Books: Spare a Thought for the Pimps of Tiger Bay ; Lowlife Laureate: William Leith Meets John Williams, Chronicler of Cardiff's Butetown and Its Shadier Inhabitants
Leith, William, The Independent on Sunday (London, England)
When I ask John Williams to describe his books, he replies: "They are sort of lowlife novels, really." He writes about poor people living in the area around Cardiff's docks: prostitutes, pimps, drunks, and shoplifters. "I'm interested in looking at the assumption that these people's lives are necessarily worse," he tells me. "But the way they bring their children up is not necessarily worse than the way that `good' people bring their children up. In fact, it could be better."
Williams loves these lowlife characters, several of whom flit through his "Cardiff Trilogy": Five Pubs, Two Bars and a Nightclub, Cardiff Dead, and his latest novel, The Prince of Wales. "Mikey is a shoplifter, a short black guy whose sole interest in life is chatting up as many women as possible." Then there's Bobby, "a mixed- race girl from a children's home, an old-school Cardiff lesbian who graduated to being a pimp". Maria is a prostitute - but, more importantly, she's a single mother. Kenny is a drug dealer - but, more interestingly, he's a struggling businessman. As a reader, you warm to these people. They remind you of yourself.
"I normally try and write a thriller, and end up not writing one," says Williams, who is 42. What he means is that there is so much crime in his books that it blends into the background; it is just part of life. There's nothing particularly thrilling about it, and the impetus of the books is not towards solving the crime. The people who commit most of the crime are the characters you are rooting for. Williams has been compared to Damon Runyon, who wrote lovingly about seedy characters in prohibition- era America. You can see why: like Runyon, Williams writes in a lowlife voice, rather than a voice describing low life. It's a hard thing to pull off. "Elmore Leonard is a very big influence," Williams tells me. "He once said it's about leaving out all the bits that look like writing."
Williams is bald and stocky, and has the air of Donald Pleasence. He describes himself as a shy man who used to be much more shy: "I could not initiate conversation." He grew up in the Vale of Glamorgan, Cardiff's commuter belt, and attended a private school in Penarth, which he describes as "a sort of genteel Edwardian adjunct to Cardiff". If you stand on the hill in Penarth, you can look across the bay towards Butetown and the docks, where Williams's father ran a steel company. The young Williams was the sort of quiet kid who "read virtually all the time. I loved C S Lewis. I read just about every Enid Blyton. Then I got into Agatha Christie and Ian Fleming. Once I'd read one book by somebody that was halfway decent, I'd read all of them."
We are sitting in Williams's chunky terraced house in Victoria Park, where he lives with his wife, the singer Charlotte Greig, and their two children. There is a rescue dog and a cat. The neighbourhood, he says, is mostly blue-collar, but getting more expensive. His house is worth about pounds 200,000, more than twice what he paid for it a few years ago. Cardiff is changing - it is, as Williams's female pimp would say, "getting slicker by the month". Williams writes in a converted garage at the bottom of his garden, and parks his mid-range Japanese saloon out front. He starts writing promptly every morning at seven, and expects to write 500 words before he takes his breakfast break at 9am.
He left school at 17 and jumped on the punk rock bandwagon. This was 1978. Punk was a hugely formative influence, and he brings it up several times during our conversation. …