The Sharp Edge: Interview with John King

In 1997 John King burst onto the literary scene like a Millwall-lover's spleen under the Doc Martens of passionate Chelseamen with his savage book ‘The Football Factory’. The book illuminated the reality of disillusioned, football-loving Britons bent on reclaiming some of that personal power stripped from them by the government and “trendy lefties.” Since then a lot has happened to the mob as depicted by Mr King. The saga continued in 1998 and 1999 with two follow-ups, ‘Headhunters’ and ‘England Away’ respectively, until 14th of May this year [2004] cinemas across the UK were rocked by one Tom of Chelsea and his henchmen with the rest of the globe to follow. ‘The Football Factory’ now on the silver-screen, Mr King's latest offering, ‘The Prison House’ is a book which explores other dimensions of the human experience albeit in a familiarily hard-hitting manner. I managed to exchange some ideas with the man himself, John King.

Q: One of the things about ‘The Football Factory,’ the book, is its immersiveness. You really feel like 'one of the lads'. What methods of research did you use to achieve that vision for hooligan-life?

A: I didn’t do any research, just wrote the book based on life in general and years of going to see Chelsea. The idea of the “factory” is that football is a microcosm of society, and the characters are everyday people, with the same beliefs as many other men and women living quiet lives. A big part of the novel is showing the hypocrisy of the state, and why football hooliganism has been blown out of all proportion by the media and authorities. It is about a disaffected, unrepresented mass of people, and the likes of Tommy Johnson are the sharp edge. The novel has been compared to The Society Of The Spectacle, which is interesting, as the media’s interest in the subject is very voyeuristic, the imagery manipulated and sensationalised, a sort of madness really.

Q: Seeing the end result, does ‘The Football Factory’ the film follow the blueprint of the book accurately? Both in terms of portraying your intended substance of the main protagonists and the book's political undercurrents.

A: The novel doesn’t have a conventional story line, so that was something that had to be developed by the director. There is an element of the book’s politics in the film, but the novel is more obviously political. It also has the room to include a wider range of characters. I think it is near enough impossible to make an openly political film in Britain that deals with the anger of so many white working people. I am talking about people who are not liberal or trendy left, but anti-EU and patriotic, proud of their culture and sick of being told they are shit by our social controllers in politics and the media. There are plenty of films that show these people as idiots, with no morals, but that is just a narrow, clueless establishment view, whether it is pedalled by those on the so-called Left or Right.

‘The Football Factory’ film is a massive achievement. It was made on a tiny budget, skirted the film business so the PC brigade couldn’t interfere, and is unapologetic and very honest. The characters are funny and likeable and true to life, and this is a miracle for a British film, totally different to anything else. It has soul. I am very pleased with the way things turned out.

The film business itself is a strange world, full of rich kids and inflated egos, self-important people roaming Soho clubs and coffee houses with heavy filofaxes but no ideas or real beliefs. It is supposed to be glamorous, but I don’t see it that way. The money and so-called glamour gets in the way, ruins it for the handful of serious film-makers. Mind you, that is true of the arts in general in Britain. Class and money rule, no doubt about it. ‘The Football Factory’ is all the more of an achievement when you know the hurdles, and understand what could have gone wrong.

Q: How do feel about a book-to-film process in general? Which of the following statements sums it up for you and why:

A. When a book becomes a film some intent of the author is invariably lost
B. When transformed to film, a book often becomes alive for the first time
C. A film is just a reworked extension of the author’s intent and a truly separate work from the book it's based on

A: It is hard to generalise. It depends on the producers, the director, those behind the scenes pulling financial strings, the book itself. In some ways a film is a promo for the book, a condensed version, though it takes a lot of skill to achieve this. There is much more in a novel due its greater length and the limits money puts on a film. An author can digress, while a director has to show much more discipline, fit everything into a set time. Reading a book takes a lot longer than watching a film, and the reader has to use their imagination, whereas on the screen the viewer sits back and has everything provided. There are no real limits on what an author can say, where you can go. It is no coincidence that so many films are based on novels.

Q: How did you feel about the surprise win of Greece at the Euro 2004? How would Tommy Johnson from ‘The Football Factory’ comment?

A: These competitions are pretty sterile these days, both on and off the pitch. Holding World Cups in the USA and Japan was terrible, with the stands full of robots in replica shirts, the football more and more predictable. As for Euro 2004, well, me and Tommy reckon the Greeks were defensive, so in terms of football it would have been better if the Portuguese had won with an attacking display, but really, we don’t care. It was pretty boring once England were knocked out. They should have won the competition. Football has lost a lot of what made in special. It is part of the homogenising of culture. Euro 2004 was a fine advert for the European dictatorship - bland and money motivated. Mind you, it was more democratic.

Q: Your latest novel, ‘The Prison House,’ takes place in a south-European prison, Seven Towers. Most of your previous works, when it comes to the exterior at least, have taken place in a more common setting. Does a more unusual venue give the author easier access to dwelling with his protagonist’s demons AND what inspired you to approach this type of subject and circumstance?

A: The location is vague and never revealed, though countries such as Turkey and Greece have been suggested. Seven Towers represent a prison anywhere in the world, as well as the seven deadly sins. Jimmy Ramone is a drifter and a loner, but there is that same sense of individuality in Joe Martin, the narrator of ‘Human Punk’, and Ruby James in ‘White Trash.’ I have always been as interested in what the characters think as what they say, more so really, and in the position Jimmy finds himself in conversation is not an option.

It is an extreme situation, and this intensifies his thoughts, so imagination becomes even more important, vital to his survival. People are always thinking and dreaming and worrying, but stuck in a foreign prison this is all Jimmy has, and his biggest struggle is to control his mind, fight the negative thoughts and stay sane. By the end of the novel he is forced to confront an event in the past that has haunted his life. I have written books set in London, but have always included people who go their own ways, and have seen something of the world. After my next novel I am thinking of setting another book abroad, this time in America.

White Trash was a defence of the NHS and of ordinary people who are scorned by those in power, and ‘Human Punk’ concerns a strong individual who spends time travelling abroad, so in a way The ‘Prison House’ is a combination of these ideas. It takes a group of people on the edge of society and puts a drifter and loner in there, a foreigner, and sees if the horror stories are true. There are a lot of myths that have been nailed to prison life, and the book deals with the choice between retribution and rehabilitation, notions of birth and innocence. It was a hard book to write.

Q: There is apparently a re-launch of Verbal magazine on the way. Tell us about the artistic direction and possible changes to the core of this project. Are there many?

A: Verbal has never been away, it just gets published every three or four years! I would like to take it on, but it is getting the time. I am currently working on an LP based on ‘The Prison House,’ and also a new novel, so I don’t know when the next issue will be published. I need to make it a regular publication, but like I said, it is just having the time.

Q: Have you any particular favourites among recent British works of fiction?

A: The recent novel by Alan Sillitoe stands out for me. Called ‘A Man Of His Time,’ it is the best novel of Sillitoe’s that I have read, and I really like his work. He is the top man in English literature as far as I am concerned. He is prolific, imaginative, and a fine writer, still improving in his mid-70s. He has a great enthusiasm for novels and this is obvious in his work. There is so much cynicism around, and so much bland rubbish published, that he is a shining example of what literature should be, what younger writers should try to achieve. I have got to know him quite well and with Martin Knight started up the Flag Club four or five years back. Other current British authors I really like include Laura Hird, Stewart Home, Martin Knight, Pete McKenna, Ben Richards, Alan Warner and Irvine Welsh.


This interview was first published on Laura Hird's website in 2004.

It has been cited in ATLANTIS. Journal of the Spanish Association of Anglo-American Studies. 34.2 (December 2012) and BrexLit: British Literature and the European Project (Shaw & Shaw, 2021).

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