Thursday, June 23, 2022

Midlife without the crisis

One Friday night back in 1991 I came back from the pub near to the house I was illegally sub-renting with two mates in London, to watch Channel 4’s The Word. I was so appalled by what I was watching, I called the duty log at Channel 4 and called it the worst programme in the history of television.

On Monday evening I returned home to an answer machine message from Channel 4 saying they’d enjoyed my rant and wondered if I’d like to come on television to make the same points on a show called Right To Reply, where viewers have their say.

I thought I might be recording a video piece to camera about how rubbish Michelle Collins and Terry Christian were. Instead, I was required to deliver the same accusations of unprofessionalism directly to the producer of the programme, Charlie Parsons, and to Michelle Collins herself. Alongside me was another viewer called Miranda who also had to join in this brutal character assassination.

Bizarrely, I can remember I was wearing a yellow Paul Smith button-down shirt and a Levis denim jacket. I recall saying that Michelle was ridiculous to ask Kylie Minogue if she was trying to reinvent herself as the new Madonna.

Thankfully, I don’t have the VHS tape of it, and I haven’t been able to find it on YouTube.

Afterwards, we both got slated for not declaring, drum roll, that we were journalists. I was a staff writer at Television Week, an industry newspaper, and Miranda wrote for Smash Hits. Quite why that rendered our views any less relevant was a mystery, but given how rude we’d been to Charlie Parsons, a genuine big hitter in telly, he was well within his rights to defend himself as he saw fit.

What I do know is that of all the people on that programme the only one who never made a career of appearing on TV after it was me.

I’ve done the odd bit of punditry, usually on business or politics, but Miranda Sawyer, for it was she, has interviewed actual legends, as well as being one of those people who turn up on talking head pieces on the 90s, Britpop, and (probably) why Kylie Minogue successfully reinvented herself as the new Madonna. 

She also wrote for Select, The Face, the Daily Mirror, and still has a column in the Observer. She went on to write a very entertaining and wise book about growing up in Wilmslow called Park and Ride

Through a good chunk of the 90s and the decade after, I felt very jaded that I wasn’t doing things like that. I felt opportunities in life hadn’t gone to plan and that I wish I had either the connections or the smarts, to not just write about people who made television shows, but actually appear on them.

The reason I didn’t was a Northern chip on my shoulder, a lack of confidence, and a massive sense of imposter syndrome. To counter it I have always sought a comfort zone, just a little below where in my heart I feel I should be, which keeps me going but feeds a deepening sense of disappointment and a feeling that I basically never really fit in.

I’m just reading another book by Miranda this week, after seeing her do a brilliant interview on stage at Kite Festival with the actor Minnie Driver. See, she even gets to interview Hollywood stars at Festivals. Her book is called Out of Time - Midlife If You Still Think You Are Young. And of course, you can’t use the word midlife without the inevitable follow-up word, crisis. Not hers, specifically, but the idea of it and how our generation experience the triggers for it, career insecurity, diminishing health, regret, and envy.

The very fact that I bought the book at my very first music festival - a few years after it was published - speaks volumes, and that it is absolutely for people my age, for people like me. I do still think I’m young, despite being a father to actual adults. Me and my mate Neil love music, we both love discovering new stuff and interrogating old. We wear expensive technical jackets and call each other to show off a new pair of trainers or cords. 

We’re part of an easy demographic to make fun of: Acid Dads, old punks, boomers, whatever. Our parents weren’t like this. We’re a generation that seems to be steadfastly refusing to grow up. Festivals are actually designed for people like us.

Miranda’s very honest account of her progression through life is sobering. It is brilliantly written, and quite sad at times. There’s this haunting account of a dream where you are surrounded by people who think you are wonderful, you start a chess game, you leave the room, return and things are a bit more hostile. You look at the chess board and you’ve lost a knight, a bishop, and some pawns and you ask to start again. No, comes a voice (God, maybe), that’s the game.

There’s an incredible and lucid chapter on music, which sums up the feeling of being forever young and growing old. “In the middle of my life, I feel as though I might be young and old and the age I am today all at the same time, and music is one of the ways I sense this.” Beautiful. 

In the closing sections of her book, which she insists isn’t a self-help book, she does offer some advice on what might work for midlifers, extrapolating on what has worked for her. Running (slowly), is one, and music is another. But here’s the one I loved; think back to what you loved doing when you were young, and do more of it. That got me thinking. It’s why me and Neil do our radio show. It’s why I am obsessive about climbing fells and mountains. It’s why I’m working in politics again. It’s why I have a chart on my wall with the football grounds I must go to in order to complete the 92.

It has taken me a lifetime to reach any kind of contentment, and though I feel it now, it doesn’t take much to knock me off course. In the wreckage behind me lie various confused therapists, lost friends, failed relationships, and an inability to bank what I have achieved. Rachel is nothing like this. I have no idea how she puts up with me. Even when my frail, dying Great Grandma looked at me through milky eyes and said to me when I was still in my early twenties ‘you’ve had a good life haven’t you?’ I still couldn’t quite accept that I’ve done enough. Fast forward thirty years, despite the brag pack shelf I constructed to give me a high five every morning, I can't shake the voice that says I'm out of time. 

I’ve also been through a few career changes over the last decade. My industry has been decimated - as has the consumer and cultural media that Miranda operates in - and I’ve tried other worlds where I had a limited impact and screwed up. It isn’t an excuse, but the business model for what I really wanted to do was hard to deliver when everyone was working from home. 

That’s the chess game of life again. Imposter syndrome is comparing yourself to others and thinking of yourself as inadequate next to the version you see, rather than the reality below the surface. But to confront it successfully also requires real self-knowledge and awareness. That's the bit that's been falling into place recently. Two older friends who know me well have both independently offered the observation that I'm resilient, a survivor.

For so many reasons, I was really pleased that we went to Kite Festival. Picking up this smart, funny, and beautifully written book by someone whom I briefly, fleetingly crossed on a path to Channel 4’s studio in 1991, and who I have occasionally compared myself unfavourably to ever since was one. The other was feeling really pleased to see her do such a great job hosting an interview (with no notes, NO NOTES) and me not feeling a single pang of envy. 

Miranda Sawyer's Out of Time is still available, buy it from Blackwells here, they are lovely.

Monday, June 06, 2022

The search for modern England

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about England, not the recent disasters of the cricket team, or the resurgence of the football team under Gareth Southgate, but the country of England. The largest, most dominant, and most significant part of the United Kingdom, and what it stands for. Even though we’ve emerged from the four-day celebration of the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee (I bet you all lost track of what day it was), our country feels a little more divided and a not very United Kingdom.

Scottish identity is once again surging and self-confident. Welshness is rooted in language and culture, and like the Scots, fuelled by grievance.

The Irish question seemed to have been solved by the single market for trade with Europe and a careful tolerance of individual identity embedded in the Good Friday Agreement. That looks under grave threat. A united Ireland may soon have to accommodate a belligerent unionist minority in its northeastern corner.

But should all of that happen, what of the England they would leave behind? Unlike the devolved nations it has no parliament of its own, all of the institutions of England are just the same as the British state, but with bits lopped off.

What is English music? What is English food? An English temperament, or character? But before you answer those questions, what is different from how you would describe British things?

At the height of the Euros last year one of my Mum’s neighbours displayed a massive England flag outside his house and defiantly asked her - “does it offend you?” I found that fascinating. Public displays of Englishness as a rebellion against nice people. Or a yearning for better yesterdays.

The so-called comedian Stewart Lee has a whole routine built around the outrage of a taxi driver who claims he couldn’t claim English nationality on his passport application form: “These days you get arrested and thrown in jail just for saying you’re English” (look it up).

But they are grotesque caricatures and oddities, which bring us no closer to what is different about being English, as opposed to British. 

Journalist Jason Cowley has written a very thoughtful book Who Are We Now? Stories of Moden England that tries to capture who the English are through a series of encounters with people who made the news in the last two decades. Often times these are unlikely heroes or ordinary people thrown into the public spotlight in dramatic, often tragic circumstances. They include a Chinese-born man who survived the drownings in Morecambe Bay, the Rochdale pensioner who schooled Gordon Brown on the facts of life in a northern town and was dismissed as ‘some bigoted woman’, and the London bodybuilder who scraped a racist man off the pavement and saved him from a kicking at the hands of a Black Lives Matter protest.

Cowley pulls together a compelling set of stories about what their experience speaks of England today.

But I kept thinking that slipping in an encounter in Wrexham or Stranraer might seamlessly add to the tapestry and say something about what it is to be British instead, but I think we’re way past that point, and no clearer about what England represents. 

The closest Cowley comes to a clear definition is what he calls Southgateism - embodied by the proud and patriotic England football manager - who also pulls a diverse team together to take the knee against racism. But I think there are dangers in reducing a national identity to the roars of support for sport.

I think too of the hedonistic supporters before the Euro 2020 final at Wembley fuelled by booze, drugs and belligerence, one of whom mounted a distress flare from his naked backside. You don’t see other nationalities doing this and I’m sure he’s got a story to tell about what being English means to him. And I think if he asked my Mum if that offended her, she’d say yes, it does.

Saturday, June 04, 2022

The song of the silver Jubilee - God Save The Queen by the Sex Pistols

 I am old enough to remember the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977. We all got silver coins, there were bits of crockery with Queen Elizabeth’s image on it, our Lancashire suburban street had bunting hanging from lamposts, but the hazy tinge of nostalgia has one thing fixed in my memory over everything else. The Sex Pistols.

I was only 10 years old, probably a tad rebellious, and was fascinated by what the newspapers called “the Filth and the Fury” after the Pistols had sworn on TV when Thames TV’s Bill Grundy goaded them into being outrageous on a live broadcast.   

It still remains darkly suspicious that the one song that seemed to have everyone talking about, God Save The Queen by the Sex Pistols, never made the top of the charts for the occasion of the Silver Jubilee. 

As songs go, it’s probably the most memorable of the Pistols' brief career. Originally it was meant to be called No Future, which accurately sums up the angry disillusion from which punk came. The second verse, in particular, stands out, which has even spawned a book about the whole era: “God save the Queen, She ain't no human being, There is no future, In England's dreaming.”

It’s hard to convey how controversial, how anger-inducing and how threatening such adolescent ranting was then. It speaks volumes for how frightened the establishment and the media were that they turned such ire towards the Sex Pistols and the emerging punk movement.

Danny Boyle has a six part series about the band coming out soon. But in a crowded field, the two stand out documentaries have both been directed by the brilliant Julien Temple. The adolescent me absolutely loved The Great Rock n Roll Swindle, which made the whole thing sound like a cunning plot by their manager Malcolm McLaren to manipulate the music business, the media and the hapless band members for the sake of money and invented outrage.

The truth, and the darker side of the Pistols, was that Sid Vicious was a hopeless bass player, whose notoriety was fed by his drug use and violence. It was to tragically end the lives of him, and his American girlfriend. Steve Jones and Paul Cook were half decent rock musicians, but there was something quite unique and terrifying about Jonny Rotten on vocals. 

Temple’s later film, The Filth and The Fury, released in 2000, is much better. It benefits from the wisdom of hindsight and places the effects of certain incidents in a wider context and isn’t quite as uncritical of McLaren. 

But nothing can take away the raw energy of what God Save The Queen meant back then. In an era of social media when anyone can express a ready-made opinion, it seems hard to comprehend that one song could express such a force for a rebellion against the flag-waving and the pompous self-serving British establishment. 

Power has pivoted, learned to embrace and commercialise rebellion, but for a brief moment the Sex Pistols induced such a dramatic reaction, you thought anything was possible. In the end, though, their epitaph might well be Rotten’s words as he left the stage at their last ever live concert - “ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?.