INTERVIEW: Brian Catling

22 min read


Luke: I finished the Vorrh trilogy earlier this year and absolutely loved it. Thank you for that. Tell me, why cyclopses?

Brian: It is the only mythical creature, it is the only humanoid presence that has only one feature changed. So it has one eye instead of two, but it turns instantly into a monster for no apparent reason.

Also, I saw one. I saw a really interesting one in the Hunterian Museum of the Royal Collage of Surgeons. It was a newly delivered baby in a glass tank. It had red hair and one eye with two pupils. It didn’t have that distancing that most specimens have. It had a brightness about it and suddenly I had idea of it becoming a reality of sitting and talking to a cyclops. So it kind of went into the memory bank and I wondered if I could do something with it: something performative or a visual thing. The the question was if you have one eye, what difference does it make? The obvious difference is that there is only one channel to the brain. The brain isn’t divided like it is in most humans.

Luke: And that comes up in the book with the Cyclops Ishmael. He starts off being able to see things more clearly, but towards the end he becomes something more monstrous.

Brian: Absolutely. I think it is kind of a fascistic turn. If you don’t have a division, a separation, you can’t question. One half of the brain doesn’t ask questions of the other half, they just agree.

Luke: Your world of the Vorrh it is not just cyclopses, it is full of creations demons, angles, magic and other monstrous creatures with one eye. Can you talk me through the world building process? Was there a world building process?

Brian: No. I sat down and wrote it. I had the opening scene in my head for something like ten years. I had only written poetry before so I didn’t think prose was something I could do. I kept trying but I only got to page three, then I threw it away. Then circumstances changed. I was on a plane to Australia on my way to an art residency. Somebody gave me a book to read on the plane by a fairly well known author. After about a third of it, I though, “This is fucking awful. I can do better.” Then another part of me said, “Well prove it, this is just pub talk.” So I started to write and it all came out. There was no world building. There was no structure, it just came out.

Luke: Because I know that some writers like to create other worlds. Their main joy is almost building their world, then playing around in it.

Brian: No I don’t do that. I also don’t remember it. My memory has become almost entirely fixed in forward motion. Which I think when the memory works forward it is called imagination. I can’t remember bits of the Vorrh because I’m writing something else and those things just go back.

Luke: And that is a pretty Vorrh-like thing, because if you spend too much time in the Vorrh, you end up losing yourself.

 Brian: There are lots of things in there which -channeled is such a wrong word- I was unaware of what I was doing. Of course I went back and edited, corrected it and made it more purposeful and clear, but the drive was the characters. Often when I write, I’m talking to myself. So I’m writing it and saying to myself, “He didn’t, he didn’t.” It is kind of a live experience. It is more like a performance than like making sculpture.

Luke: There is a bunch of things I want to ask about based on what you’ve just said. Let’s start with that opening scene. I write stories myself and I intuitively knew that that scene is where the process began for you because it is such an incredible opening sequence. A few years ago I interviewed a Turkish writer called Burhan Sönmez, he told me that he spends a huge amount of his time on the first page of his books and it is the hardest part to get out. Was it the same process for you?

Brian: No, not at all. It was kind of the opposite. I had the first words of that opening scene in there for a long time. As soon as I started it was like a big plug had come. It was all backed up, years of it.

Luke: You talk about this book that was so bad that it inspired you to get writing. What was it?

Brian: Oh no, that would be too awful to say. Apart from that I can’t remember the title. It was a fictional work about anatomy. It was just really terrible.

Luke: Fair enough. Did you write the trilogy in one go or was it just the Vorrh to start with?

Brian: I wrote the Vorrh, I remember finishing it and thinking, “My god I’ve done it, I’ve actually done it. Thats’s incredible.” I walked away from the table and went, “Uh-oh, no you haven’t. There is more.” So I went back and started on the second one. Ian Sinclair had been trying for years to try to make me write a novel so when I started this, I would wake up at dawn and do two hours a day. I suddenly realised I didn’t know how many words I had done. So I did a word count and worked out how many pages that was and realised I had no idea how many pages that was. So I went to my bookshelf, to some of my favourites and realised I’d gone past them. I was only a third in. I said, “I don’t know what this is, but I can’t stop and think about it.” There was only one thing to do and that was to carry on. I had two friends. One of them was Ian Sinclair who I sent drafts to and I asked, “Is this ok because I’m not quite sure what is going on here?” and he came back and said, “Just keep going.”

So that is why there are more books after the Vorrh; a lot more books. They are gradually coming out.

Luke: It is interesting to me that you came to writing in later life. I kind of feel that with a book like the Vorrh you draw on so many different parts of life that it is almost a condensation of lots of experiences you have had, of things you’ve seen and ideas that you’ve had floating around that finally found their medium.

Brian: I think that is true. Also dealing with imagination and other people has always been good for me. Being a teacher always kept me sane. If I was in the studio or writing every day, I probably wouldn’t have got this far. So I was kind of being held back and I think seeing a lot of other people’s imaginations gives you a kind of spectrum. I never take anything or give anything to them. It is all about encouraging other people, so I become a reflective surface in which you can store things.

Luke: Was there a selection process when deciding which real figures from history like Blake or Roussel that you wanted to add in?

Brian: Roussel was there from the beginning. Muybridge was originally a walk on cameo on part. I’d always been fascinated by his photographs and thought they had a sense of melancholy and dread that had nothing to do with their subject. There were other contemporary photographers of Muybridge called who made photographs of moving figures that are full of light, joy and poetry.

I realised that something in Muybridge’s photos was wrong, so I did a bit of research on him. Originally in the book, he walks in takes a photograph of the gun shooting the horse.

It was Sinclair again. I spoke to him. I said, “Muybridge is in the book now.” He said, did you know that he met William Gull?” I said, “You’ve got to be kidding me.” So I had him introduced to William Gull who was Queen Victoria’s surgeon. Ian wrote a book called White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings where he makes Gull Jack the Ripper. Alan Moore took Ian’s book and wrote From Hell. 

Luke: A legendary graphic novel.

Brian: Well we must talk about him as well, because he’s been brilliant.

Luke: I wasn’t going to ask about Alan Moore to avoid asking fanboy questions like, “What’s Allan Moore like?

Brian: Happily, we can talk about him later. Let me get past this bit first. How did Muybridge meet Gull? Muybridge was in a coach accident and hurt his head. Everybody else died. It’s in the book and it really happened. He went to London, but Gull was an abdomen and kidney expert, nothing to do with the brain. He wasn’t even interested. Why did he go to him? No one knows. When you track it down in the biographies and everything else there are two sentences. But I could see them in a room because I knew enough about both people at this time. I could see them in a room talking. So all I had to do was sit down and listen to what they were saying. For me it’s like seeing a film. I’m watching a film and writing it down. I don’t think a lot of authors work that way. Maybe it is because I started on poetry.

Luke: Again. I’ve got a lot of things I want to ask about there. We’ll get to poetry later I think, but first what I want to do is zoom in on how you connected the Vorrh with these characters. That is what I don’t quite understand.

Brian: Muybridge came in that way round because I was always interested in something wrong about him. I did the research and he walked into the story. I didn’t know half way through how he was going to fit because he had done his bit. Then it started to come together. Blake was late. He was very late indeed. I resisted him being in there because he gets around a bit. I think Blake is extremely interesting, but only interesting through the work. Everyone wants to imagine him as some sort of hippy oddity. We are never going to know, but it is all in the work.

The other thing about Blake is that he was a workman and grafter. He made awful prints of other people most of the time with a horrible process. He has a very small part in a way. Eugène Marais I knew before. I had written a poetry section about Eugène in Africa. When Africa became the whole thing, he just walked in.

Luke: Yeh, he fits in much more intuitively doesn’t he.

Brian: But Sarah Winchester I knew nothing about her until I started to do the research it came through Muybridge. Again, it was untouched material. People say to me is there a problem bringing real people into such a fantasy world? I say first of all, “I don’t think it is fantasy.” But if I had to write a life of Muybridge, it would be more extraordinary than most of the fictional characters you’ve ever come across.

Luke: What other real world influences informed the Vorrh?

Brian: I went to an exhibition of cargo cults and I read a lot about cargo cultism. That informed a hell of a lot. I also spent a lot of time in the Pitt Rivers Museum.

Luke: Could you just explain for people who don’t know what the Pitt Rivers museum is?

Brian: Yeh. The Pitt Rivers is a museum of ethnology and anthropology, but it started as a collection that was collected under the power of the English army from all over the world. It was all brought back, masses and masses of stuff was stolen or paid for then brought back. Then they decided to turn it into a museum. So it is a storehouse of the subconscious and the conscious human mind. The most important thing is that it is all made by the hand. So it is a museum of a museum. It is a museum of imagination and the mysterious. It is a great place for the imagination.

Luke: I was actually thinking about Pitt Rivers when I was reading your books. I’m really quite pleased to see that they are linked together. I think what is different about Pitt Rivers is that things are categorised in the way they would have been before modern museums. They are categorised by what they are and not where or when they are from. So you have all the spears together, one from Alaska and another from Subsaharan Africa next to each other. Then you have shrunken heads from different places next to each other. If somebody is going to Oxford, I always tell them to check it out because it doesn’t get to the top of the list very often.

Brian: It is the best thing here.

Luke: I probably agree with that.

When you use colonial Africa, it is some of the darkest moments in human history. I’m thinking of, for example, King Leopold in the Kongo. How did you go about showing the European savagery of the expansion into Africa?

Brian: Well I read some things about it, then I though how would it have been. You only have to look at the story of colonisation anywhere and it is the same story. I know, for example, a lot about the Danish colonisation of Greenland. It is the same story and it is always savage. It is also in all humans, it is in me. I’m not standing outside of this in some pulpit seeing it from afar. I’m saying, “Ok, I could have done this, in the right circumstances with a different way of thinking or being brought up.” And that is why people also say that there are not many moral characters in my work. They are not moral, they are human, they go both ways. I don’t have heroes and baddies, although there are many that are more bad than heroic.

Luke: Even the characters that are sort of good, I’m thinking of Cyrena Lohr, try to be good people, but as colonial overlords they are stuck in this profoundly immoral system. They have failed before they even begin really.

Brian: Yeh. Also when you look at the history, that cast of people never questioned it. They never questioned their position in it because it was the way it was. Only the very odd ones said, “this is entirely incorrect and wrong.” They were generally shouted down by the majority. If you were actually in it, actually in Africa, that’s what you did in any colonist state, you went by the rule. If you try to cross the line, everyone is in danger.

Luke: I’d like to talk about sculpture because in the Vorrh there are all sorts of ritual objects and machines that are mixes of flesh and metal, you’ve got bakelite robots that sort of thing. I’m not an expert on your sculpture, but a lot of your work that I’ve seen has that quality of mixing various materials together.

Brian: Yeh. It is also in Impressions of Africa where the word Vorrh comes from. Raymond Roussel’s book. The part that a lot of people find most interesting was a sequence of machines and mechanisms and tableaus where people were attached to them. So that was always part of the drive.

Luke: Have you ever been tempted to try and build any of the creations from The Vorrh? Or was it not necessary because you have them in the book.

Brian: No, it is not necessary and it is even better than that because, oh my god, I’ve been trying to make this stuff for years and it works just as well on the page as it does in the gallery. I suddenly realised that I had the advantage of not being edited or controlled by basic things like gravity and physics. I started to write fiction when I was sixty-one. It would be interesting to see what it would have been like to write at twenty-one. I don’t think it would have been anything like as interesting.

Luke: I wonder about that, about how people who come to writing later in life are different to people who’ve been scribbling away for their entire lives and can’t help it. How latecomers to writing differ from people who’ve been immersed in narrative and structure and attended writing course. I don’t think one is better or worse.

Brian: No, I don’t think it is about that. It is just a different way. There is a parallel when I went to art school in that generation in the 60s. Basically I was taught by older people who were all abstract expressionists. And they didn’t like narrative in any form. We were very discouraged from having any kind of narrative. It was kind of an infantile thing to do. It was kind of suppressed a little. I always did it, but I did it in another way. I think when I gave myself permission there was a volume of stuff to come out. There was a pressure.

Luke: I’d like to talk about your prose which are fantastic.

Brian: Thank you.

Luke: They are brutal, they are disgusting, they are beautiful and I think they are evocative. You describe things in a way that is really rare. It is great to read. Talk to me about how you construct your prose.  I know you are a poet and I’m sure that has fed into your style, but how do you construct your prose? Do you have rules or a style guide?

Brian: No, I mean I don’t know. The easy answer is that I have no idea how to answer that question because I never did any writing courses. I was always a visual artist because I had dyslexia and all of those things. I always loved books, but it takes me along time to read and my handwriting was illegible. At school I was sent to woodwork classes because I couldn’t go anywhere else, which was fine because I was using my hands.

I know how to edit a text I know how to change it, but I don’t know in a conscious way how I’m writing. So I hear writers talk on the radio and I don’t think I’m on the same planet.

Luke: You raised dyslexia and let’s talk about that because I’m dyslexic myself. I was quite lucky compared to your generation because I was caught relatively early. I got help at school and had some really good special needs teachers. But it still took me a long time to build up enough confidence to think, “I actually can sit down and write a story or an article.” I don’t like to dwell on the negative side of dyslexia.

Brian: No no no.

Luke: It has a lot of advantages for a writer as well. I have a great long term memory and I find I’m quite good at pulling different ideas together. What do you think about it?

Brian: It is an interesting one. The D-word was put onto a pointed cone hat and put on your head as a dunce. First of all, my school was also good, they had some odd people who realised that something peculiar was going on. I was told I was dyslexic and I also had a problem with numbers. I realised that problem was not so dissimilar to writing. I was a slow reader, but my stutter was attached to writing. I know how that happened. It happened at junior school. The teacher who was teaching English insisted that I wrote with my right hand. I was left handed. It was not done with a stick. It wasn’t done brutally. It was just, “do it this way.” And that is when the stutter began.

Luke: Talk to me about the human body. I wonder again if this is tied into your work in sculpture because you have done a lot of portraits and sculptures and modifications to your own body in performance pieces. Through the Vorrh the body keeps coming back how it can be broken, fixed damaged and modified. Talk to me about the body as a theme in your book.

Brian: Let me say first of all that I’ve worked at the Ruskin School of Art at Oxford University for the last twenty-seven years. We are the last school in Europe to take our students to a dissecting room to draw. Not necessarily as a support for making figurative work, but as a phenomenon, not many people see the dead human body outside of trauma and this is a condition where you do. You see the human body taken apart. I’ve always been interested in the structure of the body, the mythology of it, also the strange history of anatomical art. I loved Frankenstein films when I was a kid. The body as a vehicle, as a vessel, as a machine, as a piece of furnishing for the soul has always been there. It is a constant theme.

Luke: The other theme that strikes me throughout the Vorrh is the use of abrahamic religion. I know you said earlier that you don’t consider the Vorrh as fantasy. I think I disagree with that. I think that fantasy is a huge umbrella under which lots of things can live.

Brian: Perhaps it is better to say that it didn’t start as fantasy. If I had ambitions for it, it was to be a surrealist book.

Luke: I would roll some surrealism in with fantasy and a whole load of other things like Milton, Shakespeare and you could even argue the Bible is fantasy if you want to.

Brian: We could talk about that and Allan Moore.

Luke: I think in fantasy there are two uses of Christianity, Judaism and Islam. The first is as allegory and I’m thinking of something like the Narnia books. Also you you get a situation where the writer just uses the figures of religion, a character like the devil or angels as characters in their fantasy; like in Sandman. You do something completely different in the Vorrh. You take the myths of creation and rewrite them. Tell me a little about that.

Brian: For many many years Africa was considered the cradle of mankind. It is beginning to become clear that that isn’t totally true, but all things started there. It came from an experience in Japan of all places. I was with a friend. He took me up into the forest. As we were walking through the trees, we passed an area fenced off with a white picket fence round it. There was no gate. I asked him, “What’s this then?”

He said, “This is where god walks when he comes to earth to think about human beings.”

I looked at him and said, “Are you serious?”

He said, “Yes. It is here”

It was like another version of the Garden of Eden, one I’d never heard of and there it was a physical manifestation. Some part of that transposed itself again because it was physical, it was performative, it was a piece of land with a fence round it.

When have an image like that and when I start to write, it suddenly becomes alive and all of those things flow together with a bit from here and a bit from there. That is equally true of the Jewish gangster world of the East End as it is about the Bible. I’m not doing consciously to use it as a comparison or a device. I don’t use those devices. I do it because I can see it and feel it.

Luke: We mentioned Alan Moore and I can’t resist talking about him. How did you come to meet him? I guess you don’t live that far away from each other.

Brian: I met him in London. We did a couple of readings together. The important one was one we did with Michael Moorcock, Ian Sinclair, Alan and myself.

Luke: Ouf really, that’s ridiculous.

Brian: It was in Bishopsgate. Alan said to me, “What are you doing these days, more poetry?”

I said, “I’ve actually just finished a novel.”

“Oh, I’d love to have a look at it” he said.

So I sent it, the spelling and stuff was unbelievably bad. I send him that.  He got back to me and said, “This is wonderful, wonderful.” Someone gave him a radio interview and asked him what he had been reading and he raved about the Vorrh. Then my telephone began to ring because he had said it.

Luke: People listen when he speaks.

Brian: And that introduction he wrote for the Vorrh is one thing but he has done another one for The Erstwhile, which is even better. It’s not in the book, but he published it in a little magazine in Northampton.

Luke: Of course he did.

Brian: He is a wonderful, generous, extraordinary man. His memory is encyclopaedic. He can pull things from all over the place. We have done things together since. It is always a pleasure. He’s a good man, but he scares the life out of people, which is really great.

Luke: He does that, “I can see into your soul” look pretty well.

Brian: Yes.

Luke: He never looks particularly impressed by what he sees there.

So you have a new book out Earwig. It hasn’t made it to the bookshops in Istanbul yet.

Brian: As we talk, well it’s not being filmed now it’s being postponed. It is being made into a film by the wonderful Lucile Hadžihalilović who made a film called Evolution. It is Evolution 2015. There is a comedy called Evolution which is crap, but she made this amazing film. She is doing Earwig.

Luke: Do you you want to tell me a bit about it?

Brian: Yeh. Earwig is set in Liège in Belgium between the wars. It is the story of a rather unpleasant middle aged man who has to look after an adolescent girl. There are no improprieties as such, but his main job is to change her teeth every day. She has tubes coming out of her mouth which collect her saliva which he puts into molds in the fridge to make more teeth. She has frozen saliva teeth which only last for an hour in her mouth. This happens all through the day except when they are eating and at night. They live in close situation in an apartment, then the people who employ him say he has to take her to Paris. In between, he meets the devil in a bar who plays very nasty tricks on him.

Luke: That is similar to a lot of characters from the Vorrh who are fulfilling a task that they don’t fully understand.

Brian: I think we all are.

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