On Sept. 14, Craig Taylor, a journalist with U.K.’s The Guardian newspaper, who grew up in Lantzville and on Protection Island, gave a reading and presentation to a packed auditorium in bldg. 355 of the Nanaimo campus. Taylor is the author of three books: Return to Akenfield, One Million Tiny Plays About Britain, and most recently, Londoners, for which Taylor spent five years interviewing people in London to create a mosaic portrait of life in the city. During his visit back to Canada, Taylor also took the time to appear on CHLY’s Be the Media in an interview with VIU Professor Joy Gugeler in which he talked about his books, his literary magazine Five Dials, and advice for writers.
Taylor is a former VIU student who spent his time here in the theatre program. He began the Sept. 14 event with an anecdote about bringing a live sheep on stage for a play once—to the most resounding laughs—at a VIU performance that he had been involved in when the sheep shit on the stage. Taylor received a great many chuckles and roaring applause on his return, and this time there were no farm animals present.
Taylor is also a former Entertainment Editor for the Nav. and his work can be found in our archives—and of course I couldn’t resist pulling out the bankers’ boxes to take a look.
His work in the Nav. primarily consists of music and film reviews—with a cheeky edge that is honed in many of his short plays in the book One Million Tiny Plays About Britain, is apparent here—especially in an article from 1996 titled “David Hasselhoff and Me.” The other most notable thing about this early work is the keen eye for detail that is required when gathering a collection of stories such as Londoners, and for writing micro-plays.
While Taylor has relocated to London, there can be no doubt that he is a true British Columbian. In an anecdote in his review of The Smugglers’s Selling the Sizzle, Taylor comments on once being thrown out of church for singing Smugglers’s song “Your Mom’s the Devil” instead of “All Things Bright and Beautiful”—whether tongue in cheek or true fact, it doesn’t matter. That’s definitely a mark of a Canadian.
When Gugeler asked Taylor about the challenges that writers face balancing self-promotion with their craft, Taylor said “Self-promotion is unfortunately necessary for a lot of people, but the proof is there. If you don’t unplug yourself from that stuff and read books and write then you’ll become a great twitterer. That’s a good form of expression that suits a lot of people out there, but unfortunately if you want to do this kind of stuff you just have to unplug at some point or do it a bit less. You have to read and you have to write.” Taylor also reminds VIU students that the Creative Writing program is an advantageous experience—but the most important thing is to take advantage of the extracurricular activities that come along with it, including getting involved with the Nav. As a VIU student, Taylor also worked on zines, and befriended other students and the faculty. These things all added up to new connections and involvement with a writing community. Taylor stresses to “take advantage of what you’re learning in the classroom then go out and make your own stuff.”
Going out and making your own stuff involves patience and taking the time to get a project right. Taylor spent five years working on Londoners. As an outsider, he saw the potential of the stories of everyday people of the city, and he set out to interview them. This book does not take a rosy approach, nor does it take a pessimistic one. Taylor seeks to create a portrait based on absolute honesty: the ups and downs of a vibrant and varied city. He also claims that this will never become the defining London book—that honour belongs to such writers as Peter Ackroyd.
At the Sept. 14 event, Taylor read from the intro and five other stories from the book including that of the voice of the London Underground, Emma Clarke; Tim Turner’s pub-told story about his depressing job in finance; a story from a dominatrix called Mistress Absolute; a story from a women named Ethel, whose professions included actress and plumber; and a story about the journey of Farzad, an Iranian illegal immigrant to London. Each of these voices is unique and speaks to the layers of perspective in a single place.
As with any non-fiction interview project, there were those who changed their mind about appearing in the book, and of course many of the interviewees names have been changed to protect their identities, but Taylor says that there was really only one issue with someone being unhappy with what wound up in the book. There were readings from the book aired on the BBC—and the plumber/actress Ethel read her own story.
Taylor originally interviewed about 200 people and amassed a million words of material for the project, so a significant part of the process came down to arranging the voices and choosing what to include—and in what order. Taylor calls this a process of working backwards, as opposed to up from a blank page. It’s a carving process, rather than painting. Taylor also gives a great deal of credit to his editor, Matt Weiland, for helping him wade through the massive collection of material (kept in stacks of bankers’ boxes) and providing a second perspective, he notes “that’s why it’s good to work with an editor who can think about the architecture.” About human architecture, Londoners is. Built, piece by piece, with stories as layers of brick, stories as the beams, and the supports, and the mortar, and every one of them is vital, contributing to a marvellous portrait both gritty and delightful, of a shared human existence.