The Books Interview: James Palumbo

The founder of the Ministry of Sound talks about clubbing, satire, and funding the Lib Dems.

Tancredi is a satire about greed and excess. Is there a solution for that "short -termism"?
I flipped through the TV last night and immediately I saw a bottom on Big Brother. In a few weeks time, on I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here, in the jungle, it will be "who can eat a bug", or who can be the most moronic. There is a trend, isn't there? I don't know if you can do anything about it. I'm raising the question of where it's all going to lead.

Are we in the midst of a crisis of culture?
I don't like the word crisis, because I don't want to sound like a grandmother. People enjoy these shows. But I think - everyone is getting fatter, aren't they? Where is it all going to end? We already have feature films where there are gladiatorial combats, using people for the amusement of the crowds. Are we going to go back to the days of the arena, where horrible things happen in public and that's what people want?

Tancredi satirises political correctness as well as reality TV culture.
I'm really interested in the tension between being idealistic in politics - which probably leads to oblivion - and being pragmatic, which seems to lead to status. One would have thought that the purpose of politics is to lead, to take initiative, to break the rules. Look at Obama at the UN. He can't support the Palestinians - everybody else wants to, but he doesn't want to piss off the Israeli lobby in Florida, because of the primaries. There doesn't seem to be any point where somebody will take a risk, because when you stray too far from centre, you get obliterated.

Did you always want to write?
I left home pretty young. I wanted to make money. I got caught in that mentality that I must succeed; I must build things up; working all the time. After so many years, I reached a point where, without sounding too dramatic, I was wondering what it was all about. At school I loved Shakespeare, I loved Chaucer. I've always liked writing silly poems for my son, so I guess inwardly, subconsciously or innately, I wanted to give it a go. That's a million miles away from whether I'm any good at it.

You first novel, Tomas, was also a satire. What attracts you to the form?
It's the way I think. Kurt Vonnegut is one of my favourite authors. I like imagination, I like fantasy, and satire flows from that absurd situation.

As the founder of the Ministry of Sound, do you think the clubbing scene is ripe for satire?
Yes, it's top of my list. I'm not a puritan. I'm not a prude. I've made my money from night clubs. But that's where I started with Tomas. I always remember one night, years ago. You change your prices according to the music and the night. I asked the manager why the bar prices were double the usual. He said: "The guys actually prefer to pay more." It is just a horrifying, wasteful, awful useless world populated by horrifying, awful, wasteful people.

Which writers have influenced you?
In terms of style, it is people like Vonnegut. I just can't believe how those ideas pop into his head. Ayn Rand's Fountainhead is a huge influence. I know it's very dense, but it's very clear what it's about. I buy into that.

Does satire have a role to play in society?
Satire at its best, yes - with Gulliver's Travels and Candide it worked. Otherwise, it plays maybe a 5 per cent role. We are so frustrated, angered, surprised, bewildered, and worried by so many things. Maybe my writing is an expression of how I feel like about what's going on.

Where is your focus for the future?
I stepped away from my main business about four years ago. Once you're no longer chief executive, that's it. I've been doing some writing. I'm helping a few friends of mine in politics. I'm trying to have a different, more creative, slightly more thoughtful kind of future, without the cash-flows and balance sheets.

Did you foresee the success of Ministry of Sound?
It was a club which was open till midnight, in a very rough location, with no alcohol. On the face of it, they were all criteria for failure. But you're only going to succeed when you differentiate yourself, when you do something off the beaten track. I didn't see it but I realised that there was something there.

Where did the idea come from?
Like a lot of other people, we brought a tried and tested American idea to the UK. A guy called Justin Berkmann, who spent time in New York, had gone to this club called Paradise Garage. It was archetypal, and Ministry of Sound was in many ways a copy. It went all night, playing a particular type of music, with a huge sound system. It was Justin's brainchild and inspiration, but it needed structuring, and my money and operational input, to make it happen.

You mentioned a more political role.
I'm helping the Lib Dems. I've known Simon Hughes for years - he is our local MP in Southwark, a great guy. There are various ways I can be helpful, in terms of systems, particularly marketing, which we're very strong on, and IT and HR. I'm doing a bit of work for them and seeing how that goes. But it's new to me. It's a different language. It's a different set of rules.

Would you consider working with other parties?
I've crossed the line now. I've got incredibly close friends in other parties and I would support them as people. I've never thought that I am ideologically Labour or I passionately believe in one party - quite the opposite. Now, for better or worse, I am with the Lib Dems.

What are your thoughts on the coalition so far?
I buy into a lot of what Nick Clegg was saying [in his conference speech]. Nick is a genuinely good, moral guy. The Lib Dems weren't expecting to be in government. They weren't organised. They had a lot of catching up to do, and they made some mistakes.

Do you think entering coalition was the right thing for the Lib Dems to do?
Definitely. You've got to dig in. In my life and my business, I've never done things that were expected. Maybe that is why I was attracted to Lib Dems .If they hadn't, what would have happened? It's just unthinkable.

Are you planning any more novels?
I find it so tiring and worrying and other words ending in -ing. But I'd like to. I don't know if I've got to sharpen up my style or go to a few lessons. It's got to be about something I really feel strongly about, rather than trying to be on a schedule of producing a book every eighteen months.

Tancredi, a satire about greed and excess in the modern world, by James Palumbo, is published on September 29th by Marlborough Press, priced £9.99

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

Green Party
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Caroline Lucas and Jonathan Bartley: "The Greens can win over Ukip voters too"

The party co-leaders condemned Labour's "witch hunt" of Green-supporting members. 

“You only have to cast your eyes along those green benches to think this place doesn't really represent modern Britain,” said Caroline Lucas, the UK’s only Green MP, of the House of Commons. “There are lots of things you could do about it, and one is say: ‘Why not have job share MPs?’”

Politics is full of partnerships and rivalries, but not job shares. When Lucas and Jonathan Bartley were elected co-leaders of the Green party in September, they made history. 

“I don't think any week's been typical so far,” said Bartley, when I met the co-leaders in Westminster’s Portcullis House. During the debate on the Hinkley power plant, he said, Lucas was in her constituency: “I was in Westminster, so I could pop over to do the interviews.”

Other times, it’s Bartley who travels: “I’ve been over to Calais already, and I was up in Morecambe and Lancaster. It means we’re not left without a leader.”

The two Green leaders have had varied careers. Lucas has become a familiar face in Parliament since 2010, whereas Bartley has spent most of his career in political backrooms and wonkish circles (he co-founded the think tank Ekklesia). In the six weeks since being elected, though, they seem to have mastered the knack of backing each other up. After Lucas, who represents Brighton Pavilion, made her point about the green benches, Bartley chimed in. “My son is a wheelchair user. He is now 14," he said. "I just spent a month with him, because he had to have a major operation and he was in the recovery period. The job share allows that opportunity.”

It’s hard enough for Labour’s shadow cabinet to stay on message. So how will the Greens do it? “We basically said that although we've got two leaders, we've got one set of policies,” said Lucas. She smiled. “Whereas Labour kind of has the opposite.”

The ranks of the Greens, like Labour, have swelled since the referendum. Many are the usual suspects - Remainers still distressed about Brexit. But Lucas and Bartley believe they can tap into some of the discontent driving the Ukip vote in northern England.

“In Morecambe, I was chatting to someone who was deciding whether to vote Ukip or Green,” said Bartley. “He was really distrustful of the big political parties, and he wanted to send a clear message.”

Bartley points to an Ashcroft poll showing roughly half of Leave voters believed capitalism was a force for ill (a larger proportion nevertheless was deeply suspicious of the green movement). Nevertheless, the idea of voters moving from a party defined by border control to one that is against open borders “for now” seems counterintuitive. 

“This issue in the local election wasn’t about migration,” Bartley said. “This voter was talking about power and control, and he recognised the Greens could give him that.

“He was remarking it was the first time anyone had knocked on his door.”

According to a 2015 study by the LSE researcher James Dennison, Greens and Kippers stand out almost equally for their mistrust in politicians, and their dissatisfaction with British democracy. 

Lucas believes Ukip voters want to give “the system” a “bloody big kick” and “people who vote Green are sometimes doing that too”. 

She said: “We’re standing up against the system in a very different way from Ukip, but to that extent there is a commonality.”

The Greens say what they believe, she added: “We’re not going to limit our ambitions to the social liberal.”

A more reliable source of support may be the young. A May 2015 YouGov poll found 7 per cent of voters aged 18 to 29 intended to vote Green, compared to just 2 per cent of those aged 60+. 

Bartley is cautious about inflaming a generational divide, but Lucas acknowledges that young people feel “massively let down”.

She said: “They are certainly let down by our housing market, they are let down by universities. 

“The Greens are still against tuition fees - we want a small tax for the biggest businesses to fund education because for us education is a public good, not a private commodity.”

Of course, it’s all very well telling young people what they want to hear, but in the meantime the Tory government is moving towards a hard Brexit and scrapping maintenance grants. Lucas and Bartley are some of the biggest cheerleaders for a progressive alliance, and Lucas co-authored a book with rising Labour star Lisa Nandy on the subject. On the book tour, she was “amazed” by how many people turned up “on wet Friday evenings” to hear about “how we choose a less tribal politics”. 

Nevertheless, the idea is still controversial, not least among many in Nandy's own party. The recent leadership contest saw a spate of members ejected for publicly supporting the Greens, among other parties. 

“It was like a witch hunt,” said Lucas. “Some of those tweets were from a year or two ago. They might have retweeted something that happened to be from me saying ‘come join us in opposing fracking’, which is now a Labour policy. To kick someone out for that is deeply shocking.”

By contrast, the Greens have recently launched a friends scheme for supporters, including those who are already a member of another party. “The idea that one party is going to know it all is nonsense,” said Bartley. “That isn’t reality.”

Lucas and Bartley believe the biggest potential for a progressive alliance is at constituency level, where local people feel empowered, not disenfranchised, by brokering deals. They recall the 1997 election, when voters rallied around the independent candidate Martin Bell to trounce the supposedly safe Tory MP Neil Hamilton. Citing a recent letter co-signed by the Greens, the Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru condemning Tory rhetoric on immigrants, Bartley points out that smaller parties are already finding ways to magnify their voice. The fact the party backed down on listing foreign workers was, he argued, “a significant win”. 

As for true electoral reform, in 2011, a referendum on changing Britain's rigid first past the post system failed miserably. But the dismal polls for the Labour party, could, Lucas thinks, open up a fresh debate.

“More and more people in the Labour party recognise now that no matter who their leader is, their chance of getting an outright majority at the next election is actually vanishingly small,” she said. “It’s in their interests to support electoral reform. That's the game changer.” 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.