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David Barnett
David Barnett

Urban myths!

Bradford journalist David Barnett is fascinated by all that is strange in life. So much so that now he's turned to fiction to explore some of those weird things we all take for granted...

What is the shadowy beast that roams the moors?  Who is watching the streets? What about the lost girls? These are just some of the questions asked by Bradford writer David Barnett in his first novel.

By day David is Head of Features at Bradford's Telegraph and Argus. By night he explores some of the stranger things of life through the medium of fiction. David explains: "It's these stories based around modern life, not as far as ghosts or monsters are concerned, but just these kind of left-field happenings that we kind of take for granted. It's the strangeness of contemporary life really. I think generally what we take as the mundane, if we stop and look at it closely, is quite weird. There are lots of weird things all around us especially in urban and suburban areas. If you stop for a minute and think about some of the things we hurry past, I think we sit back and say, 'That's a bit odd,' when we think about it. It's this stripping away of the layers and looking at the very ordinary with the fresh eyes of the character I've been trying to achieve with the book."

Detail from the book cover of Hinterland
'The strangeness of contemporary life...'

His novel Hinterland features a young journalist who suddenly finds himself in a nightmarish world: "They say write what you know and journalism is all I know, having worked in newspapers since I left sixth form college. He works on a local newspaper in a northern town that's never named, but it has memories and pieces of different towns I've known and worked in. It's the story of him either descending into madness brought on by modern life, or he's uncovering a vast conspiracy of strange goings-on. The point of the book is to make the reader feel as though he is never quite sure if he is party to some strange, slightly supernatural, slightly 'X' Files-y goings-on or whether life's just become too much for him and his domestic situation. He's got quite a complicated love life, he's been known to be too reliant on drink and drugs and he gets into this spiral where you never know whether the things he is seeing and experiencing are actually happening or whether it's all in his mind.  By the end of the book it hopefully becomes clear to the reader.

"The strange things that happen in the book are all based on urban folklore and modern myths, the things that you read about in the short paragraphs in newspapers. Every couple of years you get some sheep slaughtered on the moors by a big black beast. One of my favourites which makes it into the book is the crying boy story which is based on one of these mass-produced really cheesy, kitschy paintings which you used to see a lot in the 1960s and 1970s of a big wide-eyed boy with a tear running down his cheek. You got variations of this in almost every working-class household but there was a series of house fires of varying degrees of seriousness and this painting of the crying boy was always untouched by the flames. It became an urban legend with the crying boy starting these house fires. I think a few happened around Bradford and when I came to Bradford I came across a similar sort of stories in the newspaper files."

But has being a journalist helped or hindered his efforts to establish himself as a novelist? "They say every journalist has a book in their top drawer, finished or unfinished. It's always something that's kind of worked in tandem with my journalism but also separate from it.  I see the journalism and the writing as two very different things just linked by the act of putting words together.

"It’s the strangeness of contemporary life really. I think generally what we take as the mundane, if we stop and look at it closely, is quite weird."
David Barnett

"I think the best journalistic writing doesn't simply have to be a stilted relaying of facts. I think even with a basic news story there's a way to write that's entertaining and interesting and attractive to a reader. I think if you are a good journalist, and you've got a nice writing style within the parameters of news reporting or feature writing, it can inform and help fiction writing. I think my style is quite journalistic and quite sparse and I don't overload it with purple prose and too much explanation, definition and description."

David believes that experience always has to inform writing. As a reporter he has visited Kosovo and Bosnia. He says: "When I went to Kosovo it was a few days after the Serbs had pulled the tanks out of Pristina. It was quite heart-breaking to see a country shattered by war and to see first hand what I had only previously read about or watched on TV and to realise it's not just something that happens in a faraway country, that people very much like us are caught up in this...The art of good fiction is stories about people and the situations you put people in that readers can relate to. Working as a journalist for 17 years you do meet a lot of people and their experiences and lives do rub off on you."

Writing is not the only thing David gets up to in his spare time. He's in a band called Choppersquad who nowadays mostly do weddings and christenings. He thinks they may well be adding funerals to this list before too long. Although most of Choppersquad's gigs take place in Lancashire, David does have some definite views on the Bradford music scene: "I think Bradford is to Leeds what Salford used to be to Manchester. There's a great number of fantastic bands out of Salford – we are talking about the Fall and bands like that – who resolutely didn't want to be classed as Manchester bands and why should they because Salford is a city in its own right even though it's just a five minute walk from Manchester. There's that kind of attitude in Bradford. If you are in the shadow of somewhere which is bigger and has more resources you have to try that much harder and I think it shows in the collective spirit."

misty moor
A shadowy beast roams the moors!

All this talk of Leeds and Bradford leads on to a discussion of a very different type of urban myth which David feels very strongly about: "I think Bradford's problem, or rather other people's problems with Bradford, is that its name has become shorthand for anything to do with northern inner city deprivation and racial tension. I think it's lazy journalism that says if we need to do a story about somewhere that's got a lot of problems, let's go to Bradford, when, in reality, Bradford is no different from any other northern city. You go to Leeds and it's nice and shiny in the centre but its got the same communities and it's got the same problems. I think it's just a perception that's grown up and it's become a tired old cliché. I think it's very unfair.

"Leeds has this reputation of being a big art scene and clubbing mecca. When I was growing up Leeds was another northern sink hole. Bradford obviously needs the money and the investment and at the moment it looks like a building site or a bomb site but if everyone involved in regeneration earns their money and brings in the involvement that's needed  - be that big name stores or the long talked about café society atmosphere - then the people who live on the outskirts might give Bradford a try instead and it could become good."

And it looks as though things might be coming together for David's career as a novelist. Two more novels are with his newly acquired agent. One, set in the present, looks at the 'sinister reasons' which may explain why there are so many reality TV shows.

The other is set in 16th century Prague against a background of European empire-building but with some of the action based around an anti-globalisation protest in 21st century Prague. David adds: "There are these parallels between the empires of old and the commercial empires of today. I try not to be overtly political because I think if people are going to read politics they will buy a political book and first and foremost you've got to tell a good story about interesting characters. I don't preach or editorialise in my writing but my characters might do." 

last updated: 04/07/06
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