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THE LOW LIFE AND TIMES OF MIKE DUFF, ROOFTOP RAFFERTY AND THE HAT CHECK BOY

 

by Andrew Vaughan

 

 

The whereabouts of Rafferty and Duncan the Drunk (AKA The Hat Check Boy) maybe unknown but I meet Mike Duff in The Castle on Oldham Street, Manchester. It is Duff's type of pub. A proper pub and even more so a proper Mancunian pub. For Mike Duff as well as being a poet, Bon Viveur and author is also a proud Mancunian. And it is his pride in that city and the city itself that is at the heart of his poetry and novels. No more so than in his latest novel 'The Hat Check Boy': an extraordinary tale of a man clinging to the ropes and looking for one last chance. It's moving, it's hilarious, it's tragic, it's beautiful and it's the best book you'll read this year.

 

To find out how we got to this moment in time we got the pints of Robbies in, discussed the genius of Bob Dylan, the death of Kurt Vonnegut and unsavoury characters such as Strange Steve and Crazy Karen as well as what makes Mike Duff tick.

 

SWINE: You obviously love Manchester and it is at the core of your work, can you tell us what Manchester means to you?

 

MIKE DUFF: Yeah it's my home and when away on holiday I find it refreshing to hear a Mancunian voice. I obviously love the city but I'm not saying it's better than anywhere else. Like the rivalry between Manchester and Liverpool doesn't bother me as we're all the same really.

 

That said I'm from a very old Manchester family. My Nana was a Hawker and was born in Hanging Ditch - in fact on the same spot where the CIS Building is now. When it was first opened she went in and they tried to throw her out and she was saying "you can't throw me out I was born here"! My Granddad was born on Deansgate and worked as a bookie and a loan shark. I was born in a pre-fab in Cheetham Hill before moving (at the age of 9) to an upstairs maisonette in Miles Platting. With a flat roof! They cleared all the slums and then built new housing with flat roofs. I mean everybody knows how much it rains in Manchester. Also ours was next to the rubbish chute that stunk to high heaven in summer and would get infested with flies. And then in winter the underfloor heating never worked so it would be freezing. All that said and done it was alright and we had a good time. Going round the estate and down to the canal just doing things that young lads do.

 

S: When did you first become interested in writing?  

 

MD: Although I pretty much messed about at school there was an English teacher called Mr O'Hanlahan that encouraged me to read out my poems. I'd be about 11 or 12 and I didn't have anything published until I was 45!

 

Poetry was my first love and although I've had some success with prose I still see myself as a poet. After poetry I got into songwriting. Around 1976/77 we used to go up the Electric Circus to ambush the punks but I started to like the music and then really got into it and started writing punk songs.

 

S: So what happened in the years from then until Low Life was published and did you always have the dream of being a published writer?

 

MD: I always remember being a kid at 11 in Central Library and thought "I'll have a book in there one day. So I suppose I always did. I did a variety of jobs but worked for the council for nineteen years before they pensioned me off as they were fed up with me - and my drinking. So I'm in the pub one night and all the lads are going: "What you going to do"? I said: "I'm going to write a book". They all pissed themselves. So I went home to my old typewriter - as I'm a Luddite and don't own computers or mobile phones and all that - and sat down and wrote 'Low Life. Then there was the job of selling the book. I must have sent it off to every publisher going and they all sent it back. I was on first name terms with the girl at the post office. "Another one rejected, Mike?" - "Yeah". My dream as a kid was to be a professional footballer but at nine I was dropped from the school team for a girl. I wouldn't have minded but she only played a couple of times before she went to the Brownies or something! So getting the book rejected was not that disappointing. Eventually I got picked up by Crocus and met Pete Kalu the editor there and it's been fucking great.    

 

Low Life is now back in print and we'd encourage everybody that hasn't read it to seek it out. It's a wonderfully inventive first novel that garnered praise from academics and ordinary punters alike. Written in the vernacular it tells a day in the life and (in fact) the life in the day of an unlovable rogue called Rooftop Rafferty and takes the reader into a world that few will know. It's the world of drunks, wife-beaters, moochers, kiters and bagmen. A rip-roaring rollercoaster ride packed with pathos, tenderness, comedy and bags - probably lined with silver paper - of humanity.

 

SWINE: Tell us about 'Low Life'

 

MIKE DUFF: Everything I write about I know about and a lot of it is close to home either based on my experiences or on those I've met. For example I was married to a girl 11 years my junior. It was all pretty true to life but I deny the crime! The book's pacy because I write quickly. I've written seven books now and I do them all in ten weeks. I do it like piece work - 500 words a day or whatever. Not always the right words but when you print them off you think. Yeah it's alright. One book that hasn't been published is 'The Ballad of Bobby Doyle' - about murder on the road to Barcelona for the European Cup Final. My editor, Pete, wanted me to go back to it but I can't do it. Bob Dylan never went back to 'Blowin' in the Wind'. Bob Dylan's a genius and while I'm not that's the general idea.

 

As for the premise of 'Low Life': Rafferty is a horrible bloke. He's pissed, lazy, he has a job, he's not a down and out but I wanted the audience to feel for him. And I reckon I got that. You begin to think he's alright and then of course he does the most cowardly thing ever when he doesn't get between Bernie Davies and his wife. Davis batters her and he sits there and lets it happen and he eats the curry she makes. He even goes back the next morning 'cos there's a scam on. And then there's the letter from his old schoolmate Sellotape that tells the world that Rafferty is a cunt! So I like to think I bring the reader in and then I've got them. They are thinking he's okay and I then blow them down. That's the fulcrum of the book.

 

S: It is a violent immoral world that the characters inhabit but there are beautiful moments in the book. Tear-jerking. The bit about love and the lights

 

MD: Yeah my girlfriend actually said that to me: (Mike then quotes word perfect) "You know what love is. Love is when there's millions of fucking lights on in your body and they're all shining for one person. I had millions of lights shining for you. But light by light you put them all fucking out"

 

S: And without giving the end away……….

 

MD: Andy let's just say it's not happy it's not Mills and Boon

 

S: I first came across your work in United We Stand. Do you enjoy writing for that audience?

 

MD: Yeah I like the audience to be the one I've already got. Ordinary people. UWS is great and Andy Mitten's a good lad. I mean he's published a poem of mine called 'Circus of Death' in the latest issue and I like the fact they put non-football stuff in. That's the way it should be. I'm not interested whether Darren Fletcher is a good footballer or not. That's Alex Ferguson's job. I have to say - like Rafferty - I followed Bolton as I was an awkward bugger when I was a lad and United were the big team at school. And United still is the big side in Manchester whatever they try and say. What a catalogue of misery it must be going to City!

 

S: What's your take on FC United?

 

MD: FC starting has gladdened my heart. Football's about making friends not millionaires. I don't want to watch a millionaire play football again. I love the song that goes: "I don't care about Rio, Rio don't care about me all I care about is watching FC".

 

'The Hat Check Boy' is now out on Crocus and includes a few familiar characters, more nasty locals, loads of laugh-out loud lines but again paths of moving moments and tender thoughtful passages. And of course there's another sublime ending. But before that there's the eldest Tourette's sufferer in England, a few murders, a robbery, a sex mad Bonnie, a psychopathic yet somehow likeable Clyde and a man stretched to his emotional limits.

 

SWINE: What do you see as the main theme in the book?

 

MIKE DUFF: It's undoubtedly about a man trying to regain his dignity rather than in 'Low Life' where there is no dignity in the first place.

 

I was a Hat Check Boy for a couple of years - and I really enjoyed it be honest. The thing is most of the stuff in my books happened. The shagging's made up obviously!

 

S: There are dark moments in the book and some pretty heavy subjects being dealt with: The depression and the drink.

 

MD: Yeah again the bit about the first sign of a manic-depressive being when somebody spots you crying before you realise. Well that happened to me when I was sat on a bus and was going through a divorce. There's this sort of thing where nobody can admit to being depressed or being a drunk. It's a very male working class thing.

 

S: The lad on the cover looks on the edge. He really does look like he's got the world on his shoulders - a great cover

 

MD: Well the lad is from North Manchester and he's a great fella. He came to the book launch and when we all went for a drink afterwards somebody said: "where is he"? Anyhow it turns out he'd had no money but he's put his shirt and tie on and had walked into town from home and walked all the way back. We'd have all got him a drink!

 

S: What's next?

 

MD: A pint of Robbies - and it's your round!

 

I've done a book called "You Wot" that I think is the best book ever to come out of Manchester. Including 'A Clockwork Orange'. It's written like that book in that it's the language of my kids. The way they speak to me. It's incredibly violent but it's about these young kids with ASBOS and what they get up to during the day. Drink, drugs, sex and crime. I really do think it's the best thing I've written.

 

I'm also doing more poetry and there is talk of a benefit gig for The Big Issue with a great Manchester poet - Mike Garry - and myself. You know just getting by.

 

With that we finish the Robbies bitter and, due to the fact that the pub is now rammed with youngsters out for the night, we adjourn for a final one at a quieter pub up the road. Talking about Bob Dylan!

 

Mike Duff - Manchester's finest author and top lad

 

'The Hat Check Boy' and 'Low Life' are both published by Crocus. You can find them @ www.commonword.org.uk while the books are available in all good book shops   

 

"No One Else Was There" by Mike Duff

Just like the Marie Celeste,

No one was else

Not a swingin lightbulb

Not a rockin chair

Not a welcomin speech

Not a wasted prayer

It was the suicide bombers reunion

And no one else was there

 

ANDY VAUGHAN

   

 

  

 

 

 

  

 

 


 

 

 
   
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