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Interview with a local author: Nigel Jarrett

Updated: Mar 2, 2021

I ‘met’ Nigel Jarrett through ASP, when he sent in a submission. It was coincidental because Cath Barton was just about to introduce us and I was, of course, already aware of Nigel as one of the locale’s more renowned authors. I had been intending on approaching him for an interview. Nigel pre-empted all of us and graciously agreed to the interview below. Continuing as we do at the moment in Covid restricted times, the interview was conducted by email.

Interview with Nigel Jarrett – January 2021.

ASP: I note from your website that you originally studied natural sciences at university, but dropped out. Was this because you decided to change for a career in journalism? Or did journalism come later? (I ask this because my brother studied veterinary science then swapped half way through to study music). I wondered if the arts had a stronger calling for you?

NJ: I didn't 'drop out'; I left without a degree. There's a difference: the former is romantic, the latter prosaic. The reasons why I left are personal, but they say something about my choice of higher education. After GCSE, then known as 'O' Level, I spent six months studying art, French and English. I was persuaded to switch to natural sciences. It was a mistake. But that's the past. After university I worked for three years as a lab technician in an iron foundry. While at university I'd contributed to the college newspaper, which went on to win a prize; at the foundry I was the workplace correspondent for the company newsletter. And I'd always been a keen artist.

So, my interests during those first six months of 'A' Level were still alive. I was always writing. My first 'article', about Vincent Van Gogh, appeared in the Welsh Communist party magazine, Cyffro, between my leaving university and becoming a wage-earner. Although the politics of the magazine as such didn't interest me, the relationship between art and society always has.

So yes; I took a wrong turning. I often wonder what I might have become had I not made that fateful decision in the sixth form. A better writer, perhaps, or an artist.

ASP: During your time in journalism, did you ever write poetry or fiction on the side? If so, was it just for the sake of it or did you ever consider trying to publish any of it?

NJ: After my stint on a weekly newspaper, I spent the rest of my journalistic career in 'dailies'. All my fiction and poetry – plus some extra-curricular non-fiction - has thus been written 'on the side'. Only writers such as Agatha Christie, Lee Child, Alice Munro, and John Le Carré are able to live by their writing alone. There are thousands of them, highbrow and lowbrow, going back centuries. My remunerative word spinning mostly consisted of newspaper hack work, for which I was paid a salary; it was never much in the provinces.

One afternoon I was given a curious magazine called Cambrensis to review. It was devoted to short stories, typed and cyclostyled, and it included Tippexed corrections. The stories were no worse and no better than the ones I'd been writing and keeping to myself. I sent one of mine to its editor, Arthur Smith, in Cornelly, near Porthcawl. He was a retired electricity board employee and amateur scribe. He published the story.

Cambrensis was a SLM – small literary magazine. (I say 'was', because SLMs often don't last long.) I discovered scores of them throughout the UK. This was in pre-digital times of print on paper, hence the Tippex. Arthur took more of my work and so did several other SLMs, one them edited by the novelist John Murray and another by David Almond, before he became famous as a writer of books for children. None of them paid me; few SLMs do and it's part of the compact. Mad, isn't it?

In the mid-1990s, I entered and won the Rhys Davies Competition, which commemorates the Welsh novelist and story writer of that name. It was another 2,000 words written 'on the side'. The prize money amounted to several hundred pounds. Payment at last.

My biggest achievement is to have appeared a few times in Alan Ross's London Magazine, a celebrated SLM dating from the 18th-century and later associated with Leigh Hunt and others. He anthologised me in Signals 2, a London Magazine collection, and had accepted an essay from me on Anglo-Welsh writing, only for it to vanish in the changes which followed his sudden death. Ross always sent hand-written rejection and acceptance notes on the backs of postcards he'd collected on his travels. He was kind and encouraging.

ASP: Could you give any examples of characters or events that you have experienced and that have inspired you in your writing?

NJ: My novel Slowly Burning, published in Gwent in 2016 by Dr Gareth John's GG Books, is narrated by Bunny Patmore, a former and disgraced Fleet Street crime bureau 'chief' washed up on a Welsh weekly newspaper. He's an amalgam of all the 'characters' I've met as a newspaperman, but he's no-one in particular. Many former national newspaper journalists decide to end their working lives – sometimes for lengthy stretches – in the provinces. One of them I worked with was breathalysed positive at 8.30am outside the office on his way to report at crown court; one always claimed to have covered a story he'd missed ('Oh that,' he would say. 'It's all in the files.'); one included Larry Grayson and Herman of Herman's Hermits among his personal friends; another reported on the Great Train Robbery. Bunny is inspired by all these but his details are 'purely imaginary', as disclaimers often say. Some of his news stories owed more to his imagination than to the truth brightly lit. I wanted the reader to have an enjoyable time spotting their consequences: the inconsistencies and ‘misrememberings’. I also wanted to attract some sympathy for him, because all the former London journalists I worked with were models of wit, courtesy, and kindness. Maybe out of the maelstrom at last one always is.

Creating characters based even remotely on people one knows or has come across in life is inevitable. Who else is there apart from fictional ones? My own made-up characters are the most interesting: the eponymous Doctor Fritz, for example, a disturbed musicologist who made important discoveries among members of an African tribe and is now living in febrile, nay murderous, retirement in a cottage near Hay on Wye.

My father was once a motor mechanic and my family owned a car from as far back as I can remember. A few times we made the exhausting, pre-motorway journey to Cornwall from SE Wales across the Severn Estuary by ferry and via a queue of West Country bottlenecks. The experience helped me in the writing of Watching the Birdie, but its male protagonist bears no other resemblance to my father, who, like my paternal grandfather, was taciturn and complex. Both stories appeared in my first collection, 'Funderland', published by Parthian.

Maybe this is the place to mention the journalistic activity that's given me equal doses of pleasure and kudos. When I joined the South Wales Argus, its music critic was Kenneth Loveland, who had previously held that position while also being the paper's editor. Loveland was internationally known as a writer on music, having been appointed by Frank Howes of The Times to 'look after' music in Wales. The paper also sent him on important overseas assignments. Loveland was always seeking an assistant. He gave me a couple of practice runs before giving me the job. Ten years later, on his retirement, I took over and was music critic for 25 years. I now write on music for the Wales Arts Review and others. In terms of 'characters' I came across as a reporter, Loveland was in a particular sense pre-eminent. He had astonishing self-confidence but, on his own admission and like me, possessed little executive ability as a musician. He often reminded me that newspaper music criticism was a branch of journalism, not of musicology. He wrote beautifully. The assertiveness must have been rooted in his war service as a gunner: he fought at Nijmegen and was mentioned in dispatches. So, no jumped-up international conductor in a penguin suit was going to take him anything less than seriously. He was much admired by his more famous metropolitan counterparts, including William Mann and the waspish Rodney Milnes at The Times, and Peter Heyworth at The Observer.

ASP: What prompted the shift from journalism to fiction/poetry writing?

NJ: As mentioned, the two were concurrent, not consecutive. But there's another obvious link: writing. I'll never have more readers for my books than I had for my news reports and features; readers often numbered in tens of thousands every twenty-four hours. The readership of most SLMs is often counted in hundreds or fewer. But news is fleeting while prose and poetry stick, if one is lucky. Also, some writers were, or had been, journalists: Barbara Taylor Bradford, Martha Gellhorn, Tom Stoppard, and Hemingway, to name an eccentric group. Gellhorn and Hemingway were once married. I interviewed Gellhorn when she was staying in a pied-a-terre cottage between Chepstow and Raglan. She insisted that in our discussion the name of Hemingway could not be mentioned. It wasn't my best interview. But we'd found out she was there. Such an unlikely discovery is often the most thrilling part of journalism.

The habit of writing stories is related to the time I put in as a reporter, often fifty hours a week. I could write a story in two sittings, mostly late at night. A couple of novels were started then abandoned. There wasn't enough time. And, anyway, I kept losing sundry threads.

ASP: Did winning the Rhys Davies Award and the Templar Shorts prize make life as a writer easier for you or more difficult? Were the expectations higher for the work you produced afterwards?

NJ: Nothing happened immediately after I won these awards. It was over ten years following the Rhys Davies before Parthian asked me for a collection (Funderland), and two years after the Templar Shorts one that Templar published my three-story pamphlet, A Gloucester Trilogy, as part of the prize. No phones rang, and no emails arrived, nor have they done since. Between the awards, a story of mine was included in Secondary Character, an anthology published by Opening Chapter in Cardiff and edited by Barrie Llewelyn, and Parthian published my poetry collection, Miners at The Quarry Pool. Another story collection, Who Killed Emil Kreisler?, appeared from Cultured Llama in 2019.

You just keep on writing, submitting and being either accepted or rejected. Many writers disparage the big book publishers, such as Jonathan Cape, Hamish Hamilton, and Faber. But if an offer of publication came from any one of them, all would accept it.

In many ways, writing is a mug's game. I'm probably a third-rate writer and I've earned barely a fiver from it apart from the Rhys Davies prize. It's taken up a lot of my time. To be honest, I don't know why I keep doing it. But I do.

ASP: In September 2020, you signed a contract for a collection of stories with Chaffinch Press (Dublin). Coincidentally a year since the publication of ‘A Gloucester Trilogy’. But, it has been nearly four years since you released your first novel are there any other novels in the offing? Or do you prefer the shorter form and poetry? And is this why the next publication will be another collection of shorts?

NJ: I've a few ideas for novels. What writer hasn't? I still review for a lot of journals, as we scribblers call them, including Jazz Journal, Acumen poetry magazine, and the Wales Arts Review, and I still write stories; not so much poetry of late, but one never knows. I have no ambition or plan for the future. The future is what happens. By the way, and to go back to the beginning, I designed the cover art for Miners at The Quarry Pool and Who Killed Emil Kreisler? The writing world I inhabit is totally different from the one that sustains, say, Joyce Carol Oates and Martin Amis. My favourite British novelist is Graham Swift. He and I have something in common: our early work was first published in Ross's London Magazine. But that's where the similarities end. We can but dream. Swift is also a distinguished writer of short stories.

As one grows older, the chances of writing something spectacularly brilliant diminish. I'm conscious of being a traditionalist but I would like to have been an experimenter. Most of us write in styles and forms that wouldn't have been out of place in 1900. I don't prefer one genre more than another. I just keep writing even when I have nothing to write about, because, as Henry James said, 'Something will come, something will come.' When it does, it's irresistible.

ASP: Thank you.

NJ: Thank you.

If you would like to know more about Nigel and his writing career you can find out from his website:

He is also happy to engage in email discussions should you wish to contact him directly:

All Nigel’s books can be found through the following links. They are available on Amazon, but as we here like to support the independent traders and publishers we would recommend that you purchase your copies direct from the publishers.

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