Three years after our last conversation on these pages, WriteWyattUK got back in touch with author and Zani website creator Matteo Sedazzari, following the publication of his second novel, Tales of Aggro.
Following 2015’s A Crafty Cigarette – Tales of a Teenage Mod, Surrey-based author and online magazine creator Matteo Sedazzari decided on a further foray into fiction, this time delivering the tale of a gang of ‘working-class loveable rogues’ fresh out of school, claiming the streets of Shepherd’s Bush and White City as their playground.
Describing his ‘Magnificent Six’ as a group of ‘fashion-conscious, music-obsessed and shooting from the lip’ lads, Matteo tells a story of West London life and ‘ordinary people getting up to extraordinary adventures’, introducing various vigorously-drawn characters en route.
To find out more about the inspiration behind his latest novel and the figures he portrayed, I tracked Matteo down to his Walton-on-Thames base, offering congratulations on Tales of Aggro and wondering, second time around, if it remains special to see his work in print and on the bookshelf.
“Thank you. Yes, a proud moment in finishing and marketing my second novel, and people are starting to respond, which is nice.”
This time you’ve tackled a rum band of friends, dubbed ‘The Magnificent Six’. Are the characters based on people you’ve known over the years, or composites of old mates?
“In A Crafty Cigarette, the main characters are based on real people. Yet in Tales of Aggro the majority originate from my imagination, with aspects of certain people I’ve met over the years, seen on TV or read about, used to shape the characters’ personalities.”
Is there a character among them you identify most with? I’m guessing Oscar De Paul, not least with his appreciation of The Jam and Paul Weller’s lyrics. Is he at least partly you?
“Oscar, to a degree is loosely based on me, yet I mean loosely. He’s passionate about things, means no harm but gets excited by petty crime, yet knows deep down that a living out of being creative will be far more fulfilling than a life of crime. I included The Jam and Paul Weller reference as Weller was popular with the Casual movement back in the day, especially The Style Council, and some Casuals were former Mods, so I wanted to keep that association.
“The first story in Tales of Aggro about Oscar doing telesales for a living, along with hoax calls, is the only semi-autobiographical part of the novel. As mentioned in a previous interview, hoax calls are not cool, and certainly at my age I do not endorse them!
“After that story, I separated myself from Oscar, so I could focus on the other characters, from Rooster the dealer to Priscilla Pryce, the Page Three Girl, otherwise it would have been A Crafty Cigarette part two.”
For A Crafty Cigarette, you chose your current base, Walton-on-Thames as a location. This time we’re uptown, in West London. Why Shepherd’s Bush and White City? Am I right in thinking your brother was based there, and that’s how you got to know that turf?
“No, more via the A316, the road that runs from Sunbury, my place of birth and childhood, through Twickenham, Richmond, Hammersmith then Shepherd’s Bush. When I was a kid and my parents drove into London, that was the route they took, and to this day I often use that route to get into the old smoke. But back in the day, it was my gateway into the inner city.
“Also, in the 1970s, Top of The Pops was filmed at the BBC at Shepherd’s Bush, White City, and The Osmonds had a weekly show at Shepherd’s Bush Empire. So I thought as a child this must be the place where the musicians live. I was a kid, ha! Later I had friends who lived around that area, in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, getting to know the area well, even getting into the odd filming of Top of The Pops and Later With Jools Holland.
“Also, the Bush is the part of London where three original members of The Who came from – Daltrey, Townshend and Entwistle, with Quadrophenia – the album and film – set around there. Guitarist Steve Jones and drummer Paul Cook from the Sex Pistols are Shepherd’s Bush lads too. And you’ve got Stuarts’ clothes shop down the Uxbridge Road, a Mecca for Casuals back then, still going strong today.
“Finally, Steptoe and Son is set around the Bush, which after Porridge, is my favourite comedy. It’s a part of London with a rich history of TV, music, youth and subcultures, fashion, comedy and more.
“When my brother moved there, it was a case of him moving to a part of London I already knew. Shepherd’s Bush has grown on me since my childhood. It would be pretentious to say it’s my spiritual home, but it’s a place I know well and like. So when I was writing Tales of Aggro, I could visualise in my head the scene and characters.”
You describe the book as ‘a collection of short stories all about love and unity with a little bit of aggro’. These are your people, aren’t they … warts’n’all? ‘A gang of ‘working-class loveable rogues’ and rough diamonds.
“My people? I’ve just written about everyday folk from a working-class or lower middle-class background. I suppose a gang of well-dressed young lads and girls from a subculture, estate or whatever will always be seen as ‘loveable rogues’. The Magnificent Six change over the course of the book, as it goes from the early ‘80s to the present. At the end they’ve all gone down different paths, moving away from being a gang hanging outside a chip shop.”
There’s a danger of this all being about ‘the lads’, but you have wannabe pop star Stephanie in the mix too. Is that a character you feel you could write more about now?
“Stephanie is a great character. I enjoyed creating her and was highly influenced by the narrative style of Gillian Flynn, author of Sharp Objects, Dark Places, and Gone Girl, when I wrote her story in the first person. There are other strong female characters, like Eve Berry, the beautiful travel agent, who saves the day for Rockin’ Wilf and his friends, and there’s Priscilla Pryce, the Page Three Girl, who solves a countryside murder before falling in love with Jamie Joe, a man with a troubled pass who finds salvation with Priscilla. Plus, Oscar’s sister Olivia may not feature heavily but is seen as a strong character by Oscar. These tough female characters don’t make it about ‘the lads’, and that was a conscious decision from the onset.”
A Crafty Cigarette was told from the viewpoint of a young lad approaching and encountering his teen years. Are you hoping to go back to that story at some stage?
“Yes, one day, and Vinnie from A Crafty Cigarette does have a cameo in Tales of Aggro, so I’ve already created my own universe.”
You make the point that some of the language is offensive, Irvine Welsh calling it ‘a real slice of life told in the vernacular of the streets’, yet you’re at pains to stress offence is not your aim, particularly in light of race, religion, gender or sexuality. It’s a tricky balancing act, but works well with characters like Life on Mars’ Gene Hunt or even Steve Coogan’s Alan Partridge. Did you find yourself wincing at times at the more controversial characters like Det. Sgt. Legg and Sgt. McDonald?
“Good question. I did the disclaimer to cover myself and have total authenticity. For instance, in a story set in the summer of 1983, local headcase and drug dealer, Rooster calls The Magnificent Six ‘mincers’, and back then someone like him would use homophobic insults to belittle someone. It still goes on today, yet I don’t fucking hang out with anyone that does!
“I didn’t want certain people picking up Tales of Aggro thinking the author was encouraging this sort of language and mindset. We live in the day and age where people are easily offended, and that can lead to censorship. Look at Mark Twain and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Some people want to ban it, believing the sometimes-racist language inappropriate for children. Twain wrote in an authentic, of the time narrative, and Finn is a ‘loveable’ rogue in 19th Century America, when slavery was ongoing, when a white child or adult of that era and location would use racist language. Yet Finn frees the slave, Jim, as he thinks it is wrong, but will go to hell, as it is against God’s will, yet this vagabond went against Christianity to save a man. That is not a racist act, and clearly Twain saw slavery as wrong.
“We can’t ban books just because language may offend. Generations need to know how it was in the past. Censorship is not the answer. I know Tales of Aggro will get more press in the next 12 months, and I could see some reviewer going on about the language, so I wrote the disclaimer to cover myself. I read Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn when I was writing A Crafty Cigarette, both influencing my writing, neither book offending me.
“Gene Hunt and Alan Partridge wouldn’t be great characters if they spoke and acted in non-offensive PC language and fashion. They wouldn’t have their wonderful dramatical impact. It wouldn’t work. Hunt is symbolic of racist and sexist men from the ‘70s and how we changed, reminding us how bad some men were back in the day. With censorship, we’d be none the wiser.
“I’m pleased you highlighted Det. Sgt. Legg and Sgt. McDonald. There’s certainly a bit of Gene Hunt in them. I didn’t wince, I wouldn’t be an author if my own work offended me. I just wanted to highlight how bad the police were to the youth in the ‘80s, and this does come from experience, not from Shepherd’s Bush but Walton-on-Thames.”
We’ve all known John Roost type characters, and I get that fear of their presence. Do a few of these encounters take you back to your own misspent youth?
“I wouldn’t say my youth was misspent. Far from it, it was an amazing experience, full of dreams with a lust for life and curiosity. It was good and bad, which I learnt from, it developed me and now I’m a published author on the up, using my ‘misspent youth’ for content.
“The misspent part of my life came much later, when I joined the 5.30 club, going straight down the pub after work, drinking with negative people with limited beliefs, like the poem in Tales of Aggro. That was a waste, yet I now see that aspect of my life just as a detour, and I’m on the right path now.
“John Roost is loosely based on dope dealers from the suburbs of Surrey, usually going by nicknames, utter nutters that were either ex-army or ex-cons, or both, loved violence, yet listened to laid-back music, real passive/aggressive people. In fact, scoring off them was more of an experience then smoking the puff itself. But I wasn’t really a big smoker. And I’m not just saying that in case my mother reads this!”
For all its brutal touches, this is almost nostalgia compared to the nightmares with gang culture and stabbings in big cities now. Is that harrowing story be best left to the next generation of writers coming through?
“You’re right to a degree, yet I think Crafty is more nostalgic, and there is violence throughout Tales of Aggro. A lot of it is set in an era when stabbings weren’t so common. They happened, but not on the scale they do today. Fortunately for me, my friends and family, we haven’t lost anyone due to a senseless stabbing.
“In regard to the next generation of writers coming through, experiencing this horrible rise in knife crime, I’m sure there are many that have penned novels, short stories or graphic novels about it. A novel isn’t going to solve this, but it would be good to have a book that draws awareness to knife crime. I’m not sure if I could write that story, but I’d support any author that does.
“This is a deep subject, and it saddens me when I see the senseless death over usually something minor, knowing a family will be scarred for life, with joyful days like Christmas tragic days instead. That is true heartbreak.”
At what point did you realise you might be going down the short-story road, rather than just a narrative centred around one or two main characters?
“At the start, I wanted it to be a collection of short stories. I wanted to write a collection of love stories, and one-off relationships between Stephanie and Oscar is the only story carried over from that. I called the book Tales of Oscar De Paul and Other Adventures, in homage to Mark Twain, until the kid at my local bank said that was way too long. I said, ‘What about Tales of Aggro?’ and he smiled and said, ‘Nice’.
Casuals, Mods, skinheads … I mentioned last time that I felt no compulsion to belong exclusively to one tribe or other. I could see the value of various aspects (identifying more with Mod, appreciating the love of ska and Bluebeat with the original skins, and so on), but felt a need to distance myself from the crowd and the more plastic, blind followers. How about yourself at that impressionable age – did you find it a tricky path to navigate and choose a side, or did that sense of togetherness appeal?
“Belonging to a tribe has its pros and cons. It’s nice to have like-minded friends who share similar tastes in music, fashion and such-like. I was a Jam fan before I became a Mod, discovering the band by accident when going through my brother’s record collection, All Mod Cons. For some reason, it resonated. It was enlightenment, it really was. I had no idea who Weller, Foxton and Buckler were. It just felt right. I felt it was for me, as I was struggling at school, not with my friends, but with teachers. The sound of The Jam gave me the voice I was looking for, as covered in A Crafty Cigarette. At that moment, I didn’t care if I was the only Jam fan in the world. It was me seeing the light … and no, I’m not comparing The Jam to Jesus!
“Then I started to meet other fans my age or a little older, wearing parkas and all that, and thought this is for me, as many others did. That part was and still is beautiful, yet in tribes you have hierarchies. I was tested – tested brutally – before I was accepted by the Mods, which I glossed over in A Crafty Cigarette. Yet once I was accepted, I became arrogant and highly elitist to anyone new joining our gang. That was my defence mechanism. Then, as a schoolboy Mod, my friend Richard Knights (Rick in the novel) and I got into Jazz/Funk but had to keep it a secret from the other Mods. That was odd and wrong, to have that pressure at an early age.”
It can be a confusing world for teens to find their way through and carve out an identity, not least those leaving school with near to zero prospects. It seems to be as much about trying to fit in as a love of good clothes and great music.
“To quote Tales of Aggro, ‘Anyway, we, The Magnificent Six, just thought our swagger, boyish good looks, thieving, cheeky charm, dress sense, and proficiency at music, street fights and gallows humour were all we needed to get on. But we have all learnt a harsh lesson—it isn’t. Well, not yet.’ It is true – leaving school is a serious wake-up call. That’s why I went back to college to do A-levels. I was clueless to what I truly wanted to be. As mentioned with my experience through a love of The Jam, belonging to a subculture can give confidence and strength.”
As Paul Weller wrote, ‘Life’s a drink, and you get drunk when you’re young; Life is new, and there’s things to be done, you can’t wait to be grown up, acceptance into the capital world’. Your characters neatly encapsulate that element of cocky youth, ‘shooting from the lip’, life yet to wear them down. Was that part of the appeal in telling this story – a kind of nostalgia for a time when us cynics felt we knew all the answers?
“Good point. I suppose it was, and with me writing it, I rediscovered some of the lost drive from my youth, so it was good therapy for me.”
Speaking of The Jam, a band that often come into your work, these are Weller’s ‘Saturday’s Kids’ you’re writing about, aren’t they?
“Weller’s ‘Saturday Kids’ accepted the situation and the system. ‘Think about the future, when they’ll settle down, Marry the girl next door, with one on the way.’ The Magnificent Six might have been Saturday Kids when they were at middle school, yet all of them are dreamers, not wanting to end up like their parents or peers.”
You weave a few real-life situations into the narrative, and celebrities – from Frank Bough to Mike Reid, even using the Sex Pistols’ Paul Cook and Steve Jones’ old school. Does that add authenticity?
“Without doubt, and also adds humour, like The Magnificent Six getting offered out by Frank Bough and Oscar De Paul having a grudge with Mike Reid over a failed audition for Runaround. Cook and Jones are brought in to give Tales of Aggro an element of Punk and DIY culture.”
I mentioned the dodgy cops and there’s an element of changing times in the era you chose to write about – from outmoded out-of-their-depth policeman to out-of-step villains being pushed out of their territories. London was changing.
“I wanted to show that change. Back then, the police were truly brutal and suspects weren’t given legal representation.”
‘Stay Free’, the song Mick Jones wrote for The Clash about his schoolmate Robin, gave a peek into the world of those crossing the line with the law and getting caught out, through petty crime or worse. You mention Feltham Borstal, HMP Wandsworth, then HMP Brixton. There for the grace of God would have gone a few of us if job opportunities hadn’t arisen or supportive families hadn’t had such positive impacts, yeah?
“Well, ‘Stay Free’ is one of my favourite Clash songs. I think when you’re a teenager or younger, hanging out with like-minded peers, and you’re unhappy with your home life and school, there’s a big danger that you can cross the line, without knowing it.
“François Truffaut’s semi-autobiographical film 400 Blows covers this. Antoine Doinel, a kid from 1950s Paris, from an unloving family, bunks off school, leaves school, steals a typewriter from his stepfather’s place of work, tries to do the right thing by returning it, yet is sent to borstal. One simple mistake, and that’s it. I’ve been arrested for minor things, from petty theft to criminal damage, but last time was way back in 1992, I just wised up.”
I think of that line from Billy Bragg’s ‘Levi Stubbs’ Tears’, where, ‘Her husband was one of those blokes who only laughs at his own jokes; the sort that war takes away. There wasn’t a war, he left anyway.’ In another era, the John Roost types had a chance to be painted as heroes, yeah?
“Rooster, yes maybe, but he had mental health problems along with a drink problem. He couldn’t handle it. In fact, that story is a morality one. He shouldn’t have gone to prison and been labelled a threat to society by the police and the media. Tragically, he believed his own hype and became what society cruelly perceived him to be. At the start, John Roost is a nice kid with one dream, to join the army. The story isn’t an anti-army one, but one of mental health issues, and how society back then dealt with it. It’s a veiled story, not one I’m shouting from a soap-box.”
In the case of Ed’s uncle, Rockin’ Wilf, there’s something of a throwback there to the Teds of Notting Hill in Colin MacInnes’ Absolute Beginners. Another influence?
“I haven’t read Colin MacInnes or Absolute Beginners for a long time. Rockin’ Wilf’s older brothers were original Teds, Wilf was born in the late ‘40s, and was part of the Ted revival of the early ‘70s. He was influenced by a toy bear I had as a child, called Wilf, who liked to steal and loved Elvis. No shit! And Wilf the bear was based on a neighbour, an original Teddy Boy called Sid, the street’s Del Boy. A good man.”
There’s a CD included with Tales of Aggro, attributed to Zani, recorded last summer, with words and music by yourself. Which came first – the songs or the novels? Or were both key elements of where you felt you were headed?
“The riffs came from old songs I wrote many years, and I came up with the words last year. I’m using it more to market the book, plus it was fun to get back recording again. I enjoyed it. I intend to push the music more over the next couple of months, so watch this space.”
You can tell there are characters here who will find success, be that social, personal, financial, or all three, while there are others almost destined to fall by the wayside. Did you know where your characters were headed when you started out?
“I more or less knew the paths Eddie the Casual and Oscar would take, but for the other members of The Magnificent Six that was organic, Like a lot of the book was, I have a simple idea or plot, start hitting the keyboard, and a few hours later I’ve created something fresh. I love that part of writing, as I can put my imagination in full force.”
You’ve a similar passion for film, as regular readers of Zani will know, and I can see your stories being adapted for TV or the big screen, in the same way writing heroes of yours like Martina Cole crossed over. Is that an intention of yours, and are you courting interest on that front?
“Yes, and yes again! It is a dream and on the project list. As mentioned in another interview, both books are the hands of a top director and screenwriter, and both are friends. I will push this more, because Crafty would a great film, whilst Tales of Aggro would be great as a web series. It is a burning passion.”
At a time when the publishing world is struggling, the likes of yourself and a few other platforms suggest there’s a future for truly independent writing. Are you managing to make ends meet through the Zani empire and your writing?
“Empire! Love it, I still do contract telesales – a month here, a month there, two to three days a week, working from home. I haven’t worked in an office since 2002, nor been a PAYE employee since then. Some of the profits from my work is used to promote the books and site. I am looking to be a writer full time. Let’s just say I’m working on a plan.”
Finally, what’s the next novel? Is it already taking shape, and when might that land? Personally, I reckon we need something about your part-Italian roots, something more autobiographical.
“Thank you, it’s been a good interview, with intelligent questions – in depth and intense. I love that, it got my brain working. And I will write something about those part-Italian roots, but I’m already on the fourth chapter of my third novel, planned for release in March/April 2020. Details nearer the time, but I will say that it’s in the realms of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, Wind in The Willows and such-like. I’m letting my imagination run free and stay free!”
For a look back at WriteWyattUK’s August 2016 interview with Matteo Sedazzari, concentrating on his first novel, head here.
You can find a copy of Tales of Aggro by Matteo Sedazzari (ISBN 978-1527235823) via Amazon, and via the same online marketplace catch up with Matteo’s debut novel, A Crafty Cigarette – Tales of a Teenage Mod, with an Amazon link here.
Meanwhile, Matteo’s Zani website is a recommended portal for a wealth of features and reviews from the world of films and TV, music, sport and culture, accessed via this link. West london, Zani, Shepherd’sMark Twain