Interview: C J Stone

C J Stone is something of a literary heavyweight, with four books under his belt and former columns in such media outlets as the Guardian and Mixmag. So it with great pleasure that we welcome him to The Daily Opinion, where Lizzie Wright puts him under the spotlight. You can also read her review of The Trials of Arthur here.

 

What made you and Arthur decide to write this book and what did you hope to achieve with it?

I’d wanted to write a book about Arthur ever since I first heard about him in 1996. It seemed such an unlikely and at the same time inspiring tale. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to get a book deal for the project then. However, in 1999 I had just started to write a book about the protest movement of the time, and approached HarperCollins with the idea. It just so happened that Arthur had also approached HarperCollins and, as the editor already knew of my work, she decided to ask me to complete Arthur’s book for him. This was the origin of the book, The Trials of Arthur: The Life and Times of a Modern Day King originally published by Thorsons/Element (an imprint of HarperCollins) in 2003. The Trials of Arthur: Revised Edition, which you are reviewing here, is a heavily rewritten version of that book.

Arthur and I met the editor, Louise McNamara in September 1999 and we discussed what we wanted to get out of the project then. Arthur described it in these words: “If I can do it, anyone can!” In a sense you can take this as the motto. If some dysfunctional kid from a council estate can transform himself in such a memorable and dramatic way and make a real difference to the world, then so can any one else. Thus it is a book about someone writing their own story in life and making it come true.

For me the initial project remains. It is still a book – perhaps THE definitive book – about the protest movement of the 1990s, but using Arthur’s story as the thread around which everything else is woven. So it contains, amongst other things, the history of the road protest movement, the history of the Stonehenge campaign, the history of Reclaim the Streets and the history of the various mobilisations against the Criminal Justice Act in 1995 & 1996. It also includes a history of the neo-pagan movement, and a history of bikers, plus there’s a bit of my own history too, of how I came to meet Arthur.

 

You’ve written in a tone that makes the book accessible to anyone, but who was your initial target audience?

We wanted the book to be accessible to anyone, and while we had a core audience in mind (protesters, pagans, druids, bikers, hippies, and anyone interested in alternative culture) we also wanted it to be read by the general population. It’s a book about changing the world, but the world will never change until everyone gets involved.

 

Was there anything that you left out from either your or Arthur’s life that you would have loved to include?

The book ends in the year 2000 with public access to the Stonehenge monument having been reinstated, so anything that has happened since then is missing. Obviously Arthur hasn’t stopped there, and there have been many campaigns since, but the book would never have ended and the 2000 cut off date seemed appropriate. Also Arthur and I had many adventures during the writing of the book which never made it in to the final text: like the time we went to the Faslane Peace Camp near Glasgow with Mog Ur Kreb Dragonrider and met a man who thinks he’s John the Baptist and Arthur got himself arrested, or the time when I ended up sleeping in a bin outside Countess Services near Amesbury.

You can read those stories here: http://christopherjamesstone.wordpress.com/2012/11/19/the-trials-of-arthur-revised-edition-is-a-brand-new-book/

 

The overall tone is one of joy and contentment. Did you have to change your view of more painful events to maintain this tone?

It’s interesting you should use the words “joy and contentment” to describe the tone of the book. I’m not sure that was the intention. Certainly it is a very funny book in places. You couldn’t go round in a white dress calling yourself King Arthur without arousing plenty of laughter. That is one of Arthur’s greatest traits, his ability to laugh at himself. Without it you would inevitably have dismissed him as a loony. The joy of the book – which I agree is there – is in its unwavering commitment to challenging the forces of repression. Standing up for what is right, although it is hard at times, always leads to a feeling of joy. But “contentment”? I’ll accept that it is there as you have felt it, but I can only explain it as the inevitable consequence of the writer, me, doing what he loves the most, i.e. writing. As for painful events, well there were many, of course, but being able to laugh at them is one of our human characteristics and I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t like to have a laugh.

 

What was the writing process like? Did you and Arthur reminisce as you wrote or was there a strict outline that you followed?

It was quite hard at first trying to get an effective working method, and the book took much longer to write than either Arthur or I had expected (much to Arthur’s frustration at times). We decided to use the first person plural (“we”) as the narrative voice at an early meeting, and later Arthur came down to my home town and we worked out the structure of the book between us. After that I would ring Arthur up and we would have long conversations during which I would take notes. At other times I would set Arthur writing tasks, getting him to describe certain people or certain events in his own words, so there is a lot of Arthur’s own writing embedded in the text. There are also two complete chapters that are entirely Arthur’s, and no part of the book went ahead without us discussing it and agreeing on it. Arthur says now that we had many arguments during the writing of the book, and I guess this is true, but in the end we worked together remarkably well I think, considering that we are both complete egotists.

 

Although you portray the world of King Arthur through very understanding eyes, did you come across many sceptics who could not understand it?

You’ll see from the above link that I had a lot of trouble with this. It wasn’t people’s scepticism that worried me (I’m a professional sceptic myself) it was their downright hostility. One of my main antagonists during the writing of the book, who made it a personal quest to ridicule the whole project, died of alcohol poisoning in the Philippines, so you have to ask which of us had more of a grip on reality. Also, as I’ve often pointed out, if you look at the state of our current world, and then compare that to what Arthur is doing, which would you judge to be the sanest and most down-to-earth? I know which one I would choose.

 

The world of The Trials of Arthur is very different and more restrictive today. What would your advice be to young adults reading your book?

Is the world more restrictive today? Yes, you might be right. But that’s the point about Arthur and me, we never took those restrictions as inevitable. My advice is to follow Arthur’s philosophy and to “go for it”. Remember, the restrictions that are placed upon you are man-made and can always be challenged. That is Arthur’s lesson. One of the stories he likes to tell is the one about the custody sergeant at Salisbury gaol. Every year from 1990 till 2000 Arthur would step through the four mile exclusion zone which the powers-that-be had placed around Stonehenge on the solstice and get himself arrested. He was taking on the British government, the police, the law, the landowners, the entire might of the British establishment. So every year he would end up in Salisbury nick, and every year the custody sergeant would say, “you’ll never win you know Arthur,” and Arthur would say, “you just wait and see whether I win or not.” Well we all know now who was right now that open access to Stonehenge has been reinstated and Arthur no longer has to spend solstice night in Salisbury gaol. Let that be the lesson. Never give up. You may not always win, but, as sure as damn it, if you do give up you will be certain to lose.

 

Yours and Arthur’s journeys are far from finished. Will there be another book about them?

Arthur and I will always be friends, and, no doubt, there will be other writing projects involving him in the future, but, for now I’d like to say that this particular project is finished. It was started in 1999 and the first version of the book came out on 2003, but I was never happy with the result. I only really completed the book to my satisfaction in 2012, so it has been a long hard haul. Thirteen years of hard labour. I’m happy with the end result – I can honestly say it’s a great book – but I really need to move on now.

 

Writing has obviously been a major part of your life. Who are your literary influences?

There are many, but, just to name a few: William Golding, particularly an obscure but fascinating book called Free Fall, which came out in 1959. I’ve reread it several times and I would recommend it to anyone. After that it was Kurt Vonnegut, whose style I have flagrantly stolen. If you want to know what a good book should read like, then you couldn’t do better than taking a look at Kurt Vonnegut. After that it was Robert Anton Wilson who wrote the Cosmic Trigger trilogy, and Prometheus Rising, both of which I would recommend. I also like the historians, EP Thompson, Christopher Hill and Eric Hobsbawn, but my most consistent influence has to be William Blake, particularly the Marriage of Heaven and Hell, which I’ve read and reread countless times, and which still offers new insights every time I look into it. You have to read the facsimile edition, however, to get the best out of it. It was designed as a work of art, and you need to look at the images as well reading the words. It is a book whose central meaning will never die.