Matteo Sedazzari was part-way through his latest social networking drive when we spoke, spreading the word about debut novel A Crafty Cigarette – Tales of a Teenage Mod while getting to grips with the ever-changing world of new media.
“I like learning new skills. You get people of our age who are very reactionary and don’t understand all that, but I love it. Once you do all that, you’re in control. No one’s mastered social media yet. If they tell you they have, they’re f***ing lying!”
It’s pretty clear within minutes of talking to Matteo that he’s somewhat driven, and he’s determined to get his work out to as wide an audience as possible – to an extent that many of his threads of conversation are half-finished, buzzing from one impassioned statement to another.
This interview also tends to flip between subjects, and I found myself moving chunks around in a bid to make things flow as seamlessly as possible. But first I’ll fill you in on A Crafty Cigarette, which has set Matteo on his way as a published author.
It’s the tale of a teenager coming of age in the late ’70s on South West London’s Surrey fringes, his journey into adulthood set to a soundtrack by The Jam, the band inspiring Matteo’s protagonist to embrace all things Mod, that revivalist spirit leading him to find his voice, a new confidence and a fresh outlook.
As someone just a year younger than the author (he’s 49) and brought up barely 15 miles from his old turf, I identify with many of the themes, not least a love of the music of local lads Paul Weller, Bruce Foxton and Rick Buckler. And in his characters I recognise acquaintances from my own formative days. Much of that background applies to the author too, his flawed hero sharing his half-Italian roots and a mischievous nature that left him prone to trouble inside and outside school and a need to be accepted by teenage peers in a new neighbourhood.
It’s all told amid a flowing first-person narrative, the key character struggling to forge his identity, naivety apparent as we see him develop on the page, growing up by the chapter. That’s not an easy trick. Few authors manage it. I can only think of Roddy Doyle off the top of my head. Yet Matteo re-immerses himself in his teen world, and it works. The editor in me would challenge the punctuation and sentence structure, but once I got into his rhythm it made sense, the reader seeing the world through this lad’s eyes. It’s an easy read too. I polished it off in a few days, triggering my own memories from that era, albeit in my case without so much first-hand ‘naughtiness’ (Matteo’s word) or rebellion.
Others see elements of gonzo lit and pulp fiction, and Trainspotting author Irvine Welsh called it ‘a great debut that deals with the joys and pains of growing up’, while iconic punk performance poet John Cooper Clarke’s foreword suggests, ‘It’s almost impossible to write the way you speak but Signor Sedazzari has that gift, and his chuckle-heavy account of his teenage escapades, obsessions, senseless capers of one kind or another and good-humoured keeping of the faith in the face of disappointment has film treatment written all over it’.
A Crafty Cigarette saw the light of day less than a year ago, Matteo wasting no time in offering up interviews while taking complete ownership of the project. He’s already on his second edition, this fanzine writer turned author breaking free of his first publishing deal in a quest to cover every base. What’s more, he’s equally excited about his next novel, Tales of Oscar de Paul and other Adventures, anxious for it to be known he has much more up his sleeve than one ‘rites of passage’ story, proud as he is of his debut. Meanwhile, Matteo’s also looking to expand his Alan McGee-backed publishing wing, Zani (as he puts it, ‘online optimism for the new beat generation’).
“Zani is a labour of love, an online mag for which I’m always pushing for sponsorship. A Crafty Cigarette was originally published via Old Dog Books, but I then realised I could do this on my own, broke away, now aim to bring out more books my way, not just my own.”
Among those already lined up are his brother Paolo Sedazzari’s Made in Feltham and one by Zani contributor Dean Cavanagh, a writing partner of Irvine Welsh. Then there’s Oscar de Paul, set in West London, a short ride from his Walton-on-Thames roots. Do all his stories involve life experiences?
“A Crafty Cigarette is semi-autobiographical, but I emphasise that ‘semi’ part. The structure of how the kid became a Mod is loosely based on me, with those involved based on real people. As for the adventures and kids having so much insight … no one was really that insightful, in my experience.
“Yet while I was writing A Crafty Cigarette, I was reading Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and was blown away by it. It was the literary equivalent of The Jam’s All Mod Cons as an album for me, and my first since Mario Puzo’s The Godfather that I read in one sitting.
“The way she writes, that darkness, in a humorous way. I like American writers and fast-paced pulp fiction with a good visual concept. I had a similar experience with an English writer (past writewyattuk interviewee) Martina Cole. I bought Dangerous Lady in a charity shop for 50p, and found it very raw, very American, how she writes. Her style is addictive, like Gillian Flynn’s. Then there are American pulp-fiction writer Joe R. Lansdale’s short stories – again, dark.
“When I started writing A Crafty Cigarette I immersed myself in so much, including Alan Bleasdale’s Scully, which he wrote in his early 30s (an initial 1978 BBC play gave rise to 1984’s Channel Four series). I absorbed that, found it really important. Then there’s Terry Taylor’s Baron’s Court, All Change (Beats Bums & Bohemians), about a kid working in a shop who discovers modern jazz in the late ‘50s, starts selling weed, just before the whole Mod epidemic came about. Another big influence. My brother said, ‘You’ve got to read this before you write your own’.
“I then read Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer books, wanting to keep the element of youth in there and that whole summer feel. It’s the same with Erich Kastner’s Emil and the Detectives, for that child-like feel. And I watched a lot of original Grange Hill, from the Tucker Jenkins years.”
At this point I mention a 1983 BBC series I felt fits in alongside those, Johnny Jarvis, and it’s another he’s keen to reference, pointing me towards a piece for Zani on that very subject last May (with a link here). He also mentions Harlan Ellison’s Memos From Purgatory (1961), an account of the author’s undercover experiences in New York’s notorious Hell’s Kitchen gangland.
“And then there was the music – listening to The Jam and Secret Affair. With all that, my memory just triggered – this emotional recall. And once you get in that zone …”
I’m finding it hard to get a word in, but just scan through my notes, mentally ticking off questions as he brings them up. And he’s soon telling me more about his next book.
“Oscar de Paul is set in the present, but with flashbacks back to the ‘60s. Oscar belongs to a gang called The Magnificent Six, a bunch of casuals, the coolest kids on the block. It’s a collection of short stories involving him, his friends and family. It’s not just about youth culture, but his uncle’s experiences with the police, a character trying to make it in an all-girl band in the ‘90s … each story linking back to Oscar. It’s set in Shepherd’s Bush, where my brother lived for many years. I got to know the area, could visualise it, have a feel for it.
“I didn’t want A Crafty Cigarette to be a manifesto for Mod, and didn’t want to make out that everything about it was great. There were lots of insecurities. It turned out more an homage to If. As a child and as a teenager I dreamed of the kids taking over the school, smashing it up. As for the title, I didn’t want to call it When You’re Young or The Kids Are Alright, referencing The Jam or The Who. If you’re a true Mod you’re going to have your own identity, and this is my brand, my product.
“I want to do A Crafty Cigarette part two, but first want Oscar de Paul out there, more adult in content, with proper punctuation and so on. Then people will realise I can change my style. For me it’s all about flow, entertaining people, painting a picture.”
I finally butt in, telling Matteo the first few questions I’d written had been jettisoned amid his rapid stream of consciousness. He’s certainly fired up about his work.
“Well, you’re easy to talk to! Think of it as a compliment. I’ve been interviewed by certain people who clearly haven’t read the book and ask the same old questions. It is getting a bit like a Ronnie Corbett sketch though – answering questions before you’ve asked them!
“I’ve been writing for many years through Zani, interviewing people like Alan McGee, Chas Smash (Madness), Clem Burke (Blondie), Bobby Womack, Shaun Ryder (Happy Mondays /Black Grape), Paul Weller, Rick Buckler … but when I started writing my first novel I felt this was what I was meant to do.”
Getting back to A Crafty Cigarette, without giving too much away, I guess things didn’t go a bit Mick Travis (Malcolm McDowell’s character in the 1968 film of If) at your school. How was your experience of the education system?
“Bad. I had poor handwriting and spelling, so was dismissed as thick. But I f***ing knew I was clever and bright. I was up against it but also very inquisitive, forever asking teachers, ’Why?’ I found, like the kid in my book, school pigeon-holed you. Hand your homework in on time, nice and neat and tidy, and you’re an A-grade student. They were just preparing those kids for corporate culture. If a kid was a bit maverick, a bit different …
“I was fortunate I had such strong belief at an early age. I’m a late bloomer but always knew I could do it. When I left school I went to night-school and got three f***ing A-levels, went back to my year head and said, ‘Look at that! Remember me? CSE failure!’ I hated the teachers and lessons, but loved the pupils in my age group and loved being a Mod, winding up teachers. I didn’t bunk off. I had a laugh every day.”
There’s an element of fantasy in the book, but it’s the more reality-based passages where you’re strongest. For example, about an older brother introducing you to new experiences.
“My brother gave me two things – The Jam and a love of the Italian national team. By the time of the 1978 World Cup, discovering a love for Juventus the year before, I got into all that. I still get that tingle when the Azzurri come on and the national anthem plays. As for the Jam, I discovered them by accident. I knew of them, but didn’t know too much about them. Playing All Mod Cons for the first time was probably my most spiritual, pivotal moment when it comes to music.
“There were two sets of Jam fans – older ones, my brother’s age, four years older than me, and ‘Puppy’ Mods like us, still at school, asking for permission to go to gigs, having to go with an older person. Because you were with that older gang, you could have a fag. You wanted to look old. It was rebellion, like the more hedonistic things later on such as acid house and raving. But that wasn’t as intelligent as the Mod thing. It was more about living it up.”
You describe A Crafty Cigarette as an ‘insight into the passion of youth’. But for me it’s about finding a sense of identity too, and your Italian background was key. It’s a sweeping generalisation, but there’s a neat correlation with Mod – sharp dressing, scooters, so on.
“Being Italian in the ‘70s and ‘80s, you were a Wop, an ‘Itie’, had 13 reverse gears and one forward, gags about the Italian Book of Heroes … English kids in the ‘70s didn’t go to Italy on holiday, didn’t have pasta in their diet. My take is that people only started thinking this was cool through football and Italia ‘90, latching on to (Salvatore) Schillaci. Also, air-fares dropped, people got into inter-railing, and in time so did some of the kids who took the Mickey. I don’t remember Mods or kids my age saying, ‘F*** me, you’re lucky!’
“I had the perfect background for the Mod revival. My father’s from Milan, Mum’s from Essex – you couldn’t get a better combination for a pure Mod! I think I was introduced to style by my mother. There are pictures of me as a kid visiting my grandparents in Milan, and I wonder where the hell I got that cashmere overcoat from at six years old! My father moved to England in the ‘50s, but it was my mother who changed her identity rather than him. She came from Dagenham and didn’t want to end up just another working-class girl. She met my father, educated herself, learning Italian and all about Italian food and style.”
At this point, Matteo veers off into memories of Italy and his ongoing love for the country.
“I lived in Sardinia for a while as a child and was in Cagliari the first and only time they won the League (1969/70). The first famous person I met – a true icon – was ‘Gigi’ Riva. That was one of my earliest memories, him coming to the main piazza. It was f***ing madness! I already understood that was something special.
“In my acid house phase I took a break from all that, got more into clubbing, but towards the end of the ’90s I returned and have every year since. I’m more an armchair Juventus fan these days – I’m no Ultra! But via the wonders of Facebook I’ve discovered two long-lost cousins there.
“Anyway, there were other influences. Through my brother I got into the Russian revolution, loving all that – like Citizen Smith! And I recall a TV adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby where the kids rebel against the teachers. I thought that was cool. Then I’d hear Paul Weller singing In the Crowd and Down in the Tube Station at Midnight, Billy Hunt … feeling, ‘I’ve no idea who this Paul, Bruce and Rick are, but they speak to me!”
Weller came over as an angry fella in those days.
“That intensity was a wonderful thing. I bumped into him last October near where we both live and he’s far more mellow these days. He was cool when I showed him my book. He’s evolved, we’ve all evolved. Looking back I think, ‘Oh my God, did I really do all that?’
The way he drifted towards internationalist leanings in The Style Council era fitted in with all that.
“Yes, and in a sense I got more in with the Casuals around then. I found them a little more upbeat. Weller embraced that whole soul scene, saw what was going on, the Wag Club and all that. That’s been overlooked. It wasn’t just one thing! It wasn’t all about Mod.”
You’re talking to someone who stayed clear of all those tribes, never one to follow the crowd.
“Exactly. There were things you felt you weren’t supposed to like. It was like keeping a dirty mag under your bed – you didn’t want other Mods to know you liked jazz-funk! Looking back, you shouldn’t have that at such an early age. It’s great to look smart and belong to a gang if you’re learning from each other, but if that gang’s restricting your own self-development, that’s wrong.”
Is that where you’re going with A Crafty Cigarette part two?
“Well, the way I saw Mod, or at least my experience, was that it was split into two parts – the first from 1979 to 1981, very childlike, very Charlie Brown (as in Peanuts), very comical, us all still at school. Then leaving school it got very violent, with skinheads and Casuals. We were no match for some of those kids. They had baseball bats and knives and would hurt us. People forget about that looking back on the Ben Sherman style and all that. It was war.
“Now I get off a train in London and walk to Carnaby Street and Soho. I don’t do anything to intimidate kids and don’t look like a target. I can’t speak for today’s kids, but back then we got assaulted by some pub geezers, the police turning around, saying, ‘If I was out of uniform, I’d give you a hiding myself.”
Personally, I was too accepting of all that growing up, but I’m angrier now, more likely to speak out, particularly on political matters. Maybe it’s a Victor Meldrew thing.
“Actually, I’m going to do a piece on Victor Meldrew – such a cool character, and I’d rather be f***ing angry and stand up for my rights and have less friends if it means the people who stand by me are worth knowing. To try and fit in with all men, you’re taking the path to being a sociopath. And I’ve still got the angry in me.”
Matteo started his Positive Energy of Madness fanzine during the height of acid house, including in 1990 a first interview in two years with Paul Weller, between the disbandment of The Style Council and formation of The Paul Weller Movement.
“I always tend to get my best interviews by going beyond press officers. I got to know Paul through him buying my fanzine at Sign of the Times in Kensington Market, and Fiona Cartledge there sweet-talked him into doing an interview.”
Word has it that The Face invited Matteo into their office, trying to get the interview, unsuccessfully. And while Positive Energy of Madness folded in 1994, it re-emerged online in 2003, gradually giving rise to Zani. What did Matteo do for work then?
“I was in sales for many years, working from home, in business development. It was about building relationships, not fishing for information – getting to know what people want.”
As well as Alan McGee’s backing, Matteo has had positive feedback from some big names.
“I interviewed John Cooper Clarke and we got on well. I asked him to do a foreword and he read A Crafty Cigarette then a couple of months later called me, read it out. I recorded it, and was mesmerised! Now Irvine Welsh has got behind the new edition. Again, ‘Wow!’”
John Cooper Clarke said it has ‘film treatment written all over it’. Any further word there?
“There are people interested. That’s all I’ll say at the moment … until that cheque’s signed, sealed, delivered into my bank account and cleared! Meanwhile, I believe in testing myself. I could have gone straight on to A Crafty Cigarette part two. Instead I’m putting my energies into Oscar de Paul, looking towards a wider market.
“I’m going to be facing a lot of rejections and disinterest, but as long as good reviews outweigh bad … All I care about is the control of my own destiny, welfare, happiness. All I know is destiny’s in my own hands. And you can’t get more Mod than that!”
To check out Matteo’s publishing empire and online magazine try this web link, and for details of how to get hold of A Crafty Cigarette, head here. You can also keep in touch with all things Zani via his Facebook and Twitter pages.
There’s also a Kindle taster of A Crafty Cigarette here.