The Anti-Canon Series: Niall Griffiths by Gary Budden

The Anti-Canon series is a collection of short essays focusing on writers less well known, positioned outside of the literary mainstream or simply deserving of more attention. An alternative (but by no means definitive) list of works that have influenced the writers at Influx Press, offering a different perspective to what is, and what is not, considered ‘important’, and hopefully giving you some new books to read into the bargain…

RUNT
RUNT

‘I could smell his breath and the pubs in it’ - Runt

…she watches a small sparrow-sized bird flit into the barn through one entrance and whir through the lights and the steam above the rippling close-packed heads of the dancers and out through another entrance into the darkness. Imagines that, that small slice of light and noisy activity between the two immensities of blackness.’ - Sheepshagger

It took me a long time to realise that it was OK to write about the things that I was interested in, the world I knew, the life I had lived and the lives I had observed.

Like many,  I was in love the idea of being a writer before I had anything original to write about, having studied a fairly traditional selection of British and American literature at school – Conrad, Fitzgerald, Yeats, Pinter, endless Shakespeare. All worthy of study of course but not relating, really, to much of the life in Britain that I had experienced. Like many, I was also a big fan of science-fiction and fantasy. I had my Tolkien- love affair aged about twelve (later in life I would claim, perhaps dishonestly, about the racist and classist aspects of his work), discovered Ballard and Moorcock in my first year at university. Read dutifully my Bukowski, failed to enjoy Kerouac and all the other Americans English literature students appeared to fawn over. Loved Raymond Carver, struggled with but appreciated Burroughs, loved Cormac McCarthy (I writer I first picked up due to a mention in Niall Griffiths’ Grits, in fact).

I tried a few modern English novels, still not really knowing enough to dive much beneath the surface. So I read a bit of Ian McEwan, tried some Amis, and couldn’t get on with them. I recall reading Enduring Love, and despite its competence just could not find any interest in the emotional lives of middle-class University professors. My sneaking suspicions about Amis bore fruit with last year’s publication of Lionel Asbo. I’m sure they spoke to some people, but these books never gave me the excitement I felt that a novel should give. Never felt that shock of recognition. I read a bit of Irvine Welsh, of course, and found a lot to admire there but still no real thrill. I got a great deal out of John King’s novels, with specific regard to Human Punk and Skinheads – I am huge fan of British punk rock and the related subcultures - the first books I had read that I felt were a real attempt to show a completely different aspect of British culture in a literary way. By and large they succeed.

When I moved to Hackney I became interested in the nebulous genre of psychogeography, reading Iain Sinclair with great interest. Despite the problems I find with his work, this was another revelation to me in how you could relate to place, that there is a way to create real literature out of the seemingly banal British environments we find ourselves in.

Aged about 21 I was recommended a novel by Welsh/Liverpool author Niall Griffiths, Kelly + Victor. A sobering, demotic novel set at the turn of the Millennium about an extreme sexual love story, I had found something that I could fall in love with, something that felt real, something to follow.

GRITS
GRITS

I went back and picked up Griffiths’ debut novel, a five hundred plus sprawl entitled Grits. This, for me, was what gave me my literary epiphany of what was possible to do within the confines of a novel, a merging of that ordinary/marginal/working class voice that I found in Irvine Welsh and John King, but with the grand ideas of psychogeography and real attention placed on the effect of landscape on the human psyche – except now the people in question were not sensitive poets, eccentric writers or members of the English middle-class.

Grits is the story of a group of characters from all different parts of Britain and Ireland, all of who have ended up in the small Welsh coastal town of Aberysthywth . They represent a side of British culture rarely reflected or given voice in British literature, that of the ‘crusties’, alcoholics, ravers, speed freaks, people on the ‘Celtic fringe’. Working class maybe, underclass, marginals, whatever word we wish to use.

The novel is set in the mid to late nineties, and presented to me a world that I instantly recognised. As I grew older, the book only spoke more and more to me, accurately reflecting and exploring that half-hidden world of squat parties, illegal raves, and yes, the alcohol and substance abuse that certainly was ugly, but here presented with a kind of internal logic. We drink because we drink. That’s just what we do, our British disease. In amongst the drug and alcohol haze, the depression, the joy and the hedonism, the constant presence of the impassive sea, the looming mountains, the ancient and symbolic Welsh countryside.

The personal resonances were incredibly strong – I read Griffiths’ work thinking of my time spent as a child in Snowdonia, the trips out see my grandmother in Llandygwydd some forty miles south of Aberysthwyth, the stories my parents told me of their own lives when I was a child in the eighties, my recollections from the nineties of IRA bombs, dreadlocked road protesters, my own times spent in pubs, parties, warehouses, woods and coastlines, reading books, taking drugs. It reminded me of the music I, unfashionably yet honestly, loved, such as The Levellers, New Model Army, Inner Terrestrials, Oi Polloi. And so on. It all just seemed to fit.

This merging of the ‘gritty’ demotic strain of British literature (again think King, Welsh, James Kelman), the ethereal ideas of some psychogeography (writing so dense and hyper-charged it could be taken from Sinclair or JA Baker), snippets of Welsh and Gaelic and a constant reference to British and Irish folk culture made Grits the book that changed the course of how I saw the novel, and gave me the courage to wrote about the things I was really concerned with.

For example, a violent ex-squaddie, AWOL from his tour of duty in Northern Ireland, recalls being taught The Mabinogion at school in Grits. Characters trip out of their minds on the sites of ancient battles, raves occur high up in the mountains out of site of the ‘real world’, folk songs are sung loud in the drunken haze of endless pub sessions.

Later in his career Griffiths would rework two tales from that ancient Welsh text, as The Dreams of Max and Ronnie, part of the ‘New Tales from The Mabinogion’ series. The merge of folkore and ancient texts with very modern problems and settings I find irresistible.

One of the most compelling characters in modern literature is the character of Colm in Grits, a hyper-articulate and intelligent man from Liverpool, with a gypsy background, a slave to speed and alcohol. His section of the novel is one of my favourite sustained pieces of writing I could name, and I feel that it most accurately reflects the views of Griffiths himself. Exhilarating and tragic, touching on all the subjects I relate to, I could read it forever and not get bored.

The follow up to Grits, Sheepshagger is far less blunt that its title would suggest, but make no mistake about its anger.

SHEEPSHAGGER
SHEEPSHAGGER

Focusing on a kind of idiot-savant figure named Ianto (a direct dig at How Green Was my Valley), the book is a pointed attack on English second-home colonials, drenched in the imagery and feel of the landscape, the inherent violence and beauty of the natural world. The novel features a wonderful section set during an illegal speed-fuelled rave high up in the mountains, one of the finest examples I can find of this marrying of themes – British sub-culture and British landscape. His work, when I read it, cuts to an essential truth that I have found in few other places, putting into language things I had felt without ever being to articulate, which is surely the highest praise one can heap on a writer. Somehow epic and mundane, ugly and visionary, and it genuinely changed the way I look at the world.

The novels Kelly + Victor and Wreckage focus more on Liverpool, but with equal power. In Wreckage, how Griffiths ties the actions of his ‘chav’ protagonists back to their ancestors starving across the water during the Irish potato famine, finally leaving for Liverpool, left me exhilarated. How the grand sweep of history and our own very specific circumstances and landscapes completely shape us, whether we realise it or not.

Runt, my favourite Griffiths novel after Grits, returns to the Welsh hillsides during the foot-and-mouth epidemic, entirely presented from the perspective of an unusual teenager, again a savant figure, somewhat slow but a repository of folk memory. A shaman, in other words. The weaving of almost mystical themes, that in the wrong hands could be dealt with clumsily or embarrassingly, with the day-to-day world of pubs, familial dysfunction, sheep shit and the mountains is executed expertly. It is a novel I return to again and again.

Niall Griffiths remains my favourite novelist, writing the kind of prose I aspire to, a world away from the banalities of contemporary British fiction. Passionate, literate, poetic, ugly and beautiful, his work is essential for anyone interested in working-class fiction, psychogeography, subculture, landscape writing and a Britain more real to me than the world of universities and dinner parties will ever be.