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Ron Butlin - The Sound of My Voice

When Ron Butlin saw a man who’d just asked him the time throw himself under a train on the Paris Metro, it was a turning point in how his 1987 novel, The Sound Of My Voice, would turn out. Twenty years on, Butlin’s tale of suburban family man Morris Magellan’s existential crisis and his subsequent slide into alcoholism is regarded as a lost classic. Prime material, then, for the very intimate stage adaptation which opens in the Citizens Theatre’s tiny Stalls Studio tonight.

“I had this friend in London who was an alcoholic,” Butlin recalls. “He would go off to work in the civil service in the morning looking absolutely immaculate. Then at night we’d meet, and he’s get mega-blootered, then go home and continue drinking and end up in a really bad state. I remember staying over one night, and he’d emerge from his room looking immaculate again. There was this huge contrast between what was going on outside and what was going on inside.”

We’re sitting in a café on Edinburgh’s south side. Hanging above us is a print of Edward Hopper’s painting, Nighthawks. It’s a classic study of after-hours loneliness, and as far away from the cheery bonhomie of Cheers as it gets. While equally as desolate, no-one in The Sound Of My Voice ever walks into or out of a bar.

“The book’s not my friend’s story,” Butin maintains, “and it’s not mine. But it became about men in their mid-30s, who’ve achieved various things, but in a way painted themselves into a corner, and begin to wonder who they are and what on earth they’re doing. It was only at the end I realised I’d also put a lot in there from my own childhood. But the book’s not really about an alcoholic. It’s about all of us finding out who we are.”

The Sound Of My Voice arrived at an interesting time in Scottish letters. James Kelman and Alasdair Gray were breaking through the Oxbridge hegemony of fiction, opening the door for younger writers such as Gordon Legge and Duncan Mclean. While Butlin’s novel was published by Edinburgh’s Canongate, the neighbouring Polygon imprint was championing experimental fare. Under the editorship of Peter Kravitz, Edinburgh Review favoured Kelman and Gray alongside American influences such as Kathy Acker.

With cultural self-determination high on the agenda, placed next to such apparently counter-cultural company, Butlin’s work didn’t seem to fit. He neither made any claims to be representing the authentic voice of a particular class, nor was he demonstrably political or considered cool enough to be lumped alongside a newish wave of writers influenced by the American Beats and the European avant-garde.

A decade on, and with an even newer wave of home-grown novelists such as Irvine Welsh and Alan Warner about to go global, even a revitalised Canongate, now run by Jamie Byng, missed the boat. When Byng struck a deal with Kevin Williamson’s hip lit-zine Rebel Inc to publish a series of forgotten classics with forwards penned by the new generation, Knut Hamsun and Richard Brautigan were there, but Butlin wasn’t. This despite the likes of John Fante’s Ask The Dust, which covers remarkably similar terrain as Butlin’s book, receiving plaudits in the Rebel Inc Classics catalogue. Butlin’s second novel, Night Visits, sold a mere 87 copies. No review copies had been sent out, and an invisible profile for the book was guaranteed.

“In the 90s I was really having difficulty getting work published,” Butlin remembers. “No-one would take a risk on it. Some publishers even said my books were too short, and there was me thinking they went for depth rather than length.”

Only in 2002, when Irvine Welsh was asked by the New York based Village Voice to name a book he considered to be a lost classic was The Sound Of My Voice looked at afresh. By this time, with fifteen years of hindsight, it was clear that Morris’ meltdown wasn’t just an isolated incident. The book now reads as a historical testament of how Thatcherite values could damage not just the individuals its philosophy put first, but the entire society it denied even existed.

“It hadn’t really crossed my mind that it was political,” Butlin admits. “But Irvine mentioned it in his new introduction to the book, and perhaps if it had been more overt it might have been taken up quicker. It’s ironic, really because a lot of the work I write now is far more political. In a way what happens to Morris is a metaphor for the whole shebang. People had their filofaxes and everything else appears right, but inside they were falling apart. He was in total denial that he was in any pain, and used alcohol to anesthetise him. But it’s only after he witnesses a suicide that he starts to wake up.”

For the book, Butlin reimagined his own experience on the Paris Metro.

“I couldn’t take it in,” he says of the event, “but it must have gone very deep inside me, and it was only once I was writing the book that it came out. I think for Morris, this was the trigger for him for things beginning to fracture inside of him, and then eventually he begins to acknowledge that things aren’t right, and begins to feel his pain.”

The Citizens has a strong track record of adapting contemporary Scottish novels for the stage. Irvine Welsh’s work in particular has featured strongly, with versions of Trainspotting, Marabou Stork Nightmares and Glue all appearing on the main stage. It was here too an adaptation of the late Jeff Torrington’s Swing Hammer Swing appeared, while Louise Welsh’s The Cutting Room was made flesh in the Circle Studio.

The Sound Of My Voice will be the first time the Citz’s Stalls Studio has been used for some time. Given the book’s champion, it seems fitting that it opens in the same space as the stage version of Welsh’s book, Filth.

Since Welsh’s stamp of approval, The Sound Of My Voice, Night Visits and Butlin’s most recent novel, Belonging, have been reissued by Serpent’s Tail, who also have an option on Butlin’s forthcoming fourth work. As ever, though, Butlin’s canon doesn’t quite fit with Serpent’s Tail’s self-proclaimed back catalogue of ‘outsider’ fiction. Butlin remains nonplussed about his status. But then, given how busy he is, why should he be otherwise?

As we talk, Butlin is about to set off on a series of workshops and readings in Aberdeen. He’s also just been appointed as Edinburgh’s Makar, a three year appointment as the city’s poet laureate.

It’s not just Butlin for whom things have turned out well. The friend who partly inspired The Sound Of My Voice is living a far quieter life now. How much, one wonders, could the same be said for Morris?

“I would like to think that he’s put his wife and family a bit closer to the heart of his life,” Butlin muses, “and was less impressed by external success. But like anybody who’s ever been damaged, recovery is never a straight line. Maybe he’s made it, but maybe he hasn’t. The world’s a lot more vicious now. “The moral bankruptcy is more evident now, and people are paying for their greed with the credit crunch. But I hope he’s survived.”

The Sound Of My Voice, Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, Tonight-June 7

The Herald, May 20th 2008

Ends

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