Judging the Mercury Prize, David Bowie, and Eminem’s mother

Having previously turned down a Kit Kat ad campaign, David Bowie is now fronting one for Louis Vuitton. But how does one get him out the house?

The pop quote of the month comes from Eminem, who, asked which part of his new album he was most “excited about”, said none of it: he was just glad it was over. I tried to get an advance listen of The Marshall Mathers LP 2 without resorting to illegal downloads but the label refused to send any review copies out, presumably because he’d already given it such a massive kicking himself.

Sometimes I think we’re due a return to the music writing of the 1960s, when the first pop critics, sitting on a record company sofa in Hush Puppies, simply listened to a record and narrated what was on it, instead of providing comment. The Beatles’ “Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite!” is “fairground music brought up to date and quite fascinating to hear,” according to Allen Evans in the New Musical Express in 1967. A year earlier, the Kinks’ Ray Davies had said, of “Eleanor Rigby”, “I bought a Haydn LP the other day and this sounds just like it.” “Tomorrow Never Knows,” he observed, “will be popular in the discotheques.”

Ground control to Major Vuitton

Anyway, I thought of the recalcitrant Eminem when, red-carpeted at the Mercury Awards, the 19-year-old Jake Bugg was asked about how he felt being nominated for the gong and said he wasn’t that bothered. To be fair, through Bugg’s eyes there is no need for industry recognition – his debut album sold 450,000 copies and life for him is a vast, flapping duvet of 14-year old girls, stretched out across a festival field.

I was a Mercury judge for the first time this year: the task of getting 200 records down to one may have been enormous but the 90- minute ceremony passed smoothly apart from Lauren Laverne’s much-celebrated Blunt/Blake spoonerism. James Blake, this year’s winner, is the son of the one-time Colosseum guitarist James Litherland, though you don’t hear much jazz rock in his strain of pastoral dubstep. Way back in the summer before voting began, I wondered if David Bowie would win the award because people wanted to force him to come out of the house and collect it, but no. On the night, he is beamed in via a new video (a remix of his song “Love Is Lost” by James “LCD Soundsystem” Murphy), featuring props from his archives: a few years back someone had been charged with the task of carving the face of the dame on to a piece of wood and turning him into a marionette. On our table someone trawls their phone for visual proof that Bowie is appearing in a Louis Vuitton ad campaign, having previously turned down one for Kit Kat. As it turns out, he is.

1001 lists to read before you die

The workers of Britain were provided with a 375-hour Spotify soundtrack for their offices last week when the NME unveiled its megapoll, “The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time”. The Smiths’ “The Queen is Dead” (1986) was No 1. I thought the music press had got the listings thing out of its system about five years ago, around the time of Rolling Stone’s “100 Greatest Singers of All Time” (I can’t think of 100 singers) and coffee-table publications such as 1000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die, but just this morning, a new book came through the door that took the music/death/planning equation to a cosmic new level: 1001 Guitars to Dream of Playing Before You Die (Octopus Books, £20).

NME should have had a country-wide poll open only to the public vote. Robbie Williams and One Direction would be at the top followed closely by the guy off The X Factor who sings gospel music; INXS and Dire Straits would be in the top 20. Most of what ordinary people listen to behind closed doors is seldom talked about by music journalists. They’ve started to acknowledge this on Radio 2’s Jo Whiley show, in which I participate once a month or so. I am made to review albums that have already been in the public domain for a week, so that the guy driving the van down the A47 can tweet the programme and tell us that what I’m saying about Alison Moyet is completely untrue. It’s a challenge and quite exhilarating.

The even realer Slim Shady

And so to the Eminem album, for which, as we go to press, there is sadly no time for anything more than a narration review. In the opening track, “Bad Guy”, Eminem sounds very angry and frustrated with his female friend and says he has been driving around her neighbourhood for nine hours and 45 minutes now with his mouth full of saliva. He appears to be breaking and entering her house. This song is a slower pace than Eminem’s usual jog-beat and his voice is quite manly and robust. In the album’s third song, “Rhyme or Reason”, the rapper explains that he has no father but that this is OK because his mother reproduced like a komodo dragon.

James Blake poses with the 2013 Mercury Prize winners trophy for his second album Overgrown during the awards ceremony in central London. Image: Getty

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 06 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Are cities getting too big?

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The Last Wolf: Robert Winder's book examines the elusive concept of Englishness

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could this mean there is no such thing any more?

Is there anything more tiresome than debating the essence of “Englishness” – or any other national identity, come to that? Millions of words must have been spilt on this fruitless quest over the past century, generating gigatonnes of wind that could have been usefully harvested for energy. Each time, no “essence” is to be found, and everyone goes back to the beginning and starts again.

That’s how it used to be, anyway. More recently, in the wake of the Brexit vote and the divisions it has laid bare, the debate about who “we” are has become fraught and urgent. England, and Britain more widely, is hardly alone in its soul-searching. Arguments about belonging, culture, nationhood and identity are flooding across the Western world – and beyond – because people are increasingly unsure about who or where they are. The sweeping changes unleashed by hypercapitalism, technological change and unprecedented levels of migration are making rootlessness the norm, and the more people feel rootless the more they want to know where they belong and where they come from.

British politicians often respond to this by attempting to formulate some notion of our collective “values”. Here’s who we are, all 65 million of us, they say, and then proceed to read out a list of uniquely “British” things that only “British” people do, like valuing democracy, being tolerant with each other and standing in queues politely. These attempts at top-down unity are always failures, largely because, with the possible exception of the queuing, all the “values” asserted are pretty much universal. There’s nothing uniquely “British” about valuing the rule of law or freedom of speech (regularly clamping down on freedom of speech is a more reliably British virtue, if history is anything to go by). The failure of anyone to produce a list of “values” that are uniquely British – or English, or Welsh, or Scottish – suggests that they don’t exist. The island is just too teeming, diverse and disconnected now for much to be held in common at all.

So what, if anything, might define that elusive “Englishness”, the subject of Robert Winder’s new book? Cultural quirks, perhaps? I can confidently assert that the English know how to make a good cup of strong tea better than anyone else on earth (with the possible exception of the Irish), and we’re also world champions at dog shows, proper beer and indie guitar bands. But I’m not sure that these are things I would encourage my children to die patriotically in a trench for.

Winder offers a better answer, and it’s one that anyone brave or suicidal enough to pitch in to the contemporary European identity debate should consider. It offers a path through the horrible, thorny maze of arguments about race, ethnicity, migration and the like, towards something that, potentially, could unite people rather than divide them. What makes and forms a “people”, says Winder, in England as elsewhere, is the one thing they all share: the place itself. If there is an “Englishness” it is formed from the nature, literally, of England:

If we really wanted to search for the national identity, I thought, the real place to look was in the natural heritage of hills, valleys, rivers, stones and mists – the raw materials that had, over time, moulded the way we were. Landscape and history – the past and the elemental backdrop – were the only things we could truly claim as our own. Just as some plants thrive in sand and others in clay, so a national character is fed by nutrients it cannot alter.

Early on in the book, Winder quotes the novelist Lawrence Durrell, who makes the same case more provocatively:

I believe you could exterminate the French at a blow and resettle the land with Tartars, and within two generations discover… that the national characteristics were back at norm – the relentless metaphysical curiosity, the tenderness for good living and passionate individualism.

Durrell goes on to suggest that “a Cypriot who settled in London would in time become English, simply because human customs owe just as much to the local environment as to trees and flowers”. I’m in a position to test this hypothesis, because my grandmother was a Cypriot who settled in London. Did she become English? Well, she wore English clothes, lived in a bungalow, cooked roast dinners, won endless rosettes in endless dog shows and had her English friends call her Doris, because they had trouble pronouncing Demetra. On the other hand, she never lost her accent, her language or her connections to her homeland, and until the end of her life she made a mean baklava. I don’t know what any of that means, other than that labels can get confusing pretty quickly.

And that is Winder’s point: forget the labels, look at the land below your feet. That’s where your “identity” comes from. Take the last wolf in England, which gives the book its title. Allegedly killed in the 1290s by a Shropshire knight named Peter Corbet (the king had tasked this “mighty hunter” and other nobles with ridding the land of predators), the wolf’s end freed up the English to transform their landscape – in a way not available to many other European countries, whose wolf populations were too large and interlinked to kill off – into “the biggest sheep farm in the world”. This turned England, in the Middle Ages, into a wealthy wool economy. It was an agricultural revolution, shaping everything from land ownership to diet to class structures to the architecture of the Cotswolds, and it happened not just because the landscape was now wolfless, but because “the country was made for grass”.

The same soil and climate that made growing grass so easy did the same for wheat – which, mainly in the form of bread, has been the staple of the English diet from the rise of agriculture to the present day, when we eat more wheat than ever. Add in the later discovery of coal, which was found in rich seams across the country, and which gave rise to the Industrial Revolution and the British Empire, and Winder suggests, only slightly playfully, that the English national character can be summed up by way of an algebraic equation: e = cw4: “Englishness equals coal x wool, wheat and wet weather.”

The book’s central case – that “natural history might be a branch of political science” – is a necessary corrective to a public debate in which we are increasingly instructed to believe that virtually every aspect of our character is a “social construct”. Winder wants us to understand that much of it is actually a natural construct, which means in turn that our development is not entirely under our control. It’s not a message that many people want to hear in an age of selfies and consumer choice: “Just as each vineyard (or terroir) produces its own unique wine, so human beings are conditioned by their local landscape. We move around more now, so the lines are blurred, but the underlying skeleton of English culture – the bare bones of the national psyche – may have changed less than we think.”

I couldn’t help, as I read, wanting more detail on this “underlying skeleton”. Where are the folk songs, the rhymes and ballads? Where is the mythology? Where are the grainy details of the lives of the people who, throughout English history, were probably shaped by the landscape most of all, and who shaped it in turn – the peasantry? There are glimpses of all this, but there is also too much school-textbooky history of inventors and their inventions, of revolutions and wars. A book like this ought to start at the bottom – in the mud, in the mulch on the forest floor. I wanted an earthier, messier story.

Despite this, there is plenty to chew on here. The question that remained when it was over though, for this reviewer at least, was: is any of it true any more? It may once have been the case that human customs were formed by places, but is it now?

When people in England, or anywhere in the modern world, have more connection, via their handheld screens, with the mill race of global consumer “culture” than they do with the landscape around them, and when only a handful of us work on or really know that landscape, what chance does it have of forming the basis of our cultural life?

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could the reason simply be that there is no such thing any more; that the English, like other denizens of techno-post-modernity, are shaped not by their natural environment, but by the artificial one that is rising to enclose them like a silicon cocoon? When the heavy metals in your smartphone are mined in Indonesia, not Cornwall, what equation defines you – and do you even care? 

Paul Kingsnorth’s books include “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist ” (Faber & Faber)

The Last Wolf: the Hidden Springs of Englishness
Robert Winder
Little, Brown, 480pp, £20

This article first appeared in the 10 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, France’s new Napoleon