An interview with Kevin Sampson: He of Awaydays fame

In 1998, a book was released which perfectly encapsulated the blossoming casual and music scene of the late 1970s when, as its synopsis says, “smack and Maggie Thatcher” were still less of an issue on Merseyside than Lois jeans and Adidas Forest Hills.

Following the trials and tribulations of Paul Carty, Awaydays became an overnight classic – delivering a swift literary kick to the chops of the more sensational and, it is fair to say, bollocks hooligan literature which had begun to surge in popularity in the years previous.

This wasn’t a glorification of the ‘we ran them’ on page boastery of some of the writers – and I use the term loosely – who Awaydays author Kevin Sampson now often finds himself unfairly pigeonholed with by lazy book websites.

Awaydays gave readers a real glimpse into the pressurised oneupmanship of the early casuals scene, an appreciation of what it feels like to both belong and not belong at the same time and an understanding of the battle against alienation felt by angry young men up and down the UK.

The fact the reader looked in armed with the foreboding knowledge of what awaited Liverpool under the looming threat of Thatcherism, unemployment and the nihilistic nightmare those conditions would create made the plight of Carty, his friend Elvis and their hooligan associates in the Pack all the more distressing and depressing. Here was a group of young men, many of whom would not have a way out even if they wanted one.

But, despite now being considered a classic of its type, Awaydays almost never made it to print. And, as Sampson explains, when it did, it was a few years late.

“I wrote a 65-page novella featuring Carty and Elvis, pretty much the same story as the one that eventually came out, but much more skeletal. If you think the ‘published’ version of Awaydays is a fast and furious read, this was like an electric shock.

“Penguin rejected it, I took it hard and that was that until 1995.

“Trainspotting had come out in 1993 and, for me, it changed the entire landscape. Suddenly publishers were actively looking out for gritty fiction that dealt with scenes and subcultures…The Beach, The Football Factory etc.

“I dug Awaydays out again in late 1995, not long after The Farm played their last ever gig. I thought yeah, good story, good characters but it could be so much more – so I set about, not so much re-writing it, but supplementing it and making it into the book that was eventually published in March 1998.”

But where did the original inspiration come from? Surely a lot of it is based on the author’s own experience?

“The genesis of Awaydays is a long story, but the short version is that I suppose one of the things that defines you as a writer is an eye for detail, a nose for a story. I’d been going to Anfield since I was five, mainly watching the game from my Dad’s knee in the Kemlyn Road.

“I was always obsessed by the crowd. Firstly The Kop, but from about the end of 1976, the Anfield Road End, where all the young hoodlums gathered. I was a typical outsider, looking in. Whatever they were wearing, I had to have it. So when the first seeds of what became the casual scene started in Liverpool, I was innately aware that this was a “story.”

“I was going to away games by then, and no-one else was dressing the way Liverpool and Everton (and Tranmere) were. My big interests in life were music, clothes, football and here were all three meshed into one underground movement – and it really was underground. In those early days – late 77, into 1978 – there were no evil businessmen pedalling their wares…it was completely organic.

“Whatever the lads from Kirkby, or Scottie Road or the Dingle were wearing, we’d all copy them. The writer in me recognised that this was like a modern (then) version of Quadrophenia, this whole subculture that no-one knew anything about.

“From the age of about 15 I’d wanted to write a novel; nothing highbrow, I just wanted to write books that would mean something to the kids I was knocking around with…clever, witty, curious working class boys and girls who were almost all unemployed.

“That’s where the original idea for Awaydays came from.”

Clearly then a subject close to his own heart. Did that create its own pressure? Taking on a scene which had at its heart something which was so important personally to the author, was there the fear he wouldn’t nail it? And was there a temptation to dilute the more serious material to appeal to the more mainstream football violence audience?

“Well, it was my first novel so the only pressure came from myself,” explains Sampson. “It’s only after you’re established, so to speak, that you’re even vaguely aware of the reader’s expectations.

“I wanted to evoke the world and the culture I was living through – I was convinced it was an important time politically, with Thatcher getting her claws into the nation’s youth, and culturally with the football/fashion movement. The challenge was to set a cracking story against the backdrop of that very special Merseyside scene. I hadn’t even thought about who the readership would be – I just wanted it to be true to the times, true to the scene.”

It would be fair to say then that the reaction must have been a nice surprise.

“I had no real expectations for the book. It could very easily have gone one way or the other. By the time it came out, I sort of knew it was going to be well-received by the critics; I was getting interview requests from the likes of The Guardian and The Independent. But in terms of a readership, I had no preconceptions at all. I remember my publisher phoning up to tell me they’d gone to a third re-print the week after the book came out and I could hear the excitement in his voice so, at that stage, I thought, okay, it’s a success. I’m happy.”

With Awaydays in the bag, Sampson – and his fans – clearly owed a debt of gratitude to Irvine Welsh, a man who Sampson himself is happy to credit as being his inspiration.

But who else does Sampson respect and, perhaps more importantly, whose books should we all be buying, borrowing or stealing a copy of.

“I have a crime thriller coming out in spring next year, The Killing Pool – so I’ve been reading a lot of contemporary crime novels. Jo Nesbo is great, if a little theatrical. Mark Billingham is really, really fucking good. And I’m enjoying a British writer, Quentin Bates, whose novels are set in Iceland.

“I love books with a strong sense of place. One of my favourite of recent-ish years is The Lonely Hearts Club by Raul Nunez. It’s about a night porter in a seedy Ramblas 1-star motel who bears a passing resemblance to Frank Sinatra. ‘Sinatra’ takes us on a ride through the low-life underbelly of Barcelona’s dive bars and back alleys that offers up as pungent a taste of a place through literature as I’ve known in a long time. Jean Genet meets Irvine Welsh.”

Writing is something Sampson suits as perfectly as a new pair of Sambas but, as he readily confirms, his career as a scribe didn’t get off to the best of starts – he was sacked by the NME for telling a fib, albeit quite a big one. A gig he claimed to have gone along to review was called off. When the venue burnt down.

True, or rock and roll legend? “This is all too true, I’m afraid. I’d been sending gig reviews to NME for months. To be fair to Paul du Noyer, the reviews editor, he always replied and mainly said “good writing, but we have no space.”

“This was in 1982, no email, no fax, even – it was all done by post. One day I got a letter from PdN saying – “You’re in. Congratulations.” For the next few weeks, I was getting my reviews printed in NME and I couldn’t have been more fulfilled…you’d get up on the Thursday morning and go down the newsagent, tear open the NME and read it from the back, like the sports pages.

“The downside was the pay. I was signing on, and you’d get between £5 and £10 for a review, depending how long it was. It was costing me more to see the bands than I was getting paid to write about them. So I had the brilliant idea of savaging this goth band without laying out the dough to actually go and see them. So I type up my review, post it off, go round the corner and buy the Liverpool Echo. Headline: Club Razed To Ground In Arson Attack. You can guess the rest…”

Not to be put off though, Sampson went on to make a name for himself writing for The Face, Arena, i-D, Sounds, Jamming, The Observer and Time Out.

And, the jammy dodger that he is, Sampson managed to combine his love of music with earning an honest wage, teaming up with The Farm on a host of projects – not least launching a record label.

“I’ve been dead lucky in some of my ‘jobs’,” admits Sampson, “making films, writing books etc – but being paid to start a record label during the golden age of Happy Mondays and Primal Scream and all that, and to basically do what we wanted was incredible.

“I was just about old enough to realise this was a going to be as good as life gets, and I lived the whole thing in the moment. I think a lot of people only properly appreciate their golden years after the event, but I can safely say that us lot dived in there and lived it and breathed it. Fantastic.

“If I was to pick a highlight, it was the way the Ibiza film, A Short Film About Chilling came together. It was a beautiful little film in its own right, it’s become another cult classic, too – but it was probably, more than any other one thing, responsible for catapulting The Farm from being an underground club band, to a household name. That was monumentally satisfying on a personal level.”

Was it equally as satisfying to see Awaydays finally turned into a film? The fans certainly waited long enough…

“That’s another very long story, and to even get close to an understanding of it would probably need its own book. In short, there are very few places you can take a film idea in the UK. At the time Awaydays (book) came out, there was really only Channel Four and the BBC who were fully financing movies. We got to an advanced stage with C4 then the Commissioning Editor, Robin Gutch, moved to Warp X and made a massive success of it with films like Dead Man’s Shoes and This Is England. Good on him. Robin’s successor – quite understandably – wanted to do his own projects. We then had an identical experience at the BBC. The fella there who was all over Awaydays left to set up his own company. They make things like Downton Abbey these days. There’s no denying how disappointing it is to keep on getting so close, but it’s not a conspiracy; it’s just the way life goes, up and down all the time. You just have to take it on the chin and keep going.”

Keep going he did and the cinematic version hit the big screen in 2009 amid a cauldron of interest from Sampson’s dedicated followers.

The reactions from critics were mixed. It would be fair to say it did not quite meet the heights of the book, but was Sampson himself happy with the end result?

“It’s not bad…there’s loads I wasn’t ecstatic about and there are always things that could have been done better. But, you know, it was made for a wing and a prayer. It’s a proper, nailed-on, DIY indie film, in the spirit of the independent record labels that provided the soundtrack to my youth. So, yeah – I’m proud of the little fucker, warts an’ all.”

Perhaps more so than in the book, music plays a key role in the film version. Whereas Carty and Elvis enthuse throughout the print version about their favourite bands and it is true that the reader is left in no doubt as to the importance of the blossoming scene, the film presented a chance to audibly soundtrack the action unfolding.

The choice of songs then, must have been vital.

“God yeah!” says Sampson. “Almost every track has a story behind it. Me and the film’s Producer Dave Hughes trekked out to Alderley Edge to doorstep Peter Hook. We were arrested by Redcare, this kind of private security force that very, very rich people hire to protect their properties. I hasten to add that Hooky had no idea that Recare were patrolling his neighbourhood but when we told him what had happened he laughed and said, “I can hardly say no to you now, can I?” So we were able to feature Joy Division in the film at ridiculously low prices, where they might have charged a big studio tens of thousands.

“The Magazine track [one of the stand-out scenes] needed the blessing of Howard Devoto. The problem was that he was living in Thailand. I was at Latitude with this fella Richard Thomas, a very unassuming but massively well-connected cat. I was bewailing the fact that we’d probably have to drop The Light Pours Out of Me and he just goes, hang on. Brings this well-dressed dude over, introduces him as Richard Boon. Richard Boon tells me that Devoto is going to be in Manchester the following week to sort out a property sale. Needless to say we were there, all smiles, awaiting the great Devoto’s arrival – and a possible taser attack from Redcare.”

Music aside one of the memorable scenes in the film was when Elvis ever so matter of factly tells Carty he has the “wrong trainies” – a damning indictment plenty of people will have remembered fearing.

Does Sampson, as the literary poster boy of the casual movement, still feel a pressure to dress to impress? And what are his favourite bits and bobs? “I loved the early 80s paradise island range – Samoa, Tobago but best of all, for me, were the soft leather, camel colourway Fiji. Beautiful. I haven’t seen Gary Aspden (adidas UK Head of Marketing) for a while but I used to bug him to re-issue that range. Mind you, I’m 50 now…a 50 year-old bloke in trainies is, in itself, a fashion disaster.

“Clothes wise I stick to simple understated classics – a staple diet of Smedley, Paul Smith, Nigel Hall; and I’ll wear tweed or corduroy jackets, items I’ve had for years, often.

“I just like good quality swag – nice cashmere jumpers, well-cut jackets, well-made shoes. It doesn’t have to be how-you-say ‘designer’ clobber, but you tend to find that the enduring classics are often made by the name fashion houses.”

One of the most honest aspects of Awaydays its is acceptance of the fact many Merseysiders used Stanley knives during their pitched battles on the terrace. Does Sampson believe this is deserved reputation? The catchline for Awaydays even mentions them [Catcher in the Rye with Stanley knives].
“Stanleys were definitely a part of the culture for a while,” he admits. “Horrible, scary, but there it is.”

Something else Liverpool fans have been historically criticised for is singing songs about Munich – with Manchester United supporters also boasting a songbook with heavy references to Hillsborough.

As someone who has actively campaigned for justice for the 96, surely this is something Sampson looks equally unfavourably upon? Should the Hillsborough chants lead to arrest? Surprisingly, Sampson thinks not.

“I’m going to put my head on the chopping block here and say that this part of fan culture, while regrettable, is understandable.

“It’s far to easy to become pious about what is, at its best, a passionate and volatile spectator sport. I don’t think Man United fans are celebrating the disaster in itself – it’s more a means of expressing their consummate loathing for all things Liverpool. It may be below the belt and below most peoples’ plimsol line for good taste, but I really don’t think it’s personal. It’s business.”

The fact that justice finally seems to be coming no doubt softens the blow of the chanting. Sampson has been vocal in his admiration for Anne Williams and her fight for an early inquest into the death of her son Kevin, and the writer finds it easy to remember where he was as the disaster unfolded.

“I remember it all too clearly. I was with my brother and our mates Hobo and Mauro, at the semi-final of the F.A Cup between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest, at Hillsborough.

“My brother Neil was one of the first to start pulling the advertising hoardings down to use as stretchers. Everyone who was at that end of the ground that day knew exactly what had happened, so it was a complete and utter shock to get home and find out that the disaster had been reported as a football riot.

“My young brother saw the crushing and the deaths up close. He was traumatised, no two ways about it. He never went to a game again for years. I told him repeatedly he should seek counselling but he didn’t want to know. Just locked it all up inside and never ever referred to it.

“The truth coming out has been a massive release for him, emotionally, being given the hope that all his efforts that day might not have been in vain.

“Personally, having been going to away games since the early 70s, I was used to the police making up whatever they wanted and doing whatever they wanted. So when the Independent Panel was first announced nearly two years ago I just thought, “Oh aye, as if they’re going to find anything incriminating after all these years…” It was a combination of shock and complete and utter exhilaration when I found myself listening to Cameron, live from the House of Commons, lambasting the smear campaign and the wholesale cover-up that had taken place from top to bottom. It was one of those rare moments where you’re aware that what is happening is history in the making – that’s how it felt, standing in my Ma’s kitchen, listening to her radio. So, finally, The Truth is out there…just a matter of Justice being done, now.”

Sampson has a new book out soon, the aforementioned crime thriller Gangsterland. So does he have any words of wisdom for aspiring authors possibly starting out along the road he has found so rewarding?

Yes. And the message is a simple one: “Start. Today. Now.”

And last but not least, what DID happen to Carty?

“I often find myself wondering. Elvis went to Berlin. Maybe Carty went out there, too.”

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