All Tomorrow's Parties is no more

Will artist-curated festivals become a thing of the past?

Before last week, the future seemed bright for artist-curated music festival All Tomorrow’s Parties. With a string of international events, including the Yeah Yeah Yeahs curating I’ll Be Your Mirror at Alexandra Palace, Nick Cave taking the ATP festival to a former NATO base in Iceland, and a positive spate of holiday-camp merriment set for 2013, the last thing anyone was expecting was for it to come to such an abrupt conclusion. The two weekend events at Camber Sands this November and December will be the festival's last.

ATP’s extraordinary, 13-year run started in 2000, when founder Barry Hogan persuaded Mogwai to curate the first-ever festival, bringing together acts such as Arab Strap, Sigur Rós and Clinic to the Butlins holiday camp in Minehead, Somerset. It proved a winning formula. Musicians liked the fact that it was driven by artists as opposed to promoters, and had a low-key, sponsorship-free atmosphere that stood in stark contrast to the bigger festivals such as Reading or Glastonbury.

For the audience, the fact that there were no separate areas for artists meant that going to ATP gave you a chance to mingle with bands over the weekend, as opposed to simply glimpsing them on a distant stage. Back in 2000, before the rapid mushrooming of boutique festivals, this was a pretty radical concept. And it took off. Within two years, there was a US version, and the British event split into two separate weekends instead of one. An ATP stage appeared at Barcelona’s Primavera festival and an Australian incarnation of the festival was launched. As if this wasn’t enough, a new series of one-day events were launched. I’ll Be Your Mirror – named after the B-side of the Velvet Underground single "All Tomorrow’s Parties" – is essentially the same format as the festival but minus the holiday resort.

Listed like this, the sudden end of ATP makes more sense: it has outgrown itself. Its charm lay in its DIY mentality – using a holiday camp as a base, allowing bands to dictate the line-up, and relying on a core attendance of dedicated music fans to support it. The sheer number of events has taken its toll on the line-up, which in recent years has seen a core group of regulars emerging. Although they’re undeniably good bands, the events have lost the freshness and diversity that characterised the early years. Added to this, as ATP has evolved into an ever more global affair, the grass roots element has been eroded.

Founder Barry Hogan’s desire to preserve the festival’s authenticity – by calling a halt to it before it has a chance to stale or mutate into another commercial-driven affair – is manifested in his unusual choice of headliner for the final weekend: eighties alt-rock band Loop, who are temporarily reforming for the event. In previous years, line-ups were selected by bands such as Portishead, My Bloody Valentine and Animal Collective, although the curators weren’t exclusively musicians – Jake and Dinos Chapman, Matt Groening and Jim Jarmusch have all taken a turn at the festival.

The two remaining weekends will be a swan song for All Tomorrow’s Parties. Pontins holiday park at Camber Sands will be a sadder, if quieter, place.

I’ll Be Your Mirror will take place at Alexandra Palace on 4 May

Karen O performing with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs in 2009. Photograph: Getty Images.
DE AGOSTINI PICTURE LIBRARY / BRIDGEMAN IMAGES
Show Hide image

Eighty pages in to Age of Anger, I still had no idea what it was about

When Pankaj Mishra describes a “postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”, he inadvertently summarises his own book.

Most books arrive on the market dragging a comet tail of context: the press release, the blurb on the back, the comparison with another book that sold well (sometimes this is baked into the title, as with a spate of novels in which grown women were recast as “girls”, variously gone, or on the train, or with dragon tattoos or pearl earrings). Before you even start reading, you know pretty much what you will get.

So I was particularly disconcerted to reach page 80 of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger and realise that I didn’t really know what it was about. The prologue starts with a recap of the tyrannical career of the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, namechecks The Communist Manifesto, describes how Europeans were enthralled by Napoleon’s “quasi-autistic machismo”, links this to the “great euphoria” experienced in 1914, mentions that Eugene Onegin “wears a tony ‘Bolívar’ hat”, then dwells on Rimbaud’s belief that not washing made him a better writer, before returning to D’Annunzio to conclude that his life “crystallised many themes of our own global ferment as well as those of his spiritually agitated epoch”.

Psychologists have demonstrated that the maximum number of things that a human can hold in their brain is about seven. The prologue is titled “Forgotten Conjunctures”. I might know why they have been forgotten.

Two pages later, Mishra is at it again. How’s this for a paragraph?

After all, Maxim Gorky, the Bolshevik, Muhammad Iqbal, the poet-advocate of “pure” Islam, Martin Buber, the exponent of the “New Jew”, and Lu Xun, the campaigner for a “New Life” in China, as well as D’Annunzio, were all devotees of Nietzsche. Asian anti-imperialists and American robber barons borrowed equally eagerly from the 19th-century polymath Herbert Spencer, the first truly global thinker – who, after reading Darwin, coined the term “survival of the fittest”. Hitler revered Atatürk (literally “the father of the Turks”) as his guru; Lenin and Gramsci were keen on Taylorism, or “Americanism”; American New Dealers later borrowed from Mussolini’s “corporatism”.

This continues throughout. The dizzying whirl of names began to remind me of Wendy Cope’s “Waste Land Limericks”: “No water. Dry rocks and dry throats/Then thunder, a shower of quotes/From the Sanskrit and Dante./Da. Damyata. Shantih./I hope you’ll make sense of the notes.”

The trouble comes because Mishra has set himself an enormous subject: explaining why the modern world, from London to Mumbai and Mosul, is like it is. But the risk of writing about everything is that one can end up writing about nothing. (Hang on, I think I might be echoing someone here. Perhaps this prose style is contagious. As Nietzsche probably wrote.) Too often, the sheer mass of Mishra’s reading list obscures the narrative connective tissue that should make sense of his disparate examples.

By the halfway point, wondering if I was just too thick to understand it, I did something I don’t normally do and read some other reviews. One recorded approvingly that Mishra’s “vision is . . . resistant to categorisation”. That feels like Reviewer Code to me.

His central thesis is that the current “age of anger” – demonstrated by the rise of Islamic State and right-wing nationalism across Europe and the US – is best understood by looking at the 18th century. Mishra invokes the concept of “ressentiment”, or projecting resentment on to an external enemy; and the emergence of the “clash of civilisations” narrative, once used to justify imperialism (“We’re bringing order to the natives”) and now used to turn Islamic extremism from a political challenge into an existential threat to the West.

It is on the latter subject that Mishra is most readable. He grew up in “semi-rural India” and now lives between London and Shimla; his prose hums with energy when he feels that he is writing against a dominant paradigm. His skirmish with Niall Ferguson over the latter’s Civilisation: the West and the Rest in the London Review of Books in 2011 was highly enjoyable, and there are echoes of that fire here. For centuries, the West has presumed to impose a narrative on the developing world. Some of its current anxiety and its flirtation with white nationalism springs from the other half of the globe talking back.

On the subject of half of us getting a raw deal, this is unequivocally a history of men. We read about Flaubert and Baudelaire “spinning dreams of virility”, Gorky’s attachment to the idea of a “New Man” and the cultural anxieties of (male) terrorists. Poor Madame de Staël sometimes seems like the only woman who ever wrote a book.

And yet, in a book devoted to unpicking hidden connections, the role of masculinity in rage and violence is merely noted again and again without being explored. “Many intelligent young men . . . were breaking their heads against the prison walls of their societies” in the 19th century, we learn. Might it not be interesting to ask whether their mothers, sisters and daughters were doing the same? And if not, why?

Mishra ends with the present, an atomised, alienated world of social media and Kim Kardashian. Isis, we are told, “offers a postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”. That is also a good description of this book. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era