PJ Smith is a writer, spoken word performer (as Roy), and recovery worker. His debut collection Algorithm Party (published by Rough Trade Books) is out now.
I visited PJ at his flat in Toxteth on 14 December 2020. We spoke for well over an hour about a variety of topics.
I was hanging around with a lad in school who was a bit older, I was about twelve and he was about fifteen. We were knocking around in a little group and one of his family was having a do, an engagement or something. And I looked older than I was, so we ended going to this social club around here, the south end (Toxteth) which was alien to me. So I bought a shirt and a pair of kecks and that, a pair of Chelsea boots! And I went to this social club and just sat in the corner with my mate, one mate who was my age and the lad whose relatives’ party it was and he was like: ‘Are you getting a drink or what?’ And I was just like: ‘Yeah, go on, I’ll get them’ with my shirt and my kecks and I just went to the bar, like, shitting myself and went: ‘three pints please’, thinking she’s just gonna say ‘fuck off’ but she just went: ‘What of?’ and I thought: ‘Shit, I haven’t rehearsed this bit’ and I just went ‘beer, of course!’ I was drunk off one pint. I was thirteen but I looked about sixteen, hence getting served in a bar.
There’s no way back then that me or anyone else would have said: ‘he’s an alcoholic him or he’s potentially alcoholic’. They would have said: ‘he doesn’t mix well with his drink him’ which is now what I know is an alcoholic, like (laughs). I was always the one who went a bit far. I was always the one who lost my memory. I was always the one who had consequences, mental consequences, like, which nobody else seemed to have. That’s what I remember. From the age of fifteen up until about twenty, the majority of my drinking I pretty much enjoyed.
I approached sub-cultures like I did substances, chemicals. I wasn’t arsed. I was just like: ‘Is this gonna make me feel better?’ I’d have fucking joined ISIS if it had made me feel better when I was that age, you know what I mean?
So it’s a miracle really, it is a miracle that I never ended up on smack.
Was it a fear of needles that prevented that?
No. What it was, I think, it was people my age were the first generation who knew the full effects of it, you know what I mean? We had aunties and uncles and mas and das on smack and the stigma had landed then: ‘Smack is scummy, it’s dirty, smackheads are this, smackheads are that.’ Well if I’d been born ten years earlier, who knows? Fellas I go the match with, just normal, regular fellas, work on site and that, just like a pint of Guinness at the match, they’ve told me: ‘We used to have smack…’ and I’m like, ‘what? You?!’ and they’re like: ‘Nobody knew what it was. Nobody knew. There was no stigma that you were dirty or a thief or you’d catch this or that. Yeah, we had a little smoke of heroin in the van on the way to QPR away in 1985’.
So I daresay, like, if I was eighteen in 1985, and someone said: ‘You want some heroin?’ I’d have went: ‘Fuckin’ of course I do’ and I’d have liked it.
It was just everything really. This thing that I used to enjoy, this thing that used to make a good time even better, was now making a bad time even worse. On my twentieth birthday a load of us had been to Voodoo at Le Bateau on a Friday night which was typical me because on a Friday night I’d be at Voodoo with one set of mates and then the next night I’d be at Liquidation, dressed differently, acting differently, with a different group of people. But we’d been to Voodoo and it was just fucking bonkers. I’d ended up going home and it was early morning and there was some kind of half eleven match on on the Saturday and I’m trying to watch it and my mum just come in, Saturday morning: ‘Do you want a bacon butty?’ and she just seen the state of me and she’s just like: ‘Son, you might wanna calm this shit down now before you end up like your dad’. That got my attention. ‘Don’t fuckin’ say that. I’m nothing like him.’ That stuck with me, that. That was like millions of layers beneath, but it was just like: ‘Yeah, I am gonna end up like him. I think I know I am.’ Deep down. I’d never admit that and I’d argue against it but I think I carried it around with me for along time. I am, aren’t I?
Tell me about your relationship with your father:
It was just, like, non-existent, well, it was weird really. He’s a compulsive gambler, alcoholic – and was just absent a lot of the time. And, erm, kind of didn’t have any abilities as a parent really. He was more like my mate and it was left to my mum to do the parenting, but when you’re a kid, the one who does the parenting is the baddie, aren’t they?
But then I sussed it out a bit later on, where a lot of the stuff that drives me comes from. Subconscious stuff that you only wake up to later on. As a a kid you just think ‘Why isn’t my dad at parents evening? And everyone else’s is? How come on Christmas Day everyone’s dad’s here and mine isn’t? ‘
This isn’t conscious but as a six year old you just think this must be my fault, there must be something wrong with me, just carrying it around weirdly for the next ten years.
Oh man, if you could do a degree in hindsight, you know what I mean? You just have no idea at the time, and if someone told you at the time, this is going to shape how you the view the rest of your life… ‘Fuck off. I’m not arsed he’s not here. How does it effect me? It doesn’t effect me because he’s not here.’ But it did, like.
I was speaking about this (tribal boundaries) yesterday. It’s definitely there, innit? It’s like, if you want to be popular, if you’re any kind of performer or whatever you are, get on stage and shout ‘Fuck the Tories’. Actually it’s much better to stand for something than fight against it. Empty slogans, they’re just not going to get you anywhere. We know a phrase, don’t we? ‘Faith without Works is Dead’, which I translate into ‘Beliefs without Actions are Pointless’. It takes a lot of energy, doesn’t it? Fighting against stuff. It’s better to just stand for something. Imagine with politicians, there was just some rule that they weren’t allowed to slag the opposition of and all they had to do was build themselves up.
I’d have gone viral (if social media had been around when I was drinking) just doing something in blackout. So when I saw it I’d go: ‘That’s not me’ and everyone else would go: ‘It is. It’s You.’ I’ve had nightmares about that. I don’t like it (witnessing crucifixions on social media). And sometimes it’s not malicious. People are just like: ‘that’s funny, retweet that’. I try not to because I know what that can be like. I haven’t experienced social media shame – but I’ve experienced shame, man. It cripples you, doesn’t it? Shame within your little… maybe your family or your close circle of friends which is ten people or what. Social media it’s ten thousand people like that (clicks fingers). Fuck that. It’s a suicide caper, man.
Everybody makes mistakes. Some make mistakes that are a bit more grave than others but fuckin’ ‘ell man, me and you meet people regularly who have got a past history but it’s scary isn’t it?
I suppose it’s (new musical discoveries) one of the benefits of the internet era, algorithms and that, YouTube and Spotify. I always make a point of buying stuff that I love because the way that Spotify treats artists is awful. And having mates who are similar and we just turn each other onto stuff. I’m fortunate to know a couple of people who are obsessed with digging for new tunes so I just steal from them.
When I was thirteen, I seen Oasis on The Word. I used to watch The Word every week because it was just boss, like. Friday nights, stay up late, me ma will get me a pizza, one of my mates will stay over, watch Eurotrash after because it had tits in it. I just remember seeing Oasis on The Word and like remembering it. Prior to that, I got a CD player from Macro for me twelfth birthday and me ma bought me three CDs which were: Bob Marley Legend, Pearl Jam Ten and Red Hot Chilli Peppers Blood Sugar Sex Magik. I wasn’t that into music, like. And I seen Oasis and was like and my mum’s friend was madly into music and I asked him about them and he said: ‘yeah, they’ve got an album coming out soon and they’re gonna be massive’ and he gave me it on tape, that was it then. I got into that and then the whole nineties thing. What Noel Gallagher did, because I was interested in his interviews, he would name other bands that I’d never heard of or never showed an interest in just maybe stuff like The La’s or The Jam. And I’d get into them and go: ‘These are well better than Oasis!’ I loved them. In school, Oasis t-shirt under my school shirt, because at that point when the first album came out in 1994 it was only me who I knew of and a girl in the year below, quite a nerdy girl who saw my t-shirt and said to me: ‘I love them! I’ve seen them’ and she had all these bootlegs and I stuck up this friendship with that girl. I found out years later she died, man. Like an eating disorder…
In school, I’d always had a skinhead and I started to let my hair grow and people were like: ‘What the fuck are you upto?’
Push out the boat ‘fore the river runs dry
The old Lomax in Cumberland Street, it would have been about 1997 and my mate had an older brother who got us into stuff and my mate had said to me: ‘Our Tommy said there’s a good band on. They’re something to do with The Verve. Meet us at this time in The Post House’ and I was late and I was like, ‘I’m not going’ I was just sitting in my bedroom and I was like, ah fuck it, I’ll jump the bus, on my own, into town, Lomax, said to the fella on the door: ‘I’m here to see The Beta Band’ and he went: ‘They’re nearly finished, mate. You might as just well go up.’ So I went up. ‘Better Band’ I was calling them at the time. Got up the stairs, could hear this hypnotic shit going on, walked in, they’ve got the stage all set up with trees and plants on it and they’re dressed as spacemen playing the song off the first album, the three EPs ‘She’s the one’ which just repeats that line. Honestly, man. I was stood in the doorway just like: ‘What’s this?’ I got really into them after that. I found my mate and his brother at the bar and they were like, ‘mate, you’ve missed it’. I was like: ‘I fucking haven’t, this is it, this is enough! What have they got? What can I buy?’ And it changed then. I’d been listening to bands like Oasis and real, traditional bands. And going back to my bedroom with all the boys and girls who’d sit off with me and me putting the three eps on everyone just going: ‘What the fuck’s this?’ Girls just, like, disgusted when the monolith came on: ‘I’m getting off, this is fucking weird’. (Laughs) The Beta Band were just different, just completely different for me.
Last year, roughly about a year ago, actually, he (Steve Mason) was on in Liverpool. A mate of mine was promoting the show and on the day of the gig I was like: ‘What’s happening? Who’s supporting him?’ He was like: ‘Aw, they’ve got their own tour support’. We were in school together, like, and I went: Fucking get me on. Get me on. Ten minutes. Come on. Remember twenty years ago? And he just went: ‘Aw fuck it, get on’ So that was it. I’m texting everyone saying: ‘I’m fucking supporting Steve Mason, you’d better come down.’ It was just good man. It was good. I thought back to that Lomax moment, walking in just seeing Steve Mason with glasses, big hair and a balaclava… and then twenty years later…
It’s a bit weird. There’s Liverpool bands who are pretty legendary around these parts and I’ve never heard them. I’ve never heard The Real People, never heard The Icicle Works. I’ve just never really got into them. But during that time in the nineties, I liked The Stairs and a lot of Edgar’s bands. There was a band called Blueseed who I really liked at the time. Falstaff, I remember them.
The story called Please Mind Your Head where there’s a case of a family that want one brother to take the rap for the other one because they look alike. That really happened to somebody I know. The brother was the golden child and he was a drug addict, and the family put it to him. Listen, do you fancy…?’ Imagine that, you’re family saying that they don’t give a shite about you. We’re happy to send you to jail for ten years. We can’t send him. So will you pretend you were him? That really happened, like.
All the stuff in there that people are like: ‘it’s a bit far fetched that, that wouldn’t happen’. It happened. Just not to me. They’re stories from where I grew up. From the pubs I sat in. From places I’ve been. Part of what I wanted to do when I started to perform was to leave people sitting there going: ‘That can’t be true that, can it?’ Just not quite knowing. Regarding the opening story, obviously I never killed my dad. But I’m sure there are people around who just had this thing when they were young thinking: ‘I can’t wait ’til I’m old enough and I’m gonna chin my arl fella’. Which I’ve never done and never would do but it’s something someone can identify with. Most people probably.
I don’t know what it’s like to work to a deadline. Let’s say some publisher or theatre said to me: ‘We like the way you write, we need something by the seventh of next month. I don’t know whether I could do that. For instance, I’m off work today, waiting for a bed to be delivered, you’ve come over. Later I’ll just get the pad out and see what happens so I don’t know what deadlines are like really, whether I could work to them. I’ve got a day job, haven’t I? So, if my fucking rent counted on it I’m sure I could hit deadlines, you know what I mean.
Recovery: Pain and Hope
I’ve just turned forty. I sobered up in July 2007.
One of the things I’ve realised is, that when you’re in early recovery, certainly when I was, you hear a whole new language and phrases and soundbites and you just kind of do what you’ve done for the previous few years of your life: you just wanna fit in so you just say them. You don’t really know what they mean. So, one thing I said once to someone, which I later regretted, I said to a chronic relapser: ‘You just haven’t had enough, you. Enough pain’ If you had you’d fuckin’ stop and I thought about it and I realised that I don’t know what kind of pain he’s been through. He might have had enough pain at the age of four. How do I know? So now, how I think about that is, they haven’t had enough hope. Because once you get that (hope) – (PJ clicks his fingers).
I remember my mate he used to work on the doors and he was a taxi driver, just a bit of a rogue, like and he turned up at the place I worked years ago with someone else who was a DJ and lived that kind of life and the DJ had got he clean. He said: this is my mate, can we help him?’ I was like: ‘If he wants to be helped then yeah, I reckon we can.’ It was a Friday and we had a little group, an introduction thing in the place we worked. It was only an hour. He was buzzing and he got upset in the group and that. I said to him: ‘The thing is, mate, that I’m off work for the next two days now but we’ve got a footy match tomorrow. Can you play footy? And he was like yeah. I said ‘come with us, you’ll meet twenty two lads who are all clean, we’ll have a breakfast together, we’ll come back here and have a cup of tea after it. So he did that and you could see… And then after the footy I went: ‘Look, there’s a film club on here tomorrow. We watch world cinema. Come in, you’ll meet another ten people who are all clean and in recovery. And he came to that, and he was like: ‘fuckin’ ell, that was great and I said to him: ‘the group’s back on tomorrow.’ He came to the group on Monday and just said: ‘In the past three days I’ve met like fifty people who are all clean and sober, all sound and friendly, having good lives. I’m in. I’M IN. He’s about eight years sober now.
Would you ever leave Liverpool?
Who knows? As I sit here today I’ve got no plans to leave. But fuckin’ ell, I had no plans to get sober and get my life in order. I’ve found that when you’re living with a bit of curiosity yo nevre fucking know. Jules, you could ring me next year and go: ‘How’s your flat in Toxteth?’ and I could go: ‘Jules, I’m in Nepal now, mate, teaching yoga on the top of a mountain’. You never know. Thirteen years of sobriety each year, things have taken a different direction that you could never have predicted.
One of the lads at work, that whole thing about: ‘Well if I get sober, every cunt’s gonna think I’m boring, and how am I gonna talk to girls?’ I just went: ‘Mate, you haven’t had a bird for five years, everybody already thinks you’re boring. Listen, man, if you sober up, you’re reliable, you’re trustworthy, you’re honest, you’re emotionally mature you’re accountable… doors will open.’ He was like: ‘Oh yeah, I hadn’t thought of it like that.’
I had that things about: ‘I’m 26, I don’t drink, how am I gonna chat someone up? Or what’s gonna happen as soon as I say I’m sober. And honestly, I’ve never had anybody fuck me off because I don’t drink. I’ve had real curiosity. I don’t overshare and tell everyone I’m an alcoholic. I just say: ‘I’m alright, I don’t drink. And I’ve never had: ‘You fucking weirdo’, I’ve had: ‘Tell me a bit more about that’. So, people do have them fears, don’t they, that things are going to be boring, but if you’re in a position where you think you’re gonna need to sober up, then things are already boring aren’t they? There hasn’t been a single negative to sobering up. There hasn’t been.
During the full first lockdown, at work, I did have a thought: Shit, group of addicts in early recovery, just locked up, could be risky’. To be fair to our lads, because they had a foundation, they just said: ‘Piece of piss this.’ It was a joy. Obviously I understand that for single parent families on benefits with no garden then it wasn’t a joy – and I can’t imagine how much of a nightmare that was. But for us there, as recovering addicts, who know a lot about isolation and acceptance and powerlessness, it was boss. We’ve got a good culture there. When you work somewhere and it’s a new place, you get to create the culture, don’t you?
There was another lad I knew who had been sober for quite some time… Well, after a few years he had a wobble and he was like: ‘I don’t think I’m an alcoholic. I think it’s mental health.’ This is as we’re on our way to a mutual aid group. I just thought: ‘Nah, I’m not buying into this shit. Because he wants me to try and convince him that he’s an alcoholic. So I just went in my wallet and I had forty quid and I went: ‘Tell you what then. Take that. You go in that pub there, I’ll go in the meeting. Drink as much as you can in an hour an a half – but in an hour and a half, just stop. Just stop and we’ll go home. And we’ll try it again the next night, and the night after that. And if you manage it then you’re right, you’re not an alcoholic’. He shit himself. He came to the meeting.
Film and TV
It’s just so predictable: ‘The Wire’ and ‘The Sopranos’. I’ll never, ever get bored of watching them and recommending them. There a few others but them two are a class above, aren’t they? The layers and the complexities. I envy people who haven’t seen them and are gonna have the experience of watching that for the first time.
I just caught La Haine on BBC Two, on the off-chance, in the nineties. I’d never watched a subtitled film. Don’t think I’d ever watched a black and white film. I think I was just getting stoned in my room, my mate was with me, we were listening to The Small Faces. The telly was on with the sound turned down. Who are these three lads with Tacchini trackies on? Let’s see what this is about. We missed the first twenty minutes or something. And at the end we were both like… we couldn’t understand what we’d just watched. And I’ve watched that several times.
Do you know a filmmaker called Gaspar Noé? Gaspar Noé is a French-Argentinian film-maker. He’s my favourite film-maker. Don’t watch his films on a first date. They’re not horror films, they’re fucking real, like. Where do you start with Gaspar Noé? He’s got one called Irreversible which goes backwards. Most of them are in French. He done one English speaking one called Enter the Void which is about DMT and the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Woah (whistles), that’s fucking heavy. Heavy but brilliant, just brilliant. Irreversible has an eleven minute rape scene in it and then a beating after it. People were just like: Listen there’s just no need for that. When he’s asked about it, he’s just like: ‘Rape is brutal’. I just think he’s different, he’s in a league of his own, he doesn’t give a fuck. His films aren’t really accessible. You couldn’t put them on in your film club and all that. One of them is basically a porno with a good story. It’s called Love. I went to see that on my own at FACT the night it came out. I went to the pictures on my own, nine o’clock at night, a couple of people in there. It felt seedy. And then about five minutes before the film started it just got packed, packed full of a real weird range of people: older women, young film students, scallies. It was a strange experience.
Trainspotting, you know the Showcase on the East Lancs? Me and me three mates went there, it was national cinema day. It was a pound to get in. We were gonna see something else. We were only like, however old, fifteen, so we bunked in Trainspotting, just got in. That was my first, proper, like, amazing cinematic experience. At that point I wasn’t even into films, I was just into playing footy and that. I just came out of Trainspotting and went ‘wow, I’ll have to start going to more films’. You investigate, don’t you? Who wrote this? What else has he wrote? What’s that actor been in? Just stuff like that. That was what opened up the door for me, my interest in films.
But Gaspar Noé. If I heard now that he had a film coming out in January, I’d be really excited. But his last one, called Climax, I went to see that. I always go on my own because I can’t take people because they might think I’m round the bend. Half-way through it, I’m just like, I’m fucking not into this, and it’s unsettling me. But, I trust him, I’m not walking out. It was just about this dance troupe who are in this building and the punch gets spiked and it’s like a bad trip, and I was really into it. But I can separate, some people when they watch a film it’s too disturbing for them. When I’m watching a film, I’m like: it’s just a film there’s a cameraman there, there’s a lighting dude there, there’s a thingio there, and they’re just actors.
Matt, the Violette man, he read some of my writing and said: ‘it’s good, what do you read?’ I said: ‘Not much, really”. He said: ‘Have you ever heard of Paul Birtill?’ I said: ‘Nah’. And he went: ‘Well he’s a poet and he’s from Walton, you should read him’. He told me to give him my address and he would send me something. A couple of days later this Amazon thing arrives, I think it was that one there (motions to one of several Paul Birtill books) on the shelf. I knew Matt would ask me about it so I thought I may as well have a look at it. And I think I read the lot of it in one go. I was texting Matt and I was like: ‘Who the fuck’s this guy?’ And Matt was like: ‘We’ve got to find him. We’ve got to find him’. And then I heard he was on at Walton Library. I skived off work and went. I didn’t get to speak to him or anything and Matt was like: ‘did you get his number?;’ and I was like: ‘no’. And then I just thought, as Matt did, that people need to know, man. He’s loved. All the people who have put him on, man. When he came back up to Liverpool in 2016 it was our first ever social. We cheated because we got Mick Head on so we knew that would draw a crowd – but to watch Paul with three hundred people, in silence, that’s when I knew: there’s something in this. We can do this.
PJ Smith’s debut collection Algorithm Party (published by Rough Trade) is out now.