The scene, Alf Day has joined the RAF:
"Pluckrose who was also a sergeant, although it didn't suit him - not that a commission would have suited any better - his face was simply incompatible with Air Council Instructions: it had the wrong atmosphere and superiors took it amiss. Added to which he could never shut up.
'Well I didn't ask to come.' Peering over Alfred's head on the first day, beaming about at the hangar full of blue: men standing as if they could think to do nothing else: others searching as if they were late, as if they had lost something, or had been forgotten: others not alone, begining to be not alone.
'Matter of fact King asked me. I got a written invitation - through intermediaries, tht's just what you'd expect, but it should make a difference, you would think. Of course, I volunteered for this part. And not a soul's been civil to me since - except you.'
He beamed down and Alfred could see no doubt in him no unease, only this sense that he was being entertained. 'Wouldn't have turned up if I'd known. I mean it's hardly been efficiently organised, thus far. More like a total fucking shambles.' And amiability in his voice had made his searing not a personal thing, or angry, more of a musical addition. Truly. I mean, a man could catch his fucking death of cold here, for a start. And i suspect worse.'
Alfred, his words in alump under his tongue, ashamed of themselves, but getting out a decent- sounding, 'Yes.' He was keeping things short, sticking to the phrases he was safe with,the ones hh'd cut away from Staffordshire, that could sound fully RAF.
He still practised in his head.
Yo bin and yo bay. Yo doe and yo day.
You are, or you have been and you aren't, or you haven't been. You do and you don't, or you didn't.
Everything getting longer and longer when you started to say it that way - and harsh too, the h's everywhere to trip you, having to hack out each one.
I am. I was.
The way I was. The soft way I was.
His dad had always said, 'Doe talk soft.' But he'd meant don't talk as if you're stupid, he'd meant Alfred was stupid. Now Alfred was talking hard."
What Black Country person on leaving God's country has not felt something similar?
It was a joy to read the Guardian’s G2 section on January 24th. There was a double page spread of an interview by Stuart Jeffries of Alison Louise Kennedy.
Better known as author Al Kennedy she had just won £30,000 from Costa for her novel Day. Well so what I here you say, well the hero of said novel, a former wartime Lancaster rear gunner – the bravest of the brave – returns to Germany to appear as an actor in a film about an escape from a prisoner of war camp like the one he had been held in having been forced to bale out over Germany.
Like a lot of that generation war had given his life a sense of purpose that civvy street failed to provide and in a way it was a journey back to where everything began to go wrong.
Jolly interesting full of all sorts of moral dilemmas about the British character and all that stuff except that the “hero” Alfie Day hail’s from Wednesbury.
Stuart Jefferies takes up the story,
“I tell Kenedy that my parents hailed from Wednesbury, the Black Country town from which Day escapes into the thrill of war, a place whose heavy industries the Luftwaffe tried but couldn’t quite finish off ( the Tories where more thorough) while the RAF was bent on reducing German cities to simulacra of the fires of hell.”
Good start methinks at least the interviewer knows where this wonderful place is!
“Why did she choose the Black Country boy as a hero?” Asks Jeffries.
(Not realising the heroic capacity of all Black Country folk).
“I knew about it because my grandparents were from there”, she says.
So another exiled Wednesbury family two in the same Guardian interview is this a first I wonder?
“Its an industrial area where people did very dangerous jobs and could be killed at any time, and extreme levels of poverty.”
So war may have come as a perverse sort of escape – on the can’t be any worse and you get fed and see the world – She sounds alrighyt this AL Kenedy.
Then she commits the coup de grace!
“She was drawn, too to the strange dialect.”
“There’s an enormous sense of humour in the way Black Country people speak. It’s very playful and very old language.”
What are you waiting for get down the bookshop!!!
A Further review from the OBSERVER :
"YOU CAN CALL ME AL"
In a rare interview, the elusive AL Kennedy unburdens herself on men, the joy of stand-up comedy and the worth of long walks
Sunday March 25, 2007
Alison Louise Kennedy is contemptuous of this whole undertaking. 'Never mind the work, let's review the author,' she has written scathingly about interviewers on her website. 'Someone who sits alone for a hours at a time, typing, must be really fascinating and it beats having to think about anything, doesn't it?'
Her short stories and novels, the latest of which is Day, are often mordantly funny and teeming with startling images. Like her approach to interviews, though, they make no concessions: her writing is linguistically and emotionally demanding. 'It's like anal sex,' she explains when I ask her about her fiercely literary attitude to her work and her correspondingly confrontational presentation of it. 'If that's what I want to do to you and you're not into it, then go away, because that's what will keep happening.'
Before we can get on to anal sex, however, I go to see her at a Glasgow comedy club, where she has a regular gig as a stand-up. I catch my first glimpse of her as she's waiting to go on stage, bopping away with another performer in a corner. Having reread her books and studied her website's acidic reviews of her reviews, I have become so alarmed by her that I'm actually shocked to see her doing something so frivolous.
Her stand-up is startlingly good. She works the audience and makes the most of her cleverness with words, her knack for seeing things freshly. She has a great riff about people scraping moss off each other every morning in Scotland, but the audience seems most to enjoy the material about pubic hair. I learn that her father was from Birmingham and her mother from North Wales, that they went to Australia but then came back to Dundee before she was born and that they split up when she was quite small, which is more information than she ever appears to have divulged in an interview.
'It's a cartoon version of my childhood,' she says when we meet the next day in a tea shop near her home in the West End of Glasgow. She is particularly dismissive of physical descriptions of herself, but she has a strikingly high forehead, which seems to be permanently creased in a frown, and wears jeans, flat shoes and no make-up. One way and another, she appears to suffer very little from the usual female handicap of anxiety to please.
She says she doesn't give away more to interviewers 'because they don't ask interesting questions. Plus I don't particularly want ...' She tails off, but it's enough to make you wonder whether what she does give is another cartoon version. She has said in the past that she wouldn't be doing stand-up 'if my life wasn't completely shagged', and she continues to protest that she performs mainly because 'it's an analgesic'. She sighs, as though this is all too wearisome: 'I lost a friend who made me laugh a lot. He knew a lot about comedy and we used to share comedy and afterwards I had less access to it. I found I wasn't sleeping and I was passing the time by making things up.'
She doesn't want to talk about this friend, she claims, although she does mention him subsequently. She will say that he wasn't a lover. She once wrote obliquely about a male friend who, tormentingly, had sex with someone else in a hotel where she was also staying; whatever the exact nature of the betrayal, it was enough to end the relationship. For a while, she couldn't write fiction, producing instead the brilliant On Bullfighting.
It's tempting to think that AL Kennedy might be playing up her misery, cultivating the bleakness that is often said to characterise her fiction. There is an unflinching, exposed quality to her work: Day is about RAF bombing raids and requires the reader to enter the head of a man who is mentally disintegrating. She is sensitive to absurdity, to the imminence of what she calls 'the pantomime surprise of death'.
She vigorously denies courting unhappiness, claiming to think it's wholly unnecessary to successful fiction. She'd rather have joy, but it's simply not available. 'I have sex about once every five years. I've lived alone since I was 17. I am slightly tired. My life is not comfortable to me. But I am philosophical. It's just the way things have worked out.'
What would make her comfortable? 'Occasional company,' she says. I am starting to find this self-pity slightly comical, so I say: 'I bet you've got a secret husband at home.' Perhaps she has too, because she answers: 'Yeah, I killed him and ate him.' She would like, she says, 'just to have people to talk to who you can actually talk to, which is quite rare'. Despite this, her whole life is an attempt to communicate. She acknowledges that this looks a bit paradoxical. 'Yeah, you spend your time shouting into a well. You don't often get the echo back. I spend a lot of time making stuff for other people. It's a huge relief if someone talks back to you in a way that gets your head running.'
I don't quite know how seriously to take this vision of lonely rooms, bereft of company, especially as, when the interview ends, we discover we have mutual friends and she enthuses about them and jolly party games they've played. But if at some level, AL Kennedy has decided to put her writing first, it has not been (at least from a reader's point of view) a pointless sacrifice. She has been on the Granta list of Best of Young British Novelists twice, but is still, in my opinion, underrated. She does things no one else can do, including write about sex better than anyone. 'Oh,' she says, 'but that's because I'm not really writing about sex at all.'
Day is the story of a Second World War tail gunner and prisoner of war who, in 1949, becomes an extra in a war film and tunnels back through his memories to discover what has become of him. It's not as blackly funny as her last novel, Paradise, about an alcoholic woman, but Kennedy insists this isn't because of the stand-up. 'It's not a very funny thing, the Second World War.' She then complains I've missed the two Max Miller jokes.
The big question is whether the images in AL Kennedy's books spring into her mind fully formed or whether they are the result of months with a thesaurus and endless revision. 'A lot of it's because my books are character-based,' she says evasively. 'If you want to make something appear fresh, you rely on the fact that no person has a voice quite like any other. With Day, I got a new vocabulary, because of the period and the military stuff and the mental state he's in, but, yeah, if you look at the rewrites, there are up to 150 or 175. Some of that will be commas, some of it will be major.'
I wonder if she shows the work to anyone or relies on her own sense of whether 150 revisions are enough. 'My friend who went away is the only person whose opinion I was ever interested in. He had a very interesting mind. There aren't that many people with good ears. My editor has a good ear, but you can only read something for the first time once. You commit yourself to doing something until it's right and then you learn what right feels like, tastes like, sounds like. It helps if you're obsessive-compulsive and you don't have any distractions.'
You can't help wondering if some of her moroseness derives from the ever-present fact of physical pain. (This will go up on her website in the glib psychobabble section.) She suffered an undiagnosed herniated disc between her shoulder blades for six months, by which time she had muscle wastage. She also fell off a horse and has a 'squint shoulder' and once broke her sacrum, which sometimes gives her sciatica. She has a special chair to write in, hard to envisage, in which her knees are above her heart.
The most common criticism of AL Kennedy's writing is that its craftedness can become oppressive. 'I don't think it's that,' she says. 'I think it's being in someone else's mind. That's fair enough: that's what I want to do to you. If you define plot by what's happening externally to the character, it's true there's no plot in my fiction, but I'm interested in the things people carry around that you don't necessarily see. I just want to get to the bits that interest me.'
For all the craft, the revisions, the foraging for the ideal phrase, AL Kennedy manages to be pretty prolific: she is 41, and Day is her fifth novel. There have been four volumes of short stories (she's working on a fifth right now) plus eight or nine drama scripts, a couple of works of non-fiction, regular journalism and, now, the stand-up. 'If you're quite a fast cook, you don't have children, you don't have pets and you've got no one to talk to, what else are you going to do?' she asks. 'I've got vast amounts of time to occupy.'
On the way home, I wish I'd told Alison Louise Kennedy to stop giving that bloke the satisfaction of knowing he's ruined her life. I don't suppose she'd have listened. She told me she wasn't good company and when I objected that this simply wasn't true, she conceded, 'for a limited period, OK. But I get bored very easily. If you were around all week, I'd want to kill you. I wouldn't tell you, even: I'd just go for increasingly long walks. Having achieved the joy of your friendship, I'd find it disappointing, as I find everything I attain.'
AL Kennedy: initial impressions
1965 Born in Dundee.
1986 Graduates in theatre studies and drama from Warwick University.
1991 Publishes first short-story collection, Night Geometry and the Garscadden Trains
1993 Completes debut novel, Looking for the Possible Dance. Listed among Granta's 20 Best of Young British Novelists.
1996 Booker Prize judge.
1998 Scripts C4 film Stella Does Tricks
2005 Performs stand-up in Glasgow and at the Edinburgh Fringe.
On her use of initials: 'The authors I first loved all had initials - JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis, E Nesbit, ee cummings - and I actively didn't want to know who they were or have them get in the way of my enjoying their story and their voice.'
· Day is published by Jonathan Cape on 5 April, £16.99. To order a copy for £15.99 with free UK p&p, go to observer.co.uk/bookshop or call 0870 836 0885