Lucy Holden is let through the drawbridge of Guardian towers to talk anxiety, madness and famous faces with features-journalist and king of interviews, Simon Hattenstone.
Thrown up in a history of brain damage, vanilla truffles and The Dark Side Of The Moon is a clear and unavoidable past. Hattenstone can really talk. He’s interviewed everyone from Nicki Minaj to John Cooper Clarke, from Cheryl Cole to, dare I say it, Jimmy Savile. In bed. He’s the only journalist to have met Banksy face to face; had Helen Mirren admit she was a fetishist; talked the American dream with Jay Z in his corporate bird’s nest of an office overlooking the Empire State.
We get a pint and a glass of wine, and a little bowl domed with Bombay mix, and sit down by the Kings Cross canals, a charmingly calm spot hidden by the modern glass extremity of the infamous Guardian towers. It’s very windy. Hattenstone suggests I cut my hair.
The difficulties of interviewing an interviewer are immediately clear. Hattenstone used to go to Leeds University too; his curiosity leaks. “What degree are you doing then?”; “what are these interviews for – who else have you spoken to?”; “is Brudenell Social Club still good?” When I tell Hattenstone I’m supposed to be interviewing him he apologises, leaning back in his chair. “Have some Bombay mix” he offers. There’s a glint in his eye. The thing is though, in no way is Hattenstone intimidating. He is one of the most un-pretentious people you could meet. Very relaxed, he watches you with huge, almost black eyes, popping Bombay mix into his mouth like a parrot. He’s almost overly relaxed; it leans back to the dangerous brink of passivity he’s been a little too close to in younger years. One that allowed him to listen to a girlfriend’s father beating her mother downstairs, allowed him to be stubbed with cigarettes and chased with a crowbar at school, allowed him to been molested by a friend’s older brother.
Politicised by a dark, tempestuous childhood of illness and heavy gin-drinking, Hattenstone felt teendom had knocked the stuffing out of him; he thought he was ready to settle into “boring middle age”. When I question this early retirement now though, there’s only one answer: “bullshit”. Shouting “bullshit” too was a broken Roger Stevens window and a few swirls of graffiti in Leeds. But still, he was exhausted. “For many people Uni was this great, free thing, they were discovering sex and alcohol but I’d kind of done all that”, he allows. “My teenage years were so weird; so compressed – I think I was just a bit fucked-up, a bit depressed.”
The cause? A few lines of rigid type-print in the British Medical Journal reporting that the length of Hattenstone’s illness should not have left life in his veins. This was the Encephalitis that struck him when he was nine-years-old; a swelling of the brain similar to, but deadlier than, Meningitis. For three years Hattenstone lay in the dark, either at hospital or at home, without seeing another soul; he barely saw his own. Can he explain what it felt like? “I felt like my head was about to explode”, he says starkly. “I went mad. A lot of my brain is dead now as a result – I can’t tell left from right anymore so I’m really bad at directions and stuff.”
When it was over, Hattenstone not only had to repair his health, but his relationship with his father. At first, he’d not believed his son was ill. Alone, they’d sit in Hattenstone’s room listening to Pink Floyd; the slow, melancholy chords of The Dark Side Of The Moon gradually patching a damaged trust between father and son. “It was perfect because it was about brain damage and the evil of capitalism and voices in your head, and all the things I knew about”, Hattenstone recollects.
Hattenstone’s illness, one of constant, excruciating pain, loneliness, frustration, would have caused a lot of people to lie down and play dead. When Hattenstone eventually got back to school, the other boys hadn’t expected to see him again. They had gathered a small collection for his funeral. Yet very often, it seems it is these periods of turmoil which instil in someone a curiosity, a desire, to hear about other peoples’ lives, to make a difference. Sensibility evolves from the intensity of compressed feelings; an intensity that caused Hattenstone to see his teenage years in shocking primary colours.
He is, therefore, a natural interviewer, but his confidence, like many people’s, sways. It is clearly an insecurity Hattenstone struggles with even now. “Confidence is such a fickle thing”, he says, speaking from experience. “It takes years to build, seconds to lose”. Most frightening though was the fear that Hattenstone would be exposed; he feared he was a fake and was waiting for those around him to pick up on it. It was an abstract terror built upon a mesh of anxieties; irrational and numerous; “fear of being exposed as thick, for fancying her or her, for not being funny, for being miserable, for having a face that refused to smile, for not wanting to be here, or anywhere”. Hattenstone believes the painful exhilaration of these years was a result of a difficult mix of personality – one side loudly extrovert and one side cripplingly shy. A degree of fearlessness stemmed from the survival of a crippling disease, the joie de vivre in experiencing a world fresh with colour, air. But the very memory of that illness persuaded Hattenstone that maybe he was weak. Gin became an ally as it poured itself down his throat, swelling his blood stream with potent alcohol in order to convince him he wasn’t an “antisocial git” for a few hours. Deep down he couldn’t remember why he’d wanted to be around people at all.
A consequence of doubting youth perhaps, but also a menacing result of illness. After 30 years his headaches have finally stopped but has his confidence returned? Our answer comes not from Hattenstone, but his friend, Sam Wollaston, the Guardian‘s television critic, who’s wandered over with a pint. He’s tall, with ragged auburn hair and a mischievous shimmer in his eye that shimmers onto the chair he pulls out from the table. “What was the question?” he asks, “I’ll give you a proper answer”; Hattenstone’s face creases with amusement. The million-dollar question rolls again: how long did it take Simon Hattenstone to get his confidence back? Wollaston’s quip is quick: “I don’t think he’s ever got it back – sometimes he tells people exactly what he thinks of them but at other times he can be horrendously shy”. A fair assessment? Hattenstone agrees. “It’s not an act – they’re just like simultaneous personalities. Now-a-days they call it schizophrenia” he jokes.
Agreed is the advantage of these traits when it comes to interviewing – they allow you to ask those sometimes-brutal questions you must. When a friend of Hattenstone’s suggested he ask Woody Allen how he got such attractive girls without the fortune of looks himself, Hattenstone felt it was his duty to ask, being there, really, as a representative of the public. Luckily the gamble paid off; Allen pleased to be asked something he’d been wondering for so long himself. Alan Bennett, too, commended Hattenstone on his blunt style, enjoying the novelty of being written up as a dirty old man instead of the usual dullness of a national treasure. But, the approach doesn’t always work. Leonardo Di Caprio stormed out at half-time after Hattenstone asked why the middle patch of his movies had been a “bag of shite”. Lou Reed got so aggressive Hattenstone thought he was going to be hit by the king of rock.
“Who was that one that hated your recently?” Wollaston grins. Hattenstone’s thinking; there seems to have been a few. When they settle on actress Julia Davis, there’s still a touch of confusion in Hattenstone’s voice; she requested to be interviewed by someone else. The reason? They were on the set of a costume drama Davis was starring in and Hattenstone held a ten-minute conversation with her before realising who she was. She, and her publicist, were appalled, but Hattenstone’s indignation is palpable. “She was in fucking costume! She wasn’t supposed to look like herself – it was a compliment.” We’re grinning; he tries a different, less-exasperated angle. “I thought it was good – I’d been really nice to her before I knew she was famous.” Apparently his defence didn’t carry much weight. “Zadie Smith hated you too”, Wollaston chips in with seeming innocence, but Hattenstone’s hackles are high. “Well that really thin one with the chin hated you”, he competes, trying a starter-for-ten: “actress. English.” Wollaston looks confused. They direct a searching glance in my direction. Keira Knightley? Sighs of recognition descend through the air. “Yeah she really did hate me” Wollaston grants. Between them they seem to have pissed off some pretty big names.
Easier is it though, to get across the impression of an interviewee when it is a negative one, Hattenstone believes. “People are usually on their best behaviour, and then they give little bits away”, he reveals. But the personal-element of interaction between interviewer and interviewee was something that used to make Hattenstone neurotic; he worried that his judgement was colouring the piece, but, as interviewer, removing yourself entirely is almost impossible.
“I used to make it much clearer if I didn’t like someone, but I’m really doing it for the Guardian now and so it would be ridiculous to write someone off as boring. I would never say anything dishonest, but unless they’ve done something really vile, I wouldn’t just slate them. Cheryl Cole was boring, but she wasn’t horrible. And if a person’s a real twat, they usually hang themselves – you don’t need to judge. But I do seem to like people more these days. I’m more tolerant- but I do interview less cocks.”
When cartoonist Pascal Wyse comes over to join Wollaston, Hattenstone ushers them both away. He’s become self-conscious.
I’m interested in the effect these former years had on what he now does; Hattenstone’s route through journalism is paved by tale-telling flag-stones; miscarriages of justice he believed should be honoured in the press. He’s covered some harrowing tales. “Oh yeah – I’m Mr Misery, me”, Hattenstone chuckles. Smoothly, he learnt to use panicked editors and the empty nature of a celebrity-interview slot to his advantage, suggesting alternative interviewees he knew were looking to raise awareness for cases of justice in the courts. Duwayne Brooks, the best friend of black teenager Stephen Lawrence, who was killed in a vicious racist attack in London in 1993, being just one example. Hattenstone knew the public would be interested in Brooks’ point of view, and that Brooks himself would be desperate for people to hear his story. He even went on to help Brooks with his autobiography, Steve and I, a publication in which he was allowed, at last, to express his anger, confusion, grief.
Hattenstone’s twist of the press does seem quite personal, and although he says he’s never thought about it, he agrees. “Part of it goes back to being ill. In a weird way it politicised me – not that I knew that at the time.” For the final stages of recovery, Hattenstone was let back to school, but not his previous one.
The self-named Crumpsall Open Air School for Mongs, was Hattenstone’s new home; a gathering by the state of children they didn’t think were fit for the ‘normal’ schools some of them had transferred from; kids with Down’s Syndrome, learning difficulties, juvenile delinquency, illness. “Beforehand I was very clever, very elitist, without even realising it. But I became really bilious and I distorted the life I had previously, and hated it. Being ill gave me sympathy for the underdog.”
Apt then, that Hattenstone describes his route into journalism as “torturous”. But torturous is good, he says, if you can hack it. “I love journalism – It really pisses me off when people say it’s a CD profession. It’s fantastic. Obviously if you want to get rich it’s not great; it’s even more of a struggle now.” He’s talking about a modern world where print-journalism is a dying-trade, and publications like GQ are taking on assistant features editors at minimum wage: “not even London-living wage. It’s disgusting.” Whilst sales at the Guardian decrease constantly, its global reach remains huge. But Hattenstone believes journalism is reinventing itself. “It’s got to – an economic model has to emerge.”
Plus, journalism does have the ability to do good. “There are exploitative journos – I’d be lying if I said everything I did was really moralistic. But there are so many ways of writing to help people or inform people; by covering miscarriages of justice, or just sharing your passion for music, or film. Whatever the fashion – it doesn’t have to be really righteous or noble.”
“I did notice that you’ve written a lot of…” I start, but Hattenstone interrupts, predicting my next question. His voice creeps a little higher. “I did notice that you’ve… written a lot of crap over the years. Do you not feel kind of embarrassed about it – looking back – thinking how much crap has been published?” He’s grinning; reaching for the Bombay mix. What I’d wondered was, does Hattenstone believe the maxim teachers get labelled with is true for jouros too? He replaced his teenage-desire to be a footballer with a sports column many years ago – if you can’t do it, do you write about it? Yes and no: “sports journalists are often like that, they’ve either been really good at it, or still are. And the same with arts, especially in theatre. But generalist writers are less so.”
So who’s left in Hattenstone’s little black book of hopeful interviews? Not the re-elected American president for starters, but his wife, Michelle, who Hattenstone thinks would be more interesting. “I’d really love to interview Mohammed Ali with his daughter, and Aretha Franklin, and Sly Stone” – the 60s American funk-musician famous for carrying a violin case of illegal drugs everywhere he went – “because he’s mad, and brilliant”, Hattenstone adds.
Madness might just be the reason for Hattenstone keeping out of this A-list circle in his personal life, and he agrees he tends to get on with the more ‘normal’ interviewees better. Ken Loach, Sheila Hancock, Ronnie O’Sullivan are all fairly good friends, but Hattenstone seems to be fairly disinterested in fame in general. “I’m so glad my life’s not based around journalists or famous people. I think it’d be so unhealthy”. What is his impression of fame after interviewing many of the world’s most talked about people? Simple. “It just fucks you up doesn’t it? Gives you really twisted values; makes you live in this vain little bubble of your own.”
And so fame and madness come full circle, it seems Hattenstone has been remarkably close to both. Only years after the rejuvenating period of The Dark Side of the Moon did Hattenstone realise that these sessions were healing a mesh of depression in his father’s head also, an on-going fight against the anxiety which took his own father’s mind when he was a much younger man. Hattenstone’s father became terrified he’d meet the same end, his paranoia about mental hospitalisation haunting him until it became heartbreakingly inevitable. “At one stage he just went bonkers” Hattenstone says, his private world of madness colliding with the public. Does he think he’ll end up the same way? He laughs. “I hope so. Well – I don’t… but it wouldn’t surprise me”. Perhaps Sly Stone might even be there with his violin case.