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The common factor linking Blair and Blur is that they made thoroughly sure to get their sell-out in first, to make perfectly clear that the dream was over, that there would be no more experiments, no more utopias, only a constricted, and as the still-unfolding financial crisis makes clear, utterly misnamed ‘realism’. The generation that came of age in the mid-late 1990s were perhaps the most apolitical of the 20th century. leaving a mess which those born in that decade are struggling to clear up, through the student movement against the Tory-Whig Coalition government – whose Prime Minister, a fan of the Smiths and the Jam, displays impeccably Britpop tastes. Pulp were alone at the time in holding onto the possibility of utopias and alternatives, in being able to use the world ‘socialism’ without smirking – although they didn’t create an alternative so much as carry the idea through a most unsympathetic period.

I have a memory of an Irish Times music journo summing up the Blur versus Oasis pop rivalry with, and I am obviously paraphrasing here, ‘while both sides fought over chart positions it was Jarvis on his push-bike who swooped in to steal the crown’. I was a fan of Pulp‘s music (I am horrified to discover having followed that link that I just missed their Sydney gig), both due to the catchy songs as well as my own contrary desire to stand apart from the mainstream taste-setters. Of course Pulp were not exactly underground, although following Jarvis led me to the amazing Oedipus Schmoedipus album by Barry Adamson, so I am grateful for that.

Owen Hatherley makes it quite clear early in this work that Uncommon is not intended as a prosaic discography – or even a biography of the magnetic Jarvis – intead it is an account of the band Pulp represents, the contrary associations it projected against the background of New Labour and Britpop at its height, an uncomfortable reminder for this narrow politically-minded  subset of public school demagogues and PR denizens that Britain’s class culture was far less bucolic than their press releases would have the public believe. Damon Albarn’s mockney facade is here twinned with Blair’s ‘yeah yeah yeah‘ deceptive superficiality.

The 90′s were awash in a pre-packaged faux nostalgia for previous periods – the mono-cultural setting of Britain’s past cited in order to eclipse its multicultural present; the fashions and empty rebellion of the sixties stripped of any political comment. Even Northern rockers Oasis were at it, Noel Gallagher’s lyrics summarising the druged up euphoria of rave culture, but weighed down with post-Beatles musical ballast. Pulp, Hatherley argues, instead situated their music and lyrics in the band’s experiences coming up in the politically marginalised urban environment of Sheffield, with the promises of reform and social improvements made during their childhood repeatedly betrayed.

The evolving abilities of Jarvis Cocker as a lyricist is also examined. The song ‘My Legendary Girlfriend‘ released in1990 is liberally quoted from, demonstrating the singer’s talent not just at evoking a time and a place, but in telling a story. As the band progressed Pulp’s lyrics became decididly risqué, with Jarvis casting himself as a suburban lothario, an insatiable in his pursuit married women instead of the teenage girls that populate the chart ballads. Black humour becomes more prominent in the music, with an evident desire to expose the listener to a rage of emotions beyond simple titillation and yes, even expose the political hypocrisy of the era. One find of Hatherley’s in particular is the little-known, bombastic b-side Cocaine Socialism, a blistering indictment of New Labour.

Of course singles like Common People and Disco 2000 (which I recall Jarvis blithely revealing in an interview he wrote to secure royalties for the Millennium) from the best-selling album Different Class launched the band into a difficult period of fame, confounding their attempts to use it to their own ends. The decline of the band is treated as a further opportunity to describe the frustrations of the neo-liberal 90′s and early 2000′s, as much as result of internatl pressures as it was their failure to be pidgeon-holed by the music industry.

Hatherley has produced a perfect tribute to Pulp and the time that produced them as a band, invoking the sincerity of their ambitions as musicians and story-tellers. This account of their career is an excellent excoriation of Britpop and New Labour hagiographies.

With thanks to Zer0 Books for my review copy.

Take us out Mr Cocker

Uncommon by Owen Hatherley Zer0 Books

 

In the past fifteen years, I have watched British film attempting to assert its Britishness, but I have found that the terrain it maps out seems wholly foreign to my own experience. Largely this felt like someone else’s cinema, or rather a cinema functioning almost exclusively as PR for the notion of that New Modern Britain every successive government has offered up and failed to deliver.

The best job I ever had was as a volunteer with the Jameson Dublin Film Festival in 2003. In exchange for a measly three hours handing out tickets, I could go see as many festival screenings as I wished and rub shoulders with the invited cinema personalities. I met Javier Bardem! I got into a fight with Jim Sheridan‘s wife (less proud of that one). It’s as close as I am ever likely to come to the ‘film industry’.

And yet looking back it was a surprisingly hollow experience. I have been to film festivals since and they are all quite similar in their fascination with celebrity and the glossing over of any genuinely startling work of film into single word reviews exchanged over a cocktail. ‘Controversial’. ‘Disturbing’. ‘Perverse’. There is a sense that the naieve aim of film festivals – the promotion of film as an artform – has been lost in favour of celebrity gossip and flashy marketing.

Every now and then I am reminded of the true value of film criticism, of the pleasures it can offer and the engagement with the medium it encourages. Enter Carl Neville.

This book contains a series of linked essays describing the rising star of the British Film Industry in concert with the populism of Blair’s ‘Cool Britannia‘. Neville identifies how the films of Richard Curtis and Danny Boyle combined to elide the recent memory of Thatcherism. Realism in cinema is eschewed by the popular box office hits of the period and the new gloss of paint given to government by Blair‘s success in defeating the Tories  allows for an aspirational tone to enter political discourse – that of course was not acted upon. Neville also treats of the rise of ‘New Laddism‘, as both a reaction to the ‘New Man‘, of the 1980′s and an endorsement of consumer culture.

All of this, Neville argues, is encapsulated in 90′s cinema and onwards. In Four Weddings and a Funeral he finds an attempt to turn back the clock on Thatcherite Britain to the bucolic era of Waugh, whereas Trainspotting obscures the realities of drug addiction and a crime-ridden underclass by fixating on the notion of ‘choice‘. This nominally Scottish film is revealed to be a voyeuristic skin designed for middle-class England. Its magic realism and irony does not serve to deepen its themes as a work of cinema, but to raise a laugh and replace the awareness of the realities of heroin-addiction and social depravity with a hyper-kinetic cartoon:

The opposition between a non-judgmental imaginative rendering and a patronizing realism assumes that in some way McDonald, Boyle and Hodge are more on the side of the underclass by representing them as attractive, even enviable, rather than suffering and pitiable.

It’s a startling critique of a film that has transcended its initial controversy to become one of the best-known recent films in British history. The films of Danny Boyle in particular are focused on throughout this book, with the author calling attention to how the use of vicarious fantasy avoids any encounters with harsh realism. Another example given for this process is the evolution of the football hooligan sub-genre, from Philip Davis’ I.D., with its disturbing account of an undercover cop embracing the weekend violence of hooliganism, to Frodo Baggins enjoying a thoroughly middle-class misadventure in Lexi Alexander’s Green Street.

Fantasy has replaced any concern with the realities of life in modern Britain. It is not all doom though. Nevillie is particularly appreciative of films like Adam & Paul and Morvern Callar (that rare thing, a masterpiece in its every iteration – the soundtrack is an absolute delight). Sexy Beast compares the misery of London’s criminal underworld to sunny Spain, where Ray Winstone‘s Gal can finally build a life for himself. But it is The Queen which offers Neville the opportunity to return to the boogieman of this piece, Tony Blair, media literate, hysterical, with a canny ability to replace ideology with emotionalism.

This book gave me a welcome slap in the face. Impassioned argumentation and impressively cineliterate.

With thanks to Zer0 Books for my review copy.

‘What kind of books you write?’

‘Autobiographies.’

This obviously baffled him. He suspected mockery, but wasn’t quite sure. ‘Autobiographies, huh? Don’t you have to be famous to do that?’

‘Not any more.’

I have been waiting for the excuse to review this book for some time. Robert Harris’ thinly disguised poison letter directed at Tony Blair’s regime has already been made into a film, powered by the still vibrant anger felt by many Britons towards the Teflon Prime Minister. I was interested in reading the book, but decided to wait until the two men who defined the War on Terror released their own biographies. Tony Blair’s A Journey was a best-seller that inspired an unusual campaign by protesters to move the book to the ‘Crime’, section. Last week George Bush published his memoirs following the American mid-term elections. Apparently the most distressing event in his two terms of office was having Kanye West complain about his reaction to Hurricane Katrina.

I wanted to know if Harris had sketched out a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts years before these two former heads of state returned to the media scrum to defend their actions.

Each chapter of this book opens with a quote from Andrew CroftsGhostwriting, introducing us to the life of a professional ghost writer. British Prime Minister Adam Lang has retreated to Martha’s Vineyard to ‘write his memoirs’. Unfortunately his last ghost writer has been found dead. That man’s replacement has arrived from London with dollar signs in his eyes, eager to please and having won the commission due to his intention to write an autobiography’that has more in common with a celebrity tome than a political memoir. He wants to tell a story with heart, which appeals to both Adam and his wife Ruth. They are eager to regain the love of the British people, as since his stepping down he has become the most hated man in Britain.

Our nameless ghost simply wants to clean up the material his predecessor McAra wrote, take his cheque and maybe get a mention on the acknowledgements page. He finds Adam Lang to be a very willing subject, charming and happy to engage his ghost-writer with personal reflections not common to most political biographies.

The atmosphere at the retreat itself is close and it becomes clear that the marriage of the Langs is under enormous strain. Adam Lang himself seems more like an actor than a statesman, faking sincerity where genuine emotion is needed. Then a rival politican announces that charges are to be brought before International Criminal Court accusing Lang of war crimes. What’s more the ghost-writer begins to suspect that there was more to McAra’s death than suicide due to work strain. He discovers that he is being watched, with electronically saved documents vanishing from his computer and strangers accosting him in public. Could he soon share the same fate as McAra?

What impresses most about this book is the tangible sense of anger. The arguments for and against the invasion of Iraq will continue to be debated, but what remains unusual is the refusal of Tony Blair in particular to acknowledge any responsibility for the colossal tragedy that followed his decision to go to war. Adam Lang’s need to be loved echoes that of Blair’s, the sole consistent aspect of his Prime Ministership being his love of associating with rock stars, whether it was the Gallagher Brothers during the Cool Britannia era, or Bono in the run-up to the G8 summit in Scotland. Therefore if Lang/Blair is to be loved, he cannot be the war criminal the British public see him as.

Harris wraps a gripping thriller plot around the hook of his Blair pastiche. The conspiracy uncovered by the ghost is convincingly established with chilling insight. I also liked the numerous references to ghostly presences in the book, from the phantom presence of McAra to the ambiguously unreal Adam Lang himself. The fame-chasing ghost-writer is also a condemnation of the lax complicity of the public in the actions of our leaders.

Harris’ book is an impressive political thriller, as well as a momentous broadside against the ‘Special Relationship’, between the United States and the United Kingdom. Angry, defiant (there was a possibility Harris would have faced libel charges from the Blairs) and gripping, a very entertaining yarn.

The Rock and Roll Reich had spent a decade using the music as a tool of social control, taming the beleaguered English with free concerts; selling Ax’s Utopian manifesto with stirring anthems and spectacular futuristic tech. They had forged rock and roll idealism into a national religion, a passion that made hard times sweet, and it had worked.

During the week it was revealed that Alan Moore completist Pádraig Ó Méalóid had published an article by the Northampton Magus on his livejournal in two parts. In short a typically verbose and associative rant by Moore on all matters magic(k)al and the effect of populism thereon. It includes this typical pithy comparison of Aleister Crowley to contemporary goth culture –

Or there’s Alex Crowley, tiresomely attempting to persuade his school-chums to refer to him as Shelley’s Alastor, like some self-conscious Goth from Nottingham called Dave insisting that his vampire name is Armand.

The figure of ‘The Beast’, came to symbolize the democratization of the occult, with the previously upper class fascination offered by the likes of Madame Blavatsky and The Golden Dawn suddenly impacting on popular culture with the advent of the 1960’s. There is Crowley on the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band cover. Then we have The Rolling Stones’ Their Satanic Majesties Request album (not to mention Sympathy for the Devil).

It just so happens Gwyneth Jones’ sf series is concerned with a twenty-first century Britain gripped by a revival of 1960’s occultism/ rock and roll cult of personality. Except revolution for these radicals is not tokenistic phrases and a tattered Che Guevara bedroom wall poster, but an actual political movement that changes the face of Europe.

I did not realize this was actually the final book in a series of five novels concerned Jones’ ambitious vision of a future society wracked by war, global economic ruin and climate change. Concerning a ‘Triumvirate’, of rock gods – Ax, Sage and Fiorinda – who have survived years of revolution and war, only to now be facing surrender to an occupying Chinese army. Britain under their rule was transformed by the Rock ‘n’ Roll Reich, actualizing 1960’s utopian idealism and green values, as well as an entente cordiale with the British Islamic separatist movement. All of this despite the evil wrought by Fiorinda’s father Rufus O’Niall and his fascist movement, as well Sage’s defeat of the Pentagon’s plan to create a psychic weapon of immense power. Indeed it is only due to these incredible successes that the Chinese may have spared the lives of the Triumvirate.

If anything the conquerors of Britain want to make their own use of the Rock ‘n’ Roll Reich to win the hearts and minds of the shell-shocked English. The Celtic nations of Scotland and Ireland have managed to wrangle their own form of independence by accepting the Chinese. England shall be a test-case intended to demonstrate to the rest of Europe that domination by China is inevitable, perhaps even desirable. Meanwhile Ax attempts to be the statesman his career as a rock star somehow destined him to be and negotiate a peaceful future for the English. His followers are under house arrest, their every word is being recorded by spies and his boyfriend Sage will not agree to marry him. Plus Fiorinda is pregnant again. Charming the People’s Republic of China has become the biggest gig of his band’s career.

As this is the fifth book in a series there is a hell of a lot of exposition to get to grips with. Jones lays it out with aplomb, mostly thanks to the frankly endless stream of out and out crazy ideas. The title doubles as a Hendrix reference and a nod to Britain’s Viking cultural inheritance. Rufus O’Niall appears to have been a malevolent force to rival the Beast himself and the talk of a ‘Neurobomb’, and a pychic cold war seems like something out of The Invisibles.

This could all be so much 1960’s pretentious twaddle, but there is much of interest here.

Particularly the notion of rock stars in politics. One of the most recent examples is Bono’s cosying up to political elites in both Britain and America. I remember there were rumours at the Make Poverty History concert that the Irishman would perform on stage with the surviving Beatles and Tony Blair, rock star manqué. Michael Moorcock covered similar ground in King of the City.

Mad, sexy and very enjoyable. Great fun, need to read the rest now.

Saturday July 15

I watched the Inside Downing Street documentary tonight. What a fine figure of a man he is. He is masterful, charming, clever and has a good head of hair. He is altogether impressive. Alistair Campbell is the man I would like to be.

Right today’s is going to be a quick one, as I am due to travel to Sydney by train in…an hour. Bringing some Patricia Highsmith along for the journey. No not that one! So at any rate, I chose a book I knew I could fly through. The Adrian Moles Diaries series by Sue Townsend is like a sweet, sweet pixie stick, suck it down and ask for another. I have not read any books in the series since his ‘teenage years’, so I’ve got the Blair era to look forward to.

The book’s prologue has a note from Mole himself revealing that his diaries covering the period from the end of the Millennium to the aftermath of the 9/11 was seized by police due to his being charged under Home Secretary Blunkett’s terrorism legislation. Also that horrible Townsend woman continues to stalk him and sell fictionalized accounts of his life to the BBC!

Adrian Mole is a failed poet, failed cable television chef and failed husband, currently raising two sons from different relationships. Glenn Bott-Mole at twelve is already more confident and more capable than his father, although he has inherited his mother’s dropping of ‘aitches’. This is the era of Jaimie Oliver, so he soon takes over cooking the family’s dinners in the kitchen. Adrian’s second son William, whose mother Jo-Jo has returned to Nigeria to be remarried, is worryingly sensitive and enjoys Barbie. His own parents are once again separated, having each married Pandora Braithwaite’s father and mother. Adrian’s mother is ecstatic to finally be ‘lower-upper middle class’, and her new husband Ivan’s obsession with technology is very au courant. Meanwhile Mole senior is stuck in a house filled with Millenium Dome memorabilia, plant-life and koi fish. Pandora herself of course, Adrian’s enduring love, is a local Labour MP who yearns to escape her constituents and consults him on policy as he is the perfect representative of ‘middle England’.

Adrian strikes up a doomed relationship with his social housing officer Pamela Pigg, whom he repeatedly tries to convince to change her name by deed poll. His attempts at a novel continue, accidentally plagiarizing J. K. Rowling at one point and his epic love story set during the Stone Age before the evolution of language receiving a scornful review from his son Glenn.

Somehow Mole always manages to get it wrong, despite being, as Pandora observes, perfectly English in every way. He is also, however, gullible and entirely self-deluded, a hypochondriac who drives his local GP to distraction. Now in his thirties he has not changed so much from the pretentious teenager who used to measure his penis with a ruler. Through him the disappointments of the Blair era and the beginnings of the ‘Long War’, are observed with a wry light.

I look forward to seeing how he gets out of calamitous arrest. It’s good to be back.

Rumpole is determined to win the appeal of that ghastly terrorist who is now safely in Belmarsh Prison. This is absolutely the right place for Dr Mahmood Khan, if you want my opinion, or that of most sensible people, but when I tell Rumpole this he starts talking about Magna Carta and the Bill of Rights. And he hardly listens when I tell him that there were no suicide bombers and no al Qaeda when King John signed up to the charter on the island of Runnymede.

John Mortimer’s Rumpole of the Bailey has become an enduring fictional creation. Leo McKern’s performance as the character on television immortalised him and the phrase ‘She Who Must Be Obeyed’ is possibly more famous than the Rumpole himself. I remember watching the show when I was a kid and being fascinated not by the witty badinage, or plot twists, but by the wigs! Oh those wigs, I always wanted one.

Rumpole’s own wig has lost its lustre and has developed an unsightly yellowish tincture, to match his raggedy robes. He’s a man out of time it seems, coasting on successes that no one remembers, refusing to use a computer in court (pen and paper are faster he maintains) and reduced to relying on the dreadful Timson family for cases, as getting caught committing petty crimes is something of a tradition for them.

Things take a turn for the decidedly worse, however, when Rumpole agrees to defend a doctor from Pakistan who has been accused of crimes under the new anti-terrorism laws drawn up by the New Labour government. Under the terms of the legislation the defendant and their counsel are forbidden from learning what the particulars of the arrest are, such as what the crime in question was, when it occurred, what evidence has been presented. The days of ‘innocent until proven guilty’, have come and gone it seems, with pressure mounting on Rumpole to drop the case from above and below. A New Labour stooge attempts bribery and the Timsons withdraw their business. Rumpole himself begins to doubt his client’s innocence. Dr Khan’s seems almost too good to be true, waxing lyrical about cricket and the Queen, all the while wearing a patient, bemused expression on his face while sitting in Belmarsh prison. Is it all an act? What’s more She Who Must Be Obeyed, Hilda, receives an unusual proposition from Rumpole’s enemy Justice Leonard Bullingham, whom he nicknames Mad Bull, all of which she details exhaustively in her own memoirs! Could Rumpole’s lady wife be looking to sweep the carpet from under him?

Rumpole and the Reign of Terror is a quick read, with amusing asides from our hero to the reader. As far as I know She Who Must Be Obeyed was previously an invisible presence in the books, at least that was my impression from the television show as a kid. Mortimer introduces extracts from her own memoirs as a counterpoint to Rumpole’s struggles with the Dr Khan case. Much of the humour derives from witty quips traded between the long suffering couple and the courting of Hilda by Mr Justice Mad Bull makes for a diverting secondary plot.

However, at its heart this book is an angry broadside against the policies of New Labour, its shirking of the letter of the law and dismantling of civil liberties. Rumpole finds himself stuck in a situation Kafkaesque in its absurdity, attempting to defend a man stripped of any right to a fair trial. Any appeal on our hero’s part to the rights of a citizen of Britain is dismissed as unfashionable and behind the times. Rumpole himself is treated as a relic of a by-gone age.

That Mortimer ties this all together in a gripping, yet also witty package is a testament to his skills as a writer. This is my first taste of the Rumpole series and I’ll be happy to investigate further.

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