How did “The Skins” come about?
As what is termed a “straight actor,” I have always been fascinated by people in the other major department of show business, variety or “vaudeville” as the Americans say, including cabaret singers, comedians, magic acts, and the like. These two sides of the entertainment business have rather different approaches to their work and sometimes they interact, particularly in the very British phenomenon known as pantomime. Double acts, and particularly husband and wife double acts interest me, and Syd and Peggy Brinton are based on several that I have met and worked with. The tensions between people who not only live but also work together are peculiar and intriguing. Then there is the whole business of “the skins.” A “skins” role is one in which the performer acts, either singly, or, as in the case of Syd and Peggy, doubly in an animal skin. I myself performed a skins role when I played King Rat in the pantomime Dick Whittington. There is something peculiar and distinctive about performing a “skins” role. It is when such recollections and preoccupations merge in the imagination that a story begins to form itself.
You’ve said “no truly serious writer can lack a sense of humour, but that should not preclude compassion.” Your treatment of Peggy and her passion to play Priscilla the Goose seems like a perfect example of maintaining a balance between the two. It occurred to me that many writers would have chosen to err on the side of exaggerating the pathos of her ambitions—so ripe for laughs. Were you tempted?
My aunt, the writer Stella Gibbons, author of Cold Comfort Farm, gave me much valuable advice on the art of writing. Perhaps the most important advice she gave me was about the maintenance of a balance between the objective and the subjective, or detachment and empathy. Peggy is a good example of this: one has to empathise with her aspirations and frustrations, while at the same time casting a cool eye over their absurdity. That way you find the truth of the matter. I love wherever possible to create characters like this because that is how life is and people are: both ridiculous and sad, both heroic and ludicrous. Temptations to go down one path or the other—the pure comic or the pure tragic—need to be resisted, particularly with the main characters.
You noted that “My way of inventing or rather ‘finding’ a character is almost invariably through speech,” but “The Skins” is fairly light on dialogue. Do you tend to write more dialogue in drafts than you end up with in the final version of a story?
That is an interesting observation you make, and it is true “The Skins” is fairly light on dialogue, but I had not noticed, because if a person “comes alive” in my head I can hear them talking the whole time. I don’t have to write their speech down, but I know they are alive. This is the case even with minor characters. Freddie Dring, for instance, the comedian only appears briefly in the story, but I know all about him. He is a dyspeptic middleaged bachelor and lives alone with an Alsatian bitch called Sheba. He talks almost entirely in “gags” and has a longrunning feud with the theatre manager. (“Call yourself a theatre manager! You couldn’t manage a brothel in Pompey!”) [Pompey being the slang word for the naval town of Portsmouth.] Most of this I don’t put down because it is irrelevant to the story, except for the fact that I know who he is because I can hear him.
Can you talk about why you chose to write Mick the way you did? It was very unexpected (for me).
I find it both amusing and touching the way parents, particularly mothers, talk about their children as if they were the most wonderful and exceptional people in the world. You know the kind of thing: “Of course Millie just sailed through her GCSEs and her violin teacher says she is one of the most exceptional pupils she has ever had: a coming Tamsin Little . . .” And so on. Then you meet the said children and they are perfectly ordinary and unremarkable, quite different to the prodigies of excellence they have been made out to be. Peggy’s deification of her son is part of her bid to enhance her own status, part simple mother love. I wanted the reader to share the narrator’s surprise at what Mick was really like after hearing his mother’s buildup.
What is the strangest thing you’ve ever witnessed/came closest to being straight out of one of your stories?
One of the first stories I wrote and had published, “Beside the Shrill Sea,” contains many incidents which actually occurred. It was back in 1976, and I was in a theatre company in a seaside town with someone called Jill who remains a friend to this day. She had a strong “psychic” instinct and we were working in a theatre with strange and sinister vibrations. I was aware of an atmosphere, and once or twice I heard strange things, but Jill saw things—and not on her own but while I was with her.
One evening we were walking along the front beside the sea when she suddenly stopped. Something dark, she said, had passed through her: something had happened to a member of the company. The following day we discovered that at that very moment when Jill had experienced the dark “something,” the deeply loved but very unpleasant partner of one of the actors in the company had died from alcohol poisoning. A version of this incident appears in the story.
Any new projects you want to tell us about?
I have a novel The Boke of the Divill about dark goings on in an English cathedral town coming out from Dark Renaissance, and a new collection from Tartarus called Holidays from Hell. Much of my energy at the moment is concentrated on a sort of children’s book written and illustrated by myself called: The Hauntings at Tankerton Park and How They Got Rid of Them. It involves about sixty full-page illustrations: a lot of work, but I am enjoying it immensely.
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