‘Being human is what matters’ – Katie Rathfelder interviews Andrew McGibbon, author of I Was Douglas Adams’ Flatmate

Andrew McGibbon has just adapted his award winning Radio Four series into a book – I Was Douglas Adams’ Flatmate. Featuring Ernest Hemingway’s La Secretaria, Johnny Cash’s Tailor, Moazzem Begg’s Lawyer, Tina Turner’s Only White Dancer, Les Dawson’s Gag Writer and a host of significant others, I Was Douglas Adams’ Flatmate finishes with the author’s own account, full of glorious and lurid detail, of his time as Morrissey’s Drummer. Katie Rathfelder had a bit of a natter with the man himself…

Katie Rathfelder (KR): You’ve been working on this project, in one form or another, for quite a while now; it clearly matters to you in a way that’s about more than just your own brush with fame (covered here under ‘I Was Morrissey’s Drummer’). What made you want to generalise your experience?

Andrew McGibbon (AM): Generalising the experience of a single encounter seemed like a very interesting path to choose. We are overwhelmed with biographies, books, tawdry memoirs and tendentious and often disingenuous guff online about some of the great 20th century legends. To have a second party talk about their brief or not so brief encounter knowing that there would be no laying of journalistic traps, tyranny of the clock ticking, careless interruptions and worse still threat of being an excuse for brand-type interviewer to talk all over you, just seemed to me like a breath of fresh air. About twenty minutes into an interview without these extant threats and fears goading the interviewee, the intimate, truthful and human elements emerged, themes which might be reigned in by an aggressive interviewer are left to continue and even dead ends are allowed to end.

When you hear the single voice of someone who was clearly very close to the “legend” you establish an intimate link through that person’s fragmented recollections. Like snippets of music that can take you back in time to when you first heard it.

KR: You’ve spent a lot of your working life in radio. How was the process of converting the show into the book? Did you find that odd?

AM: The I Was… series had to provide exposition for the listener in twenty-eight minutes and, as a presenter I had a comic style that had to meld with the subject without diminishing it. This was risky. The actual business of converting the four radio shows that appear in the book as chapters and the expansion of ‘I Was Morrissey’s Drummer’ was more to do with becoming a facilitator rather than the presenter. Even in the radio series I kept my input down to the facts, exposition and some jokes but not at the expense of compromising the second voice or the ‘emotional truth’ as they might say in script classes at UCLA. . This is difficult to do, especially when you have a racing mind keen to use comedy to further toughen the truth. It explains why the four radio chapters have more inserts from other voices albeit briefly and longer bits of writing from me, where for example the Moazzam Begg chapter is mostly Clive Stafford-Smith. And the Chet Baker chapter is mostly Be-Bop Jim Coleman

KR: The overlap between the radio show and this book is large, but not perfect. I think that in some ways the book feels less intimate and more analytical, but that both work fine by themselves. Is there anything you think fans of the radio series should know before picking the book up?

AM: I would like to assure potential readers who heard some of these shows on the radio that it is a truly cross-genre book. It is not altogether a humour book. It goes from Les Dawson’s gag writer to Moazzam Begg’s lawyer, but at the heart of it is a desire to get at the truthful tales of both first and second parties and to maintain my own desire to create a unique mixture of NON GENRE stuff. With genre being tattooed into our necks like bar codes by corporations and other marketing behemoths keen to keep us as customers for life it has become even more necessary to me NOT to do what you’re expected to. All the imaginative and interesting stuff always comes from cross genre experiments (Star Trek – cowboys and space). Expect an engaging and illuminating read that is not what you expect from the title AND that most of the chapters have NOT been on the radio

KR: There’s a huge spectrum of kinds of people covered here, osteopaths to singers to tailors to lawyers, and I was fascinated by how much of what they said I wouldn’t have considered otherwise. Was there anyone you didn’t interview you would have liked to?

AM: To address the first part of your statement this is all to do with the “little things” that are often overlooked in the rush of other interviews. I love how Manuel Cuevas (Johnny Cash’s Tailor) explains why he sent him nine suits all in black and how he then explains why all the suits are black to Johnny. I love the way Clive describes Moazzam Begg calming a woman visitor to his cell who has been pumped up by the prison guards at Guantanamo to expect him to be Hannibal The Cannibal. It’s so obviously the guards using the terror environment to play a joke on the woman, knowing full well that Moazzam was nothing of the sort. It is also true that as I say in the book’s introduction these factotums or second voices are themselves fascinating and the subtleties of what they reveal are genuinely intriguing.

To address the question of those we didn’t interview or who didn’t make it into the book, we had a few potential I Was’s whose honesty or connection had been sullied by bitterness, regret, revenge, unreliability and last minute reluctance, or just couldn’t be used for fear of revenge. The promise to those whose chapters were included was to ensure that what they said would be unalloyed – edited for gaps and rearranged for sequence – but straight from them.

KR: It’s a truism that with interviewing the problem is always either getting people to talk or getting them to shut them up. Was there much difficulty in getting people to talk about these, sometimes very personal, elements of their lives?

AM: Manuel was interesting as he is very loyal to the families of those whose fathers, mothers and even grandfathers and grandfathers he’d dressed for showbiz, so with him, even though he never actually revealed any secrets, he reveals the atmosphere or the environment through his work with them. Generally, I gave each interviewee all the time they needed. Even when the conversation drifting on to other areas participants would reveal something they hadn’t thought of saying. It was up to them how much personal detail they wanted to reveal. Sometimes in the course of an interview we drifted back on to ground we’d covered but perhaps because I’d put in a fair amount of research and preparation beforehand I didn’t encounter people who talked either too much or too little.

KR: Despite the potential for tabloid gossip-fodder, the project is not salacious or gossipy, really, at all. Was it difficult to keep that out? Was that a conscious decision?

AM: Yes it was a conscious decision and if you say at the party that you are not after any of the salacious gossip or qualification of allegations – any of it – then the door is opened for more interesting stuff. The tension is relived. There is enough misogynistic, freak-baiting information out there about all these people and enough bottom feeding suppliers of it that it has no place in this book.  I’m more interested in those who really have or had something that stood the test of time, have achieved significance or are victims of ‘outrageous fortune’ as in Moazzam Begg.

KR: My favourite interview was the one with Moazzam Begg’s lawyer. I really liked how, despite being a book without a political cause or statement to make, it brought up a lot of fundamentally political issues (race, health funding, terrorism) from points of view that wouldn’t usually be heard. Some of the details really surprised me. Did you find any of the stories here surprised you?

AM: To address the first part of the statement, I love being surprised. The Moazzam chapter did exactly that. Clive Stafford Smith is a remarkable man as is Moazzam Begg, yet the grotesque horror of Moazzam’s experience bumps up against the banal, comical elements of the whole Guantanamo disaster, which Clive’s charity Reprieve is actively involved in, as sadly for all of us Guantanamo, once a prison everyone was talking about is now never mentioned at all. This not good.

In terms of the rest of the stories, all of them had surprises, because once you say, tell me what it was like, what he or she was like and don’t feel obliged to feed me bits you think I want to hear, that is when the surprising true stories emerge.

KR: One of the things that this book does is celebrate the interviewees as interesting people in their own right, not just in terms of what they can tell us about the better known person in their lives. Was that a stand you’d already taken before starting this, or did you come to that through meeting these interesting people?

AM: I say this in the introduction. I think it acts as a rubric for inclusion. In the end without realising it beforehand, they were all fascinating characters themselves, just freed from the fashion and fame that accompanied the legends they were close to.

KR: You spoke a little in interviews about seeing these stories as mosaics, but you very much leave any bigger picture up to the reader. Did you feel after doing this project that you had something bigger to say about fame and celebrity culture? Did you draw any conclusions?

AM: Celebrity culture and the fame carousel will always be with us. We are total narcissists and we love to watch others in the spotlight crap in their pants so we can have a laugh at their expense grateful it is not us on stage. When we start creating the beasts on reality TV for example we have to live with the consequences some of which we are seeing emerging already, iPhone savvy youngsters attaching no value to anything when it can be torrented for free.

If I have learned one thing it is this. Get out more and keep away from the Internet or you’ll become like one of the green jellied human power generators in the Matrix series.

As far as true fame goes, charisma, energy, bravery, vision and being prepared to rip off anyone’s balls to establish your primacy is the stuff of legends. These are the people that most affect you and leave you quaking with awe. Whether it was the bravery of Moazzam Begg, the astonishing beauty of Chet Baker, the genuine character if Les Dawson. Being human is what matters.

I Was Douglas Adams’ Flatmate by Andrew McGibbon is published by Faber.

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