I was in a cafe in the Alésia area of Paris in 2017 trading horror stories about school days with the writer Édouard Louis when the novel potential of some of my own childhood memories became apparent. I had met Édouard through a mutual producer and we were discussing film projects that were never to materialise. Having read The End of Eddy and loved it, we found much in common in our various difficulties during our turn-of-the-millennium school days, though I recall Édouard being surprised by how visceral mine were. He told me to get them down on paper at the time. I was too busy finishing my PhD and writing a daft novel about moths. Four years later and the stories are now on paper in the form of Nettles, released in April 2022 by Influx Press.
Though still ultimately a weird fiction, Nettles is grounded and formed around several unfortunate experiences from my first year of secondary school on Merseyside, as well as a genuine final return to Wallasey on The Wirral in 2019. I didn’t want it to be a piece of auto-fiction in the end so instead turned it into a revenge tale with an esoteric underbelly. It’s just as influenced by Alan Clarke and David Rudkin’s Penda’s Fen and M. John Harrison’s The Course of the Heart as it is by Édouard’s books.
Nettles follows an unnamed narrator experiencing two very different time-frames. On the one hand, it’s his first term of school in 2001 and he is about to forcibly enter adulthood in the most violent of ways. On the other, it is 2019 and the narrator is visiting home in order to help his Mum move, taking Polaroids of certain sites that remind him of the guilt surrounding a terrible revenge enacted against a school bully. All the while, the marshland is breathing, whispers are heard under the nearby M53 and Grannies Rock silently observes The Breck.
I’m loath to say much more for now, envisioning a promotional cycle that I may unfortunately spend answering questions about what is and isn’t real in the book (I honestly didn’t summon up a demonic spirit from the Wirral marshes to murder a school bully, honest). But I will be telling more about the project in the run-up to the book’s release in April 2022, as well as sharing some of the photos and stories that inspired behind the novel.
It is the first day of term at a secondary school on Merseyside, 2001. The Towers are soon to fall. A boy cowers in an alleyway, surrounded by a group clad in black. They whip his bare legs with nettles. This is only the start.
As term unfolds, their bullying campaign intensifies. Soon the boy finds solace hiding in marshland under the nearby motorway. Voices there urge council with Grannies Rock, a strange stone that sits on derelict land known as The Breck. There, the whispers in the breeze promise a terrible revenge.
Twenty years later, the boy has grown. He is back home from London to pack away his childhood. Armed with a Polaroid camera, he aims to exorcise those painful memories through a series of photographs. But is his memory of what happened reliable?
Nettles is an exploration of memory and violence, excavating the stories we tell ourselves to escape our past.