The previous year, a few mates and I had harboured some ambitions to produce a lifestyle and leisure magazine. It would take its design ethic from 1950s National Geographics. We had sussed out the bulk of the first issue. It'd have a mini-bio of the rat-pack, tips on how to make the perfect cocktail complimented with some choice music suggestions for drinking them to (Sammy Davis Jr singing 'Up, Up and Away', Nancy Sinatra doing 'Daytripper', Nancy Wilson's 'Call Me' and definitely some Neil Diamond). It would also contain complete instructions on how to build your own mini-bar, a guide to the best crazy golf courses in Scotland, a history of electronic music, a study of UFOs in Scotland and tips on how to organise your own sky-watch. We even had a name – EastCoasting – and toyed with the subtitle 'an approach to relaxation'. In the end we procrastinated and missed the boat. A deluge of rat-pack books, programmes and articles subsequently appeared. Ufology ate itself. Austin Powers came out in 1997 and that vibe (well a bastardised version of it) became mainstream. We didn't quite know this yet, though. So we were still on the lookout for more articles. Literature was one of our gaps. I wondered if I could tap into our shop's recent links with Canongate.
We held an instore event to promote the Payback Press titles. These instores were pretty popular and usually involved cases of free booze. This helped sell things. It also made it easier to talk to other folk I probably wouldn't speak to under normal circumstances. (Note to self - there is a fine line between making new acquaintances and gibbering drunken pish.) Herbert Simmons gave a reading and hung around to sign copies of his books. I got my copy of Corner Boy signed and he wrote a fantastically uplifting message inside:
Both of his books Corner Boy and Man Walking On Eggshells had been reprinted by Canongate. The former, as I learned from the blurb, won the Houghton Mifflin Literary Fellowship in 1957. He was 26. From the book's introduction: 'One suspects it must have been a controversial choice. It was not every day a novel about a dope pusher caught up in a world of hope, corruption and failure won a literary prize.' Indeed. Corner Boy is street savvy, and flaunts itwith verve and flair. The dialogue crackles, way ahead of its time.
Man Walking on Eggshells came five years later, released to critical acclaim, but subsequently buried by the publisher. The book proved to be too controversial Simmons claimed. You'd be hard pushed to disagree with this statement. Perhaps the publisher hadn't fully recognised the simmering subtext carefully positioned throughout the novel. Or maybe as the fifties ended and the sixties begun, the publisher shied away from confrontation as tensions raised. Raymond Douglas is born during a tornado in St Louis on the day Florence Mills died. His Grandma tells him stories that feed his imagination, firing his musical creativity into something radical that will challenge contemporary society. 'I can tell you 'bout lots of times when black folks got sick and tired of white folks and done something about it just like Nat Turner.'
Stylistically the book is as bold as its message. The narrative is fused with the energy of jazz and the pain of the blues; words become its music:
In the beginning he was a voice in the wind storming his way into existence.
A half day passed before they dug them out. When they succeeded, even the reporters and cameramen, standing there with their equipment poised, got more than they bargained for.
In the beginning he was wind in a storm voicing its way into existence.
After a split second of surprise, cameras snapped, reporters jabbered away, policemen fought back the curiosity seekers pressing to the attack, and a few of the other officers in charge pestered the crowd and victims for the necessary information.
In the beginning he was voice storming wind.
Having read Corner Boy and secured an interview, I now had to work out how the hell I was actually going to conduct a telephone interview with him. A dictaphone was something I did not own and my scribing skills were (and still are) pretty poor. Fortunately my pokey basement flat did have two telephone extensions, so with the help of two telephones, a microphone connected to my tape deck and some Sellotape to weld the mic to an ear-piece, I managed to set up something that could record a telephone conversation. Now I have no idea where that tape is. I don't even know if I still have it. I'm kind of hopeful that it's in a big bag of old cassettes buried somewhere in the attic, but I can't be sure. I did however take notes during our interview and I have found that notebook. I have transcribed these notes into the following interview. I have tried to transcribe it as literally as I can. If it seems like the response doesn't really relate to the question, then that's because my notes are quite shite (see above disclaimer). I have tried very hard not to change the essence of what was said. This isn't perfect and there are a couple of places where I'm a bit unsure if I've accurately captured exactly what I / he said. If I do ever find the cassette I will update this interview. Until then? This is as good as it gets.
Me: Sorry about the delay, I had a problem getting the microphone to work. How has your trip been? We sold a lot of books last night.
HS: Delightful! I'm enjoying a herbal tea with honey and a slice of lemon. Yesterday I was in Glasgow and Edinburgh. It's been a long time since I've done a reading. I've been getting a good feel and great feedback from the crowd.
Me: I loved your reading last night. Do you think the essence and substance of your novels is still as valid today?
HS: The only thing that has changed is the style of oppression. These problems still exist. Racism is a a tool for people to oppress other people. Man's inhumanity to man continues and won't change as long as mentalities are polluted.
Me: When you were writing, was it intended as a statement or social commentary? Did you have a manifesto in mind?
HS: There's no point in writing if you're not making a statement. Books do change things. Look at the Bible and Qur'an. Uncle Tom's Cabin was the spark that triggered the Civil War. Mein Kampf for all the wrong reasons.
Me: What was the drive behind writing? Was it personal or political?
HS: Both. It was a personal thing for me to communicate it.
Me: How did you finance yourself? How did it all begin?
HS: Man Walking on Eggshells wasn't distributed. They didn't push it. They were no longer interested. I wasn't sure if they expected me to beg or plead with them. I started living – doing things for myself.
Me: When you were writing about the bebop era, was it easier to write having lived through it, or was there a sense that it was more difficult because of what you were saying, that it would be hard for some to accept?
HS: My work has never been traditional. I was writing about pimps and dope in the fifties – that was never traditional. I'm not sure if the US was ready for it, but it seemed to be better received in the UK.
Me: It's been a while since your last published work, but you continue to work onTough Country part of the Destined to be Free trilogy that includes Man Walking on Eggshells. How is that going?
HS: It's been over 26 years since Man Walking on Eggshells. After Elaine Brown published A Taste of Power about being chairman of the Black Panther Party, I thought the time could be right for Man Walking on Eggshells. Publishing is a bit like a recording contract. Now I don't have to go outside the country to get published. Canongate and Payback Press want to publish me. I don't have to submit my work. Like Dizzy and Miles, it doesn't matter what you do to me, I can still get my work published. Tough Country is chiefly concerned with the premise that all men should be free. To break the oak of oppression. I'm always looking at problems in life, culture and society. Seeking solutions at odds with the establishment.
Me: Do you feel vindicated that writers like you and the other Payback Press authors are still receiving critical acclaim after all this time?
HS: We won the war on the Civil Rights front – we weren't supposed to. We're alive but not living the American Dream. We haven't decimated the class system. I was writing about this before I was supposed to. People said it couldn't be done. You can't go there. This is why I ended up involved in the Watts Writers Workshop. Life is strange...
Me: Finally, do you have any pointers for anyone who wants to write?
HS: You have to be serious about your work. You have to develop your work. When criticised negatively, you have to know your work inside out. Master your craft so you can say 'You don't know what you are talking about.' You have to keep doing it – or lose your ability. Keep going your own way, be willing to pay your dues, build.
And there my interview notes with Herbert Simmons end.
Looking back at this there is plenty I'd change. My questions would be different, I'd want to probe more about his canon for a start. What did he read when he was growing up. What was he reading on tour. I should have picked up on the direction of what he was saying to me instead of ploughing through a fixed set of previously prepared questions. I should have wrote up the interview at the time instead of waiting for an undefined something else. (That'll be why EastCoasting never happened then.) Having said this, after all this time, I'm glad to be able to finally get this interview 'out there'. He deserves it. It was an honour to get some one-to-one time with him. He didn't have to do that for me; he was generous with his time. Herbert will be about 81 now. I'd love to know where he is and what he's been up to in the meantime. If anyone does know where he is, please drop me a line. I'd love to know what progress he has made with his trilogy. On a much, much smaller scale Mr Simmons, it might have been 15 years in the making, but at last, here is your interview.