Oops. Forgot to arrange my LPs of the Year into a neat shape. So here it is, for what it’s worth.
With great inevitability, soundtracks and scores have dominated my listening horizon. Curating a two-hour radio show of film music every week for Classic FM means I now habitually listen to a disproportionate amount of orchestral and instrumental music, with the bulk of it written in the 20th century ie. the past. I’m comfortable with this immersion, as I have lost touch with the modern sounds of the charts, and have trouble remembering the names of acts I hear for the first time on 6 Music. I heard a track I really liked yesterday in the car, for instance, by Mr Jukes, but I have no idea who that is.
I know who Sleaford Mods are, and keep up with their prolific output (the documentary Bunch of Kunst was essential viewing), but it stands so far apart and above anything else I have heard in the last few years, it makes life almost impossible for the other bands! It may seem rather conservative to hold the new material of such established acts as Arcade Fire, Royal Blood, Billy Bragg and – eek! – Sparks, but I have long since stopped trying to impress anyone, and spend my CD money with caution. I probably played the Horrors album V more than any other non-orchestral, non-instrumental this year. It is, like English Tapas, fabulous, if not, like English Tapas, groundbreaking.
I can’t pretend it’s been a bonanza book-reading year by the fundamental measure of pages turned and spines bent, but the books I have read, or, crucially, re-read, have been essential. That my carefully calculated Top 2 are both written by old friends of mine (one of them the subject of a book I’ve written) should not be taken into account. Stuart Maconie’s Long Road from Jarrow and Billy Bragg’s Roots, Radicals and Rockers form a stout pair and can make decent claims to historical legitimacy. Both delve into history – Stuart’s into twin-timeline British history, Billy’s further back into American history – and both present a humane view, bestowing power to the people and planting a flag for the heroic endeavours of ordinary folk, be it the empowerment of working people protesting against poverty, or the empowerment of young people to get out there and form a band in the 1950s. I couldn’t put either book down, and wished neither to end. Stuart has taken the temperature of Brexit Britain (as he took his journey, Trump was in the process of becoming electable, thus sealing humanity’s doom), while Billy allows the reader to apply the template of punk rock to the skiffle boom, and saves up a final twist that brings it all back home. (I won’t spoil it for you.)
I was sent a copy of Al Pacino: The Movies Behind the Man by its author Mark Searby, and found myself impressed by his doggedness as he set about his labour of finding at least one new first-hand account to accompany each of Pacino’s films, even the duff ones. For instance, he sheds light on the making of The Godfather via an interview with producer Gray Frederickson, Panic in Needle Park with director Jerry Schatzberg, and, well, a magician on Bobby Deerfield. I was also sent Matt Lucas’s memoir to review for the Mail on Sunday, and I gave it a good review, despite its gimmicky A-to-Z format.
As ever, I was moved to revisit old books, most notably A Bright Shining Lie by Neil Sheehan, one of the bedrock Vietnam War accounts, published in 1988, inspired to go back into the jungle by Sheehan’s contribution to Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s seminal The Vietnam War, shown here this year on BBC Four. I found myself captivated again by Cornelius Ryan’s The Longest Day (like Sheehan, he was an embedded war reporter). I have a dog-eared 1969 secondhand paperback edition – it was published in 1959 – and it’s only at this time of reading it that I noticed just how ahead of the “New Journalism” revolution Ryan was, personalising the events of D-Day and thus bringing them to life.
For those who follow Billy Bragg, an artist age does not wither, you’ll be happy to hear that I am updating his biography Still Suitable For Miners for publication in spring 2018, its fifth edition, which also happens to mark the 20th anniversary of the book’s first publication way back in 1998. I followed him to Oxford this time, and, over coffee and cakes, we covered the period 2013-17. We were both 20 years younger when we started this book.
Oh, and by the way, as if it needed saying, the New Yorkercontinues to fill my head with words, opinions, ellipses, poetic sentence construction and big ideas, and that’s why I don’t pick up a book as often as I’d ideally like. Since Trump started to undo America, the magazine – in particular the near-daily bulletins by John Cassidy – has become even more essential. Here’s how my favourite magazine depicted the Baby-in-Chief this year.
To end, a photo I took of myself “method”-reading Stuart’s Jarrow book: by the side of a fairly busy road, on a bench, and eating some lovely fruit loaf out of cling-film. Try it when the weather heats up again.
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.
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 …
Take Down The Union Jack is a song by my friend Billy Bragg, who writes stirringly and without hysteria in today’s Guardian about not just the Scottish Referendum, which takes place tomorrow, but about the differences between English nationalism and Scottish nationalism; one essentially rooted in ethnic cleansing and misguided nostalgia for Empire, the other in civic determinism and forward-facing pride. It’s no wonder that those on the English – or British – left gaze in awe and envy at the currently animated, consumed, fixated Scots, whether they are YES or NO voters. Even the crucial undecided – the YES AND NO campaigners – are statistically likely to turn out to place their cross tomorrow, such is the engagement with the debate. Registration to vote in the referendum in Scotland is a heart-stopping 97% among those of voting age (a demographic which is in itself refreshingly inclusive, welcoming in 16-year-olds). In the European election in May, the turnout was 34.17%.
I am the Scots’ worst nightmare: an Englishman with an opinion on their nation’s future. But my opinion is almost 100% heart, as I don’t get a vote, so there’s no point in engaging my head. My YES is hypothetical. I’m not Scottish, I don’t live in Scotland; the fact that I love Scotland is frankly immaterial. I know Edinburgh and Glasgow as well as I know, say, Manchester or Bristol, and better than I know Oxford or Newcastle. This is mostly because I visit Edinburgh every year for at least a few days, sometimes a few weeks, and have had consistent cause to visit Glasgow in my adult life, too – drawn up there to commune with the many Glaswegian bands that have risen in the city’s suburbs, and more latterly to work with The Comedy Unit, Scotland’s premiere comedy production house. I like Scots. My most recent trip to Glasgow – last Tuesday – was to attend the autumn season launch of Scottish Gaelic language broadcaster BBC Alba at the Royal Concert Hall. To drink deep of this ancient language was to brush past Scottish history and its future in the same spectral moment. They served excellent breakfast baps, too.
You do need a weatherman to know which way the wind will blow tomorrow, as Scotland stands on the precipice of history. The polls have been kissing each other in the middle for weeks. All I can do is observe. I felt that the UK establishment’s last-minute surge north was mismanagement and hubris in a grey Westminster suit. However, I was wrong when I guessed that the “effing” David Cameron’s arrival, shoulder to confusing shoulder with Gordon Brown, Lord Reid, John Major and Nick Clegg, would surely, counterintuitively, clinch the YES vote.
It had the opposite effect and nudged the blue-faced YES-sayers back into second place. It may have been a pathetic, transparent last-ditch attempt to stem the tide of Scottish dissatisfaction with being run from a weekend barbecue in the Cotswolds, but the scaremongering worked. It’s still too close to call. Alex Salmond is clearly no angel – he’s cosied up to Donald Trump and Rupert Murdoch in his time as First Minister – but his belief that Scotland should govern its own affairs is more compelling than the man.
When the only Scottish newspaper with an opinion to back the YES campaign is the Glasgow Sunday Herald (not the weekly Herald, which is NO), and the UK print media almost multilaterally in the “Better Together” camp (expect the Guardian and the aptly-named Independent, unless you know different), we’ve had to cover our eyes and ears to the again belated chorus of disapproval, half-truths and apocalyptic predictions. At zero hour, the likes of the Telegraph and Mail are now desperately gunning for Salmond’s personality, as if that’s the only factor that’s driving Scottish overtures for divorce, and obsessing over a loud-mouthed faction in St James’ shopping centre in Edinburgh – a display or boorishness that did the YES camp no favours, even if it was unrepresentative. (Pat Kane was on Sky News last night “defending” the actions of a scrum of compatriots when it wasn’t his job to do so, and he was the very opposite of the Tory media’s caricature of a YES man: cool, calm, collected, oh, and gung-ho for the New Scotland however the vote plays out.)
I have no idea what will happen if the Scots vote YES. Nor does anyone in Westminster, or Holyrood, or at the Bank of England, or the Royal Bank of Scotland, or on the board of Asda, or Irvine Welsh, or Eddie Izzard. Martin Amis was eloquent on Channel Four News when he observed that his preferred NO lobby was saddled with a semantic dead weight: “You can’t campaign for a negative.”
But the UK establishment, as I keep calling them, the keepers of the status quo, have been all about the negatives. Never mind “Better Together”, the message I’ve been hearing is “Worse Apart.” Whether it’s the NHS, pensions, oil, water, Team GB, the BBC or the money it will cost to redesign that nice Union flag, all have felt like threats. In the past few days, the Government and the opposition have reverted from stick to carrot, offering more devolved power if the Scots vote NO. But surely, with a binary YES or NO vote (and one sensible enough soul on Twitter suggested there should have been a third, grey option on the ballot for “a bit more devolved power, please”), any Scot interested in more autonomy would vote YES, not NO. And isn’t Westminster giftwrapping autonomy and making you beg for it like Greyfriars Bobby precisely why independence seemed so attractive in the first place?
Whether, as Billy Bragg and my other left-wing friend who writes for the Guardian John Harris suggest, the referendum will encourage further positive independence campaigns in favour of conscious uncoupling from the Bullingdon hegemony in England and Wales and even Northern Ireland, I don’t know. This whole thing may blow over. But to have galvanised an entire nation in debate, discussion, leafletting and – alright – the occasional scuffle in the street, the referendum, or #indyref, has been a force for good, I think.
Here is a picture of some lovely people queuing up to see me for free in Scotland in 2010. (Warning: some of them might not be from Scotland.)
I am English by birth and by blood. I don’t much care for the place, as, from where I live in London, the disconnect between Westminster, the City and the weekend oligarchs of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea and what we’ll call The Rest Of The Country is toxic on so many levels, and it’s turning us on each other.
They say the vote tomorrow is one between heart and head. The UK establishment want it to be between heart and wallet. Because they would do, wouldn’t they? It’s the only card they’ve got.
I trust the Scots. And whichever way they swing, I believe Scotland will be a better place on Friday than it was before David Cameron noticed that its people were actually seriously going to be voting about something that they care about. Unlike, say, which MEP we “send” to the European Parliament, or who the next Police and Crime Commissioner for South Yorkshire will be. (I understand the last one has mysteriously stepped down; he won the vote in November 2012 with 51.35% of a 14.53% turnout.)
They have already taken away our freedom. I would like it back, please. And I’m perfectly happy to take my passport when I next go to Edinburgh or Glasgow or Skye.
Ah, I can hear myself now, repeating exactly what I said last year. I haven’t read nearly enough books this year. And once again I blame – if “blame” is the apposite word – The New Yorker. On a weekly basis it floods my time with words that cry out to be read and processed, and I succumb. Sorry, books! That said, even though it’s not enough to even make a Top 10, I am delighted to say that I thoroughly enjoyed all of the following eight books, which at least cover a certain amount of ground and six of which were published in 2013. (Montague Terrace is a compilation of the Pleece Brothers’ sublime comic strips.)
Tracey ThornBedsit Disco Queen (Virago) MorrisseyAutobiography (Penguin) Larry Elliott and Dan AtkinsonGoing South (Palgrave/Macmillam) Joe MoranArmchair Nation (Profile) George OrwellComing Up For Air (Penguin) Gary and Warren Pleece Montague Terrace (Escape) Mark KermodeHatchet Job (Picador) Christina Kallas (ed.)Inside The Writers’ Room (Palgrave/Macmillan)
I guess there’s a theme. Three of the new books were sent to me by publishers at the behest of their authors. In Mark Kermode’s case, he actually asked me for my thoughts on Hatchet Job at the proof stage and thanked me in the acknowledgments. I also provided a quote for Inside The Writers’ Room, which I believe was used for publicity, although I saw no publicity for it. (It’s a great book for TV writers, or aspirant TV writers.) I paid for Morrissey’s book and indeed went out and bought it from a shop on the day of publication, which is something worth marking in any year. I also bought Elliot and Atkinson’s readable if scattershot vision of economic apocalypse.
Perhaps the square peg is George Orwell’s Coming Up For Air, first published in 1939. (Hey, it and Montague Terrace are the only fiction titles in my tiny list.) I had a meeting with the head of development at a major UK production company in April who recommended it to me. I can’t remember exactly how it happened, but I mentioned it on Twitter and none other than comedy critic Bruce Dessau offered me his secondhand copy. I remain grateful to both parties, as I really did enjoy it.
Oh, and not in the list but pictured above as this is a review of the year in books: the brand new 2013 edition of Still Suitable For Miners (Virgin) gets a mention as it was the first book I ever wrote, way back in 1997, and remains close to my heart. Not only that, it means I get to spend some quality time with Billy Bragg every three or four years, which I did at the end of 2012 and the beginning of 2013. I love the new cover artwork, too. Publishers are not falling over themselves to publish a book by me, so I take comfort from the fact that, in the past, one of them let me write a book about Billy Bragg, and that they continue to let me update it.
No point in resolving in 2014 to read more books. Not while The New Yorker continues to publish weekly.
Forgive the reveille on my own horn, but today is Publication Day, and that’s not something I’ve been able to say, in truth, since July 2008, when the third part of my trilogy of memoirs, That’s Me In The Corner, was published in “B-format” paperback. (B-format is when your book isn’t important enough to come out in hardback, so instead comes out as a large-size paperback first, and then in a cheaper, more manageable size a year later. This never made much sense to me, but it does give you the chance to have the cover redesigned, which we did with That’s Me In The Corner, not that it had any impact whatsoever on sales.) Today, the first book I ever wrote is re-published, and re-printed, in a new edition: Still Suitable For Miners, the official biography of Billy Bragg.
This is what it looked like when it was first published, in 1998, with a portrait by my old pal, the late Hugo Dixon on the cover (from the session he took for Q). I’m not sure I can convey how proud I was when I first laid my hands on a copy of this “A-format” or “trade” paperback.
And this is what it looked like when it came out in “B-format” paperback, the “revised and updated” 2007 third edition, in fact, with a photo by Steve Double in more austere black and white. (It’s funny. I’m sitting in the British Library right now with a copy of the third edition on my desk next to me, as I was due to be interviewed by a student about Red Wedge, so I was refreshing my memory about the era. I wonder if anyone has ever ordered it up in this very reading room?)
The brand new cover, at the top, has been designed by Marc Woodhouse at Chemical X, with the pugnacious photo from Billy’s Fight Songs albums. Here are some grabs from a little film the now generously-bearded Billy and I made, with director Jack Lilley behind the camera, at Billy’s house in January, where we discuss the origins of the book in our jumpers.
When this film is posted somewhere, I’ll put a link to it. But in precis, this is how the book came to be written:
In 1997, two important events conflated: I gave up my day job, and Billy Bragg turned 40. I’d been in a series of full-time desk jobs in music magazine publishing since 1990 – NME, Select, Q – and my first taste of professional TV scriptwriting had given me the courage to go freelance. And old inkies cohort, Ian Gittins, had just left Melody Maker to take up a post at Virgin Books, where he was charged with commissioning some official music biographies. He asked me if there was anyone I had a burning desire to write a book about. There was only one, really. I’d met Billy in 1991 when I first interviewed him for the NME, and we’d it hit off (I’d been a fan since the early days). I interviewed him again at Q, this time writing a career piece, punctuated by what I’d noticed were the “epiphanies” in his life. The big four-oh had convinced him to allow his life to be turned into a book, and in his wisdom he decided I was the man for the job (mostly, it turned out, because I was never po-faced about his work, and he was desperate to avoid a po-faced account).
I love telling people this: I researched the book, over six dedicated months from the end of 1997, by sifting through plastic bags full of cuttings. I had a computer, but not a modem, and no email address. All of the interviews I conducted were in person, or over the phone, or, in the case of Neil Kinnock, by fax between London and Brussels. That’s how analogue Still Suitable For Miners was. Billy was more than generous with his time, and his petrol money (we drove to Barking and all around the Essex of his youth, and to Oundle where he recorded his first music with Riff Raff), and I ended up with hours of first-hand testimony. I also flew over to Dublin, where he and Wilco were finishing the career-changing Mermaid Avenue sessions. In order to access the message boards on his brand new website, I had to sit at his then-assistant Tiny’s kitchen table and log onto her PC.
It would be true to call it a labour of love, in that I loved doing every minute of it, and my publishing advance was modest, as befits a first-time author, but the fact that I’ve been able to update it with a brand new chapter three times, in 2001, 2007 and 2013, makes it less a job, more a way of life. This gives me the excuse to spend some time down in Dorset with Billy and his partner Juliet, who became real friends during the writing of the book.
I have never stopped admiring Billy for his principles and his drive, and his honesty. Though the book is authorised, and fact-checked by Billy and Juliet each time it is reprinted, it is still the book I wished to write, and I remain grateful that the subject of the book never tried to edit it, or rewrite his own history. That said, if you’re looking for scandal, you’ve come to the wrong place. The one truth that works against Billy, but for him at the same time, is that he’s no man of mystery. He really is the Ronseal rock star. What you see is what you get. If you go to a Billy Bragg gig, especially in a far-flung place, you’ll know that the meet-and-greet is often as long as the concert. He likes to engage personally, as much as politically.
I once pitched the idea of a definitive Billy Bragg story to Mojo magazine, and was turned down flat by the then-editor, who reasoned that there was nothing the magazine’s readers didn’t already know about Billy. It’s true, he’ll never be the subject of one of those Reputations-style documentaries, exposing the “real Billy Bragg” behind the public image. But that’s why he’s such a constant in an ever-changing world.
To be Billy Bragg’s Boswell is no bad outcome as I hit my 25th patchwork year in the media, I must admit. It may not make me rich, but it makes me very proud. And to have my first book out now as an eBook feels like an important enough milestone to provide a link to my publisher’s website, which at least offers alternative download routes as well as the contentious Amazon. (Billy provides one-click links to Amazon, among others, on his website through industrial necessity – an ideological anomaly he’s happy to debate with you via the official forums including Twitter, which is really him on the other end, by the way.) For all your Billy Bragg needs, this is his HQ, with everything about his forthcoming new album Tooth & Nail – out on March 18, and among his best, I’d say. The new chapter covers this, his previous album Mr Love & Justice, his 50th birthday, the Jail Guitar Doors initiative, the current Tory government and the 2010 general election, plus honest accounts of the death of his Mum and the graduation of his son, Jack, to aspiring musician.
If you wish to buy the print copy, you can of course do so direct from Bragg Central and, as the old song goes, “cut out the middle man”!
Oh, and if you spotted the reference in the headline to this blog entry, you probably don’t need any more encouragement from me.
If I was less busy trying to earn a living, I’d blog every time I had a passing thought that I wanted to solidify, get down and expand upon. Because I don’t have the luxury of spare time at the moment, I often take to the immediate medium of Twitter and type sentences that, at best, come out as pithy aphorisms and, at worst, cheap slogans. I wrote this about Starbucks and the corporation’s notorious UK tax-avoidance doctrine on Monday morning. I enjoyed typing it.
As you can see, its deft combination of jokey tone and serious message struck a chord with 99 people, who passed it on. (Like Oscar Wilde in a donkey jacket, I cooked it up while walking past a Starbucks that morning and wondering what the patrons inside it thought about the economy they were in.) However, once you’ve dropped a pith-bomb and you are followed by more than a manageable number people, you must expect a percentage of antagonistic responses from people you have never met and will never meet, most of them reasoned and fair, one or two of them simply patronising, insulting, or borne of what seems like misunderstanding for furious effect. I sincerely believe in the power of the consumer. It is the predominant power we have as individuals when there’s not an election taking place.
If we accept – without prejudice – the reality that big business runs the world, because it does, and that politicians largely do the bidding of big business, whether by oiling the wheels, relaxing regulation or, more fundamentally, running an economy based on “growth”, which naturally favours more business and never less, then unless we are on the board of a large global corporation, we live in a world shaped by large global corporations.
Starbucks, which began as a local store in Seattle in the early 70s, arrived in this country in 1998 and, through a successful programme of aggressive expansion, it quickly made a mark on our high streets. A Starbucks coffee was probably the first takeaway coffee I’d ever gone out of my way to buy, not really being a coffee drinker at that point, and certainly no connoisseur. I enjoyed the drink, albeit mostly the fluffed-up milk, and the relatively new experience (“experience” being the key to the brand’s success, of course). The proliferation of Starbucks, followed by the others that bloomed in its wake, did indeed change the way a nation of tea drinkers viewed coffee. You have to hand that to them. But this soon went sour.
Before I could settle into a new routine of buying lattes on my way to Broadcasting House, for instance, I read Naomi Klein’s No Logo and my head was turned. Overnight, I despised Starbucks for the way it did business, along with what had become the new usual suspects of corporate greed, sharp practice, exploitation, non-unionisation and bullying: Nike, Gap, Coca Cola, Wal-Mart, McDonald’s, you know the drill. I have, in my adult life, given money to some if not all of these corporations. I am not a saint.
But when I feel a boycott is called for, I only have my own conscience to deal with. And the recent exposé of Starbucks’ tax affairs in the UK, the payment of which has been deftly avoided by sleight of hand involving licences, the Netherlands and declaring losses, has put the chain in a lot of people’s sights. It may be that pressure from the MPs – led by Margaret Hodge – who sat on the select committee flicked the switch, and forced the corporate hand into face-saving reparationary action, but it was surely the fear of loss of custom and attendant share price threat that sealed the case.
Give or take the odd exception since 1999, I’ve hardly given any money to Starbucks, so they won’t have noticed my total blanket boycott since the Reuters report into their UK tax-avoidance, but as I always say, if enough people make what seems like a futile gesture, it might just amount to a meaningful one. I once read an interview with Klein, in which, admirably, she admitted to occasionally grabbing a Starbucks if it was the only concession in an airport, say, and she really wanted a coffee.
I admired her candour. It’s easy to avoid Starbucks in any UK high street, as there’s usually another chain nearby, if not an independent outlet. (I understand that Whitbread, the UK hotel and restaurant firm, which owns Costa, pay their full UK corporation tax, so if you must use one of them … ) However, that’s not what I intended to blog about. I was more interested in the nature of the way Twitter extends a dialogue, and why it’s foolhardy to do as I do, which is type in cheap slogans.
Having published my call-to-arms on Twitter on Monday, I spent way too much of the following days counter-arguing my case with nitpickers and, in some cases, outright apologists for corporate tax-dodging. (There was also one rude bastard who began his reply, “FFS, wake up, man …”, which guaranteed him a blocking. As Billy Bragg says, freedom of speech comes with the freedom not to have to listen.) Most people hit back along the lines of, “Don’t boycott Starbucks; pressure government to close tax loopholes and force HMRC to hit the corporations harder.” This rather assumed that in being angry with a corporation, I was fine with HMRC’s timidity and failure to act, and with the government’s protectionism with regards tax loopholes. I’m not fine with it. (Oh, and I’m not angry with the people who work at HMRC, like the wife of one affable plaintiff on Twitter – “she’s lovely” – I’m angry with the management.)
So, that’s that argument dealt with. Others reckoned my boycott will only harm individual franchises who do pay tax, and throw ordinary, hard-working UK baristas out on the street. Nobody actively wants this. But in the same way, let’s say boycotting a bank because it invests in murderous regimes might ultimately affect those blameless individuals working in the bank who have no control over what their corporate employer does with its money. This kind of joined-up thinking is always enough to push you to the conclusion that it’s better to do nothing. Most people, after all, do nothing. (Except in Syria. And Egypt. And Palestine. And Greece. And so on.)
Other people – nigglers, really – said that if you’re going to boycott one corporation you have to follow through and boycott all corporations who avoid tax, and then they list the other offenders. Hey, the BBC have been caught out encouraging their contracted stars to set up limited companies, through which they are paid, thus reducing tax on both sides, so surely, if I’m so bloody righteous, I should boycott the BBC, too! (And my friends who are contracted BBC employees! Presumably by altering my Christmas card list?) Again, if you tie yourself up in knots, you will end up doing nothing. “They” would much rather you did nothing. We got into this recession by running up credit, and “they” seem to wish us to spend out way out of it by running up even more credit. Where will it all end?
I do not believe in criminal damage, so will not be smashing Starbucks’ windows in. I think UK Uncut’s planned series of civil disobedience sounds admirable, and witty and clever – turning coffee outlets into refuges for women, and creches, which are the worst hit by the cuts, which are linked to our failing economy, which is linked to the very rich not paying their fair share and being given a tacit blessing to Carry On Avoiding, so I’ll be interested to see how that works out tomorrow.
Having just spent a couple of days with Billy Bragg, researching a new chapter for his official biography, I am dangerously fired up with progressive left-wing ardour. His message these days is simple: it’s all about accountability. I’m cutting down on caffeine anyway.