Fleetwood Mac

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.

Elvis Presley: Man or legend?

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.


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.


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.

Further reading

The King and I, My Elvis Marathon — I listened to all 698 commercially released Elvis songs in order, in one sitting.

Who makes the best cup of tea: George Orwell or Douglas Adams?

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.


Orwell (1942, Evening Standard) A Nice Cup of Tea

Adams (1999, H2G2) Tea

Empire Tea Board (1941) Tea Making Tips

ISO 3103: Tea – Preparation of liquor for use in sensory tests

Hi de Hi! “Wedding Bells” (1987)


Gawd help us if there’s a war: C86 and where it got us

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.


The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists today

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.

Tom Watson: Money, power and the media

Tom Watson MP is sitting at a desk in Westminster, listening to the first Dexy’s Midnight Runners album. That’s sort of how I picture him a lot of the time: he’ll often start his working day by informing Twitter just what the soundtrack to his parliamentary office is. Squint and you can imagine a vista just somewhere between The Thick of It and teams that meet in caffs — a nexus between the world of Westminster, the real world of West Bromwich and the other real world of the web. The web that Tom has made his home since the days when MPs didn’t get notoriety and ridicule for what they said online but just for being there at all.

I first met Tom in person in a pub in Birmingham and ended the night later crawling home at around 5am. I’d first spoken to him, of course, online. I estimate that he had seven years as an MP before joining Twitter — then a small enough concern to organise drinks for all those that used it in one city in a small pub in a backstreet rather than, say, the O2. Today we conduct this interview via Twitter and no one bats an eyelid.

I know where Tom is as it was the first thing I asked. A journalist friend of mine always starts an interview by telling everyone just where it takes place: a device that can help set a tone for the reader. Are we comfortable here or is this a transactional experience? On Twitter, here, I think we are both comfortable. I wait for the DM that tells me when my light turns green.

Dexy’s first record — a trumpet-strewn impassioned plea for a better, more just, life — is firmly a document of its place and time. The music is dressed in donkey jackets as the band were and the angry cry of Kevin Rowland is that of a smart guy who doesn’t quite know how to change things for the better. Tom Watson is similarly rooted in the Midlands, fiercely intelligent, with the grammar school kid’s chip firmly on his shoulder. He thinks he does know how to change things and when the structures of democracy don’t serve the purpose he’s willing to get mad and hopefully even.

Sometimes the anger, while endearing him to many who watched him calling education secretary — and part time Pob impersonator — a “miserable pipsqueak of a man”, doesn’t go anywhere useful. At the time he blogged, “I began to make my point about the intolerable way that parents and pupils had been treated. His eyes met mine. Was his top lip really quivering? […] It was like looking at Bambi. So I shot him.”

We exchange opening bursts of 140 characters and I know Tom must be reaching the last line of track one, side one: “Shut your fucking mouth ’til you know the truth.” Tom is no doubt mouthing along to the words. Everyone does.

Has Twitter made you a better MP, I ask, or is it a distraction?

“It’s certainly broadened my horizons though sometimes I worry I read fewer books and magazines.”

Not newspapers you’ll note, Tom has a history with them. Metaphorically spat on and shat on by Rupert Murdoch’s tabloids, including a court decision against The Sun over claims that he was behind a plot to smear members of the Tory party. (Watson won an apology and a ‘substantial sum in damages.’) It seems reasonable that he might not be the mainstream media’s biggest fan.

We’ve not had the trolling or abuse I’d have expected the interview to incite. I’m glad as I’m rubbish with trolls and hecklers,so I couldn’t help if I’d tried, but Tom claims it doesn’t bother him. And we’ve not yet had the police accusing anyone of threatening Robin Hood airport: thankfully, not living in Yorkshire it doesn’t apply.

“When I first started blogging it was met with almost universal derision,” he told me. “It’s funny but after 13 years [of being in Parliament] I barely notice the snide stuff. It’s just the wild world of the ‘net, the rough bit of the pub.”

Mainstream media versus social media sees financial capital and social capital stacking up against each other. As one of the authors of Dial M for Murdoch: News Corporation and The Corruption of Britain, Tom has been in the centre of the push and pull for power — and the centre of the phone hacking trial that he says helped end his marriage. “I’ve certainly spent more time scrutinising the media than I anticipated in 2001,” he says.

As a member of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, he questioned Rupert and James Murdoch and former News of the World editor, Rebekah Brooks, in a committee session in July 2011. Re-questioning James Murdoch that November, Watson was again all over the papers for his likening of Murdoch to a mafia boss.

“At its heart,” he continues, ”social media allows you to form groups very quickly, with low barriers to entry.” As an example he cites his recent campaign against the something tactics of his nemesis The Sun. “Over 7000 people signed up to notothesun after it was shared on Facebook and Twitter.” It then became a issue for the press and TV: “a classic example of an online debate seeding political arguments to the mainstream media and, frankly, the pedestrian political parties.”

“The mainstream [media] definitely try to distil social media conversations, sometimes for old agendas. Yet, when you know trust in what’s read in papers like The Sun is down to 15% then there’s no need to worry much.”

If the papers aren’t the influence they were there’s still a mainstream channel that does: “I think online will be an important component of the 2015 election campaign but TV will still be the gorilla. And ultimately, if your policies are wrong, it doesn’t matter what your online voice sounds like.” And he adds in what might be construed as a dig at Ed Miliband, if he hadn’t already given BBC radio a more direct one, “I don’t think the twitter feeds of the party leaders add much to the debate.”

He’s just about to sign off but then lets slip that he’s seriously thinking of “going out there and setting up my own little campaigning news house to see what can be achieved”. Tom Watson again actively channelling the old order by using a delicious mix of political nous, online and offline networks and an anger that drives him on.

“We need much better media. More curious, less editorialised, more engaging.”

The old order? Burn it down.

Cue the trumpets. I’ll see you all in the front row.

Why everything is shit nowadays

Walking through the ticket barrier at Didcot Parkway a few months ago, I was witness to a most middle class kerfuffle. A young polite guy was being stopped from exiting and treated like a fare-dodger, his tweed-clad father was going quickly puce: which no-doubt made it all the more embarrassing for the lad. His crime? Getting off a station early on a ticket that had been bought, paid for and presented gladly. A victimless crime, one that might even have saved the train company a little bit of fuel: but the station staff were having none of it, their hands were tied.

It was something to do with the tickets having been pre-bought from a pot of special fares. It was something to so with how, these days getting off a stop early costs more. I couldn’t understand it, none of the gathering crowd could, but the staff suggested that a read of the Terms and Conditions on the company website would explain all.

That same week I spent hours on a support line to O2 who, because I’d had it looked at in an Apple store, decided that the iPhone I’d bought from them was not their responsibility. Virgin Media then charged us £50 for not being in for a engineers visit we hadn’t booked with them, and my Oyster-style bus pass just stopped working. Luckily this isn’t a week when I’ve arrived home to find a ‘Sorry you were out’ card from Yodel, an item on the doormat that makes my heart sink like no other that the cat hasn’t personally left.

Each and every transaction took longer than it should have, each ended with me feeling fraught and ripped off. And with each I was very aware that the choice presented by the market would only lead me to other suppliers with similar processes and frustrated customers: you only have to look at the stream of Twitter support accounts to see that. In terms of the buses and trains I had no choice at all, except to give up using them. With courier firms it’s not even your choice, but that of your supplier.

We’ve had the crash and the recession, and now supposedly a recovery: those companies that are still making huge profits have done so due to being more efficient. They certainly haven’t, they say, maintained those figures by cutting corners. So why is every little transaction, from getting a parcel delivered to buying a train ticket awkward, confusing, and ultimately a bit shit?

I have a theory that it’s all about responsibility and the cost of transactions. It’s not in the interests of profit to have the customer understand or be in control. Even where it’s not deliberate, the removal of decision making from frontline staff—placing it in the hands of algorithms has lead to a whole new level of Kafka-esque process mazes, with the added bugs and dead ends that only software can provide.

Nick, a call centre veteran, told me, there’s just no freedom to deviate from ‘the script’. “Many times you know how to solve a problem but can’t do anything due to restrictions, it [is] all about making money.”

“everyone is under pressure to complete calls within a certain time…callers had just had their cars either clamped or removed. They were pretty angry. So they were not in the mood to be fobbed off. This led the call centre staff to make up anything to get them off the phone. They’d lie. Sometimes they’d hang up on the excuse that the caller bad become abusive.”

Under pressure from bosses, dealing with increasingly frustrated callers. It’s no fun at either end of these calls. Nick: “It was the most miserable environment I’ve ever seen. People were always going off sick.” Another worker from a different centre told me “the fact you had no real power or responsibility amplifies the most stressful scenarios in the job.”

It’s that lack of an ability to take responsibility that causes problems. For example I moved house, I phoned my bank and changed my address, they didn’t change the address for my credit card; because despite all of the cards having the words NatWest on the front, they are really run by different entities. One size really doesn’t fit all.

One company I see getting awful feedback online is delivery firm Yodel, who claim to handle 135 million parcels every year. Call to complain about a missing delivery and it seems you’ll be told that you need to speak to not the deliverers (who might know something about it) but the people who sent it to you (who definitely don’t have it). A Yodel worker on a web forum explains “your contract is with [the sender] and not yodel. Basically its down to [them] to sort this out and they can then bring it up with Yodel if they wish.” You can’t often speak to anyone about a delivery as the ‘we missed you’ cards don’t have a call centre number on them: they have scribbled mobile numbers, which very often ring out.

This is because the Yodel model is to engage, rather than employ, delivery people: who must supply their own cars and phones. They target this work at those who are “newly retired yet still wanting to contribute to an active role, or [who] would like to earn some extra money whilst the children are at school”—these are people not working regular hours that are contactable through ‘normal’ systems.

The job isn’t easy, and isn’t—according to posters on moneysupermaket.com forums—well paid:

“You HAVE to be in 5 mornings a week Mon-Fri to get the parcels in, which can be from anytime from 7am-2pm. You get paid 65p per parcel delivered (even if you have to go back to try and catch the customer in you only get paid for a signature)”

“You are expected to attempt delivery twice and then return undelivered parcels —you do not get paid if it is not delivered no matter how many times you have tried (and each attempt costs you in petrol). The price of petrol means that this is simply not viable.”

“Every fortnight I was getting paid about £70, minus the petrol expenses that you have to cover yourself. So realistically for two weeks work I was earning £30.”

Worse, it seems that the reliance on computer systems, perhaps the most ‘cost effective’ ones available means that the data in those systems is often wrong. “The Yodel scanner is the pits, and there’s sometimes no way out other than to sign off the job.” Poorly paid, battling the system from their side—it’s not a surprise that the satisfaction with the firm seems to be low.

From automation to outsourcing, to the obfuscation of self employment—money drives the cutting of corners and abdication of responsibility, and it seems digital technology makes that possible.

No wonder that every time we try to do anything it seems that little bit shit.

Plan C

It takes about a minute from start to finish. The area that softens is only discernible for a radius of around 6 feet but is actually infinitely large — most of its field is beyond your perception. Twenty seconds in you might get a sense of something emerging at the centre of it, gradually taking on substance as the glimmer fades. It’s a woman. Sturdy boots, jeans, a fitted bomber jacket and a beanie hat over short blonde hair, she stands at about five foot five.


– April, 2004 –

It’s just a haze, it’s not at all dramatic, and if you weren’t looking right at it you might miss it altogether. Everything just shifts out of focus.

It takes about a minute from start to finish. The area that softens is only discernible for a radius of around 6 feet but is actually infinitely large — most of its field is beyond your perception. Twenty seconds in you might get a sense of something emerging at the centre of it, gradually taking on substance as the glimmer fades. It’s a woman. Sturdy boots, jeans, a fitted bomber jacket and a beanie hat over short blonde hair, she stands at about five foot five.

The entire event makes no noise at all except for the sound of the woman vomiting as she collapses onto the floor.

– Acquisition –

There is a bottle of McCallan Gold prominently displayed on the side table. She pours herself a large whisky, and turns to drink it all in: the whisky, the room – her target’s study.

The desk is the focal point, standing just proud of the Edwardian bay window, the armchair to one side, the side table and the bookcase to the other. Everything in the study speaks to a certain metropolitan aesthetic. The desk, side table and bookcase are in a coordinating light beech. The metalwork, from the desk lamp down to the facing plates on the electrical switches, are a high-shine chrome while the walls are pale-neutral and hung with interesting prints (a lesser known Warhol, a Kandinsky and Picasso’s La Guernica). The fabrics tone together with striking reds. You could get the look of this room from Ikea but this one has never been knowingly oversold.

She turns off the lights and eases herself into the heavy designer armchair to wait.

– Plan B –

He was awake but groggy for some time. Then he was aware and angry and probably quite scared. Now he’s quiet, possibly tired but probably receptive. He’s ready.

“I’m not going to take your gag off, and I’m not going to untie you either” she says “until I’ve spoken to you. You won’t believe what I’m going to say, you might even try to pretend it was a dream after we’re done. Do whatever you need to do but one day you’ll realise this was real and what I said was true and then you’ll need to act upon it. You will not be hurt today if you sit still and you listen. Will you listen?”

His body seems to relax a little, resigned to the situation, as he meekly nods at the woman.

She walks away from him and crosses the room. “I see you read” refreshing her whisky at the side-table, then moving on to the bookcase “do you read science fiction?” She runs her finger down the spines. The bookcase boasts the work of Toffler, Fukuyama and Kline. Fiction is represented by Parsons, Garland, Copeland. There is a paperback of ‘Vernon God Little’, it’s uncracked spine suggesting it has not yet been read. “Hmmm… Perhaps not. There’s a book you should read, Stephen Fry, Making History. It’s relevant to what we need to discuss today.

“It’s a pretty generic sci-fi plot really: what would you do if you could invent a time-machine? Kill Hitler, of course! An old trope. It’s been done before. It’s a good book though, do read it if you have time.

“What happens in Fry’s book, in most Kill Hitler stories, is that killing Adolf doesn’t stop the Second World War — if anything it makes things worse. The theory goes that the war happens with or without Hitler because of a whole complex network of things that were going on. So there’s a vacuum and it’ll be filled by whoever gets power at the right time.

“Thing is it’s true,” she tosses back the drink and looks at him, her eyes twinkling with mischief. A stony stare is her reward.

“It’s true that if you invent a time machine, go back in time and try to kill Hitler you will just fuck things up,” she strides back across the room to him, thrusts her face into his. “We know because we tried!” Her eyes flick left to right trying to read his expression. “Poker face. Nice. We can use that. That’s probably why they picked you: composure, grace under pressure, and a good actor.”

She’s up again towards the desk. She props herself nonchalantly against it, and takes up the story based on the notes she was given.

“In the end Hitler was put back into the timeline. We stopped him once and things got worse. We were lucky that we managed to put things back. You see they reckon you get three shots. I don’t know why, I don’t know tech stuff. And we just got it back to where we started on the third go. Which is still awful but – well you don’t want to know about what happened the other way.

“The thing is there’s something happening again and we’re trying to stop it. We need you. You’re Plan B, so you better get it right.

“There’s a rising tide, and we need to stop it. Which is pretty tough going. I bet you’re thinking ‘so kill Hitler already!’ Well now, that’s not very liberal of you.

“As it happens we found him, the Hitler of this story. And we tried to kill him. Didn’t work, he walked away from the accident we planned for him – will plan for him – in 2010 and if anything it made him tougher. Don’t look at me like that! 2010 is my past, but your future.

“So what’s Plan B? Well we’ve had a change of policy, you see. The new Director is against killing. It’s an ethical thing but as it happens I think it makes operational sense too. The killing thing just doesn’t work.

“The thing is you think you can see the problem but you can’t. Time and events, they’re just a haze and if you’re not looking at it right you might miss something. It’s like you’re out in the fog. You have a sense of where some things are from your memory and other things might shine out from the mist but basically you can only see a few feet in front of you but the fog, the mist, is infinite. It just rolls on slowly dissipating but never really finding an edge and most of it is beyond your perception.

“You might see a Hitler and think ‘let’s just get rid of him’ but he’s part of the fog and the fog is into everything. Who would we kill to stop all of this? One chancer who seizes an opportunity? Someone else will just step in, and who knows where that’ll lead you.

“The fog is already creeping up on you but you haven’t seen it. There are all sorts of things happening that create a complex environment a few years from now. Politicians are sowing the seeds of public distrust through their financial arrangements. Bankers are dreaming up more and more elaborate financial tricks whilst being held by less and less regulation. The public lurches further to the right as they all sign up to become Little Englanders, keen to buy and then protect their piece of the pie. That’s just the headlines. Meanwhile, through luck rather than design, the group who can profit from all of this are slowly building up their numbers. There will be a series of events that will bring this into focus. Distrust in established politics. Financial turmoil.

“We want you in place when this happens. This is our attempt at a positive intervention, through you. In a few months you will have a chance to stand for Parliament. Stand. A few years later, you will have a chance to stand for the leadership of your party. Stand.

“We think you can win those contests. We then need you to be the lightening rod. What we need, to weather the storm, is for you to provide a credible alternative. People will be scared and angry with the status quo and that makes them do stupid things. Like make protest votes. We need you to be the person those people put their trust in. We want you to speak up for fairness and equality while you do it, and we want you to draw out the poison. It will take a few years but you must stay on course. We need a viable third option otherwise there is a vacuum for the protest vote. We trust this to you.”

She places a piece of paper on the desk.

“On this piece of paper are a few results for sporting events over the next few days that will prove to you that you have been visited by a girl from the future. The thing about sci-fi tropes and clichés is they have some practicalities to them.

“Right. We’re done. I can’t go back, it’s a one way ticket to get here. I’ll be watching you.”

– May 2010 –

A waitress, five foot five, early thirties, mousey blonde hair and a name badge that says “Anne”.

The TV is on silent but the subtitles roll all day over the breaking news on TVs in all corners of the pub so she knows how things are developing. The news has tried out a number of new phrases over the past 24 hours. The latest being “triple lock”. There is a concession speech, raw with emotion. Even through subtitles it hits her hard enough to bring a few tears. Then she sees him joking in a rose garden, and knows she has work to do.

At home, to the wardrobe, she pulls out a bomber jacket and takes an envelope out of the pocket. The envelope is marked “Plan C”.

– Plan C –

He opens the door to the study and turns the light on. There’s a woman behind his desk.

“Hi,” softly, but with clear intent “I knocked the last guy out but something tells me you’ll listen. Will you listen?”

“Ah, sure” he says.

“I need you to run against your brother in this leadership election…”



pic CC sigfridlundberg


Ukip — nothing but useful idiots for capitalism’s ugliest forces

It’s easy to laugh at the racists and fruitcakes that make up the UK Independence Party roster of election candidates and councillors. Like clichéd children they do say the funniest things. But like kids they don’t fully understand the consequences of their actions. Ukip exists for no other reason than to pull the country’s political discourse dangerously to the right and that’s so worrying because voters, members and even candidates and MEPs don’t realise.

Ukip members can’t be striving to take power to carry out their manifesto, because there is no coherent Ukip policy on anything to get behind. Poster boy Nigel Farage doesn’t know, care, or agree with the manifesto. He dismissed the plans with a comment about how he’d, “never read that. I’ve no idea what you’re talking about.” And that’s seemingly okay in a media environment that berates Labour for not having detailed spending plans years in advance.

Treasurer Stuart Wheeler has given the party £514, 957 since 2001 and he doesn’t know what their policies are either. Interviewed at a lunch for Eddie Mair’s PM he blustered, called for more wine, and had very little idea what was going on.

“We’ll launch it [the manifesto] after the European elections,” Farage says. After the election. And you thought only the Lib Dems could make up policy so much on the fly.

Essentially though, it doesn’t matter what Ukip’s policies are —they have an almost zero chance of getting into any sort of power, which is one thing we might have to thank the failure of the electoral reform referendum to bring in PR for. That means that can say absolutely anything: from ‘repainting all trains in traditional colours’ to ‘sending the buggers back’ if it will keep them in the media’s eye. There’s been more coverage of Farage not standing in a byelection than then has been of the Green Party’s whole European election campaign—making simple ideas like not condemning us all to climate chaos seem more ‘out there’ than a flat 30% tax rate.

When you consider that to change anything at a European level they would have to take power nationally, it doesn’t even matter what their policy on the EU is. Voters who really wanted to leave the EU would have more chance of it with a large Tory majority. The party simply exists to be anti control on the actions of capital of any kind. That is why they vote against each and every law in the European Parliament, when they can be bothered to turn up.

Members of the party are routinely caught out saying odd, unacceptable and contemptible things and then disowned by a leadership that sees them as disposable because they are disposable. There’s no mandate for the party due to a mass membership, there’s no structure or shared ideas. Voters can ignore any part of Ukip with impunity, because they’re never going to be in charge of anything. Every vote is a protest, but they’re not protesting against anything coherent — and they can have no idea what they’re protesting for.

Ukip is not so much a broad church as a circus big top of useful idiots and dangerous animals. They can be whipped by a ringmaster but he’s in no danger because he can easily replace them but doesn’t need them. They are nothing but paper candidates and a means to an end of securing airtime for those that they can trust to spread their message. And the only way to get the circus to leave town is to stop watching.

They are capital’s revenge: using any or all electoral tricks they wish, not to get elected and change anything but simply to pull the acceptable window of political discussion as far to the libertarian free-market right as possible.

In this they are more akin to other millionaire funded organisations like think tanks, right wing newspapers or the Taxpayers’ Alliance. Except they are more dangerous — because other politicians won’t attack them properly.

Attacks on Ukip are wrong in they way they are handled: yes they say stupid things (individually and collectively), yes they are racist (in many cases individually and in the few policies they do have), yes you can pick apart almost all they say. That however is a distraction, the real issue is how money can manipulate where the Overton window of ideas that the debate will accept sits on our spectrum. This is that all the money behind Ukip wants.

All the other parties know that, because they use the same tactics, and to dismiss Ukip is to lift the curtain on that window, revealing the political wizards to be controlled by the forces of the status quo.

How does a party funded by millionaires, lead by an ex-banker who’s been an MEP for 15 years claim to be not of the establishment? Because they don’t have the problem of ever having to be in power and they know no-one will want to reveal just how that establishment works. Clegg pulled the window towards electoral reform and fairness on education by playing the same nonsense outsider role in 2010’s TV debates, and we saw how that played out with a whiff of responsibility.

How does a party grow so quickly and reconcile the views of all its members? Ukip don’t have to because there is no group: just a collection of angry individuals nudged around to provide media ballast. That collection gives them the strength and the cover to say whatever bizarre things they want: because all the party must think the same as they do.

How can they truly say they aren’t a racist party? Because all their ideas exist only to free the movement of capital, to unhinge the means of production from any control by the state. And capitalism isn’t racist: it has many faults but it doesn’t care about the ethnicity of those it exploits.

Ukip exists purely to further the interests the very people they will say they are against — the establisment — and to break their influence we need to really break the political mould, opening up on how it all works. Is anyone brave enough to do that?

I killed Kurt Cobain

On 8 April 1994, I was a twenty-year old dozing through a mild hangover when the news of Kurt Cobain’s death came through on my radio/cassette player. Several weeks later John Smith, the Labour leader, died and I was crushed by grief. It’s odd that this loss hit me more powerfully than the first, seeing as I’d never met John Smith and his death was definitely not my fault.

February 1994 had been snowless but harsh. It was the kind of bitingly cold month that did not lend itself well to sleeping in Parisian doorways. And yet that is what I had done, having found myself penniless in the French capital.

I had hitchhiked from my university town of Liverpool all the way to Paris with my sweetheart in order to celebrate our love on the Champs Elysées on Valentine’s Day. What we would do on the Champs Elysées, we weren’t sure. Where it was, we couldn’t say for certain. And how we would fund this trip, we had not fully fleshed out. But we were in love and Paris was the place to mark it.

We quickly discovered that hotel rooms were a luxury that we couldn’t afford, but we decided we could cope with sleeping rough as long as we could snuggle up on a bench in the underground. At one point during our time as down and outs in Paris, a kindhearted homeless guy actually gave us his a plastic cup full of change. We must have looked like such a hapless pair.

The problem with the Parisian underground stations in 1994 was that they closed just after midnight and then didn’t open again until 5am. And so, to keep warm, we would find an all-night café, buy one cup of coffee between us and nurse it until the time came to catch some zeds in the Metro. As romantic mini breaks go, this one was not the most opulent.

So, that’s why we happened to be in a rather smart café on the Champs Elysées in the earliest hours of 14 February 1994. I had just started to think that we had overstayed our welcome as we eked out our one expensive cup of coffee when someone even scruffier than us walked in. To begin with all I saw was messy blonde hair, a shambolic walk and an old green cardigan, and I thought, ‘This joker will be thrown out before us.’

How wrong I was.

The staff were electrified by the man’s presence and a woman at a table along from us started saying, ‘C’est le chanteur! C’est le chanteur de N-ir-v-a-na! C’est Kurt Cobain!’

My beau was a skinny boy in torn jeans and old trainers. Protecting him from the teeth-shaking Parisian cold was not one, but seven Nirvana T-shirts. The black one with the big yellow face, the one of the baby underwater, the In Utero album cover; three long sleeved and four short. He was a bit of a fan.

So, after psyching ourselves up we went to speak to him.

My first impression was how handsome he was. That hadn’t really come across to me in the NME covers and MTV videos. In person, his were the kind of sweet, symmetrical good looks you’d expect from a traditional pop star; not the figurehead for the alienated and dispossessed.

The second was frank astonishment that he actually wanted to talk to us. More than that, he invited us to sit down, he hadn’t spoken to anyone all day, he didn’t speak French and he wanted to talk to someone, anyone, in English. It was ‘cool’ that we’d hitchhiked, ‘amazing’ that we’d done so from Liverpool. ‘I love that city,’ he said.

He’d just ordered some food, too much; did we want some? ‘It’s a cheese sandwich, do you like cheese?’ (We gratefully accepted it but thought that we would never, ever eat it – until hunger overcame our desire to preserve a relic within mere hours.)

We tried to explain why we’d come to Paris, but at that moment, unwashed, tired and cold, it was difficult to comprehend ourselves. So, it was understandable that he never grasped the fact that we weren’t in Paris to see Nirvana play.

Have you ever met a famous person and found them assuming that you are a bigger fan than you really are? He asked if we were going to his gig; we muttered a white lie about not being able to get tickets and, before we knew it, he was promising to get us on the guest list – it was the least he could do after we’d come so far to see him. By the stage it would have been impolite to point out his error, and anyway, we were about to get a free ticket into an amazing concert we could never afford. I remember him writing down my name. (My name!) So we could get on the list. And like an earnest little boy, he said, ‘I’ll do my best, if I remember.’

Later we queued at Le Zenith, a venue in north Paris. When we reached the box office I had to show the woman my passport, she searched the names whilst I held my breath. Without even looking up, she passed me an MTV branded envelope with the golden ticket: Nirvana with support from the Buzzcocks.

Stickers were slapped on our shirts and we were funnelled to our seats – a first for me never having sat at a concert before – and the rest was a blur. Kurt’s big white baggy shirt, the huge stage, the deep reds and blues of the lights and the silhouettes of our comrades down in the mosh pit – from our seats halfway up the auditorium so enticingly near and yet so far. They played everything we loved: Lithium, Slither, Breed, SchoolPennyroyal Tea

Halfway through the gig, I finally deciphered the words on my sticker: ’after show’. And at the end, sure enough, we were ushered through a barrier into a large room, full of the beautiful people.

I’d like to say that the time I went to a Nirvana after show party was the wildest night of my life, but it felt more like an awkward corporate function than anything else.

Kurt didn’t appear at the party. There were lots of plates of fruit and cake, that, as hungry as we were, we didn’t dare touch. There were men in suits and chic French women, but no Kurt. Krist Novoselic was walking around the room talking into a large mobile phone. But no Kurt. That mobile phone was the first one I had ever seen in the flesh. Why does he need a phone when he’s not at home, I wondered? 1994 was a long time ago.

Dave Grohl appeared, smiling a lot. Everyone else was French or stuck up and we ‘seemed normal’. I remember hoping that we didn’t smell too much and trying to act so natural that he must have been alarmed.

The French publicist came and joined us. She had lost Kurt the previous night, no one had known where he’d been. We knew; he’d been in our café on the Champs Elyseés. Had he seemed okay? ‘Yes, he was fine, we spoke about Liverpool,’ I stuttered in my terrible French. What on earth did I know about how he was?

Eventually we left, but before we did, we wrote Kurt a note thanking him and giving our love to Courtney and his 18-month-old daughter, Frances Bean.

And then, just seven weeks later, he was dead. In his suicide note, Kurt expressed a feeling of not being able to live up to the commitment of the fans he’d met recently on tour. He wrote: ‘The worst crime I can think of would be to rip people off by faking it and pretending as if I’m having 100% fun… I don’t have the passion anymore, and so remember, it’s better to burn out than to fade away.’

It took me years to start realising that maybe we should have been clearer about why we were in Paris that night. We hadn’t hitchhiked 512 miles to see his band play. We weren’t asking him for a commitment he couldn’t give. We weren’t besotted fans, just ridiculous, disorganised romantics.

All apologies.


Coda: an abiding memory of when we left Kurt and walked into that bitterly cold Paris night, twenty years ago, is how I said, ‘This could be the coolest thing we ever do.’ Two decades later, two decades older and, tragically, I know I was right.