Liverpool, often noted as a city of poets, songwriters and playwrights, has produced surprisingly few novelists. One man too go against the grain of this is Niall Griffiths. His intense and often brutally dark novels, punctuated with an absurdist sense of humour, tell the story of those existing, often forgotten, on the edge of society. They’re written mostly in dialect, and are set against the mixed background of the Welsh landscape and Liverpool cityscape – in all their glory and all their horror. Despite having written five novels, selling thousands of books and having had his work translated into five languages, he has received little recognition in the city he was born – perhaps because of a mixture of the controversial subject matter of his books and the fact that he now calls Aberystwyth his main home. He returns to the city often, however, and imminently is back in Liverpool for a significant period, having been commissioned to write a non-fiction book about the ‘real Liverpool’.
I met Niall in Aberystwth for a chat and a few drinks in the pubs of the seaside town.
Griffiths was born in Liverpool’s Toxteth district, later moving to a new council estate in Netherly on the outskirts of the city. He began writing “basically since I had the motor function to pick up a pen”. He says he was influenced early on by the oral tradition passed down from his Welsh speaking grandparents: “There were not many books in the house but it was full of stories.” In a household lacking literature his early creations were often of a strange fantasy nature involving, amongst other things, giant crabs. “Where it came from I have no idea, it’s just always been there and it needs to come out, if I don’t write for a day I feel like an absolute wretch, it’s almost like kind of having to justify my existence.” An early, and profound, influence was Welsh writer Ron Berry: “I think when I started to read books they gave me a way of dealing with a terribly confusing world. When you read, say, for an hour, you’re away from the world -but you’re also very much here, especially when you are reading very worthwhile literature because it should be telling you about the world outside your window.”
At the age of twelve his family emigrated to Australia, one of the ‘£10 Poms’ that left the UK in their thousands; but due to the homesickness of his mum they returned 3 years later. With little money – having had to pay a full return fare – they were helped to find a house to rent by a relative in West Kirkby, Wirral, where Niall attended the local Grammar School. Often singled out and treated differently by some teachers because of his Liverpool background. He left school at 15 and went through a series of menial jobs – including cleaning muck spreaders. Recalling: “I did a bit of work in any kind of job and all that taught me was I didn’t’t want to do any kind of proper job, that’s one of the reasons I returned to study” He studied for A-Levels in Birkenhead, Later moving back to Liverpool, living in Hope Street in the city centre and various other spots. “I was just bumming around the city till I was twenty-two and left to study, I’ve traveled around Britain ever since, I’ve always come back though and it always feels like home like.”
He finally settled in Aberystwyth, returning to his Welsh roots. He first fell in love with the Wales when as a teenager he was sent to Snowdonia on an outward bound course by a judge after a series of petty crimes. This much maligned policy actually seems to have had the desired effect on Niall: “It showed me how silly I had been and it gave me a creative outlet for my energies.” And it instilled a love in him which remains to this day: “I love climbing – well, walking up. On top of a mountain is such an amazing place to be; it’s almost like being close to God in a way, especially if you are on your own. Incredible. That said it’s fucking brutal as well, nature, birds of prey, full of death. Living in the country isn’t very nice. You leave your house and walk down to the shops and it’s all very pretty looking around but you look down and there is an animal torn apart, I wanted to capture that side of nature in my books too.”
He originally moved to Aberystwyth to study for a Phd. Having to work as a building labourer to support himself, he became annoyed at wealthier students entirely supported by their families – yet less interested than he was – and Griffiths drifted away from his course into a world of week-long parties and binges on drink and drugs. It was then he began to write what would become his first novel, Grits. Published in 2000, it was a book about the flotsam and jetsam of the UK washing up at the end of the railway line in Aberystwyth, trying to escape their problems but only taking them with them. It was well received both critically and commercially: “I got all kinds of people at my readings from people in cravats to people with facial tattoos”.
His next book, the provocatively-titled Sheepshagger, dealt with its disturbed Welsh anti-hero Ianto’s struggle to deal with his identity after his family home is bought by incomers-with murderous consequences. Perhaps his most ‘Welsh’ book, this one was ironically written – for the most part – whilst he stayed in his girlfriend’s flat on the edge of Toxteth. His last three books have either been set in Liverpool or covered characters that, like Niall and many others, have made the journey between the city and Wales. Kelly + Victor is an intense tale of the extremes of love and life in Liverpool at the turn of the millennium, whilst Stump and his latest Wreckage dealt with a wide cast of characters living and dying at the lower end of society’s ladder in both the city and the countryside. .. Griffiths is currently working on two non-fiction books. One of these deals with the ‘£10 Poms’ system of Aussie immigration that he and his family went through, and the other – about ‘the real Liverpool’ – is published by an independent Welsh press for whom he wrote of ‘the real Aberystwyth’. Because of this he is planning to move back to the city for a period of time this year to get to know the city once more and look at the massive changes that are currently taking place. He says: “Writing a book about the real Aberystwyth was one thing – it’s a town of 20,000 people – but with Liverpool where the fuck do you start?”
There are many links between Liverpool and Wales, an issue examined extensively in his novel, Wreckage. “I’ve started to explore those connections. Liverpool has always been called ‘the capital of North Wales’. For a lot of people there Cardiff is a foreign city, it was Liverpool that was their city”. In the light of the Capital Of Culture win, Liverpool bid to host some of the events of the national Eisteddfod, being one of the few places the festival has taken place in outside of Wales in the past. But this was met with fierce opposition by some. “I think that is ignoring the Welsh heritage in the city and also the Welsh influence on the way the city is today. You did have one of what they call the arch druids coming on the local news going ‘No it’s a Saesneg city’ which to me is just fucking bigoted.”
And the Capital of Culture win? “Well, it’s a double-edged sword isn’t it? It will bring money into the city but only if it will make money back for those who invest.” He recalls a conversation with the Glaswegian writer James Kelman about that city’s win of 1990: “He said it brought in a load of money but since then the social problems in the city have only got worse because the so-called scummy people got pushed out to the estates which never got cleaned up.” He continues, “Culture of course is not just art galleries and restaurants, it’s also graffiti and terrace chants and a lot of people forget the grassroots bands, independent publishing presses and everything. They want to focus on culture that is acceptable and saleable, the kind of stuff they talk about on the fucking Late Review”. But he doesn’t think it’s all bad: “I don’t think it will make this kind of hidden culture die down though. It should become stronger to react against it. You just want this sort of stuff to be recognised sometimes you know, but we would be foolish to expect anything more from this sort of scheme.”
Niall has been noted and praised for writing against the perceived wisdom that a pared down, economical writing style is best. He instead mixes the dialogue of different dialects with classical techniques and often highly-charged, poetic prose. “In terms of dialect, and this is something that I have got from the Welsh, is that their politics and identity is all bound up in their voice, in the Welsh language and accent. So I have kinda taken that and looked at all the politics bound up in language and how you speak. In terms of using classical devices I want to cite the stories of local, often poor people, voices that are often not heard. I wanted to give it an epic quality, and one way of doing that is to look back at epic writing.”
I ask if by portraying in his novels life at the lower end of society, he is trying to highlight social problems. “Yeah definitely – both in Liverpool and here as well. For a small town it has a big drink problem, drug problem, homeless problem. It’s often forgotten that these kind of problems don’t just exist in cities. Aberystwyth has all the problems of a city, but also the different the different areas and cultures that make cities interesting places to live.”
His characters often seem to be searching, desiring and fighting for something that they can never quite grasp. Why is that? “I think we live in extreme times, certainly extreme psychological times. People are absolutely aching for things which are not there, for some kind of spiritual fulfilment. If society does not offer any outlet for that, then it will come out in violence, it will come out in any form of extreme experience. So that’s partly it, but I suppose in another more powerful way people are just yearning for some sort of recognition.” I ask him if this is why he, like his characters, has spent so much time travelling: “If you have kind of artistic ideas that is often linked with dissatisfaction and you can think that it is because of where you are that you are dissatisfied and want to move out though that is often misguided. When you reach it it’s never there of course but it’s the journey that counts, that’s how you find yourself.”
In addition to the ‘real Liverpool’ and ‘£10 Poms’ books Niall is working on a series of short stories, a novella and is planning his next novel. A busy man, he must have favorite moments in his work he’s proud of regardless? “Grits is very personal so in some way that’s my favourite; it terms of pure structure, Kelly + Victor. I like Stump too, and Wreckage – that its so barley controlled” He laughs. “That’s all my fuckin’ books isn’t it?” “In terms of favourites I suppose I hope I’m never happy, never write a master piece and keep writing. If I did I think I would probably wither away and die.”
By Kenn Taylor