Early this year, John Burnside’s Black Cat Bone won the TS Eliot Prize for Poetry. Gillian Clarke, chair of the judges, called it “a haunting book of great beauty, powered by love, childhood memory, human longing and loneliness.” John gives Matt Shoard a glimpse at his music collection, his traval plans, and the theme of his forthcoming novel: the paradoxes of protest.
Will you be travelling significantly this year?
I travel all the time. Right now I am at the end of a stay in Berlin, where I have been a resident at the Literarisches Colloquium – it has been an idyll, really, having time to write in a beautiful house by the Wannsee, just a stone’s throw from Kleist’s grave. Later in the year, I’ll be in Berlin again, Vancouver, Munich, Montelimar, various other places. I love being in Germany, in particular; the German-language literary community has been very kind to me. And the beer is great.
Do you regard yourself as a connoisseur of anything?
Sadly, as my body mass indicates, I am a lover of food and drink. I’m not sure if I am a connoisseur, I’m possibly more gourmand than gourmet, but I do love food, especially game, and I have a disastrous love of beer, wines and some spirits. On a less unhealthy note, I love music, photography, painting, film. It’s always difficult to call oneself a connoisseur, because of the overtones of knowledge and snobbishness it can have but, as a Scot, I do consider myself a true connoisseur of rain, mist, fog and snow – not to mention blasted heaths.
What is the best meal you have ever had?
I’ve had so many good meals, with good company over years of wandering about. Maybe the best was on a rented seal boat in the Arctic Circle. It was early July, we went out night fishing by the light of the midnight sun and caught cod on lines, cooked them in a big tureen of sea water, and served up with fresh bread, butter and lemons. And beer, of course. That was special. A close contender would be the Grunnlovsdag (Independence Day) breakfast I had with Dag and Tove Andersson and their friends one year – gulls’ eggs, various fine meats in aspic and akevitt at eight thirty in the morning. But really, as much as I love food and drink, it’s the company that makes a good meal – just as life offers us innumerable annunciations – challenges to rise to an occasion in an imaginative way – so it offers us the possibility of a eucharist every time we sit down with friends and eat the food that someone has prepared, out of generosity of spirit, or love, or a shared sense of what is good in this world.
Did your mother teach you anything particular, and did your father?
My mother taught me to bake. She also tried to teach me to be patient, but I fear she failed in that. My father taught me to drink hard. He also tried to teach me to be tough (give as good as you get, say as little as you can and trust nae bastard) but it didn’t stick. As my sons would happily tell you, the overall result of his hard school of knocks training was to make me into a big softie. ‘Soft as butter’, as my youngest once remarked.
Would you rather be in hospital or in the jail?
Hospital. I might die there, but I’m absolutely certain I’d die in jail. In fact, those who go to jail, or even risk going to jail, for acting on a moral imperative to help others, to act against injustice or imperialism, are the people I admire most. Dietrich Bonhoeffer is an example of this: he certainly could have escaped prison and death, but he chose to continue to fight fascism in Germany.
To be an activist, properly speaking, does one need to actively undo government or may one just passively not participate?
This is a huge question for me right now, because I’m working on a novel in which it is a principal theme. Refusal can be active too – and I think a good deal depends on the quality of our refusals. When Reagan and Thatcher made bankers and swindlers the heroes of our age, we should have refused that narrative immediately. Now there is so much more to refuse, and we are all so very implicated in it. A person tries to invest her money responsibly, then finds out that the ‘green’ investment company she chose is only ‘green’ because it supports wind turbine developments. Maybe she’s okay with this, until she discovers that the turbines are massive, cause huge damage to bird and bat populations and rob the poorest energy consumers to pay huge subsidies to rich landowners and opportunistic developers. And when she asks why this happens, when it could be so easy to do things differently, she realizes that our politicians are as much in hock to ‘green’ energy companies and big landowners as they ever were to coal or oil. So – back to square one.
My own view is that you can’t fix this system by working with it, you have to dismantle it, piece by piece and start anew. People assume that means bloody revolution – which is ironic, considering how bloody capitalism is – but it needn’t be. But if there is violence, we know where it will originate – just look at the killing of Ian Tomlinson for evidence of that.
Who is the best guitar player in the world, in your view?
Alive? Maybe Paco de Lucia. Maybe Vicente Amigo. Of course, guitarists are like poets: death improves them. The list of great dead guitarists is very long, with Duane Allman pretty close to the top of my list, for his work on the 1971 Fillmore East Mountain Jam alone. Too often, such lists are built on mere technique, but surely it’s the spirit of the artist that matters.
John Burnside was talking to Matt Shoard, who asked questions from his copy of The Interrogative Mood: A Novel? by Padgett Powell.