SUIT YOURSELF INTERVIEWS MODERNIST AND FILM MAKER MARK (BAX) BAXTER
Mark Baxter, or Bax as he is well known by is a bit of a London legend, although he wouldn't admit it himself this man about town has pretty much rubbed shoulders with the best of them and has always carried the ethos of Modernism throughout his life and career, his writing career has seen him write cult books like the A to Z of Mod with Paolo Hewitt and for folks keeping their eyes peeled the intro to the book was written by Martin freeman who has co produced the hugely anticipated Acid Jazz release 'Jazz on the corner' with Eddie Piller but that's another story.
Bax has also had writing successes with The Mumper, The fashion of football and others but it's his latest creations through his production company Mono Media are whats causing a massive stir in the Modernists world, with a highly successful film about Tubby Hayes and the incredible Peter Blake documentary under his belt. Bax's latest treat comes in the form of the life of John Simons, aptly called a Modernist this film is the hottest thing right now!
Here, in this exclusive interview, Cris Davies talks to the man about his past, present and future, what it's like to be a Modernist legend, a successful writer and owner of such a fantastic production company.........
Hi Bax can you tell us a little about yourself, where you are from and a little about your childhood.
I was born in Camberwell, South East London in 1962. Very happy childhood, from a loving family. My mum and dad were/are very supportive of anything I’ve done over the years. I was always a creative kid. Always drawing, loved art at school and creative writing too. Storytelling really. Always loved that. I genuinely loathed school though. Never enjoyed any of that from the age of 5 til when I left at 16. Made great friends with the kids once in there, but hated the institutional aspect of it. You know the ‘got to be here at a certain time and listen to him’ stuff. I always questioned that from a very early age and that didn’t sit well with the teachers etc. I ended up missing a year between the ages of 11 and 12 and self-educated in libraries in that time. Just reading, reading and reading. All sorts of stuff, history, social studies, sport, art etc.…I went back in at 12 and picked a basic education by the time I left. No college or Uni for me, it was straight into the first job I could get to start earning dough.
How did you spend your teenage years?
I had a very mixed teenage life looking back. On the one hand, I was in pubs and playing and going football (I’m a Millwall sufferer) but I was also reading a lot and taking myself off to art galleries and museums, which I did on my own because most of my mates back then had no interest in any of that. I was drawn to all that even though I had no idea why back then, apart from I was very curious. I just knew there had to be another way of living apart from the settling down with kids in a poxy flat with a poxy job even though that was what we were told was all we, the council estate kids if you like, could expect.
You are a very entrepreneurial person, was this something you realised yourself at an early age?
Well, I’m from a family of totters. My maternal grandfather Stan was a rag and bone man essentially. He’d be called an early recycler nowadays. A lovely man, very resourceful. Could make and mend anything. He just knew how to earn money from nothing most of the time. Pick up rubbish on the street and sell it on and make money from it. I loved street markets so would go with him to many of them across London to buy and sell and generally have a nose around from the age of ten or so. He’d say ‘Son if you get one pound and turn it into two pounds, you ain't doing bad.’ Simple but effective. That was his mantra, get something cheap, sell it on at a profit and build from there. I have taken that maxim and used it pretty much ever since. If no one else will back you, back yourself and build from there. Crack on, stop moaning, make it happen.
You spent time working in the print industry, can you tell us about this, do you think this may have had an effect on your later chosen career path as a writer.
I ended up in the print, after being made redundant from my first job, which was an apprentice cabinet maker (though I mainly made the tea and swept up when doing that). My dad had a mate called Gudge who was in the print and he got the old man a bit of casual work in there, to top up his wages. I heard all the stories of how it was in there from those two when in the boozer with them and I fancied it. I managed to get in and then get a union card and stayed there for 13 years, before being made redundant once again. At the time it had no real bearing on my writing as I wasn’t doing any back then, though I met some great people and heard many a tale which fed into my book 'The Mumper' years later.
Can you tell us about your connection to the Modernist way of life, when, where or who inspired you and at what age?
Well, I’ve always liked clothes. Even as a small kid I’m told I was very very fussy. My old man loved decent clothes, he was a bit of a Teddy Boy and I had an uncle who always looked dapper in the 60s styles. If you love clothes and music like I did there is only one real smart way of life in which to live all that, which is mod. No contest. I jumped in in 1979, so aged 17 or so when The Jam was going great and Quadrophenia was all on the tongues of my mates as the film to see. Great way of life and I stick roughly to that code today.
We know that this way of life is still very important to you today, how have you found it change over the years?
Well naturally as you get older you/it evolves. For me, I like to think I take the best of it and use it as the basis of the work I do today. So instead of going to all-nighters and scooter runs and all that as we once did, I’ve sort of ‘done that’, I spend my time developing projects based around that lifestyle and what I have learnt over the years. I think it is still there under my skin but I’m a bit more relaxed about it, not so regimented with it all. I still like to see the youth embrace it though and the ones I have seen about recently are doing a very good job of it.
Briefly, can you tell us what it is you love about the culture?
A big question that. For me, it’s all about taste. The late 50s early 60s had some of the best music, clothes, buildings, films, books, theatre and art, for me anyway. I’ve always found that, always, it is in my DNA I guess. I grew up in the 60s as a small kid and I think it all seeped into me somehow? It is just there and I live it every day and will continue to do so.
I would like if possible, like to talk with you about your life in London, some of the characters you have met and know, some of the places you go or visited, clubs, pubs and stories and what it's like to be a true London legend, I don't use the term lightly but whilst piecing this interview together it became apparent that you are one. Can you tell us what its like to be Mark Baxter?
Bless you, for the kind praise, but I won't have any of that legend stuff. I honestly just do what I do and for me, the work comes first. If people then like me or praise me for it then fine, but I only take the work seriously never myself. There are far too many egos out there already but when you generally meet the top sorted people they tend to be pretty humble. It’s the graft first and then all the media bollocks after that. There is a lot of smoke and mirrors to a lot that is too much hype.
Anyway, for me, London is my playground. I’m very fortunate that a lot of my work takes place there and I dodge about it nearly every day, meeting all sorts of people going to all sorts of places. All of those daily occurrences inform my life. I hear/see stuff on a daily basis that I could write about all day, but time is against me. All I say is, don’t be frightened of London. Embrace it; check out all it has to offer, films, theatre, bookshops, cafes, pubs, sporting events, parks, open spaces, and finally the streets. For me in the summer, there is nothing finer than on my travels, suddenly stopping and having a cheeky glass of red vino outside a pub/café and simply watching life go by. Bliss.
How did the evolution of Mark Baxter the writer come about? Did you have any early writing influences?
Good question. Over the years of working in the print and then after that, I had also done other ‘jobs’ if you like running alongside my main job. One job was never enough for me. Too one pace, too boring to only have one thing to do. So I had had a stall at Camden Market in the late 80s selling collectables and clothes, I had DJ’d and run events and I had a clothes shop selling women’s street and club wear. All very varied. And over that time I had often thought of writing something but didn’t know where to start. Then I had a very tough year in 2000 when my dad died of cancer and me and my wife Lou lost a baby, all in the space of three months. I was on the floor, I don’t mind admitting that. I just buckled and lost all the spark for many months.
Then in early 2001, I thought bollocks to it and then decided to write a book dedicated to my dad. He had always said he’d do that one day, but sadly never got round to it. So I started it and got nowhere. Had no idea what I was doing. So gave up. Then I had this idea of the fashions within the game of football. You know, the 60s mod look of Best and Moore right up to the early bling of Beckham and all the stops in between. I sat and tried to write that too and got nowhere once again. Then one day I had a call from Paolo Hewitt, a writer I really admired from his NME days and also for the book on The Jam ‘Beat Concerto’. Anyway, Paolo was looking for some 60s photos for a project he was doing and was given my number as I was dabbling in buying and selling them around then. We met and the rest of this answer is carried on in the next question below I see!
Your first book - The Fashion of Football, can you tell us about it, where the concept came from, are you an avid supporter yourself, how long it took to write and how it felt to see it in print.
So I meet Paolo, who turned up with Paul Weller as it happens, and we got talking. I told him about my fashion and football idea and he said no mate too busy and all that. Then after a further year of struggling to write it myself, Paolo called again looking for more photos. By this time I had some more ideas to show him and this time he bit. He got the publishing deal, I did the research and he wrote the book. I was working in a 9-5 job at the time, so it was really tricky to get all that work sorted and all the book stuff done, but I kept at it and we had some great times on that and became firm mates. I am a genuine football man, watch most games on the telly, so to combine that and my love of style and fashion was a dream. I could hardly believe it when the book came out and my name was on it. Very surreal.
You then went on to write the successful 'The Mumper' with Paolo Hewitt which was turned into a feature film starring Bob Hoskins, Phil Davis and other great British actors. The story of a group of friends who invest in a racehorse. Can you tell us about this experience, seeing your writing come to life on screen and having an actor play yourself in the film?
This was the book I wrote in memory of my dad. After the success of The Fashion of Football, I just started to write. Paolo, God bless him kept an eye on my writing and made suggestions and kept it all flowing. I combined stories of my dad’s pub life with the stories of my print life and we chucked in a racehorse as the central theme. At the end of the two/three years, fifteen drafts process I found I couldn’t get a book deal. I had over 60 rejections. So, going back to what I said earlier, I thought bollocks I’ll back myself. I’ll use some of my print rand redundo money that I had left to print the book and this was in 2007 when that idea was laughed at as ‘vanity publishing’. Personally, I couldn’t give a fuck.
I just wanted 10 copies to give to the fellas in my dad’s circle and one for my mum. So that is what I did. Then, I started to get requests for more copies from those that had read it and I ended up printing over 900 copies. Three years later I had a call from a producer who wanted the option on the book. Paolo’s agent became my agent and we did the deal that finally became the film ‘Outside Bet’.
For me, to hear Bob Hoskins speak some of the lines I had written was nothing short of a miracle. I was/am such a fan of his. Calum who played me was from my manor and supports Millwall, so we bonded from the off. I still see him from time to time, always get on with him
You co-write with Paolo Hewitt who wrote Paul Weller's Changing man, The Sharper Word and 'Getting high' the adventures of Oasis, can you tell us what it's like to co-write a piece and your relationship with Paolo.
PH was simply my early mentor. Without his knowledge and insight into the writing game, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now. I would lean on him very heavily on the early books and then less so on the later books, as I found my feet. Once I had done that. I was off. We keep in touch but are working on different things all of the time, so don’t see as much of each other as we once did. I will be forever grateful to him though.
The book, The A to Z of Mod soon followed with Paolo, what was it like to publish such a modernist masterpiece.
Ah, thank you, glad you like it. In truth, we were trying to write a different book, but the publisher we had suddenly said they had a similar idea coming out so what else did we want to do? The A-Z idea had been floated about before, so we jumped on that and tried to bring the whole thing up to date. The premise was to have the book as a guidebook for a 16-year-old kid looking to get into Mod. ‘Read this Son', it will inform and delight.’ Pleased to say it is still selling well 6 years after publication. So we have passed on the code nicely
Of course, these are not the only books you have written, can you tell us about your love of Walworth and the books you have written about it.
They came about after a DJ mate of mine Darren Lock, who showed me a collection of photos of the area of Walworth he had. I thought they were fascinating, so we decided to team up. It was a book about the area has it once was and what it was like now. We got a deal and it sold really well. There are no bookshops in SE17, so we sold it mainly in the pie and mash shop and it was the perfect place. People who had moved off the area would come back for a dinner and buy a book for the memories. We were asked to do another two in the same vein and they also sold well. A lovely project that one.
Before we move on, tell us about Elizebeth, Peter and Me, the story of a Gems heist, grave robbing and Bingo.
This was my first solo novel and was an idea myself and Paolo was kicking around. I just got on with writing it, after we struggled to get a book deal. I was really happy with it and it sold pretty well. The premise of the story is of an old robber doing one last job, which happens to be in Hatton Gardens. It involves diamonds and a burial of them in a grave. Sound familiar? Nearly a year later it really happened, which was really spooky. Sadly the real robbery killed any idea of someone making a film of my book. Still a great read though if I do say so myself
Coming away from the writing aspect of your life, next I would like to talk with you about your production company Mono Media, how did it come about and where the name come about? We have heard it was a club you used to run.
Yeah, the name was given to a club night I started in SE17 with a fella called Northern Andy. It was a mixture of 60s soul, pop, jazz, funk, soundtracks and we started that in 1997. It ran until 2000 and only stopped because of all the aggro I was going through then. However, I used the email account that had been set up for it and continued to use the name, which sort of stuck, for firstly the books and now the films and whatever else I get up to.
Can you tell us more about it, the ideas behind it and the projects including the Tubby Hayes and the recent Peter Blake documentaries shown on TV?
I’ve been a fan of Tubby since the early 80s when I first discovered the British jazz scene of the 50s and 60s. Tubby just stood out to me, as the king of it all. I just decide to make a film on him, as you do. I couldn’t get the BBC interested so off I went to put it together. I met my film–partner Lee Cogswell on a video shoot for the band Stone Foundation. I was doing bits of PR for them and they wanted Calum McNab to be in one of their videos. I went up with Calum and met Lee properly and I put the idea of Tubby to him. Lee liked it. We set up a film company and went to work. I went off and found the money to fund it all. The Tubby film did really well, got loads of press and then I had the idea of making something on Peter Blake. Because of the Tubby film I think we were taken more seriously and through a company called Channel X, we got a deal with Sky Arts to make that. A massive learning curve and a lovely thing to do. I used to go and see Blake exhibitions as a teenager and to make a film on him was just a dream job.
What future plans do you have for the company? do you have any more projects in the pipeline?
We have just started a new film on soul singer LeRoy Hutson for the company PIAS via Acid Jazz and that will be on platforms in early Feb 2019. We have also got a short drama film made on Tubby Hayes; we will enter into short film festivals later this year and we have plans for another three films to start as well.
Myself and Lee both worked on the feature film Jawbone, which has just been nominated for a Bafta so we’d both like to get involved with another feature film at some point. I was the associate producer and Lee was the behind the scenes cameraman. Loved that experience, such good people involved.
It is just time that prevents us from doing more quickly. Also, Lee and I have other work we do so it is all about juggling ‘stuff’ to get everything made.
looking back over your life and career it's easy to see the Modernist ethos and spirit carry with you, it has been with you wherever you go, from the fabric of tailored clothes to stitching together the people, places and experiences you have had, would you mind commenting on this.
As I said earlier it informs all of what I do. From how I look at projects, the style of them, the music within them, the subject matter and ultimately is it something I want to read/watch? If it is, I know other people will too. That is what I have learnt from Modernism. Keep with the like minded and you won’t go far wrong.
What does the future of Mark Baxter hold? more exciting projects....
More films I hope. Maybe a book or two. I have one due out in 2019 on the original skinheads and suedeheads, written with Paul ‘Smiler’ Anderson, and I have been involved in a book on jazz, which is in the background and hope to have that also out in 2019.
So yes, on paper all very exciting, but I have learnt not to look too far ahead really. Just do what is in front of you first and build from the there. Some will come out, and some will work nicely. At this stage, it is about putting the graft in, to make the best of all of them.
If there was anything you could tell a young Mark Baxter, what would it be?
I’d tell him, to definitely keep going to the Tate Gallery and study the work of Blake and Hockney. Go and see Round Midnight at The Curzon and be the only one in the cinema. And yes, do join Ronnie Scott’s at 23.