Grime fiction – Big Issue North

Lee Scott’s debut novel, Swan Songs, is not only about working-class life but actually sounds like it. The narrator, Leonard Swanson, is a benefits-claiming aspiring rap superstar forced to take on shifts as a packer at the local chemical factory, Genpharm. When he’s not skint, he’s rolling joints and/or working on his musical masterpiece. His flat de el is in rundown Churchtown, a thinly-disguised version of Scott’s own Runcorn, the aging new town rendered on the opening page as “grass verges hosting 1970s-built concrete monoliths”.

“As my mum used to say when she was busy running pubs: ‘I’ve not got time to fight the power.’”

Scott is, at 37, “a veteran of the UK’s often-underground rap scene”, according to one of his many fans. The hip-hop label he established in 2006, Blah Records, puts out his many releases and associated merchandise. Swan Songs, he tells me when we meet in Runcorn, came out of the day job.

“Writing it was like a completely random event. Carl Neville, a writer and editor from [publisher] Repeater called me and asked me if I’d written anything. He’d heard the track Nice Swan, on which I’d sampled a load of documentaries about Runcorn from the 1970s. I think I liked that.

“I had no idea how to write a novel, but I was always writing stuff. I’m known in rap for being prolific. I have written thousands of song lyrics and I used to write short stories that I would later turn into songs.”

Although council estates have long been a milieu for non-mainstream musical creativity, many were surprised by Scott’s latest career move.

“A lot of people round here think people from places like Runcorn don’t write novels. I’ve had friends who said: ‘What, are you joking – writing a book?’”

Work – doing it and not doing it – are central themes in Swan Songs. In a chapter titled Purgatory, Swanson says we should not be compelled to work merely to satisfy “men in suits” and become “model citizens” and, equally, should resist being diagnosed with this or that (depression, anxiety, etc) in order for our opted-for idleness or resistance to be “legitimized by professionals.”

“From a very young age, I just couldn’t accept that I would end up doing the kinds of jobs that people are supposed to do around here,” says Scott.

“I always saw adulthood as a big lie. Then, when I met students who were doing music or DJing, in the back of my brain I was always thinking: I’ve got more right to do this than them.

“I spent years just moving, running away from debts and changing address when my benefit dried up, leaving places when the bailiffs came round and moving to a mate’s place, just jumping on a train, without a ticket, and sleeping on someone’s settee. Anything to get away, and I’d live as off grid as far as was feasible.”

The novel relates to a period of his life from almost 20 years ago.

“I was raised in Runcorn on the Castlefields estate. I’d gone away to Rochdale with my mum and then to Liverpool and ended up back here. I worked at a call center and then I ended up working at the big pharma firm Teva.

“That was the model for Genpharm. All the stuff about the shifts, and the job, and the people on the production line is true. Everything was just like that, except for the little green men.”

Thanks at least in part to his spliff-fuzzed mind, Swanson sees a parallel world where he locates the powers that control Genpharm and authority in general. As he puts it: “I had been bestowed with the burden of being able to see them for what they really were.”

Between hilarious set pieces on the mind-bending boredom of factory work (Scott can do whole pages on themes like sighing and sleepiness), loo breaks and clipboard-wielding tyrannical line managers, we learn of “blurry-faced creatures” with slimy mouths on their midriffs who ultimately control the chemicals that Swanson and his co-workers are employed to decant into vials. It’s not explained if these aliens are elements of a psychotic vision, workaday Martians who happen to be based in the borough of Halton or just the surreal mental props of someone stuck in a dead-end job.

Scott smiles when I mention the book’s blurb, penned by Repeater staff, which references William Burroughs as well as the gritty 1960s social realism of Alan Sillitoe’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.

“I’d never read Naked Lunch, partly because I think I thought all the people who said they liked Burroughs were snobs. But I’m reading Junkie now and enjoying it. I also read Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and it was great. But I’m quite glad I hadn’t read any of these books before I wrote Swan Songs and wasn’t influenced by them.

“In fact, the little green men come from [John Carpenter’s 1988 film] They Live. The thing is, I’m really interested in plagiarism and how people think they’re being original when they’re not. A lot of UK rappers think they’re being original but we didn’t invent shit. Rap is all about samples, anyway. Cultural references spill over into the novel and a lot of the stuff in there comes from films I used to watch.”

Swanson, like Scott, is happiest when he’s making music in his flat, traveling around the country gigging, meeting DJs and fellow performers, and falling into bed with this or that young fan, notwithstanding having to get feckless booking agents to pay him his fee . A lot of the book’s twisted energy comes from scenes where Swanson is working on songs. Although he never manages to finish his masterpiece, the lyrics appear to dictate the turns his life will take. Cause and effect are skewed along with appearance and reality – that’s what makes Swan Songs original and very clever.

Scott says rap just sort of happened to him in his teens.

“I really have no idea why I do it. I’d love to say I got into hip-hop because of all the great artists of the time, Ice Cube and all those, but rap was everywhere when I was growing up. When I was young I liked dancing. I wanted to be a breakdancer.

“I heard rap from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Bart Simpson did it. I just thought of it as something from America. When I saw House of Pain performing On Point on Top of the Pops – maybe that’s when I saw white people could do it. It was only much later that I saw that hip-hop could be a way of rebelling.”

Scott’s songs are recognized for being unusually intelligent, inventive and a clever melding of the gritty and the ironic.

“I like to check myself,” he says. “As my mum used to say to me when she was busy running pubs and working: ‘I’ve not got time to fight the power.’ What if there is some great conspiracy? I still have to go and get my housing benefit. It’s very hard fighting the world when you’re on the dole.”

Without the self-awareness, as well as the artful social analysis, it’s unlikely Swan Songs would have been taken up by Repeater, an independent imprint working with those who “have already called for an escape from Capital Realism” and “vigorous dissent”.

“I was always an observer, interested in the border between reality and beyond that,” says Scott. “When you come from Runcorn, you think: this can’t be it. I always had the sensation there has to be something behind this.

“When I was very young, and someone on the estate, say, bought a kitchen and then someone else bought the same kitchen, and then I saw an advert for the kitchen on TV, it was obvious to me that the telly was telling people how to live.”

Fiction, he says, is a way not only to challenge that voice, but to play with lots of different voices.

“When I do rap and make records, I try to be as real as I can. But I find that when you make up a character in a novel, you can be more honest.

“That’s what I like about it. I think it lets me tell truths I can’t tell when I’m speaking. I know this sounds strange coming from someone who raps, but generally I prefer writing to speaking.”

Swan Songs: A Novel by Lee Scott is published by Repeater

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