Filed: Saturday, 16th June 2012
By: Staff Writer
Ian Ayris is the author of 'Abide With Me', a recently-released novel that centres around a young West Ham United supporter, John Sissons, growing up in London's East End during the 1970s. We recently met up with Ian for a chat about what is also his first full-length book; firing the questions on behalf of KUMB.com was Graeme Howlett...
KUMB: A lot of Abide With Me resonated on a personal level as it reminded me of my own childhood, growing up in Dagenham and East Ham. John's family's two up, two down was very similar to my Grandparentís house in Fabian Street...
IA: That's good. I don't know how anyone's going to react to it; I always have reservations because to me it's just something I made up, just a story. But there's all of me in Abide With Me - and it was only when I finished it that I realised how much of me was in it.
KUMB: I guess a lot of writers do that, draw inspiration from their own experiences?
IA: Exactly yeah, and often without knowing. The way I write, I don't plan anything at all. I tried to write a book by planning it but I got stuck in the middle! A mate said, "You've had a few short stories published by just making it up, why don't you just make the book up?" - and that was that! It's mad, but I can't plan anything otherwise it's not real. I see it and hear it all in my head so I suppose it's like a channelling sort of thing. I have to try and not come across as completely mental!
I'd written a short story [The Rise and Demise of Fat Kenny] and I thought "there's more there", then wondered how I could stretch 1,500 words into 60,000. The obvious thing was to go back into the childhoods of the main characters. I had this vision; my first memory of football was watching the 1975 FA Cup Final on TV and my dad bought me a Bobby Moore statuette but it was in West Ham colours, so I don't know where he got it from because he'd obviously gone by then!
KUMB: You're actually a Dagenham supporter; did your father follow the Daggers as well?
IA: No, he was more Manchester United because he loved George Best. He preferred to follow players I suppose. He was born in Canning Town - so where you were East Ham, I was Canning Town and Custom House. They were my childhood memories, going up to see the aunts and uncles in the flats. But all my cousins were West Ham; I was from a proper West Ham family so it was natural just to follow West Ham. I remember having the kit and the statuette was just claret and blue - no fancy bits so it must have been very early '70s. He must have got it knocked off somewhere!
But I remember watching the game and having a haircut in the morning - it's funny what you remember, I was only five, six - and just thinking that all of those people had come to watch these players. Once I got to six or seven I started playing football and that for me was the focus rather than supporting a team. Come 10, 11 I was getting the 174 [bus] down to Dagenham because it was cheap and easy. I wouldn't have been allowed to travel from Romford to the East End but we could do Dagenham, me, my brother and my mate.
My first proper match was the '77 FA Trophy Final when we got beat by Scarborough. We were 1-0 up with five minutes left and they done us twice! You know like sometimes as a kid you follow a team because they win? To me, my heart got broken that day and I thought "that's my team!"
KUMB: Why did you choose to focus on West Ham rather than, say, Arsenal or Manchester United who had also been to Wembley on a couple of occasions around the same time?
IA: I pretty much always write in the East End vernacular so the boys were always going to be from the East End. As I said, my first football experience was the 1975 Cup Final and I just had this picture of a boy in a makeshift West Ham top watching it with his Nan and Granddad and all his aunts and uncles, because that's where I was.
KUMB: The 1975 and 1980 FA Cup Finals are two of the pivotal points in the early stages of Abide With Me. John, who's the main character in the book, talks extensively about the day itself and the preparations - does that come from your own experience?
IA: Oh it does. A lot of the West Ham stuff is transposed from my Dagenham experiences - so going into Wembley in '77 and seeing all these people, just the awe of it. I went to see a West Ham game in the early '80s against Watford. Obviously Dagenham's just a little ground so that was the first big ground other than Wembley [I'd been to]. Just going in and seeing it all open up... Wembley was like that. Watching the football, I was open-mouthed; I almost didn't notice the players. It was incredible.
I come from a really tight-knit family like Johnny's. When I was little, everyone would be out in the streets after the Cup Final. And I wondered what would it be like if there's a kid across the road - that's Kenny - who doesn't even know it's going on. He's from a family that's not football-related, it's abusive, stuff like that. And what if they met, what would happen? I didn't plan anything, I just took it from there; to see what they would do.
When I ended the first chapter, I had no idea what the second one would be. I just thought "let's see what happens!" So throughout the whole book I had no idea what was going on. I thought that if they met, it's not going to go well. As a kid you take whatever comes and try and make sense of it. You can't justify anything, you can't relate anything to anything else - you just live it and do the best you can. Kenny is very simple; people have said he sounds autistic and it didn't cross my mind that he might be, but there's a lot of autism in there.
KUMB: So you didn't have a specific view of what Kenny's condition was?
IA: Not at all. Damaged, I think. I've worked in mental health for 18 years but never pegged him as autistic when I was writing. It was only when I'd finished writing Abide With Me that I realised Kenny was probably autistic. People have said since he sounds autistic and it didn't cross my mind that he might be, but there's a lot of autism in there.
KUMB: Whilst that's never revealed in the book in those days kids weren't perhaps defined as much, whereas everyone is pigeon-holed now?
IA: Yeah, that's right.
KUMB: It's almost as if you were either 'normal' or 'special' in those days?
IA: Exactly, and I think 'special' is probably being kind. If you were different, it wasn't a nice time. There was no help from the services but at school you were just 'stupid' or whatever, along with something as simple as dyslexia. Very similar.
So I knew that John was a good kid and that he would warm to Kenny. People have told me that they've fallen in love with John, that he's such a nice kid and he just means well. But Kenny didn't know how to warm to people. So I knew that there would be a conflict and I literally just followed what the two of them would do. I knew football would play a part because to me, football is the greatest allegory of life - especially for blokes who aren't great at being emotional. I didn't know where it would go but I knew it was there. It was so near the surface it was always going to come out.
KUMB: Kenny all but disappears half way through Abide With Me but comes back with a bang at the end. How did that particular twist materialise?
IA: To me, whatever the diagnosis with Kenny you can only take so much. Everyone's got a tipping point. Withs omeone like Kenny, who can't express how he feels, there's always going to be a tipping point and it's going to be violent. That's why it was naturally to have him being bullied at school, because when I was at school and there were kids like that they got bullied. It was a fact of life in the '70s and '80s, that's what happened. So I knew the tipping point would be the reaction against the bully. With Kenny being on the simple end it would be cause and effect; he's done that and it's an instant reaction.
I thought it was going to be Kenny's story, that the whole book would be about him. But then I realised that this is John telling the story - so it's John's book! I wanted him to find, as he was growing up, the effect this boy had had on him without noticing, without realising. Johnny complicated his life, he tried to complicate it as he doesn't know how to be simple but he has this boy show him what it's like just to be - in a quite 'Zen' kind of way I suppose. To just react to whatever's around with no preconceptions.
Kenny's the only one in the book who doesn't try to be anything other than what he is. In the end, John learns from that by almost sacrificing himself for Kenny. John wasn't a bad kid and he had love, but he didn't know how to express it.
KUMB: Which was very typical of someone growing up in that environment at that time?
IA: Definitely, in a football environment especially. All of the school stuff is true. It was all my childhood, all of it - from the horrible bits to the nice bits.
KUMB: There's a really touching relationship between Kenny and John's little sister Becky which comes back to what you were saying about Kenny only seeing what's in front of him. It's perfectly illustrated by that particular relationship where they're like two equals - and she adores him?
IA: Yeah - because she sees him as just this boy who gives out warmth and love and she sees him as an equal to her. So there's a comfort there. But the closeness needed to be there because it showed that Kenny was a very young child at heart.
KUMB: And it's the one shining light throughout the book for Kenny where he gets unconditional love?
IA: It really is, yeah - and he only gets it unconditionally because Becky doesn't know how to be any other way. Neither of them know how to be any other way. Perhaps if she was older than him that wouldn't be there. But I got all that from my kids. My littl'un is four and in a really funny way she just says it like it is! But that's what young kids do. They don't think 'oh he's a bit strange' - even when he's gone it's just 'oh, where's the fat boy?' She saw him as a shape - a silhouette if you like - and someone who plays with her, nothing more than that. In a lot of ways Becky is the hero throughout the book, she's the one with a lot of courage.
To me, the females in the book are the ones with the courage. In a lot of East End culture the women are the strong ones, they're the ones that hold it together. The blokes have got all the macho stuff like football and all that but it's the women who hold it together. When I used to work in a factory, there was one bloke who you'd think was an East End gangster but when we got our pay packet at the end of the week in the days when you got a little brown envelope, his wife would be at the gate. He'd hand it over and she'd give him twenty quid back!
One time he went out to get a loaf of bread and didn't come back until two days later, p*ssed all his wages up the wall - and she literally beat the shit out of him and he came in the next week with bruises all over him! There's a bit in the book where John's dad does it, and I got it from this bloke. So to me, the female/male East End culture had to be real, it had to be true.
KUMB: And also with the relationship between John and his dad, there isn't a lot of open emotion shown even though you can see how much he adores his father. I found that really touching...
IA: I don't know what my dad would think of it but it was modelled on that. He's from Canning Town but he grew up in an orphanage in Oxfordshire. In my childhood he was working a lot so one of the best days of the week was a Saturday because I used to go and watch him play football and we'd talk about football until the cows came home. But it wasnít until I was 13, 14 before we were able to talk about other stuff. He'd stick his Bob Dylan records on and my brother and I would just sit and listen - and the three of us just sitting and listening would be saying everything. So we'd talk through football and music. It's only in the last few years that we've got really close.
It is a male thing that when you're a kid you try and find a form of communication - when I grew up, it was football, but where do you go from 'the ref was sh*t' or 'what a great goal'? When you've got all these worries, how do you transpose them? it's a different language, you just don't know. When my dad was brought up in a childrenís home, he wasn't taught that either. Oddly enough he's now a qualified counsellor teaching people how to do it and so am I! So now we're in the counselling game we've come full circle, if you like. In quite a fortunate sort of way we've learnt how to do it the hard way and it's probably taken most of our lives to do it. Now I've got three kids we talk all the time so hopefully that cycle is broken.
I grew up in the '70s but I didn't know much about it. To me it was two World Cups - even though we [England] didn't qualify for them. '78 was a big memory and the '80 Cup Final was a big memory. I remember the lights not being on and there being candles; the rubbish bags; stuff like that, little images. It's only when I started researching it I thought if you're a West Ham supporter in the '70s, you're working-class and you love Elvis that isn't a great time. Alright, you win a Cup Final against Fulham - perhaps undeservedly so perhaps there's a hollow feeling there! - you then get relegated for the first time in 20 years, Elvis dies and you lose your job; it hasn't been a great time.
So when I realised John's dad would be going through all of this I thought if there was any chance of him communicating with his son, that's gone. Through my experience as a counsellor, the depression sets in and it becomes very difficult. But there's still this hope in him that West Ham will pull him through and that was his only hope. I've had it during times in my life when I've been going through bad times and then Saturday comes around - and there's always hope. If it's a sh*t season, there's always another season; if it's a sh*t World Cup there's always another! Football does that, it's got perpetuity to it that's fantastic for blokes.
KUMB: I loved the description of that scene where the family are sitting round the little telly and you've got the aunts and uncles peering over the back of the settee, whilst Mum sits on the edge of the sofa with the kids perched in front. It's one that will be familar to anyone around at that time.
IA: That was real! Up until a few years back, whenever you'd go round my Nanís it was steak and chips of a cup of tea. She had an apron on all day, just to make a cup of tea for whoever came in. So the whole family is drawn from mine and there's bits of it I can't even read out because it's so emotional for me. Only I know how much of me really is in that. I know it's touched other people.
KUMB: Without giving too much of the story away, John ends up in a spot of bother - is that something that you felt was a natural progression in the story?
IA: As I said, I planned none of it. The turn of events caught me by surprise - I thought 'what does he do now'? Boys quite often go off the rails, they find something to replace a loss - and quite often that's the buzz of doing something wrong - nicking, shoplifting, etcetera. So it made sense for him to go down that route. It then made sense, because he's a kid he's then going to get caught and it's going to escalate. As it doesn't fill the gap, they're thinking 'if I do it bigger, that'll fill the gap' - all unconsciously of course. But being kids it goes tits up and again, in those times it was cracked down on. They were made an example of.
My Nan hated Maggie Thatcher with an absolute passion; you couldn't even talk about it! That early '80s authoritarian thing meant he [John] was going to get off badly so I had him in prison. Now Scum is one of my favourite films ever and to me, Ray Winstone's voice was the one talking throughout the whole book. I thought, "John's not a bad kid so he's not going to be able to do all this hard stuff, he's just going to have to keep his nose clean" - but that makes him vulnerable, so he's not going to have a good time.
KUMB: Another character in Abide With Me is the wonderfully-named Ronnie Swordfish. Where did he come from?
IA: Also out of the short story. All that is left are John, Tommo, Keith, Kenny and Ronnie Swordfish. They're the only characters left because it's a catalyst in the end. I thought I was going to re-tell the story but it wasn't like that at all. It's funny but when people say "Where did you get that from?" I say, "it's his name". I don't consciously make these things up - it's nothing like that at all.
KUMB: But he's like your archetypal East End gangster - straight out of Lock, Stock... or something like that?
IA: He is yeah, and I suppose a mockery of sorts as well because these characters are quite often laughable, almost caricatures of themselves. There's a couple of times where I make fun of it, like when John gets told by Wilkins about 'Ronnie Swordfish', John laughs almost thinking what a stupid name that is - and Kenny says "is he a cartoon?"!
So I wanted people to think he's not real, he's just sort of silly so when it comes out that he's actually a really nasty individual it's the conflict of trying to manipulate the preconceptions of the reader, if you like, in a certain direction so when it turns out different they feel it because they've been taken on. But I like that because I need people to feel it, not just to understand it. It's a sneaky way perhaps of making people feel things they didn't think they were feeling and then when it hits, it's quite overwhelming.