Martin Cathcart Froden’s debut historical crime novel “The Devil take the Hindmost” won the 2015 Dundee International Book Prize of five thousand pounds and publication with Freight Books. Set in the velodromes of London and the Midlands in the late nineteen twenties, it follows the adventures of a young highlander. Paul arrives at Kings Cross Station and is immediately and comprehensively fleeced by those who recognise his naivete. Orchestrating them is Silas, to whom Paul becomes indebted. An introduction to the world of professional cycling and professional crime swiftly follows for the Scot. We go to the D’Arcy Thomson for this interview.
Cathcart Froden describes the Prize and his debut novel publication as “turning a corner”, a marvellous response to what was “essentially an email”. The novel, already completed as his MLitt project at Glasgow University, was simply attached to a covering message. It has saved him time spent seeking publication and it’s given him a platform to present his work.
He makes a careful distinction between the role of the ‘author’ and the role of the ‘writer.’ He’s “not creating a public persona because I don’t invent anything I’m not, but you can’t be too immersed in your own world” he says. The ‘author’s’ role is to “invite people in to the reading experience”. The existence of the ‘author role’ also protects the private writer’s voice, allowing it the freedom to create. He has words of warning for people who want to be ‘writers’ and get that mythical book deal. “If you want to make lots of money”, he says, “you may as well work in a shop. It’s about wanting to write. If you can give what you’ve created and someone enjoys it, it’s a powerful thing.” Discovering that people who read very little have enjoyed his book has delighted him. His generosity is shown when he describes the attendance of people at festivals and readings as “a gift”. “They’ve ‘taken time out of their day,” he says,
Cathcart Froden has lived in Canada, Argentina, Israel and London, working as a sound engineer, an avocado picker, as a greengrocer and a musician. He met his wife when forming the band ‘Tall Tales’ in London. They later moved to his wife’s home city of Glasgow, the band disbanding as its members left for different locations. His focus now is his family and his writing. When I asked him how this interest in music impacted on his writing he had this to say:
I think my musical background influences the writing in terms of crescendos and diminuendos, maybe in some off-kilter pairings and breaking of patterns too, and the different voices singing, talking, telling their part being louder at points, and less loud at other points.
This use of rhythm and pace makes it easy to imagine a soundtrack from a silent film being played as his hero, Paul hurtles across the city on his bicycle,
With an entrepreneur as a father and a mother who worked in the arts, culture was actively discussed during his childhood years. The act of working creatively and the practice of adhering to deadlines were given equal value. He has productively used competitions to create deadlines and his work has been shortlisted for the Bridport prize and the Bristol Short Story prize. Deadlines, he tells me, “take you to the point where you are brave enough to say this is the piece you want read, … a date where you run out of time and say ‘I’m happy with this today even though I might not be happy with it tomorrow’”.
In MLitt workshops at Glasgow University students submitted their work to be constructively criticised by tutors and fellow students. This method he describes as akin to being “put up against the wall. You are not going to produce, in a situation like that, anything but your best work”. His immersion in conversations about the mechanics of writing sped up improvement in his own work. The course was also, he thinks, a place where people, “in a good way, reinvented themselves.”
Cathcart Froden is suspicious of writing routines that can so easily slip into ritual. “I don’t have a special pen. I don’t have a place. A train works, a bus works.” Most of his writing happens late at night. He sleeps as little as he can so he can “find an extra two hours in a day”. Living in a small flat with three young children, that is the practical choice.
While lecturing in Creative Writing at Greenock prison, a two-hour lunchbreak when he couldn’t leave the building became the place where he edited “The Devil takes the Hindmost”. The process was sometimes made “a little anxious by the presence of sniffer dogs”. “Writing under a dining table during a boring dinner party” is, he says, “also an option”. I think he would be far too polite to ever take that up.
His wife is his “beta” reader. They work hard at keeping this role separate from the domestic, arguments about who will “do the dishes and put the children to bed”. He trusts her judgement and has learnt not to take her criticism personally. He recommends that all writers find their own “beta” reader. Beginning writers must also remind themselves that, for the most part, “friends will only say nice things”.
The part the unconscious plays in writing is what he finds hardest to foster and protect. Currently, Cathcart Froden is studying for a PhD in Glasgow University, it’s content inspired in part by his experiences at Greenock Prison. He is looking at “carceral” spaces and their effect on creativity. He also teaches on the University of Glasgow’s MLitt course. Locating those quiet spaces where thoughts and ideas can emerge is difficult. Cycling, as Paul, the hero of his novel does, is one way to make this space. “Cycling”, Cathcart Froden says, is a “fairly basic motion, you let the body get on with it and the unconscious can work”. He is delighted to have access to the ‘Sir Chris Hoy’ arena in Glasgow. Cycling in this velodrome is akin to “an amateur footballer playing at Wembley.” He’s following in the tracks of heroes.
The reference to the heroic, to champions, recurs. His winning story in the prestigious BBC opening lines competitions in 2013, “The Underwater Cathedral”, has physical extremes at its heart. It portrays the life of a sponge driver made tragic by the acquisition of one of the first ever diving suits. What the diver achieves is outside our experience and almost impossible to imagine. Cathcart Froden sees this man, working to extremes, “as a kind of superhero”. As a writer Cathcart Froden wants to explore that capacity for endurance, that desire to succeed. He wants “to describe it physically, mentally and emotionally”.
In the late nineteen twenties he tells me cyclists were immortalised in postcards and had the same “celebrity status as footballers have now”.’ It was a brief reference to the sport’s capacity to attract crowds of ten thousand and more that led Cathcart Froden to research the subject. A very short story written seven years ago was “kind of backwards, starting with something good and ending up with something bad”. The main characters from the novel, Silas and Paul, were present in that story. Cathcart Froden plays with narrative structure in the novel too, beginning at what appears to be the last act of the cyclist Paul, then immediately taking us to the start of his life in London and the events that will lead to these final moments.
Cathcart Froden wrote sections from the beginning, the middle and the end of his novel first, presenting these to his MLitt workshops for ‘Iowa’ style workshopping. He says it was “fun, working out how much structure is too restrictive and how much is needed as a framework for ‘beauty’ and ‘surprise’ to exist”.’ The spaces, the unplanned sections kept the creative process live. If he was bored “then the audience will be bored.” “Because the content is quite thick with factual, and semi-factual technical and historical information I felt that too much clever thinking to do with the form might have gotten in the way of the story.” He does still play a little with structure, using more than one voice and using a very effective device of a journal and short verses to reveal Miriam’s character and history. Because of that content, research was essential. He won’t, though, be held to a date stamped street map or a timeline for pedal improvements. What a writer does is “become an expert in many things temporarily, then they pretend they’ve forgotten it”. The research is most evident in the description of changes in cycling. His ‘beta reader’ came into play here, his wife telling him she was a lot less interested in the width of a wheel rim than he was and that he should leave that “to the anoraks of the world”. The novel was cut accordingly.
London girl gangs are vividly present. A mass female shop lifting expedition is based on the real antics of the ‘Forty Elephant Gang’ who terrorised the Elephant and Castle area in the interwar years. His gang leader, Miriam, is a slighter, more delicate and fragile being than the real gang leader, who was wonderfully named Alice Diamond and used her many rings as a glamorous knuckleduster. Miriam uses intelligence, guile and a pearl handled revolver instead. She’s an example of Cathcart Froden’s maxim that “you take something that’s true and you embellish it”. For Cathcart Froden this very different presentation of women his research unearthed “felt not of its time but was what women were asking to be, stronger than their male counterparts as they juggled family life and criminal ventures”. Miriam, the victim of abuse, is, like Paul, and Silas, indebted to the sinister, white suited Mr Morton. Her relationship with the naïve young cyclist Paul, allows her to finally trust someone. The scenes where she and Paul are intimate are described emotionally rather than physically. Explicit sex, Cathcart Froden says, is rarely written well. He “could happily murder someone on a page but … can’t write a believable sex scene”. Considering his character’s history, it also wasn’t something he wanted to describe. He felt it would have been voyeuristic and another kind of abuse. He’s very protective of Miriam, the writer replicating her relationship with the fictional Paul who becomes her champion.
There is a scene in the novel where Paul and another cyclist have their bikes adapted so they can pedal through pails of milk. There is an admission fee charged to watch the spectacle. In a smoke filled bar the winner of this absurd competition is the first cyclist to turn milk into butter. This monetary aspect, Cathcart Froden says, “is what gives sport its purpose. The scene shows sports’ basest nature, what it becomes when the medals, records and prizes are stripped away”. The cyclists are “a commodity the same as any other, whether it be bread, sugar, meat or people”.
I tell him about my primary school experience and what felt like an entire morning spent shaking a milk bottle until the milk inside changed to that magical, buttery consistency. “Clever teacher”, he says. “I’ll use that next time I teach. With low fat milk, it will take ages.”
The drugs the cyclists use without question, strychnine, ether, cocaine, amphetamines are described as an advancement rather than a corruption. Their consumption is routine. He creates clear parallels with recent cycling heroes and heroines. The six-day endurance race Paul takes part in, where cyclists pedal until they fall off their bikes in a hallucinatory state, Cathcart Froden says would have been impossible without artificial stimulants. There will be “many things we now accept that will be found in the future to be dangerous”. He cites the example of his grandparents taking a coach trip to Spain in the 1960’s and “the absurdity of them sitting, for the entire journey, in a fog of fifty people smoking.”
Cathcart Froden admires the work of Graham Greene and JG Ballard. Both authors describe the experience of being foreign, of being an outsider. As a Swede in Glasgow and as a well-travelled man, Cathcart Froden is also the “foreigner”; “I think any travel will inform and make for a better writing experience, let alone my conviction that the more you travel the less you’re likely to mistrust foreigners or people with other life experiences.” This view is shared in his novel by his protagonist, Paul, that shift from Highland Scotland to London as big a shift as the writer’s own journey from Sweden to Scotland and his trust in people beguiling.
English is Cathcart Froden’s second language. He’s clearly fluent but there is a difference in his phrasing at times, a greater care in how a sentence is framed. He describes how a phrase that is familiar in Swedish but unfamiliar in English can look particularly clever or elegant. The Swedish use of compound words is discussed. “Blixtlas” meaning “zip”, for example, literally translates as “lightning lock”. There are some issues with grammar which he is working to overcome, and for this his wife, his ‘beta’ reader, assists.
Cathcart Froden has written four other novels and is grateful that they remain in a drawer gathering dust. “They weren’t good enough”; he says. He did generously share the plot of his current novel with his audience on that strange stage at the Literary festival. An architect, embittered by his employment and its lack of creativity, designs a new prison. He incorporates an escape route so well designed no one will find it. Its construction comes complete with instructions on what assistance the architect will offer if someone does discover it. The inevitable happens.
Cathcart Froden tells me how the research for this new novel has aroused his interest in architecture. On the walk back to the railway station he is enthused by the juxtaposition of building styles Dundee University Campus offers, modernism against brutalism, classical next door to art nouveau, the clashes of brick, stone and concrete. His fiction explores the lives of others with his characters often being ‘in extremis’. The cyclist Paul, he says, “is Scottish, where there has long been a complicated relationship with religion, guilt, morality and hard work.” Paul retains an “essential goodness’” which becomes the heart of the book. All his work will have, I suspect, a sense of what is right at its heart.
Martin Cathcart Froden is clearly a very practical man, writing around serious commitments to his family, his employers and his students. He’s a curious man too, shifting through a range of topics and showing an intellectual’s interest in difficult subject matter. His curiosity will clearly lead him to other genres. Above all he has been a very kind and generous man. So thank you Martin Cathcart Froden!
Ed – The interview took place at the 2016 Dundee Literary Festival.