It was at some levels journalistic, anthropological, at others almost like a diary. The book’s done remarkably well, though it’s about an esoteric musical form.
Was it tough to get a break as a writer?
I wrote a book soon after leaving Cambridge. I found an agent very quickly. (Ironically) They said I was going to be the Next Big Thing. They auctioned the book, but no one bought it. In the space of a month, I went from being given champagne as the potential literary giant of the 21st century to being told: ‘Thanks, but no thanks.’ The novel’s still sitting in a drawer… Then came a bloody-minded struggle. I write out of complete compulsion. I’ve four or five novels I’ve never shown to anybody.
What makes your generation of British writers distinctive from your predecessors?
We’re not as good. (Smiling) There’s less pretension now, but so much mediocrity. I think my books fit into the broad, multi-culti stuff written by Monica Ali or Zadie Smith, whom I admire. I think Bernardine Evaristo’s verse novels are brilliant.
But publishers no longer develop a writer’s career like they used to. They haven’t decided whether to be purely commercial or still pretend to support creativity… That’s part of the reason for Cherry Jam, isn’t it?
(The Hindu Literary Review 2004)