Why I absolutely love Prefab Sprout

Any music-loving parent hopes that their kids will inherit their musical taste, so I’m delighted to report that my daughter has developed a appreciation for Prefab Sprout which echoes my own. Inevitably a few of the jazz-influenced chord changes on ‘Swoon’ (1984) threw her a bit on a first listen, some of the more obtuse lyrics on ‘Jordan: The Comeback’ (1990) are a bit over her head and she found the sentiments of ‘The Sound of Crying’ (1992) a bit saccharine, but then to be fair she is only five weeks old.

She’s already more of a fan than some of the people on the Prefab Sprout online forum. Last week an associate of  the Sprouts’ frontman Paddy McAloon uploaded a video to Youtube in which, accompanied only by an acoustic guitar,  Paddy sings a moving lament which celebrates the most inclusive and welcoming aspects of US society at a time when its worst instincts are to the fore. Some fans in the ‘Sproutnet Community‘ were quick to dismiss its platitudinous appeals to the spirit of ‘liberal humanism’ (urgh! humans!!!). It seems strange that someone could spend 25 years following the Prefabs, putting up with Paddy writing albums called things like ‘Let’s Change the World With Music’ (2009) in the forlorn hope that he’ll some day release one called ‘Isn’t it about time we sent some gunships to deal with those so-called refugees for once and for all’, but this is, after all, the internet and no one nowadays wants to be accused of being a ‘snowflake’.

My daughter also responded in an unusual way to a song clearly designed to bring a tear to the eye: she stopped crying. For four minutes she listened in what I take to be wonder but may have just been a temporary absence of gastric discomfort. She has also reacted very well to being gently swayed round the living room to some of the more lilting moments on ‘Steve McQueen’, and even managed to get through a good 12 minutes of ‘I Trawl the Megahertz’ without bawling her eyes out for even more milky-wilky.

As for myself, I’ve been a fan of Prefab Sprout since 1988, when I was 17, at a time in my life when I was trying to come to terms with my inner snowflake. I bought all four albums in one day, probably in response to a review by some absolute genius in Melody Maker. Their unabashed erudition mixed with shameless appeals to the heartstrings twanged a very resonant minor chord in my sensitive teenage soul. That, in fact, is the theme of one of the songs on ‘From Langley Park to Memphis’ (1988) (‘Enchanted’). It was apparently inspired by the feeling that nothing again strikes you with the same force as it does when you were 17.

Although Paddy himself is not as fresh-faced as he appeared in their commercial heyday, there remains something entirely free of cynicism in the view of the world expressed in his songs. It is heartfelt, earnest and enormously sweet without any aftertaste of bitterness. From ‘Swoon’  to ‘Crimson/Red’ (2013) by way of the unembarrassable AOR of ‘The Gunman and Other Stories’ (2001), there is a wide-eyedness to his work which is, for people like me who recognise him as a full-on no-holds-barred actual songwriting genius, relentlessly endearing and comforting. He is a magnificent lyricist and can do things with a succession of key changes that very few bar Steven Sondheim and George Gershwin have done before him.

There are so many great Prefab Sprout songs that I’m not going to list them. If you do appreciate or don’t know their music you will enjoy the playlist that follows this piece. Sadly Spotify doesn’t feature one of Paddy’s very greatest moments, so I urge you to click here and take twenty one minutes out of your wonderful/impossible life to listen to it. It comes from an extraordinary album (‘I Trawl the Megahertz’, 2003) which was famously killed stonedead by the Guardian’s heartless decision not to review it*, but which in a far better world would have become the new national anthem of the human race. The rest is a personal selection of some of the most moving and inspiring songs ever, ever written. I hope you enjoy it as much as my daughter does. Well, seems to.

* Serious Sprout fans are still holding out for a Chilcott-style inquiry into this sorry episode.

Kate Tempest, Sleaford Mods, Modern Toss, Brexit and the 2011 riots

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It used to take me about 45 minutes to listen to an album; nowadays it takes me at least a week. I find it hard to summon the patience and attention necessary to engage with new music. This would have been unimaginable when I was 15 and obsessed with music. Then the thought of some sort of supermarket sweep in a record shop would have been beyond my wildest dreams. But since the initial smash-and-grab of filesharing in the early part of the last decade it’s become clear to me that music so easily obtained is also easily discarded, and much harder to develop that deep connection with it that came from having invested the proceeds of my paper round. Nowadays even when someone sends me or shares something it often feels like a chore to have to listen to it, and I know the same is true when I share songs with others.

Of course, I could, as most do, walking around listening to music. Creating your own soundtrack to overlay reality often feels like a cinematic experience, one which remakes the world with you at its centre, dramatising time and space with you cast as the hero, or at least the protagonist. As Will Self explores in this Guardian piece, it does so at the cost of setting you apart from your immediate physical and social environment, providing:

…a soundtrack that our walker can choreograph all the traffic to, human and vehicular, her deft, darting eyes seamlessly stitching order out of the chaos so that everything around her skips to her divinely ordained beat.

Also, until very recently I had an ongoing ear problem which made listening to headphones an irritatingly imbalanced experience. Add to this the presence of a new baby who needs to sleep but isn’t always aware of the fact, and my music intake has been severely reduced.

In all this media saturation, with pretty much all recorded music and film available at a twitch of the thumb,  it’s inevitable to have blind spots. I’ve always enjoyed those moments when I realise there’s something or someone – a writer, group or director – whose work I’ve been aware of but never focussed on. It often takes concerted effort on behalf of someone else to make me really listen to something. When a friend told me last summer she was excited about going to see Kate Tempest in concert, it failed to register. I vaguely thought she was some sort of folk singer in the same breed as Mumford & Sons. It was only when another friend emailed last week insisting that I watch a BBC performance of her album ‘Let Them Eat Chaos’ that I forced myself to actively pay attention, and even then it took me a week of interruptions to get through the whole thing.

Over the ten linked tracks Tempest unfolds the story of seven young neighbours on a London street, perfect strangers to one another, each lying awake before dawn worrying about their lives as, unbeknownst to them, a huge storm approaches. She articulates fears that reflect mine and doesn’t shy away from themes that (should) make people uncomfortable: climate change, immigration and racism. She does so in a way which is not hopeful but is certainly compassionate to the plight of her characters. Her tone is impassioned but also thoughtful, and her eye is acutely attentive to those details of our private and shared landscapes which are often overlooked or hidden away. She chooses an appropriate scale for the gravity of her themes, moving swiftly but deftly between the cosmological and the mundane, from images of the wounded planet to the everyday drudgery of worrying about the demands of the working day.

I’ve seen comparisons to the Streets concept album ‘A Grand Don’t Come for Free’, in terms of the scale of the project and the urban themes. There are more recent reference points but I’m only loosely aware of. In a typically vituperative tweet the Sleaford Mods dismiss her as derivative of artists like Jamie T and Lady Sov. I think it’s a shame they don’t engage more with her work as they have a lot in common. I’ve long enjoyed their work but have only heard odd songs. Luckily the release of their new album has coincided with both my discovery of Kate Tempest and the (disgusting) resolution of my hearing difficulty to make a useful comparison possible.

Both artists seek explicitly to accurately represent working class concerns in 2017. Visually the Mods are a punk Pet Shop Boys mixed with the insouciance of the Gallagher brothers. Musically they appear rudimentary in their dependence on beats, basslines and samples, but they make very inventive and compelling use of that limited palette. The ostensive sparseness of their sound puts me in mind of post-punk – a lot of their tracks recapture the sound of 1980, while others make more direct reference to hiphop. As with Tempest, Wu Tang Clan are a direct inspiration.

Like Die Antwoord (another group which I like but rarely actually listen to), they initially seemed to be a novelty act with a limited number of tricks but whose serious intent has become more apparent. Nevertheless there is a strong component of comedy to what they do. There are echoes not only of avin-a-larf late punk bands like Sham 69 but also of K*nt and the Gang and even (when we get to the chants of ‘you fat bastard) the Macc Lads. Jason Williamson shares some of Tempest’s poetic acuity, with many of their songs picking up on aspects of contemporary British life which it is genuinely surprising and refreshing to hear articulated in song – references to chain pubs, welfare cuts, closed-down shops, stoned trips to the corner shop and military fitness abound. Until recently, the tone has been consistent. It’s one of sneering undercut by anger and sadness. Their default mode is to rant and condemn. On the recent album a more plaintive and oblique mood has crept in, but it remains a very blokish vision, harsh and unforgiving. For all their progressive credentials, it sounds to me very much like the rage and hurt which John Harris identified in this must-see talk as key to the Brexit vote*.

Then there’s the humour, in all its joyous abusiveness. When I first heard ‘Jobseeker’ I thought it sounded like Modern Toss on record. Others have made the same connection. Several characters created by the Brighton cartoonists are present in Sleaford Mods tracks. They are the musical version of the disaffected-to-the-point-of-obnoxiousness figures represented in the Work, Customer Service, Drive By Abuser, Mr Tourette and Alan cartoons. Both Sleaford Mods and Modern Toss present a Britain in which a precondition of almost any job is that you have to regard and treat other humans as resources, and thirty years of neoliberal managerial doctrine in every area of our lives has encouraged us to view each other primarily as means to an end. What results is (in everyday life) deeply unpleasant and (on paper or record) hilarious insouciance, a principled refusal to treat other people and the social roles they embody with due respect.

This is partly due, then, to the alienating effect of bureaucratising language, as identified by Mark Fisher in ‘Capitalist Realism’. It is an expression of what he calls ‘reflexive impotence’, especially prevalent among those who have been educated in a system which emphasises very narrowly-defined notions of success, promoting individual ‘entrepreneurship’ at every turn and dismissing the notion that society has any responsibilities towards its members. It is also related to the spirit that Momus identified in his classic rant about a visit back to the UK, a place where ubiquitous marketing promotes addiction and competition as central metaphors for understanding and responding to reality and treating others:

We stop at a filling station on the Shoreditch High Street to buy some food. A homeless man is sitting at the entrance. ‘Spare some change, please? Spare some change?’ A black man gets out of a BMW and comes over to reform him. ‘Look at yourself, mate, you’ve got to stop using the stuff. Go to a gym, man, do a workout, get out of this state you’re in, it’s a fucking shame on you, man!’ He’s a winner, the junkie’s a loser. Go to a gym, start a business, buy a BMW, join the winners. It’s dog eat dog.

This imperative to think about life as a competition is also present in the lives of Tempest’s characters, but in her case she cares for them and is considerate of their vulnerabilities, unpleasant as the individuals may appear on the surface. This is partly a question of empathy. For all the acuteness of their observations Sleaford Mods don’t have that. Instead they rail against individual manifestations of all they despise. Their songs are mostly directed against particular targets – with scabrous wit and undercut by despair, but without the generous insights integral to Tempest’s work.

Both artists address and articulate the bleakness of a society which promotes consumerism as a means of aspiration, the alienation inherent in a worldview and way of life which regard branded sneakers and two-for-one offers on cans of Strongbow as worth living and dying for. For me, a constant implicit presence in the recent work of both is the riots of 2011, which I believe have a curious and underexplored relationship to the Brexit vote. Zygmunt Bauman attributed them to the phenomenon of ‘frustrated consumers’: mainly young people who had grown up inculcated in the belief that one’s worth and identity is realised through the acquisition of prestigious material goods, but denied the means of acquiring any means of doing so legitimately and blamed for their failure, one which society – in the form of the education system and the media – absolves itself of all responsibility**. John Harris’ talk makes clear how that pattern operated on a larger scale, and with more widespread and long-lasting effects, in relation to Brexit.

Although contrary to what the Guardian review of ‘English Tapas’ says, it is not the first ‘post-Brexit’ album (that honour goes to Momus), the work of both Kate Tempest and that of Sleafords Mods provides a very good guide to what JG Ballard called the ‘unacknowledged present’ of the UK today, to those subjacent pressures, manifest in all of our lives to a hideously unequal degree, that are prone to break through in unexpected and unpleasant ways. While the Sleaford Mods’ vision is conditioned mostly by bitterness and despair, Kate Tempest’s is tempered by compassion and a spirit of goodwill towards our vulnerabilities.

 

* This post marks the 312th time I have linked to that talk.

** Ditto for the Bauman article.

Sheffield: A personal history

One of the happiest memories of my life is of my 40th birthday get-together in June 2012, when my friend Craig showed me a video on his phone of our former secondary school being smashed to pieces by bulldozers. This realisation of a dream of our teenage years is one of the best presents I have ever received.

The reputation of the school had already taken an industrial hammering. Lying on a beach in the Algarve in September 1999, I read a lengthy Guardian report by the investigative journalist Nick Davies (later of ‘Churnalism’ fame). He identified my school as an emblematic victim of early-’80s educational reforms which aimed to remove the comprehensive elements of the education system. It was the perfect example of a school which went wrong in this way. The key year when things really started to plummet downhill like an out-of-control pram was 1983, when they removed streaming. It was also the year I and my cohorts arrived. We were, it seemed, the victims of an experiment – or, at least, of an experiment which had been made to fail by the power of class and a Government ideologically opposed to the principles of comprehensive education. That might explain why we were taught music lessons by a German teacher with an open fascination with Hitler, why we learned French in a science lab whose gas taps some kids could never quite get enough of, and why our Religious Education classes mostly consisted of listening to the teacher’s favourite progressive rock albums, particularly the Ayn ‘Medicare’ Rand-influenced Rush album ‘2112’.

Destruction was a theme of my youth. Sheffield was in the process of deindustrialising and so parts of it were disappearing. A few years ago I came across a BBC documentary from September 1973 (fifteen months after I was born) called ‘All in a Day’, which tracked the daily lives of various locals. Parts of it I recognised but there were some things -fashions, ways of life, institutions – which had already vanished by the time I came into consciousness. Then, when I was 12, I saw the city destroyed by a nuclear explosion.

‘Threads’ was the work of Barry Hines (who also wrote ‘Kes’) and it was shown on the BBC in late 1984. It was a extremely vivid depiction of the total annihilation of the only city I knew. A simmering confrontation in the Middle East between the two superpowers was discussed in increasingly urgent tones on background TVs and the radio, while people very similar to those I knew went about their everyday lives. Some schoolfriends were filmed running down the main shopping street screaming when the four-minute warning went off. My own sister was an extra. She appeared for several centiseconds at the end of a scene in which ashen-faced ‘survivors’ looked though a fence in the radioactive fog at armed soldiers guarding the emergency food supplies. She looked just like she was living through a nuclear holocaust. In reality, of course, she was just terrified she wouldn’t get on TV. The scream she let out on seeing herself was louder than a megaton bomb*.

The irony that South Yorkshire had declared itself a ‘nuclear free-zone’ was much commented-upon, as was the oft-trumpeted (but more often parodied) notion of the ‘Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire’. I grew up in a politically-charged atmosphere. Trips into town to seek out new books and music would inevitably involve getting caught up in furious discussions with left-wing newspaper sellers. I remember the first wave of strikes provoked by Thatcher as part of Nicholas Ridley’s plan to smash to unions to pieces. My father, after a career in haut cuisine, worked at a steel plant from around 1980. When I was ten, in April 1983, he took me on my first protest, outside Cutler’s Hall where Thatcher herself was speaking. Then there was the Miner’s Strike, about which I remember shamefully little.

My vague sense of imminent doom wasn’t helped by the news in 1988 that human civilisation was forcing the world’s temperatures to rise. Whenever I think of the moment I first learned about global warming, I picture the classroom at King Ecgbert’s, in the posher part of town, where I did an A-level in Government and Political Studies. We had a teacher who read to us from The Guardian. The fact that he treated us like adults and obviously enjoyed his job inspired thoughtful, if inchoate, responses. I can see myself in that classroom aged 17; I’m saying something I must have read in the Guardian about feedback loops.

Around that time I was becoming interested in other kinds of loops. In the Leadmill I heard the bleeps and bongs of ‘Sweet Exorcist‘ for the first time. The music released by Fonn and then Warp records followed an established local tradition, using a palette of industrial sounds. In this excellent BBC documentary local musicians of the time talk about how the sounds of the working city forged their sound:

Sheffield was also musically twinned with Dusseldorf, given the influence of Kraftwerk on the Human League and Heaven 17. The dystopian fictions of J.G. Ballard were also an ingredient. Although they never found (or indeed sought) commercial success, Cabaret Voltaire were part of the same wave, along with the Comsat Angels, whose bassist (much more of a pop star than we’d ever be) lived around the corner from us.

Then there was ABC, with their gold lame suits and lush, orchestrated and articulate critiques of Thatcherism. Their flamboyance stood out given that the general tone of life in Sheffield is ‘unimpressed’. There’s an earthiness, a flatness of voice and attitude which contrasts with the hills. Jarvis Cocker is the canonic example of someone who both celebrates and supercedes this. He left the city to broaden his horizons and seek fame but has nevertheless remained loyal. It was his musical map of Sheffield which taught me about the importance of Sheffield’s five rivers in its industrial development. (They probably tried to teach me that in geography classes, but I just remember being lectured about superpigs in the Ruhr Valley by a teacher with a military moustache who spent most of the lessons with his head buried in the Daily Mail.) I thus consider Jarvis to be more of a Sheffielder than I am. Still now my geography of my hometown is shameful. Someone else who knows the city much better than me is the architecture writer Owen Hatherley, who, although he’s not from there, is an articulate and enthusiastic advocate for the Sheffield of the 50’s and 60’s and the pop music culture it eventually inspired. He called his book on Pulp ‘Common’.

The song his title refers to is not my favourite but it is very well-observed. The insult ‘common’ was a very, well, common way of dismissing someone, of asserting one’s claim to a higher rung on the ladder. School was rough, with bullying commonplace, and you just had to learn to cope without appearing ‘soft’. You could detect the resultant hardiness and stoicism in the music. In 1986 the Human League had a transatlantic hit with a song which was clearly not their own. It had been written by Jam and Lewis for Alexander O’Neill or Janet Jackson, and to my ears the spoken section, which was designed to sound breathy and passionate, sounded distinctly sulky, or, as we say in Sheffield, mardy. Actually, when, on what must have been New Year’s Day 1989, me and a friend went to Phil Oakey’s house on Ecclesall Road, he was cheery and welcoming. He made us a cup of tea and we chatted about Barry White.

When I was growing up, the Human League were the local celebrities, our representatives on the national stage, or at least on Top of the Pops. The same was emphatically not true of Def Leppard, at least not in my part of town. They had taken the sounds of heavy steel production in a less interesting direction, to the mid-Atlantic rather than Central Europe. Then, in the ’90s, Sheffield became synonymous with The Full Monty. I’ve watched this film more times than Stewart Lee has seen Scooby Doo. It’s the tale of a group of redundant steelworkers forced by economic circumstances to reinvent themselves as male strippers. One of the most telling moments comes early on, when the wife of one of the main characters pisses in a urinal, thus parodying and asserting a claim over a symbol of male identity. The loss of stable industrial work, with its attendant self-image of the strong male breadwinner, implies a crisis of masculinity. The men have to divest themselves of their ‘male’ identity and try to make the adaption to more ‘feminised’ forms of work, in which bodily image and the ability to adjust to the demands of spectacle are of central concern. The film thus dramatises the fabled shift from heavy industry to the leisure economy and the suspense comes from the question of whether they can make the transition. In fairy tale fashion, they succeed, putting on a strip night and proving they have what it takes to entertain. How they will go on from this one-off performance is unclear, but in neoliberal terms (and this is an emblematically Blairite film), by debasing themselves to the demands of the market they’ve demonstrated they have sufficient will to survive. Although it wasn’t set in Sheffield but nearby, Brassed Off trod very similar ground but was more sombre and angrier in tone. If you add in Billy Elliot there was actually a minor genre of 1990s films in which former industrial zones learnt to strip, play or dance to tunes played by the forces of globalised capitalism.

On another level this is what most cities on the world are trying to do nowadays: to market themselves as cultural destinations. For a brief period Sheffield was home to the ambitious but ill-fated National Centre for Popular Music. The fact that I, for whom pop music was more important than breathing, never got round to visiting it is some indication of how ill-conceived it was. Sheffield also tried to attract sports fans, with the hugely expensive debacle of the World Student Games (who?) in 1991, which the city is, as far as I know, still paying for.

I witnessed the waning of a certain visionary spirit, that which inspired the destruction of the slums and the investment in public housing of the 1950s-60s. Owen Hatherley records that the housing estates in some parts of Gleadless were designed to take advantage of the steep topography and, in the right light, they resemble sunlit Californian hillsides. Park Hill was an absolutely laudable attempt to create decent living conditions close to the centre of the city for ordinary people. It failed, partly through official neglect, but has been widely recognised as a masterpiece of urban design. There was also abundant evidence of a previous generation of patrician municipal idealism in the late 19th Century art galleries, museums and libraries. Then there was the Crucible, which, in addition to snooker championships, put on productions at affordable prices and gave young people to develop an interest in the theatre. Such initiatives were the fruit of an ethic according to which ordinary people should participate fully in the life of the city. One of the great symbols of this principle was the bus fares. As a child I paid 2p to go anywhere in the city. It was a little bit of Cuban-style socialism, one that life immensely more livable. I was lucky to grow up in such a time and place.

Nowadays a different set of priorities prevail. After a number of years the City Council managed to destroy two grubby-but-popular markets (Castle and Sheaf) which played an essential role in the life of the city. They attracted the Wrong Sort of People, principally the poor and the old. The Council demolished the markets and built a more expensive alternative in a totally different part of the city. Doing so is in keeping with an ideological shift: neo-Blairite politicians and their successors want to attract consumers, or preferably hyperconsumers, and what happens to the social fabric as a result is of lesser concern. Thus Sheffield now has some excellent and very large places to eat for those who have some money and want to pretend they have lots: Dubai-style casinos and gargantuan but bland chain steakhouses and Chinese restaurants crowd out the area next to the Town Hall. Also very prominent in the city centre are new blocks of flats, mostly built to accommodate exponentially-multiplying numbers of future generations of foreign university students who, given Theresa May’s antipathy to the UK’s economic survival, will almost certainly never arrive.

One of Sheffield’s least favourite sons, Nick Clegg MP, boasted when he was in government that he would preside over ‘savage cuts’, and the amount of people begging around the city are a testament to just how much he managed to achieve. The desperation caused by the viscous ideologically-inspired attacks on government spending must also have been a factor in the city having voted narrowly for Brexit (by 6,000 votes). Sheffield, dependent on government and EU spending in all its forms, is one city that will suffer enormously as a result. Its attempts to adjust to the new reality of a government agenda driven by psychopathic zeal do direct damage to both the standard of living and the quality of life of the city. As of 2017, the local council has now, in absolute desperation, begun a war against trees, as well as (as far as I can make out) dimming the streetlights. Perhaps they are taking the need to cut down on overheads a little too literally.

My knowledge of Sheffield is dwarfed by the number of things I don’t know, particularly given that I haven’t lived there since I was 18. I’m almost proud to say I don’t know more than a couple of the places mentioned in this recent Guardian article. There’s also the multi-venue music festival Tramlines (for which much credit has to go to a member of the increasingly-less-interesting local superstar band Arctic Monkeys), and the internationally renowned documentary festival.

There are also all sorts of wonderful things in Sheffield that have always been there: the art galleries, the museums, shops like Rhyme and Reason (a treasure trove of books and records I practically lived in when I was young and which, despite the best efforts of the Council, is still hanging on). Hunter’s Bar and the area around Kelham Island still have an abundance of very decent pubs. Sheffield’s parks (and the cafés in the parks) are an absolute joy. The walk from Endcliffe Park through Forge Dam and up Jacob’s Ladder towards the peaks and dales of Derbyshire rivals any holiday jaunt in Tuscany, and the echo of ancient civilisations around Mam Tor and Froggat Edge is just as resonant as symbols of the mysterious beliefs and rituals of lost civilisations at Teotihuacan.

Nevertheless I’m not all that loyal to the city. Neither of my parents is from there and (partly as a result) I don’t sound like a local. There are far more well-informed spokespeople for the city than me. Growing up in Sheffield was pretty much all I knew and it took me until a long time after I’d left to begin to reflect on the geographic and social layout of the city and where I stood in relation to it. Nevertheless it’s the city I’ve spent more time in than anywhere else, and contains numerous people and places who and which will always be among the most precious in my life. I also feel an occasional burst of sentimental pride, mostly from a distance. I can detect traces of deep class solidarity in this video, filmed in a friend’s local pub on the night that Thatcher finally died. I’ll also happily admit to feeling a sense of intense melancholy joy at the end of Synth Britannia at the moment where the LA synth-pomp of ‘Together in Electric Dreams’ kicked in.

But the strongest sense of being part of a community of those born and brought up in Sheffield was in March 2015, when I was part of a group of organisers of a march in London on the theme of Climate Change. Just a few weeks before, on a stormy afternoon, we’d been walking by a river in Derbyshire following several days’ rainfall, admiring the sheer force of the water. The city of Sheffield came into existence as a result of a particular confluence of climatic forces, and in turn played a key role in the development of the industrial age which has come to jeopardise our future as a species. That’s why it felt particular fitting and moving to see on Youtube a group of local choir members gathered at the station to set off for the demonstration, singing an Italian partisan anthem remade for times which will, if we choose to face up to our responsibilities, require similar levels of sacrifice and courage:

(…and then, of course, there’s also this.)

* In an exclusive interview with this website, my sister had the following to say:

I was a 14 year old child star but the rock n roll lifestyle was too much so I had to get a career in the aviation industry when the offers dried up. (The following day).
There were 3 locations that we had to be at & that were at various stages in the aftermath of a nuclear war…the film is on you tube I think x

London to Rome: Why I will always prefer bookshops to the internet

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Here are two sets of coincidences that begin in the Whitechapel Gallery, London, and end, for the time being, in Rome.

In December 2015 I went to an exhibition by Emily Jacir on the life and murder of her fellow Palestinian Wael Zuaiter, an intellectual who took refuge in Rome. There were photos of his bookshelves containing a number of books I’d also read and quotes from his own books from which it’s clear he was an intriguing and exemplary engaged intellectual. At the time of his death he was translating ‘One Thousand and One Nights’ into Italian. His letters also show him to be an unusually perceptive and trenchant critique of imperialism, as well as a firm opponent of political violence. He was tracked down by the Israeli secret services and murdered on his own doorstep.

I’d been thinking about Rome as a safe haven. At the time we were living in Mexico but there were reports that the security situation in the areas where we lived was breaking down, with a new wave of threats against local restaurants and bars and a couple of murders on our doorstep. (I wrote about this here.) Around the same time I was reading a novel by Tomasso Pincio. I’d noticed this writer in bookshops because his nome de plume is a deliberate reference (and also adjacent on the bookshelf) to my favourite American novelist, Thomas Pynchon.

The novel I was reading is called ‘Cinacittà’ and is a murder story set in a future Rome which, due to global warming, has been abandoned by the locals and is now inhabited solely by Chinese people. Its epigraph is a quote from an ‘American writer’ taken from Federico Fellini’s film ‘Roma’, which I hadn’t yet seen. It talks about Rome as “a wonderful place to witness the end of the world”.

In August 2016 I go back to the Whitechapel Gallery and browse the bookshop. This is something I usually prevent myself from doing as, like the LRB and ICA bookshops, the Whitechapel is like a crackhouse for me. I usually come across at least six books which I know I have to read immediately. Sure enough, there’s one I’ve seen before but realise is exactly the book I need to read right now: ‘The Hatred of Poetry’, by Ben Lerner. It’s a book by a poet about how difficult and in some ways how annoying poetry is. I’ve been actively struggling with poetry for the last couple of years. Just up the road, in Limehouse, I did a series of courses which involved discussing poems and then trying to write them ourselves. The first part I loved, the second continually defeated me. When it came to writing, no matter how much expert guidance I received or exercises I did, I didn’t really understand what a poem is.

Lener argues that it’s easy to love poetry, but individual poems themselves are often too much of a challenge. Poems aspire to the condition of poetry, but always fail. I like his tone of voice and wonder what his poems are like. As it happens, the name Ben Lerner rings a bell. I see that he was the author of a 2012 novel called ‘Leaving the Atocha Station’; as I once lived in Madrid, I’d noticed the title but never thought about reading it. Reading reviews of the novel on my phone I realise it’s right up my street. It’s about a pretentious young expat poet living in Spain and pretending not to be American, smoking spliffs and looking down at other foreigners “whose lives were structured by attempting to appear otherwise”. I can relate to that, and the description of his prose as ‘precise’ appeals to me.

I start reading the poetry book as I walk down the street. In the first couple of pages he mentions his favourite poet, one which (as he correctly predicts) I’ve never heard of, which makes me wonder who mine is. One name that immediately springs to mind is Luke Kennard, whose work has the advantage of being hugely entertaining (one of my favourite words when it comes to poems). I should read this guy’s novel, I think. As it happens I’m heading down to the South Bank anyway and I have a Waterstones voucher card that’s been in my wallet for months and which I can’t remember if I’ve ever used. My day now has more of a purpose to it and I speed up my stroll towards Trafalgar Square.

It turns out that the card in my wallet only has £1.01 on it, which means I really should think twice about also buying Lerner’s second novel, but it’s described as “a near-perfect piece of literature” and was chosen as ‘Book of the Year’ by 15 reputable publications.

Now I’ve got three new books, all by the same author. I walk across to The Royal Festival Hall, where I’m meeting a friend at 5. It’s only 4.15, so I decide to kill time in Foyles. The first book I see when I walk in is a volume of poetry by Ben Lerner, a compendium of his three collections. I have no intention whatsoever of buying it, but I pick it up because I’m keen to see what his poetry is like. The inner cover has a quote from Luke Kennard: “I look forward to Ben Lerner’s poetry the way I used to anticipate a new record by my favourite band.” Right next to the quote is the price: £14.99. If I buy it I will have all the published work by my new favourite author, one by whom I haven’t yet read more than a few pages. I snap it shut and make my way to the cash desk.

It occurred to me some time ago that it’s deeply ironic that although I grew up antagonostic to capitalism on the whole, I also spent my youth obsessing over sales charts. If The Jesus and Mary Chain burst into the pop charts at number 11, or if New Order managed to get onto Top of the Pops, it felt like a personal victory, and I would feel downcast for days if The Smiths failed to get into the top ten. There was an article by Simon Frith in the Pet Shop Boys 1989 tour programme arguing that their music celebrates and mourns that moment of melancholy just before you hand over the money for a new record or just before you fall in love, when you know that disappointment is inevitable. That’s the nature of commerce: it involves an emotional investment in something you know won’t satisfy you. Given that the emotional and intellectual payback of novels and films is deeper than so much else we consume, capitalism promotes their addictive qualities. There’s also the aspect of cultural capital, that we place cultural products in our personal shop windows to attract others – or, less cynically, that they allow us to identify (and be identified by) others who have shared often very intimate and personal experiences. In other words, we also use them as a form of bonding with others of our species, which is the very much the point of being alive.

I find it hard to track down the film ‘Roma’ online. In any case, I first need to rewatch ‘La Dolce Vita’, and then ‘8 1/2’, which I can’t remember ever having seen. There’s also Bertolucci’s and Antonioni’s films to catch up on. Some of these things I can find online but in most cases I need to get the DVDs. Luckily there are lots of market stalls selling €3 copies of classic films, the ones previously sold as promotions with newspapers. In Pigneto I chat to the owners and other browsers, who recommend a whole bunch of things I’ve never heard of. I quickly build up a collection of Scuola, Moretti and Pasolini. Then it’s a question of finding the time to watch it all.

The (very) English writer Geoff Dyer lived in Rome and suffered from depression. He writes about it in ‘Out of Sheer Rage’, his chronicle of his failed attempt to write a book about DH Lawrence which is also, finally, a book about DH Lawrence. He describes staring for hours at his TV, wondering if he should turn it on. Rome initially strikes me as a strange place to get depressed, but then I work out he must have been here in winter. Winter in Rome is (increasingly) short but very grey, with a cigarette ash atmosphere coating the city. Dyer then recounts how he escaped from his depression: he took an interest in it. He started thinking and reading about depression, and then had to leave the house to track down books to learn more. His mood lifted as he became part of the city, its bookshops, literary events and galleries.

Another writer I hugely admire (Nick Currie, aka Momus), has written persuasively and with his customary eloquence about how, in a globalised and digitally connected world, you can live the same life pretty much anywhere. He writes about moving from Berlin to Osaka and continuing exactly the same lifestyle. My own is essentially the same whether in London, Mexico City or Rome- pretty much wherever Amazon delivers, in fact. I noticed that my English language students in London were generally happy with their accommodation as long as it featured basic furniture and services, few disturbances and a very fast internet connection. It was by far the absence of the latter that generated the most complaints.

My own youth fed on record shops, bookshops and libraries. I was lucky to grow up in a age and a city in which there was an abundance of all three. Of course, I’m privileged now too. I can buy books if I want and I have time to wander round and enjoy what cities have to offer. I’ve lived in a succession of capital cities, all with a huge range of bookshops. Nevertheless, I miss record shops and haven’t felt the need to go to my local library since I lived in London. Like almost everybody on the planet I am far too dependent on the Internet for my cultural life.

The internet gives you access to everything. It has an infinite number of channels. But without a purpose it can be a medium for depression. After too much time online I sometimes feel like a polar bear in a zoo, pacing back and forth, scrolling and clicking aimlessly to the point where I lose all sense of what I want and who I am. Our physical selves thrive on fresh air, trees, company, exchanges of words, glances and embraces. I need to get out of the house. Luckily in Rome (we finally move here in September 2016) I have no internet on my phone and a whole city to explore. After a couple of weeks I finally track down one of my favourite bookshops. Invito alla Lettura is a dusty clutter of crumbling hardbacks, stacks of old editions of magazines, fascist pamphlets from the 30s, and a pleasant café (in Mexico it would be called a cafebrería) . Or rather, it was. It apparently shut down in April 2016 after nearly 25 years. From the owner of the Almost Corner bookshop in Trastevere I learn that food outlets are pushing out more established business, just like in London.

Humans will always need on-the-spot food and drink, but books, music and films you can get hold of online. There will always be a demand for places where you can go and browse them and maybe meet and fall in love with other people who share the same enthusiasms, but that doesn’t mean the market will necessarily provide such places. Bookshops and record shops were never primarily about buying, much more about communing with others who share a need for new ideas, impressions, experiences. I hope that when my baby daughter comes of age there will still be places where she can go to explore and celebrate whatever books and music she comes to love and, in the company of others, discover more. At least Rome has such an abundance of excellent bookshops, from Altroquando via Fahrenheit 451 to Minimum Fax, that it’s reasonable to hope that it will hold out longer against the forces of the global market as marshalled on the internet. Forse Gore Vidal, as in so many other things, aveva ragione.

Lisbon: Postcolonial Melancholy, Part 3

Fotografia Lisboa  Prelúdio para o pôr do sol

Part 1

Part 2

You hear it in the music, the films, the novels and the poetry: Portuguese culture is suffused with melancholy. In the early 2000s the most popular foreign groups were those whose music was steeped in the same yearning and languor: Lamb, Tindersticks, Gotan Project, Mogwai. The measured pace and sometimes sombre atmosphere led me to develop a wacky theory according to which there is a global pattern of large, exuberant countries neighboured by smaller ones where life is less frantic and more given over to reflection: Mexico, Portugal, Argentina, New Zealand, Ireland… Although the theory is in many important ways nonsense, the role of rancheras and tango in two of those cultures does lend it some credence. One of Portugal’s most popular songs of 2001 was a version of Erasure’s bouncy/sad disco anthem ‘A Little Respect’ which had been slowed down to bring out the tragic element (and, in the process, make it a lot less fun to listen to). Portuguese music had something of the drowsiness of bossa nova, but I didn’t detect the same sensuality. Fado seemed to encapsulate a mood of being ‘half in love with easeful death’. Lisbon even had its daily ritual of mourning the passing of the day, toasting the lusco fusco at Miradouro Santa Catarina.

To get inside Lisbon it helps to read at least some of Fernando Pessoa’s ‘Book of Disquiet’, a collection of prose texts assembled after his death and all written under the name of Bernardo Soares, whose lifestyle and outlook seems to have matched Pessoa’s almost exactly.  In it he writes:

“I love the stillness of early summer evenings downtown, and especially the stillness made more still by contrast, on the streets that seethe with activity by day. Rua do Arsenal, Rua da Alfândega, the sad streets extending eastward from where the Rua da Alfândega ends, the entire stretch along the quiet docks – all of this comforts me with sadness when on these evenings I enter the solitude of their ensemble. I slip into an era prior to the one I’m living in.”

Pessoa spent the ages of seven to seventeen in South Africa but after he came to Lisbon he rarely left. His was an exile of the imagination. He invented heteronyms, characters with fully-developed biographies in whose names he wrote, and some of whom, like Álvaro de Campos, travelled for him. It’s possible that he made a physical visit to Porto, where rumours suggest that he may have been caught on film by the local director Manoel de Oliveira. De Oliveira, who died last year at the age of 106, made his first full-length film in 1942 (‘Aniki Bóbó’); it featured children singing and dancing. His subsequent works slowed down until they became almost inert, like a series of sumptuously detailed paintings. I once fell asleep watching his historical ‘drama’ ‘Palavra e Utopia’ at a point where a shot of an oak tree in a breeze was being accompanied by two voices softly discussing theology. When I woke up sometime later neither the shot nor the topic of conversation had changed. His later films were feted internationally, particularly the comedy ‘I’m Going Home’, which starred John Malkovich, and his very last film, which he made at the age of 104. It was called ‘The Old Man of Restelo’ (that eternal Cassandra of Portuguese imperial expansion, as mentioned in Part 2), and consists mostly of a dialogue between four of the greatest writers in Portuguese and Spanish history (Camões, Castelo Branco, a poet I’d never heard of called Teixeira de Pascoaes and Cervantes) about “the glories of the past and the uncertainty of the future”. 

Another idiosyncratic local filmmaker was João César Monteiro, who in his films often went by the name John of God. I myself took part in Portuguese cinema history when I went to ‘see’ his version of ‘Snow White’, which on a visual level consisted almost exclusively of a blank grey screen. In doing so I was one of only seven people who saw it on its opening weekend. More recently the King of Almost-Unwatchable Portuguese Cinema is Pedro Costa, whose visually luscious and very lengthy films typically consist of static shots of Cabo Verdean immigrants standing in empty museums looking extremely sad, interspersed with twenty-minute long takes of heroin addicts coughing in dust-filled rooms in crumbling parts of Lisbon. They are very beautiful to watch and have lots to teach us about post-colonial entropy, but they are nevertheless nearly impossible to stay awake to. They put me in mind of Shashi Tharoor’s comment about India being “a highly developed society in an advanced state of decay”.

The younger people I taught were nevertheless very dynamic: highly-educated, socially liberal and often startlingly witty. They were some of the most intelligent and imaginative teenagers I’ve ever met. In my mind now, fifteen or so years later, I can’t help but compare and contrast their fate with that of those former emigrants I hung out with in Jaana’s café, who had had for the most part a miserable education. As we become older our place in history becomes more clearly defined. In their case that meant being forced to kill and risk their own lives in a war they didn’t believe in, and then driven by a lack of opportunities for mobility in their own country to seek work elsewhere. Then came the Revolution, ascent to the EU, the circenses of the 1998 Expo and the 2004 Euro Cup, followed swiftly by the crisis of the EU and brutal austerity programmes jeopardising the life chances of their children and grandchildren. It’s hard not to see them as victims of history.

As Paul Theroux pointed out in relation to travel writing, it’s never fair to judge another country when you visited it in a bad mood. In my case, I stayed too long in Portugal, started to feel stuck, and blamed my frustration on the world around me. I was irritated by what I saw then as the alternating self-aggrandisement and self-abnegation of the Portuguese, particularly how these feelings were projected onto the national sport. I came to hate both the sound of Portuguese people speaking English and other foreigners speaking Portuguese. I got annoyed when there was a word in the newspaper I hadn’t encountered before, and if anyone local who I didn’t know spoke to me in English I’d cut them dead. But I couldn’t leave, I reasoned, because I had a permanent job, a fridge, and a cat. In any case the rhythms of my life had become like the lulling sounds of a train track: trips to the Algarve and to Spain, drinks every night in the Bela Ipanema café, hearty portions of comfort food and elephantine servings of Amêndoa Amarga, trips to the beach, falling out and patching up with friends, visitors coming and going, relationships starting and ending, new teachers arriving every September… I fantasised about going to Spain or Brazil but knew I never could put myself back on the map of my own accord, despite my vague 5am notions that one day I could do a Master’s and restart my life. And all the time I was trying hard not to spend too much time wondering how my life would have turned out had I stayed in the UK twelve years earlier.

I think I hit a wall around the time a Portuguese friend of mine went on a spectacular late-night rant about “these fucking English teachers with their drinking, their whining about the society they’ve chosen to make home, their sense of entitlement and their shitty lessons which they don’t even prepare for or care about”. Sabia que tinha razão: I knew he had a point . In June 2004 I went into a massive sulk when my “beloved” Spain were defeated by my host country at football. In the end it was one of those new teachers who uprooted me, a violent process which involved moving on from those habits and friends which had sustained my single life.

A couple of years later I came across a song by Transglobal Underground (‘Drinking in Gomorrah’ – see playlist below) which summed up perfectly that particular fate I’d narrowly escaped: being Lost in TEFL.  For years I blamed the place but knew deep down the problem was really me in that place. Part of the sadness, frustration and regret I was seeing everywhere around me was my own, and a lot of the arrogance and self-abasement I attributed to the Portuguese was really aspects of my own personality and culture which I was projecting elsewhere. As psychologists like to point out, if you can spot it, you’ve got it. Ainda bem that I left, for me and for Portugal. It really wasn’t working out for us any more, but, as so often – at least in the sometimes melancholy world of Teaching English Abroad – the problem wasn’t them, it was me.

Part 4

“Can someone please give Neil Tennant a hand with the words?” THE 12″ DISCO REMIX featuring E-Smoove

I saw that some people were annoyed or even offended by the article I posted the other day arguing that Neil Tennant could occasionally put a bit more effort into his lyrics, so I’ve thought long and hard about it and done a version which I hope takes at least some of those criticisms on board.

The original 7″ version is here. Please do not attempt to read this if you haven’t read that.

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(tsk tsk tsk)

(tsk thump tsk thump tsk thump)

(tsk thump clap tsk thump clap tsk thump clap)

(bit of housy piano)

(slightly more funky bassline)

(male voice, to the rhythm of ‘I was a male stripper in a gogo bar’: WH AUDEN AND MELLE MEL…WH AUDEN AND MELLE MEL…WH AUDEN AND MELLE MEL)

(Woman’s voice, sounding surprised: HE’S A GENIUS!)

Continue reading ““Can someone please give Neil Tennant a hand with the words?” THE 12″ DISCO REMIX featuring E-Smoove”

Can someone please give Neil Tennant a hand with the words?

maxresdefaultWhen I first heard ‘Being Boring’ by the Pet Shop Boys I thought it was about me. Not that I thought they were calling me boring, necessarily; as we shall see, the song is actually about not being boring. I was at university at the time, in my first year, and I had, like Neil Tennant, left from the station (in his case presumably Newcastle, in mine Sheffield) with some luggage and a sense of apprehension about what lay ahead. Also like him I had kissed some people, some of whom I’d subsequently lost contact with. And I was listening to the song for the very first time in my room in the university residences (which was rented) in a ‘foreign’ place (well, Norwich) in the 1990s! If you add in the fact that all of the experiences I had had had taken place in the 1970s and 1980s, it was uncanny. As for ‘you’ not being ‘here’ with me, well, I suppose in a very real ‘you’ (and you, and you) weren’t. I certainly hoped I could rely on my friends, and that I would get to become the person I wanted to be. So far, so very Alan de Button. I suspect that, especially given that it features Johnny Marr on guitar, it may well be David Cameron’s favourite Pet Shop Boys song. He probably heard it at the same time as me, with the references to old photos, dressing up and never holding back bringing his Bullingdon Club days flooding back like it was all yesterday. (Maybe it even inspired his political career.) The same is probably true for everyone who has heard the song, from Robbie Williams to Basher Al-Assad. The song is essentially a succession of Barnum statements, insights that are seemingly designed for the listener but could actually apply to pretty much anyone.

There’s also a problem with the chorus. A couple of years previous to 1990 I’d, to my eternal shame, purchased and listened to the second album by (I have to bear in mind that this blog now carries my own actual name) a certain pop artist from Newton-Le-Willows. One who, and no-one saw fit to mention this at the time, looked like Billy Bragg. I shall give away no more clues. In any case, on that album there was a ballad called ‘Hold me in your arms’, the chorus to which goes:

‘If you hold me in your arms
I won’t feel better’

…which is nonsense. It’s a love song. It’s supposed to make sense because the line before that, the one that is not part of the chorus, which is the bit designed to be remembered and sung along to, is ‘….and who would be the fool to say’. Now, I’m just about to do something which in an ideal world would get me into trouble with the police, which is to google the words ‘Rick Astley discography’. Doing so I see that it got to number 10, which isn’t bad, but it’s not exactly ‘NGGYU’. (While we could use the term Tennant-coined expression ‘imperial phase’ to explain his commercial decline, I’d rather we didn’t as it has become ruinously ubiquitous).

‘Being Boring’ commits the same error, meaning that the implicit chorus to the song is actually ‘We were always being boring’. It cemented rather than challenged their growing reputation as morose. Now, it’s not that Tennant is by any means a bad lyricist. At times he’s clearly a genius. Chorus mishaps aside, ‘Being Boring’ is a very great pop song. There are countless lyrical highpoints in their oeuvre, including ‘West End Girls’, ‘If there was love’, ‘Nothing has been proved’, ‘LTEODORO’ (incidentally I’m presuming that anyone still reading this is a fan and knows what I’m referring to), YWIWM (having now made that assumption I’m now going to exploit it to the full), YOTMYLMWYD, and obviously LIABC. And it’s not just wordy ones, which do tend to be my personal favourites. There’s also songs like ‘So sorry, I said’, ‘The loving kind’, and ‘Minimal’, which take a more, well, minimal and vague approach, which is obviously fine for pop music, and also works well in poetry. There’s the allusiveness of ‘Two divided by zero’ and ‘Domino Dancing’, with the ‘you’ slipping and sliding all over the place – maybe it’s the listener, maybe it’s everyone alive today, or perhaps it’s the listeners ex-lover or perhaps their cat. ‘You choose’ is another very good example – it could be fruitfully (or, perhaps, fishfully) used in an advertising campaign for cat food. Such lyrics leaves space for the listener to fill in the details of their own life. Their history songs can also be good, like ‘The Resurrectionist’ and ‘Don Juan’. Then they can get away with songs like ‘Vocal’ and ‘All over the world’, transparent attempts to revive a flagging base. But that habit can fail them, as is the case, for example, of ‘The Pop Kids’, which sounds like it was written in the back of a taxi on the way back from a disappointing meeting with their new record company.

However, given the immense promise of West End Girls – not so much Che Guevara and Debussy as WH Auden meets Melle Mel – there is undeniable decline in the quality of their lyrical output. A thesis on this subject might usefully be called ”West End Girls’ to ‘Winner’: What Went Wrong?’. As it happens, ‘You know where you went wrong’ was the b-side of ‘It’s a Sin’, and it had something in common with other early tracks like ‘A man could get arrested’, with a clear hiphop influence in its rhyming schemes. In their early days they were famously more daring and experimental with their b-sides, both musically and lyrically: ‘The sound of the atom splitting’ and ‘Your funny uncle’ being cases in point. One reason for their relative lack of lyrical development in their more commercial products is that they appear to be still chasing chart success even though it has ceased to be relevant in and to society at large (although try telling that to these people). Having got this far, then, let’s have a look at some of the lowpoints of Neil Tennant’s career as a pop lyricist.

  1. ‘Beautiful people’

‘Buy the latest magazine
And aspire to the dream
Perfect home and perfect kids
Not a life lived on the skids’

This could have been written by the younger brother of one of the lesser members of whichever boyband came between Westlife and One Direction. There is no way that that verse took more than ten seconds to write. None. And it repeats the same theme as ‘Love, etc’: wealth and fame are empty illusions. We get it.

  1. ‘Ego music’

‘Ego music
It’s all about
vacuous slogans
innocuous sentiment
Ego music
It’s all about
fake humility
sense of entitlement’

Again, repetition! This has the same message, or at least targets the same set of attitudes, as ‘HDYETBTS’. It’s also a hungover b-side idea which should have been tossed away before they stepped into the studio and took off their expensive coats.

  1. ‘Everything means something’

‘Everything means something
yes, even our mistakes
Carelessness means something
not simple give-and-take
Everything means something
and something has occurred
Everything means something
although the meaning can be blurred’

Vapid. Has something of the Roxette about it. Estimated time to write: ten minutes.

  1. E-mail

‘Communication’s never been
as easy as today
and it would make me happy
when you’ve gone so far away
if you’d send me an e-mail
that says ‘I love you’
Send me an e-mail
that says ‘I love you”

Love the hyphen. Released in 2002, ie (to be extremely generous) seven years too late. In 2002 if they really wanted to do a song about communication issues they should have called it ‘I’d like to text you to tell you how much I love you but the limit on any individual text is 160 characters and then it automatically sends it as two texts, which is confusing and twice as expensive’, or ‘ILTTYTTYHMILYBTLOAITI160CATIASIATTWICATAE’ for short.

  1. Winner

(I do not want to be exposed to the lyrics of this song).

A calculated insult to every single human being alive in 2012. I would like to publicly express offense on behalf all their fans, my friends and family and my as-yet unborn daughter. It is humiliating to listen to and accompanied a phase in their career which was all about smiling in photographs and actual flagwaving, in other words when they went full-on Elton John. The video was good.

  1. Hold On

Look around, look around
The rain is falling from the sky
Planes taking off to fly

Why else do planes take off? To go for a fucking swim? To go to an art opening with Janet Street Porter? Your taxi’s here, Neil. Can you fax over those lyrics before you leave? Oh, wait, why don’t you ’email’ them over on your ‘smartphone’? Speaking of which…

  1. ‘Twenty-something’

‘Twenty-something
In the mix
Always that
Ironic twist
Got a start-up
Good to go
When the money
Starts to flow
Oh, Twenty-something
Up to tricks’

Another title for that thesis would be ‘Smartphones, startups and ideas trending: Why don’t the Pet Shop Boys just give up?’. This is a parody of what you’d expect a Pet Shop Boys song to be about in 2016. It is the contents of an Samsung Galaxy memo written after too much champagne in yet another taxi after yet another gallery opening with Janet Street ‘yet another’ Porter. It is the draft lyrics to a potentially good song, but no more. Plus the video is inappropriate. The song is clearly about the UK, and the setting for the video is Latino LA. It’s good, but it doesn’t work. ¡Más esfuerzo!

  1. ‘Se a vida é’

The lyrics to this are actually quite nice, simultaneously wistful and euphoric as all their best songs are. That’s not the problem.

On my first visit to Rome in 1997 I banged into someone in the crowd next to the Trevi Fountain. ‘Scusi!’ I exclaimed, to which to his reply was a cheerful ‘I’m Brazilian!’. Quick as a flash, I came out with ‘Se a vida é!’ (the only Portuguese phrase I knew at the time), to which he looked at me, still smiling (he was, as I say, Brazilian) but also clearly puzzled.

As I subsequently found out when I learnt the language, ‘Se a vida é’ doesn’t mean anything in Portuguese. Even if you pronounce it correctly, which, despite (at that point) having the resources of a major record company behind him, Neil Tennant does not. It just means ‘If life is…’, which you’d assume is some sort of idiomatic expression, but it isn’t. It certainly doesn’t mean (‘That’s the way life is’). Imagine someone just saying ‘If life is…’ to you out of the blue. You’d expect a little bit more. Although if what they said was actually /aif liv ais/, which is a reasonable attempt to represent how inaccurate his pronunciation is, you’d be even more perplexed.

There are more examples below. Now, to be scrupulously fair, there are also times when Neil Tennant simply tries too hard to be lyrical, ‘Legacy’ and the one about leopardskin being good working examples. He has to be given credit for trying. There are also occasions when his lyrics are actually very good: thoughtful, moving, original, memorable. Recentish examples include ‘This used to be the future’ (admittedly a co-write with my personal friend Phil Oakey, but still), ‘The Dictator Decides’, ‘The Sodom and Gomorrah Show’ and ‘Brick England’. I suspect those are the ones he put a lot of time into and ultimately enjoyed writing. Maybe someone just needs to apply a bit of…pressure. There was a very entertaining documentary about twenty years ago in which Michael Bracewell locked Barney off of New Order in a room with some Prozac and basically refused to let him out until he’d written some good lyrics, something more along the lines of ‘I feel so extraordinary/something’s got a hold on me’ and less like ‘Is there anyone out there who cares/If a child can run free/Can a girl walk the street/will United get beat’ (NB those are the actual words to an actual Electronic song). It sort-of worked. Perhaps something like that needs to be done to Neil Tennant. His lyrics are often simply underworked. Perhaps now they get help with the music they need to call someone in and pay them a lot of money to work on the words.

In order to help address this situation I’ve decided to put in my two centavos (hey look, I’m bilingual!). That’s why I’m created a playlist with the most lyrically gauche Pet Shop Boys songs. If anyone reading this has any connection to Neil Tennant, please forward it to him. He needs to hear this. If it doesn’t work I’m going to tweet Michael Bracewell and ask him to bring over a camera crew and a new notepad, popping round the chemists on the way. Or maybe Neil just needs a gun pointing at his head. Now that might be a bit extreme.

UPDATE: I posted a link to this in a Pet Shop Boys Facebook group and I’m glad I did so because it’s starting to open up an interesting discussion about the difference between making pop music and making music to be popular. My point about songs like The Pop Kids is that they are too much the latter. You could legitimately argue that my exaggerations in the piece, the bits of devil’s advocacy, were guilty of the same (ahem) sin in that I wanted it to be read and discussed so I played up the ‘commercial’ (meaning, in the context of the ‘attention economy’ of the internet, controversial) elements. I think the Pet Shop Boys would have been an (even!) more interesting group if they had gradually lost interest in commercial success after their initial run of pop triumphs was over and the charts had ceased to matter (with the accompanying diminishment of the space in the culture for ‘pop’ music as such) and concentrated on following their more experimental interests as (mostly) expressed on their b-sides. Or maybe I’m wrong, perhaps it’s that tension that has kept them interested and interesting. It’s certainly possible that I should apply the lesson to my own writing by avoiding writing things designed to annoy people. But then, if you’re not popular, you’re no longer a pop group, and you can’t be a writer if you don’t have readers. Maybe it’s just a fruitful contradiction/unresolvable paradox/dialectical thing to be further explored and exploited /end of ramble.

George Michael, 1963-2016

imagesPoulton-Le-Fylde, Blackpool, 1986. I’m staying with my grandmother. She has a small red turntable from the 1960’s. Music is my lifeline to a life I’ve yet to live. The place, that room, that record player I associate with ‘State of the Nation’ by New Order, the 12″ version of ‘Bring on the Dancing Horses’ by Echo & the Bunnymen and the second coming of Frankie Goes to Hollywood. I see now that the timeframe is all wrong – I’m confusing two visits from the same year. But then like all 14-year-olds I was mixed up. It strikes me as significant in some way that I don’t remember my life in Sheffield at the time. I know school was hard in some long-since undefinable ways and Blackpool represented some sort of escape.

One song I remember very powerfully from that week was ‘Different Corner’. There was something about its mood that resonated with mine and something about its unusual, meandering shape (particularly its lack of a chorus) that I found intriguing. I assume that its lyrics must also have struck a chord (“I’m so scared…”). The mood I now recognise as languid but if you had asked me at the time I’m sure I would have described it as ‘melancholy’. Looking up its release date on Wikipedia I see that someone has categorised it as ‘adult contemporary’, which would have pleased George. As the title indicated, this was his attempt to be Taken Seriously, following a false start with the vapid holiday romance of ‘Careless Whisper’. But ‘Different Corner’ was more than AOR. It had a sense of disaffection which was more than just boredom with pop stardom. He sounded authentically distressed and so I found it consoling. The lyrics laid bare feelings which I, with my stoical Northern English upbringing, had difficulty articulating to myself. There was also the yearning aspect. I can see now that I entertained a courtly notion of love which pop music itself had taught me, albeit one suffused with a vague sense of the inevitable disappointment of a reality which I already sensed would never live up to my (in the words of Paddy Mcaloon) ‘four honeymoons each sleepless night’.

I see that ‘Cowboys and Angels’ was released as a single in 1991, but I may have come across it a few months earlier. I have no memory of buying the album it was on but the song is so familiar when I listen to it now that I must have taped it off the radio.  I can’t imagine that I listened to it at anything other than a low volume because I was living in university residences, in the Ziggurats of the University of East Anglia and my gauche attempts to establish myself as Cool would have suffered. George Michael was, despite his very best efforts, not credible, and my own assumption before I reached university that I would immediately be recognised as one of the campus’s most debonair intellectual talents had met with disappointment. ‘Cowboys and Angels’ had that same languid mood as ‘Different Corner’ and a similar chorusless structure, along with lyrics which alluded to disappointment and heartbreak, the ‘trace’ of something before. Musically its stylings were those of bossa nova, one of those flashes of good taste that George would show throughout his career. Its self-consciously coffee table sound and presumably deliberate lack of hooks meant that, like the similarly ‘mature’ ‘Being Boring’ a few months before, it wasn’t a hit.

I’m not aware of any interesting songs George Michael produced afterwards. In his striving for adult acceptance he took the road more travelled, dueting with Queen and Elton John. Bombast and sentimentality. Later came his hamfisted attempts at being ‘political’. But in interviews he always came across as heartfelt and his occasional public mishaps evoked pathos. His need to be admired, loved and regarded as thoughtful and sincere, is one that I recognise and relate to, and I think the same is probably true of everyone of his, my and all generations. Rest in peace, George.

Due incontri per strada a Roma/Two street encounters in Rome

sin-tituloIt’s a bright blue Monday morning in mid-October 2016 and I’m standing at the corner of Via dei Gracchi and Via Alessandro Farnese in the centre of Rome, having just left work. I’m partly waiting to cross the road and partly trying to get fivethirtyeight.com to load on my phone. There’s a guy in a car looking at me, stopped at the traffic lights on this quiet street, shouting and laughing. At first I don’t think he’s talking to me, maybe on his phone or to himself. But no, it’s me, he’s beckoning me over, and he seems to know my name, so I must know him, but I feel bad because I have no idea whatsoever who he is. He looks very Italian, in a slightly fighetto kind of way – bald head, properly shaven, shirt well-ironed, smart and garrulous with his hands. He’s speaking quickly with a Napoli accent, and he’s saying something about an embassy, and 2011. I explain that I wasn’t here in 2011, that I was in London, but then it turns out he’s talking about the school. Il British! Ah! Well, that’s where I worked, after a fashion. British Study Centres, in Marylebone. He clearly knows me. Matteo!, he exclaims. He’s an ex-student! I taught dozens of such people over the course of eight years or so in London, so many Matteos and Giovannis and Robertos so I feel bad that I don’t remember him. Seeing him again I’ve got a feeling of nostalgia. I’m delighted to tell him that I live in Rome nowadays, I’m here to stay, in fact I’m married to an Italian. And she’s pregnant! He’s delighted, and we shake hands again. He tells me he’s now living in Frankfurt. Just to show off, I switch to German, but he waves his hand dismissively. He’s going back to Germany after a week doing business here, driving all the way there in this quite plush new vehicle. When I ask why he doesn’t fly he laughs again and explains that he’s not had a good week, he’s been working overtime and still getting nowhere. He says he works in l’abbigliamento, and as he’s sure I’m aware i tempi sono dificili. In fact, he says, he wants to give me a gift, from the clothes he hasn’t managed to sell. He reaches back and grabs an expensive looking bag, explaining that this is his company: Tutti Frutti. The jacket he takes out is maybe a bit natty for daily use but not remotely unpleasant. He gets me to try it on, and it is quite a good fit. When he tells me it’s worth mille euro, I start to regret putting it on; it’s clearly not worth a thousand euros, although it is worth…something. Money is an issue, he explains. He needs some, to buy petrol to get back to Germania. By now I’m inevitably having my doubts, even here. Surely if he’s genuine he’ll remember the names of some other students. Male Italian students always buddy up, play off each other. If he was in the school he will remember other people who I should be able to recall. Plus I’m also very aware that Il British is the generic name that Italians use for all English language schools. I ask who else he remembers from the school but he’s a bit vague on the details. Then he has another idea. My wife! He also sells women’s clothes! He jumps out, goes to the boot of the car and takes out another bag. This time it’s a dress. I know Chiara’s shape and style, and this is not it. By this point I’m experiencing quite a lot of confusion, so there is the temptation to just walk away, but the whole exchange is just too good-natured for that. If he’s an actor, he’s a very good one, and the situation just doesn’t allow me to break character and accuse him of being a liar. And the clothes must be worth something. There’s a lot of face at stake and on the small chance that this is real I don’t want to humiliate him and thereby myself. I look in my wallet and see that I have 30. He sees it too, and I reluctantly hand it over. But then he says it’s not enough. He’s driving all the way to Germany, after all. He wants me to go to the cashpoint and withdraw more money. This is clearly una stupidaggine. Sure, I tell him. Torno subito. I take the bags and walk round the corner onto Via Cola di Rienzo while he drives alongside me. I need to get some more money out anyway as I’ve just bought some probably-stolen clothes that I didn’t want from someone I’ve quite clearly never met before. I spend two minutes in the bank lobby, take out some cash for myself and then slip outside, immediately turning left and then left again, onto a side street. As I turn the corner a young African man holding out a baseball cap asks me for some change, but I shake my head, and just as I do so I hear someone calling my name. I turn, see the car and give il mio truffatore a look designed to get him to leave me alone and drive away.

* * * * *

Two months pass. I’m just getting to work on a Monday morning, having walked all the way from Viale Marconi because of another bus strike. I’ve reached the corner of Via dei Gracchi and Via Alessandro Farnese, and am lost in my own thoughts, wondering what to do in the off-chance my students should turn up, when suddenly I notice that there’s a young African man standing right in front of me and talking to me at high speed. It’s hard to make out what he’s saying at first because he’s speaking a mix of French and Italian. He’s on the street selling trinkets, colourful plastic beads and the like, and so he pushes a red tortoise representing African folk art into my hand, but the curious thing is that just as he does so he turns away, not seeming to want anything in return. At the same time he’s thanking me for taking the time to talk to him, because most Italians don’t. And this is a very special day, he says, and he wants to share his happiness with someone because his wife, back home in Senegal, has just had three kids, the night before in fact. I shake his hand and congratulate him, and say that I’m about to become a father myself, in just a few weeks. I ask him the names of the children and he shows me a photo, sent via Whatsapp just a few hours before, of his wife lying in hospital with her arms around Amadou, Fatou and Mariam. Their father is called Mustafa. I ask him how long he’s been away from his wife and he tells me just four months, he came here to play professional football in San Remo but as I can see things didn’t work out.  This reminds me of the recent Guardian article about the thousands of football players, particularly Africans, stranded with no salaries around the world. There must be a whole subculture of budding Drogbas and Tourés exiled in Europe, their peak years of skill and fitness quickly slipping by. Now he has a problem because his wife needs medicine, there were complications in the birth and there are some products that exist in Italy but can’t be found back home. I think of what I’ve learnt in the last few weeks about the process of childbirth and try to imagine what having three in quick succession must be like. I offer to help; although I don’t have any money in my wallet I know there’s an ATM just round the corner on Via Cola di Rienzo. As we walk I try to remember the word used in Senegal to describe white foreigners, particularly Europeans, and I feel embarrassed because I can’t, although I should, because when I learnt it from a book I bought from someone from Mauritania in the street outside la Feltrinelli on Viale Marconi last December I thought, I must remember that (the word, I remember later, is tubab). We reach the cashpoint, I take out 20 and give it to him, and then realise it’s already past the time for class. Time to run to work.

Me and Billy Bragg, Billy Bragg and me

billy-bragg-p0x2_o_tnOn my bedroom wall I have a signed poster of Billy Bragg. This suggests that I am a Billy Bragg fan, which is something about which I feel a certain awkwardness. To be a Billy Bragg fan is to associate oneself with someone always seen by many as gruff, proletarian, sexless, musically staid, and chippy. But nevertheless it remains a fact that the first single and album I bought were both his, his play ‘Pressure Drop’ was one of my highlights of last year, and I kicked myself recently on learning I’d missed his national tour, which ended last week. I’ve always felt an admiration with his seemingly boundless wit and warmth, and partly thanks to these qualities, and partly due to having, like that other group my fanship of whom has always occasioned a certain embarrassment, the Pet Shop Boys, he has managed to hang around just within public sight for over twenty five years without pissing off everyone too much and has in middle age been achieved the status of avuncular national treasure. Nevertheless like any uncle some of his pronouncements over the last few years have been somewhat dubious and increasingly conservative, especially around the questions of English national identity and tactical voting. There is an unpleasant element of both left-baiting in his relentless scorn for the far-left, and a not unrelated level of anti-intellectualism, both of which were evident in a Guardian interview published yesterday.

It is touching to read about his enthusiasm for the student protests, although predictably he also uses it as an excuse to indulge in some cheap digs at the far-left and anyone who tries to apply the lessons of the past to the present situation. There are signs that Bragg’s long-standing embarrassment with the legacy of socialism and communism colours his view of how things should develop, an awkwardness has always led him to temper his radicalism and try to sell it as instinctive, and organic, rather than intellectual. It seems churlish to point out that Bragg did not go to university and seems to harbour a certain resentment against those whose ideas for changing the world derive from detailed and patient analysis of complex ideas about society and how to change it. He is a proselytiser of what José Saramago used to call ‘hormonal’ socialism, although he now prefers to avoid the word itself if at all possible:

‘The people out protesting now, Bragg says, are the first generation ever to be able to talk about socialism without having the long shadow of Karl Marx hanging over them. If, indeed, they even describe it as such. “To be honest, I don’t care if it’s called socialism,” he says. “Anyway, what is socialism but organised compassion…They (the students) are making their own connections, and at the bottom of them all is an absolute sense of unfairness. That’s what’s politicised them. Not some abstract interest in dialectical materialism…We’ve got a lot to learn from them – their ability to join things up, take the initiative, not hang around and see what Marx would have said.”

He has also engaged in these debates in the last week or so, making very similar points on the already seminal Comment is Free piece by Laurie Penny:

“I now understand that what annoys you about Laurie and her generation is their refusal to be kettled in by either the Metropolitan Police or by the SWP and their ideological bedfellows.

Whether we like it or not, we are currently living in a post-ideological era. The language of Marxism is dead. Don’t mourn, organise! That’s what the students are doing – in a manner that is both different and challenging to those of us whose politics were forged in the 20th century.

We can either carp from the sidelines or join them as they take action.”

And is righteously smacked down:

“Laurie Penny, and in fact everyone ‘resisting’ the coalition’s education reform agenda, frequently draws on Marxism, even if she/they don’t know that that is what they are doing. And I don’t blame them, because if they want to talk about the ‘marketisation’ (i.e. commodification) of higher education, then they are de facto drawing on Marx! So to argue that the langauge of Marxism is dead is just a laughably ill-informed comment to make. It beggars belief.” (oxymoronic)

One wonders if Bragg has also been following that other debate about the meaning of communism and the role of Communist ideas in the struggle for a different world sparked off by Alain Badiou’s article in the New Left Review two years ago. The conference which that article inspired took place in the Logan Hall of the Institute of Education, the same venue as last year’s Compass conference, which Billy was at; but I suspect that the On the Idea of Communism event may have been anathema to him, given that it featured a series of Marxist intellectuals, two words guaranteed to provoke a spluttering splenetic reaction. It would be a shame if he hadn’t at least read Badiou’s article, because his aversion to the very names of Communism and Socialism is not uncommon, but to really think about what we do need to retain from the past, indeed to insist upon, and what we need to jettison, and who is this ‘we’ that needs to find answers to these questions, is an intellectual process, which demands that we analyse in depth revolutionary ideas and practices from the past. It is perhaps too easy to see Bragg’s dismissal of such debates of symptomatic of a British culture of anti-intellectualism, but it is highly likely that the experience of ferocious debates with SWP student firebrands on the Red Wedge tour in the 1980s traumatised the man and provoked this very evident revulsion at the very mention of revolutionary politics.

As I mentioned at the start, I love the wit and warmth at the heart of the best of Bragg’s music. Growing up I even preferred his poetry to that of Morrissey, someone who had a more grandiose emotional range which I as a teenager couldn’t yet aspire to. There was something in the combination of plaintiveness and gruffness in songs like ‘St. Swithin’s Day’ and ‘A Lover Sings’ which echoed my more stoical sense of myself. Morrissey seemed too much at home in his outsiderness, seemed to enjoy his symptoms too much, while Bragg was (for me) comfortingly gauche in his sense of romance and bitter at the world. I recognised myself in his songs, and admired his sense of engagement.

This heightened poetic sense can lead to political confusion, however. In yesterday’s interview he draws an analogy which seems to work beautifully at first, but quickly collapses when subject to further reflection. He rightly condemns the slavish devotion to market ‘dogma’ of all three parties over the last number of years (he clearly prefers this word to its near cousin ‘ideology’, which, given that he insists we live in a ‘post-ideological age’, would complicate things somewaht, but what the hey). But then he produces a metaphor which sounds apt, but isn’t:

“‘The market’s like fire, you know? Constrain it, harness it, and it’ll provide you with warmth and light and heat for your cooking … Let it rip, and it’ll destroy everything you hold dear.”

Now that is a fabulous image, but as I say it doesn’t work. Why not? Well, in a world increasingly subject to the iniquitous dictates of the so-called free market, billions around the world lack precisely that warmth, light and heat for their cooking. And this is not because the market is improperly regulated and managed, but because as reality shows quite clearly it is not an appropriate mechanism for providing the essentials of life. Warmth and heat and fuel for cooking are commodities exchanged for profit, but they are not, as Bill Clinton remarked of food, commodities like any other, or at least, they shouldn’t be. The market may one day have a role of some kind in a world ordered justly and democratically, but the essentials of life – housing, food, energy, transport, health, education – cannot be left to be distributed according to a system in which the winner takes all and the loser freezes or starves.

I very much hope that Billy Bragg continues to play a part in what appears to be a growing movement for radical change. But his aversion to intellectual and ideological debate may be an obstacle to his making a full contribution. The debates of the last week over the role of revolutionary organisations, and what new forms of media imply for how radical activists should and can organise have been very important and useful. The legacy of the reluctance of certain far-left groups to engage in honest and open debate in the past may be something that can be overcome, or it may be something that serves as an obstacle to greater unity, but at the very least people are now trying to have that debate rather than cynically bitching about the irrelevance and inadequacies of the far left, as Bragg has long been prone to do.