I’ve seen a lot of maps over past few days, and I’ve seen enough cartoon characters. Like massively bile-inducing stereograms, the squinting at patches of colour — those heatmaps of hate — produsce nothing but despair.
I’ve taken to focusing now just on how those patches of yellow have changed over the last few decades. The red and the blue (discounting Scotland) are fairly constant, pulsing but constant. The Liberal yellow appears slowly and spreads a little from 87—2010, but essentially remains in the same places.
Now it’s gone.
So, I wonder if the age of the ‘third party’ protest vote is over, for at least a generation. Because it took time for the Liberal Party (in its various forms) to hit a 50 MP balance and they did well — but essentially they were an alternative. One that based its alternative on being ‘a little from column A, a little from column B’. And when they decided that ‘power’ was worth having they couldn’t stay an alternative. And so the support went: splintered in different directions, but it did go. And the bits that were previously blue went blue and the bits that were red, went red. We’re back to how it was.
So, that’s it for the Liberal Democrats, while they might have an activist base they don’t have a core vote: because as far as the public see it they don’t stand for anything, they just stand apart. Or did.
Now, some people might say Ukip fill that protest vote: but I don’t think it’s the same people that are protesting. That’s another battle. The Greens could fill that protest vote, but it will take a long time to build up anything more than a few percent. And the Greens are not seen as a safe ‘split the difference’ vote — so they are not the same people either.
I don’t know if Labour can get the floating centrist voters that this time felt that they may as well vote Tory, but I know they will lose an equal number to the left if they try to do it by moving to the right. They’ve got to do something different.
Tom might help. I know that a ‘grassroots surge’ won’t work with the party mechanism they way they are. A large number of activists work hard, but they can do little to affect the way that the party behaves at the top. We may need people that understand the power of the crowd, and the possibilities of connection. Podemos in Spain seem to have a new way of organising that helps people feel part of a movement, collaborative and distributed. That feels like a better thing than just chasing votes and being angry.
Can you separate the music of The Beatles from their place in popular culture? Jon Bounds listens to all of their records — one after another — in an attempt to find out.
I’m fairly sure you don’t need to own any Beatles records. In an average week we must all walk through at least one, and although there would be some statistical bunching it probably wouldn’t take 10 years before you’d heard everything but the rarities.
But that would be part of the problem; music like nothing else crystallises place and the past. Your reaction to The Beatles’ music is not just coloured by but woven in with the people, things and places you remember like psychogeographic tartan. One you can pull over your knees and comfort yourself within on a long journey. There’s no real way you can listen to them and just think about the sound.
A couple of years ago I listened to every Elvis record, in order, in an attempt to confuse myself and to be able to disassociate the cultural baggage from the sounds it made. It worked, and I ended up loving Elvis all the more. So I set up my stereo, my room and my mind, and sat down to listen to every song released by The Beatles, in release order (only UK released singles and LPs, no live versions, demos, or other archive). It worked out at about 190 tracks, and just over nine hours.
The early recordings do hit you with freshness, it’s not just that they are so direct, they are not played — with the exception of Love Me Do — as much as some of the later records. Please Please Me, in just a second over two minutes, is the template for our idea of 60s pop. The decade had so much more to offer, but it’s that moment that you know things are changing — under the harmonies you can almost hear Philip Larkin undoing his flies.
Seven tracks in and there is a moment of pure joy — in Boys, which was a new one on me — when a shout of “Go, George, go!” preludes a dancing guitar part that prepares you for the first “yeah yeahs”. It primes you to take this band to your heart and nothing can stop you.
By Eight Days a Week there’s nothing for it but to be up dancing round the kitchen. Like Vimto, they’ve got you.
The rest of the second album, Beatles For Sale, is less of a bang, it’s weighed down with rock and roll covers and seems more old fashioned than what’s gone before. In Everybody’s Trying to be my Baby I hear Gene Vincent’sRace With the Devil, but it turns out to be a version of a song by Carl Perkins. The Beatles were planted in rock and roll, but they soon had to grow up and out — or we wouldn’t be taking about them now.
It’s hard to think that they are anything but John Lennon’s backing band at this point — he sings, or takes lead vocals anyway, you get the feeling that it’s his choice of song and his choice of style. They are hamstrung by format in a way that other bands — who make their big leaps forward before they’re really worked out what they’re doing — aren’t. The Beatles are slowly adding their personalities into the songs.
What they do have is a supreme confidence and clarity. Essex poet Martin Newell, a contemporary of John Cooper Clarke, of whom you’d have also heard if your partner was from the Wivenhoe end of the county, has a poem called Chaanng that starts “We are haunted by the sixties/The opening chord of Hard Day’s Night/Hangs frozen in the cold night air”. The songs do come in like a drenching of cold water that clears the head, and now they are letting me listen to them afresh. Newell talks of how people who weren’t there now have to “fall in love at second sight” and that’s still the problem; the music is fine but the band aren’t mine.
Ticket to Ride and Drive my Car back on to each other for me, a lyrical clash between the girl they are letting go — who has a bus pass — and the one they want, who has her driving licence sorted.
Paperback Writer is a lyrical handbrake turn for popular music, it’s a song that lets everything go through as subtext. The written half of a pop song would never be the same — they are really flying now. And as we hitRevolver something happens; I have a bit of a headache and it does seem that I’m getting new perspectives on long familiar tracks.
I’m Only Sleeping is what we’re told LSD must be like. It forms a cultural shorthand for our short-handed culture.
Jeff Lynne’s ears prick up at the strings at around this point, and ELO are formed. Thank God.
On Sgt Pepper my fresh ears let me see that it’s Lucy In the Sky, not Being For the Benefit of Mr Kyte, that is the novelty record. Mr Kyte is timeless, but Lucy now sounds like Peter Lawford looks in 1968’s Salt and Pepper: made up for, but out of place in swinging London.
We now get some classic singles. It’s clear that whatever the content this band are great, but listening to “the white album” without the weight of history doesn’t help it any. It, to my ears 120 songs in, is shit. It’s the sound of men with no direction, picking up everything they can and letting us all hear it. It’s the only time in the day of The Beatles that I’m close to giving up. It’s not John or Paul who stop me, it’s George; While my Guitar Gently Weeps soothes.
Abbey Road is the white album’s experimentation working right; after a double album where lyrics, ideas, tunes and usable production never all collide, they do here again and again.
I was tweeting as I was listening, and there were three types of response (four if you count the 20 or so people who just unfollowed). Pedantry (do you have the mono or stereo versions and other questions), telling me that they liked particular songs most, or placing the records within the context of their lives. Maxwell’s Silver Hammer, derided by popular opinion, was a school choir favourite song for people of roughly my generation. Someone told me how they used to sing every song in order to themselves while waiting for night buses. I assume they picked up each time where they left off, or they wouldn’t ever have got to Let it Be*.
But the thing is it’s almost impossible, more than any other band to look at them without context. The Long and Winding Road is the B842, and knowing that changes everything. Content and context just won’t prise apart.
But I don’t want to separate them really; too many memories would be tarnished. In My Life made little impression on me before it was played at a friend’s funeral, but each and every time I hear it I’m transported to being unable to stand, weeping uncontrollably as others filed out of a modernist church.
I think of The Beatles in a similar way to how I think about cricket or Doctor Who; I’m fascinated by their place in — especially English — culture, love how entwined into our very fabric they are, but most of the time I don’t want to watch, play or listen. They are English culture, or at least a prism through which we can examine it.
There are alternative histories, conspiracies (Paul being dead is just the start), serious articles that pull the group’s first solo materials together as if they were a “lost” album. No other artist or group of artists have taken and withstood such examination, and none are likely ever to come close.
There’s a theory about how ghosts might inhabit our world that talks about waves of feeling we create that are recorded by buildings and other structures. By existing, our emotions embed themselves into the physical world, music and emotion are intertwined and the music of The Beatles has stuck fast in our bricks and mortar.
There’ll never be another Beatles, but I’m pretty sure we could recreate them from their echoes, their traces in our world. By and large that would be a good thing to do.
Which is why when I listen to Free as a Bird — constructed by Paul, George and Ringo, from a Lennon offcut in the 90s — I smile, I like it, it feels like home, I feel fine. It was worth doing.
*Most tracks were from the 2009 remasters, but generally who knows or really cares?
Rubber Soul was and remains my favourite Beatles LP.
To ride a scooter one must first journey through the world of its mortal enemy – the motorbike. The tests are the same but the attitudes are not. Jon Bounds put himself through it all so you don’t have to.
Falling off a motorbike doing 30mph hurts. A bit. Especially if you’re wearing an army surplus parka rather than the armoured leathers you see around you. What hurts more is having to shrug it off and fence the banter of the hairy-arsed bikers who are supposed to be teaching you to drive.
“I bet you’re glad you wore your brown trousers,” one had said when I’d skidded to a halt a few minutes earlier. It took me a while to get what he was on about, I hadn’t really noticed I’d done anything so stupid I should have been scared.
At around a quarter to eight on a Thursday morning I’m huddled around an instant coffee, no milk, in a portacabin behind a disused greyhound track. I’ve been sent here almost in disgrace for performing an emergency stop too well – so well that the bike stopped more quickly than I did, leaving me skidding across the asphalt, hole in jacket, hole in arm. But I’m alright, I say. I have my driving test in an hour.
Two years ago, when I – in a particularly low-horsepower bit of a mid-life crisis – bought a scooter I didn’t really know what I was doing. I’d always wanted one and had bought an original Vespa to “do up” about 10 years previously. I never managed to get it started and it followed me through two house moves as nothing more than an ornament in the shed before I sold it. The traffic situation around Oxford was the perfect excuse to try again; I bought a decent looking bike from eBay. Then I tried to find out how to ride it.
The rules of the road have got a lot more complicated since the Quadrophenia boys rode down to Brighton; then, you could just ride. Now you need to get a CBT (compulsory basic training) certificate before you can put L-plates on. And you get those in a car park or wasteground, because you need to be somewhere you can ride without hitting other traffic. And in my case you get that by riding an actual motorbike with gears and a clutch for the first time, because you’re not allowed to ride your own easier, automatic gearboxed, scooter on the road to get there.
I never quite got the hang of the gears, which you change with your foot, nor the clutch, which is done with the left hand and that’s why when confronted with a real reason – a group of cyclists pulling out without looking – to pull up sharpish, I come a cropper. I pull both hand brakes in tight; one isn’t a brake, it’s the clutch. The front wheel stops, the back wheel keeps going. I hit the deck. It seems to be impossible to fail the CBT, though, as once back on the road I get my piece of paper entitling me to ride for two years.
Two years later, having pootled around town trying my best to look as much like Gregory Peck in Roman Holiday as you can when leaning into the wind on the A34, I realised I needed to take my driving test for real.
The problem is that the whole world of the motorbike is geared for those that like black, speed, leather, grease, and – well – motorbikes. You won’t find a scooter test, or scooter instructors, so you have to deal with the traditional enemy: the rocker. I had a fair idea that I could ride to a decent standard, but no idea what the actual test process was. So after some research I booked on a crash course and the three tests I needed: a theory test, and what they call Module One and Module Two. Mod one is on yet another car park, around cones and including that emergency stop. Mod two is much more like the car driving test I took when I was 17.
I pass the theory test at the second attempt, in a modern office block in the centre of Oxford. Being too old to have had to take a separate theory test before, I have no idea what I’m doing. First time out I get 50 out of 50 in the highway code, but somehow fail the computer game hazard perception section. I didn’t see this bit being difficult at all.
Next time I press long and hard at almost everything on screen and pass, despite being told that I’ve “clicked inappropriately” on some of the questions. Whoever made them can’t live round here; old ladies on their pushbikes are one of the most hazardous hazards I’ve perceived.
The instruction days are long, and cold, and in a car park. By some sort of cultural osmosis they are rather macho, people young enough to become experienced motorbike riders, young enough to want to teach people for a living, are very into what they ride. They like motorbikes, they like the tang of petrol and the open road, they like all-in-one clothing. And they are all seemingly called Rob.
My helmet is a cause of much sneering hilarity: because it is old-fashioned, a semi-sphere, and has separate goggles. Because it looks stylish, rather than the luminous alien of a wannabe tobogganist.
“I wouldn’t wear one,” says one instructor, probably Rob. “Why did you choose that type?”
“Because it fits under my seat,” I say. And it does, which is a bonus. What I don’t say is, “because I’m a mod”. And what the dull wits don’t notice is that there is something actually hilarious about my “lid” (all things have a macho slang here). In between me buying it when I first had a scooter and me actually having a scooter to ride, the white with a central black stripe style became synonymous with another wearer – the Crazy Frog.
I do learn a lot though, there’s a great deal of stuff about riding a bike that you don’t pick up on your own. I really hadn’t ever considered the difference between the two brakes and when to use them, nor did I really know where to check the oil. However, I can’t get the emergency stop right.
In the module one test, you need to get up to 30mph and then stop when the examiner raises his hand. Getting my scooter to go that fast in the space available is tricky, there’s just about enough of a run-up if I go flat out – which makes the stopping harder. I can stop quickly but not safely enough, say the Robs and I don’t get to complete all the practice before the end of the day.
As my test is booked for later that week I arrange a couple of hours’ private tuition beforehand. A different, more gentle, Rob has advice: “Pretend your bollocks are under the back brake handle.”
And then I get it really wrong.
When you come off a motorbike there isn’t much time to think about what you’re going to do. You are going along and then you are lying on the floor, a few feet away from your spluttering steed.
But I get up, dust myself down and manage to pass the test. I’m surprised, but it’s cost me about £300 to get this far so I think I’ve paid my dues. The module two practice day goes without too much incident. It really consists of you and another learner driving round while in radio contact with an instructor; we are in convoy and the biggest problem is not losing the other two. Oh, and trying to get my scooter up to the speeds we are trying to demonstrate on the A roads. Oh, that and putting up with the commentary – the radios are one-way and we can’t talk back: “keep your eyes on the road, I saw you looking at that bird. They should be banned, too distracting.”
When it comes to the module two test a few days later, I think I’ve got it sorted. I’ve got the rhythm of looking in the mirrors, sitting in a safe position in traffic and of the various looks and glances you have to move your head to demonstrate that you’re doing. It’s not enough to look behind you, for this you have to be seen to have looked, although I’m not sure it’s ever covered about what you do if you see what you’re looking for. Luckily, it never really comes up.
The test goes smoothly, around the back streets of Cowley – an area I know well – and we arrive back outside the back door of Oxford United’s ground, which the test centre uses as an office, with me thinking that I might have done it. But I’d not left enough space joining a dual carriageway, enough space between me and an Audi doing 90, in the real world he would just have had to slow down – and I would have got to smile – but in the world of the driving test it’s a “serious fault”, an automatic fail.
And that’s the two years up. Not enough time to take another test. I return home with my fishtail between my legs. But I’ve come far enough to keep going.
The following Sunday I take my CBT again and breeze through it. The hardest bit is affecting a face that says “I know the answer to your question, Rob, but I’m not saying so as to give the other guys a go.”
Then I have to get another test slot; I’m on my own with this and the DVLA website. I spend ages looking at the help pages trying to work out what I should book – the forms are built for motorbikes. Eventually I select what I think is the correct test.
I’m taking no chances and call up the local garage, another place that’s a maze of macho and me nodding sagely at terms I don’t understand. The brakes have been sticking a bit and there’s a rattle from somewhere. And the other day a mudguard fell off – a result of the incident before my first test.
I’m on my way home from work, the night before the test, on the bus when Rob from the garage calls. What he thought was just a new cable needed turns out to be much worse – a sticking disk that meant the back brake was going on too hard. It’s a reason I found stopping quickly too easy. It’s also a reason it won’t be ready for my test. Gutted I go online and cancel, I’ve lost the fee but it’s polite not to leave the examiner hanging around.
Then the garage calls back, they’ve worked late, into overtime, and fixed it. Which would be fantastic if I’d not already called the test off. Another £100 quid, plus £75 for another test. I have to make the next one count, this is seriously mounting up and I don’t think I can go through another day of training.
The test centre is about 20 minutes away from home according to Google Maps, but as I close the front door at quarter to eleven for an 11:16 start I realise that those timings don’t factor in a vehicle with a top speed of about 60mph, downhill. And as I fire up the engine, only two goes this time, there’s petrol to be got as well. This is going to be tight.
I start off in a hurry, only to clunk to a stop after a foot having forgotten to take the security chain off the front wheel. Dismount, carefully pull the chain through the wheel, start again. I make it, just, nerves all over the place.
It goes quickly, I miss a signal when doing a hill start. I can’t see the speedo down a national speed limit road as the sun’s in my eyes. I wobble when starting off at one point for no good reason. It’s up in the air.
“I can tell you you’ve failed, if you’d rather,” says Rob, when I express surprise and thanks. He’s probably unaware that he did the same joke last time. He’s a nice man, and really seems to like his job, carefully pointing out my mistakes — none were enough to stop me passing, but I should watch them.
Out of respect for his love of safe motorcycling I wait until I’m round the corner to take both hands off the handlebars and punch the air.
There are bookshelves in all but one room of our house, and the one in which there aren’t any is the one in which I perhaps most often sit and read. In our bedroom there are shelves from floor to ceiling that sometimes oppress me as I try to sleep — “you don’t know everything, yet”, they taunt. “you haven’t read all of us.”
Nearer to me are the books I’m currently reading; there are five on my bedside table. Some started already, concert tickets and receipts poking from the top marking my place. Some are placed there as a reminder of their place in the queue, more in hope than expectation as there’s at least one that’s sat there for over a year.
Some never make it, like Paul Kingsnorth’s Booker prize-longlisted The Wake. I backed it on trendy crowdfunding site Unbound as I loved the ideas and the depth of world it wanted to create. I loved the unusual binding and the care that had been taken on the language. And I tried to read it, I really did, but never got more than a few pages in, chewing on the phonetic Anglo Saxon like so much beef gristle in a stodgy pudding. It staked its place permanently next to the bed, looking away with disdain as I skipped merrily through Viv Albertine’s memoir and danced a gnostic tango through the early 90s football and rave culture clutching Julian Cope’s insane One Three One.
I’ll confess, as I was again cheating on it with an ebook , I knew it was over. I would never read The Wake — and I sold it: a rare act of pragmatism in a life that’s seen me acquire more and more books I will simply never read.
This year I’ve bought books on the English Civil War (I had a vague idea for a novel set at the time), a collection of the letters between the Mitford Sisters (I’ve read a lot of collections of letters this year: PG Wodehouse, Orwell), biographies of Orwell, Truman Capote, HG Wells, all piled up on the shelves. There are tumbling pamphlets of poetry, gazed on then forgotten. My literary eyes are bigger than my literate belly.
I’ve read a book about Frank Sidebottom, a trashy biography of Fleetwood Mac, novels by my friends that have made me simultaneously proud and jealous, two books about the history of rhetoric (why?, oh why?, oh why?), more than one book about the Spanish Civil War, GK Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday, which somehow clawed itself out of the the unread pile due to continued recommendation. And I spent months on the monolithic Ragged Trousered Philanthropists — as you may have read.
Jonathan Meades’s An Encyclopaedia of Myself is astoundingly clever and insightful, but by the time I’d finished it I’d turned away many times. A Penguin edition of Nabakov’s Bend Sinister that I started just because it was small enough to take on holiday, another book about the Spanish Civil War and, most tellingly, the second of Danny Baker’s autobiographies (which made me leak with laughter).
The listing of the books I’ve bought but not read this year has helped me realise something about myself; I’m not as well read as I would like to think I am. For every classic or improving work I might get through, there are many discarded. Meades is everything I might want to be, but Baker is closer to the mark.
I’ve just put back onto the bedside table Umberella by Will Self. Will Self I love, his sheer exactitude of language, his invention, his coining of “slapped buttock” to perfectly describe David Cameron’s face, but his last novels have stalled on me. I got Umbrella on release, a signed copy, and started it straight away; months later and I’d given up, relegated it to the shelving. Having done almost the same with his previous, The Book of Dave, it took a degree of self awareness I don’t usually possess not to buyShark, at least not in hardback. That it is a sequel to the unfulfilled Umbrella, now back in rotation as I embarrass myself for giving up too easily — for not being clever enough — might have been the push I needed.
But I can’t be alone in my behaviour. Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century spent three weeks on top of the NY Times bestseller lists in the summer, and I would bet that my copy isn’t the only one simply acting as gloating shelf ballast. But looking at previous books and previous years, I knew I was never going to pick Capital up. Not just because it is heavy, but because it is heavy-going — and perhaps more than that because its ideas can be distilled to summary articles and pass notes. I don’t need to understand the graphs to get the picture.
If my shelves were on public display — like the style guides and copy of grammarian’s bible Strunk and White I have on my desk at work, while rarely opening then — I could see why one might buy books that looked good even if one knew that they would gather nothing but dust. But mine aren’t. I’m also not that precious about books as objects — I eventually give them away to charity shops, I (shock) turn pages down, I even buy ebooks.
eBooks that, inevitably, I don’t read all of.
eBook readers, so we’re told, allow a privacy — a self truth — we can read what we like and no one will know. This was given as a reason for the initial success of 50 Shades of Grey, before it and its visual lexicon filled every supermarket book department in the world. The main difference between the charts of the top 10 physical books and their Kindle equivalent this year is Veronica Roth’sDivergent trilogy dominating the ebook top 10. Is young adult fiction secretly popular with people who would be too embarrassed to say, or is this difference more about young adults being more open to reading on screen? If only Amazon would let us know what percentage of the way through these books people made it. My electronic copy of The Wake sits resolutely in the low numbers for “progress”.
As I have no rational explanation for why I keep buying books I’m never going to read, I conclude that I must be self-deluding — at least at the point of purchase. For years I convinced myself I was a decent footballer, so this is not without precedent.
I spent some time talking to psychologist Maliheh Taheri, a researcher at the University of Birmingham, who was reluctant to call this a self-delusion and was happier to list the other reasons why people might buy books and not read them: collecting, decoration, or just comfort in knowing that they were there. None of them apply to me, or at least that’s what I’m telling myself.
Our conversation sort of petered out as I pressed for a diagnosis; it turns out that self-deception (rather than delusion) isn’t accepted as even existing by all thinkers. The paradox, some say, being that it isn’t logically possible to hold two conflicting views. But I must, sometimes; I bought (mistakenly two copies of, but that’s another story) The Establishment by Owen Jones — and remembered thinking to myself that I’d never get round to reading it as I pressed “checkout”. It’s hard to think of any reason why any sane person would do that.
Evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers, however, suggests that self-deception might have benefits; if we are able to believe our own distortions, we will not present signs of deception (eye movement, voice tone and so on) and will therefore appear to be telling the truth. He says it’s ”hiding the truth from yourself to hide it more deeply from others”.
The delusion is necessary for us to be able to lie more easily, to lessen the cognitive dissonance we feel when presenting the view of ourselves we want to to others.
So in this case I could be buying a 1,000 page treatise on economics because I want to convince other people that I’m the sort of person who can and does read 1,000 page treatises on economics — and it really doesn’t matter whether I have or not.
Not least because we can be fairly sure they haven’t either.
I’m deluded, but it doesn’t matter it seems. No, I don’t fully understand it either — although I have just ordered a book.
When you’re the one ending a long term relationship it’s important to your sanity to keep it in your head that you’re not a bastard. Even if there’s something undeniably bastard-like about what you’re doing. You attempt to be as nice and as reasonable as you can, magnanimous even. You don’t argue about money, about the house, about who gets to keep the robot vacuum. But deep in the psyche of the non-bastard the threat of your bastardliness remains: you have to have something to hold onto.
Mine was: “at least you’re not splitting up Fleetwood Mac.”
Because when you hear about the intertwined relationships that the band have had over the years, and you hear the songs of loss and betrayal, and you hear who wrote them and who sung them, then you’re sure that one more bastardly action would have broken the band and denied us Rumours. But no-one did break up Fleetwood Mac: they’re still going.
And I’m sure because I’m watching them. I’m watching green lights on the front rows making those down there look like they’re the long grass that Lyndsey Buckingham wants to be laid down amongst. I’m watching the woman three rows in front who thinks she’s Stevie Nicks sway along with the Stevie on stage, pulling focus as Stevie likes to pull focus when she’s not singing.
I’m watching the bass taking the spotlight for the mid section of The Chain, but rumbling away on the wind in the cavernous O2 arena. There are still cheers of delight for this, for the bass player that has rumbled throughout the years—”my best friend” says the drummer in an emotional speech at the end of the night—from hippy rocker to now looking like Chas or Dave on a golfing holiday. It’s exactly that sanity in a whirlwind of emotion that makes us connect with him.
Stevie gets lost telling a story about the retired Christine, you can almost hear the Behind the Music synth strings swell up and you are hooked. The tunes are as good as the story and they stand alone—you’ll know loads even if you didn’t know who they were by: Don’t Stop, Little Lies, Second Hand News, Dreams, Go Your Own Way. But the story is part of why you can really become a fan of this band.
My eighteen year-old self would hate me. Fleetwood Mac were not cool: they were soft rather than hard, smooth rather than edgy, and very much Mojo rather than NME. Cool filtered what I liked. Sure I liked only what I liked, but that was picked from the list of options defined as acceptable. That’s how we all work, but somehow over the years a couple of things have happened.
One is simply that I’ve got older and moved through phases of what’s cool, picking up new things that wouldn’t have been OK in the past and not discarding anything. The other is that the acceptability window these days is gaping. In politics the way the acceptable views move around the spectrum is the theory of Overton Windows that can be pulled left or right. In music terms the windows have been converted into patio doors and then levered off with a spade—by the Internet and the speed of culture.
At some point I picked up Fleetwood Mac through the window. The tunes and the emotion beating way the AOR demons. At over their forty year career they’ve picked up three of four times the amount of people that can fill the largest arena in the country: mostly it seems people who are not regular gig goers. There are well brought up 17 year olds screaming for Rhiannon, disappearing and then reappearing with a burger and chips as if they’re watching TV in their front room. There are old music fans, tour T-shirts tucked into their belts. But mostly there are thousands of people laminated on the big night out of the year. This is mainstream, young and old, community singing, cool and uncool, and it’s wonderful.
When I first started to listen to Rumours, the album that most here are here for, I—in an ingrained patriarchal fashion—always assumed that Lyndsey Buckingham wrote all the songs. As guitarist and singer it seemed likely, I assumed that he wrote songs about how he’d fallen out of love with a woman and then got her to sing them. ‘The bastard’ I thought ‘The bastard who happens to write the most glorious heartbreak songs in the world.’ But I was wrong. Stevie Nicks wrote some of them too: about how she could do without him and she was happy that way—and got him to play them and sing them. And Christine McVie wrote some: about how her marriage with bass player John was falling apart and she was enjoying time with the lighting director.
And Mick? Mick drummed. And started a relationship with Stevie, and did his weird eye thing. And dangled disco balls from his crotch. Go check the cover of Rumours now. Pay more attention to Mick Fleetwood’s trouser bridge than you ever have before and you’ll see two shiny Christmas baubles suspended in hope of admiration. The bastard.
Mick gets a pass, he’s the driving force that’s kept the band—named for him and John as original guitarist Peter Green didn’t want to be a star—going. Peter was afraid to be a guitar hero in the era of “Clapton is God” and left the band high and dry. Mick held them together during the success, and the drug years.
Lyndsey did want to be a guitar hero, and he isn’t. Not that he isn’t a fantastic guitarist, he is. But there’s something in the confessional LA attitude that means he never gets there. It’s in the neediness with which he sneaks into Steve’s spotlight when she does a very personal acoustic number. He’s still writing and has stuff to share.
At a mention of “new stuff” streams of people head for bars and bogs, stair lighting for safety turns this into a version of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, with added plastic glasses. The kids next to us get up and down, The kids sitting next to us are coked to the gils by now: whooping and waving their ams to the ones they know, muttering darkly and getting up and down during the ones they don’t, and in a way that’s a tribute to Rumours era Mac (which they love) and also Tusk era Mac (which they don’t like at all).
And me, I’m still learning. I hear songs I can now place, riffs I can now attribute. I think I now know more about their relationships with each other—and all relationships by extension. Mick and John are dad and mum, they’ve not split up and the kids are okay. We can stop hiding on the stairs and listening to the arguments. And when Christine joins the band on stage for her anthem the family are all together (we later learn that even Peter Green was there). “Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow” she sings. And she, they, we, all get what that means:
Right now doesn’t matter so much. It’s how we leave things that does.
This was written for, but didn’t appear in as far as I know, Fused – they published an edit on their blog.
January 8 2135: as part of the ongoing Winterval festivities, on fourteenth night, millions worldwide celebrate the coming of The King. Dressed in white all-in-ones, and dark glasses, a young male of each family is presented with ceremonial gifts (traditionally gold, frankincense and myrrh – the gold shaped into a lighting bolt or a musical note) and responds deferentially with ‘Thank you v’much’.
Part of the global tribe that identify themselves as rationalists flood Internet communication systems to say that the traditions are based on shaky evidence, that there never was a man called Elvis Presley and that if there was he was certainly not hailed as a King. And if there was man, and he was some kind of prophet, based on the legends, the sounds he’s said to have made and the area of America that he is said to have originated from: wouldn’t he likely have had darker skin tones?
In the year 2135, if man is still alive, will it matter at all if Elvis ever really existed?
Just under 20 years after Elvis’s death, the Manic Street Preachers’ album Everything Must Go started with the words “Twenty foot high on Blackpool Promenade, fake royalty second-hand sequin facade”. The song Elvis Impersonator: Blackpool Pier, takes aim at the bankruptcy of a British culture that is still — according to lyricist Richey Edwards — placating the working class with a stained reflection of a culture that wasn’t theirs.
In 1996 it wasn’t cool for a band to say they liked Elvis, it wasn’t cool for anyone to say that they did. But an industry was building, and an image of Elvis Aaron Presley was continuing to be seared onto our collective memories. For in 2014, Elvis continues to be everywhere.
Craig Hamilton is an academic who researches popular music fandom, and a fan — he had an Elvis play at his wedding and has paid to see a show called Elvis Presley In Concert. That show toured worldwide and featured members of Elvis’s original band and projections of the man himself. It and its successor Elvis: Live on Stage must have set a few hearts beating at the Trade’s Descriptions office, but they are part of machine that seems to be unstoppable.
“The image has been carefully and, some would say, ruthlessly managed since he died, says Craig. “It’s been commodified and exploited in a way that has drawn comparisons with Mickey Mouse, and is at the point now where it seems to be a fairly unstoppable industry all of its own.”
Craig points out that when Elvis passed his estate was far from wealthy, even Elvis Presley Enterprises admits “while [he] was by no means broke, there was a cash flow problem”, which it directly links to the opening of Graceland as a tourist destination in the early ’80s — which one could see as the beginning of the divorcing of Elvis the musician and Elvis the image.
“I think the image can now be considered completely separated from the music. I think it’s a fair assumption that, in Western culture at least, even people who have never heard of note of the music would recognise that someone in a jumpsuit, shades and sideburns was pretending to be Elvis.”
“If you were to attempt to stop it now, to shut it down, you’d have to fight the Memphis tourist board, 1000s of people who make their living as impersonators, the rights holders who still derive revenue from the films, music and images, and so on. Elvis is the factory where half the town works, and on whom the other half rely for their living.”
Elvis’s image isn’t, however, purely the property of his Estate: it has escaped into meme and gene. If the newer evolutionary theories about experiences being able to encode themselves into DNA as true, then Elvis lives: in our race memory.
As well as the official merchandise, you won’t be able to walk through a tourist market or a Poundshop in almost any part of the UK without seeing a crudely sketched picture of The King printed a little larger than A3 size for sale. You might not be able to tell if the artist’s other work is Jimi Hendrix or Bob Marley, but you’ll know Elvis. Further than that people use his image as a lens: in the film True Romance Christian Slater’s neophyte drug dealer hallucinates advice from an Elvis in order to help him keep his head. Simon Crump’s My Elvis Blackout is a set of short stories, all featuring first person narratives about the author’s completely fictional adventures with a man that looks like and sounds like, and is like Elvis in all respects — apart from his occasional tendencies to vile acts of murder.
Alongside the A44 in Powys in Wales is a rock known as ‘the Elvis rock’, as it has ‘Elvis’ graffitoed on it. No-one knows quite why, although there are theories, and it has certainly been re-done a number of times. Out of context with both its setting and Elvis himself, it somehow speaks of just how ingrained he is into our lives.
THE KING IS DEAD, LONG LIVE THE KING
Chuck D in Public Enemy’s Fight the Power delivers a powerful statement on the reverence and this industry, “Elvis was a hero to most, but he never meant shit to me”. This was in written in 1988 only ten or so years after it would have been possible to see Elvis live in concert. Move on another 15 years, to the 25th anniversary of Elvis’s death, and he had clarified the feeling:
“My whole thing was the one-sidedness — like, Elvis’ icon status in America made it like nobody else counted. My heroes came from someone else. My heroes came before him. My heroes were probably his heroes. As far as Elvis being ‘The King,’ I couldn’t buy that.”
Already in 1988 the truth about Elvis, even as he related to the young rapper himself, was less important than the icon and what it represented. And the icon needn’t have been alive in the first place to live as truly as anything else.
Nietzsche was wrong when he said ‘God is dead’, or at least he was premature in his belief that his influence on humanity’s morals was over. It doesn’t matter, really, if God exists or not; enough people act as if he does to make that question moot. And that is true in popular culture: if enough thought about Elvis goes on (and in a commercial sense if enough product is shifted) then the idea at least is alive. Crucially, it too is evolving.
There is a industry in books about the truth about the origins of Robin Hood. They pick over scraps of evidence in the original ballads, over contemporaneous tales and events, over tiny pieces of real historical record that mention outlaws called Robin. There is nothing concrete, or even study oak about the evidence. But what is certain is that within a few hundred years of the existence — or not — of the real man the character has become something else. Robin Hood and his tales start to appear across England as part of the May Day celebrations, but also take on different roles. Allen W. Wright, compiles some in The Search for a Real Robin Hood:
In 1441 a disgruntled mob in Norfolk blocked the road threatening to murder someone. They sang “We are Robynhodesmen — war, war, war.”
In 1469, two people led separate uprisings against the Yorkist government. They used the aliases Robin of Holderness and Robin of Redesdale.
In 1498, Roger Marshall had to defend himself in court for leading an uprising of 100 people. He had used the alias Robin Hood, and defended himself by claiming his actions were typical Robin Hood practice.
Robin Hood evolved from a real, or at least imagined, figure into a medieval version of the way some activists and writers use the nom-de-plume Luther Blissett): an uncoordinated but collective identity. It then mutated further into a story each generation tells itself about greed and honour.
WE ARE ALL ELVIS NOW
It’s an oft told tale that when Elvis died in 1977, there were about 170 people impersonating him around the world. In the year 2000 it was estimated there were about 85,000 Elvis impersonators. So, the joke goes, by 2043 everyone on earth will be an Elvis impersonator.
Derek Jones is an Elvis impersonator from Wolverhampton in England. Performing only for charity (notably breast cancer charities such as Breakthrough), he has raised tens of thousands of pounds with his tribute show that features a live band and backing singers and has played to up to 5,000 people a time.
“It’s all about the costume, the look. I get my suits from the original maker of his in America. Elvis was the first performer to wear something that couldn’t be worn off-stage. Even the look of the Teddy Boy, you could wear that in normal life, but Elvis was unique.”
“When I have the suit on, I become Elvis,” he says, “the response from the crowd is amazing. You get a little bit of what Elvis must have got.”
Derek is what you might call a ‘straight impersonator’, but not all Elvis tributes are the same. You can find ‘Black Elvis’, female Elvis: Jimmy the King has a fine line in doing songs that Elvis never recorded — but just how we think he might have.
Elvis Presley is seen now mostly through a media-commercial, or home-grown, prism: it’s not possible to experience him as he was. Given that we can have so much Elvis and so many Elvises, does it matter if Elvis ever really existed? Craig Hamilton again:
“It won’t be too long before there is no-one alive with a living memory of Elvis, and then we’ll see how the story develops. It’s important to think about how he existed to those who experienced him: he never played live outside of the United States, so for the vast majority of fans he existed as a face on a screen, a voice on a record. The seeds for the that disconnect are well and truly sown into the fabric of Elvis-worship.”
“We, as people within reasonable earshot of the real thing, trust the 20th Century artefacts that embody him: the record, the films, the pictures, the books. We understand them as a whole in terms of the social and economic conditions of his time, and of now. In 100 or 200 years, how many of those artefacts will survive? what will be our understanding of the culture? It’s entirely possible that the timelines and details could get mixed up in new and interesting ways, muddying the waters.”
And don’t forget to take your decorations down on the ninth.
The King and I, My Elvis Marathon — I listened to all 698 commercially released Elvis songs in order, in one sitting.
The Covered Market in Oxford is simultaneously cheap shoe shop gaudy, and hipsterific. I’m swathed in a gamey fug of meat smells, contained by the low ceiling. Each turn around a corner brings me a fresh sight of hanging flesh; that is, if I’m lucky enough not to to be blinded by a swinging rabbit carcass. If it weren’t for the prices, and the bubbling pockets of tourists, you could be stepping into almost any England of the last 100 years.
Cardews tea merchants opened in 1948 and moved into the market just under 20 years later, and the layout can hardly have changed: tins of tea and jars of coffee beans sit on the dark wood shelves, the shelves sit behind a counter and scales sit on it. I’m here to buy tea, and I have very little idea what I’m doing.
Luckily, on the wall near my head as I queue, there is a tariff that gives prices for different weights of tea. I pick the lowest unembarrassing order and, after embarrassing myself anyway by having to ask for an explanation of the different grades of tea leaf (finer grades make stronger tea, the young assistant told me), tuck two folded and taped white bags into my bag.
Buying a packet of tea, across a counter, in a market feels properly English somehow. Or that may just be the uncomfortable feeling from having to have any encounter where you aren’t totally sure of your exact rank in society. I’m here because I’m doing what George Orwell told me to do. Orwell, in his 1946 essay A Nice Cup of Tea, is very firm on using leaves and is very firm that these leaves must be free to be shaken around the pot (an earthenware pot, firm of course) – and he’s equally clear on the provenance: “Anyone who has used that comforting phrase ‘a nice cup of tea’ invariably means Indian tea”, he says. So that’s what I got, along with a bag containing his second choice – Ceylonese leaves, which in the tea world didn’t change to being Sri Lankan until 1972.
Tea in Britain has been a tale of empire and class, ever since the 17 century when Catherine of Braganza, wife of Charles II, popularised it and the East India Company began to import tea into Britain. Doctor Johnson loved the stuff and was reported to drink up to 16 cups in a session, but his contemporary Jonas Hanway published an essay that called on tea drinking to be “considered as pernicious to health, obstructing industry and impoverishing the nation”.
So, while it might surprise us that Orwell thought it necessary to give us his “eleven rules, every one of which I regard as golden”, he was following both a grand literary tradition and also a British tradition of thinking it necessary to codify and control such a simple action. In 1941, the Empire Tea Bureau paid for a short film called Tea Making Tips in which one stilted and prim lady of indeterminate age tells another: “There’s no great secret to making good tea, but some people get careless.” It has six golden rules and finishes by throwing to a comedy working class lady, “And what do you say, mum?” That film was aimed at those who needed to keep the wartime effort stoked with hot wet refreshment on an industrial scale; George and I are after something more homely. But do I follow the Orwell method, or should I take a more modern approach and take the advice of Hitchhiker’s Guide genius Douglas Adams, who set out a similar, but crucially different, set of rules in the 1990s?
Where Orwell is traditional and talks about loose leaves and country of origin, Adams is much more rooted in his time – the 1950s, at least when tea bags were first released in the UK by Tetley. “Go to Marks and Spencer and buy a packet of Earl Grey tea”, is his predictably quotidian, upper middle class solution. I got mine from Tesco in the end, as the only M&S near me is attached to a petrol station in Didcot, but most people who say they shop at Marks or Waitrose really sneak to Lidl when you’re not looking.
Suitably armed, I repaired to my kitchen, which was to become my laboratory. And I was to stay there until the end of the experiment: there and in the lounge drinking cup after cup, and also popping to the toilet (yes, it turns out that the 17th cup of tea is a diuretic). As well as the rigours of science and all forms of confirmation bias I was battling one great problem: that the 17th cup of tea never tastes as good as the first.
The first was made to Orwell’s recipe: pot warmed on the hob, six teaspoons of Indian tea directly into the pot, pot taken to kettle and water at boiling point poured in, a shake and you’re ready to pour. It’s strong, chewy, you can feel it coating your teeth as you drink. The earthy leaves that I spooned into the pot leave an infusion that is tangy and fortified without being stewed.
Adam’s Earl Grey (three bags, boiling water as quickly as you can into the pre-warmed pot, stand for two or three minutes and then pour it into a cup) fills the mouth with a taste of lemons. I don’t really like it. In any real sense the experiment can declare a winner.
The pot is a crucial stage in both of these methods: the mixing of the brew in a separate place to the cup (and as there was no other advice here I chose Orwell’s “cylindrical type of cup, not the flat, shallow type” for all tests) does seem to make a difference. The Indian tea is nicer, to my thoughts, than the Ceylon; it seems to produce fewer leaves in the mouth (George is against tea strainers). With milk is preferable to without.
Leaves versus bags, and blends can all be a matter of time and taste but we do find one fundamental difference: Douglas says milk in first, George has a very good reason why it should be last. “My own argument is unanswerable […] by putting the tea in first and stirring as one pours, one can exactly regulate the amount of milk”.
Both are aware of the societal pressure to put milk in last; Adams notes that “social correctness has traditionally had nothing whatever to do with reason, logic or physics” and, as he would probably have considered himself an iconoclast, it’s no surprise that he wants to go against the old order.
In one of the later series of 50s-set British sitcom Hi-de-Hi!, the well-to-do parents of Squadron Leader Clive Dempster referred to his sometime intended bride Gladys as “milk in first”, meaning that she wasn’t of sufficient breeding to marry into the family. I’d never heard the phrase and didn’t have a clue what it meant, I don’t think at the age of 10 I’d given any thought to tea production and class. I’ve made up for that now.
It seems that the question is the ultimate “U and non-U” signifier, and one that doesn’t need language to define it. Alan SC Ross, Professor of Linguistics at the University of Birmingham, coined the terms U and non-U in a 1954 article on the differences that social class makes in English language usage – U standing for upper class and non-U representing the aspiring middle classes. As a working class lad I wasn’t at the forefront of this battleground, but living in Oxford one can see these interplays everywhere. Should I become a “milk in last”?
Nancy Mitford (one of the nice Mitfords) took up the usage in an essay, The English Aristocracy, and in a letter to Evelyn Waugh mentions a mutual friend who uses the expression “rather milk in first” to express condemnation of those lower down the social scale. Mitford, it seems, rather meant the whole thing as a joke, but others – including the family of Squadron Leader Clive Dempster – obviously did not.
If I were to find an answer, the Dorchester hotel seemed to be the place to get it. One can book a champagne afternoon tea for two on the balcony for a little over £100, so I did.
We sat on an interior balcony, overlooking the reception where wealthy Russians flow as they check in and out. A little unsure of what to do, we were shown the menu of “specially selected grand and rare teas served in our vintage Minton china set”. I chose an Assam tea after Orwell, while my partner plumped for the blend that Samuel Johnson was a 16-cup fan of. Our waiter was every bit his part in the empire charade: prim, neat, knowledgeable and a foreign national led to kowtow to traditions of Englishness thanks to the still-existing economic hegemony.
At the Dorchester, they put the milk in last. But maybe, like a stopped clock, the U were right on this one. I needed more help, and luckily I found some: back in Oxfordshire. Ross Meredith is a physicist who has studied the science of tea making. He told me: “As the milk makes contact with the hot fluid, isolated pockets of milk would reach a local equilibrium temperature above scalding point — the milk proteins will become denatured — before being cooled to the net temperature in the cup. This leads to a cup with a noticeably heavier taste.”
“This effect can be avoided by pouring the milk in first, as rather than causing parts of the milk to reach the final temperature of the mix ‘from above’, the milk is warmed to the final temperature from below, as the hot tea is gradually added.”
Brilliant, an answer.
“But whether that affects the taste is up to the individual.”
Ross, perhaps sensing my disappointment, alerts me to ISO Standard 3103: Tea — Preparation of liquor for use in sensory tests. Last reviewed in 2013, this sets out the internationally recognised method for making a cuppa. He tells me: “It’s intended to standardise the material ‘tea’ for scientific/nutritional research rather than, say, for cafés to be judged, but you can be sure that any café I run conforms to it.”
And it says: “If the test involves milk, then it is added before pouring the infused tea”. It feels wonderful to be right, even if I’m never going to be considered socially correct.
Tea, as the Empire Tea Board would tell you, is ‘the cup that cheers”. Orwell said we should “feel wiser, braver or more optimistic after drinking it”. Douglas Adams thought it worth educating Americans that the British were not “generally clueless about hot stimulants”. It’s wonderful.
Fancy a brew? Orwell-style, with the addition of a tea strainer? Of course you do.
Some, er, I dunno, 28 years ago, roughly speaking, the NME put together a cassette that readers had to cut out tokens and send off for through the post. It wasn’t their first and it wasn’t the last, although eventually they would become cheap enough to just be sticky-taped to the cover. The bands weren’t a “scene” at the time but by being lumped together became one, and the tape became a bedrock for a particular form of bed-wetting British “indie”.
Former NME staffer Andrew Collins has called C86 “the most indie thing to have ever existed”. It surely seems to have been the high watermark.
I take it you’ve worked out where the “86” in C86 came from, and the “C” (cassette, sheesh), and the bands came from around the country: not a single city scene. It came, they went, but not without leaving a mark. We’re still talking about it nearly 30 years later.
The compilation has just been rereleased – some would say recuperated and monetised – as a three-CD box set. Is this the final pillow over the face of “a certain type of indie”? Is Cherry Red indie’s Dignitas?
I know some of the bands and I know the history, but I’ve not had a cassette player for some years. So it’s a fairly clean sheet for the team of C86 when I unwrap the new box set. It comes with a carefully written booklet containing a more detailed and loving history that I’ve got time to pull the covers back on here. But I slip the CD1 version of the original tape in — not the CD2 or CD3 bolster — and listen to it.
Primal Scream sound nothing like Primal Scream of any other era. They sound crisp, nice, Byrds-y, far fewer sheets to the wind that they would in future years. The Soup Dragons’Pleasantly Surprised could be a missing Buzzcocks seven-inch. In The Mighty Lemon Dropsthere’s something that the Inspiral Carpets were able to add an organ to, turning it up to king size, and make successful.
Therese by The Bodines, sounds closer to The Smiths — at the height of their powers as a band, if not an influence in 1986 — than anything else here. They aren’t quite as smart, the production isn’t as tightly well made, the lyrics aren’t quite there, the vocals don’t have Morrissey’s somnambulant delivery but you can place them quite easily in the family tree of indie music. When Johnny Marr did a bunk soon after, they could have stepped in.
The Wedding Present seem almost tucked in at the end (of side two of the original tape). But they’re almost fully formed — they are the C86 band that made it big without changing too much. You can hear the following year’s masterpiece of an LP, George Best, starting to trickle out.
Listening to the tracks individually, it’s clear that these bands aren’t of a musical or lyrical family. There’s a spread, but it’s not what sets them apart from each other that’s surprising. They all say — all of them, in those words, in this blanket-coverage, oral history — that it wasn’t a movement.
Sean Dickson from The Soup Dragons: “There was no big movement called C86.”
Kev Hopper of Stump: “It wasn’t as if we felt part of a movement.”
Vix from Fuzzbox: “we didn’t really think of it as a movement.”
Mick Geoghegan out of Mighty Mighty: “It didn’t feel like a movement”
So, honestly, it wasn’t a movement. But was it a shuffling in the same orientation? If there was even a nod in the same direction it wasn’t musically, it was in independence of spirit. These were the bands that grew out of fanzines, DIY, let’s do the show right here (but without the brash confidence of say, punk or Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney) culture. They were taking the ethos of punk and applying it to many different notions of popular music. This is what jazz, or 60s beat boom, or post-punk, or even The Smiths sounded like when played by people with ideas and inspiration and enthusiasm — but without always the skills or the money.
A band no longer have to find a label to get a record out; as the pages of this website and many others will trumpet, crowdfunding is where it is at. Bands can set their ambitions at the level of their fanbase and produce release after release: without too much risk, albeit also without much chance of it getting any further. It’s a safer form of DIY, the preordering leaves less chance of boxes of CDs hidden around the house, under the mattress and in the ottoman. Unfortunately for us fans, it also means email after email of too much information about vinyl pressing problems and the band’s medical conditions, when we’d probably just rather pop to Swordfish and hand over a tenner.
From 1986 until the advent of Britpop, the C86 bands and their ideological children inspired reams of NME copy and at some point the definition of indie mutated and transformed to meet the music press’s caricature of what C86 meant. Shambling, drippy, pacifist, Walter the Softies, the trope went. The music press would print pictures of them and their ideological children and state: “Gawd help us if there’s a war.” It wasn’t the independence they were writing about. By the mid 90s the idea of indie was changed for good and certainly wasn’t about which label you were on. The music press’s indie chart—which did at that point simply list records released on non-major labels— would be dominated by underground dance vinyl. You could pick up a sparsely recorded, scrappily packaged, limited edition single by SMASH, say and find out they were on Hut Records. If you looked harder it would become clear that Hut was Virgin; everyone was at it.
At this point Thatcherism — which C86 can be seen as a reaction against — found its place in music acceptability. It would be called “aspiration”, this was the Blair era after all, but it was all about being the biggest and the best. Oasis were on Creation, as Primal Scream had been and still were, but boss Alan McGee had long since sold out to Sony. The bands themselves at this point didn’t want to sell out — they wanted to make sure there was always stock of their product on the shelves.
The Shop Assistants, The Shrubs, Bogshed: those names weren’t of bands who really cared how many units they shifted. The look of C86 – the T-shirts and the mumbling down at your plimsolls through a lank fringe – did became a way of life for some of Britain’s finest pop talents. But the bands were important in lots of other ways. Manic Street Preachers bassist, Nicky Wire, was certainly influenced: “McCarthy, probably my favourite band of all time,” he told The Guardian *the last time people were looking back at *C86. “They were quite fey musically, but their lyrics were so political and erudite: We are all bourgeois now, The procession of popular capitalism.”
You can look more directly at Belle and Sebastian or the twee bands that populate a festival like Indietracks, and see a fashion lineage and even that do-it-yourself spirit. But they seem to be trapped in aspic, cut off from the world of culture in the same way that modern-day teds, psychobillies, punks or northern soul aficionados are. This isn’t really a legacy.
The Wedding Present, today’s Primals and a more laid back Half Man Half Biscuit are all still going. None of them fit into the mould now, as we’ve seen they didn’t really then — you wouldn’t immediately put them all on the same bill. So we don’t now have a collection of bands to look at, just a collection of nearly 20 fantastic records.
At the time, as with punk, C86 must have sounded like anyone could do it — and that would have been the reason that it sounded so wonderful.
Time to get up, turn it over, spool the header to the right place with a pencil, and play it again.
Around about 104 years ago Robert Tressell wrote a book that George Orwell called the “book everyone should read” and then, after publisher disinterest, chucked it on the fire. His daughter saved it from the flames and, after her father had died, persuaded publisher Grant Richards to take a chance on it.
And that is very much the story of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists: championing by those that believe in a world that seems indifferent to its ideas.
The original manuscript, charred as it may be, is now held in the TUC archives — a relic of the power in a union. It is remarkably close to the book you would read today, but the version that was published 100 years ago this year was an abridged version (down from 250,000 to 100,000 words) with a lot of the left-wing polemic taken out. It was also cut to end on a depressing note: implying that all these socialist idealists could do to change things would be to commit suicide.
The book follows Tressell’s real life closely: he was a member of the Social Democratic Federation, Britain’s first Marxist organisation, and painter and decorator in Hastings.Worried about being blacklisted because of his views, he picked a pseudonym after a decorator’s table, Hastings became Mugsborough and you feel that Robert Noonan became Frank Owen, a talented, honest but heartbreakingly poor man. Apart from the bosses, almost every man, woman and child in Mugsborough is constantly hungry and terrified about what the next day would bring: a foreman such as Nimrod taking a dislike to you would mean starving in weeks.
My wife, Libby, gave me a copy when we were courting, and I devoured it: howling and highlighting my way through it as it talked again and again of not just historical cruelty but of an unfairness that it is still part of life today. Reading it as the government passed edict after edict dividing the poor into the deserving and the undeserving, much as the charities and corporations do in the book, listening to stories of people forced onto zero hour contracts, not knowing if they had work from one day to the next, horrified seeing of working people forced to on food banks, starving, was like being part of a link through time. It was a good time for her to recommend it. I can’t say it changed me, I was already a Marxist, but it filled me with a spirit to keep fighting.
I also wondered if she wanted me to pick up some tips about wallpapering.
She’d first been given it in her teens by her grandfather. He had been a life-long Tory voter who had, conveniently for this story, also been a painter and decorator in a small town in south of England. He read at the age of 80, and it did change him: he stopped voting Conservative, switched from the Sun to the Mirror, and heroically starting using the Colchester Labour Club — at the other side of town — rather than the Conservative Club which was just across the park from his house.
Libby was a school contemporary of Labour MP Stella Creasy, who claims to have read the book at the age of 9: there must have been something in the Essex water at that time.
In the book Frank Owen spends much of his time not so much trying to convert his workmates to the cause, but trying to get them to take an interest in how the system controlled them. Buying pamphlets and books to lend to them in the hope that it might wake them up. They — the Ragged Trousered Philanthropists — are his targets, and the focus of his anger rather than his sympathy: “They were the enemy! They were the real oppressors! They were the people who were really responsible for the continuation of the present system … No wonder the rich despised them and looked upon them as dirt. They were despicable. They were dirt. They admitted it and gloried in it.”
But he keeps trying all the same.
Kevin Jones first read the book as “an immature 14 year-old” in 1969. He had got a job as an apprentice at a local firm of painters and decorators in Liverpool and his dad, a trade unionist, gave him the book and told him to “watch out for the Nimrods”.
“Like many teenagers, I had no interest in anything remotely political, “Kevin told me. “I did read the book however and I remember quite enjoying it, although mainly I think because of the humour, like the flabby and flatulent Rev Belcher. Any relevance to the ‘real world’ just went completely over my head.
“The painting job did not last long. Many of my friends were working in factories and being paid far more than me. Work was plentiful at that time and the local glass industry was flourishing, so I handed my notice in, gave up the apprenticeship, and went to work making glass bottles.”
A decade later times had changed, and Kevin found himself on the dole. 1981 was a bad year for him: his dad died of cancer at the age of 51, he was going through a divorce and, along with hundreds of others in Thatcher’s first recession, he lost his job.
Then in the local library he spotted a familiar title: “The humour was still there, but I could see for the first time just how real it was. Every character was recognisable, every situation it described could be related to my life.
“The anger welled up inside me as I read of and recognised the injustices, the malpractices, the exploitation, the lying, the cheating, the greed and selfishness displayed by the employers and the upper classes. I understood for the first time the blatant hypocrisy of so many of those who profess to be Christians.
“That anger was intensified ten-fold as I recognised the apathy of those philanthropists who suffered most. It reminded me of my own 14 year-old self. ‘Why would anybody bother their heads about politics?’ ‘It’s not for the likes of us.’
“I realised that much of the anger that I felt was directed at myself. It forced me to re-evaluate my life.”
The Association of the Ragged Trousered
Kevin is now chairman of the Association of the Ragged Trousered, a society dedicated to spreading the word of the book: “Like many, many others I recommended it to anybody who would listen. I lost copies by lending them out only for them not to be returned. I started to collect second hand copies at car boot sales and charity shops so that I could pass them on to friends.”
“I got talking to a colleague in the pub about The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists and its history of being passed from hand to hand. We then each pledged that we would try to give away one copy per month to a stranger. Neither of us had any clear idea of exactly what we wanted to do other than to introduce Tressell’s book to as many people as possible.
“We launched the association at the Tolpuddle Festival in July 2012, a non-profit group, membership is free and we are open to all. Our membership remains relatively small at present although geographically, our membership is spread throughout England Scotland, Wales, and Ireland, as well as Spain and Germany. Each helping to spread the word about the book in their own individual way.”
One of the ways they spread the word is to spread the book, copies are bought and left around for people to find — the books tracked by number and containing a message of solidarity from the association. Frank Butterfield from Lancashire picked up a copy from the association in a bar in Spain and by return left his story online:
“I attended a socialist Sunday school in the 40s and 50s where the book was used in classes, in those days there was only the abridged edition available but the impression the book had on me has lasted me all my life and has always been the basis of my political views. I always have a copy on my bookshelf, and have given away half a dozen copies over the years.”
It’s difficult to find an enthusiast who just saw the book on Amazon and bought it, everyone has a story. Actor and activist Ricky Tomlinson is one of those interviewed for a new documentary Still Ragged: 100 Years of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists:
“This book was given to me when I was in solitary confinement, by the prison governor. It’s something that changed my whole way of thinking. It’s the most important book I’ve ever read in my life. Not only did it change my life politically, it also stirred up again in me the beauty of reading.”
Firebrand MP Dennis Skinner tells the makers how “it might be about painters and decorators in a small southern town, but it applies today.” The film also contains a version of the book’s centrepiece of rhetoric: The Great Money Trick.
The Great Money Trick
Tressell uses the workers’ dinner breaks as an opportunity for a lecture, much as he uses the work time to praise honest craftsmanship over the cutting of corners. For this, Frank Owen opens his dinner basket and takes his bread, alongside that borrowed from his workmates, and uses it to represent “the raw materials which exist naturally in and on the earth for the use of mankind”.
Capitalists pay the workers to turn those raw materials into usable goods, and are paid money — but only enough money to buy enough of those goods to survive. The capitalists end up with a surplus, and all the money they started with. “As for the working classes […] having each consumed the pound’s worth of necessaries they had bought with their wages, they were again in precisely the same condition as when they started work — they had nothing.”
Anyone who doesn’t think this happens in the modern day need only to think about Walmart — the biggest retailer in the World — who last year launched a charity food drive for its own staff rather than pay them enough to live on.
George Moore, who at 17 has directed a self-funded film version of the book, described how he felt when he first understood how it worked:
“ I was crying ‘Why does nobody know about this?’. I do think we are stuck in the Great Money Trick – I try not to get too political in conversation , but I have found myself performing the trick with chips in a restaurant on occasion. It brings out the same reaction every time, whether on stage, on screen or in real life – people stop and realise that this isn’t just a theory – it’s applicable to everyone’s life in one way or another, and it definitely still happens today.”
While I was asking about the book several people, including Moore, commented that the book was “halfway between Orwell and Dickens”, and there are similarities. Tressell has a Dickensesque way with a name: the bosses are Crass, Slyme and Hunter and the local Tory MP is Sir Graball D’Encloseland. However what that might hold up in style it isn’t true in message. Orwell himself said that Dickens was not interested in challenging or changing the status quo, that there is “no clear sign that he wants the existing order to be overthrown, or that he believes it would make very much difference if it were overthrown. For in reality his target is not so much society as ‘human nature’.” George Orwell said that Dickens was not a ‘revolutionary’ writer: but Robert Tressell is, every page of the book aches for the overthrow of the capitalist order.
Kevin Jones: “As Tressell himself points out, the inequalities and the exploitation will not, and can not change under Capitalism. In his time it looked for a while as if socialism might eventually triumph. Certainly socialism has had it’s successes, most notably the NHS and the welfare state both of which are now under attack. The Labour Party it seems have now abandoned even any pretence of socialism and although there are many, many socialists out there, the lack of one unified left wing party, I fear, means that socialism will probably never attain power through the ballot box. Global capitalism makes any change of the system highly unlikely. Revolution? Well I think that as the rift between the haves and the have nots continues to grow, as it inevitably must in the present system, then eventually there will inevitably be revolt.”
But even these champions of Tressell’s ideas are not too optimistic. Moore is worried by the working class lack of interest: “A key theme of the book echoes the idea that: all selfishness needs in order to win is apathy. If nobody takes an interest in politics, it will be swayed and manipulated by the selfish few.” While Jones can be as disheartened as Frank Owen, “the ‘philanthropists’ in the book are a stark reminder of just how much inequality and deprivation some people are willing to accept.”
I also spoke to Daz Wright, who said it was one of many factors that influenced him to work in the public sector. He picked up the book “because one of housemate’s dad was always going on about it. He was a committed Labour party member who annually stands in completely unwinnable council seats. We’d talked about what you can learn from it and how it was salient today. But no, I don’t think the book has had an effect. I think it is largely read by an exclusive left wing intelligentsia and we are peculiarly incapable of ever effecting change.”
For all that, people will still keep reading, believing and spreading that message. As Kevin Jones told me “There is a saying in Liverpool that ‘for every person Karl Marx introduced to socialism, Robert Tressell introduced ten.’ Most people would certainly agree that the Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is far more readable than Das Kapital.”
The book doesn’t end on revolution, it doesn’t end with better conditions for the workers, it doesn’t even end with a comeuppance for the foreman or the bosses — it ends with a fairly simple twist that makes life bearable for Frank Owen and some of the other workers you’ve been building solidarity with. And that’s its great achievement, for all its anger at the unengaged, it makes you believe in solidarity more than anything else.
I’m recommending that if you haven’t read it already, you should now. You can read it online for free, buy it yourself, or wait until someone lends it to you. If you read it you’ll be doing the lending soon. As well as taking great care to do thorough preparation before you get out the brush and the emulsion.
Not everything I know about socialism and capitalism came from The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, but everything I know about painting and decorating did.