by Anna Battista
July 2000, Pescara, Italy - Alex Garland is meeting a few assorted people after the press conference of the Flaiano Awards, the prestigious literary prize he has just received for his book The Tesseract. As he leafs through a copy of the anthology Disco Biscuits to find his story, "Blink And You Miss It," and sign the page which bears his name and the title of the tale, a huge grin extends on his face, then summoning up his memory he starts, "I once met a guy in Great Britain who had the whole book signed by all the authors it includes." He smiles again and shakes his head at this incredibly pleasing, though maniacal thing. Youngsters are often criticised for not reading enough or for reading what is not considered the 'right' stuff by the so-called literary establishment. But, I'm sorry for your average literary establishment, young people do read and young people do write.
Rewind your memory. Do it now.
1997, Great Britain: the press says that a new hierarchy in literature has born. By now Irvine Welsh has fully unleashed the demons of what the publishing market calls "chemical generation," getting them free from their constricting Pandora's box. Matthew Collin, with the precious collaboration of John Godfrey, writes Altered States (Serpent's Tail), the first and best report on the Ecstasy culture and acid house. Starting with a report of the first scene in Chicago and Detroit, the author moves on to the birth of Acid House finally recounting the story of the "Second Summer of Love," when everyone was "E-d up, loved up," dressed in fancy coloured clothes and happily danced in Spanish or British clubs wearing badges with the fateful smiley faces on. "Acid House broke with the conventions of all previous youth cultures because it wasn't a reaction against society like punk was. Or against other working-class groups like skinheads. It was pro-community, pro-drugs, pro-love and most of all pro-dreams," Collin writes, that's why he points out that "what Irvine Welsh calls 'chemical generation' was also a generation of outlaws" considering also that raves were "very anti-establishment, it was like the working-classes coming through, saying: 'This is our thing, you're not taking it off us'".
It's virtually impossible to summarise in a few lines what happened during those nights of happy happy madness, from the end of the '80s till the beginning of the '90s, nights in which people were seen hugging each other or exchanging presents, necking Ecstasy pills labelled with the strangest names: White Doves, Playboys, M&Ms, Dennis the Menaces, Rhubarb&Custards, Snowballs, White Burgers, Disco Biscuits, Kinder Eggs, Swallow, Dolphins, Flatliners, Swans, Swallows and so on. Dancing high on E at the raves became an act of political rebellion against the system and in 1994 raves were banned in Great Britain through the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act. The Bill, in its most abominable point, also prohibited music "characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats". If Matthew Collin documented the "hows" of a decade of madness, revealing how the Ecstasy culture was born, how it developed and later splintered in different directions, a whole series of chemical novels and tales were published, documenting the lives and loves of those who lived in that particular period. Among these works of "chemical" fiction, stands also the anthology Disco Biscuits (Sceptre, 1997), later ironically defined by KLF's Bill Drummond as "the cash-in-on-Irvine-Welsh book." This anthology, and three others that followed it, were edited by Manchester's ex-music journalist, Sarah Champion.
"I was working for a company called Volume", Sarah recalls, "compiling CDs of European electronic music, Trance Europe Express, and drum 'n' bass, Breakbeat Science. Each also came with a book of interviews and photographs about the music. Simon Prosser of Sceptre approached me in 1996. He was commissioning pop culture books for them. He asked me if I'd like to write a history of acid house in the UK (at that time there weren't any). I gave it some thought and decided to decline because I felt to write a 'history' would be to choose specific records, DJs and clubs. For me, the acid house phenomena and the rave culture that followed was a very personal experience. It was the antithesis of rock music and pop scenes before, in that it was not about worshipping celebrities. Everyone was a star on the dancefloor. The whole movement was very democratic, and for me the real story was about the personal, insane, crazy extreme experiences and adventures had on the dancefloor. The idea of Disco Biscuits was to capture the cultural changes and madness of acid house and what followed, but by using fiction, to tell the stories of individuals."
Sarah seems to echo in her own words Helen Mead's tale 'Game On' published in the second anthology, Disco 2000: for Helen Mead Acid House was the era in which "There were no more heroes…just us", when "every man and every woman could be a star". And indeed, the idea behind the anthology worked: unexpectedly, the anthology, launched in clubs with readings featuring famous DJs, was a huge success "The reading public's reaction was bigger than I could ever have imagined. The publishers were even more amazed. They expected it to sell 5,000 to 10,000 copies. It sold 60,000, becoming the UK's best-selling anthology ever. It was perfect timing. It captured in print the experiences of a generation for the very first time. People were inspired because the stories were ones they could relate too." Fame was also determined by the number of languages in which Disco Biscuits was translated "German, Italian, Greek, Japanese and French", Sarah makes a list, adding "It was even translated into Braille and distributed to young blind readers by government organisations. Disco 2000 also came out in Russian and was the basis of course Leeds University. But none of the anthologies are translated into Spanish. This is very disappointing as it got an enthusiastic response from English-readers in Spain." So, if any publishing house is out there, looking for new stuff, please look in this direction: this might be the big next thing.
When Irvine Welsh's Ecstasy paperback was published, a compilation entitled Anthems for the Chemical Generation was contemporaneously released. In the same way, Disco Biscuits was followed by a double CD compilation. If movies have their own soundtrack, so do have novels. Rhythim is Rhythim's 'String of Life', The Future Sound of London's 'Papua New Guinea', 808 State's 'Pacific State', Orbital's 'Halcyon' and The Shamen's 'Move Any Mountain' were the chosen hits to feature Nicholas Blincoe, Alex Garland, Martin Millar, Alan Warner and Irvine Welsh's tales on Disco Biscuits. Contemporary writers such as Gordon Legge, Jeff Noon or Irvine Welsh, often claim of being more influenced by music than by proper literary models, the CDs released together with the books Sarah edited confirm this attitude, an attitude which, according to her, "should be encouraged", as "Music and literature belong together" , Sarah points out, continuing "Right now we're seeing something similar to the beat era when jazz music and beat literature were naturally interlinked - examples being Irvine Welsh and Scottish club culture. I am very proud of the CDs I released to accompany Disco Biscuits (Warner Bros) ten years of dancefloor classics from Leftfield to Underworld and Goldie and Disco 2000 (a weird mix of sci-fi electronica specially commissioned to accompany the stories, from U-Ziq to Coldcut to Jimi Tenor." The tradition of releasing a book and a CD continued with the second anthology Sarah edited, Disco 2000 . All the tales in the anthology took place on 31st December 1999 and aimed at taking the reader out of the pre-next-millennium crisis the media threw us in. The anthology featured Grant Morrison, Poppy Z. Brite, Jonathan Brook, Paul Di Filippo, Helen Mead and Bill Drummond among the others, while the CD (released by Bokå) included "13 incendiary devices": the evocative Blame's drum 'n' bass of "Sphere"; Plug's, "High On The Vine," a track that shines like a diamond; the KLF with their liberator's mantra "F*** The Millennium" while Dean Cavanagh (aka Glamorous Hooligan)'s "Disco Heist" provided the theme for Disco 2000.
Going back to the anthologies, we must notice that they present a genre which isn't too often accepted by publishing houses, the short story: "I love the short story format", Sarah confesses, "especially when there's the perfect twist right at the end that turns the whole tale around. Alternatively, I like ones that don't have such a 'literary' format, but capture a time and place. Often the subject matter is not substantial enough to make a full novel, so may never find it into print otherwise. Short stories are a good way for people on the fringes of society (who may never be able to get a novel finished and published to have their say) - for example prison or drug stories. I love reading short stories when I'm travelling around cities like London, especially when they're just the length to read between tube stops. The problem is, there are just not enough short stories around. I'd like it if more magazines included short pieces of fiction every issue." And if the short story is a problematic format, in a sense also the themes of these short stories are a problem, especially for the literary establishment which often preaches to stick to the classics, "Contemporary writers aren't better than the classics", Sarah admits, "but an over-obsession with the past holds back the future. And there's so many great books being published now that clinging on to the past is ignorant."
Disco Biscuits was also touched by a tragic shadow, the death of Gavin Hills, whose book of collected journalism, Bliss To Be Alive, came out on Penguin last autumn. Hills had contributed to the first anthology with his story 'White Burger Danny'. Sarah recollects the sad memory, "The worst thing that happened was the death of one of the writers, Gavin Hills, only a couple of months after Disco Biscuits ' publication. One morning I got a call from his agent saying he'd fallen off a rock and drowned while fishing. It obviously somewhat over-shadowed the book's huge success. He was one of the top journalists at The Face magazine, and his story about football hooligans taking ecstasy at acid house parties in London was one of the most popular. It was his first piece of fiction and he planned to write a novel around it. Gavin Hills' work was really significant and captured the '90s perfectly." On a different note, we might add that Sarah's job wasn't always that easy, especially when a few authors refused to write a story for the anthologies "Some are just too busy or too famous", she explains, "I asked JG Ballard, probably my all-time favourite writer. He couldn't do it, but replied, which was exciting enough for me. His polite refusal was written on the back of a photograph of his cat and a motorway flyover. I was also excited about corresponding with William Gibson by email." Another problem was finding women writers: women are often supposed to write sugar coated, sweety candied stuff, this seems to be the conditio sine qua non to allow them to be published. In the intros to her anthologies, Sarah often underlines this problem. Apparently the situation hasn't really changed "It has been a real problem. I think the publishing industry encourages women writers to write certain kinds of books - romance, office novels, fantasy, family sagas. Plot lines about relationships seem to dominate. Women writers who tackle darker, weird more controversial subjects are rejected. I have first-hand experience of the problem amongst the writers I have encouraged. One example is "Fortune Hotel". There are two stories describing pedophile incidents by corrupt travellers. While the publishers let the one by a male writer pass, they wanted to censor the one by a female writer/female character. Somehow it was closer to the edge and more dangerous to society's values."
Editing isn't easy, Sarah learnt a few lessons such as that "you can't tell somebody what to write. Whatever, you suggest they'll come up with something different…and the difference between and 'en dash', an 'em dash' and a hyphen!", though she jokes about editing, she gets serious when she talks of publishing being still in the hands of an elite "It sounds like a cliché but publishing in England is run by a middle-to-upper-class mafia who have all been to either Oxford or Cambridge Universities. They're out-of-touch and like to talk about what is 'literary', but their choice of what they consider 'literary' is very narrow. It's hard for writers or editors from outside this group to be taken seriously. One result of this was that although they begrudgingly accepted the success of "Disco Biscuits", they were just as keen to backlash against it soon afterwards. Working class and black writers are kept on the fringes. Having said this, I have personally been very lucky to work with some inspired people who challenge the system, such as my editor Simon Prosser.". Sarah also featured on Steve Redhead's book Repetitive Beats Generation (Rebel Inc), a collection of interviews to contemporary writers, "This was a very good project", Sarah states, "It's time for Britain to celebrate its contemporary writers. Being able to read interviews unedited was fascinating. "
Though Sarah has clever ideas regarding her activities as editor, her suggestions for the 'novel of the century' are vague as they should naturally be. Fortunately we don't live in Zamyatin's "We" world, hence we are free to write whatever we like: "There's no set formula to a great novel. People go on courses to write them, but the works they produce almost always lacks something. A great book should not just only be a work of fiction, a 'story', but encapsulate something about society or the times too." Even though it's not easy to suggest which themes should the novel of the century be written upon, Sarah is keen to name a great book, "My favourite book of 2000 is Emer Martin's More Bread Or I'll Appear, the global escapade of the Irish sisters, who having left Ireland become rootless and part of the international travel circuit. It's the kind of challenging writing by a woman that should be encouraged. Naturally, many publishers were too scared to print it. Otherwise, my all-time favourite writers are JG Ballard and William Gibson; between them they document the weirdness of the 20th century." Sarah also enjoys the works of Jeff Noon, the writer also known to the literary world as 'the Lewis Carroll of the Manchester's housing estates'. His latest novel, Needle In The Groove (Anchor) was also accompanied by a CD on Sulphur Records. "Jeff Noon is a real genius", Sarah enthuses, "The word 'genius' is used too often, but in his case it's true. The worlds he invents are so vivid he really lives them in his head. I was involved in the publicity for Vurt and Pollen, helping popularise Jeff Noon in the electronic music scene. There is an amazing crossover between his writing and strange techno music!"
Being so enthusiastic about literature doesn't prevent Sarah from being honest when she's asked to give her opinion about her anthologies " Shenanigans was the best because so many of the writers had never been published before. It was exciting to discover young, fresh talent. Several have received agents and book deals as a result." Edited by Sarah and Dublin DJ Donal Scannell, Shenanigans comprehends a variety of young Irish authors, presenting a wide range of themes, from alien abduction (Bridget O'Connor) to a parody of Jesus' conception in the womb of a glass eater woman (Mike McCormack), from a couple of humorous but revealing acid trips (Julian Gough and Olaf Tyaransen) to prostitution and abuses (Jo Baker) from a rave on a Halloween night (Emer Martin) to grave robbers (Colin Carberry) and semen couriers (Colin Murphy). There are too many stories to tell 2 cents about each of them, but there is one thing that can be said about them all: Joyce's proverbial epiphanies, those little sparkles of life hidden in the strangest moments of the life of each one of us are still there, oozing from a sheet of blotting paper or enclosed in a bottle containing pig semen. Epiphany is a Greek word and stands for "to show": this anthology wants "to show" us, that life is nothing but a short story. Life is nothing but an adventure.
And Sarah likes adventures, as the fourth anthology proves: Fortune Hotel (Hamish Hamilton), based on the different experiences of people travelling all around the world. You know travel guides, they're usually cold, telling you which museum you have to visit or which hotel you have to stay at. But what makes a holiday is not a travel guide, it's you, your memories, your experiences, your photographs, your scars and, occasionally, the optional bug you bring back home from some exotic land. These photons of melancholy and memories, will eventually sign a period of your life, and they will stick with you forever. Here the travel tracks are miscellaneous and go from a Jamaican ganja-reeking adventure (by who else but Mr. Nice 's Howard Marks), to a glimpse of Corsica (by Hideous Kinky author Esther Freud) to a trip to Vienna haunted by the ghosts of the past and of identity (Will Self), to a business man trapped in the arms and legs of a sharp business woman from Kazakhistan (Nicholas Blincoe) to a trip with a few English hooligans in Marseille (by master of the hooligans trilogy The Football Factory, Headhunters and England Away John King) or if you like, you might want to taste a bit of life in a kibbutz in Israel (Emer Martin). Basically, there's every kind of adventure, here.
Yes, it's true, Sarah likes adventures and when asked if it is best to be a music journalist, a writer, an editor or a traveller, she enthusiastically answers "All of them at once! Travelling as a tourist is empty. You need to have a mission, to make it a real adventure. I like to go off the beaten track to the places no tourist go. In Thailand my favourite place is Isaan, which has the poorest people, but also the most spirited." And what about Spain and Ibiza, often considered the paradise of the raver? "I'm embarrassed to say I've only been once, and that was to Ibiza for the weekend to write about Paul Oakenfold for Muzic magazine. I hated the commercialism of the club scene; it was outrageously expensive and lacking in soul. The highlight was going to a trance party with him, way away from the crassness of San Antonio, and hitching a ride back to the hotel in style - in the cab of a garbage truck! I had plans to go to Barcelona and learn Spanish, then travel through Latin America -- but I ended up in Bangkok learning Thai (a rather less useful language!)" Well, there's plenty of time to come and visit Spain and perhaps even working for the local magazine Go at some point, her knowledge of music would be fully appreciated at the mag.
Sarah started working as a music journalist when she was very very young, only 14 indeed, and growing up in a particularly chaotic and energetic environment, Manchester, later nicknamed Madchester when Ecstasy arrived and The Haçienda, the best club in town, became a haven for ravers and bands. Has she got an earliest memory of that period? "This question brings hundreds of vivid moments flashing back. One of the first gig/club nights I went to was seeing New Order at The Haçienda aged 14. I also went to see The Fall, The Smiths and the like too. I was completely intoxicated by the fact that my city had all this great music. I went to all kinds of places a teenage girl shouldn't go, from Chinese casinos to Jamaican drinking dens and punk parties. My Mum used to wait up for me at first, but the day I had my first gig review published in NME, she stopped. I guess she realised I was serious about making music journalism a career."
On Sarah's curriculum vitae there's also another book, And God Created Manchester, published ten years ago "I wrote it to order for a small Manchester publisher called Wordsmith and it sold 10,000 copies, being quite a cult success. I'm a little embarrassed by it now, however - I was 18, off my head on speed and ecstasy and LSD and wrote the whole thing in 10 days, so the literary value is not high…although I'm told it certainly captured the 'spirit' of the moment." Living in Manchester during those hectic times must have been tremendous and probably she must have dreamt of forming her own band, but, as she confesses, "Unfortunately, like most music journalists, I can't sing or play an instrument!" Though she doesn't seem to be too interested in music journalism at present as it "mostly just regurgitates press releases and false movements and genres", she admits that she would like to go back to work with British music magazines, though she'd do it with a different perspective and a different angle "I'd like to write about club culture in Bangkok and other Asian capitals, but haven't had time yet."
At present it is unlikely that the www.discobiscuits.org site will be updated, and though she admits that she feels "a better journalist/editor", which means that we won't see any fiction from her, new plans are on the way for Sarah "I would like to publish more anthologies, but nothing is confirmed - waiting for the right concept, the right publishers and the right set of writers to occur! Equally, I'm addicted to being at the cutting edge of culture, and I feel the anthology genre has been 'milked' heavily after others tried to copy the success of Disco Biscuits. I like to keep moving; keep creating new ideas; seeing new places; having new experiences."
And new ideas will come, I'm pretty sure: Sarah is in Bangkok and if you're wondering how she got there and what's she's into right now, well, easy to say "In 2000, I felt London was in a creative rut, so moved to Bangkok, Thailand - extreme perhaps, but I'm addicted to adventure! I hope this doesn't sound pretentious, but for about four years I'd been having these vivid re-occurring dreams of this crazy cyber city that combined everywhere I'd ever visited in the world into one 24-hour chaotic frenzy. I would go back to this city night after night, often having nightmares but being thrilled by them too -- on the run through a landscape of skyscrapers, dark alleyways, weird bars, crowded streets ... something like a cross between the movies Metropolis, Blade Runner and my favourite Hong Kong film Chungking Express. Then one day I came to visit a friend in Bangkok and as I raced along the toll-way with a view of both gleaming towers and glittering temples, I realised - this was it! As well as working for Bangkok Metro magazine and The Nation newspaper, I'm now heavily involved in the developing Asian web scene which is where I believe the cutting edge is at the moment. In America and Europe, the Internet is well established. Here the boom is really just beginning. My energy at the moment is going into a website called www.popidols.net, which is a celebration of Asian pop culture, from Thai supermodels to Japanese pop stars, Korean models and Hong Kong pop-stars. It will be a pan-Asian celebration of contemporary local culture. I really believe that if the 20th century pop culture belonged to America, in the new millennium it will be lead by Asia pioneering new technologies and an Internet boom with more users than the rest of the world put together."
"As a vast solid phalanx the generations come on" Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in his notebooks: this time it was the turn of the generation of the breakbeats, the ravers, the pills, the downers, the love, the dance, the freedom, the drugs, the smiley faces and the plastic clothes. It was the time for the generation which turned a way of life into literature and literature into a part of the clubbing scene, as a pre-club act. Ortega y Gasset once wrote that "in the essence of each generation is a particular type of sensibility", that "each generation has its special vocation, its historical mission": Sarah's was that of letting one's own ideas free and realising every dream, always moving, a book in our hands, music coming out of some PA.
Bangkok, January 2001 - A young woman is hunting for some adventure, some new ideas and some new inspirations relying only on her instinct and talent. Some music is blasting through a radio, it's some weird stuff between techno, a mantra, some twisted tablatronica and a healthy dose of good, hard hitting global beats.
Anywhere else in the world, January 2001 - Millions of young people are sitting in front of their computer screens writing, hoping to find an editor. Sorry to disappoint your average literary establishment: young people do read, young people do write and young people do edit. Bless them all.
Special thanks to Sarah Champion for giving up some of her time to answer our questions. Picture taken after the millennium beach party on Koh Pha-Ngan, Thailand. The above interview was done for the Spanish magazine Go, Barcelona, email: firstname.lastname@example.org.