You’ve variously written a thesis, an academic book, many travel articles and news reports. What’s your favourite style or mode of writing and why?
The more I write the more I think my favourite genre is the opposite of whatever genre I am writing in that day! But seriously, to borrow Isaiah Berlin’s metaphor about the fox and the hedgehog, I’m something of a fox in that I’m interested in knowing a little about a range of subjects rather than a lot about a few. (Not a good trait in an academic). For that reason I prefer journalism, particularly book reviewing and travel writing,
primarily because both have the most scope for going off on wild tangents! News reporting is quite constrictive and requires rather more tenacity than I have, especially when subjects are unwilling to speak on the record.
Tell us about your involvement with Culture NI…
Well, I guess I should start by saying that, regrettably, my involvement with CultureNorthernIreland is coming to an end next week. I’ve recently been appointed editor of a new magazine called Political Insight, which is being published by the Political Studies Association of the UK and Wiley-Blackwell and will appear three times a year. It’s a full-colour magazine which aims to present research on politics in an entertaining way to a wide audience. First issue is April 2010 so it’s all systems go!! (ed: ok – I’ll allow the obvious plug since it does sound rather impressive!)
But I’ll definitely miss Culture NI. I actually started working for CNI years ago as a freelancer while I worked in the Art College in Belfast. I liked it so much I gave up the day job! Covering music, books and theatre in Northern Ireland has been great fun and, thankfully, the good shows far outweigh the bad. I’ve also had the chance to interview heroes like David Simon (creator of the Wire) and Animal Collective, though I think my most memorable interviewee was Josh Harris – he’s a self-promoting American artist/Internet mogul who told me variously that the mafia were after him, he was the most important living artist and he had 10 years left to live. If only all interviewees were such good copy!
You’ve taken a keen interest in local culture and you’ve written numerous book reviews as well. Have you ever thought about dabbling in writing your own novel/screenplay/poetry? If so, what would it be about? Or, if not, why not?
Hmmm, that’s a bit of a thorny question. I think that if you peel back the surface of most critics (and, indeed, most journalists) and you’ll find a frustrated wanna-be artist… and I guess I’m loathe to admit that I’m one too! I did write a lot of fiction when I was younger, though I fear it was juvenalia, and every so often I scribble the odd short story but at present I like both the time and inclination to write anything more serious. Perhaps this will change, I was heartened when Ian Sansom told me that he discovered how to write when he met a novelist who told him to write 500 words a day every day. At the time Ian was a painter and decorator, and look at him now.
You’ve stayed in some pretty top notch hotel establishments around the world (ah the life of a travel journalist!). But if you could take a fantasy trip somewhere and stay in a hotel (either real or imagined, past or present) with a fantasy group of travel companions, where would you go, where would you stay and who would go with you?
It would have to be the original Hotel Adlon on Unter Den Linden in Berlin during the roaring 20s. I’ve always found Weimar Germany, with its decadence and abandon, a fascinating historical period and, of course, Berlin was at the heart of it. You had Bauhaus (in Germany), directors like Fritz Lang, amazing writers like Thomas Mann and, of course, Marlene Deitrich. Back then the Adlon is visited by everyone from Charlie Chaplin to Louise Brooks – I think I’d be happy to spend a few days with a random selection of its patrons, just soaking up the atmosphere. The hotel was badly bombed in the Second World War, it ended up on the East German side was eventually demolished, though it was rebuilt in 1997 I’ve not stayed in it… maybe some day!
The rest of the interview is available here.