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.

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser