'It was only after having completed writing this book that I fully understood the sensory deprivation and humiliation we had all been subjected to as children.'
Annette: Justin, Tales of the Suburbs is a ﬁctional piece but clearly drawn from a deep well of personal experience and emotions, also an acute, close up and in your face knowledge of the people who inhabit this particular ‘suburb’, revealed with such delicately poignant detail and charged with robust Black Country humour. As an actor I’ve worked with Jack Rooke on the television series Big Boys and been part of Tom Stuart’s play ‘After Edward’ at The Globe Theatre, both men examining and sharing their struggles with and the glories of being gay, (also, for Tom, the effects of Clause 28 on his life) I want to ask why were you compelled to write this series?
Justin: It’s a pretty difficult question to answer. You could ask me simply, why am I compelled to write and I wouldn’t know the answer to that either. It’s just something I know I’ve needed to do from an early age. Writing is an obsession and I write about things that I’ve become obsessed with. Each one of these fictional books have given me closure on real events that have troubled me—Kissing the Lizard: the moment I foolishly followed a narcissist into the New Mexican desert; The Pharmacist: the relationship with a London party-fiend that took years to recover from; and this latest one (but chronologically the first in the series), Tales of the Suburbs: growing up under the white room torture of the pernicious Clause 28. I think it was only after having completed the process of writing this book that I fully understood the sensory deprivation and humiliation we had all been subjected to as children. Whilst the older generation of men who might have helped us were fighting for their lives, literally, LGBT+ children were not being nurtured in ways that would allow them to live their lives authentically: I just thought it was normal to feel a freak, and to feel ashamed. All that trauma is intentionally countered by Black Country humour and a host of characters who are mythologised versions of my own family. It’s funny you should mention Jack Rooke’s Big Boys, because when I watched it, I connected with the characters immediately. Peggy is uncannily like Gloria—the mother figure in Tales—and Nanny Bingo not unlike Gloria’s mother, Phyllis. Your performance was spot on, as always. Obviously, my stories are set a couple of decades earlier, but the family dynamics are very similar.
Was your original intention to write a trilogy?
Not at all. I started writing about these life experiences in the form of short stories. Some of these were published in various anthologies, magazines and online journals. As my collection of episodes grew they became chapters of the book He’s Done Ever So Well for Himself. These current books are an evolution of something previously published—reworked and with new material. It will actually be a quadrilogy when I finish writing the last book.
How long did it take to write? Was it an easy, joyful, water birth or did you need an epidural, forceps and lots of gas and air?
A bit of both. Some sections came quickly and effortlessly—whole passages arriving almost fully formed. Sometimes the story stayed in the breech position—I found myself wrenching out sentences a word at a time. For me, writing is a necessary evil. It’s not always pleasurable.
Did you keep a diary or notebook whilst growing up?
Like Jamie, the boy in the story, I kept scrapbooks; I’ve always been a collector of imagery. There were scribbled notes, magazine cuttings and photographs. These became more and more developed and eventually evolved into mood boards or character portraits.
We ﬁrst meet the narrator, Jamie, as a boy growing up in the West Midlands, during the potent turmoil of the 1980s—did you rely solely on what are clearly vivid memories, or also refer to public records, local newspapers, thumb through old copies of Woman’s Own and the Radio Times, or delve into your family and friends photo albums to help rekindle the atmosphere, the political landscape and to stimulate your imagination?
All of that. My parents have a huge collection of family photos, which my dad has painstakingly digitised. So, I was able to revisit those. YouTube is a mine of inspiration. I went back and looked at old episodes of Tomorrow’s World, Top of the Pops and some haunting speeches from Margaret Thatcher. It all went into the book. However, the experiences that tilled the soil—the parties, the bullying, the falling in love—were so indelibly imprinted in my memory, they were easy to recall.
‘I would give anything I own…I want to dance with somebody… I’ll tell you what I want, what I really, really want’ …..Music is so evocative and transporting—did you revel in the tunes of the time—Boy George, Whitney Houston or The Spice Girls as you wrote? Was any other music or sounds an inspiration? Provocation? Invocation?
Absolutely! Certain songs got played over and over. Especially those by Boy George and Whitney. They were useful, as a writer to help me re-enter the world, as an actor does when ‘getting back’ into character. They are also useful timeline markers for the reader. Instead of clumsily stating, ‘It’s 1988’, I have one of the characters dancing to Whitney Houston’s One Moment in Time, and instantly we know where we are in history.
How did relatives and friends respond to Tales?
When I first started writing them, mother wasn’t happy. She couldn’t see that I was writing with love. She thought I was mocking. Her attitude soon changed once she realised the stories were getting published and Gloria, the character she inspired, was gaining some notoriety. She began coming to me with ideas for stories, in which she was the star attraction. ‘Have you thought about writing about that time your grandad…’ and she would revel in some family grotesquery.
Did you share it with them more or less immediately after placing the ﬁnal full stop on the page of each journey or did it require courage to present these stories?
Sometimes I would get my parents to read them during the writing process; I would use them as sounding boards, deliberately making them complicit in the conception. Later, they couldn’t say they didn’t know what I was doing. Mum and Dad were quite involved in the excavation of these memories. It was sometimes painful to rake over the past but often lots of fun. There were many ‘Do you remember when…’ conversations. And I think they have enjoyed the mythologization of family history as much as I have.
Are you able to share some of their responses?
“Your father and I put you through university, and this is how you repay us—you belittle us, publicly?”
“We’ve always been immensely proud of everything you’ve done!”
“Be careful what you say in front of him! It’ll end up in a book one day.”
“Is it true what they say about that Gentlemen’s Health Spa?”
“Did you really have to make me sound like such a snob?”
Did people recognise themselves, their traits or the traits of others in these ﬁctional characters?
Some people actually want to see themselves in the work. My mother might say, ‘Oh, Gloria, that’s me, that is,’ as if it’s memoir. But it’s not. In one way, Gloria is a version of my own mother on growth-hormone, with two extra shots of caffeine and an extra shot of adrenaline. But in another, she’s archetypal. Annette, I’m sure you’ve met a hundred Glorias. And I know for sure, you’ve played characters like her. Each of my character is an amalgamation of different people. Sandra, for example, was drawn from my own auntie, my uncle’s sister and a few other people. When it comes down to it, this is fiction. It’s not my life story.
If characters are closely allied to a living person did you consider what that person’s feelings might be?
No. I’ve always been of the ‘publish and be damned’ mindset. And I’ve mostly got away with it. Only one person has ever really taken offence to something I’ve written.
Does it matter?
Yes. I think it does. If someone sees too much of themselves in a character that isn’t flattering, it can have dire consequences… crossed off the Christmas card list… the end of a friendship. Though as an artist, and I feel strongly about this, I don’t think you can take that into consideration while in the process of writing. You have to write authentically: if you’re worried about offending people, then the writing isn’t going to be good or true. I guess it was after the writing was finished and before it was published that I did a mental risk assessment, working out how much harm-reduction needed to take place. My editor helped with that. Some characters were made more likeable. And in one case, where it might have appeared that Jamie (the character you could say was closest to myself) had been too critical of his family members, I tried to balance that by giving him some less-appealing characteristics. I guess I felt it was okay to poke fun at others, as long as I could do so of myself.
As well as relishing these characters did you ever seek revenge or retribution in your portraits?
Not really. I’m not someone who seeks revenge. Though, there is a certain satisfaction in telling an untold story—getting it out and being able to say, that’s what happened, that’s what it was like. In the case of the hard times I had at school, seeking revenge would be futile: Margaret Thatcher is at least six-feet under, pushing up daisies. But being able to write Tales of the Suburbs did feel like righting a wrong: Section 28 was a dangerous piece of legislation which—through wilful stupidity—harmed the children it was supposed to protect. You cannot promote a sexual-orientation—something that is naturally innate within each of us. But we haven’t learned. That was thirty-five years ago and, in many ways, it feels like we’re right back there now. The ‘debate’ around trans-people is just about the most toxic thing I have ever witnessed. A different minority is being attacked but I recognise the same monster.
During the process of conjuring this world did you spend time in Wolverhampton, speciﬁcally to research and recall, or would that have been counterproductive in creating your imaginative vision?
I can’t avoid the place. Mum and dad still live there, so I am often up for birthdays and such. I’m marinated in it.
Was this also an exercise in self-examination? Therapy? Cathartic?
I certainly know myself a lot better now. And I feel a lot better for it.
Did anything surprise you: revelations, realisations you didn’t anticipate?
A lot of the writing was fun. However, revisiting some of the unhappy times, even via the safe distance of fiction, re-opened old wounds. Writing one particular section did make me feel quite mentally unwell, and I hadn’t anticipated that. But I do feel that that particular monster has been vanquished now.
Do you have a routine or a ritual when you’re writing?
I’m a (poorly paid, striking) school teacher, publisher, author, photographer and co-parent of Jeanette Winterson the cat. There’s a lot to fit in. There is no time for luxuries like writing rituals. I do not have a room of one’s own; the writing just has to get done. When I’m working on a project, it gets tapped into my phone in the fleeting time between jobs and meetings, whilst I’m on the bus or tube. Eventually, it all gets transferred to my computer and the redrafting and editing process starts. I’m lucky enough to have friends with second-homes dotted about the country, so I get to have writing retreats in Rye, and in Margate. There are no scented candles, special herbal tea, no getting up at the crack of dawn to write as the sun comes up. The writing just gets done, one way or another. Sometimes the muses are with me. Sometimes they are not.
Do you knit?
I can knit. It’s a really lovely thing to do. My nan taught me how to knit, just like Jamie in the book. I don’t knit anymore, but I suspect Jamie still does.
I’m a Brummie, Bab, so relish your particular insight and voice.
Thank you, Annette. I have also relished your voice in all the fabulous characters you’ve inhabited over the years—from the West Midlands, from everywhere. And to answer your questions has been a pleasure.
JUSTIN DAVID is a child of Wolverhampton who has lived and worked in East London for most of his adult life. He graduated from the MA Creative and Life Writing at Goldsmiths, University of London and is a founder member of Leather Lane Writers. His debut novella, The Pharmacist, was described in the Times Literary Supplement as ‘the perfect introduction to a singular voice in gay literature.’ Tales of the Suburbs is the first book in the Welston World Sagas.
He is also a well-known photographer. His images of artists, writers, performers and musicians have appeared on the pages of numerous publications including—The Times, The Guardian, Attitude, Beige, Gay Times, QX and Time Out.
Justin is one half of Inkandescent with Nathan Evans. Their first offering, Threads, featuring Nathan’s poetry and Justin’s photography, was long-listed for the Polari First Book Prize. It was supported using public funding by Arts Council England. In 2021, amidst the Covid-19 pandemic, they published their first collection, MAINSTREAM: An Anthology of Stories from the Edges, championing underrepresented voices.
ANNETTE BADLAND is an award winning actress, nominated for an Olivier for Sadie in The Rise and Fall of Little Voice. On television she is known for her roles in Ted Lasso, Midsomer Murders, Eastenders, Dr Who, Outlander, Bergerac and Cutting It. Recent work includes Big Boys, The Crown and Strike. Theatre includes Sir Peter Hall's Company, RSC, National Theatre, The Globe, Royal Court, Cheek by Jowl and The Almeida also The Royal Exchange, Manchester where she won critical acclaim as Madame Arcarti in Blithe Spirit. Films include: Operation Napoleon, Sisi and I, Last Day of Summer, The Man Who Invented Christmas, Terence Davies', A Quiet Passion, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Twenty Four Seven, Jabberwocky and Little Voice. On radio she plays horrid Hazel in The Archers.
And she was, “I’m a good girl, I am”, Gladys in Agatha Christie’s A Pocket Full of Rye!
Annette's recent roles include Nanny Bingo in Jack Rooke's Big Boys and Fleur Perkins in the 24th series of Midsomer Murders.