20 Questions: John Wesley Harding

Photo (partial) by Bill Wadman

The talented songwriter, singer and internationally best-selling novelist from East Sussex, John Wesley Harding, talks with PopMatters 20 Questions

John Wesley Harding

Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead

Label: Rebel
US Release Date: 2009-03-10

John Wesley Harding

Adam's Apple

Label: Drt
US Release Date: 2004-01-27

John Wesley Harding

It Happened One Night & It Never Happened at All

Label: Appleseed
US Release Date: 2004-10-19
UK Release Date: Available as import

by George

Publisher: Little, Brown & Company
ISBN: 9780316830324
Author: Wesley Stace
Price: $24.99
Length: 400
Formats: Hardcover
US publication date: 2007-08


Publisher: Little, Brown
Length: 544
Price: $23.95 (US)
Author: Wesley Stace
US publication date: 2005-04
Amazon affiliate

The talented songwriter, singer and internationally best-selling novelist from East Sussex, John Wesley Harding, has a new CD out now, Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead, and a new book coming out later this year, too. Bright, articulate and fearless – just the kind of artist we truly appreciate at PopMatters -- while discussing "Cabinet of Wonders”, a theatrical production that brings musicians, authors, and other talented, intelligent people together at New York’s Le Poisson Rouge (through 15 April - then going on tour), Harding told Jim Fusilli of the Wall Street Journal, “In the world of books, being smart is considered a virtue. In rock, there's a snobbery about intelligence.” (“Harding and His Cabinet of Wonders”, 18 March 2009). Harding talks with PopMatters 20 Questions about some of the art and the artists that he appreciates.

1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?

Things overwhelm me quite easily. I'm liable to cry at the crucifixion in some old biblical epic. I even get glassy-eyed when I play a suggestive chord on the piano. I cry less at books, however: the last was The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger.

Most recently, movie-wise, probably a British TV adaptation of Tess of the D'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy (I'm talking about, like, yesterday.) The last opera was Massenet's Thais at the Met: the end was quite overwhelming (and high camp).

To see someone perfectly in charge, like Ute Lemper doing cabaret, or my sister, Melanie Stace, in her pomp onstage -- that does it for me, too.

2. The fictional character most like you?

According to my mother, that would be Rose Loveall in my first novel, Misfortune. But I suppose anyone published would probably say the same about their own main character, and that makes this question unfairly easy, so instead I'll say Yorick in A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy: I like the finer things in life, I'm quite sentimental, but I am no stranger to the bawdy.

Or Mister Dick in David Copperfield: odd ideas but essentially harmless.

My wife says I’m like Willy Wonka. I think that's a bit scary; she thinks it's a big compliment because he's a creative genius and a wiseacre with kids. So, that's very kind of her. But I just think of a kind of crazily dressed psychopathic child murderer with a very sweet tooth.

3. The greatest album, ever?

Rock Bottom by Robert Wyatt. It's been a constant in my life since I was about 14. I've always found something new to like in it, it's never fallen out of favour, and I always try to turn other people on to it.

I could probably the say the same of Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde and Blood on the Tracks, but Rock Bottom always comes up top because it's still worth telling people about it.

The most recent "greatest album ever" that I heard recently is The Rotter's Club by Hatfield and The North -- same kinda bag.

4. Star Trek or Star Wars?

I never paid attention to either of those very much, though I believe I liked Star Trek (the original TV series) as a kid. I'm immune to Sci-Fi generally. I don't mind watching a Sci-Fi movie, but reading the books is hard for me. I tried it again recently, and I just can't go there. But I did get all the jokes in Galaxy Quest (which I loved) so I must have taken all the rules on board.

5. Your ideal brain food?

I like the quiz in the back of the Guardian's Saturday colour supplement, but I rarely see it. I also like a good cryptic crossword while on a train traveling to London.

I like research in dusty libraries. I love a book like How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered the World by Francis Wheen. That's my kind of book. I am a devoted reader of The Times Literary Supplement.

6. You're proud of this accomplishment, but why?

I somehow manage to maintain my season ticket to Arsenal Football Club even though I live in a different continent. I should have really seen sense about this. But it shows how lunatic my support for this football club is.

7. You want to be remembered for...?

Writing David Copperfield and Great Expectations. Never lying. Those kinds of things.

8. Of those who've come before, the most inspirational are?

I'd say Charles Dickens might be one -- hard worker, phenomenal output of fantastic quality; Leonard Cohen, still going strong, better than ever; Trollope, wrote loads every morning and then went to his job at the Post Office; Christopher Hitchens -- I love his literary essays. His breadth of knowledge is phenomenal. Output allied with quality impresses me.

9. The creative masterpiece you wish bore your signature?

A Matter of Life and Death (called Stairway to Heaven in the US) by Powell and Pressburger. A profoundly moving, very funny and technically jaw-dropping movie. Just reissued on a new DVD.

10. Your hidden talents...?

I'm good in a supermarket. There are lots of things I'm not good at (not panicking when I get lost in a car on my own, putting together IKEA furniture, etc.) but I am very level-headed in the bright aisles.

11. The best piece of advice you actually followed?

I follow it all the time: Never leave your wallet in the dressing room.

12. The best thing you ever bought, stole, or borrowed?

Interesting. The best thing I ever bought was a first edition of Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne: I shouldn't be allowed to own it. It should be in a museum. It was at the dawn of the internet and it was quite a steal; signed by the author three times.

What have I ever stolen? I stole a bottle of bourbon from a dressing room the other night, but was it mine or did it belong to the band before me? I didn't really consider that. Either they'd left it, or it was mine. Either way, it's here.

The guitar I've used for almost every gig since 1988 -- a Takamine EN-10c, bought with my first music publishing advance -- was clearly a good purchase.

13. You feel best in Armani or Levis or...?

The clothes from Girbaud fit me very well. I don't know how they worked it out.

14. Your dinner guest at the Ritz would be?

Jack Weston and Rita Moreno, of course. It would be nice to take Carole Lombard to the Ritz, but I don't know what she was really like and she's dead, so a) it would have to be as she is on film back then and b) she would have to have the very best screwball scriptwriters.

15. Time travel: where, when and why?

I'd like to know how and why they built Stonehenge. And find out who Jack The Ripper was. And then I'd like to come back to the present and put an end to all speculation on such matters. Whole industries would grind to a halt.

16. Stress management: hit man, spa vacation or Prozac?

Beach. Paperbacks. Sea. Cocktails brought to me in real glasses. More realistically: a massage focusing heavily on the shoulders.

17. Essential to life: coffee, vodka, cigarettes, chocolate, or...?

I like to have a good bourbon around. At the moment, I buy Pogue, though I'm quite happy with Knob Creek. I loved Bookers and Bakers, but I've decided that they're so good, they're almost undrinkable. Mind you, it took me a long time to work that out.

18. Environ of choice: city or country, and where on the map?

I live in the city and am moving to, more or less, the country, in a year or so. So ask me again then. "I was raised in the country, I been working in the town, I been in trouble ever since I set my suitcase down."

19. What do you want to say to the leader of your country?

Can I have an MBE or something?

20. Last but certainly not least, what are you working on, now?

I just finished and handed over a third novel, which is about a classical composer around the time of the First World War. I'm working on a review of two books about music. And I just wrote a new song yesterday called "Music Cemetery of America", which I may play quite soon.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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