Their Library: Martin Rossiter

Literary influences explored...
Martin Rossiter

Perhaps best known for his work with Gene, Martin Rossiter has remained a fringe figure for some time.

Working on the sidelines, though, the songwriter is ready to make his return. Working independently, Martin Rossiter seized upon a PledgeMusic campaign in order to fund sessions for his new album 'The Defenestration of St Martin'.

Out now, it's a beautiful return. Mixing the personal with the spiritual, the material teases apart the vagaries of theology to find something quite unique. Recently completing a solo tour, Clash tracked down Martin Rossiter to find out which literary influences are fuelling his quite unique style of songwriting.

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What is your favourite book and why?

Laments for the Living—Dorothy Parker

This is a collection of short stories and was my introduction to the woman I’d like to be. Sometimes criticised as a mere witty observer of the foibles of the middle classes, Parker was so much more than that. Acerbic, damning and as witty as Wilde, she knew the truth that only camp can sometimes tell. Her observations on feminism and race were decades ahead of their time and her empathy for the oppressed and marginalised are testament to a large affectionate heart.

What other authors do you like?

I’m drawn to writers with heart and empathy. I want to read writers whose narrative expresses affection for those that life is cruel to. Essentially my favourite writers stand up to playground bullies. Dickens, J M Coetzee, Robert Tressell, Paul Monette and Jean Rhys spring to mind.

What draws you to certain books and do you read book reviews?

I would love to dedicate more time to books but I’m saddened to admit that I’m not as fully invested in the world of literature as I would like to be. I don’t read reviews and I’m reliant on a few trusted friends for recommendations. In an ideal world, there would be a second Martin who sits in a Victorian armchair with a vintage sweet sherry digesting his hundredth book of the year before Valentine’s Day.

Have you ever discovered a real lost classic? What is it and why?

There will of course be people who say this isn’t a lost classic and I dearly hope they’re correct. ‘Here I Stand’ by Paul Robeson is part autobiography, part philosophical and political statement. Malcolm X cited this book as an influence yet Robeson seems to have been forgotten as a pioneer of the civil rights movement. His passion and integrity are unquestionable but what impresses the most is the razor sharp quality of his reasoning. Robeson was the first Black Othello on Broadway, played in the NFL, left his career as a lawyer due to institutionalised racism, was fluent in six languages, was a Broadway and Hollywood star, campaigned for the Republican cause during the Spanish Civil War and was blacklisted and had his passport removed under the spectre of McCarthyism. This book tells that story.

Do your literary influences have a direct impact on your song writing?

Any art form that exists in isolation will die. Popular music needs to be careful, as it seems to only look backwards, constantly re-packaging what has come before. You only have to look at the X-Factor’s bland re-enactments of what has been, to realise that there seems to be a blind and unquestioning worship of the past. The food of great popular music is innovation sourced from other art forms and cultures, yet the gatekeepers of the industry don’t seem to realise this, like the Easter islanders cutting down the last tree thus running out of food and wood. In my own tiny way, I hope I’m fighting this by letting myself be influenced by the books that I read.

What are you reading at the moment?

‘A History of British Trade Unionism’ by Henry Pelling. I’m fed up of not having the facts to back up political arguments so for the last six months I have read nothing but political and socio-political books. What is the first book you remember reading as a child? I don’t have any specific memories. I was an unremarkable child; I didn’t stand out and didn’t want to. I was like most of the kids my age and for Christmas would get a Beano annual and if I was lucky, The Guinness Book of Records. It was only when puberty struck that I started to develop a love of fiction. Sadly, that relationship was short lived due to a particularly terrible English teacher who would criticise anything I wrote, irrespective of quality. As a result I rejected books until my early twenties.

Did you make good use of your library card as a child / teenager?

No. I truly wish I had because I have a constant nagging feeling that I’m always catching up with what might have been.

Have you ever found a book that you simply couldn’t finish?

Until recently, yes. I have owned ‘One Hundred Years of Socialism’ by Donald Sassoon for fifteen years. Until I finished it a couple of months ago, you could see by looking at the pages that my thumb had never touched a page numbered higher than fifty. It is approximately 350,000 words long and to be honest, at the time of purchase there was a small part of me that thought it would look good on my bookshelf. However, having finished it, I truly believe it was the best twenty quid I’ve ever spent. It is one of the few history books that truly deserves the adjective ‘comprehensive’.

Would you ever re-read the same book?

Forgive me, but I find the question baffling. Why on earth wouldn’t anyone revisit a great pleasure. Having said that, when given the choice of the new versus the familiar, it is hard to resist a virgin page. I have recently taken to reading with a fluorescent highlighter in hand to mark passages I feel I would benefit from re-reading. It’s a glamourous picture I know.

Have you ever identified with a character in a book? Which one and why?

There was a minor character in The Bible called Jesus I was rather taken with.

Do you read one book at a time or more than one?

I contemplated lying about this, to paint a picture that I was some sort of all consuming bibliophile-a literature gannet. The truth is I don’t have the mental capacity to cope with more than one at a time. The danger would be that Jane Eyre would suddenly appear as a agent provocateur in the Bolshevik Revolution.

Is there an author / poet you would like to collaborate with?

I don’t feel I am qualified to clean the shoes of most of the authors I love. I don’t have the chutzpah to even contemplate it. Given the opportunity though, I would jump twice at the chance to have a pint with Coetzee and discuss animal rights.

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'The Defenestration of St Martin' is out now.

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