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Choking to death: should we stop sending women to prison?

Even if many politicians are convinced by the ethical and economic case for closing women’s prisons, many feel they need to appear “tough on crime” to a public that demands punishment and retribution.

No place for a girl like you: inmates protest from behind bars at HMP Styal. Photo: Don McPhee/Guardian News and Media. 

Gemma learned a lot from prison. On her first day in HMP Styal, eight years ago, she learned how to take heroin and crack cocaine. “I didn’t tell the girls I hadn’t done them before – I just wanted to fit in,” she tells me when we meet at Brighton Oasis Project, a charity for women with drug or alcohol addictions. By her second jail sentence, at HMP Bronzefield in Surrey in early 2013, she’d been taught how to “load up” with drug-filled condoms before her court date and how to avoid being “decrotched”: “when someone watches the cell door and they use a spoon to take the drugs out from inside of you”.

Gemma says she didn’t know before prison that if you slit your wrists the blood can spurt so high it hits the ceiling – but self-harm was so common at Bronzefield that a deep-clean team was often called in to mop up the bloodstains, and the staff carried knives to cut ligatures from inmates’ necks. One woman repeatedly tried to hang herself but the guards “didn’t do anything to stop it. They just put her on meds and kept on cutting her down.”

According to a study published in the Lancet in December, a quarter of female prisoners self-harm, and 102 female inmates self-harmed more than 100 times in one year. Self-harm is more common among women in prison than men: women make up 5 per cent of the UK’s prison population but account for 28 per cent of self-harm cases.

I first meet Gemma at Boppers, a mother-and-baby group in Brighton run by Oasis, for women whose children have been placed on a child protection plan by social services. We all sit on nursery-size chairs making peg-angels. Gemma’s six-month-old son, David, is gurgling happily in her lap and when she whispers “heroin and crack” she gently places her hands over his ears. David was born while Gemma was in prison; she gave birth in front of two female prison guards she’d never met before. She says she was fortunate that two women happened to be on shift that day. David and Gemma spent a month in hospital together following complications she believes could have been caused by prison nurses reducing her methadone dose during pregnancy. Two officers – men and women – stood guard beside her hospital bed 24 hours a day, so she felt unable to breastfeed.

“Prison doesn’t help you, it does the opposite. I came out angrier,” she says. “They should give you a chance to turn your life around, but instead they just send you to prison, lock the door and you lose a bit of time. The same people are coming in and out of prison.”

The statistics support her: 51 per cent of women leaving prison will be reconvicted within a year, and among those on short sentences of less than 12 months, this rises to 62 per cent. If one of the aims of prison is to reduce offending by women, it isn’t working. In fact, given that roughly a quarter of female inmates have no previous conviction, sending a woman to prison increases the probability of her offending again.

Gemma has finally been able to address the reason she has served two jail sentences, most recently for assaulting a security guard: her drug and alcohol addiction, her childhood abuse, the trauma of watching her first husband, who had joined a gang, being shot dead. “I’ve turned my life around,” she tells me. A month after we met, she regained custody of David.

Campaigners such as Rachel Halford, the director of the charity Women in Prison, want the 12 (soon to be ten) women’s prisons in England to close. “We want the complete abolition of the women’s prison estate as it exists today,” she tells me when we meet at her London office. “The prison system was designed for men, but women’s routes into criminality are very different, and their needs are very different.”

Most women in prison pose no threat to society: 81 per cent are jailed for a non-violent offence. They make up such a small proportion of the UK prison population – although at present there are as many as 4,000 women behind bars – that their specific needs are easily overlooked in national policymaking. At the same time, the impact of a prison sentence is often greater on women than on men; because women are still more likely to be single parents and the prime homemaker, they run a greater risk of ending up homeless after prison and losing access to their children. Home Office figures show that each year, about 17,000 children become separated from their mother because she is in prison.

“The majority of women have been let down by society long before they reach the attention of the criminal justice system,” Halford says. A significant proportion of male prisoners have experienced childhood abuse, been through the care system or suffered mental illness, but among women these trends are even more pronounced. According to the Prison Reform Trust, female prisoners are far more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators: 46 per cent have suffered domestic violence and 53 per cent have experienced emotional, physical or sexual abuse during childhood. This could be directly connected to their offending: half of the women say they have committed an offence to support someone else’s drug use.

Rates of mental illness are also much higher among the female prison population: 30 per cent will have had a psychiatric admission before coming to prison, and 37 per cent have previously attempted suicide. The self-harm that Gemma witnessed in prison illustrates how vulnerable and distressed many women prisoners are, and how poorly equipped the prison system is to deal with their needs.

Halford would like to see all women who have committed non-violent offences being offered a community sentence, and for the minority whose violence makes them pose a threat to society to be kept in smaller custodial units. This might sound like a revolutionary rethink of the penal system, but seven years ago the UK government signed up to a very similar set of recommendations.

Slopping standard: inside Styal Prison, Cheshire, where in 12 months between 2002 and 2003 six women in custody killed themselves

In 12 months between 2002 and 2003, six women died in HMP Styal. The youngest was Sarah Campbell – an 18-year-old with a history of depression and heroin addiction – who took a fatal overdose in January 2003. In response, the government commissioned Baroness (Jean) Corston to review the women’s prison services. Her 2007 report called for women’s prisons to be replaced, within ten years, by “geographically dispersed, small, multi-functional custodial units” and for most of the women to be given community sentences. She drew attention to three specialist women’s community centres, based in Glasgow, Worcester and Halifax, that could offer an alternative to custody for female offenders. These provide a one-stop shop for women, including advice on housing, employment and social services, drug rehabilitation and mental health care.

Corston made her case persuasively: the government accepted 41 of her report’s 43 recommendations. But a 2012 paper by the Commons justice committee measuring progress following the Corston report concluded that the coalition government has failed to focus on women offenders, and that the pace of change has been too slow.

“There isn’t really the political will to see all the report’s recommendations through. Politicians could support the fuzzy notion that there shouldn’t be so many women in prison, but when it comes to actually closing down women’s prisons and replacing them with perhaps just one or two small custodial units for those few women who pose a threat to society, the reform efforts have faltered,” Andrew Neilson, head of campaigns at the Howard League for Penal Reform, told me.

Whether or not a woman is offered a community instead of a custodial sentence can depend merely on where she lives. The UK now has about 50 community centres similar to those recommended by Baroness Corston, but the patchy provision leaves women facing a postcode lottery. Val Castell, an expert on female offenders at the Magistrates’ Association, says she knows some women are missing out. “I am aware that up and down the country there are a number of situations where it would have been infinitely preferable for a woman to be given a non-custodial sentence but there weren’t any of those options available locally,” she told me.

It hasn’t helped that funding streams for women’s centres are complex and constantly changing. Under the much-trumpeted Transforming Rehabilitation plan, unveiled by the coalition last year (more of which later), funding for women’s centres will be completely overhauled. All current contracts will be put out to public tender, with small community centres compelled to compete with private providers for new, payment-by-results contracts (similar to those introduced in 2011 under the Welfare to Work scheme). Neilson fears that women’s centres could struggle to demonstrate their cost-effectiveness when pitted against large, specialist companies, possibly including giants such as G4S and Serco. “Women’s community centres are doing some great work,” he says, “but most are seeing such a small number of women that it would be difficult for them to compete for a payment-by-results contract where results depend on a volume of cases.”

Ironically, as the economist Vicky Pryce argues in her 2013 book Prisonomics, increasing the provision of community sentences for women would save the Ministry of Justice money. Pryce’s book draws on her experience of a two-month stint in prison (first at Holloway in north London and later at East Sutton Park open prison near Maidstone) for accepting penalty points in place of her ex-husband, the former Liberal Democrat cabinet minister Chris Huhne. She writes that in 2009/2010 keeping a woman in prison for one year cost £56,415 while an equivalent community sentence cost just £1,360. If a woman’s children are placed in care, the cost of a prison sentence can shoot up, from an extra £40,000 to place a child with no specialist needs in care for 14 months, to £525,000 over 20 months for placing a child with complex needs in care. She estimates that moving just 1,000 women out of prison and on to a community sentence would save the Ministry of Justice at least £12m a year – and that’s without factoring in the money saved from not putting their children into care.

When I speak to Pryce on the phone, she tells me she thinks her economic case for prison reform is becoming “unavoidable”. “The public purse can’t afford it any more. This isn’t just about women, it applies to men, too. We are putting many more people in prison per capita than many other countries, and the cost of this is immense – and not just in terms of putting them in prison in the first instance. The cost is immense in terms of what it means for society as a whole, for their children, and for their ability to get jobs and be re-employed.”

A costly case: Pryce says prisons don't add up. Photo: Getty. 

Back at Oasis, I meet two women who have recently been given the option of avoiding prison by being placed on a Drug Rehabilitation Requirement. The DRR is an intensive, six-month treatment order sometimes offered as an alternative to a custodial sentence. It involves weekly drug testing as well as regular counselling sessions and group work. “Not many women get a DRR, and what’s different is that we have gender-specific services,” says Jo-Anne Welsh, the director of Brighton Oasis Project. Women placed on mixed rehabilitation programmes can find it harder to complete their court-sanctioned requirements: often there is no childcare offered by the DRR centre; they might feel intimidated by some of the men in their group and struggle to open up, or discuss subjects such as sex work and domestic abuse.

“You could say it’s harder to be in a group telling people why you’re addicted to drugs than to be in HMP Bronzefield taking Valium and knowing you’ll be out in six weeks,” Welsh adds. But at a DRR group support session I meet Faye, who tells me this is her first drug offence and that she’s grateful to be avoiding prison. She has just left her abusive partner and is now trying to kick her ketamine habit. Throughout our conversation she shakes, and each time she’s asked a question she jumps. I find myself fighting the urge to hug her and wondering how someone so anxious would cope in prison.

It’s her group partner Tash’s second time on a DRR; she remained clean for a year before relapsing. She tells me she finds talking at the support sessions hard – “usually I take drugs to hide these feelings” – but when she slumps forward to tell me how she ended up here, the words seem to tumble out uncontrollably.

She pulls up the sleeve of her baggy black hoodie to expose a pale, thin arm covered in scratches and faded brown bruises from years of shooting heroin. She’s worked as a prostitute, she says, and after a string of violent relationships has lost several teeth and had a metal plate put in her head. She’s lost all five of her children. Four were placed in care and her newborn baby died of brain damage when he was a few days old – possibly because she “didn’t look after [herself] when I was pregnant” – a loss that triggered her most recent spiral into drug addiction. Tash has been addicted to drugs for 15 years and is 30, but she looks younger. Her long brown hair almost reaches her waist, and is parted perfectly at the centre. Sometimes her voice cracks with tears and at other times it is cold with rage. In prison, they called her “Psycho Tash”, she says. She was pleased with the nickname because it made her less likely to be attacked by other inmates.

“I’ve done eight jail sentences, and they are no good,” she says. At HMP Bronzefield, she says, she saw girls being raped by other inmates, scalded with hot water and sugar and knifed in the face. Other inmates have slept with male prison officers “just to get what they need”. “I’ve heard some of the screws refer to one of the wings as Beirut, and I’ve been on those wings and they are not nice,” she tells me.

One of Tash’s friends, Sarah Higgins, died in prison in May 2010 from a suspected drug overdose. An inquest published last October concluded that there had been grave failings among prison staff, who prescribed methadone for her despite suspecting that she had hidden drugs. Tash says her fellow inmates tried to get the guards’ attention when Sarah became unwell, but that they were ignored.

Tash may not complete her DRR; she knows she is “this close to going to prison” because of the difficulty she has with staying clean and out of trouble. She doubts that another prison sentence will help her: “The prison system is not good for females at all. It made me worse.”

One of the problems with offering non-custodial sentences is that it isn’t obvious what should happen when women can’t or don’t comply. Should they be locked up for non-violent crimes as a last resort when community alternatives don’t work?

Most campaigners would think not. Jo-Anne Welsh at Oasis tells me she is concerned that women could end up going to prison for breaching their community sentence, even if the original offence would not have warranted a custodial sentence. More research needs to be done to find out why a woman might struggle to engage with her community sentence. Sometimes there may be practical reasons why a woman doesn’t turn up to a compulsory community orders, such as problems arranging childcare. At other times there could be other, more complex barriers: a controlling partner, or unaddressed mental health problems. At root, those supporting the abolition of women’s prisons also support a complete rethink of how we approach women’s offending, recasting female offenders primarily as victims rather than perpetrators and placing greater emphasis on tackling the causes of criminal behaviour than on punishing crime.

However, things seem to be getting worse for female offenders. In October the Ministry of Justice announced that it plans to close the UK’s only two open prisons for women. The MoJ said this change would “improve family ties and employment links”, arguing that because women will no longer be moved to an open prison before their release they will be able to stay closer to home throughout their incarceration. Soon there will no longer be any dedicated open prisons for women. The government says that all prisons are due to become “resettlement prisons”, but it is not clear how it will be possible for women to have all the benefits of an open prison while remaining in a closed prison. For instance, East Sutton Park, where Pryce served part of her sentence, is in a Grade II-listed Elizabethan building with a working farm attached to it.

At the same time, the mother-and-baby unit at Holloway in London has been closed, so now some women with babies will be moved even further from home, to HMP Bronzefield, over 20 miles away. Frances Crook, the chief executive of the Howard League, accused the MoJ of “deceit” because of the way it presented the closing of these open prisons as good for women. The ministry turned down my request for an interview, and did not permit me to visit a women’s prison.

Meanwhile, under the Transforming Rehabilitation plan launched last year, all prisoners on short sentences will receive statutory rehabilitation for up to 12 months. These rehab services are being contracted out by the government, which will pay providers according to their success at reducing reoffending. So far, 30 private companies and consortiums of charities have been shortlisted for 20 contracts. Women’s organisations had suggested that women’s rehabilitation services could be contracted out separately but the government decided to commission them by geographical area in order to cut costs. The concern is that cost-aware private contractors will be reluctant to fund services specifically tailored to the small population of female offenders. Alan Beith, the chair of the Commons justice select committee, said that “the government’s Transforming Rehabilitation reforms have clearly been designed with male offenders in mind”; women are an “afterthought”.

Even if many politicians are convinced by the ethical and economic case for closing women’s prisons, many feel they need to appear “tough on crime” to a public that demands punishment and retribution. Perhaps at root we are suffering from a communication problem. “Tough on crime” may be an appealing idea; less so if it is used to support the cruel and ultimately counterproductive practice of separating mothers from their children and placing disturbed, vulnerable and mentally ill women on Britain’s violent, drug-filled prison wards.

At HMP Bronzefield there’s a woman who often tries to hang herself. Is it right just to keep cutting her down?

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

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Moby: “The average American IQ is around 98”

Moby, the vegan king of chill-out pop, talks wealth, David Bowie’s hat and the average intelligence of his fellow Americans.

In January 2012, two women walking their nine dogs on the hill beneath the Hollywood sign found a man’s severed head wrapped in a plastic bag. His decomposing feet and hands were discovered nearby. First theories pointed to the work of a Mexican drug cartel, or the murderous Canadian porn actor Luka Magnotta. The story piqued the interest of the electronic dance music mogul Moby, who wrote about it in a New Statesman diary in May this year.

Today, the smell of cedar and pine hits you on the canyon path, which is hot, steep and sandy – an immediate wilderness in one of LA’s most exclusive areas. The Griffith Observatory shines like a strange white temple on the hill. Brad Pitt, a local resident, was doorstepped after the head was discovered: he lives near Moby on the streets of Los Feliz, near Griffith Park, where the only sounds are hedge strimmers and workmen’s radios. Moby’s 1920s mansion is all but obscured by Virginia creeper.

As we sit down at his kitchen table, Moby tells me that the body parts were found to belong to a 66-year-old Canadian flight attendant called Hervey Medellin. Shortly before Medellin’s disappearance, his boyfriend, Gabriel Campos-Martinez, had used a computer in the flat they shared to find an article titled, “Butchering of the human carcass for human consumption”. The head, feet and hands showed signs of having been frozen: the rest of the body was never found. He says it was one of those rare times in life where reality was more intriguing than the conspiracy theories.

Moby, of course, eats no meat. Fifteen minutes’ drive away in the hipster neighbourhood of Silver Lake, his vegan bistro, Little Pine, serves a variety of plant-based dishes, proceeds from which go to animal rights organisations including the Humane Society and Peta. His own music is never played there. We are meeting to talk about his new album – but, he says: “It’s 2016 and people neither buy nor listen to albums. And they certainly don’t listen to the 16th album made by a 51-year-old musician. I don’t care if anyone gives me money for this music or for live shows ever again. Once a record’s released, I couldn’t care less what happens with it. I liked making it, but I don’t care.”

He is currently working his way though the stages of grief outlined by the psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. To denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance he has added a new phase: Schadenfreude. On the night of the US election, he left the house at 6pm west coast time to watch the coverage with some friends. He checked his usual round of sites on his phone: CNN, the New York Times, the Washington Post, Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight, the Guardian, the Huffington Post, the BBC, He was concerned to see that no one was calling any of the early states; with Obama’s election, exit polls suggested the victory by noon. Days earlier, Moby had been predicting humanity’s “wake-up call” in the form of the destruction of Greenland or a zoonotic virus – but not this. He is softly spoken, with a quick laugh and the kind of intelligence that seems to warm him up from the inside when he talks, but today he is angry.

“It is disturbing on so many levels,” he says. “One, that we have elected an inept racist as president. Two, just seeing how dumb and delusional so many Americans are. Because really – in terms of the subsets of people who would vote for Trump – you have to be delusional, or racist, or stupid. I am so confused as to the fact that such a high percentage of Americans are either really stupid or incredibly bigoted.”

The stupidity of Americans is, he says, a matter of “anthropological curiosity” – or simply demographics. “The average American IQ is around 98,” he notes. “So that honestly means – in a vaguely non-pejorative way – that there are a lot of really, really dumb people. The nonsense that people were spouting before the election – that Trump was a good businessman, for example? This phenomenon has been particularly egregious of late: people have an almost adversarial relationship with evidence. Climate-change deniers are another example.”

As a self-described old-timey alcoholic, Richard Melville Hall (nicknamed Moby by his father in honour of his great-great-great-uncle Herman) has a pervasive interest in neurochemistry. He uses it to explain much of the past six months in Western politics. Our failing political systems – the subject, in fact, of the album he doesn’t want to talk about – are underpinned by “a kind of delusional motivation, which is basically to ignore the countless things that are actually going wrong in the world and focus all your attention on things that are arbitrary. In the United States, you have people who have perfectly good jobs in safe communities who are obsessed about Mexico, crime and unemployment. We have these quasi-Orwellian responses to stimuli, and they come from a place of fear and scarcity. Humans are still built to amass as much wealth as possible, and fight off the enemies as quickly as possible, but the only threats are the ones we generate ourselves.”

There’s a dishcloth on the table, a few magazines, a bit of a draught and Moby in a black hoodie pouring two glasses of water.

Fear and scarcity pervade American society, he says, because social policy is an extension of corporate process and “nothing is free from the cadres of professional lobbyists”. Meanwhile the ravenous news consumption that helped drive Trump reflects a human addiction to the “neurochemical jolt” of engaging with the media.

“People have a profound and almost feral attachment to that which makes them feel good in the moment,” he says. “Without thinking of long-term consequences, does their belief give them a shot of dopamine right at this second? If so, they hold on to it. Eating junk food, voting Brexit and voting for Trump.”




Moby is the model of an addictive personality well-practised at controlling itself. He was a fully fledged alcoholic by his early twenties: at ten, he’d been given champagne and made himself the promise, “I always want to feel this good.” Now, he cannot touch a drink, but his modern-day addiction, he says without a beat, is his phone. Every thought is pursued to extremes. He recently released an animated video for a new song, “Are You Lost In the World Like Me?”, showing a procession of grotesque, phone-addicted cartoon characters filming a girl as she throws herself off a skyscraper and hits the ground.

The house is vaguely baronial, airy and open-plan: all dark wood and furniture polish. An Annie Hall poster in the pool house; a coyote postcard on the kitchen wall.

This particular property is a result of serious downsizing: Moby has a habit of buying very big places, doing them up and then moving out. When he was still in New York, he bought a remote mountaintop retreat in Kent Cliffs, 50 miles north of Manhattan. He created a magnificent bedroom of 1,500 square feet with ten skylights – but quickly learned he could only get a decent night’s sleep when he pulled his mattress into the cupboard. He told the New York Times that, living all alone in the big house, he “felt like Orson Welles at the end of Citizen Kane”.

He moved to LA in 2010, swapped vodka for quinoa smoothies and took the keys for another large building – the Wolf’s Lair, the turreted, 1920s Gothic castle in Hollywood once inhabited by Marlon Brando, with the swimming pool historically used for porn movies and the hidden tiki bar. He bought it for $4m and sold it for $12.5m four years later – allegedly to Banksy. He rattled around in that house, too. Right on cue, he tells me: “I felt like Orson Welles at the end of Citizen Kane.”

On the one hand, these were sensible ­investments for the man who’s sold 20 million records; on the other, large impersonal spaces appealed to Moby long before he was in a position to buy them. Raised by his single mother on food stamps and welfare in Darien, Connecticut, he started his adult life squatting an abandoned lock factory, where he could ride his moped around his bedroom, piss into a bottle and read battered Star Trek paperbacks while working on early demo tapes, rather like a ragged, vegan version of the boy in the movie Big.

He was very happy in his penniless state, as he records in his memoir, Porcelain. He’d like to propose something he calls the End of Wealth – but we’ll come back to that.

In the past few years Moby has broken free from the “Beckettian purgatory of touring”. When his biggest-selling album, Play, was released in 1999, his music career was effectively “over”. Before Play, he had changed creative direction, going from progressive house to ambient to thrashy punk – to which he has just returned – and no one knew what to do with him. The only reason he hadn’t been dropped by his UK label, Mute Records, was that its owner, Daniel Miller, was “an old egalitarian socialist”.

Play sampled slave songs of the Deep South – recorded by the ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax in the 1940s – and wove them into a backdrop of cerebral chill-out. The songs of pain and emotion took on an eerie neutrality, and TV shows and ad companies came calling. He was approached by Will and Grace and Grey’s Anatomy. At that point, selling records and touring were still more lucrative than licensing a song to TV – and licensing a song to TV was still considered selling out. But Moby considers himself an ugly duckling: “If someone who was once unattractive suddenly gets asked out on loads of dates, of course they say yes a lot.” He licensed every song on Play and it became the soundtrack of the millennium.

His memoir was unusual because it concentrated on the ten-year period before he got famous. It captured his enthusiasm – and his strangeness – at its source and showed him to have a sense of humour that may have passed people by the first time round. “I’m in London! London!” he wrote. “Benny Hill, Joy Division, Peter O’Toole!” He visited the vegan café in Covent Garden.

The book is filled with money: or with the constant, practical concern of not having it. Navigating poverty is an everyday routine: he is an “alchemist” turning used beer bottles into nickels at the recycler, and thence into soya milk and oranges. In his early twenties he becomes a Christian, partly so that he can repeat the Sermon on the Mount at Bible classes in the households of Greenwich Village and “judge” the rich children.

Book two, which Faber & Faber is waiting for, is more difficult. The period of his fame and fortune in the 2000s is too much of a cliché. “Ten years ago I was entitled, narcissistic, bottoming out, alcoholic, selfish and feral. Robbie Williams has done that story, so has Ozzy and Mötley Crüe. Who wants to read that? It’s tautological.”

Instead, he has decided to write about the first ten years of his life. It will look into his relationship with his mother, who loved him but raised him in various drug dens. He was at her side when she died in 1997, but he missed her funeral, having woken late in the morning to discover that at some point in the night he must have got up and set his alarm clock three hours late. He took a taxi to the wake, worrying about the fare, and for reasons he can’t really explain, turned up cracking jokes.

He has a strange nostalgia for the kinds of friendships you have in early adulthood, when everyone is equal, “before that point when someone starts making money and they think they’ve won: they’re going to have access to a different kind of happiness”.

In 2003, when he turned 38, he was famous, wealthy and miserable. “I’ve been able to see and inhabit almost every stratum on the socioeconomic scale, from extreme poverty and obscurity to wealth and fame, and it gives me an insight into it,” he says. “Because a lot of people who experience wealth are born into it, and a lot of people who experience poverty never leave it. I can safely say that for me there has been no causal effect between increased fame and wealth and increased basic happiness and well-being.”

When Moby talks about himself, he applies many apologetic epithets: clichéd, meditating, yoga-loving, mealy-mouthed. In 2007 he developed, a large online resource offering independent film-makers and film students a licence to use his music for free. If their films are commercially successful, the revenue from licence fees must go to the Humane Society. He says he wants to propose a more rational, evidence-based approach to wealth.

“We are still attached to the idea of the redistribution of wealth,” he says. “As progressive lefties, we’re all brought up to think that is a good idea. In the old days, it meant the difference between eating and not eating. Nowadays the person on $30,000 consumes twice the calories of the millionaire, and has a bigger TV and works fewer hours.

“There is an underlying assumption that if wealth were distributed more evenly then people would be happier, but there is unfortunately very little anthropological or sociological evidence to support that idea, unless there are institutions to support the basic needs of community, like food and shelter. Confusing materialism with happiness is the essence of our culture.”

While west LA is plastic surgery and gold-plated toilets, he says, his own neighbourhood is “David Lynch wearing an old T-shirt and mowing the lawn”. Among the millionaires of Los Feliz, conspicuous consumption is frowned upon. He knows several who live “incredibly austere lives. I was having tea with Jim Carrey the other day. He’s basically just giving everything away. He just realised that owning three planes was stressing him out . . .”

In his New Statesman diary, Moby said that life in LA offered him miles and miles of lavender-scented name-dropping.

“Coldplay played the Rose Bowl recent­ly,” he says. “And the Rose Bowl holds 75,000 people. It’s a struggle for me to sell 2,000. At first, I winced with a little jealousy. But then I thought, ‘If my career was at that Coldplay level, how would that actually affect my daily existence? Would it make my shoes fit better? Would it make the water pressure in my shower better?’ As long as you’ve satisfied the basic hierarchy of needs – enough to eat, clean air to breathe, bears not eating your legs – happiness is all where and how you put your attention.”


He goes to his kitchen cupboard and from among the colanders and measuring jugs he extracts a black velvet fedora – size seven, silk-lined, from a London company established in 1879. In green marker around the inside rim are the words “With love from David – Christmas 2005”. Bowie gave it to him over Christmas dinner that year. “It’s the hat that he wore in The Man Who Fell to Earth,” Moby says. “There’s this amazing picture of him wearing it with John Lennon and it’s clearly when he was doing a lot of cocaine.”

Moby lived on Mott Street in Little Italy and Bowie lived on Mulberry Street. “I had a little roof deck, and he had a beautiful roof terrace, and we could wave at each other.” They were neighbours and friends, worked on music together, went on tour together, had barbecues together. He says the title of Bowie’s last album, Black Star, is a reference to the 1960 Elvis Presley song of the same name “about the end of a life” (“And when a man sees his black star,/He knows his time, his time has come”).

“David had been sick for a long time,” he says. “Or ill, as you say in the UK. So, David had been ill for a long time. I was very pleased that . . . after he died, people were asking me, ‘How do you feel?’ and I’m like, ‘Actually, I’m just kind of happy that he lived as long as he did.’ Because I . . . had thought, yeah, I had thought that he was going to die a little before that. So.”

The Radiohead singer Thom Yorke lives just up the street from him in Los Angeles but Moby has never met him “as far as I know”. Apart from Bowie, he claims not to have musician friends.

“Musicians – and I’m sure you’ve encountered this many times – have a sense of self-importance that is off-putting,” he says. “It is very hard to be friends with someone who thinks that just by showing up, they’re doing something special. At the end of the day, you want to say to them, ‘You know what? You wrote a couple of good songs. Let’s put it in perspective.’”

He was born on 11 September 1965, and on his 36th birthday he watched the twin towers burning from his roof deck. He tells me that when the second plane hit and it became clear the first was no accident, he heard “the cumulative effect of ten thousand rooftops covered with people, and the weirdest scream. A scream of horror but also a scream of understanding.”

Fifteen years on, he talks about this year’s politics as a Manichaean thing. “Half the world are motivated by fear and desire to move backwards, and the other half are motivated by optimism and a desire to move forward rationally. It’s religious tolerance versus fundamentalism; it’s racism versus inclusion. I wonder if there’s a way we can make peace with that whole other half of humanity who are holding on to a non-evidence-based approach to the future. But I don’t know what it is.” He has known Hillary Clinton for two decades, was a vocal supporter of hers during the election run and released a pair of anti-Trump tracks for Dave Eggers’s music project 30 Days, 50 Songs.

He says that many celebrity Clinton backers were cautious to come out for her during the primaries “because Bernie supporters wanted to crucify you. Now Trump has united and inspired Democrats more than anything since the Vietnam War.”

The election result, he says, might just be “the equivalent of a crystal meth addict going on one last bender. Maybe this bender will finally convince Americans to stop voting for Republicans. Because they are terrible. There has always been an understanding that if everyone in America voted, there would be no Republican politicians. The reason Republicans win is that most Americans don’t vote.

“Those of us on the left who were brought up to be tolerant of people who had different opinions from us – well that’s great, ­unless the opinions are bigoted and wrong. If someone is a climate-change denier, they are wrong. If someone voted for Brexit, they are wrong. If someone voted for Trump, they are wrong. There is a lot of ambiguity in the world, but not about these things.”

The clock ticks towards 11.15am and Moby, ever punctual, is done.

“These Systems Are Failing” is out now on Little Idiot/Mute

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

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump