FEATURE: Glen James Brown – My Inspiration | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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Author Glen James Brown is set to release working class novel Ironopolis on Friday 1st June through Parthian Books. Before that, we found out a little more on what inspired the work. Over to you Glen… 

Writing a novel’s a bit like clattering ten thousand shards of memory, culture and history around the raddled and leaking bucket of your mind, then seeing what’s survived the process. The juxtaposition of whatever remains can be surprising, and that’s where I think the spark comes from — the energy that keeps an idea alive long enough to get it on paper. It took me nearly three years to write Ironopolis, and here are some different elements that came together during that time.

The Quarry Hill Flats, Leeds
Opened in 1938, Quarry Hill was the largest social housing project in the UK and home to over 3,000 people from the demolished Victorian slums ringing the city. Compared to those blackened and unhygienic hovels, Quarry Hill must have seemed a 20th Century utopia: indoor plumbing, waste disposal units, self-contained shops and washhouses, gardens and courtyards and playgrounds for the bairns. The place was monolithic in size, too…and 40 short years later they tore it all down. It’s pre-fab build made it structurally unsound, but worse than that its fortress-like design and isolated location made it ‘notorious’. Middle class media narratives (the BBC included) had set out to paint Quarry Hill as a Droogian hellscape — a deeply unfair reputation the place couldn’t shake.

For me, Quarry Hill was the way into all that’s gone wrong with UK housing. I realised our collective attitudes to council estates haven’t changed that much. ‘Council House’ is a loaded term nowadays — think: crime, think: wrong ‘uns — and technically incorrect because councils have ceded home building to private Housing Associations who don’t always cater for the most in-need. Why build a flat for a single mother on housing benefit when you can sell it at full market value? The tragic decline of safe, affordable social housing in the UK has hastened the breakup of stable working-class communities all over the country. The more I learned, the more hacked off I got. I started imagining a massive estate on the outskirts of Middlesbrough where all this stuff would play out. Middlesbrough made sense to me — I was born and raised in County Durham but had lived in Leeds for years — Middlesbrough was between them: a land rich in industrial history, cultural, folklore, the last of which leads me to…

Seated Young Girl (1910) by Egon Schiele
Ironopolis is about what happens to lives when the wrecking balls move in. The fate of their homes is a forgone conclusion, but what about the intangible aspects of a community? The shared history? Myth and legend? According to Teesside folklore, Peg Powler is a ‘Water Hag’ who lives in the River Tees and drowns anyone daft enough to get too close. Peg references go back hundreds of years, and something about her wouldn’t let me go. I wanted her in the book, but couldn’t pin her down. I’d found some old illustrations of her, but they weren’t right. She looked like your typical ghoul — all hobgoblin arms and slobbering leer. I need something else.

I wrote the book in a succession of libraries (most of which are under threat, check http://www.publiclibrariesnews.com/ to see what’s happening with yours) and I was taking a break one day, flicking aimlessly through some old art books. I picked up a slim volume wrapped in brown paper and tied with black ribbon. It was a collection of sketches by the Austrian artist Egon Schiele, who died in 1918 at the age of 28, a victim of the Spanish flu that wiped out an estimated 100 million people. Schiele’s work is mind-bending — his figures are twisted and otherworldly and radiate a raw sexuality that upset the art world of the day. Looking through the book, I found Seated Young Girl (1910). I couldn’t take my eyes off it; unsettling and magnetic, it was exactly the Peg Powler I’d been looking for. She came alive to me and rapidly became a main character in the novel. Setting an ancient river witch loose on a modern council estate was an interesting experience — part of that rattling-together of seemingly incongruous elements. For example, she is heavily involved in a section of the book taking place during the height of acid house in 1989…

Acid Trax by Phuture
A chunk of the novel revolves around Jim, a seventeen-year-old music-lover living in a high-rise. Originally, Jim’s part was set in the 1970s, where Glam Rockers like T.Rex, Mud and Chicory Tip were all the rage. But outside of Bowie, I don’t really get on with that stuff, so I shifted the story to 1989 and acid house’s Second Summer of Love. That culture — or the UK’s interpretation of it at least — was about reclaiming abandoned factories and warehouse and layering new history over old. There’s something profound to me about different times and peoples connecting through the conduit of place. Plus, Jim’s love for acid was a cinch to write because I love it too. Phuture’s Acid Trax pretty much birthed the genre, and what’s amazing is that, even today, it sounds like it could be made tomorrow — this fucking pounding, unrelenting, sinuous music. I need silence when I work, but the pulse of this was in my head while writing Jim’s story.

The North
I grew up in the North and have lived in the North most of my life, so the people, the cultures, the landscapes are in my bones. The North was heavy industry, and as such has taken a beating these last 30-odd years — Ironopolis owes its name to a Teesside steel industry that no longer exists — and though I never worked in a blast furnace, or down a pit, my family did and I feel it’s part of me. All these stories and histories stretching back into antiquity. There are currently incredible writers — and artists of all stripes — from the North who are taking this heritage as their inspiration, and, in the process, bringing it to a wider audience. I think it’s great people are listening. I hope to do my bit with this book.

Glen James Brown releases Ironopolis on Friday 1st June through Parthian Books.

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