Author Q&A:
Howard Cunnell

The Painter’s Friend

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After a missed chance of success painter Terry Godden retreats to a small island with no money and finds himself in a ragtag community of outsiders. When the island’s owner, businessman and art collector Alex Kaplan, decides to enforce a rent increase the community that can’t afford to lose the little they have left is threatened. Terry seeks to make the invisible struggles of the island visible to the world, but will his interference save anybody other than himself?

Is The Painter’s Friend inspired by any particular real-life artist?
When I thought about the pictures Terry makes – what they look like – I had a bunch of different painters in mind, but especially Edward Burra, Jock McFadyen, Frank Bowling and William Blake. Also Agnes Martin. The presiding angels of the book are two writers, the great labouring-class 19th century poet John Clare, and the Anglo-Irish writer John Healy, author of the classic memoir The Grass Arena – two writers among many who found out the hard way that working -class artists are only ever allowed conditional access to the art world, at best. John’s very much alive, I should say, and writing all the time.

Terry’s actions – what he does with the paintings – are inspired by the photographer and film-maker Mark Aitken. Mark documented the residents of Cressingham Gardens, a south London housing estate threatened with demolition. The people there have been fighting eviction since 2012. Mark’s decision to place his large prints on the estate’s exterior walls made visible people who are kept invisible and told they are worthless. Terry’s pictures, like Mark’s, similarly resist the process of erasure. As Mark says, they state that we exist.

The traditional art world is notoriously elite but most artists face financial struggle. What did you want to explore about art and class?
Clearly whether an artist struggles financially or not depends on whether they have any money in the first place. You’re better able to spend years working on a novel, say, if you have a private income, a family to support you, access to books and materials. It’s a fixed game, to a great degree. The dice are loaded.

So I’m exploring aspects of that reality. As BS Johnson wrote in Trawl, a novel published the year I was born: “The class war is being fought as viciously and destructively of human spirit as it ever has been in England. I was born on my side, and I cannot and will not desert.”

But firstly and most importantly the book is a piece of art. I’ve tried to write a good novel. That means trying to forget about the ideas and concentrate on the people. In other words thinking about BS Johnson, or John Clare and John Healy, helped me see Terry: how little he has, and how much of that little he’s prepared to give up to be able to make the pictures that sustain him. When I think about making art in precarity I see John Clare, escaped from the private lunatic asylum near Epping Forest where he has been confined for four years, and tramping home. This is 1841, long after his short, conditional period of poetic fame. Clare walks nearly a hundred miles. He is penniless, cold and hungry – he eats grass. When he rests, he writes in his notebook. The image of Clare walking – and always taking note of the world around him – gave me the opening image of Terry, with his own history of confinement and homelessness, walking to the island.

As an artist, Terry believes making the invisible struggles of the island visible to the world will help. In these unjust times is he misguided in believing art has the power to affect change?
Terry’s no fool and has no illusions but he’s got no choice, so whether he’s misguided or not isn’t really the point. Terry’s part of what’s happening. He doesn’t have the luxury of choosing whether he’s involved or not. So he uses what he can to help, but he’s always alive to the probability of failure. In many ways Terry and the islanders embody Antonio Gramsci’s idea: pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.

What is the human cost of gentrification?
Gentrification is just the latest expression of the idea that some people’s lives are worth more than others because they have more money. People are being removed from their homes and communities so that other people with more money can move in. It’s a process inseparable from class politics or from the histories of colonialism and imperialism. In this country gentrification is part of an economic, political, cultural and psychological war on working class people that’s being going on for a lot longer than I’ve been alive – a process that dramatically intensified after Thatcher’s election in 1979.

What you hear when the developers and gentrifiers move in to another working-class neighbourhood is that “there was nothing here before”. This is an erasure that allowed European colonisers to “discover” places where people had lived for thousands of years. It’s always a con. As the great Burning Spear sang: “Christopher Columbus is a damn blasted liar.” The human cost is the world we all live in. What I’ve tried to do in The Painter’s Friend is tell stories that show the cost to a handful of people.

How does the style and form of the book reflect the visual art aspect of the narrative?
Terry makes sense of the world through images that are sometimes memories, sometimes imagined and sometimes made from what’s in front of his face – often all of those things at once. So the style and form of the book hopefully reflect that idea and also show my kinship with a tradition of image-led fiction. No ideas but in things, as the saying goes. I always have in mind a description – by Eudora Welty, I think – of the work of Ross Macdonald as an “unending sequence of dazzling images”. That’s the kind of thing I’m aiming for.

Are there common themes in your work?
The idea, the thing that gets you out of bed and sustains you through a writing process that takes years, is always different. But I’d be lying if I said there weren’t common themes or obsessions in the books: light, water, class, art, fatherless boys and men. My last book, Fathers and Sons, was written from love, and for love. I’ve seen The Painter’s Friend called an angry book – and I guess there’s some truth in that – but I began writing it in the first winter after my mother died, so for me the book is written from and is about grief and loss.

Being what’s called an outsider, I’ve written about people and been interested in stories from “outside”. Though I don’t like the term “outsider fiction”. Outside of what inside?
The thing that never changes is the hope that you’ll do it better this time. You’re always working on your line.

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