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Here is the news. On 1 May 1997, I voted Labour.

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This seems a long, long time ago now. It would be the last time I would vote Labour for 20 years.

Tomorrow, I will vote Labour again, with my head and my heart. I hope you will vote with yours, too.*

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*I cannot, nor would not, speak for my friend. But he has just re-traced the Jarrow March.

 

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Choose life

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I have been eligible to vote in eight general elections, two referendums and five mayoral elections in London. I voted in all of them. I have placed my cross next to a number of parties in that time. I have voted with my heart, generally, aligning with the party whose policies most accurately reflect my own. (I even gave my second-choice vote to Mark Steel in the 2000 mayoral election when he stood for the London Socialist Alliance and increased his vote from 1,822 to 1,823.) On Thursday I will vote with my head. I do no necessarily agree with all of the policies of the Labour Party, and I have had my doubts about Jeremy Corbyn, but Labour is the only party who can realistically unseat the Tories, and that, for me, is the priority.

This is what we are up against: a Prime Minister who thinks that people use food banks for “many complex reasons”, while Dominic Raab, MP for Esher and Walton, believes people use them when they have “a cashflow problem.”

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If you are of voting age and don’t vote on Thursday because of apathy, fear of terrorism or fear of getting wet (showers are predicted in some parts of the country), please think again. It was Labour leader Neil Kinnock, cover star of the NME in 1987, who summed up the dangers of Margaret Thatcher’s bulldozer free-market economics and her disdain for ordinary people lacking the entrepreneurial ruthlessness to become rich and successful, with a speech that is as resonant now as it was over 30 years ago:

If Margaret Thatcher wins on Thursday, I warn you not to be ordinary. I warn you not to be young. I warn you not to fall ill. And I warn you not to grow old.

Look at the faces of May, Raab, Amber Rudd, Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, David Davis, Karen Bradley. Look at their disgust. It causes their nostrils to flare and their eyes to narrow, their foreheads to shine and their smiles to disintegrate.

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Apathy is no excuse. This is the big one. The country is poised to leave the EU, thanks to the will of 51.9% of the electorate, and even optimistic economists seem to agree that the initial effects will not be desirous. We can’t carry on cutting public services, cutting taxes for the rich, driving the NHS off a cliff to prepare it for privatisation, cutting tax for corporations behind the fig leaf of austerity, and driving the ordinary, the young, the ill and the old deeper into debt and despair.

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Despite negative briefing against Corbyn by his own party and a priapic right-wing press, he has found his tone and his feet during the rushed campaign for this snap election (called, lest we forget, by a PM who promised not to call one). A Labour candidate on the left – or what the right calls “the hard left” – is on a hiding to nothing before he or she starts, and Corbyn has targets on his back. However, his steady, approachable, non-violent campaigning style has seemed increasingly attractive as Theresa May has stumbled, blathered, stonewalled and u-turned, rocking up in a Jag by the back door and taking questions from plants, and Tory arrogance might just be their undoing. (She won’t even criticise that abomination Donald Trump for calling the Mayor of London “pathetic” days after the horrific London Bridge attack.)

Nobody would take any satisfaction from a terrorist atrocity affecting an election, but let’s face it, May has been exposed by her own record as Home Secretary, during which she called out the police for “crying wolf” and “scaremongering” when they predicted that her cuts and the reduction of police numbers would lead to attacks just like the ones in London and Manchester over the past three weeks. (“Enough is enough,” was the PM and former Home Secretary’s assessment. Did she mean three deadly attacks was enough? That rather suggests that two was acceptable.) For Tory thinking, try this, from former Health Secretary Edwina Currie.

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I’ve gone into elections with hope in my heart before, and I’m realistic enough now to distrust my own optimism. But as the gap has narrowed in the polls, and I’ve read about how many people have registered to vote since April 19, I’ve dared to dream. In the month after it was called, almost 1.2 million voters between the ages of 18 to 35 signed up. About half of them were 24 or younger.

The young are our Obi-Wan Kenobis this week. It’s the old who voted for Brexit, the old who think Theresa May is strong and impressive, the old who think bringing back fox hunting is a splendid idea, and the old who fear Jeremy Corbyn’s socialism of the heart. Help us, young voters – you’re our only hope!

PS: Corbyn rally, Gateshead, yesterday (courtesy Paul Mason):

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Comment isn’t free

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

DON’T WORK FOR FREE. UNLESS YOU CAN AFFORD TO. OR IT’S FOR CHARITY.

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

 

What he said

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MEAT IS MURDER (WEA)
Released: February 11, 1985

Tracklisting:
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)

2015: the year in books

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The traditional composite illustration above – which is always fetching, a smart line of book covers – might convey to the untrained eye that I have chosen nine of my favourite books from this year. In fact, it depicts 100% of all the books I read this year. And of those books, only four were published this year. This, if you’re a regular browser, is fairly typical. I’m not a voracious book-reader, certainly not like I used to be, but I always blame that with cast-iron certainty on the New Yorker, and this year has been no different. (One of the books up there, The Unwinding, is by a New Yorker writer, but I find I’m still slogging through it. I haven’t given up yet, though, which is why it’s still pictured, and still by my bedside.)

Capital

Three of them, I read on holiday, during an intensive fortnight of downtime. It’s what holidays are for (something I’d forgotten). All three were old, not that it matters, and two of them novels. I found Capital compulsive to begin with, as it’s set in a street in South London, which is my quarter, at the time of the 2008 crash, which I lived through, but felt the thriller element was a distraction from the social history and by the end I was reading out of a sense of dogged loyalty. When it appeared on TV last month, I was able to pick fault with the adaptation in a way that I am never normally qualified to do. Room, I purchased because I was due to see a preview of the film, by Lenny Abrahamson, and fancied seeing how it worked on the page. Brilliantly. It’s my second favourite book of 2015 (it was published, and raved about by the rest of the readerati, in 2010, but I have never claimed to be a tastemaker). The film is out in January.

TheCorrections

My first favourite book was The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen, a novel that took the world by storm in 2001. It’s been in our house for at least a couple of years, and the holiday enabled me to tackle it. I couldn’t put it down. But most people probably knew that already. I don’t care. It was a revelation, and not a book that should ever be turned into a film or a TV series (as was once mooted). It’s pure literature. It needs to be read, not adapted. Oddly, I followed up this edifying and electrifying experience by starting Freedom by the same author, and it just did not click with me. I put it down. Maybe, like Lionel Shriver, he has one masterpiece in him, which is one more than the rest of us.

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The book about ISIS, one of many rushed out this year for obvious reasons, is a useful guide, but inevitably out of date already. I’ve appreciated it as a potted history, as much of it takes place after The 9/11 Wars and The Looming Tower, when al-Qaeda were the ones to watch.

 

Billy Bragg’s book is a compendium of his lyrics, and a lovely thing to have if you’re a fan. Jim Bob’s second Frank Derrick novel is a lovely, humane social comedy about ageing that really should be turned into a film or a TV series, and you don’t have to be a fan of his music (although why wouldn’t you be?) to appreciate its lyricality. Talking of being a fan, if a single image sums up my year in books, it’s this one.

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It’s a thrill to be able to say I had a book out this year. My name may not be on the cover of the Gogglebook, but it’s in full view inside, and I really did write it, except for the bits that are taken from the TV show, clearly. If you’d like to order it but not from the biggest online bookshop in the world, this link takes you to Hive, and means you can send custom to a local bookshop, an initiative I fully support.

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My name was on the cover of another book, too. Less mass-market, it’s an art book, End Of A Century, another beautifully designed and illustrated tome, which I was delighted to be asked to edit: a tribute to the amazing artwork of my late friend John Wrake, better known as Run, who died in October 2012. To research the book with his wife Lisa, who designed it and provided footnotes from his original notebooks and diaries, was a labour of love, and allowed us to spend two days in the NME’s archive in November 2014 (all the illustrations in the book are for the NME’s lead album review – I reprint one below). It’s a hefty chap, but something I’m proud to put my name to. You can order it and sample some more of Run’s work here.

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Not as bookish a year as it might have been, but full of words and pictures.

Upriver

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When, in 1988, numb with the lack of creativity in my supposedly creative job, I founded my own fanzine and filled most of it myself with NME-influenced prose, I commissioned myself to write a two-page feature on aquatic metaphor in the work of Lloyd Cole, with tangential reference to Apocalypse Now and Joseph Conrad. I headlined it Upriver. This allegorical fascination with bodies of water and the tidal movement towards the ocean has remained with me. Apocalypse Now is still my favourite film, on days when it’s not The Poseidon Adventure, and a dream about falling into the water with killer whales still haunts me. To borrow a line from Captain Willard, this watery thread weaves through my subconscious “like a main circuit cable.”

You can, then, imagine my delight when I received the latest album from Rob St. John, which is about a river. A committed, roving troubadour from Lancashire who first poked his head above water mid-last-decade and found purchase at Song, By Toad, an Edinburgh-based blog-turned-record label, he released a split 7″ with fellow atmos-folkster Ian Humberstone in 2011, which is where I came in. This was closely followed by St. John’s elemental deubt LP, Weald, which was my album of the year, a passion I was able to share via 6 Music, which still employed me in those days.

Four years later, I am unable to play Rob’s new album to you (I call him Rob as I was able to get my new softly-spoken hero onto 6 Music for an interview during that last mad surge of usefulness and it felt like we had been friends for years), as I no longer have a popular music-based radio station to play with, but I am able to tell you about it.

Surface Tension is right up my tributary. More than an album, it’s an instrumental “project” that explores “landscape and pollution … through sound, writing and photography” along the River Lea, which flows southeast from the Chiltern Hills and provides London with a good amount of marsh, not to mention the Lea Valley Park. Commissioned by Thames 21’s Love the Lea campaign, it exists as a 30-mimnute continuous piece of ambient music and recorded sounds, and a 48-page book of 35mm and pinhole photographs.

It’s far more bindingly conceptual than the already thematically focused Weald, but designed to be listened to as a whole, not as individual tracks. With all that said, you can sample the single on Soundcloud here. I could tell you that the work was made using binaural microphones, underwater hydrophones, tape loops, harmonium, analogue synth, tube organ, cello, piano and guitar, but you really need to hear it to appreciate it and – yes – immerse yourself in it. (Read more about Surface Tension and how to order it on Rob’s website.)

lovethelea2013 What a treat to hear music that is almost definitively ambient, certainly in its use of field recordings, many of which were in themselves recorded in fields, especially in the run-up to a business-led general election where the Green Party seem so vital again – to me, anyway – with their commitments to protecting the natural world rather than digging it up and putting a price on it. Rob St. John is one of those artists whose deep roots in the soul of this green and often unpleasant land make the very idea of recording using electrical equipment seem anathema, but whatever works. He has to put it out there. And he deserves to be heard. (Albeit magical, organic and otherworldly, Weald is more conventional in shape and sound, if you prefer a front door into his work and although the vinyl version sold out, you can still purchase it on CD or download it here. The only thing missing from the new LP is Rob’s gorgeous voice, of course!)

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Now, back to the classical music … (we quibble over terms!)

How to review books written by your friends: some tips

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I am a published author. I like to self-pityingly think of myself as a former published author as the publisher of my exponentially worse-selling memoirs never writes and never calls, but the writing fraternity don’t need me to add to their woes, as the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society have just produced a report that says writers’ incomes are dwindling fast and only the 1% can actually live off rearranging the English language; cue: death of novel, end of world etc. Anyway, a large proportion of book reviewers are published authors. Ergo, authors are constantly reviewing other authors. (After all, what is an author if not a reader with a typewriter?)

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It’s a minefield, and Private Eye‘s Books and Bookmen column is particularly hot on exposing elbow-patch nepotism, whether between authors locked in a critical love-in, rival publishing houses locked in internecine warfare, or simply pals giving good notices to pals. Writing is a lonely furrow, so writers tend to be sociable, and always up for a free drink at a reception or launch.

I have not reviewed that many books professionally. Both the Saturday Times and the Saturday Mail have teased me with what looked like regular book-review work in the past, and I enjoyed it while it briefly lasted (the Times even tasked me with providing the first, overnight review of Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol, but I fear this was an administrative error). I’ve reviewed quite a few titles here. The commissioning editor of this blog obviously fancies me. But I do know this much: it’s much harder and more time consuming than reviewing, say, records or films. You have to read a book, for a start.

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If you ever find yourself in the precarious position of having to review a book written by one of your friends, here are my tips:

  1. Declare an interest straight away.
  2. Specify the depth of the friendship, which will help us know whether or not to trust you.
  3. Go out of your way to make at least one critical judgement if you’re otherwise praising the book.
  4. If you don’t like the book, do anything in your power to get out of reviewing it.

Duly armed, I shall now review three books written by three of my friends.

ExtraOrdinaryLifeFrankDerrick81The Extra Ordinary Life Of Frank Derrick, Aged 81 by JB Morrison (Pan Macmillan, £7.99 paperback) is unique among the trio for being a novel. It is JB Morrison’s first book, but Jim Bob’s fourth. I am Jim Bob’s friend. I have known him since Sheriff Fatman, we send Christmas cards to each other, support each other in our respective careers (I recommended him for the Mark Ravenhill Barbican panto gig; he lets me hang out backstage at Carter reunion gigs) and occasionally have a coffee. We have never been to each other’s houses, but I know where he lives and he knows where I live. He has previously thanked me in the acknowledgments of his novels as I have read them in galley form and told him they were good, which they were. I love the fact that a man so renowned for his witty and clever lyrics has transferred that skill to prose. Important disclosure: he didn’t send me Frank Derrick to read, so I’m not thanked in it, and I read it when it was already a book. Maybe this JB Morrison is a bit less matey than Jim Bob. It helps to create a professional distance.

I loved the book. In Storage Stories and Driving Jarvis Ham, quite a lot happens but it is told in a sort of downbeat, matter of fact way. The same approach applies to this tale of a Sussex village octogenarian widower as he convalesces after being knocked down by a milkfloat, but – beyond the accident (“Frank had a broken toe, the one next to his big toe, the little piggy that stayed at home, which was also his prognosis: to stay at home”) – very little happens. He is assigned a carer, an intrusion he initially resists, but in the form of Kelly Christmas, turns out to be a ray of light that illuminates his life (“it felt like a whirlwind has swept through his flat”). That’s pretty much it. But what a vivid picture of old age, male pride, smalltown politics and the arse-ache of familial responsibility Jim paints. Economically, too.

On the low crime rate in the village of Fullwind: “The sound of sirens meant that somebody had left the window open and the TV up too loud during Midsomer Murders.” A new pair of glasses are “so light he might forget he was wearing them and begin a hunt round the flat to find them.” Winning £2.40 on the Lottery, Frank is “almost too embarrassed to collect it … It felt worse than not winning at all.” Jim is a quiet observer of people, and Frank Derrick is his best novel. Although I was all for the Kurt Vonnegut-style drawings in Storage Stories, and the music biz allusions in Jarvis Ham, by narrowing his focus, he’s upped the narrative ante. It’s harder to write about something extra ordinary and make it extraordinary. I can’t think of a negative thing to add, for nepotistic balance. Er, the name Albert Flowers was a bit on-the-nose for the man in charge of Villages In Bloom.

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Rock Stars Stole My Life! by Mark Ellen (Coronet, £18.99 hardback). Now, is Mark Ellen my friend? Well, if we bumped into each other this afternoon, we would, I suspect, hug. He’s someone I’ve known for 23 years. Before that, of course, I read his pop magazine and watched his rock TV show, then read his next two pop magazines. In 1992 he interviewed me for a job and thereafter gave me the job, at the second of those magazines, Select. Such is his voluble, non-hierarchical personality, even if he is your boss, he becomes your pal. If you’ve seen him on telly, or heard him on the radio or a Word podcast, that’s what he’s like. I was around Mark Ellen for five years of my magazine publishing career on a nine-to-five basis, feeding off his boyish enthusiasm, if that’s not too prosaic a word for whatever it is that fizzes around his veins. Freelancing for him at Word was even more like being in his and David Hepworth’s gang. I sorely miss the excuse to drop into the office and soak up Mark’s vibes, or shoot the £50-man breeze with him over a recording device. And now he’s written a book about it all.

Rock Stars Stole My Life!, presented and penned like a sidebar in Smash Hits, it actually reads like Mark’s half of a spirited conversation (and his was never as little as a half). It’s exclamatory, endearingly vague, citation-free and all over the place. It begins “somewhere over Greenland” on Rihanna’s Boeing 777, where the elder statesman of pop journalism is among a more youthful press corps and, in less than a page, ticking off the first of his print-trade neologisms: “I wander down the aisle to see if I can scare up some more booze.” Mark really does use the phrase “scare up.” So in love with the intricacies and left-turns of our old pal the English language is he, such daft verbal ticks become lifejackets as he bobs about in the ocean of nonsense that is pop and the pop industry. Herein, he turns his life – well, his professional life, he’s not big on the old private life, beyond fond passing mentions of his wife Clare – into a 40-chapter Hoary Old Rock Anecdote.

Each tale is turned on the lathe of froth with a flourish and a curlicue throughout – to say they are “embellished” suggests they are untrue, but it’s not that. Mark cannot use a grey, functional sentence. It is not in his bones. Henceforth, whether he’s recounting early festival safaris “sleeping in fertilizer sacks”, his first, faltering steps at the NME, or the full flowering at Smash Hits and the subsequent executive-level eyries at EMAP, we get “records of every stripe”, copy that comes in “screeds”, the video boom that comes in “warm trade winds”, machinery that “cranks into action”, Toyah being “of no audible talent”, the Beatles being “cheese-scented”, the Q Awards negotiated over “long months of fragile protocol”, and “m’learned friends” are mentioned more than once. His style bounces across the facts like a beach ball. It’s difficult to take your eye off it. And the getting there is half the fun.

Though Mark’s writing is decorative, it’s actually as economical as Jim Bob’s. We can see the elder rock journalists in the Knebworth press paddock when he describes them as “roguish characters in leather jackets … forking smoked salmon off paper plates.” When he notes that new partner-in-speechmarks Tom Hibbert was a fan of Big Star, all we need know is that they were “thin, lackadaisical men from Tennessee who played chiming melodies with a mournful cadence and a doomed, romantic sheen.” (It was always a great injustice to the rest of us that Mark declined to review records for the magazines he ran.) He is generous, namechecking other talents as he goes, showering humble compatriots like Hepworth, Andrew Harrison and Paul DuNoyer with bubbly approbation, and never less than effacing about himself. (When he becomes “editor-in-chief” he calls the title “embarrassingly grand-sounding.”)

More than a passing interest in music and magazines is a prerequisite but that’s obvious. If you happen to have lived quite a lot of the book, as I have, it will sing to you. Not least when, just prior to he and Dave jumping the good ship EMAP to go it alone, we learn that the company’s “upper corridors” are suddenly stalked by “highly paid strategists hell-bent on evolution.” What was once the “greatest place to work imaginable”, had become “infiltrated by wiry creeps in designer shirts.” I remember it well. To declare an interest, I get my sole namecheck on page 319, when the Word podcast is hymned and he enthuses that I am “still besotted with Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine.” Which is where we came in.

MemoirsOASGDQ Memoirs Of A Shoegazing Gentlemen by Lord Tarquin (Sonic Cathedral, paperback). Last night, I attended the launch of this tiny but rather beautiful edition because its author, David Quantick, is my friend and since he moved out of London I haven’t seen him very much. Sonic Cathedral is celebrating its tenth year as an independent label specialising in Shoegazing music by producing its first ever book, the collected columns of “Lord Tarquin”, originally published in the NME between October 1991 and February 1992, Shoegazing’s peak. They appeared in the “humour” section, Thrills, edited by Stuart Maconie, with me looking over his shoulder as our desks adjoined and he, too, was my friend. I’ve known Quantick since 1988, when I first walked into the NME. He, Maconie and I formed a comedy triple-act at the turn of the century and took our show (about music journalism), Lloyd Cole Knew My Father, to the Edinburgh Fringe, and onto Radio 2. Quantick had always appeared on our Radio 1 shows, and we had a certain, arch chemistry. (We even had a few huffs during the tense making of the Radio 2 series, which proved how much we liked each other.) For a long while, we were all three represented by the same agent.

To revisit Quantick’s wryly wicked words in stout pamphlet form, exquisitely designed and illustrated by Marc Jones, was a tonic on the train home from last night’s launch at the Heavenly Social, wherein a solo-strumming, flat-capped Mark Gardner of Ride, and three quarters of Lush (host Miki, DJ Phil, guest Emma, all looking hale) provided the royalty. (Andy Bell also turned up, but after I’d left.) The “Lord Tarquin” conceit was then, and remains, that the Shoegazing scene was populated by poshos. It wasn’t, strictly, but it felt that way, with its Thames Valley epicentre and its languidly studenty sound (and one or two actual well-heeled members). Blur, Lush, Chapterhouse, Slowdive, Catherine Wheel, Revolver, even Chicane, all were dragged into Quantick’s world of privilege, boarding, “double deten” and “botheration” at Shoey House school. Tossed off at the time, they may have been, but these short-form lampoons are rich with imaginative language. It is very much in the sculpted spirit of one Mark Ellen.

“Just popped back from a round of fives in the Lower Quad with Russell from Moose! Top-hole shuffle! Russell was ten up on a double shubunkin when he dropped the bally spinnaker! The cream buns are on him next time we pop into Mrs Shoggins’ tea shop in the village!” And so it goes. We might all toss something off as funny and daft as the memoirs of Lord Tarquin. That there is a label specialsing in Shoegazing music at all – never mind that members of the bands affectionately pilloried in a music paper 22 years ago are happy to grace the launch of said satire – simply proves my 20 Year Rule. It’s one that only people who’ve lived for 40 years or more can appreciate: that everything comes round again after 20 years; all you have to do is wait it out, and not fall out with anybody or die in the interim.

Not available in all good bookshops (whatever they are), Memoirs Of A Shoegazing Gentleman is available to purchase here and, before that, from Sonic Cathedral’s stall at the Independent Label Market in London on Saturday (12 July).

Now, fun over, back to reading the introduction of Thomas Piketty’s Capital. I have never met Thomas Piketty and he is no friend of mine, so my review of this book will be pure and unsullied by soppiness and nostalgia when I review in about … a year and half’s time?