Pet Shop Boys' text to David Cameron: "Sorry to bug you, but could you pardon Alan Turing?"

In the New Statesman this week, the Pet Shop Boys talk age, political apathy and lobbying David Cameron.

The culture pages of the New Statesman this week feature an exclusive interview with synth-pop duo the Pet Shop Boys. Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe spoke to Jude Rogers in the wake of their most recent album, Electric, which debuted at number one in the album charts earlier this year.

There is a subtle, political strain to the album’s “upbeat mix of disco, house and pop”, Rogers writes, though the pair have consciously avoided letting their opinions bleed into the music, as Neil Tennant reflects: “We never wanted to preach or anything like that, because politics in pop music is a very tricky thing.”

In 1988 the Pet Shop Boys played a gig to protest Section 28. Now, the band, “which has always supported gay rights, albeit sometimes subtly”, are increasingly concerned by Vladimir Putin and Russia’s new anti-gay “propaganda” laws. Tennant believes the Russian Orthodox Church is behind the legislation:

It’s regained its position in Soviet society and Putin has schmoozed them as a result. He schmoozes everyone, actually, doesn’t he?

Tennant adds that he finds our modern apathy towards political matters worrying. On digital privacy, for example, he says:

The public couldn’t care less about being snooped on and that’s very odd. Imagine a politician saying they were going to open your post before they delivered it to you, photostat it, then deliver it. On the internet, it doesn’t feel like crime because you can’t feel the crime happening. It’s the same way that people think of stealing music, to turn to that hoary old argument.

Chris Lowe, who arrived to the interview wearing a mirrorball hat, finds the modern pop industry frustrating, too:

I’ve realised recently just how ring-fenced pop music is. Pop music wasn’t like that before. It’s now a very closed world.

Tennant agrees the system is “unbelievably conservative and enclosed … radio people actually say to us now, ‘Oh, we won’t ever play your records, because you’re too old.’”

But the pair, who are working on a song cycle about the life of celebrated cryptographer Alan Turing, still retain some influence. They recount how, having done David Cameron a favour by performing at the Olympics winners’ parade on the Mall, they lobbied the Prime Minister by text message to get Turing – who was prosecuted for homosexual acts in the 1950s – pardoned:

Tennant texted David Cameron’s assistant to say so. His message read as follows:

“Thanks for asking us – actually it was really worth doing. And sorry to bug you, but could you pass on to the Prime Minister that in Alan Turing’s centenary year it would be an amazing, inspirational thing to do to pardon him?”

The same week that Electric was released, the government announced that the third reading of the bill pardoning Turing had been tabled for October. Sometimes pop and politics do shimmer together, after all.

Elsewhere in the magazine’s back half, John Gray writes at length about Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837), whose Notebooks are being published in English for the first time. Areté assistant editor Claire Lowdon reviews the new Booker-shortlisted novel by Jhumpa Lahiri. “The Lowland is satellite prose,” she writes, “placidly panning from Calcutta in the 1950s to Rhode Island in the early part of this century.” NS arts editor Kate Mossman reflects on the evolution of Elton John, who recently presented his new album, The Diving Board, at London’s Roundhouse, and Amanda Levete, principal of the architectural studio AL_A, discusses the structural changes at the V&A.

The latest issue of the New Statesman is out on Thursday 19 September.

Hat trick: Chris Lowe and Neil Tennant. Photograph: Leo Aversa.

Philip Maughan is Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

Show Hide image

In Kid Gloves, the stories tumble out like washing from a machine

Adam Mars-Jones' has created a clever, stoical and cool account of caring for a dying father.

In bookish circles, it’s pretty commonplace these days to remark on the way in which the spirit of the Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard hangs over our literary culture – noxious gas or enlivening blast of ­oxygen, depending on your point of view. Nor would I be the first critic to point out the similarities between his prolixity and that of the British novelist Adam Mars-Jones. Reviewing Knausgaard’s My Struggle in the New Yorker, James Wood likened its style – “hundreds of pages of autopsied minutiae” – to that of Mars-Jones’s novels Pilcrow and Cedilla, the first two volumes in a thus far unfinished project in “micro-realism”. But originality be damned: I’m going to say it anyway. As I read Mars-Jones’s new memoir, Kid Gloves: a Voyage Round My Father, it was Knausgaard I thought of repeatedly. Mostly, this was because I simply couldn’t believe I was so fascinated by a book that was at times so very boring.

Mars-Jones is by far the more elegant writer of the two. He is also feline where Knausgaard is only wide-eyed. Nevertheless, they clamber (slowly and with many pauses to consider the view) over comparable territory. What, after all, is Knausgaard’s account of the effect of milk on a bowl of ­cereal compared to Mars-Jones’s disquisition on the subject of orange juice? The Norwegian’s reverie is the longer of the two but it is Mars-Jones who is the more triumphantly banal. “Shopping on a Monday I saw a wide variety of types of orange juice on display in a supermarket and bought large quantities,” he writes early on. I love that “Monday” – it’s so precise. But it also prompts the question: which supermarket, exactly, was he in? Was it the same “large branch of Sainsbury’s” where, three paragraphs later, we find him picking up a carton of buttermilk?

You will think that I am taking the piss. I’m not – or not entirely. For all its pedantic weirdness, Mars-Jones’s memoir, clotted and rich and true, does its job rather well. As the subtitle suggests, at its heart is his tricky relationship with Sir William Mars-Jones, the high court judge who died in 1999. A clever man but also a difficult one (having made a bit of a leap in terms of education and social class, he clung rather ardently to certain comforting reflexes), he is brought to life vividly by his son, who often simply replays their most frustrating conversations. In doing so, Mars-Jones, Jr also tells us something of himself. He comes over as a bit silly and fastidious but also as clever, stoical, kindly and, above all, ever cool in the face of provocation. In this light, his Pooterish digressions are just another symptom of his unnervingly temperate personality, his clinical even-handedness.

His memoir is oddly artless, the stories tumbling out, one after another, like washing pulled from a machine. An account of his father’s better-known cases (he prosecuted in the Moors murders trial) shades into a detour on soup-making; an analysis of Sir William’s retirement – he gravitated, his son writes, towards the state of “inanition” – takes us, almost slyly, to an explanation of why Mars-Jones tenderly associates Badedas with shingles (a friend who had yet to discover he had Aids, of which shingles can be a symptom, bathed in it).

The reader waits, and waits, for the big scene, for the moment when Mars-Jones tells his father, a regular kind of homophobe, that he is gay. But in a strange way (it does arrive eventually) this is beside the point. From the outset, we know that it was Adam, not his brothers, who looked after his widowed father in his last days, sharing his flat in Gray’s Inn Square; so we know already that an accommodation has been reached, however horrifying Pater’s reaction was at the time. (Mars-Jones, Sr suggested that his son could not possibly be gay because, as a boy, he played with himself during a film starring Jacqueline Bisset; more cruelly, he delegated his clerk to research the possibilities of testosterone treatment for his son.) In any case, there is a universality here: for which of us, gay or not, hasn’t trembled on hearing our mother say, down the line from home, the dread phrase “Dad would like a word”?

After his father’s death, Mars-Jones attempts to continue to live in his parents’ home, insisting that the inn will have to evict him if it wants him gone. When it does turf him out, he writes a piece for the Times in which he denounces its members – in ­effect, his parents’ friends and neighbours. Is this just the response of a more than usually broke freelance writer? Or is it that of a man in deep grief?

Perhaps it’s both. Mars-Jones tells us quite a bit about his parlous finances but relatively little of his feelings of abandonment. He was closer to his mother. It is more than 15 years since his father died. And yet, here it is, his book. Those Knausgaardian impulses of his – perhaps they’re just displacement for his loss, word-fill for a void so unfathomably big that it still takes him by surprise, even now. 

Kid Gloves: a Voyage Round My Father is available now from Particular Books (£16.99)

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism