Paul Sutton was born in London, 1964. He worked in industry then taught English in a secondary school, before recently retiring. His collection Jack the Stripper (The Knives, Forks and Spoons Press, 2021) was a Poetry Book Society Recommended Reading, as was his 2015 collection Falling Off. He recently had the e-book Presents from My Boyfriends published by The Red Ceilings Press. His new book The Poetry of Gin and Tea has just been published by The Knives, Forks and Spoons Press.
Here’s a link to a 2018 interview I did with Paul about his creative inspiration and process
Wombwell Rainbow Interviews: Paul Sutton
Here’s where you can purchase “The Poetry Of Gin And Tea”: The Poetry of Gin and Tea https://amzn.eu/d/5GwOX7d
And link to his ebook:
Q1: How did you decide on the order of the poems in the book?
I structured it so that the book reads as a narrative – almost as a novella – not as a collection of poems. So the poems are ordered around the prose, supporting and enlarging on them. The prose was the most difficult thing: how much to reflect on the poems; how to move the narrative on; how much to say or leave unsaid. But it made me look critically at the poems, evaluating what they’re actually doing for the book.
It’s a fictional account, based on real experiences: my getting very seriously ill (in 2020), then leaving teaching because of what I’m satirising. I wanted to link it all through my obsessional love of Orwell, True Crime, gems and Sherlock Holmes. I set it in a boutique ‘gin hotel’ where I stayed in late January 2022. Gin and tea are crucial English drinks and Orwell wrote about both, notably in his wonderful account of how to make tea. Of course, gin links with1984 and poor old Winston Smith.
Q1:1: Why did you decide on a combination of prose and poetry?
I want the book read as a whole, sequentially, not as a poetry collection. It’s written that way, so that the poems and prose work together. Mostly the poems were written first, but the prose is just as important, especially in moving the narrative forward. I find pure poetry collections better for occasional or sporadic reading. The risk is that sporadic becomes ‘unread’!
In fact – truth be told – I’ve long felt pure poetry collections are becoming redundant. I’ve always constructed mine using a narrative arc; The Poetry of Gin and Tea was my logical next step.
Q2: What obsesses you about True Crime, Orwell, gems and Sherlock Holmes?
It’s difficult to summarise, since the book was done to explore and use these obsessions, especially with Orwell.
The easiest to explain is my collecting of rare gems. I read science at university (Chemistry) and then did a DPhil. Gems combine scientific and artistic beauty. They also represent something durable and unaffected by passing trends, a truth outside subjectivity, but in another sense (one’s own preferences) quite subjective.
Orwell was the prophetic genius who foresaw the madness into which we have descended, by allowing language to be controlled and used as a substitute for reality. This is the central purpose of my book, to explore our current predicament, through my personal experiences and obsessions.
True Crime seems the perfect genre for me (and crime fiction). I read little else but bear in mind, that encompasses most of Dickens, Dostoevsky – and of course Sherlock Holmes. I think my interest in it, to be honest, comes from early experiences of violence and fear at school; I explore this in one of my prose pieces. I’m unashamedly interested in ‘evil things’ – who isn’t? It’s incredible how popular all forms of crime writing and reporting are – and always have been.
Q3: How important is place in The Poetry of Gin and Tea?
I think it’s very important, especially using the two places where I spent my childhood: Welwyn Garden City and Salisbury. We moved to the latter when I was fifteen and it affected me massively. The book starts in Wiltshire, in the wonderful Bradford-on-Avon. But I’d say the whole idea of ‘Garden Cities’ is more important, especially their class element, their Utopian ideals and their beauty .
I want to use England as it is now, with no rewriting of any of the historical strands that I have to use, regardless of how shunned they are. But I’m not really interested in rural areas, my great fascination is with suburbia; my formative years were spent in the greater, greater London area, with both parents commuting into central London:
I cannot think of anywhere less apt
to set – say – a ghost story or fable
of regeneration. But it haunts me
now, the boulevards billowing absurd
cherry blossom, or the constant poplars,
gardens then allotments, and lone horses
in fields nobody owned (though somebody
did). We don’t know if everywhere from
childhood does this; I only have the one.
Imagine if Wordsworth had grown up here.
Some daft sister, avowed book devourer,
who chronicled his conkers and fainted –
her stolen bike; his lost virginity!
It’s useless. The place was an escape zone
from Orwell’s ‘rotting nineteenth-century
houses’ – my grandparents’, in Shepherd’s Hill,
with rickety stairs and views to Archway.
Teachers’ faces, quiet optimism.
I grew up to fight with idealism,
middle class deceit over origins.
None of which matters now, at all, to me.
I also don’t know if the violence
which meandered, natural as the Mimram,
was some thawing relic, or new death pains
from our vanishing culture of content.
(from ‘Welwyn Garden City’)
I also wanted to explore my half-Greek ancestry, the journey my mother’s parents made from Smyrna as refugees, to 1930s London. But I wanted this all done through my own inner monologues and personal – perhaps violent – reactions.
Q4: Why did you pick ‘Raven’ as the name of one of the narrators?
I’ve often used invented characters when writing about myself, especially Dave Turnip. All the Turnip work is collected in the 2017 Knives, Forks and Spoons graphic collection The Diversification of Dave Turnip.
But it was always at arm’s length, whereas this book is far more autobiographical and personal. So I used Raven as my protagonist, my alter-ego, as a nod towards two things. First, my beloved Stranglers – their best album – The Raven. A year to the day after my life-saving surgery I had this tattoo done, which is the album’s cover:
It’s also a nod to another favourite writer – Graham Greene – and the sinister central character in his wonderful novel, A Gun for Sale. A very underrated thriller; even better than Brighton Rock I feel.
I’m a keen bird spotter and ravens are my favourites. Symbolically, they’re vital to Norse mythology – Odin’s eyes and messengers – and key to the Gothic. They represent clear, albeit dark-sighted, vision.
Q:5. How important is form in both the poetry and the prose?
My distinction between the two highlights why it’s good to use both!
The main form I use in poetry is metrical or syllabic. Not for the sake of it, but to control how rhythmical the overall piece is – especially how the dynamics shift throughout, according to meaning and feeling. That’s what poetry is to me – above all – dynamics.
I wouldn’t say this is absent in the prose, but it’s toned down, less concentrated. That’s because the prose is meant to reflect and develop, not to perform. Of course, I don’t want the poems to feel performative. The trick is to do this without it being forced, but with enough emphasis for it to be there.
Q6: What would you say is the function of satire?
Satire’s function is to focus on something the writer thinks and feels is wrong (and often finds absurd) to make readers see it, then question its presence in their own lives and experiences.
It uses humour and exaggeration, although the issues are the most serious imaginable. It needs to ignore ideas of taste, sensitivity and – above all – the fear of ‘causing offence’.
It’s the most powerful way to attack, because it avoids sanctimony, at the expense (or risk) of being dismissed as ‘reactionary’ or ‘offensive’. Taking that risk is vital – the writer avoiding posturing, patronising and claiming moral superiority. Poetry is especially prone to this – it’s an art form which usually assumes some superior seer status for the poet, a greater sensitivity.
Q7: Why did you call the book The Poetry of Gin and Tea?
Those misappropriated English drinks represent something we’ve lost, that I’ve lost. I link this predicament with Orwell’s prophecy, that control and destruction of our language is the greatest threat we face.
One vital area is the disastrous idea that words create reality, with nothing existing outside of them. So, by labelling something – using certain words – you make it real.
Of course, all writers adore language and recognise its power. But no one believes it creates the world. If someone claims to, let them go up the Shard and jump off, proving that gravity is just a word.
I’ve often used Orwell’s brilliant guide to tea making, A Nice Cup of Tea, in teaching. The drink is so evocative of my childhood: my father alone could make it – just as my wife now insists I do. Her words – ‘It only tastes good if you brew it!’ I felt the same about my father – my mother’s tea was appalling! She’d try and make it, one morning a week when he had to go into London very early (he taught at UCH Medical School) – and it was horrible. Being of Greek parentage, she happily admitted that was the reason.
Gin has been subsumed by the daft middle-class fetish of ‘craft’ – their need to seek ‘authenticity’ and in the process destroy it. We’re completely dominated by class in this country; in fact more so now than when I was younger.
It’s actually meant to be a rough urban drink, not some absurd fantasy of lifestyle, etc. But I’ll happily drink some of the new ones! And of course, 1984 ends in a gin-soaked nightmare for Winston.
Q8: What is the role of absurdity in your satire?
It’s very important; both to give a focus on what’s being satirised, but also to parody one’s alter-ego, the protagonist. That’s needed, to avoid any preaching from some exalted position of wisdom. It also unsettles the reader, making them question what they think.
I love pushing the absurdity – especially into dubious areas! This works well with some totally unexpected area suddenly appearing – often from childhood.
Q:9. The vociferous Raven, reminds me of the biting language used in the best Martin Amis books. What satiric models have you used in the book?
Funnily enough, I was discussing Martin Amis (RIP) with my brother-in-law yesterday. I’ve only read four of his novels: I liked The Information best and Money least. He was a genius with prose, but I don’t much like them as novels; they never move me emotionally; there’s no soul. I also think he want downhill by worrying about seeming nasty! His ‘big concerns’ were too obviously those of the chattering classes. I found Lionel Asbo sneery and unconvincing.
My great love in satire is Evelyn Waugh, especially his masterpiece A Handful of Dust. That is without doubt one of the 20-century’s great novels. How he uses literature in it (including the Eliot quote). Until you asked the question, I’d never thought of it, but I’m hugely influenced by him. Also The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold – my favourite of his books.
The other influence is Louis-Ferdinand Celine (I can’t do the e), the outrageous French novelist. The way he uses hyperreality, to merge inner and outer states, and his bizarre use of absurdity (but not surrealism). I don’t like surrealism; it’s dull and lacks focus. I like things grounded, but mad: that’s what Celine perfected.
Q:10: How important is pastiche in your book?
It’s vital for the latest instalment of my Sherlock Holmes pastiches, in the appendix. These are done for pure joy, trying to use Conan Doyle’s wonderful prose style and mannerisms.
But pastiche isn’t present for any of the rest, I hope. Parody yes – of environments and people – but I’m not consciously using anyone’s style. Of course, I’ll have subconsciously used the stylistic features of numerous writers I admire.
Q:11. Once they have read the book what do you wish the reader to leave with?
I hope they enjoyed it and found it interesting. Anything else is a bonus, as regards my interests and motivations in writing it.
I’d hope they then wanted to look into anything else I’ve written.