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 a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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Beware of tea: the cuppa has started wars and ruined lives

. . . and it once led F Scott Fitzgerald to humiliate himself.

A drink sustains me – one that steams companionably as I write. It is hot, amber and fragranced differently from any wine; nor does it have wine’s capacity to soften and blur. I’ve never understood how the great drunks of literature, Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald and their like, ever put anything on the page more worthwhile than a self-involved howl, though even Hemingway apparently finished the day’s writing before beginning the day’s drinking.

Tea is more kindly, or so I’d always thought. Those aromatic leaves, black or green, rolled and dried and oxidised, have some of wine’s artistry but none of its danger. Even their exoticism has waned, from a Chinese rarity (“froth of the liquid jade”), for which 17th-century English traders were made to pay in solid silver, to a product that can be found dirt cheap on supermarket shelves.

There are even home-grown teas now. The Tregothnan estate in Cornwall has supplemented its ornamental rhododendrons and camellias with their relative camellia sinensis, the tea plant, while Dalreoch in the Scottish Highlands grows a white (that is, lightly oxidised) tea, which is smoked using wood from the surrounding birch plantations. Tellingly, this local version is priced as steeply as the imported rarity once was.

I enjoy a simple, solitary mug, but I also appreciate communal tea-drinking – the delicate tea warmed with water at 85°C (a little higher for sturdier black blends), the teapot and china, the pourer volunteering to be “mother”, as if this were a liquid that could nurture. But in reality, tea is not so gentle.

Those long-ago English traders disliked haemorrhaging silver, so they started exporting opium to China from India and paying with that. This was a fabulous success, unless you happened to be Chinese. In 1839, a commissioner attempted to clamp down on the illegal and harmful trade, and the result was the Opium Wars, which the Chinese lost. “Gunboat diplomacy” – a phrase that surely constitutes froth of a different kind – won England a great deal of silver, a 150-year lease on Hong Kong and an open tea market. China received a potful of humiliation that may eventually have helped spark the Communist Revolution. As many of us have recently realised, there is nothing like economic mortification to galvanise a nation to kick its leaders.

Later, the tea bush was planted in India, Ceylon and elsewhere, and the fragrant but bitter brew for the upper classes became a ubiquitous fuel. But not an entirely sweet one: just as the opium trade ensured our tea’s arrival in the pot, the slave trade sweetened it in the cup. Even today, conditions for tea workers in places such as Assam in north-east India are often appalling.

Scott Fitzgerald also had tea trouble. When invited round by Edith Wharton, he frothed the liquid jade so assiduously with booze beforehand and risqué conversation during (a story about an American tourist couple staying unawares in a Paris bordello) that he was nearly as badly humiliated as those 19th-century Chinese. Wharton, unshocked, merely wondered aloud what the couple had done in the bordello and afterwards pronounced the entire occasion “awful”.

Some would blame his alcoholic preliminaries, but I’m not so sure. Tea has started wars and ruined lives; we should be wary of its consolations. On that sober note, I reach for the corkscrew and allow the subject to drive me softly, beguilingly, to drink.

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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