Comment isn’t free


First, a few unpaid words from Stephen Hull, UK editor-in-chief at the Huffington Post, the newspaper that was never a newspaper and always a website which empowers its writers by not paying them. He was being interviewed by media interrogator Steve Hewlett on Radio 4 (as reported on the New Statesman website). If you are a writer, or someone hoping to make a career out of writing, make sure you are not holding any hot drinks. Ready?

“If I was paying someone to write something because I want it to get advertising, that’s not a real authentic way of presenting copy. When somebody writes something for us, we know it’s real, we know they want to write it. It’s not been forced or paid for. I think that’s something to be proud of.”

So, conveniently, payment robs comment of authenticity. All those words I’ve written for money – and indeed all those words written by Noam Chomsky, JK Rowling and Paul Morley for money – are in some way inauthentic. Oh, and paid writing’s only purpose is to attract advertising.

As an unpaid blogger, by choice, and a paid writer in other quarters – a line of work I have been pursuing for 28 years – this not only infuriates but saddens me. The Huffington Post is successful, innovative and decorated. It is a beacon for our times, when print, deserted by traditional advertisers, is choking on its own thin air. It offers a high-profile platform and shop window for its writers (it calls them bloggers to stop them getting fancy ideas above their station), and you can’t buy that kind of exposure. Except you are buying it. You are buying it with your time and your expertise; your ability to rearrange the English language into sentences. Writing is not a mystical art. All but the technically illiterate do it every time they fill out a birthday card or leave a note on the fridge. But increasingly, as those public outlets for writing dwindle – farewell, the printed Independent; hello, unloved piles of wafer-thin giveaway NMEs thrown back into cardboard gondolas at Sainsbury’s and railways carriages decorated in crumpled copies of today’s Metro as if in dirty protest – the once romantic idea of wielding a quill for money withers on the vine. People would rather watch a Vine.

I’m lucky. I was first paid to write my first ever review in 1988, a year out of college – and not a college where I studied journalism, or the written word: this was the 80s, a golden era of opportunity between the closed shop and the internet. I was paid £23.00 for this review by the publisher IPC, as quaintly typed out in the payslip above, which marks the day I became a professional writer. It seemed like an awful lot of money to me. I would have paid IPC to see my words in print.

ThisIsThisMy only qualification to write this review and see it published was a single copy of a fanzine I’d put together [left], and the skill of being keen enough to ask. This century, I’m often asked to give advice to people wishing to get a start in the media. I’m a media veteran. I’m always happy to tell people my own story, although with each passing year, it becomes less and less relevant to today’s literary and journalistic wannabes. For years I’ve been telling students that I envy them. In the mid-80s, I had to type up my fanzine on an electric typewriter, cut it out and Pritt-stick it down, and pay to have it printed at a high-street Kall-Kwik, then hawk it around in a shopping bag at gigs hoping to sell a copy for a pound. (I sold one by mail-order – it was mentioned in a magazine called Underground and two kids turned up at my flat to buy one, with cash. I was fucking cock-a-hoop.) These days, you need only a broadband connection to publish instantly to the world. No guarantee that a single soul will read it, of course, but it will look professional and you will by definition be a published writer. You can publish a novel in the same way. It’s liberating. It’s also demonetising.

I wrote about the curse of unpaid labour in the media three years ago. I wasn’t paid for writing it. I wrote it for free, here, on this blog. I commissioned myself to write it, sub-edited it myself and headlined it Keeping up appearance fees. If you have the time, you can read it here. Most of it is still true. I will precis the salient points here.


When you see somebody talking on the telly, do you assume they have been paid? You are right to. Unless they are a member of the public whose opinion or testimony has been sought by a news crew, or an audience member doorstepped by the host on an audience show, or they are questioned in a news studio as a representative of either a political party or a private company, then they will usually be paid an appearance fee.

This will be nominal, but it covers their time and their expertise, and reflects the fact that – like an actor in a drama, or a singer or dancer in a chorus – they have helped to make a TV programme, and without them there would be a person-shaped gap, which will never do. TV programmes have budgets, and from those budgets, fees for actors, singers, dancers or contributors are found. (It goes without saying that there are many, sometimes hundreds of people you don’t see on the telly who are just as vital to the making of the programme, and they will be paid too. This will effectively be a non-appearance fee.)

However, it ain’t necessarily so. When, in 2013, James Gandolfini died, I was contacted on the day by email – via the Guardian as it happens – by a broadcaster who requested my presence on a live studio discussion about Gandolfini, to take place at 4pm the next afternoon. Having gathered my thoughts sufficiently to write a blog and be filmed for the Guardian video obituary, I felt confident I could make a good contribution to this TV show.

However, having agreed on principle with the producer to be at the studio for 4pm (which just happened to be geographically between the British Library, where I was writing, and 6 Music, where I was headed for an appearance on Roundtable, so it was all awfully convenient and meant to be), I was then told, “It’s not actually our policy to pay guests.”


Without wishing to come across as some kind of square, I rather insisted that I would expect some recompense for my time and expertise, and after a couple more emails, during which the producer went to their editor and came back, we hit an impasse, at which the producer said, “We’re going to have to go with someone else.” This meant somebody who didn’t require paying. Fair enough. I had pushed for payment and they’d called my bluff. To be honest, it was one less extra thing to think about. I was at the time writing a second draft of a pilot sitcom script to a deadline, something I was being paid for.

I have a realistic view of my own importance. I do not delude myself. But I do believe the 28 years’ mileage on my clock gives me a degree of authority and I like to think I can string a sentence together on a good day. I cannot build a wall or fix a radiator but I can talk. A tradesperson is rightly seen as someone who is paid for their time and expertise. If you can plaster a wall yourself, you have no need to call in a plasterer; if you can’t, you must expect to pay a plasterer for the work, and they must be expected to do that work to a certain standard in return.

I once entered some provisional talks with a small, independent publisher about publishing my “selected works” in a book. It never happened, but I had a title: Punctual. I have always been proud to be reliable, to write to length, and to deadline, to turn up on time, and to call ahead if unable to do so. These boring qualities go a long way in showbiz. (I have heard of certain performers who are apparently a nightmare to work with – ones you would instantly recognise on the telly – but you have to be pretty bloody good at your job to get away with this.) I have never fooled myself into thinking I’m some kind of literary, verbal or televisual genius, to whose door broadcasters will constantly be beating a path, but to borrow a phrase, I like to think I’m never the problem.

Now, if I had accepted the no-fee for the Gandolfini appearance on the current affairs show and given my two penn’orth to the broadcaster that day at 4pm, here’s what would have happened:

  1. My face would have been on the telly.
  2. Some people might have seen it.
  3. The whole thing would have lasted a matter of minutes (which, when you build in the travel at either end, plus the buffer of some green-room waiting time, makes the appearance a tiny percentage of the time and effort expended).
  4. The broadcaster might have used me again in the future and on that occasion maybe even paid me.

Also, I suspect, if you’d seen it, you would have assumed I’d been paid. But I wouldn’t have been. It would have been voluntary work, except not voluntary work for a worthy cause.


So I declined, politely, and wasn’t on. I wonder who was? It doesn’t matter. The world kept on turning. The broadcaster who wouldn’t pay my fee for talking about James Gandolfini offered a car there and back. What a waste of money. It’s nearly always easier, and quicker, to get about London on public transport. Why would I want to be in a slow-moving car? Think of all the money they could save by not running a private car hire service. Perhaps they could pay contributors with that instead? I’ve also been offered unpaid slots on TV and radio shows where my reward was to be able to plug something. This is actual bullshit. Literary festivals are currently under fire for not paying authors (and I mean really famous bums-on-seats authors, not authors at my level) for personal appearances, again, on the understanding that they will be able to flog a few books afterwards. I’ve promoted my books this way, and a) people who run festivals, bookshops and libraries where the event is likely to be tend to be really nice, and b) you do get to sell a few signed books. Should authors be paid a small stipend on top? Or is the platform – like the Huffington Post – enough? Are you being paid “in kind”?

Not all potential guests and contributors are egomaniacs. Given the choice between appearing as a pundit on Channel 4 News and getting home in time to watch Channel 4 News, I’d always choose the latter. I turn down roughly 75% of the offers I get to be myself on radio and TV. It may be more. Frankly, I don’t have anything to flog. And I have no deep need to hear my voice or see my face. I will always jump at the chance to be on Front Row on Radio 4, because I love the show and, oh, I will be paid. Not much. But enough to take a short detour via Broadcasting House and get to talk to the always amenable people who make Front Row.


I was invited last week to mentor someone hoping to break into the media by an entirely admirable charity-based body that encourages that very thing. I’ve done unpaid work for them in the past. My choice. I like them. But I had to decline the mentoring gig, as I remain a self-employed freelancer and I don’t have the luxury of time to devote to this year-long commitment. (Others in the media who have taken it on seem to work for, or run, production companies or TV channels.) Also, I would, in a roundabout way, be training someone to steal the work that puts food on my table! After all, it may be tough to break into the media and earn enough to actually live on in a digital age where writers are called bloggers and comment is literally free at the point of sale, but at least the young have youth on your side. This is a valuable currency in the magpie eyes of a demographically myopic media. I was delighted to be asked to host the red-carpet coverage of the Bafta Film Awards for Bafta many years ago, the first time the august body had produced its own content for its own website; it was deemed a roaring success and as a result, the next year, I was replaced by a younger, more attractive and more famous host. It was the day I stopped dreaming of being a TV presenter. But even in this cruel Logan’s Run world, the one thing I can offer is something that money can’t buy – experience. It’s just that increasingly, broadcasters and content providers want it for for nothing.


I will donate the non-existent fee for this article to myself.


The hopeful eight


It was with some satisfaction that I belatedly watched Mad Max: Fury Road on DVD, thus putting myself in the position of being able to say I have seen all eight of the pale-faced Best Picture nominees at the 88th Academy Awards. I can thus now fruitlessly compare them. They seem like as accurate a barometer of this year’s crop (and thus last year’s movies), so I am about to do just that, although what I think should win is entirely theoretical, as I am not one of the 6,300 or so members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and thus hold zero sway in this regard.

What I think will win is also fluff. What do I know? I have feelings in my bones, and I am a seasoned Oscars watcher of many decades, so have some predictive form, but I don’t want to know what’s going to win. I’m glad about that. It would be boring. I like surprises. I actively want to be wrong. Despite being statistically made up of mostly old, white American men, the Academy is still capable of delivering a bookmaker-upsetting surprise; even causing a relative upset. I enjoy the start-of-year awards season and the resulting quality bottleneck, as I am usually entertained and exercised by its vagaries and waves. I relish the controversies the Oscars throw up. This year: lack of diversity. Meet the new controversy, same as the old controversy.

I don’t blame the august Oscar voters for Hollywood’s lack of diversity. Hollywood is to blame, with its deep-seated patriarchy and its demographic timidity, not to mention its unbreakable Plexiglass ceiling for women and the equivalent of “voter ID” for black actors, creatives and technicians. All of this bleeds into the reductive treatment of all Hispanics (sexy, smouldering, hot-tempered, etc. – it may be positive discrimination of a type, but it’s not so far round the dial from Trump’s rapists), although at least one of the Hopeful Eight was directed by a Mexican.

It’s the entertainment industry’s fault, not the mainly white, mainly male, mainly over-50 demographic of a club of movie professionals, which, by dint of inducting anyone who wins an Oscar and then has the ability to not die, means the Academy is full of people who aren’t black or Hispanic, and a vicious circle is hard to extract yourself from. The problem isn’t with the Oscars, or who wins them, but with American cinema itself, where people tend not to be of colour, or women, and especially not women of colour, like Jada Pinkett Smith, who is among those who’ve threatened to boycott the colourless Oscars ceremony. If I were a black actress, I’d kick up a right stink and then make damn sure I attended. Being invisible is playing into the racists’ hands.


You keep hearing the truism that male Academy members “give the films to their wives to watch,” which may or may not explain the popularity of certain movies. I hesitate to make sweeping generalisations about what women or men want. Romantic comedies may be machine-tooled to appease women, but men also like them, and women also hate them. Equally, noisy action movies: aimed at teenage boys or men who wish they were still teenage boys, but not necessarily only appreciated by the intended gender or age group. The high nomination tally of Mad Max: Fury Road – which, by the way, is a “male” film by type (action, noise, explosions, petrol) but, interestingly, dominated as much by female characters as the eponymous male one – is a tonic. That it’s only really picking up “technical” awards (so named as if acting, writing and directing aren’t technical) – four wins out of seven at the Baftas for costumes, make-up, editing and production design – should not concern us. It’s doing well and it’s an action movie.


Max is one of three Best Picture Oscar nominees whose poster is dominated by a woman’s face; also, Room and Brooklyn, both based on novels, one written by a woman, the other a man, one Irish-Canadian, the other Irish, which is a cheering ethnic skew. I first saw Brooklyn trailed at a tiny cinema in Bantry, County Cork, and felt the Irish love (I dislike being English and wish I was Irish). Though an Irish/UK/Canadian production by funding that’s set in Brooklyn and partly shot in Montreal, its Irish authenticity is deep, with the scenes set in novelist Colm Tóibín’s Enniscorthy also shot there, and only two of the principal Irish parts played by non-Irish actors (the bankable Julie Walters and Jim Broadbent). Since it’s about homesickness within the Irish diaspora in America, it could prick a few glands among the immigrant Academy members, but it’s not going to win.

Nor is Bridge Of Spies. I have no ill feelings towards it, but it’s a bit stolid and unsurprising. Cold War. Tom Hanks. Mark Rylance (not in it enough). Snow. Germans. Spies. It’s well enough made, but if it didn’t exist, you wouldn’t have to invent it. (Its score by Thomas Newman is actually something of a beaut, but it’s not the equal of Carter Burwell’s gorgeous score for Carol, which, by the way, despite being a good fit for the wives of the lazy male Academy members, looks to be this season’s big loser. I don’t really get why.)


I admire Room; its stars, its writer (Emma Donoghue, adapting her own novel with precision), its director, another Irishman, Lenny Abrahamson. It will I think win Best Actress for Brie Larson, but it doesn’t feel like a Best Picture. Too gloomy. Too grubby. Too creepy. All the things I love about it. The Big Short, too, is a poor fit for traditional Best Picture thinking; I thoroughly enjoyed its manic energy, but I fear the financial crash and subprime mortgages will not sing in the minds of the panel. (“Aren’t we, like, in some kind of recovery?”)

If Best Picture is between any two films, it’s The Revenant (which I have raved about here) and Spotlight. I don’t think Ridley Scott’s The Martian is going to find much traction at the Oscars. I got it into it, but found it tonally disconcerting. Was it a drama? Was it a comedy? (It was canny of Fox to put it forward for the “Musical or Comedy” categories at the Golden Globes, where it picked up Best Film, thus unrealistically raising its producers’ expectations.) I wondered aloud if Matt Damon might pip Leonardo DiCaprio for Best Actor at the Baftas; that his have-a-go solo performance might sway our less macho voters. But no. There’s no beating Leo’s suffering; he’s a vegan who ate raw liver and raw fish for his art – give that man a statuette and the rest of the week off.

The Revenant is unassailable. There’s an outside chance – the “Crash wild card anomaly” (see: the year Crash beat Brokeback Mountain) – that Spotlight will beat The Revenant to Best Picture and break the Oscar algorithm. Tom McCarthy’s never going to win the Director category, as Spotlight is intelligent enough not to let the direction show (part of its consummate mastery), whereas The Revenant is something like a two and a half hour Oscar begging reel. Look! Natural light! It must have taken ages!


I still harbour a tiny hope that Spotlight, having won Best Supporting Actor for Mark Ruffalo, might win Best Picture. It has all the hallmarks of one of those: true story, set in the past, talky, righteous, no sex, no violence (other than the violence wrought on children by priests, which we do not directly see), and an “issue” that bypasses partisan politics and shows that you have a heart. There are no shades of how much you revile paedophiles.


As stated, I want to be surprised on Oscar night. I sort of was at the Baftas when Rylance won for Bridge Of Spies, although I suspect patriotism played its hand. (A resource in short supply when neither Tom Courtenay nor Charlotte Rampling found their way onto the Actor and Actress lists for 45 Years.) Hey, this time next year, the voting system may have been overhauled to address the existence of the past 50 years in civil rights, with Academy members who haven’t worked for the past ten years becoming ineligible to automatically vote. We already have gender-divided categories. What about categories graded for “colour”? It would make the Oscars as long and interminable as the Grammys, but perhaps it’s the kind of affirmative action the awards season needs.

What he said


Released: February 11, 1985

The Headmaster Ritual
Rusholme Ruffians
I Want The One I Can’t Have
What She Said
How Soon Is Now?
Nowhere Fast
Well I Wonder
Barbarism Begins At Home
Meat Is Murder

Recorded: November-December, 1984, Amazon Studios, Liverpool and Ridge Farm, Surrey; mixed at Island Studios, London
Personnel: Morrissey, Johnny Marr, Andy Rourke, Mike Joyce
Producers: The Smiths (except How Soon Is Now? – John Porter); engineered by Stephen Street

UK chart: 1
US chart: –

The late Ian MacDonald strikes just one bum note in the otherwise consummate Revolution In The Head. It’s the bit about Penny Lane where he says, “Anyone unlucky enough not to have been aged between 14 and 30 during 1966-7 will never know the excitement of those years in popular culture.” What about people “unlucky enough” to have been 13 or 31? Pah. No good can come of such exclusive, self-mythologising, snotty cultural protectionism.

That said, anyone unlucky enough not to have been in higher education during 1983-1987 will never know the excitement of The Smiths.

When they released their second studio album Meat Is Murder a few days shy of Valentine’s Day in 1985, The Smiths were aged 25, 21, 20 and 21, from Morrissey to Joyce respectively. Though Morrissey, having left school in 1976 to sign on, was getting on a bit, the other three, grammar school boys to a man, might have been at college themselves in 1985. They weren’t, but the music they made spoke to those who were. Meanwhile those who weren’t had the pleasure instead of saying, “That Morrissey – he’s so miserable.”

It is surely no slight to call the Smiths a student band (nor, obviously, does such a label preclude the sensitive soul in gainful employment or, like Moz, on the dole). For it was deep within the fertile soil of the nation’s study bedrooms, draughty, Soviet-style halls and rented rooms in Whalley Range that their unique, intoxicating, life-altering guitar music took root. Higher education, its freedoms increasingly besieged in the mid-80s from a begrudging Sir Keith Joseph and his harebrained idea of top-up fees, used to be a place where you took stock of your life as you passed from late teenage to early 20s. Another Eden, protected from the outside world by subsidy, rebate and time, where you formed your political beliefs away from parental influence, coagulated as a human being, experienced the self-loathing of casual sex, and saw bands on the cheap in the union bar. Historians will need to go back to 1973 and wipe the resinous smudges off a used copy of Dark Side Of The Moon to find a record as beloved of the student class as Meat Is Murder.

The Smiths’ formative gigs were in low-ceilinged clubs and rooms above pubs, but in late 1983 they moved on to the college circuit: Warwick, Durham, Bangor, Kingston, Leicester, Portsmouth, North Staffs. As Morrissey noted of the band’s growing audience, “They don’t spit or gob, they bring flowers.” That’s because they could afford to – they were on grants.

Two years, a dose of mainstream success and a bit of trouble with the tabloids later, and The Smiths still held every safe student seat in Britain. Even though the Meat Is Murder tour would take them into Britain’s pavilions, hippodromes and winter gardens, the students followed. And brought flowers. Support act James found themselves garlanded in prematurely-chucked gladioli, “Don’t waste them on us,” Tim Booth would humbly implore.

Is it any wonder that Meat Is Murder scored such a direct hit with the band’s traffic cone-collecting constituency? For a start, it’s Morrissey’s vegetarian manifesto album. The seeds of his flesh boycott were sown in 1973, when McDonald’s opened its first UK restaurant in Manchester (“It was like the outbreak of war,” he said), but on the powerful title track – saved till the end – he throws down a political gauntlet to his followers (“it’s not natural, normal or kind, the flesh you so fancifully fry”). It made veggies of thousands on the spot.

In tune with this militant tendency, Morrissey’s republicanism rears its lyrical head too: “I’d like to drop my trousers to the Queen … the poor and the needy are selfish and greedy on her terms.” How well this chimed with the sloganeering, NME-reading socialism of the student demo. (Moz attended an anti-Abortion Act march himself in 1980, saying, “I love a good demonstration.” This man could have got himself elected rector of any university in Britain by 1985.)

The album’s masterful opener The Headmaster Ritual – a much punchier affair than the first album’s Reel Around The Fountain, suggesting a new sense of drama and masterplan – was even set at a seat of learning (the unnamed St Mary’s Secondary School), another bullseye with those just putting the gym and playing fields behind them. It even tapped into trendy Vietnam-movie fetishism with an unusually doctored sleeve still from documentary In Year Of The Pig.

The abiding irony of the Smiths is that their deepest appeal tended toward middle-class kids, when Morrissey’s milieu is stoutly working class. Rusholme Ruffians, Johnny Marr’s nod to Elvis’s His Latest Flame, describes “the last night of the fair” in terms not of someone who’s been dropped off by his dad. The “tough kid raised on Prisoner’s Aid” in I Want The One I Can’t Have and the “tattoed boy from Birkenhead” in What She Said seemed like fictional characters to most Smiths graduates, but first-hand authenticity hangs heavy like a dulling wine. It was as exotic as the beat poetry of hip-hop to some pale studes.

Though it’s ultimately Morrissey’s triumph – what Smiths album isn’t? – Meat Is Murder is also a notably musical album. Marr’s on scintillating form, confidently moving between skiffle, heavy metal and whatever you’d call the freight train/wailing riff of How Soon Is Now? Only on the awkward funk of Barbarism Begins At Home do our boys come slightly unstuck, although hats off to an “indie” band countenancing a 15-second bass solo.

Their first and only, it went to number one here, supplanting Bruce Springsteen’s Born In The USA like an agitated Dad’s Army-style Union Jack triangle. Morrissey’s ubiquity in the press meant that like ’em or loathe ’em, you could no longer ignore The Smiths.

Crunchily produced, inspiringly ordered, melancholy and witty in just the right measure (a balance that would be tipped in favour of the latter on the next two albums), it’s hard to disagree with Smiths chronicler Johnny Rogan’s assessment that Meat Is Murder is “the group’s most abrasive and satisfying work”. It certainly fulfilled Morrissey’s earlier prediction and helped us get through our exams.

(First published in a Q magazine Smiths Special Edition, 2004)

Bear good


I pity any film up against The Revenant at this year’s big awards. Not because I personally think it is an unassailable piece of filmmaking – although, incidentally, I do think that – but because it has that prevailing wind behind it already, the one that saw films as diversely deserving and undeserving as Shakespeare In Love, Gravity, Terms Of Endearment, The Artist, Amadeus, Kramer Vs Kramer, Gandhi, On The Waterfront, From Here To Eternity, West Side Story and Ben-Hur win big, and across the board, leaving all comers in their jet-propelled wake. As I always state for the record at awards season time: I prefer to be surprised on Oscar night (and Bafta night, and Golden Globes night), but a consensus can sometimes build, whether it’s within the Hollywood Foreign Press Association or the British or American Academies. If The Revenant does what I expect it to (and what it has already done at the Globes, with the big three in the Drama category all nabbed: Picture, Director, Actor), then its nearest rivals may find themselves heading for the exit, pursued by a bear.

I don’t often do this, but I have seen The Revenant twice. I saw it twice in the space of four days. I was so enraptured by its broad canvas, its artistic vision, its sodden tactility, its elemental power, and its on-the-hoof, let’s-eat-the-snow-right-here acting, I had to return to see how it felt when I knew what was coming. I have to tell you, foreknowledge is no witherer of its strange, ugly-beautiful magic. The only hope for the other big nominees is in the female categories, as the women in The Revenant do not get very much to do, it has to be said.

Put away the Bechdel test. It meets the first criterion: it must have at least two women in it. But not the second two: the women must talk to each other, about something besides a man. The film’s principal cast list contains two women: Grace Dove, who plays Leonardo Di Caprio’s deceased Pawnee wife, and Melaw Nakehnk’o, who plays Powaqa, the kidnapped daughter of an Arikara (“Ree”) tribal chief. The first is seen only in wordless flashback, where she is shot dead by a British soldier; the second is glimpsed being dragged off to be raped by a French trapper, then rescued by Leo, but empowered to exact her own poetic revenge on her abuser. You might applaud that outcome, but it takes Powaqa being enslaved and sexually assaulted for it to happen.


I make no claims for the feminism of either the fictional or fictionalised 19th century menfolk in this western. Will Poulter and to an extent Domnhall Gleason play male characters with a moral compass, but by and large the American and English protagonists are a bunch of cavemen in furs with muskets and Bowie knives. Tom Hardy essays another venal baddie to add to Alfie in Peaky Blinders and both Krays in Legend; he is Leo’s nemesis, and very much a loner, out for himself, with no crumpled photograph of a sweetheart in his man bag. This is a rough, tough world of hunting, shooting, fishing, whoring and breaking things (in which sense: how very like our own Conservative cabinet). There is a fine tradition of independent and able women in westerns, but they tend to be subjugated in what is a deeply patriarchal world.

The Revenant makes no retrofitted liberal concessions to modern thinking, and in a way, why should it? These are violent men, raping the land and natural resources of indigenous people for profit. From this testosterone-stinking malaise, Leo’s Hugh Glass is as close as a Guardian reader as you could hope for: a principled man who married a Pawnee and had a “half-breed” son with her, risking disenfranchisement and worse for sleeping with the enemy. But his Pawnee empathy gives him a spirituality – and a drive to survive – that his peers perhaps do not possess. Their mistreatment of him forces him to live for revenge. The world of The Revenant brutalises even the most open-hearted. It’s like a war movie that’s really an anti-war movie; it can only be such by showing that war is hell.


Aware of all of this, I was surprised at the vehemently negative response of trustworthy Observer writer Carole Cadwalladr. In a piece at the weekend, she unleashed these sentiments (having seen The Revenant before Christmas). Kicking off with objectively fair images of what’s in the film (“Ritualised brutality. Vengeful blood lust. Vicious savagery justified by medieval notions of retribution”), she then moves to undermine what is a serious film by calling it “the hottest blockbuster of the season … and yours for around £10-£15 this weekend at your local multiplex”. I assume she knows that not all films at your local multiplex are romantic comedies or Pixar animations. She quotes male critics (alright, too many national newspaper critics are male), who have praised the film’s “revenge, retribution and primal violence” and “unthinking, aggressive masculinity.” However, I don’t see this as a binary issue of male versus female, violent versus non-violent, blockbuster versus arthouse.

She does: “I’ll summarise the plot for you: man seeks revenge, man gets revenge. That’s it, basically, for two and a half hours, though there is a brief reprieve when you get to see Leonardo DiCaprio being mauled by a grizzly bear.” She counts the women onscreen, as I have done, but she misses out the silent squaw in a ruined encampment whom Will Poulter’s character feeds and leave alone, daring not to alert his aggressive “partner” Hardy to her presence. (She does not speak either, but the Native Americans we see seem to be men of few words and many thoughts.)

“The woman is not actually raped, of course,” Cadwalladr faux-complains. “She’s faux raped. Because this is what we call acting. And because The Revenant is what we call entertainment.” Who is calling The Revenant “entertainment”? It’s a fair question. It’s not the first noun I’d reach for. It’s an experience, maybe even an endurance, but was I “entertained”? By the spectacle, the scope and the thrill of the escape, certainly. But it’s tough going, this film. It’s not like a fairground ride, with sanitised ups and downs, it’s a slog. A wet, dirty, infected, sore, painful, blood-stained and spit-flecked assault course for the senses. It’s not boring, but it’s not a showbiz spectacular and there are few jokes or dance routines. To call it “entertainment” – as I rather suspect people in marketing aren’t even calling it – is to make a spurious point.


I like Carole Cadwalladr’s writing, but she freeforms after this, saying that we “choose to pay to watch women being pretend raped rather than watching women being actually raped for free.” I’m not sure that’s a conscious choice for me. “Even the ending is ambiguous, and leaves many questions unanswered and issues unresolved. Nobody rides off into the sunset,” she correctly observes (in the Observer), thus undercutting her own sneer that The Revenant is “entertainment.” Oh dear. She speaks, disapprovingly, of a “well-oiled publicity machine of the type that fuels an Academy Awards clean sweep”, as if The Revenant isn’t entitled to pitch for recognition by its industry peers. Some Academy members may be disengaged enough to be “bought” by studio enticements, but most of these old, white men will only vote for a film because they liked it, now matter how old, white and male they statistically are. Many of them will still have freewill.

She mocks how “gruelling” the shoot is known to have been, and how “authentically” the actors “suffered”, belittling even that aspect with the aside, “They got a bit cold, apparently.” (Hey, either they suffered or they didn’t. If they didn’t, then the acting is even better.) The cinematography is “gorgeous,” she concedes, but, in conclusion, “the whole thing is meaningless. A vacuous revenge tale that is simply pain as spectacle. The Revenant is pain porn.”


Putting a word before “porn” is a cheap trick. I should know, I’ve done it on numerous occasions. Certainly there is power in seeing pain acted if it’s done well, and it is done well. But is it pornographic? Leo’s mauled by a grizzly and bears the weeping scars, but this is clever makeup, aided by clever acting. (“Porn,” in the true sense, is sort of not acting, isn’t it? Otherwise customers would demand their money back.)  By the time she compares the artificial, acted violence with real violence, as seen in Isis videos, I was as lost as Glass. That Isis “lift” the techniques of Hollywood to make their nihilistic, barbaric point is not the fault of Hollywood. More people get killed in Gone With The Wind than in The Revenant. When she concludes that Isis “has seen what we want, what we thrill to, and given it to us,” she seems to want to make viewers of fiction feel in some way culpable for Islamic State. “The Revenant isn’t responsible for this,” she then points out, going back into the ring one more time to call a film she didn’t like “tedious” and “emotionally vacant.”

I found it to be otherwise. I would not argue that it’s a violent, masculine, macho film with little space for the input of women. But it is possible to watch it, with its sexual assault and brutal feuding, and not “enjoy” it in the way Carole Cadwalladr implies that we all do. (Unless she just means all men. It’s still inaccurate, if so.)

“Don’t pay £10-£15,” is her entreaty. Do, if you want to see an amazing piece of high-impact, naturally-lit, visually poetic cinema, is mine. And then you will have your own opinion.



A great leap forward

Squeeze are a band who were formed in 1974, when I was nine and the eloquent East Midlands firebrand Grace Petrie was around ten years away from being born. They were invited onto BBC One’s Andrew Marr Show last Sunday to perform their splendid song Cradle To The Grave (the theme tune for the splendid BBC comedy of the same name), and a few days before, singer and co-songwriter Glenn Tibrook found out that they were going to be on the same edition as the Prime Minister. But not until ten minutes before the live performance did he decide he couldn’t live with himself if he didn’t slip in a new verse. So, without the rest of the band knowing, he did. It was sung, live, to a visible audience of two: Andrew Marr and David Cameron (who’d been on to smarm about how his government’s dismantling of council housing wasn’t that at all, even though it is).

I grew up in council houses
Part of what made Britain great
There are some here who are hell bent
On the destruction of the welfare state

As an act of protest it was calm, collected and heartfelt. You can read Tilbrook’s full account of why he did it here. Even if Cameron wasn’t paying attention, we were. (It was Danny Baker, old pal and co-writer of the series that bears the song’s name, who tweeted about it, and interest among the righteous snowballed from there.) I think the fact that it went a bit viral is due to a broader thirst for protest in the arts. I have loved Squeeze since Cool For Cats, and although their best known songs are beautifully observed social documentary, rather than out and out socialist anthems, a beating heart is always audible, and anyone who had a heart would surely be on the side of people who can’t afford to buy their council houses rather than the side of the developers and landlords who will cash in on their blameless misery.

My blood was stirred by Tilbrook’s stand. It must have been even more exciting to catch it as it went out. What a thrill such subversion provides. If he’d sworn, or thrown down the mic, or stuck two fingers up at Cameron, it would have been less of a moment. To instead attack him with poetry, which is what it is, is poetic. This government will cut the subsidised arts down to the bone if they have their way, as they believe, in the space where their hearts might beat, that if the arts can’t pay for themselves in a free market, they have no place in the public arena.

I tweeted in the heat of the moment about Squeeze, but was defeated in my constant aim of clarity by the 140-character limit, and it didn’t quite come across, which is why I’m expanding upon the fire in my belly here, and will keep typing until I’ve finished! Anyway, out of a self of righteous dismay with the generally apolitical malaise of today’s mainstream pop and rock music, this is what I wrote:


I called Squeeze “old” because, well, they are. The band itself is 42. Glenn Tilbrook and Chris Difford are 58 and 61. They have been around. And the truism goes: you get more right wing as you get older. I have personally found this not to be the case, but you do see people’s priorities change when they have children and find themselves inevitably sucked into the system, with less time for the luxury of dissent. (Do you know that quote by literary critic Cyril Connolly? “There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall.”)

I find myself getting angrier and angrier about injustice, cruelty, materialism, privatisation and lack of compassion. Some days I wish I’d calm down. I may not have been on a march since 2003, but this is chiefly because that particular protest’s failure to change the course of history knocked the protesting stuffing out of me. (I even tried writing letters to my MP and to the PM but they had no effect either, and Iraq was duly invaded, as planned long before anybody tried to stop the war.)


So the sight of a band who’ve been around since the mid-70s seizing the moment on a live political discussion programme and having their say warmed my heart. My tweet was not aimed at “young bands” who are politicised. I’m well aware that a pocket of young artists are as pissed off as I am. I may not know all their names, or be au fait with their politically charged music (as I’ve long since stopped going to gigs on a regular basis), but as Billy Bragg’s official biographer I keep abreast of political music via him. We collaborated on a new chapter to my book only two years ago, and in writing about Billy’s endorsement of Jake Bugg, Grace Petrie and others, I felt a connection with them. Having first heard Grace Petrie through Josie Long when we did a 6 Music radio show together, it gave me enormous pleasure to type “Petrie, Grace” into the updated index of Still Suitable For Miners. (I still wonder to this day why Josie and I were not invited back. We were told that the station had loved what we’d done, but the call never came.)


Anyway, true to form, my Tweet was read by some as a sweeping generalisation against all “young bands”. It was nothing of the sort. But Twitter can be a cruel interpreter of raw feeling. To me, there is no difference between what Squeeze did and what Petrie, Seán McGowan and Chris TT do. I remembered this dispiriting moment from a 2011 article by Dorian Lynskey in the Guardian. We join Grace Petrie onstage at the University of London:

“You guys at UCL,” she says. “You’re pretty political, right?” A handful of students raise a feeble cheer, and Petrie’s face falls. “That’s not quite what I expected.”

She wins them over in the end, but the message is: it ain’t easy being political. One of her first songs was Goodbye To Welfare, so it’s easy to see the link with Squeeze. My dismay was clearly never with her, or the others who fight the good fight. It was with the general state of pop and rock music made by the young and aimed at the young, but to my ears bereft of struggle or friction. I actually sometimes think that the mobile phone age has bred an intractable complacency. You can’t blame a generation for succumbing to the touch-screen intimacy of the smartphone and taking their eye off the bigger picture – after all, nobody even looks forward when they’re walking along now. Their face is in that little glowing oblong, their ears plugged, their attention all used up. This victory for the system makes political artists all the more rare, and all the more vital.


Sam Duckworth (formerly Get Cape, Wear Cape, Fly), who raises a “Stop Bombing Syria” placard in his Twitter avatar, wrote to me of “the death of the counter culture in the under-30s.” It sort of breaks my heart. In a better world, protest artists would be on television. Maybe not on Andrew Marr, but somewhere on the BBC, with its public service remit (although I guess the BBC has bigger fish to fry, what with the Tories bearing down hard at charter-renewal time). When I was a teenager, we had Something Else on BBC Two, a “youth” magazine show that introduced me to so many things, not just Joy Division live (something it’s now famous for doing), but also political poets like Linton Kwesi Johnson, John Cooper Clarke and Craig Charles. I may be remembering it – and the subsequent Oxford Road Show – through a rose tint, but I was a “youth” and somebody was speaking to me. Also, there was nothing else on and no mobiles, so I went out on my bike and listened to records with my friends, and talked.


Nothing more boring than a man in his fifties hymning his childhood, but I hold the youth of today to a high standard. I don’t expect Adele (whose music I like) to bring down the government. But I don’t hear any politics in the dreary music of Ellie Goulding or Florence Welch either (and they seemed to come up via 6 Music with a certain degree of credibility), or in any of the acoustic singer-songwriters like Ed Sheeran, or James Bay, or whatever the other ones are called. They’re the worst; they come on like troubadours, one man and a guitar, and they say next to nothing.


People on Twitter started listing bands and artists who are political for me, and the fact that I’d not heard of many of them tells you a lot. Enter Shikari and the King Blues I’m familiar with, but (and I’ll try and put links in to their websites here) less so Tim OT, Against Me!, Gecko, The Lagan, Josiah Mortimer, Dru Blues, Brigitte Aphrodite, Chas Palmer-Williams, Ducking Punches, Perkie, Colour Me Wednesday, Onsind, Will Varley, Itch (from the King Blues), Grant Sharkey, Beans On Toast (thanks to Seán McGowan for most of those, but others chipped in).

It’s an underground movement, as it has to be. But the very technology that seems to be turning the populace into zombies, unable to communicate verbally or emotionally, also empowers unknown or unsigned artists to get their music out there, often for free, via Soundcloud or Bandcamp. Squeeze are a well-established band from another era of contracts and distribution and copyright and Walkerprints, and for them to make their stand, on live television, in the daytime, on the BBC, puts them in the same boat at Grace Petrie and the others mentioned here.

That’s what I meant.

I’ll end with a self-referential couplet from a song by Billy Bragg written and recorded in 1987 for the Workers’ Playtime LP:

Mixing Pop and Politics, he asks me what the use is
I offer him embarrassment and my usual excuses …

Now form a band!*


* Sorry, another ancient reference.

David Bowie: a tribute

This is the entry from my other blog, Circles Of Life, chronicling my favourite 143 songs by 143 different artists. The blog – an ongoing passion project – is here. This entry was posted on July 6, 2013, the fourth entry in the entire canon. As it contextualises my life with Bowie, and my appreciation of his vast body of work, it says all that I need to say on this sad day. (NB: I have not changed the tense, so it reads as if he is still alive.)


Artist: David Bowie
Title: Be My Wife
Description: single; album track from Low
Label: RCA
Release date: 1977
First heard: 1983

David Bowie is, in my opinion, the most important solo artist the world has ever produced. (Actually, it doesn’t feel that weird to say it out loud. You’d have to be a much bigger Dylan or Elvis or Bruce or Neil Young or Prince or Madonna or Lady Gaga fan than I to think otherwise.) It’s cool that he’s enjoying some kind of autumnal renaissance since Where Are We Now? and The Next Day, as it means Bowie no longer exists exclusively in the past. That would be a shame, since he spent so much of his career in the future.

I was a late starter. Woefully late. I was aware of Bowie’s work, of course: I remember the padded-room Space Oddity on Kenny Everett’s New Year’s Eve Show in 1980, and, around that time – the first flourish of New Romanticism – my attention was piqued by Ashes To Ashes. But my much more broad-minded friend Craig McKenna had the Scary Monsters album, and although I really liked the sleeve artwork, it never really grabbed me in long form like, say, The Specials or London Calling or Boy or Setting Sons or even The Biggest Prize In Sport by 999 did around that time. I liked John I’m Only Dancing, and other singles, but David Bowie and I seemed to get on just fine without each other. Until 1983.

Just in time for Bowie to release what diehard fans still believe to be his first bad LP, Let’s Dance (certainly his first LP made with a larger audience in mind), I got him. It’s like a couple of years later I got onions. And a few years after that, Ingmar Bergman.

It feels important as I get into The 143 to name those friends and associates who turned me on to certain artists, and in Bowie’s case, it was Vaughan Mayo, the older brother of a girl I “went out with”. He had all the Bowie albums, couldn’t believe I had none, and set about educating me. He lent me Changesonebowie and Changestwobowie first, which proved an excellent combined primer as they gave me accessible entrance points like Suffragette City, Changes, Starman and so on. If I remember correctly, it was Sound and Vision that was the first track to go onto a series of compilation cassettes I began compiling.

So it was that Low was the first Bowie album I taped in its entirety, with Sound and Vision as my start-up. It’s a peculiar LP, in that it’s divided into two distinct “sides”, and you’re not always in the mood for those ambient instrumentals. But Side One, as we must call it, is wall-to-wall clanky brilliance. My favourite track varies, from the melancholic Always Crashing In The Same Car to the moody A New Career In A New Town, with its bass drum beat that sounds like someone tapping the stylus with a finger, but Be My Wife inevitably rises to the top.

That my discovery of Low coincided with a TV showing, perhaps the first, of The Man Who Fell To Earth – for whose soundtrack many of Low’s songs were initially developed and rejected, and which provides the striking, heart-stoppingly beautiful side-on sleeve portrait – clinched it. I didn’t know I was feeling the cocaine-kicking Bowie’s pain in Be My Wife; it felt to me like a straightforward declaration of love (“Please be mine, share my life, stay with me”), not quite getting the restlessness, both geographical and spiritual, in the lines, “I’ve lived all over the world/I’ve left every place.” I knew from the sleeve that Low was recorded in Berlin, with Tony Visconti and Brian Eno (whose names cropped up regularly on the sleeves as I gradually and greedily worked my way through Vaughan’s catalogue), but it’s only now that I appreciate the context.

It’s the pub piano of the intro that does it for me, banging away throughout as if by Mrs Mills, the perfect ironic underlay for Bowie’s Chas & Dave vocal. As the compensating Bowie archaeologist, I quickly identified from sleeve credits Dennis Davis as my favourite of Bowie’s drummers, but his work on Low is so loose, tumbling and roughly recorded it goes utterly against the grain of the surgical precision of the craft he demonstrated on Stage, for instance. I still love these incredible drums, which join the harmonic organ, squawking guitars and almost buried funk bass in a mix that’s at once treacly and indistinct, yet endlessly joy-giving and layered. I know there are reference books I could consult right now to tell you who played what, through what piece of kit, and how Visconti captured them to tape, but I didn’t have access to such books in 1983; I was flying into this brave new world blind and feeling my way.

David Bowie is the one artist I find impossible to represent with one track and stick to my choice. There are a hundred I could mention. But Be My Wife is a three-minute bash of which I never tire

Thinking allowed


It was announced that David Bowie had died, aged 69, at around 6.45am. I found out, as is the usual way of things now, via social media. I logged on to Twitter at around 7.15 and the first tweet I saw was by Gavin Hogg, which had been retweeted by Nige Tassell. I didn’t, at first, get it.


So I scrolled down and confirmed it. This was devastating news, not least in light of the fact that we bought his new album yesterday, and purchased the recent Mojo with him on the cover, to have a good read about the making of said album (and of Scary Monsters in a separate feature). Certainly, he looked a little wizened in the new photos, and especially in the video for the single, but nobody outside of his family and close friends can have known that he’d had cancer for 18 months. Not as shocking as someone famous you admire dying in a car crash, for instance, but shocking nonetheless. We shall hear no more new David Bowie music in our lives.

Anyway, I will pay tribute to my all-time favourite musician elsewhere. I blog herewith about David Cameron, who had this to say.


What David Cameron, or David Cameron’s office, says via his Twitter account impacts on way more people than anything I will ever say. He has 1,327,911 followers. He is the Prime Minister of a country. His party were voted in at the last election. Of course he has 1.3m followers. Many of these followers will take everything he or his office types at face value. And indeed, I am not saying he didn’t “grow up listening to David Bowie.” David Bowie is always on the radio. Unless you only listened to Radio 4 or Radio 3, or don’t listen to the radio at all, you’re going to hear David Bowie’s hits. I’m not even saying that David Cameron doesn’t think he is a “pop genius” or a “master of reinvention.” But when I saw the tweet (I follow David Cameron as you must know your enemy), I felt indignant.

I read the comments under David Cameron’s tweet, posted by his office within around ten minutes of the official announcement by David Bowie’s office, and this was the gist: “Fuck off … Fuck off, you twat … You prick … Oh do fuck off … Fuck off, dish face … Bowie was the antithesis of everything you stand for … Piss off … Twat.” Rather than join this jolly mob of abuse the Prime Minister will never read, which would be water off a prick’s back in any event, I simply retweeted his tribute with a footnote of my own.


Note, I used the epithet “Sir,” to distance myself from any foul-mouthed abuse. This was intended to back-reference what Johnny Marr said when David Cameron voiced his appreciation of the Smiths. He “forbade” him from liking the band, as I’m sure you remember.


Anyhow, my “You are not allowed to comment” comment was passed around by those who agreed with the sentiment. I felt strongly and passionately about the insidious and hollow way our Prime Minister uses social media to attach himself to what he thinks are issues that will endear him to the electorate. Jumping in with a personal tribute to David Bowie, on the great man’s untimely death, felt particularly ghoulish to me. Part of my problem is the motivation behind it. I have plenty of evidence that David Cameron’s motives are not always sincere or honest. He was on Andrew Marr only this weekend explaining why selling council houses would be good for people living in poverty and at no point actually told the truth, which is that he despises anyone without the get-up-and-go to be rich and if they can’t afford to buy their council house, then all they’re doing is preventing less lazy people from buying it.

I see David Cameron as a hateful figure. A dimwit without the empathy to understand what it’s like to grow up without a helping hand. He lacks the intelligence to see how much ire he stirs up when, say, he turns up in his wellies to be interviewed about the floods in Cumbria when it’s his government that has cut flood defence spending, and engineers his photocall so that he doesn’t have to speak to any ordinary people who have been flooded out.


That’s the background for my tweet, something most people who care to follow me understood. But a few took violently against it. I took abuse from individuals who called me, variously, a “fascist”, a “totalitarian”, and, in one illiterate case, a “fuck whit”. Before blocking them, I checked to see if they were Tories, but it was hard to tell. One compared me to Donald Trump in my haste to disallow one elected man from commenting on the cruel passing of my favourite artist from cancer. I’m pretty sure you can’t be a fascist if you are against one single person? And it would be a pretty useless totalitarian state that oppressed one citizen.


My dislike – and disenfranchisement – of David Cameron is not based on his race, or ethnicity, or his political views, or his detachment from the country he is chopping up and selling off; it is merely based on his being David Cameron, and a grudge I have been building up for five years. One rather more reasonable person on Twitter claimed to also “dislike his politics” but remained affronted that I had disallowed the PM from commenting on David Bowie (as if perhaps I had some kind of administrative or legislative power to do so). Mind you, “disliking his politics” does not quite go far enough to describe my feelings about David Cameron.


So, RIP David Bowie. And do shut up, David Cameron. Someone else sarcastically asked me to provide a list of those who can and cannot comment. Easy: everybody else can; David Cameron can’t. Hope that clears it up.