Finger-picking good: the English folk musician Martin Simpson in 2013. Photo: Elly Lucas.
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Martin Simpson: “Folk music is like an Olympic sport”

The singer and guitarist Martin Simpson on the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards, Pete Seeger's politics and why Mumford & Sons "bemuse" him.

Let’s get Mumford & Sons out of the way, shall we? I’m chatting with Martin Simpson in advance of the 15th annual BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards, which will be held for the first time at the Royal Albert Hall in London – the event’s largest-ever venue – on 19 February. Simpson, who turned 60 last year, is one of the stars of British music. He has been nominated almost 30 times since the awards were launched in 2000, more than any other performer, and for nine consecutive years he was a nominee for Musician of the Year (a prize he has won twice already and is now up for again).

Simpson has earned his stripes. Born and raised in Scunthorpe, he got his first guitar when he was 12 and had turned professional by the age of 17. His repertoire spans traditional ballads (such as “Sir Patrick Spens”), political broadsides and original compositions (including “Never Any Good”, a moving portrait of his wayward father), all accompanied by his fluid guitar finger-picking. He is now a lynchpin of what is being called the biggest folk revival since the 1960s: with the Folk Awards not only taking over the Royal Albert Hall but selling out, too, and with the Coen brothers’ folk scene homage Inside Llewyn Davis a critical hit, the genre is, Simpson says, “doing better than it ever has. It’s not just about music charting – there’s a lot of attention being paid. People are taking it very seriously and there’s a lot more reference to it in the media, without it getting silly.”

Yet it is an irony that some of the music that has brought the genre back into the limelight doesn’t make the cut for Simpson. Discussing the thriving scene, I say, “Think of Mumford & Sons …” and he laughs, a little ruefully, interjecting: “I try not to!”

“I don’t think that writing bad, semi-hysterical love songs and having a banjo qualifies you to be included in folk music,” he tells me. “It’s not ‘folk music’ whatsoever. In a sense, one of the strangest phenomenons in the success of folk music in the wider sense is the incredible success and acceptance of the Mumfords. Seeing Marcus Mumford playing with Paul Simon and Bob Dylan … You know? It just bemuses me. But I think that they are the commercial spike of it. Peter, Paul and Mary were the commercial spike in the Sixties. That’s what happens when a genre does this thing, rises to the surface. People jump on it and try to exploit it. That’s not necessarily the best thing that can happen to any kind of music.”

If there was a polar opposite to that “commercial spike”, it was Pete Seeger, who died on 27 January at the age of 94. It was a great loss. Simpson says that he was “massively affected” by Seeger’s work. It isn’t just his musicianship that he admires: “Pete Seeger fought against all the things that needed to be fought against. He fought for conservation, for clean water, long before those things were fashionable. He fought against big business. He retired from [his group] the Weavers after they did a cigarette ad. He fought against racism, against greed. And music should be political … That’s not at all in vogue on the folk scene right now and I think that’s very disappointing. Folk music isn’t cosy and friendly – it’s very powerful. And that power is there on the scene” – here he mentions artists such as Dick Gaughan, Billy Bragg, Grace Petrie and his father-in-law, Roy Bailey – “but it isn’t sufficiently recognised and celebrated.”

Mumford & Sons, with their polished, stadium-filling, apolitical music, seems to have become a trope for what folk shouldn’t be. Mark Radcliffe took over the BBC Radio 2 Folk Show from Mike Harding, its presenter of 15 years, just before last year’s awards. It was a controversial move. Radcliffe says that he was aware when he started that: “People were worried, because I was very much associated with pop music, it would become all Mumford & Sons – but we are all very genuinely committed to the music of these islands.”

That an artist such as the US singer-songwriter Suzanne Vega – whose latest album, Tales from the Realm of the Queen of Pentacles, is her first studio recording in seven years – will be performing at the Folk Awards shows that the scene is a broad church.

Simpson is wary of having a stern definition of folk. He spent 15 years in the US and it has affected his music. “I’ve been asked many times, why do I try to play American music? How do I think I can get away with American music? So I say to people that when I was growing up, American music was all there was. That’s what I heard, after I heard Gilbert and Sullivan – I listened to blues, to rock’n’roll, Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis – how could I not be influenced by that? Yes, I was also listening to Scottish music, Irish music, English music and jazz … [Folk music] is not about purity, it’s not about being ‘English’ – I detest nationalism. It’s just being part of this living, growing scene.”

One of the things that distinguishes folk music as a genre is the quality of the vocals, Radcliffe says, and he notes that quality is very much on show in the awards’ Folk Singer of the Year category. This year, four women are up for the prize: Bella Hardy, Fay Hield, Lisa Knapp and Lucy Ward. And it’s a category, Radcliffe argues, that refutes the charge that, by honouring artists such as Simpson again and again, the awards don’t reward new talent (fans and musicians have complained in the past that they are a “closed shop” run by a “folk mafia”).

Simpson has done so well this year that he’s up against himself: his latest release, Vagrant Stanzas, is nominated for Best Album – and so is The Full English, the result of an initiative that began, thanks to a Heritage Lottery Fund grant, as an attempt to create the largest searchable digital archive of 20th-century folk manuscripts. The project spawned a tour and then an album that gathered many of the stars of the genre – Simpson, Seth Lakeman, Fay Hield and Nancy Kerr among them.

“I think it’s hilarious,” he says of having to compete with himself, adding that he hasn’t got “a cat in hell’s chance” of winning, given the competition. Simpson is full of admiration not only for the archive project but for a musical landscape that’s stronger, in his view, than at any time in living memory. “It’s like the snowball rolling down a hill. For years, the interest in this music has been growing. The access to the material gets ever easier and it’s a bit like Olympic sports – records get broken; you think it can’t get better but the more it gets done, the faster, the better people get.”

The BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards 2014 will be broadcast live at 8pm on 19 February

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 13 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Can we talk about climate change now?

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Paula Hawkins: a pulp-feminist follow-up on The Girl on the Train

Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion in misogyny. 

A couple of years ago, Paula Hawkins, an Oxford graduate with a run of chick-lit novels to her name (well, to her nom de plume Amy Silver), became the latest example of various splashy phenomena. Most obviously, The Girl on the Train, her first thriller, made Hawkins an out-of-nowhere, book-clubtastic, “movie rights gone in a flash” sensation, on the model of E L James. It also made Hawkins, who had formerly worked at the Times, one of those journalist-turned-juggernaut figures, like Robert Harris and Gillian Flynn, a beacon of light to every deadline-haunted hack.

Not so publicised was the kind of writer the book showed Hawkins to be. The Flynn comparisons were perfunctory, the overlap limited to shared use of multiple narrators and that not uncommon word, “girl”. A puff from Stephen King was a little more in tune with Hawkins’s sensibility, a taste for the Gothic intensities that lurk beneath the everyday; but King’s praise – it kept him up all night – still missed her strangest virtue: not the gift for making people turn a lot of pages and feel foggy on the next day’s commute, but for using the mystery thriller form as a back-door polemic, every revelation bringing an adjustment of world-view, every twist of the plot putting a spin on what we thought she thought. More striking than Hawkins’s late success or old career was her emergence as a new practitioner of feminist pulp, the sub-subgenre in which men destroy and women suffer, whose most recent classic had been Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones and whose presiding genius – its queen for fifty years and counting – is the hydra-headed literary combustion engine who usually signs herself Joyce Carol Oates.

Hawkins’s new novel, Into the Water, serves to make things clearer. It enables her readers to sketch a Venn diagram to identify what was incidental to The Girl on the Train – what merely helped to grease the wheels – and what she is obsessed with. Why call it an obsession and not a crutch, a formula, the hardening of habit? Not because what Hawkins is up to conflicts with readability – clearly that isn’t the case – but because she is building novels more intricate, more packed with implication, than readability demands.

Like The Girl on the Train, the new novel centres on a female victim with alleged deficiencies as a woman and mother. The body of Danielle “Nel” Abbott, a writer and photographer, is discovered in the part of a lake known as “the drowning pool”. Nel wasn’t much liked by the other local women. She had ideas above her station. She was a “slattern”. In fact, Nel’s death goes unmourned by everyone except her wild 15-year-old daughter, Lena, who is convinced her mother jumped, but for a good – withheld – reason. To Nel’s unmarried sister, Jules, who ignored a number of phone calls and messages, and who has travelled from London to watch over Lena and identify the body, Nel’s death is the final insult, another way of upsetting her existence.

Into the Water follows its predecessor in applying laser scrutiny to a small patch, but there are signs of growth and greater ambition. Last time the setting was a pair of houses on Blenheim Road, Bucks. Here it is the community of Beckford, a village in or near Northumberland, several hours’ drive from anywhere civilised – “if you consider Newcastle civilised”, in the words of one character. The Girl on the Train had three female narrators describing events, in mildly jagged order, that occurred across a single summer. The new novel features testimony from five characters, including Jules, Lena and the brother of Lena’s dead best friend, and provides close access, in the third person, to another five, including the best friend’s mother. Alongside these ten voices are sections narrated by Jules in 1993 – her experiences carry echoes of Stephen King’s Carrie – as well as passages from Nel’s unfinished manuscript: a photographic history of the Beckford lake called The Drowning Pool, containing a prologue and descriptions of three previous deaths, dating from 1920, 1983 and 1679.

The book isn’t free of cliché – the phrase “out of the woods” is not a reference to the rural setting – and some of Hawkins’s devices border on cheating. At various points a narrator starts talking about a previously shrouded incident soon after it has been revealed elsewhere, as if the characters were in cahoots, conspiring how best to frustrate the reader. There’s much recourse to the undefined event, the word “it”. (What?!) The outsider figure, Detective Sergeant Erin Morgan, is severely restricted in her role as a conduit for backstory. “Have you not seen any background on this?” her superior asks. No, she hasn’t. But Erin “should have been given the files”. Well, she wasn’t.

But most of the time, the novel is plausible and grimly gripping, and Hawkins plays fair. Characters aren’t only lying to us, they are often lying to themselves, or else they’re misinformed. The reader always knows more than any one character but never knows all that a character knows, and Hawkins trusts that the promise of enlightenment is sufficiently seductive to deliver information by the drip.

So, Into the Water is on a par with The Girl on a Train – and of a piece with it, too. Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion not just in patriarchal structures, but in misogyny. The blame lies with men, who react with violence and psychological abuse to the perceived threat of a woman’s independence. But one of the main products of this mistreatment is that the female characters overlook the role played by such damage when considering other women’s behaviour and subscribe instead to a male-sanctioned narrative of stubborn irrationality or wilful coldness.

Hawkins seems more engaged with the second part of the equation, the way that women see themselves and each other. The radicalism of The Girl on the Train and Into the Water depends partly on the persuasive depiction of figures such as (in Girl) the pathetic drunk and the unrepentant home-wrecker, and in the new novel the money-grabbing mystic, the joyless spinster, the trouble-making man-eater. Then Hawkins exposes the truth behind the cardboard, the way these images have been constructed and perpetuated. Her plotting works as an ambush and also as a rebuke. “You didn’t believe that nonsense, did you?” she seems to be saying. “Oh, you did – and here’s why.”

The effect is less patronising than perhaps it sounds. The rebuke is aimed at the reader not as a citizen but as a participant in the thriller tradition. After all, the victim who deserved it is a familiar character: we have little trouble believing the type. Hawkins has set herself the challenge of adding a third dimension to the dramatis personae bequeathed by Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler. We are accustomed to characters shifting shape as a story develops. The obvious suspect – twitchy, tattooed, alibi-less – was all along a Good Samaritan; the spotless widow has a cellar full of skulls. Hawkins goes further, showing how narrative presumptions betray unconscious beliefs, upending clichés of other people’s making. You might dismiss her as a killjoy if she wasn’t so addictive. 

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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