The Lost Interview: Les Wilson
“… we were contaminated … not contaminated by radiation, although a few of us got a dose of that. We got a fatal dose of hubris, Armour … pure and simple arrogance. We were the best minds the allies had and we were working on the frontiers of science … like Prometheus, stealing fire from the gods. We thought we were so damned smart…” – Campbell Aaronson (from Les Wilson’s Fire in the Head)
In early 2011, NLP commissioned an interview with author Les Wilson, to showcase his novel Fire in the Head and its themes of art versus big business, and to coincide with public outrage over Donald Trump’s destruction of the Aberdonian coastline. Wilson’s novel is published by Scottish imprint Vagabond Voices, also publisher of two of NLP contributor Allan Massie’s recent novels, and was founded by author, poet and translator Allan Cameron. The commission never came to fruition, although the text may yet appear. What happens when a commissioned interview is lost to the ether? What happens when a trusted interviewer goes AWOL? A blank is drawn. The interview has already taken place. The interviewer fails for unknown reasons to complete the commission.
In good solid New Linear Perspectives tradition, an exercise in frustration, disappointment and confusion must become a fight to bring creative substance to the populus. Which echoes, rather neatly, the sensation felt by many Scots at the revelation of government cuts in the arts; this, in turn, embodies the ethos of Les Wilson’s 2009 book for Vagabond Voices, Fire In The Head, where Wilson portrays a similar act of injustice. Les Wilson is director of Caledonia TV, and producer of such programmes as The Lighthouse Stevensons, which aired last year. His desire to represent the literary and creative potential of Scotland is present in a novel that questions the nature of art under thrall to capitalism. In this exclusive short story, NLP reclaims its lost commissioned interview and brings Wilson’s book to its readers.
The Lost Interview: Les Wilson
The bare bones of the article gripped the journalist’s mind like the white fingers of a ghost.
He picked up the book. Its blue and red cover was understated, didn’t tell him much. He put it down. Lit a cigarette. He had a lot on his mind: the buzz and style of well-paid articles, show after show, events, art openings. He worked hard, played hard. This book, somehow, seemed to be the joker in the pack. He held it at arms length. It was ugly, wasn’t it? It was not a thing of beauty, although he had not opened it yet. He took a photograph of the cover, stored it in his computer. He had captured the book’s image, perhaps that would be enough for now.
Les Wilson was sitting at the table, waiting for the journalist. A young man soon joined him, notebook in hand, smelling of cigarettes.
“Hi, Les Wilson? I’m from New Linear Perspectives.”
“Sure, sit down. Good to meet you.” Les noticed the journalist’s notebook was brand new.
But the journalist didn’t seem nervous. Les thought he had a dark look in his eyes.
“So Les, tell me…”
Les saw the journalist’s image suddenly shift in his vision, become the head of a stag, a dawn sky pink with light behind antlers. The restaurant slipped away; the glass of wine in his hand disappeared to reveal a flaming torch. Les blinked. The journalist had disappeared. The restaurant was gone, and the sky, and the fearsome set of antlers. He found himself on a beach, contemplating the grey mirror of sea. The sound of machinery behind him vibrated in his head.
When Les first imagined his book Fire in the Head, it was with a sense of righteous anger. His character, a journalist with an unwise social life, searching for the brilliance of a wise madman who made art in nature on an island off the west coast of Scotland, was partly Les himself, documenting creative excellence within Scotland and that which threatened it. Les, a film-maker whose study of engineering and isolation The Lighthouse Stevensons was a celebration of Scotland and its quiet successes, had pedigree. But now, here on the beach, he felt fear. Huge earth-movers tore chunks out of the edge of the coastline, near enough to feel the air move as sods of sandy earth were humped in piles. His head hurt. He stood up, watched the workmen and their machines. Could they see him? He edged back towards the water’s edge. He waved at them, tried to shout but no sound came out. He watched as the hills and hollows were flattened out, birds shrieking with anger as nest-sites were crushed. He blinked and the sky turned dark. Somebody cried his name.
“Les… Les… are you alright?” The journalist was looking at him strangely. Les was sure he could see the trace of a smirk on his face. The journalist’s notebook was open, empty. The journalist had no pen.
“Err… yes. What was the question?”
“Are you ready to order?”
“Um… you go first.” Les noticed there was a waiter, hovering by the table. He was wearing a high-vis jacket, a safety helmet. He was carrying a clipboard.
The journalist cleared his throat, and looked down at the menu. “To start, I’ll have the destruction of the coastline, and a side order of apathy”, he giggled nervously.
Les stared at the journalist. “Did you just say apathy?”
“Yes, they do it really well here. You should try it. For my main course I’ll take the literary scene – could you ask the chef to underfund it, please?” The journalist had a strange glint in his eyes, and the space where his mouth was flickered with a weird green fire.
Les thought what the fuck is this publication and what kind of journalists do they employ. He said, “I’ll have what he’s having.”
The waiter took off his helmet and Les noticed he had the face of Donald Trump. The waiter smiled officiously and said “Can I ask you to settle your bill, now, please gentlemen. That’ll be two billion Scottish pounds. Fuck-you very much.” He stood with his hand out, panting like a stag.
Les looked to the journalist for assistance. The journalist had turned the page of his notebook where another blank space awaited him. He avoided Les’s gaze. Les got out his wallet and passed the waiter his credit card. The waiter ran off, waving the card in the air from side to side. Was he whooping? The journalist picked up a pen that had appeared on the table and seemed to be about to write something, but paused, and turned to Les.
“So Les, is your book, like, any good?”
The air in front of Les became muddied again and the journalist rose up to the height of a thousand journalists, making a roaring sound as he soared. Les found himself at the journalist’s huge feet. He took a breath.
“Every book is important”, he began…
“I can’t hear you, Les, speak up!” boomed the voice of the huge journalist.
“The narrative of Fire in the Head describes the deep, primitive beauty of an artistic installation in a cave”, continued Les, “and the cogs of capitalism, present in the machines of a mining company, as the survival of the cave and its haunting beauty is threatened”.
“I said I CAN’T HEAR YOU!” The giant’s voice was like thunder.
“It’s about writing about art – the protagonist is a journalist who is trying for his greatest story, different from the vapid crap he finds himself writing for the newspaper.”
“Speak up, Les. This is not good enough!”
“The book charts the politics of art under attack from capitalism, and our personal response to this attack! Is that good enough? Will that make it into the journal?”
“I’m not sure, Les, it sounds too well-meaning. What about glamour? What about literary events? Why do you think I wear such fine shoes? To attend said events! What about awards, and kudos, and fashion, and… well… trinkets?” The journalist’s voice was angry now, his huge feet in their grey-clad modishness lumbering and dangerous.
Les attempted to leap out of the way of the enormous shoes, but suddenly a heel revealed itself and hovered above him. Les tried one last time to save himself, but the world went black. The tinny sound of a piper playing echoed in the distance.
“Mr. Wilson? Is everything OK?”
Les looked at the journalist’s face. The journalist didn’t seem too concerned. He held his fork above his plate, ready to dive into a mound of food. His antlers were burnished by the subtle lighting of the restaurant.
“Err… yes. I think so. I’m not feeling quite right, perhaps.”
“I just have one final question, Les, if I may.”
“Who is the journalist in Fire in the Head?”
Les opened his mouth to answer, but an image of startling force appeared before him so quickly that he froze, as if time had stopped momentarily. The journalist, the restaurant, the food, the wine, all melted away. Instead, an empty room. In the centre of the room, a box. In the centre of the box, a lock. It seemed to him that the only way he could make the strange journalist understand was to find him the key, but where was it?
The journalist pulled his keys out of his pocket and opened his front door, muttering. He had something for his editor, alright. A full stomach on somebody else’s account (that steak had been rather too underdone, but hey), an empty notebook and a party to go to later. What exactly was New Linear Perspectives anyway? One entirely unflashy publication, that’s for sure. Les seemed like a nice guy, though. At some point he’d look at the photo he’d taken of the book and cobble some words together – how hard could it be to pontificate on a book? He jiggled the key in the lock; it seemed stuck. He pushed against the door with his shoulder. For fuck’s sake. Then he felt a hand press against his spine. The fingers were cold to the touch, the fingers of a ghost.
“Is that you, pal?” asked the ghost.
The journalist opened his mouth, but nothing came out.
“I think it’s time you and I had a wee chat, don’t you?”