Gilbey on Film: Prophet without honour

Paul Kelly has made a wonderful film about Lawrence's tortured genius.

If pop music appreciation is a solitary business, so is making the stuff, at least for Lawrence, late of the ethereal 1980s band Felt and the 1990s glam rock outfit Denim. Although I have only a cursory knowledge of Felt, and Lawrence's latest endeavour Go-Kart Mozart ("It's the first B-sides band in the world"), Denim means the world to me. The band's two albums, Back in Denim and Denim on Ice (there was also a bits-and-pieces compilation, Novelty Rock) are painstakingly crafted artefacts that function simultaneously as mighty pop music and a commentary on the nature and history of pop. The most obvious cinematic equivalents would be Todd Haynes's Far From Heaven or François Ozon's Angel, movies which draw upon, revive and celebrate aesthetic conventions which are now largely defunct.

In Paul Kelly's poignant documentary Lawrence of Belgravia, we see what life is like now for one of British pop's enduring eccentrics: preparing to be evicted by the council from his London flat for rent arrears, and fearing every footfall in the hallways; refusing to reform Felt or play old songs on tour; reflecting on a world of supposed technological advance in which the new Go-Kart Mozart album won't be released on his beloved vinyl and people don't get paid for writing online ("I knew the internet was rubbish!"). His face sunken and pasty from years of drug abuse, his circumstances depleted as he reflects from his tower-block balcony on dreams of marrying a supermodel, Lawrence is nevertheless an inspiring, if unlikely, symbol of artistic purity. Explaining his resilience, he says: "No one else has got this far, and failed"

In the same week as seeing Lawrence of Belgravia, I also watched Julien Temple's fine documentary Imaginary Man (made for the BBC's Imagine strand) about Ray Davies. At times, it seems only success separates Davies from Lawrence; certainly the scenes in which the former Kink is wandering through the park ("I wonder what that duck's thinking") or reflecting on his schooling ("I was sent to a special school to find out what my problems were. I think my problem was that I knew what was coming") mark them out as kindred spirits. A double-bill of the two films would be ideal.

At the London Film Festival this week, I spoke to the director, Paul Kelly, about the eight years it took to make Lawrence of Belgravia.

What made you go from liking or admiring Lawrence to thinking he could be the subject of an entire film?
Lawrence is such an eccentric character with such a bizarre worldview, and such incredible optimism, and I wanted to share that with people. I'd known him since the mid 1980s; I thought he was so interesting that he deserved to have a film made about him. The premise of the film was that I wanted to make a documentary that didn't use interviews with celebrity fans or any band members, no talking heads at all; it's just Lawrence's worldview, expressed partly through the interviews you see him conducting with journalists, and his circumstances over the past eight years. He was making this album in 2003, so I thought I'd follow him as he made it, you know, that classic documentary thing. But that took eight years; it wasn't purely that the album took eight years, of course. There were other factors.

You do refer in a montage to Lawrence's drug problem, but I wondered why you didn't go into it more.
I show that little montage referring to the drugs, the mental health issues and money problems, but it's such a complex subject that if you dwell too much on it, you find it can eclipse everything else in the film. Then you'd lose the most important thing, the focus on Lawrence. You can clearly see the result of getting into heroin. Just because he's not lying around shooting up, doesn't mean the subject is hidden. Also, I never wanted to do the Lawrence story, or the Felt story or whatever. It was always about trying to get the essence of him on screen because he's fascinating.

How would you define his relationship to the past?
He only looks back to work out where he is and where he's heading. He has no desire to actually revisit that, which is why he's so stubborn about not reforming Felt, and not playing any Denim songs. He was on the phone to me last night until 3am talking about this Stone Roses reunion tour. Lawrence was saying, "I can't believe they're doing that. I thought they were gonna stick it out like me."

He says in the film that he craves fame and celebrity, but isn't there a part of him that is deliberately thwarting any chance of that happening?
I think he subconsciously messes things up for himself, I don't know if that's a fear of achieving the success he craves. Part of it is being uncompromising. There's a point in the film when he mentions Lou Reed, his hero, reforming the Velvet Underground, and he says: "I'm stronger than that." Which is funny -- Lawrence being stronger than Lou Reed! But he is, in a sense. Some blogger doubted the claim in the film that Lawrence has had offers to work with other people. Well, I can tell you he's been asked many times. I've seen him turn down things that are guaranteed money-makers. I won't say who it was, but he's had big offers to write for other people, and I've sat there with him and said, "Lawrence, you will get a shitload of money for doing this." But he just turns it down.

How did that attitude affect the filming?
He'd deny this, I'm sure, but I think he's got an inbuilt mechanism that will always make sure things don't happen. I thought the film wasn't going to happen. I got the feeling he didn't want it to end, and he didn't want the album to be finished, so he somehow found ways of stretching things out. As long as he's busy and has a target he's okay. I know he'd like money, to have nice clothes and live in a nice flat but he doesn't crave, you know, getting a helicopter and flying somewhere 'cos he's got nowhere to go and he doesn't like socialising.

He's very eloquent and funny when he's talking to journalists in the film. Is he like that all the time, or is that him being "on"?
He definitely performs for journalists, he's very good at that; he'll spend all day thinking about interviews, and he's got such a unique, bizarre worldview. That's rare. I heard Will Young on Woman's Hour today and I thought, "Christ, why does this guy get airtime?" I've got nothing against the guy but he hasn't got anything to say. Then you get someone like Lawrence who just can't get his voice heard.

Does he know his own worth? Does he know how passionate people are about his work?
I think so. I think he's very aware of that and very protective of that. He wants everything to be so perfect, but he's so protective of what he does that he kind of smothers it a bit, doesn't let it go out there and breathe. He writes great pop songs, and they deserve to be heard. Someone at the Q&A after the LFF screening asked him what his favourite Denim album was, and he said: "Back in Denim. Denim on Ice. Novelty Rock." He counted them out on his fingers. He basically listed all three albums! Someone else asked if he ever thought about the legacy he was going to leave behind, and he said: "What do you think I've been doing for the past 30 years? Of course I bloody think about it!"

How do you feel now looking back over the last eight years?
Well, it wasn't the only thing I did in that time! But, you know, Lawrence has a lot of issues, he can't function in a regular way. He is clinically ill, I guess. He can't for various reasons make an album in a regular way, just a day here and a day there. He disappears for months on end. I knew it would be protracted. I thought it might take a year. I never dreamed it would take eight.

What's the future for the film?
I've had a lot of interest from distributors. I don't know if it'll be seen as commercial. It felt to me that if Dig! or The Devil and Daniel Johnston could do well, there must be an appetite for the kind of music documentary about these strong characters. I made it very much as a cinema film so I'm hoping it'll have a theatrical life.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Out with the old: how new species are evolving faster than ever

A future geologist will look back to the present day as a time of diversification, as well as extinction.

Human population growth, increased consumption, hunting, habitat destruction, pollution, invasive species and now climate change are turning the biological world on its head. The consequence is that species are becoming extinct, perhaps faster than at any time since the dinosaurs died out 66 million years ago. This is an inconvenient truth.

But there are also convenient truths. Britain has gained about 2,000 new species over the past two millennia, because our predecessors converted forests into managed woodlands, orchards, meadows, wheat fields, roadsides, hedgerows, ponds and ditches, as well as gardens and urban sprawl, each providing new opportunities.

Then we started to transport species deliberately. We have the Romans to thank for brown hares and the Normans for rabbits. In the 20th century, ring-necked parakeets escaped from captivity and now adorn London’s parks and gardens.

Climate warming is bringing yet more new species to our shores, including little egrets and tree bumblebees, both of which have colonised Britain in recent years and then spread so far north that I can see them at home in Yorkshire. Convenient truth No 1 is that more species have arrived than have died out: most American states, most islands in the Pacific and most countries in Europe, including Britain, support more species today than they did centuries ago.

Evolution has also gone into overdrive. Just as some species are thriving on a human-dominated planet, the same is true of genes. Some genes are surviving better than others. Brown argus butterflies in my meadow have evolved a change in diet (their caterpillars now eat dove’s-foot cranesbill plants, which are common in human-disturbed landscapes), enabling them to take advantage of a warming climate and spread northwards.

Evolution is a second convenient truth. Many species are surviving better than we might have expected because they are becoming adapted to the human-altered world – although this is not such good news when diseases evolve immunity to medicines or crop pests become resistant to insecticides.

A third convenient truth is that new species are coming into existence. The hybrid Italian sparrow was born one spring day when a male Spanish sparrow (the “original” Mediterranean species) hitched up with a female house sparrow (which had spread from Asia into newly created farmland). The descendants of this happy union live on, purloining dropped grains and scraps from the farms and towns of the Italian peninsula. Some of those grains are wheat, which is also a hybrid species that originated as crosses between wild grasses in the Middle East.

This is not the only process by which new species are arising. On a much longer time scale, all of the species that we have released on thousands of islands across the world’s oceans and transported to new continents will start to become more distinct in their new homes, eventually separating into entirely new creatures. The current rate at which new species are forming may well be the highest ever. A future geologist will look back to the present day as a time of great diversification on Earth, as well as a time of extinction.

The processes of ecological and evolutionary change that brought all of Earth’s existing biological diversity into being – including ourselves – is continuing to generate new diversity in today’s human-altered world. Unless we sterilise our planet in some unimagined way, this will continue. In my book Inheritors of the Earth, I criss-cross the world to survey the growth in biological diversity (as well as to chart some of the losses) that has taken place in the human epoch and argue that this growth fundamentally alters our relationship with nature.

We need to walk a tightrope between saving “old nature” (some of which might be useful) and facilitating what will enable the biological world to adjust to its changed state. Humans are integral to Earth’s “new nature”, and we should not presume that the old was better than the new.

“Inheritors of the Earth: How Nature Is Thriving in an Age of Extinction” by Chris D Thomas is published by Allen Lane

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder