You Only Get What You Give, David? Really?

Why the rubbish music played at party conferences matters.

"Dealers keep dealin', thieves keep thievin', whores keep whorin', junkies keep scorin'." Not exactly the musical accompaniment you'd expect Home Secretary Theresa May to choose to soundtrack her speech at the Conservative Party Conference.

And it wasn't.

As much as Primal Scream frontman Bobby Gillespie, allegedly a card-carrying member of the Socialist Workers Party, might want to give the Tories a kicking, it was actually Dandy Warhols' Bohemian Like You that sounded out as May left the stage.

That isn't really any better, however. The song featured on a Vodafone TV advert for years, and I'm pretty sure the Tories wouldn't want to remind everyone about the £6billion-tax-bill-sized ball they dropped with that one.

David Cameron didn't exactly lead by example either, walking on to the sounds of You Get What You Give by The New Radicals.

If our ruddy-faced premier had anything to do with the song choice at all -- and let's hope he spent all available time perfecting his speech rather than poring over his iPod -- it suggests no more than a cursory glance at the tracklisting of whichever Now That's What I Call Music compilation that particular chart-bothering one-hit wonder came from.

"You get what you give? I like the sound of that idea, Samantha, it's like my Big Society. And the band are called The New Radicals. How jolly! That's what they used to call Boris and me when we were at Eton."

If Call Me Dave had delved deeper into the lyrical content of the song, of course, he would have discovered lines about "trashing Mercedes-Benz" and chasing the rich back to their mansions, plus an honourable, topical mention for lying "big bankers buying".

His exit music, meanwhile, was The Lovecats by The Cure which, on the surface seems rather lovely with its melodic double bass and kooky piano-led chorus, but it's all too easy to imagine Cameron and his cabinet "slipping through the streets while everyone sleeps, getting bigger and sleeker and wider and brighter". The slippery buggers.

Ed Miliband is no better. Choosing Florence + The Machine's cover of You Got The Love is as lame a grab for the zeitgeist as there ever was. I'm actually surprised, given the ubiquity of Flo's appearances at UK festivals over the past couple of years, that she didn't float out onto the stage and demand to perform it as a duet.

Now, I may have been giving the music used at the various party conferences too much thought lately, but that's only because I wish the parties cared as much. I'm not stupid; with 80,000 more unemployed people on the streets in the last six months and Mervyn King warning of the most serious financial crisis in decades, I realise there are more important things to fret about than which Killers song to play as the PM takes the lectern.

But I think it does point at something far more worrying - that they Just. Don't. Get. It. On any level. Politicians have long battled to appear connected with the voters, and an easy way of doing this is with shared cultural influences. Gordon Brown saying he loved Arctic Monkeys in 2006 was a pathetic, last-ditch attempt of grabbing some young voters. And he got found out, which is even more embarrassing than lying in the first place, although perhaps not quite as desperate-looking as Mr Tony Blair carrying his Fender Stratocaster everywhere with him. He was in a band at uni, you know...

David Cameron learned nothing from the Brown debacle and keeps on insisting he's a fan of The Smiths. Music is in the public domain once it's released, and no matter how much Johnny Marr forbids Dave from listening to The Queen Is Dead, he can't stop him.

Cameron, however, should know better than to endorse a band born during Thatcher's formative years. How can he seriously enjoy songs such as Miserable Lie, I Don't Owe You Anything and Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now? And an album title that rejoices in the fact his boss has carked it.

Dismiss the Tories' musical faux pas as unimportant if you will, but for me, their lack of research into the matter is symptomatic of a government not only obsessed with the superficial, but worryingly slack with the details too.

Photo: Getty
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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear