My Cultural Life: Francis Jones
Editor of AU on catching the journalism bug, reading Wilde and falling back on The Smiths
Did you always want to be a journalist?
As a teenager I would read any and every music magazine I could get my hands on, the glossy monthlies like Select and Vox and, of course, the weekly NME - opinionated, informed and inky arbiter of musical taste. The life of the music journalist seemed impossibly glamorous. To think that someone might pay you to write about your passion was a prospect that held great appeal. However, back then I had no idea how to make what was little more than an idle daydream a reality.
Who is your journalistic hero and why?
It’s a three-way tie. Nik Cohn, he grew up in Derry and is generally considered to be the founding father of rock criticism. He treated rock and pop as serious art forms, every bit as worthy of scrutiny and comment as Picasso's Guernica or Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. In the 1960s this was nothing short of revolutionary. Also, someone like Nick Kent, he was a key NME scribe in the 1970s, his writing could be scathing, cynical and even spiteful, but also totally illuminating. Then Stuart Bailie, he’s been there, done it, interviewed and written about some of the biggest names in contemporary music. A writer of real integrity and in what he’s achieved a real inspiration. Plus he’s such a great champion of Northern Irish music.
If you could have written for any publication during any period in time, what would it have been and why?
It would have been the 1970s and either the NME, which was blessed with the likes of Nick Kent, Charles Shaar Murray and later Paul Morley, or Rolling Stone, which was home to mercurial talents like Lester Bangs, Cameron Crowe, PJ O'Rourke and Hunter S Thompson. It was also a great time to be writing about music. Bands like Led Zeppelin were in their pomp, you had Pink Floyd, Bowie, Lou Reed, Iggy and then in the late 70s, the advent of punk.
If you could have four cultural figures round for dinner, who would they be and why?
Stephen Fry for his wit and repartee. Gordon Ramsey to bring dessert and expletives. Derren Brown for some sleight of hand entertainment and Jack Nicholson for his Hollywood anecdotes and just because he’s Jack.
If you could have produced one artwork in any medium, what would it have been and why?
The Simpsons. All human life is there. The sheer breadth of it is amazing. It’s this self-contained, self-sustaining universe. Most of all though, it makes me laugh.
What’s your favourite album?
This changes on an almost daily basis but an album I return to time and again is Strangeways, Here We Come by The Smiths. Their final album and a fitting swansong. The lithe guitar of Johnny Marr, the piercing words of Morrissey and the rhythm section of Rourke and Joyce, wonderfully pliable. It crosses the entire emotional span. It can be cruelly funny - ‘Unhappy Birthday’, full of thwarted desire and longing, and ‘I Won’t Share You’ - or both comic and tragic, like ‘Girlfriend In A Coma’. Sadly it did spawn Ronson’s version of ‘Stop Me…’ but I don’t think we can blame them for that.
What's your favourite book?
The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers. McCullers was a tragic figure and there’s a lot of hurt in her writing. Life is invariably cruel to her characters but, at the same time, there are moments of exquisite tenderness there.
What's your favourite film?
Five Easy Pieces. Jack Nicholson at his virtuoso best. As the years have gone by he’s increasingly tended to overact, to exaggerate all the facial tics, give it plenty of leer and frenzied grin. But here Bob Rafelson gets a performance from him that is as restrained as it is manic. There’s something really affecting about stories of lives and talent squandered and this film is a classic of the type.
What’s your favourite lyric and why?
‘Half A Person’ by The Smiths. It’s just wonderfully self deprecating: 'And if you have five seconds to spare / Then I’ll tell you the story of my life,' and funny too: 'I booked myself in at the Y ... WCA / I said: ‘I like it here – can I stay?’ / I like it here – can I stay? / And do you have a vacancy / For a back-scrubber?'
What’s been your cultural highlight of 2008 thus far?
Iggy Pop at Royal Hospital, Kilmainham. The man is a force of nature. Old enough to be eligible for a bus pass and yet he throws himself about the stage like a horned-up and unhinged teenager.
What cultural event are you most looking forward to?
The release of The Wire Season 5 on DVD. It’s astounding. To call it a cop show just doesn’t do it justice. I’ve watched every series religiously and have had to go cold turkey waiting for this final stretch. It’s consummately plotted, brilliantly acted by a magnificent ensemble cast and smudges the lines between good and bad. Like real life there is no absolute morality. If Dostoevsky were alive today this is what he’d be creating.
Which Irish cultural figure do you most admire and why?
Oscar Wilde - genius in every way. His work is tragic, witty, humane and intelligent without flaunting its intelligence. The sheer body of work, the plays, the poems, even his letters and those seemingly casual bon mots, all are serious works of art.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
My parents have always told me to do my best, be honest and fair and if you do that you can be proud of yourself. I believe in that.
If you could write your own epitaph in no more than 10 words, what would it be?
I’d paraphrase Ernest Hemingway’s epitaph, 'Pardon me for not getting up'.