Nige and I are sitting in the possibly unwisely named The Optimist, a little back-street pub, all wooden furniture and floors, shiny pumps, no TV, friendly if not particularly well-trained bar staff.
Perhaps because he’s in a chair for once, having sat on a nail earlier today, Nige grimaces and says, “I hate all this, you know.”
We don’t often come to The Optimist, it being a ten minute walk from our street, but this statement surprises me. “I thought you liked quiet pubs with bar staff who don’t wish you a nice day?”
“I don’t mean the pub per se,” he says. “I mean the phoney evil system that controls it.”
“But the beer’s real, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, but every pint the landlord pulls here is instantly recorded at the brewery. Which is bad enough but he also has to buy all his booze from them at inflated prices. And he just gets a wage; no incentive to make the place pay its way.”
“But surely the brewery wants it to pay for itself; otherwise, what’s the point in owning it in the first place?”
He takes a long swallow of his beer, frowning. “Sometimes, Tel, I wonder what you did with your college education. Look, the way it works with pubs now – and just about every other bleedin’ once great British institution – is that the government’s encouraged market forces to rule. And what that means is a place like this gets sucked dry of any profit by the brewery, with the staff treated like shit and the locals just an inconvenience; then, when it stops being profitable, they just sell it off for a big fat fee and it’s turned into more housing.”
I think about arguing with him but actually I know what he means. “I was reading SFX the other day,” I say, “and the section on what’s coming was very depressing. Spider-Man 3 or should that be 6; Wolverine 29; Terminator 5; re-boot this and re-launch that . . . all costing millions and, I guess, making millions, too. Nothing new; no one taking any chances.”
“Market forces again,” says Nige. “Which is fine for delivering you the cheapest toothpaste, but when it comes to art, I don’t want Tesco telling me what I like.”
“But people do like all those super-hero movies and never-ending fantasy novels.”
“They think they do,” he says, “because the corporate world tells them they do. Oh, what am I saying – yeah, I suppose people really do like Harry-bleedin’-Potter. And it wouldn’t matter that they do so much if those books weren’t shoving all the interesting stuff into oblivion.
“It’s the crap perpetuation syndrome. And by crap I mean stuff that it doesn’t take any brain power to access.”
“Have you actually read any Harry Potter?”
“Have I?” He shakes his head sadly. “My ex-wife was a fan. Made me read the first one, which I handed back with an expressive grunt or two, and later gave me the fourth because she reckoned it was more adult. Give me strength . . . I told her to read the first page of ‘Catcher in the Rye’ since that contains more character depth and good writing than what you’d get if you put the whole of the Harry Potter series through a style mangle.”
I finish my beer and stand. Nige nods, hands me his empty glass. While I’m getting two more at the bar, I think about what he’s said. I know what the counter-arguments would be: that popular series like Harry Potter help to get kids reading, then they’ll move on to more challenging stuff. But I’ve always been sceptical about that line of reasoning. Surely, if a kid wants more challenging stuff, he’ll just go directly to it? Why would he need to be led there in various stages of easy-reading?
When I return I say, “A friend of mine makes TV programmes for the BBC. He said he’s always meeting people there with degrees who tell him they make programmes for stupid people.”
Nige snorts. “Yeah, well, that doesn’t surprise me. The BBC disappeared up its government remit decades ago. It chases ratings like Benny Hill used to chase fanny. But it ain’t supposed to need ratings because we pay it to produce programmes anyway. How nuts is that?”
“So, what exactly is the problem with all this?” I say.
He swallows about a half of his pint, then leans back. “Just that using market forces where art’s concerned means that crap rules; worse still, it’s exponential crap: the more crap you feed people and the cheaper you sell it, while at the same time making sure the good stuff doesn’t stand a chance, the more they get used to crap with everything; therefore, they convince themselves it’s not actually crap and buy even more of it; meanwhile, the perpetrators of said crap also convince themselves that they’re producing what the people want; which they are, the problem being the people have been brain-washed into wanting crap.”
“So, what are you going to do about it?”
He laughs. “I’m not the bleedin’ writer, Tel. You are. What are you going to do about it?”
I think about the many writers who, subconsciously or otherwise, find it hard not to chase readers one way or another; or who study what works in the market, compress it down into snappy guidance points which they then follow religiously. And I think about the few who go their own way but who often seem to avoid putting anything out there at all. Is the answer somewhere between the two? No, probably not; because that’s just another kind of compromise.
“Nothing,” I say. “I’m just going to carry on writing what I want to write; the kind of stuff I like to read. Anything else feels dishonest.”
He finishes his pint in one more swallow; stands, ready to buy two more. “Same again?” he says.
I smile. “What do you think?”