Graham Caveney on Abusive Relationships, Alcoholism and His New Book

Interview: Jared Wilson
Illustrations: Ben Lord
Wednesday 06 September 2017
reading time: min, words

Graham Caveney had success in the nineties as a journalist for publications like NME, The Face, The Independent, and loads more. He moved on to writing biographies of beat writers Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs, then he completely disappeared. Two decades later, he’s back with a book that looks at the abuse inflicted on him as a child, by a priest: The Boy with the Perpetual Nervousness: A Memoir of an Adolescence


As someone experienced in writing about the lives of others, what’s it been like writing about your own life for a change?
It’s made me realise that I can’t write a book about other people ever again. When you write a biography, you’re imposing a linear structure on something that’s not linear, and imposing sense on things that don’t necessarily make sense. By writing about myself, I’ve realised things are more complicated. If that’s true of me, it’s certainly true of Bill Burroughs.

What made you want to write again after so long?
It started when I was back in the world of books, working at Five Leaves Bookshop. I thought, “Hang on, I used to write these things. I can do it again.” It was the first book I’ve written sober, so that’s a new thing. It was also the first book I’ve written on a computer, rather than a typewriter. Now I’ve done that, I can’t imagine going back.

When was the last time you had a drink?
It was 2 November 2009: the Day of the Dead. I’ve been clean of everything since then. I did AA for a number of years, I don’t any more, but that’s of no disrespect to them. I got to the place where it didn’t feel like a choice. I either got sober or die.

You start each section with a quote, most of which are pop lyrics or Kafka quotes. Why did you choose to do that?
Quotes help connect me to different bits of myself and bits of my past. We carry around all these previous selves of what we used to be, and it’s a way of accessing them. Plus, I like the idea of taking things, especially pop lyrics, out of context. Pop music is like the wallpaper of our lives. We’re surrounded by it; it bombards us with messages that we must be absorbing, and yet we never stop and think about them. You know that Oasis line “There are many things that I would like to say to you, but I don’t know how.” If ever there was a line to explain a whole subculture, that’s it, but I wonder how many people who sing along to that actually stop and listen to it. I really like the Kafka quotes; he’s someone I think with.

The book centres on your abusive “relationship” as a young boy with your priest and teacher, Kevin O’Neil. There’s a visceral anger in there, but after it’s over you admit that you miss him too. Could you unpack that for us?
In order for the abuse to take place, trust needs to be established. I was being courted; having attention paid to me and being taken seriously. When you’re a fourteen-year-old boy, it’s an awful time anyway because you’ve got a combination whereby you’ve got responsibility but no power. You keep being told, “You’re a grown-up now” and you’ve got all these adult decisions to make, and yet no one gives you adult powers to make them with.

Having someone come in and listen to you feels really empowering, and you feel anointed in a very profound way. He did it with the things that I valued the most: books and films. I miss those bits, and when it turned to shit – when it turned into abuse – that’s where the knot starts to take place. That’s where the rub happens. If it was just abuse, you could kick against it more. But there’s this grooming and this process that’s gone on; I was interlocked with him in so many ways.

You chose to publish this after your parents [who knew the priest, but never knew of the abuse] had died. Was that a kindness on your part?
It was. I was protecting them. Both of them were staunch catholics. My dad’s way of bonding was through films; he’d take me to the cinema and that was great, but it was certainly a way of keeping certain emotional distance or insulation. It was never gonna be a disclosure to my dad. I thought about telling my mum, but it would have cut out the very heart of her faith; not just in religion, but her faith in education. I couldn’t bring myself to do that.

How did you feel when Operation Yewtree was in full flow and celebrities like Jimmy Savile and Rolf Harris were being outed as paedophiles?
It felt like a tragic inevitability. You’d put the news on and there would be another story. They were dropping like bloody flies and I felt this had been a long time coming. The whole culture back then was saturated with not-very-well disguised, fetishised, sexualised visions of childhood, and creepy older men perving the night away. Somehow, it managed to pass as family entertainment.

The rumours about catholic priests had been going on for decades before then. Something you explain really eloquently in your book is why being a priest may have been an attractive career for someone with unnatural sexual urges, as they’re celebrated for abstaining from urges...
It only occurred to me in the writing of the book. I started to get myself into a thing where I thought, “I wonder what it is, what is the appeal? Is it that you’re given access to a pool of endless, potential victims?” And I thought it might be a bit of that, but in Kevin’s case, I don’t think that was true. I think it was much more that he recognised something in himself that he wanted taking from him, and he thought that celibacy might be the way forward. What’s interesting about that, is that if you fail, you have the victims there. It’s kind of a win-win situation.

One of the things I really enjoyed about the book is the collective nouns you create. Do you have any favourites?
Bedlam of children. A self-harm of therapists. A sweatshop of t-shirts. They’re probably a bit tasteless, but I was keeping myself amused. I didn’t want the book to be this misery memoir. There’s darkness to it, but I also wanted to capture some of the northern humour; a certain kind of levity that is in me. It’s the sort of game that you start playing and, as you get through it, you realise when there’s another one coming up.

Towards the end of the book, your addiction to alcohol and drugs starts emerging. Do you think you’ll write a sequel covering your life aged 25-50?
That’s what I’m writing at the moment. It’s called The Boy with the Thorn in His Side, and it will be Morrissey as Kafka. There’s no rush for it. It will probably be a couple of years at least, for me to kick it around. The problem with that is there’s a lot that I don’t remember from those years. A life of addiction is like that, there are no consistent characters. It’s just people you know for five minutes and you’re lucky if you can remember their first name.

The Boy with the Perpetual Nervousness: A Memoir of an Adolescence is out on Picador on Thursday 7 September priced £14.99.

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