So gloriously different: Do Not Adjust Your Set

Scene: A field. An unmistakable historic figure from 200 years ago stands, alone and glowering, in his French uniform, his arm tucked in characteristic pose. 

A stentorian voiceover demands, rhetorically: ‘Why did Napoleon keep his hand inside his waistcoat?’

Napoleon pulls his hand out. His trousers fall down. 

This was one of the earliest things I can remember laughing like a drain at for several hours afterwards.  It is stuck in my mind for that reason and also because it was the first time I realised how you pronounced ‘Napoleon’. 

 I had read the word – probably in Look and Learn magazines –  but had no idea how to pronounce it.

Napoleon was, I think, played by either David Jason or Terry Jones.  The sketch  was from  Do Not Adjust Your Set, a tv series made in Britain in the late 1960s by several people who went on to form of Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

It is best described as a kind of children’s version of Monty Python, although it pre-dates that series.

It was shown in New Zealand in the early 1970s –  I think 1972.

And I loved it.  The combination of eccentricity,  humour,  and historical references like the one above was just magical.

It was just so gloriously different. 

It’s been on my mind at the moment because I threw together an iTunes music playlist for a road trip last month labelled “Brits” which included the obvious ones such as the Kinks and Madness and Ian Dury and the Jam and the Smiths…and then, for light relief, the Bonzos.

Vivian Stanshall was…well, an alcoholic nutter, and probably rather awkward to be around. A brilliant eccentric, though.

The Bonzos only had one hit – I’m the Urban Spaceman – and the B side was this lovely piece.

I first heard this on a jukebox in an Auckland cafe, sometime in the mid-eighties, and lay on the floor under the table laughing uncontrollably.

 

 

Oh no, prime minister 

‘An editor isn’t like a general commanding an army; he’s just the ringmaster of a circus. I mean I can book the acts, but I can’t tell the acrobats which way to jump.’

Antony Jay, who created the superb BBC comedy ‘Yes Minister’ and ‘Yes Prime Minister’ series has died.

 

A lot of folk – including, according legend, then-British Prime Minister Margeret Thatcher, regarded it as a documentary. When it started being shown on TV in New Zealand I was at polytech and boarding with the family of a top New Zealand public servant. I don’t think he ever called it a documentary (and he had worked in the British civil service before coming here) but it was about the only programme he watched and I was left with the distinct impression it struck a very strong chord.

‘Open government, Prime Minister. Freedom of information. We should always tell the press freely and frankly anything that they could easily find out some other way.’

 

It was also a reminder, in its way, of a more robust political culture than New Zealand has. Many of the episodes were based on either current events or on real previous events recorded in various boat-rocking memoirs by former ministers or by officials.

This excerpt is taken from an episode based on the Westland row which saw Michael Heseltine walk out of Thatcher’s cabinet. Sir Humphrey’s speech at the end is magnificent.

New Zealand doesn’t have much of that. In recent times, Ruth Richardson’s autobiography came closest. Simon Carr’s ‘The Dark Art of Politics’ had some insights into working for Jim Bolger and then for the Act Party in the mid-1990s but there was a sense he could have told much, much more.

This episode, about memoirs of a former PM, could have been about almost any former UK minister, probably from the Harold Wilson governments as those administrations unleashed a library of bilious memoirs.

It’s also brilliantly played, especially by Eddington.

 

Factories of empire

The Prose Factory by D J Taylor (Random House 2015)

The Great British Dream Factory by Dominic Sandbrook (Penguin 2015)

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‘No one over the age of 40 – no one at any rate old enough to have experienced a literary world made up entirely of books, newspapers and reference libraries – can roam the world of the blogosphere and the online symposium without thinking that there is too much of everything – too many books, too much criticism of them, too many reviews, too many opinions, too many reading groups, too many book clubs, so many literary prizes that any vaguely competent novel comes garlanded with two or three endorsements from the judging committees, that we are drowning in a sea of data where an instant reaction is always liable to crowd out mature reflection, where anyone’s opinion is as good as anyone else’s and the fact that the distinguished man of letters in the Wall Street Journal thinks McCarthy’s The Road is a work of genius is of no interest at all to the Amazon reviewer who awards a single star for a “lack of bite”.’

Well, there is definitely too much of that sentence, but you can see what he’s getting at.

It comes towards the end of D J Taylor’s The Prose Factory, which covers the history of English literary affairs and business from 1918 through to roughly present day.

It is full of ideas about writing, the business of writing,  and by that I mean both the often neglected financial side, and also what writers were really concerned with, as opposed to what they said they were concerned with.

There is a great section on the rise of what was known as “the middle article” – light essays on literature or culture more generally  in newspapers  from roughly the 1920s onwards.

Such articles were still  common in British newspapers when I became a junkie in the mid-1980s – or at least the broadsheets such as the Telegraph, the Guardian, the Observer and the Sunday Times.

The ‘middle article’ became the vehicle for maintaining liberal values just as, in the political sphere, the liberal tradition became threatened.  Essayists as diverse as GK Chesterton or AG Gardner or JB Priestley kept this tradition  going –  a tradition which included the attitudes of universality tolerance and diversity of subject matter.

One essayist is described by Taylor, delightfully, as reviewing James Joyce’s Ulysses from ‘the angle of one who suspects that Ulysses has merit but can’t quite see it himself’.

This got me thinking  about the blogosphere because… Well of course it did. Back  when blogs became a thing,  about a dozen years or so ago,  I likened them to the old 18th and 19th-century pamphleteers:  partisan,  often puerile,  and occasionally very personal.

There has, in the past few years, developed a sort of second wave of blogs in New Zealand (and no doubt elsewhere) which is less concerned with politics and more with wider issues.

There is still a highly political element,  but it manages – a fair amount of the time, anyway –  to avoid the juvenile and extremely boring ‘Ya Boo Lefties! ‘Ya Boo Righties!’ face pulling behaviour which became synonymous with blogging for a long time.

I think this “middle article”  style seems not a bad description of the second wave.

Taylor is good  – very good in fact, if very  acerbic –  about the sheer snobbery of many writers,  with  those espousing radical politics being the most snobbish of the lot.

The chapter on the 1930s  – “The Pink Decade”   points out that champions of working class amongst the intelligentsia seldom admitted actual members of the working class to their salons and that when they tried things seldom turned out well.  There is a heartbreaking anecdote of Sid Chaplin,  one of the few working-class writers,who was published being invited to George Orwell’s house and making it as far as the doorway before fleeing in terror.

He also has the occasional go at the more anti-intellectual tradition of English letters,  but points out that even this,  once upon a time,  could draw on a background of shared cultural and intellectual heritage.

The mid-20th Century  battleground between ‘modernists and traditionalists, of highbrows and lowbrows,  of middle-class reactionaries, as Orwell once put it, thanking God they were not born brainy…’ was real enough,  but, as he says, even conservative critics of T S Elliot’s ‘The Wasteland’  could pick up the classical allusions. That isn’t so now.

There is the ongoing problem of funding literature:  ‘put an entity charged with expanding public take-up of literature in the hands of a bureaucrat, and the literature itself is all too easily lost sight of. Put it in the hands of other writers and the first casualty is likely to be a grasp of practical reality.’

There is, perhaps naturally, quite a bit on two writers who have written a lot about writers: the two friends who were often mistaken for each other, Malcolm Bradbury and David Lodge.

Bradbury I’ve only recently started reading although I’ve certainly been aware of him for some years – Taylor heralds as a kind of chronicler of the strange death, not so much of Liberal England as of the less definable, and much more important, set of broad liberal ideas and attitudes. Bradbury is, he says,

Bradbury is, he says

‘an elegist for an ethical code in severe danger of being swamped, a dazzling intellectual high wire act or even – to lower the bar a bit – is top-notch slapstick comedian in the Kingsley Amis mould. His real achievement, you suspect, rests on his ability to show just how formidable a force the old-style liberal humanists can be – even here in a wind and ground down world, somewhere in that endlessly contested space between the end of the Cartesian project and the beginning of the World Wide Web.’

Bradbury’s compatriot and friend David Lodge has a slightly different approach and has a lovely line about how Lodge

‘clearly isn’t averse to dressing up in the glad rags of literary theory, but on this, and other, evidence he wouldn’t want to wear it next to his skin.’

And that brings us to the issue of literary theory which haunted the study of English when I was at university in the late 80s and which was one of the main reasons I steered clear of an English major.  I figured if I was going to do political theory I would rather have the real thing.

And here we go full circle, back to the snobbery of the Bloomsbury-ites and their fellow modernists. There is a thorough and by no means one-sided discussion of critic John Carey and his attack on modernism, post-modernism, structuralism, post-structuralism, and literary theory generally, and Taylor does conclude that all too often 20th century literature has acted for minorities and elites to the exclusion of a large potential of readers of ordinary intelligent people who have developed, over the years, thoroughly understandable dislike of ‘culture’ and the ‘cultured’.

‘The “literary novel” … would sell far more copies and attract far more attention beyond newspaper books pages if it didn’t habitually come served with a light sauce of snootiness – if in fact, it didn’t refer to itself as a literary novel in the first place.’

 

 


Great Britain has lost an empire and has not yet found a role. The attempt to play a separate power role — that is, a role apart from Europe, a role based on a ‘special relationship’ with the United States, a role based on being head of a ‘commonwealth’ which has no political structure, or unity, or strength — this role is about played out. 

 

So spoke former US Secretary of State Dean Acheson in the early 1960s. Acheson  was of course discussing foreign policy, and the comments came at the time the British government was edging towards joining what was then called the European Economic Community and which we now know as a European Union.

And of course we also now though British voters opted to leave Europe last month,  even if we –  and they – still don’t quite know what that vote means.

Acheson  almost  definitely did not have in mind the kind of role Dominic Sambrook outlines in The Great British Dream Factory.

That role  is as a kind of middlebrow entertainer to the world.  Books, true,  play a sizeable part  in this role.

 

 

Sandbrook is though  more enamoured of film, television, and music –  a chapter on the country house is more interested in the film and television examples  than the literary ones.

Brideshead Revisited  certainly features,  but Sandbrook is more interested in the 1981  television series than  the original Evelyn Waugh novel (not one of Waugh’s best efforts, in my view, but still).  While P G Wodehouse and Agatha Christie get a look in,  it is the global phenomenon of Downton Abbey which really generates Sandbrook’s  enthusiasm.

Spies –  he seemed rather taken with James Bond –  and science fiction such as The Prisoner and Doctor Who  are also  star products of his Dream Factory production line.

While I’m sympathetic to Sandbrook’s  rejection of some of the overrated cultural icons it covers, he tries a little too hard and too self-consciously to  be a kind of middlebrow, plain-man iconoclast (he rates Elton John over David Bowie, to take one example).

 

His book  lacks Taylor’s  elegance and above all Taylor’s penetrating wit.  While Taylor’s study –  admittedly with a slightly narrower focus –  is  surefootedly deft,  deep,  and occasionally droll,  there is a sense of  clumsiness,  over striving for  effect,  in Sandbrook’s work.

Both are worth a read. But Taylor’s is the one I will read again.

Brit Power

So, the British political class is demonstrating what happens when your entire cadre of politicos loses touch with the rest of the population and its small spherical glass toys at roughly the same juncture.

UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is like the crazed last bloke in a row of tenement houses overdue for demolition. Everyone else has gone, the cranes are waiting but he’s barricaded himself in with enough water and tins of spam and beans to last for months.

If anyone comes for him he’s got a surprise for them.

Oh yes.

Meanwhile, on the Conservative side….Boris Johnson is like a character in an episode of Midsomer Murders. The slightly dodgy rich bloke, favoured son of a troubled family who you probably have pegged as the main suspect when people start turning up dead. Then he is found, about half way through the episode, in Cawston Woods, naked beside his Volvo and with a cryptic note pinned to his chest by an old regimental dagger.

It generally turns out that while he didn’t kill anyone, his follies and weaknesses led to the murderer doing what he/she did.

Michael Gove, to switch analogies completely, is the slightly creepy but bright kid in the class who seems basically harmless until he is found one day supergluing razorblades to the bottom of the waterslide.

Stephen Crabb, the Welsh guy with the weird attempt at a beard, has dropped out early. He’s the bloke who believes homosexuality can be cured, which doomed him on two counts, one being a lot of Conservatives know damn well it can’t be and the other because anyone using the word ‘cured’ in a party still  – just – led by David Cameron is guilty of bringing up painful memories.

That leaves the two finalists. Andrea Leadsom seems to have imbibed the aspirational principles of the Spice Girls at a formative stage of her intellectual development.

That leaves Theresa May. Too socially illiberal for my tastes, but she’s sensible and a bit boring and at this rather worrying stage in world political affairs sensible and a bit boring is a pretty good thing to be.

And, mentioning the Spice Girls, as I did, above, somewhat to my own surprise… It’s 20 years since they released ‘Wannabe’ and, rather like when Kennedy was taken out by the Atlantans, most of us can remember where we were and what we were doing when we first heard the song. (I was on a tramping trip to the Tararuas & it came on in the bus. Everyone else had heard it before).

The Spice Girls are remembered as capturing the hopes and dreams of a generation and changing the face of music forever. Remember fondly as ‘The One Who Married Beckham’, ‘The One Who Left’,  and ‘Uumm the Other Three’, their music was emulated by many, lesser, artists.

 

 

Vivian Stanshall: ‘…inm layman’s language, BUGGERED if I know…[hic] [splurp]….


I have no idea what this was about…I think its a send up of Kenneth Clark’s ‘Civilisation’ or  something similar.

Still bloody funny. Vivian Stanshall was a genius. A drunken, messy genius, one of three drunken messy genius’s taken from us in 1995.

Today is his birthday.

Book Recommendations – The Strange Death of Liberal England

The Strange Death of Liberal England by George Dangerfield
strange death

 

 

‘Along that row of distinguished and original faces there would pass from time to time, as lightly as a shadow upon the waters, an alarming, an alien, spirit. It invaded and effaced the dignified construction of Mr Asquith’s features, it crept about the corners of Mr Lloyd George’s eyes, with imponderable fingers it ruined that noble forehead which was Mr Winston Churchill’s, it reduced the hatchet lines of Mr McKenna’s face to the lesser proportions of a ladylike paper-knife.. a spirit dangerous and indefinite, animula vagula blandula, the Spirit of Whimsy, which only afflicts Englishmen in their weakness.’

 

I have been thinking of this book a lot lately and I’ve recommended it to several people.  It was one of those “formative books” – a book one reads as an impressionable age and has a powerful influence on the outlook.

I’m a firm believer that styles and methods of thought are more important – much more important in fact – than the actual content of those thoughts. Habits of mind are often unconscious, stem from a mix of influences and innate character, and serve to form thoughts and beliefs.

So although, in the case of this book, I didn’t agree with everything in it at the time, and probably do so even less now, Dangerfield’s  attitude to the world of public affairs, and those who conduct it, had, now I re-read it, quite an effect.

I can even remember where and when I bought it – shortly after moving to Auckland in 1985, at the David Thomas second-hand bookshop in Lorne St, which was part of a small oasis of slightly disheveled civilisation in the downtown CBD at the time. There were four along the O’Connell-High-Lorne St zone at the time – Rare Books, Jasons, and Bloomsbury, as well as this one. Five, if you count the library.

Nice and handy, too, to the Dominos and Just Desserts cafes.

Enough nostalgia.

‘The Strange Death of Liberal England’ is one of the few books I’d nominate for genuine classic status. It tells a great story – the kind of collective mental breakdown which swept over the British [ok, mostly English, and David Lloyd George] classes in the four years before the outbreak of World War One.

It is superbly written, generally with a dry ironic touch, but underneath this cool carapace some heated moral indignation bubbles and it occasionally bursts through.

It was about the breakup of a consensus, of assumptions about how their country – and, given the size of the British Empire of the time, the world  – ought to be governed. The future of Ireland, Lloyd George’s “People’s Budget” and the House of Lords’ self-defeating obduracy, votes for women, and the rise of the Labour Party dominate and served to break up that consensus.

As Dangerfield put it,

‘Whatever his political convictions may have been, the  Englishman of the ‘7os and ‘8os was something of a liberal  at heart. He believed in freedom, free trade, progress, and  the Seventh Commandment. He also believed in Reform. He was strongly in favour of peace – that is to say, he liked his wars to be fought at a distance, and, if possible, in the  name of God. In fact, he bore his Liberalism with that air of respectable and passionate idiosyncrasy which is said to be typical of his nation, and was certainly typical of Mr Gladstone and the novels of Charles Dickens.’

And he shows how widespread this worldview was, usually with a neat and deftly humorous touch, starting one section with,

‘In 1903, when Joseph Chamberlain, who had proved how insubstantial were party differences by being a Unitarian, a Radical, and a Conservative at one and the same time…’

It is character sketches like this which really make the book dance, because they are not just sketches of individual characters, they are used to show the spirit of the age. Here is Dangerfield on Arthur Balfour, the Conservative Party leader between 1902 and 1911: for Balfour, he writes,

 

‘…politics was little more than a serious game. He played it with the faintly supercilious finesse which belongs to a bachelor of breeding, and with a bitterly polite sarcasm which was quite his own. He had entered Parliament originally from that mixture of duty and idleness which made an English politician of the old school :in other words, because he could neither fight, preach, nor plead.  …He had become one of the more eminent of English philosophers at a time when English philosophy was at a low ebbb…

‘In his youth he had been known as ” pretty Fanny ” and indeed in those far days he looked rather like an attenuated gazelle. But with advancing age his face came more and more to resemble an engaging, even a handsome, skull : it carried into drawing-rooms and debates a special property of hollow mockery, its eternal memento mori which, since Mr Balfour was always affable and lively, gave him an air of mystery and even of enchantment.’

Any writer who can come up with the phrase ‘attenuated gazelle’ is someone I have to tip my hat in homage to.

Here he is on  Liberal prime minister Henry Asquith:

‘..ingenious but not subtle, he could improvise quite brilliantly on somebody else’s theme. He was moderately imperialist, moderately progressive, moderately

humorous, and, being the most fastidious of Liberal politicians, only moderately evasive. If he can be accused of excess it was in the matter of his personal standards, which were extremely high.’

My own copy of the book fell apart several years ago, I’ve since got ahold of some online excerpts and have ordered a new one from Abebooks.

It is, as those excerpts quoted above show, a joy to read if you have love history and good writing and possess a sense of humour.

It is also – because it was written in the 1930s – great to read a thoughtful book which considers Winston Churchill as just another politician, albeit a particularly colourful one, before the public monument he became post-World War Two.

Local parallels? I frequently found myself pondering this book during Helen Clark’s prime ministership. It seemed to me then quite possible we were looking at an endgame for the New Zealand Labour Party and its world view, mostly because of the inherently defensive approach to almost all policy issues.

Oh, and because Clark and Cullen at times reminded me of the Asquith-Lloyd George combination, albeit without Cullen wanting the top job.

But Clark’s cool rationality had a whiff of Asquith, and Cullen definitely had a touch of the Lloyd George at times, especially in his way with the wittily destructive phrase.

The travails which have befallen Labour since then have confirmed those thoughts from a decade ago.

And we may, now, be seeing a wider, world wide break up, with the rise of Trump-ism in the United States and the sentiment of ressentiment which that appeals to taking other forms elsewhere.

But more on that in my real job.

For now, fellow well-written-history-buffs: this book is a true classic.

That rare combination: a thought-provoking joy to read.

A large bit of Fry

And while I’m on the subject of tall, brilliant, funny and problematic Englishmen… Stephen Fry. Over at Quote Unquote, Stephen Stratford has a note about Fry, his genius and his insufferable side, having had to struggle recently through Fry’s autobiographies.

I’m more of a Fry fan, perhaps – Ok, I *love* QI. But I was disappointed in the autobiographies. I expected to enjoy them, but didn’t. The whole, repeated, ‘Oh you’ll think I’m awfully self-absorbed and wrapped in my own cleverness’ theme, put up as a defence shield which doesn’t work because, yes he is awfully self absorbed and wrapped in his own cleverness.  Constantly.

So he’s not so good on his own, but with a good ensemble around him – or just Hugh Laurie, who is a one-man-ensemble – I find him immensely enjoyable.

Of his films, I enjoyed Peter’s Friends. Loved it, in fact.

Yes, I know its a minority view.

 

 

And he is, as Emma Thompson teases him here, the ultimate annoying luvvie.

Some of the best moments on QI, though, are when he is being wound up by Phil Jupitus. Some great moments here – I particularly like the beer goggles one. Oh, and New Zealand gets a mensh.

‘Hameron’ and ‘Piggate’

I am a bit worried  about this Winston Churchill quote now. quote-Winston-Churchill-i-am-fond-of-pigs-dogs-look-662

Revelations  – and I use the term ‘revelations’ a little loosely as things have yet to be proved – do rather cause one to look at it in a new light.

As noted here only a month or so back, when it comes to sex scandals, the Brits take a lot of beating. 

Err.

Well, you know what I mean.

The drug revelations about David Cameron as a youngster are harmless. It is not a surprise, for someone of that generation – and besides, contemporary and now journalist James Delingpole have dropped some pretty heavy hints along these lines in the past.

And of course he isn’t the first British PM to indulge in marijuana – Disraeli did. So, as an  aside, did Queen Victoria. She took it for her period pains.

I’ve occasionally wondered  if they ever shared a joint.

“And then, ma’am…we get de Lesseps to dig a canal at Suez! We declare you Empress of India and send a detachment into Afghanistan! What could possibly go wrong?”

[Victoria collapses in a fit of the giggles: then calls for early dinner because “One has the munchies”].

And it wasn’t just Brit PMs on dak.

Eden was bombed on meth at the time of the 1956 Suez Crisis. And Churchill, of course, relied on a variety of artificial stimulants (mostly rather well, it has to be said) to keep going, not only during World War II but in his peacetime premiership.

I can’t think of any British PM, though, who has been said to have engaged, as a youthful or other discretion, in oral sex with a dead pig.

Mind you, I wouldn’t put it past Rosebury.

But anyway, David Cameron will go down in history for this.

If nothing else, he has given the phrase ‘living high on the hog’ a whole new meaning.

‘Mundane and heroic’– Tracey Thorn

Naked at the Albert Hall by Tracey Thorn, Virago 2015

Bedsit Disco Queen by Tracey Thorn, Virago 2013

I’ll probably always associate Tracey Thorn’s voice with slightly hungover Sunday mornings. Back in the mid-80s Auckland BFM used to frequently play Everything But the Girl’s ‘Each and Everyone One’  at that time of the week: I loved it so much I went and bought the album.

‘Eden’ – which could out last year in a remastered digital version – became regular Sunday  morning music, with or without hangover.

While one of these books is a memoir and the other is a book about singing – mostly other people’s singing – they are both really books of a Music Fan (and I capitalise that title deliberately). A Music Fan who just happened to be a singer herself, equipped the with the experience, as well as the wry observational skill and writing ability, to get what she wants to say across.

Or not, sometimes.

Here is Thorn, about a programme in which Elvis Costello enthused about her favourite singer, Dusty Springfield

‘…and for the first time I truly heard that voice – that smoky, husky breathy, vulnerable, bruised resigned, deliberate, sensual voice.

At which point Thorn breaks off, exasperated.
‘Ugh. All the same old words, and they won’t do, will they?’ 
And she goes on to quote Barthes – a theorist chappie who hurt my brain so much at uni I stopped reading such stuff – on the adjective being  ‘the poorest linguistic category’.
All of which might make Naked at the Albert Hall sound inaccessibly pretentious and high brow.
It ain’t. Thorn switches between the deep thinky stuff and the engagingly human, readily and easily.
There is a lovely vignette of being recognised in a night club toilet as she washed her hands: instead of being asked for an autograph or a photo she was asked by some girls to sing a few bars of ‘Missing’ to prove she was that Tracey Thorn.

She did so – ‘because I’d presumably had a few drinks or I would have run a mile in the opposite direction’ and the girls grabbed each other and squealed “YOU SOUND JUST LIKE YOU!”

Which, naturally, becomes a chapter heading. It is perfect for this book.

She starts with the basics of singing, pointing out the primary purpose of the vocal tract is not even to make a noise: it is there to stop us from choking.

Singing, therefore,

‘…is like using a cheese grater or a vacuum clearer to make music, and doesn’t this make singing seem both mundane and heroic?’

Her own career emerged in the aftermath of punk and although the band she formed with partner Ben Watt sounded very unlike punk they considered themselves heirs of the tradition and for that reason refused to go on Top of the Pops to promote their records.

Thorn, in her memoir Bedsit Disco Queen, remembers all this, and that many, in Britain’s fractious national cultural obsession with in-groups and out-groups,  couldn’t handle thus rather difficult-to-categorise band. After ‘Eden’ – came out nearly a year after they had recorded it, and after their music had changed,

‘Those who didn’t like what we were doing had marshalled themselves by now and launched an attack and it was mostly based on the recurring accusation  that we were soppy wimps, wallowing in easy-listening blandness,. Making soft tinged soft rock background music for bed wetters. I think that sums it up – have I forgotten anything?

‘Our career might have been heading at full speed towards the mainstream pop world, but I had in no way made my peace with what that meant, so while we were making quite commercial sounding music, we were at the same time trying to uphold the stand taken by the Clash.’

Later, at the time of Britpop wars between Oasis and Bur she preferred Oasis because of Liam Gallagher’s singing:

 ‘a sneering engine of a voice levelled straight at your forehead, the first vocalist since John Lydon to capture that underdog spirit of defiance in all its glory…At the super-slick, stage-managed MTV Awards I attended in New York he rolled onto the stage, spat on the floor, sang at us with lazy, contemptuous fury, and made me proud to be British.

‘But his voice really was the most impressive thing about them…’

The trouble was, Thorn can sing, and sing very well.   Damn.

While ‘unconventional’ singers – Bob Dylan being the proto-example – had always abounded in rock music, punk made a point of, to use a phrase Thorn makes her chapter title on the subject, ‘No Singing’. 

This, though, was itself a contrivance.

‘Listening to Johnny Rotten, you couldn’t possibly believe in his delivery as a “natural” way of singing. It’s completely improbable to picture an early rehearsal, at which the band started up the opening riff, of, say, Pretty Vacant and Johnny just opened up his mouth and that was the sound that came out. No, you could be sure that a lot of thought had gone into that sound; that it was a style of singing that embodied a whole attitude towards singing and music.’

Thorn herself tried emulating  Siouxsie Sioux but ‘realising I could actually sing, it seemed liked an act of the greatest inauthenticity to cover it up’

The idea that a ‘difficult’ voice is more authentic and it is there for a reason, she suggests: it makes people listen more closely, make more effort.

‘And so the non-singing style of punk and its aftermath meant that you could impress upon an audience, and perhaps more to the point, upon music critics, the thing that you were serious, worthy of close scrutiny; that your work was demanding, and by implication, clever.’

It was also  – as Thorn implies rather than makes explicit – something of a charter for posers and frauds.

But more personally, ‘it seemed to be taken for granted by many journalists that there was something suspect about what might be termed “proper” singing.’

The singer, she says, is almost always the way in to the band…something I’m not sure I agree with. Personally I often find the guitars or drums are the way I get into a band, and can almost be indifferent to the singer. The Who is probably the best example I can think of.  

It’s possible, in fact, to find the singer a bit off putting – again the Smiths, a band I’ll return to in a few weeks – being a personal example.

Bedsit Disco Queen – the earlier book, and the more direct memoir – is unlike almost any muso memoir I’ve read. It lacks the usual narrative arc (boy meets guitar; boy gets famous; boy meets drugs; boy has identity/life crisis;  boy cleans up/becomes older/wiser/more pompous and boring).

Thorn lacks the grandiosity for that: there are laughs a-plenty but they are about human foibles (her own and others) rather than of the tv in the hotel swimming pool/amazingly dumb things done while smashed out of brain/oh how we laughed variety.

There are some lovely observations of the ‘strangely infantilising’ and ‘subtly disempowering’ experience of being a musician on tour – ‘yes it is infantilising, but also addictive…on the surface luxurious and lazy, but in the middle of it all you can feel powerless, useless and without choice.’

One example of a growing suspicion the ‘grown ups’ weren’t necessarily all that clued up: the video for the ‘When All’s Well’ in 1985, the clip was made to mate the lyrics ‘when all’s well, my life is like cathedral bells’ with a shot of Thorn standing inside an enormous cross section of on overturned bell, while partner Ben would be stuck down a well..
‘Yes, I know. But the idea went down a storm in the recording company offices……If in the finished version we look a little uncertain as to  what on earth we are doing, I ask you to search your conscience and tell me if you could have done any better.’
The dreary right on 1980s politics gets a chapter to itself, including the much-mocked ‘Red Wedge’ campaign by the British arts community which did so much to prevent Margaret Thatcher being an effective prime minister.
There was an abortive “Song for Labour” project – a sort of “socialist Eurovision Song Contest” she says – and tells of left wing Labour MP Eric Heffer, brought in to adjudicate on the offerings, dismissing what Thorn calls an ‘apocalyptic’ reggae number with the comment that ‘we don’t want that kind of country and western thing.’
The meeting descends into further farce…but, look, I won’t spoil the book. Read the rest. It’s worth it.
Both books are. Thorn is a great, thoughtful, humorous and occasionally spiky read.