Cat Arnold is one of the councillors you ring up when dog pooh needs removing from the street or you need a new wheelie bin. But she’s also the author of three non-fiction books about London. The latest, City of Sin: London and its Vices, has caused some controversy, being described as a history of prostitution. We caught up with her to find out why we’re all so obsessed with sex, her fascination with the darker shades of life, and why she’d like to see some politicians sent off to boot camp...
With six books under your belt and occasional reviewing for the broadsheets, why bother being a councillor?
A job keeps you tethered and in touch with reality. Writing is a very solitary task which can be really unhealthy.
Has the recession affected publishing?
I feel really lucky and privileged to be given another publishing contract in today’s environment because as with other industries, they’re making cuts and saving money where possible. This has created a different problem as now they want books a lot quicker. For my fourth instalment in the London project – this time on crime, they want 90,000 words in ten months!
But you’ve got google to do all the hard work…
It’s not just about the knowledge, it’s the creativity needed to bring it all together and then making it interesting for your average reader on the tube. There’s also a lot of obscure stuff I need to physically look at such as books, almanacs and pamphlets, as well as visiting particular areas of London. I tend to use Cambridge and London libraries a lot but it can be very time consuming, such as when I wrote Necropolis and had to work my way across London (shows directions using table utensils), in the snow on a bank holiday, to visit various cemeteries. It was knackering, I lost half a stone! But you need to see these places to feel them. It was the same when I researched for Bedlam which is now the Imperial War Museum. They use the old cells as offices but it still retains an atmosphere. One of the office workers there said they still didn’t like going down into the basement where the stationary is kept because it was just eerie.
Do you think you can sense pain?
It’s very subjective. Some people will be rational and say there’s no such thing as ghosts etc but I do believe a place has an atmosphere and if you’re sensitive enough, you can tune in to it. Of course you can impose your own fantastical constructs on anything, but this doesn’t mean others can’t feel a place.
Your books jump from one interesting fact to the next…
Keeping the attention span is something my editor and agent are always going on about. It’s the zeitgeist and curse of publishing. Nowadays we’re always competing for attention as a viewer, reader and listener in a way that we never were before. Traditional media was all a lot more unified and communal.
What have I become?
So will you be doing a Susan Maushart (The Winter of our Disconnects) and switching off the plugs...
I heard her on the radio the other day and oh, she is so annoying. I think her problem is she wanted her children’s full and undivided attention and felt a little left out; just let go. She said they would be listening to music, checking emails, watching TV etc so couldn’t hear her. Well my children do that all the time and have no problem digesting lots of information and can still remember cogent things – like how much money I owe them. I think she wants to hark back to the olden days when you all sat around the radio together but let’s not forget, back then a lot of people were bored out of their skulls.
Which period of history would you like to go back to if you could?
I’d be a steampunk Elizabethan. That’s to say I’d like some of the things from the 21st century, things that just make life easier, like antibiotics – without which I wouldn’t be alive, and a laptop. But I’d also, in many ways, be quite comfortable with Elizabethan society, the horse and the harpsichord, writing poetry and conducting all sorts of nefarious intrigues. When we look back in history no one imagines being a thirteenth century serf, we all think we’d be the reincarnation of Cleopatra.
Are things better for people nowadays?
I’m quite positive about the plight of the human race. I think we’ve become more caring. We have more insight and awareness into the human condition. In the past, people lived in their own little bubble. I’ve just re-read Siegfried Sassoon’s Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man. He lived a fairly privileged life brought up as a country gentleman. After his parents died young he became a feudal aristocrat without obligation to help look after people on his estate and so lived in blissful ignorance of the rest of the world and what was going on beyond the walls of the estate. I think now we are all aware of the cruelty and injustice of the world. Now we have an awareness of humanity, of gift aid, of charity, of helping noble causes.
I’m surprised at this positive attitude given that your research has revealed a lot of cruel and brutal material…
I’ve met a few pathologists and coroners who’ve always impressed me by being quite upbeat which just happens as a way of coping when you’re routinely subjected to this grimness. But I think we all have a dark side and I feel comfortable delving into these darker and unpleasant aspects of the human condition. If I wasn’t happy and didn’t have a lovely family, I may find it more difficult.
Bedlam: London and its mad was a previous study by Cat Arnold
I guess you've confronted your own mortality …
Dante said there are only really three things you can write about, love war and death. So in a sense – apart from war which only has a tangential sense in my work – love, death, sex, capital punishment, madness, they’re all big topics and they’re all things that interest people. There was a book The Denial of Death that took the existential line that a lot of people are in denial about these things; they need to distract themselves with things like celebrity gossip and memoirs because they can’t face this big, vast scary irrational universe. I’ve confronted my own mortality in many ways and I’m not scared anymore.
You started out writing fiction but moved on to historical work...
In a crude way it was unfortunately a response to market forces and what people want to read. I had a new agent at the time who said ‘have you considered writing on a topic rather than a ‘plot’?’ This appealed as it could be anecdotal, have a narrative, and use my other skills – I’d spent four years as a feature writer. It was at this point that I realised that London as a genre of non-fiction was a huge operation. The Waterstones on Oxford St has a massive wall filled on the subject – comedy London, London and food, Jewish London etc. After this I realised people wanted storytelling, anecdotes, short facts that were as riveting as possible to make some kind of continual narrative.
Tell us more about how your work experience has shaped you as a writer…
Every single thing I’ve ever done has been useful. I’ve done shorthand and typing and learned speed; being a local reporter and subeditor at the Post gave me an eye for standout killer facts and sound bites; university lecturing helped me simplify complex theories and arguments to make them accessible, which helps with talks such as the one I’ll be doing at the library.
If you could have four figures from history over for dinner, who would they be?
Vita Sackville-West because she was a very interesting character, quite an ‘out’ lesbian of her day, who was lucky to have the privilege and wealth to get away with what she did. She was quite a good writer as well and overshadowed by Virginia Woolf.
Christopher Marlowe – poet, playwright, writer, spy, homosexual. I’d like to find out if he was actually murdered in Deptford on the orders of the authorities or if he simply got into a fight about a rent boy.
Dr Johnson because he would really annoy me. He was very bright and sparky and interesting and I suppose Charles Dickens because he was a really good storyteller and he could give me some tips.
Does being a historian help in your role as a councillor?
When someone’s fence has fallen down or they’re complaining about dog pooh, they don’t care whether I write in my spare time. They just want it fixing or taking away. But I’ve stood up in council meetings and said ‘as a historian I find these cuts deplorable’ because I can see it will take us back to the 80s – not the 1980s but the 1880s. It’s the same with Tristram Hunt – a broadcaster, columnist, historian and now MP for Stoke-on-Trent Central. There was a big fuss about him being elected above a local candidate. But he has studied politics over the centuries and can see how politics works as he has an informed position which will hopefully make him better at his job. The background can be useful.
What do you think about the recent demonstrations?
Obviously the violence is deplorable but what’s been interesting is to see younger people motivated because the last time I was at university about eight years ago, I was rather dismayed at the lack of interest in political matters. Now people who weren’t politicised before have become energised. The humour of it as well. One placard I read said ‘I’ll never meet my Prince at Uni now’. So there’s a party element which creates solidarity. The other interesting thing is this stuff is going horizontally rather than through a political party. It’s issue-based and coming through new media.
But will it really make a difference?
I think it can. It’s easy to be cynical but that’s what they want you to believe. You read the Tory press and they will just trash everything and I know this because I’ve worked for them. The student protests, which I find very real, brave, invigorating and vital to the democratic process, is dismissed as ‘a few fillies from the Pony club’ protesting. Alistair Campbell said it first; it’s the media that set the position in this country, not the parties. Take what happened with Charles and Camilla which has shaped the debates and taken away from what people were protesting about, my initial thought was what on earth were they doing heading towards an area where there is a potential riot? I worked briefly for the police a few years ago and it seems an illogical thing to do to have taken that route.
Are you suggesting that this was perhaps deliberate?
No. No, I wouldn’t dare suggest that. (Laughs) The point is that protests work and they’ve worked in the past as the Poll Tax riots showed. Again I’m not condoning riots, but demonstrations are good. The Poll Tax proved to be such an iniquitous tax that the British public, who do tend to take a lot of things lying down, just wouldn’t accept it.
And these cuts?
It’s hitting the most vulnerable. Take the VAT, the average family will be paying an extra £150 a year just on utility bills. There’s no disposable income left for people so there isn’t anything left to spend in the shops. Next they’re going to take an axe to Sure Start and it won’t stop. I really believe the poor are getting a kicking. It’s hard to take from a millionaire chancellor. It’s crass. We’re tightening our belts and shivering in our homes and they’re out skiing.
The expense scandal has done irrevocable damage. Can people still have faith in politics?
Well I only work in local politics because I think here I can make a difference and stay connected. But I think people expect too much out of politicians on a national level. There’s always been outstanding politicians of integrity and one or two rogues. The point is the expense scandal came out at the time of the election and so had the effect of making all politicians looks bad, which I think suited the Tory press again as it meant Labour took the flak. All you can do as a politician is to remember you were put in there by the public to do something constructive, so do it. People want local services sorted and I think in the Westminster bubble, people lose sight of the basics – the price of milk, queuing for a bus.
The Ghost by Robert Harris is about a politician who gets in a writer to help him with his memoirs and he’s got this massive entourage around him like he’s royalty. I’ve seen one or two notable politicians campaigning who’ve forgotten how to hand out a leaflet. Perhaps they should be sent off to a ‘councillor boot camp’ to get them back in to shape.
Once upon a time there was Bacchanalia. Now there's Oceana...
In City of Sin you discuss girls who do lap dancing to get through a PhD. With student fees and the cost of living going up so dramatically, do you think more will be tempted in to the sex industry?
I think it will happen. I don’t think it’s a good idea, I don’t think it’s ever a good idea to enter it because I don’t think you’re ever fully in control of it. It’s not something, (pauses) I’d ever advise my daughters to do if they are desperate for money, but I understand why they do it. People have to survive and make choices.
Have conditions for prostitutes got better?
The Romans had sex slaves brought over to satiate their armies; presumably there wasn’t enough women in England or not the right kind. The slave trade was part of their culture anyway and so they brought over women from all parts of the Roman Empire. It was pretty grim for the women as they were put in these shacks and used to service the garrison. There wasn’t even a proper bed.
95% of women involved in prostitution now are drug dependent. You only need to go and see Sue Johnson at POW
- the prostitute outreach project - and she’ll tell you the same. They’re on the game because they have a drug habit. It’s very, very sad. Their bodies have been ravaged by the drug and you wonder what kind of predatory bastards would/could go with someone so tired and desperate.
City of Sin goes someway to explaining why we’re so obsessed with sex …
It’s something we all do. We’re all in the world because of sex. I tried to explain the book to one person and they looked at me and said, it’s just not interesting and I said, how can that not be interesting? Everyone is interested in sex because it’s about what other people are doing. It’s that element of gossip. Of Prurience. Titillation. My book is very ‘carry on’ London in that sense. It’s about humanity and the strange and weird things people go through. There’s something about the English character which is puritanical and disapproving and absolutely fascinating at the same time. I think this has something to do with our inability to express our emotions and so it becomes repressed and suppressed and pops out (laughs) at inappropriate times. That’s why we have the culture of smut and Viz magazine.
Catharine Arnold will be speaking at Nottingham Central Library on Wednesday 19 October as part of the Autumn Leaves programme. 7pm, free.