Paolo Hewitt is a music journalist, social historian and author. Almost 20 years since it was published, Paolo’s Getting High: Adventures of Oasis is due for re-release as an e-book. His newest book, But We All Shine On (sequel to The Looked After Kid about growing up in the care system) is also out, where he catches up with the people he grew up with in Burbank Care Home. My intrigue to interview Paolo came from the continual threads of co-incidences he makes reference to in his work and in interviews – from how he got offered a job at Melody Maker, to experiences of the right people coming into his life at the right time. So last month, I met up with Paolo to talk more on that subject…
There’s a line in But We All Shine On: “…the process has never failed.” What process are you talking about, and what did you mean by it?
When I started The Looked After Kid, I thought “I’ve got to get hold of my social worker”. I hadn’t been in touch with my social worker for 20 years. I’d had another one of my books out called The Soul Stylists and I was at Radio London doing an interview about it. When I got home afterwards, Radio London called me back saying that a woman called Kathy had called up and left her number – that was my social worker. I called her and said, “You won’t believe this, I’ve started writing this book about being in care and thinking I must get your number and now here you are.” Stranger still is she only listens to Radio 4 and yet the night previously she’d lent her car to her son who had changed the radio station. As she turned the radio on she heard my voice, got in touch and there all of a sudden she was. That’s what I meant by ‘the process has never failed’. Whenever you start a project, the people you need come to you. If I wasn’t writing The Looked After Kid that this would have happened. I never question it: start it and people appear.
Always, and every time?
Yes. For example, a local newspaper in Woking wanted to interview me and asked if they could do it at Burbank Children’s Home where I had grown up. They asked me to come a bit early so that the photographer could come and take pictures of me. I got in a cab when I arrived at Woking and as we were driving towards the children’s home I stopped the cab driver so I could get out and walk. I wanted to walk up the streets again. In front of me is this lane called College Lane that leads up to the home, and suddenly a car comes down and it’s only Margaret, the sister of Pete Garland who I’d lived with after I left the children’s home. We started chatting while walking up the lane and suddenly I see David Westbook! I said what are you doing here? He said he just happened to be driving around and thought he’d pop in and see Burbank. So already, that’s twice where this has happened.
So what is this phenomenon? Is it from above or a part of life?
I think there’s a plan for all of us, and I think the plan for me was to write a book about care, and to write the best books possible and He’s helping me along the way.
Is it comforting for you to think there’s a set plan like that?
I do, but in the context of a bigger picture. I never used to think like this. I believe God is within us and if you tap into it he’ll protect and guide you. I never used to think it, but now I do.
What was the turning point?
The Catholic church I was brought up in was full of guilt and shame and you were born with sin and it’s all hell and damnation – they put panic inside of you, it lies within you dormant and when you go away from the church it starts seeping out and eventually you go back – at least, that’s what happened to me. I left the church at 16 but I always still visited them – they’re fantastic places just to sit and think. In my late 30s I went to see the priest in a church nearby. I said I’d like to come back, and he told me I’d have to do a confession and then I’m back in. So I went in the confession box, did my “Bless me father for I have sinned”, and he said to me: “How long has it been since your last confession?” I told him, “About 27 years” and he said, “Well, can we just keep to the big ones please”. I really liked that – that’s sort of where the church is now. I don’t necessarily agree with a lot of the doctrine, but I use it to tap into a force. And I think sometimes things come from that.
Is there something to be said for seeing a serendipitous circumstance though?
If you’re obsessed with something, you will get it. A mate of mine from college was obsessed with money and he now lives in a huge house with a swimming pool. I do think we’re on this Earth for a purpose. For people who don’t know what they’re here for, if they tap into looking within, they’ll find out. It could be anything. It doesn’t even have to be about glory and success and fame, you can’t have everyone become famous. When I was a kid in a children’s home there weren’t books like that for me to read, and now there are. The best things I get back from life are comments from kids who have been in care. That makes me proud and I just hope there’s a 14-year-old kid in a children’s home somewhere who picks it up and gets something from it. I didn’t have any role models. In fact, my role model was Robert de Niro, but that was in terms of discipline and putting your all into it doing the best you can. If there’s a kid in care who wants to be a writer, he can think “Paolo did it, so I can do it”.
What made you want to be a writer specifically?
These things happen when you’re 14. I remember Weller said he was 14 when he knew he wanted to be a songwriter. I was 14 as well. I walked into school one day, and someone was reading NME and I said what’s that and he said a music paper, and I’d never heard of it. The light bulb went on. Words and music were the two tightening forces of my life. I kept quiet about it until I told my English teacher one day and she laughed in my face and I swore then I wouldn’t tell anyone; I just harbored this ambition, and people would ask what I wanted to be and I’d say, “Oh, I’m gonna be a teacher”, but I knew deep down that I wanted to write. It’s obsession that drives you. That saying, you do create your own luck. If I hadn’t had gone to Camden tube station and wasn’t so obsessed with music papers would I have bought Melody Maker? Probably not.
Explain that story…
When I moved up to London, I was obsessed with NME. That’s why I moved to London – I wanted to become a music writer. Now you used to be able to buy NME at Camden tube station on a Wednesday lunchtime and at this time I was writing for my college paper. I went down one lunchtime to grab a copy and they didn’t have it. I was saying to this guy ‘You must have one!’ But he didn’t, so in the end, I bought Melody Maker instead. I got it home, opened it up and there was an advert in there saying Young Writers Wanted. I gathered everything I had, put it in an envelope and sent it to them. By Friday night I was in the editor’s office, and then next thing I knew I was doing reviews for them. All because Camden tube station didn’t have a copy of NME that day.
So you worked for NME, became a prominent music writer, then a prolific author with a massive following. Looking back, does it just feel normal now or do you still wake up thinking, “Wow”?
It’s “wow”. I’ve got my books up on this shelf and I think “Bloody hell, that’s amazing.” I could die tonight and I wouldn’t mind. Because if I look at it objectively, I started with nothing. I came to London, I had no money, no family, nothing. When I first joined NME, I was convinced it was some kind of conspiracy, as if they knew I had been in a children’s home and had given me the job out of pity. I had such low self esteem and I thought everyone else was a better writer than me – even when I’d just published a book about the Jam. There I was with a book, great reviews, working at NME and going out with a really good looking girl. And yet, I was so unhappy! People would tell me they loved a review I wrote and I would say “No it’s shit”. It was the same in relationships. The girl would say “I love you” and I would think “You must be stupid then for loving me, which makes you even worse – fuck you; I want nothing to do with you.” That’s thankfully all gone now. I know I’m good at what I do.
Does having success make you stronger?
No, it’s getting better at your craft that does it. If I have a book to write, I don’t think it’s going to be crap anymore. I’m just looking for new ways of bettering myself. Woody Allen once said he gets a joke in his head and it feels 100 per cent, but then he writes it on paper and it goes down to 90 per cent. Once it goes in a script it becomes 80, then someone films it and it’s 50 and by the time it appears on screen it’s gone all the way down to 30. I get that sentiment. Sometimes I get these passages in my head and I think they’re unbelievable and then I write it down and I think it’s alright, then I write it again and I kind of lose it. I’m forever trying to better myself and read work by different writers; that’s what you have to do. The people who have been successful have always kept their eyes on the work, that’s the most important thing. Everything else is just a distraction. The other day I was walking down the street and got stopped by this guy who said he’s reading And We All Sine On and his wife’s reading The Looked After Kid and they lie in bed together reading together. I thought that’s fucking beautiful that is, that really flawed me. The artists like Dylan, van Morrison, they’ve had all the money and success but they’ve kept their eye on their craft.
What’s it like putting your life out there for people to read about?
Well, when I did The Looked After Kid, it wasn’t the writing of it that was cathartic, but publishing it. I realised that by publishing it and telling people where I was at suddenly it took a weight off my shoulders because I wasn’t hiding anymore. I hid all those years, sitting with friends talking about their mums or dads and I’d change the subject and go to the toilet. Publishing the book was like coming out in a sense. In a 100 years we’ll be dead, I don’t care. It really helped me, it really did.
Is that the key to moving on?
Whatever works for you. There’s no right or wrong or better or worse. I found a way which is great for me, I meditate in the morning, I believe god is within us, I try to tap into that and be as good a person as possible, I trust god is looking after me and that takes away worry and everything. I’m not afraid of the past, present or future because in my mind God is guidng me. I just think, you know, I used to look back when I had no work or money and I’d be worrying. But it was all ok in the end. Something happened and work came in. What did Bob Dylan say? “Life is sad, life is robust, all you can do is do what you must, you do what you must do and you do it well.” I know I’ve done it well. Not in a boastful way…
Why not in a boastful way?
I’m not better or worse than a road sweeper or banker, I just do what I do. I like it when 18 year olds say they’re great. Or if you’re Liam Gallagher, that’s his way and that’s how he goes through life. But this is my way. I’ve always liked being the dark horse, like in a race when someone comes up at the last minute. I like being that one.