Mark Hodkinson was born in north Manchester and moved to Rochdale when he was ten years old. When he wasn’t out roaming the streets with his mates he could be found at home hammering away on his typewriter – ‘an act tantamount to declaring yourself homosexual’ from his neck of the woods. There he sat penning the various match reports and ponderings which would later find him fame as a writer, journalist and publisher. After writing a series of music biographies for Omnibus Press as well as stints as writer-in-residence at local football clubs he has now written his first novel Believe in the Sign. James Walker met up with him to discuss the difficulties of writing memoir, the state of the modern game and how to overthrow capitalism.
How did you break into journalism?
My route was very formal. I spent six months working with a freelance at the age of 16 and then did a year’s NCTJ course followed by six years on various local papers before going freelance. I was always faxing papers with ideas but the one taken up by The Times led to hundreds more commissions from them down the years. It sounds a bit glib when I tell people I got in there by just sending a fax. It came about because I was well grounded in journalism and absolutely relentless. It was always going to happen one day.
What advice would you give someone wanting to break into journalism?
I’m a big fan of the NCTJ system and stints at local papers. It teaches you to get on with people of all ages and from various backgrounds. I’m very proud that I’ve covered golden weddings, magistrates’ courts and all the nitty-gritty of life. I still carry it with me, all those experiences.
‘Believe in the Sign’ is part memoir and recounts true events from your life. What has been the reaction from your friends and family immortalised in print?
My mum was a bit upset. She thinks it ‘shows her up’. She thinks I’ve over-played the more downbeat aspects of my growing up and how much time I spent with mates just wandering about. She says it makes it appear as if she threw me out first thing in the morning and then let me back in when it got dark. She has a point but life was more like that then. There was much less interaction with our parents and more of the tribe element among kids. I think kids are stuck indoors now more with all the video games and everything and the culture has changed. My two lads, aged eight and ten, are not at all embarrassed of being out with me. I was always paranoid about being seen hanging around with my mum and dad, you just didn’t do it.
Writing about real people can cause major problems. Hanif Kureishi immediately springs to mind, particularly the level to which he has written about his partners. What advice would you offer writers wishing to take this path?
It’s actually irreconcilable, this dilemma. I have writer friends who are very cavalier about writing what the hell they like about whoever they like, kind of being slaves to the muse and bugger everyone else. I admire this stance to a point but see that it’s a fantastic cover for monumental selfishness. You’ve got to find your own path. Some reviews of my book have noted that my dad is an elliptical figure in it which is true. It couldn’t be anything else when I have a real life to lead and have to interact with him on an almost daily basis. I think the reader understands this intuitively and actually respects the decency and decorum a writer has to show a living, breathing person.
Your father made me smile in the book, in particular the way he would turn up at a city and look out for floodlights rather than plan his route - a tactic I employ myself. Have you inherited this trait?
No. I had enough of that as a kid and I remember how bad tempered and awful he was when we got lost. I plan it meticulously with the AA route finder thing and set off with hours to spare. Amazingly, I still get lost.
During my childhood I was subjected to John Denver and Bob Marley whenever my mum was ironing. You grew up with Elvis. How important do you think our parents influences are in shaping our own tastes?
My dad was Elvis. He actually looked like him: thick black hair in a quiff, jeans with the bottoms turned up, same build. When I hear his music (Elvis, not my dad’s!) I’m right back there. I’m always trying to get my kids to like good stuff that’s meant so much to my life but the buggers insist on Blink 182, Eminem, Red Hot Chilli Peppers and, weirdly, Don McLean. I have got them to like Fountains of Wayne lately, so I’m getting there slowly.
The Rochdale you describe is particularly rough, was this endemic of Britain as a whole during the 1970s or a northern thing?
I think the 1970s were horrible everywhere. There was very little to alleviate the boredom. It was probably worse in the north because it’s where all the industries were based and they were systematically shut down. I still hate Margaret Thatcher and just seeing her picture or hearing her voices gets me mad. She’s the Elvis thing in reverse.
What is Rochdale like today, both the city and the team?
The club is doing okay, holding its own in the bottom division with a decent young team taking shape. The town is a bloody mess, frankly. It has become really scruffy and a mis-match of cheap buildings thrown up. Another thing is it’s permanently congested with traffic. My dad still works in the town and can’t get anywhere. Just going to see Rochdale’s ground from my parents’ house involves a ridiculous detour to avoid jams and road works. God, I’m sounding like a moaning old bugger now. Perhaps I’ve always been that.
Why have you written the book now?
Much of the material is quite old. I found it on my pc and really enjoyed reading it, as if I was reading someone else’s work. I realised it was still fresh and honest and had a great sense of place
Our Forest super striker Grant Holt used to play for Rochdale and recollects having to wash his own kit when there. What can be done to reduce the massive gulf between rich and poor clubs?
I can’t believe he’s even mentioned this. He should be washing his own kit. Why not? Lots of things could be done to reduce the gulf, but it won’t be. It’s like lots could be done to alleviate poverty and suffering but that’s not going to happen either. We need to get enough right-thinking people together, form a collective, over-throw the government, abolish capitalism and greed and make a beautiful new world, man.
You juxtapose real life events with those of the club so that both kind of mirror each other (e.g. trouble in the pub/trouble on the terraces etc) When you came to write the book which set out the agenda, your life or Rochdale FC?
I didn’t worry about having an agenda. I just pieced it together as I wanted. I’ve spent a lot of time these past years trying to appease publishers and agents with my writing. With this one, I did exactly what I wanted to do. And, as so often happens, it has turned out to be my best work: I know this instinctively.
All other Pomona publications have an italicised ‘o’, yet this one does not. Is there a reason for this?
It’s my company and I can do what I like. And I do!
Why should readers buy this book?
I hope they’ll see their own life reflected back at them and feel the world is a smaller, better place. I’ve always been a man of lofty ambitions.
Are you working on anything at the moment?
Just started a book which is part-travelogue, state of the nation, fatherhood, memoir. I’m enjoying it which, I’ve decided, usually means it’s going to be pretty good.
Mark Hodkinson website
James K Walker website