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John Niven: Suicide is one of those subjects you become a PhD in after it affects you

John Niven (left) and his brother Gary, Christmas 1988 | Picture courtesy of John Niven

John Niven: Suicide is one of those subjects you become a PhD in after it affects you

There’s a phrase that appears again and again in O Brother, John Niven’s chronicle of his relationship with his brother Gary, who took his own life in 2010. As he recounts the success of his own career as a novelist and the tribulations endured by his younger sibling, Niven repeatedly refers to life’s “wheel of fortune” as if everything is decided by a spin of roulette, a throw of the dice. It’s certainly hard to understand why two brothers, raised in Irvine by the same parents and with the same opportunities, would turn out so different. But Niven’s book makes it clear that the truth is far more complex – that two lives do not turn on luck alone. 

Niven is a hugely successful novelist and screenwriter who took up writing after a career in the music industry as an A&R man. Published earlier this year, his memoir tells the story of his relationship with the brother who hanged himself aged 42 while unsupervised in a room at Crosshouse hospital, near Kilmarnock, despite having been brought in with suicidal thoughts. Niven would later successfully sue for negligence. 

Despite the subject matter, O Brother is often very funny but it marks a departure for the author whose previous works include the novels Kill Your Friends and The Amateurs, a book which Niven says contains a sub-plot about two “star-crossed brothers”. Now 13 years after his brother’s death, I ask him what made him want to write about their relationship.

“I think I always knew that at some point I would write about my brother and me,” he says. “As George Orwell said, you write to try and figure out what you think – it was about coming to terms with his loss and trying to make some sort of meaning out of his life.”

After studying for a degree in English literature at the University of Glasgow, Niven moved to London where he would eventually end up working in the music industry, rubbing shoulders with the likes of The Clash’s Joe Strummer and signing Scottish band Mogwai. In contrast, Gary got involved in a life of crime and went to prison in the late 1990s for dealing drugs. Niven, who also has a younger sister, says the book was a means of understanding why his brother became the “black sheep” of the family.

“It’s about all the little bumps in the road along the way. Ostensibly we both came from the same working class, west coast of Scotland background. We were both brought up in the same family unit in much the same way and yet we fashioned very different outcomes from that.”

A lot of men end up with a life in middle age that’s barren and sterile. There’s just isn’t much to occupy the mind, occupy the heart. I think that leads a lot of men into quite a dark, lonely place.

While Niven was studying and playing in bands, his brother was falling in with the wrong crowd, enjoying the Class A drugs of the 90s rave scene before moving on to supplying them. 

“My brother wasn’t an instinctive tough-nut, hardman, Begbie-type,” he says. “The way Gary got attention in the family was by outrageous behaviour. Gary’s thing to stand out became transgression. Once you get into your teens that leads you into situations where he was the mascot-type character for the gang, the wee guy that would do anything. That leads you into some daft situations as a teenager. If you’re still doing that as you get older and beginning to run with genuinely scary people, as Gary was, it leads you into other things, worse things. 

“Suicide is such a big issue, and it affects so many people, but it’s still something that’s hard to talk about. On the recent reading tour there were some people buying two and even three copies of the book because I think it’s a way for them to give it to people who have suffered through similar [circumstances]; it’s a way of having the conversation.” 

Niven at this year's Edinburgh International Book Festival | Alamy

Niven credits education and his peers with setting him out on a different path. Growing up in Ayrshire, his friends included the novelist Andrew O’Hagan, the artist Graham Fagen, and members of the band Trashcan Sinatras, who recently enjoyed chart success after the re-release of their 1990 debut album. They bonded over a love of literature and bands like The Clash, The Fall and The Smiths. In one memorable passage of the book, written as if it were a screenplay, a teenage Niven presents himself as a Morrissey-inspired aesthete annoying his brother and dad as they attempt to watch The A-Team on a Saturday night. 

“I was very fortunate in Irvine in the 1980s that when I found my tribe, my gang, we were all into music. Not an insignificant number of us went on to do interesting things with our lives because we were quite a creative wee group: we put on our own gigs and wrote our own fanzines and magazines. We all discovered passions – music, literature and cinema; these are reasons to stay alive. 

“You find, especially with a lot of men, if they get into middle age, like my brother did, for some guys having a job and family is enough. In Gary’s case, he didn’t see his children and had split up from his fiancée. He didn’t have a job and didn’t have anything else to fill his soul – there wasn’t a lot of other interests. You end up with a life in middle age that’s barren and sterile. There’s just isn’t much to occupy the mind, occupy the heart. I think that leads a lot of men into quite a dark, lonely place.”

Niven, whose next book is a novel set in Glasgow, says he was initially reluctant to write a memoir both because of the difficulty he had sustaining his own voice in print over 400 pages, but also because he didn’t consider himself to be famous enough. I ask him whether he thinks things have changed for men in Gary’s position since 2010, has the situation improved for those in need of help?

“I think there have been some strides. In the immediate few years after Gary’s death, the Samaritans had the Men on the Ropes campaign and there are organisations like CALM and MIND which are much more prominent in trying to have that conversation in the public space. 

“Suicide is one of these subjects you become a PhD in after it affects you. You want to understand and find out everything you can. At the time when Gary was going through the final years and months of his life, I just wasn’t across it the way I should have been. He ticked all the boxes: he was living alone, he was unemployed, he had a history of drug and alcohol problems, he had recently broke up a relationship, he had financial problems – the lights are flashing red right across the board. I just didn’t know how to see it.” 

In one moving passage of the book, Niven is in his brother’s house following his death and finds receipts from a pawnbroker for power tools he pawned for £45 eight days before he hanged himself. It would have cost him £58.50 to buy them back. Niven, who has also written angrily about the fixed payment electricity meter in his brother’s home which he couldn’t afford to run, calls it “high street usury practised upon the very poorest”. 

A supporter of Scottish independence, he is unsurprisingly not a fan of the Tories and the way they’ve run Britain in the years since his brother’s death. He says his primary concern at the next general election is to vote out his local Tory MP Steve Baker, the arch-Brexiteer who represents the constituency of Wycombe near London. Niven says much of the social mobility that allowed him to swap Irvine for London as a young man has disappeared, making it much harder for those from working class backgrounds to have careers in the arts.

“When I moved to London I was in a band. You could move down and sign on and get your rent paid – it was almost like getting your government grant to fund your two or three-year shot at trying to make it. Most of us don’t [make it] but it seemed a lot easier to do then. 

“To work somewhere like a record company or anywhere hip now you have to do the first couple of years either not getting paid or barely getting paid. The only people who can afford to do that now are middle class kids. 

Irvine, North Ayrshire | Alamy

“It terrifies and depresses me that we’re missing out on the next Morrissey or Mark E Smith or James Kelman or Andrew O’Hagan because you just don’t get the time in late teens and early twenties to wallow about at the state’s expense. I was the beneficiary of a completely free university degree. I even dropped out for two years in the middle of my degree and the state held me. I pay a fair whack in taxes now, which is as it should be and I’m happy to do it – I don’t mind carrying younger people of a working class background to try and allow them to get their foot in the door or figure out who they are.”

Niven, whose first novel wasn’t published until he was 41, says he remains thankful every day that he has the career he has. He says his ex-wife, a lawyer, laughed in his face when he suggested doing a law degree in the years before his first book was picked up. He now works six days a week, writing his latest novel in the morning and spending afternoons on screenplays. Despite having spent more than 30 years away from Scotland, he still has a house in Ayrshire and tries to get back as often as he can. 

“When I was a teenager, I could not wait to get out of Irvine,” he says. “First to get to Glasgow and then get to London – I couldn’t wait to get away. I’ve spent a good chunk of my life keen to put some distance between me and Ayrshire, but in the last decade I love going back. I feel the pull of it quite strongly. There’s that nostalgia for where you grew up which seems to kick in as you get older.” 

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