The Myth Of Brilliant Summers is Austin Collings' debut collection of harrowing short stories set in the tragic end of town
You've met the people in The Myth Of Brilliant Summers before. Collings even acknowledges in a very concise foreword that "all the characters and places herein were once real". You've met Tommy, the older man who hangs around with girls slightly too young. You've met Jon, the estranged friend whose frayed nerves shock you during a reunion, or Pete's dad, the Skol-drinking couch potato, a constant presence in a golden summer.
Collings paints vivid, personal pictures that live with the reader. While rooted in the grim reality of the North of England's flatland suburbia, there are moments of fantasy that do not feel out of place, nor unwelcome. In the same way that Raymond Carver may make a quick dash to a supernatural realm, before returning to a terrifying, hundred-miles-an-hour stillness, Collings plays with the suffocating normality of real life in the same fashion.
We talk to the author, who also once took on the unenviable task of being Mark E Smith's biographer, about heaven on Earth, the peculiarity of the North and what he would be doing were he not a writer. He was also kind enough to allow us to feature two extracts from The Myth Of Brilliant Summers, on Pariah Press, new publishing house launched by Jamie Lee, of Manchester band MONEY.
How much of The Myth Of Brilliant Summers is inspired by your own life? While a lot of the book feels otherworldly it also feels indebted to experience.
Austin Collings: It’s not about nostalgia, but a kind of dying, an exorcism of feelings and dear dead days. I don’t see the stories as being about reality but as being reality itself.
Do you think there’s a specific sadness to the North of England, unlike any other atmosphere in the world?
Austin Collings: "Tragic humour is a birthright of the north" – Wyndham Lewis. There’s a mysticism, madness and delicacy that’s peculiar to the places I grew up in and now am back living in. My 16 year old niece – Hope – voiced this complex mess of feelings very well recently. Talking about the end of her 6-week holidays, and sounding like a modern version of Holly (Sissy Spacek) in Badlands or Philip Larkin via Grimes, she said:“I’d run out of summer.”
What is fascinating about the North? Why set a book there?
Austin Collings: Hope, memory, sensuality, involvement, tension and melancholy. There’s a certain perfection of rage practiced there as well that reminds me of a (tinned) spaghetti western.
Can you remember the time that you felt most in love with your surroundings and your home? Specific to the day, preferably the hour or the minute.
Austin Collings: I’m not in love with where I come from or where I end up. I don’t have the financial security for that. I get homesick for places I’ve never been. But I can recall many vivid memories that give me enormous pleasure, for instance: October 1992, Monday 12.37am. Our old house in Radcliffe. My mum let me stay off school again. I was 12. I re-watched Goodfellas on video by myself.
If you weren’t writing The Myth… and you weren’t a writer at all, what would you have been doing?
Austin Collings: Adrift in the open prison of modern life listening to the daily drip drip of dissapointment, inevitably deteriorating by the second in an office – in yet another room of dead years, picking through the rubble of days, seeing the world from a graves-eye-view and thinking of drink and escape and possibly contemplating theft and/or murder.
We have a general election coming up - what is wrong with our country and what is right?
Austin Collings: The wrongs are obvious. The world currently has the feeling of an impulsive email sent by mistake. There’s no going back. I am not optimistic about the human race. But the one thing they may have been right about at school was that I can’t tell the difference between right and wrong. However, one right I’m certain of is the power of my mates and one in particular Ben Ward – The Grey Man - who runs a record label called SWAYS in Manchester. He gifted me £200 a few months ago in an act of pure drunken kindness. I’ll never forget that. He has an ear for new music that is special. He’s an underfed Simon Cowell with a day job in Denton.
Where is heaven on Earth?
Austin Collings: The Railway and Naturalist Pub, 464 Bury New Road, Prestwich. Inside, it’s intensely bright with a supermarket glow, just like heaven. God is called Reg (the landlord), he’s 6 foot-odd and a Blackburn fan who wears Hawaiian shirts all year round.
Lie down and listen to the sound of children screaming at dinnertime. Soon the bell will ring, and their small bodies will be filed in an orderly fashion. Led back into place. The quiet classroom bright with sun. This brief lull of silence will be routinely interrupted with the sound of a dog in anguish. Desperate for somebody to let it back in. The distress rising in its voice as time nears 3, or 4, or 5. The innocent hours. Meanwhile, planes dot the sky and fly on obliviously, nosing through thin chalk-like cloud marks: creating a unique wind noise. I picture a giant, breathing out. The big king of everything. And maybe the occasional siren will sound too. My ears are tuned to all of these changes. The comings and goings. Barricaded within brick, little surprises me. I have lost a lot. I don’t mind. There’s always more.
Mystery of the Half Nelson
We’d call each other names as we walked the summer streets, feigning purpose, on the lookout for incident, or action. The names became a bad habit that we each shared. A common tic. We couldn’t free ourselves from conflict. Our lashing out derived from powerlessness; they say that’s the case, the more powerless one feels, the more one is likely to lash out.
A galaxy of spots warred with one of our faces: enflamed it, like a day-old pizza. Caramel-coloured teeth affected another. Somebody’s pants fell short, revealing a shock of white sock. We called this cats-died. One of the more unfortunate amongst us had a long, hook-shaped, distinctively disproportionate medieval nose, and flat tarmac-like hair that gleamed with grease. We were not blessed. All of our features seemed to continuously – and relentlessly - let us down.
Dictated by confusion, permanently low on spends, we couldn’t fathom the advantages of staying in or going out. Creeping inertia tingled in our scalps like black electric wired beneath our ungovernable skin. Once out, on the streets, thoughts shifted quickly to being back in, off the streets. Undecided, adrift in uncertainty, we became highly-strung.
There seemed to be no release, no real answers. The course was set. The road, part-travelled. Tight-lipped, we each shared the doom, like sullied prisoners entwined into a secret code.
Then when the nights began to draw in, we’d knock on strangers’ doors and leg it, run off and hide behind clapped-out garages, or inside ginnels, not saying a word, tense smiles stitched excitedly across our small faces, full of thrill and the curiously warped joy of wrongdoing.
The door rush soon died off, never to be mentioned again: one more unspoken part of our fractured friendship. And days passed into days with dreadful certainty, as if they were on repeat; but we were not old enough to change the channel.
Repeating ourselves, today a deja vu of yesterday, we went back to see what we’d already seen before, to walk the same summer streets again. Never giving up. Doing our best to make it better, to alter the course. Up and down concrete hills, beneath mute trees, past crackling traffic and unpeopled bus stops and glowing chippies, our shady reflections in parked car windows, moving from one to the next...On and on, the days bled into one another, like a pile of undiscovered dead soldiers.
We had no time at all, but it seemed like we had forever, following girls, plucking up the courage...But the courage appeared to do us little good. You can’t live on hope and wishes. So we continued to demean each other with names. Pick holes. Gradually, it became an addiction. We knew no different. And always, we made our way home separately, alone, through the deserts of certain suburbs.