Writer Mark Baxter talks to Jason Holmes about the inspiration behind his novel The Mumper, and the struggle he faced in bringing it to the big screen as Outside Bet, a new film starring Bob Hoskins and Jenny Agutter
South of the river, Saturday afternoon, Camberwell Church Street. We meet at Caravaggio. Mark Baxter is in a good mood, and with good reason. 'My whole family's from Camberwell,' he says after we've ordered. 'This place is in my blood.'
Long before being bitten by the writing bug, Mark began his professional life as a printworker, an experience which was to serve him well. 'I worked in the print trade when I left school, the old Fleet Street set up. I was unionised. When I got that union card, I felt I was set for life. But that was before Murdoch came in and changed things around at Wapping.'
It was this working experience which Mark later used as the backdrop to his novel The Mumper, a real life tale of south London friends who buy a racehorse, the name of which became the title of the book. 'I'd always had a basic premise of some south London guys getting up to something. It was the world I knew,' says Mark. 'I'd discovered at school that I was good at creative writing. I also loved the Ealing Comedies, so I wanted to tell a simple feelgood tale about a group of friends.
'My life had a focal point back then. It was my dad's world in south London where a group of friends would meet every Sunday in a pub. Fifteen people would sit around a table and the rule was, if you're going to speak, either by telling a story or a joke, it better be good, otherwise you'll get slaughtered.
'So it was in this environment that people refined their stories. I was in my mid-20s at this point, working in the print [trade]. I'd sit back and watch these old guys spin their yarns,' says Mark. 'It was an education, put it that way.'
Mark is your classic Londoner; loyal to his manor, but equally at home in cosmopolitan Soho and in touch with different cultural spheres. 'Back then, I had my south London environment, and the print trade, while at the same time knowing people like Paolo Hewitt [journalist and Outside Bet's co-writer] and Gary Crowley, who I'd known for years from my West End connections.'
The Mumper tells the story of Mark and the relationship he had with his father, set against the battle waged by Wapping printworkers against the Murdoch empire, a period of social history in which Mark found himself on the picket line. 'I've always been a grafter,' he says. 'I've always had a few things on the go at once. While I was working in the print, I had a clothes stall in Camden Market. I earned good money in the print, but I also had this side interest, which I concentrated on after I was made redundant.
'On the stall, I met many different people. This was 20 years ago, so Acid Jazz was the scene, and Dingwalls, over the road from the stall, was buzzing. I got to know all the guys who played at Dingwalls.'
When Mark told his old friend Paolo Hewitt of his idea for The Mumper, he was told to go and write it all down. 'It was a steep learning curve for me. Writing it came as a real struggle. It took me two and half years.
'What I learned was just keep going. Get to the end. Then refine it. After 15 drafts, I had a story I could work with. Even then, I still couldn't get a deal. I had 60 rejection letters from agents and publishers. So I thought I'd self publish,' he says. 'When I realised that my mates on building sites were all reading The Mumper, I knew I was onto something. Or when people who never normally read came up to me and said they loved it.
'Publishers and agents ignored it to begin with because they didn't get the south London world. I impressed upon them it was a story of friendship and love between a group of blokes, blokes who always looked out for each other. But agents were saying "Look, no one in south Wales is going to read this". But it's proved to be a universal story because every town and city in the UK has got that pub on its corner,' says Mark.
'I'd given the book to Trix Worrell who'd written Desmond's for Channel 4, and he'd passed it to TV producer Tony Humphreys, so it was being considered as a TV series, but then someone said, no, we want this as a film. The eventual budget was set at £2.5 million.'
Did such interest after so many rejections come as a shock? 'It was wonderful. Bob Hoskins [who plays Percy 'Smudge' Smith], who had friends who had been in the print trade who'd been screwed over by News International, felt the story of the Wapping strikes had never been properly told. He was great to work with, a lovely man.' Hoskins has since gone public with having been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. 'Bob was quite fragile back then, 18 months ago, but he could still slaughter with you with a quickfire line,' says Mark.
'Having Bob in the cast was a dream, as was Phil Davis, playing my dad, who had been in Quadrophenia. It was a six and half week shoot. Ultimately, the producers want to recoup their investment. If they do, they'll then say "This formula works".'
So does he put his success down to the intangible? To luck? 'Luck isn't the right word to use when it comes to success in publishing. I think it's fortune, because that comes after tireless grafting, when you have found an angle through hard work. There are no short cuts.
'The Mod credo has always been important to me. Having an eye for classic design; having good taste. That has always taken me different places, where I met different people. An interesting life is when you're able to open up new worlds to yourself. When you meet new people, they take you places...places you never ever expected you'd go.'
In 2000, when his dad died from cancer, Mark realised that if there was anything in life he wanted to have a go at, he had to seize the day. 'When my dad died, I got serious. I focused on work. It's all about your mindset.'
Outside Bet is also noteworthy for its soundtrack. 'Paul Weller very kindly donated a song to the film. I sent him a copy of The Mumper and he loved it. I think the father-son story struck a chord with him. Paul asked if I needed some music, then told me he had a song for the film. He sent me No Need To Be Alone. It's a tune with a 1940s pub song feel to it. The producers loved it, and that's how it found its way onto the soundtrack. I'll be eternally grateful to Paul for that,' says Mark.
Writers can't rest, I tell him, as we call for the bill. 'I totally agree,' he says. 'I'd like a year off, but I'm already working on another novel. Every Monday is my writing day at the moment. I switch off the phone and try and get 2,000 words written.'
Then, almost as an afterthought, as he looks out into the drenched restaurant garden, the clouds bursting above, Mark says: 'I said that by the time I was 50, I would do something...and I have. It's a tiring thing, getting your work out there, but it's worth all the struggle.'
Photograph of Mark Baxter by Tule Lac
Outside Bet (2012) is available to buy on DVD at
Outside Bet UK trailer: www.youtube.com/watch?v=BdbLDUp1BjY