Read Melanie Phillips' memoir and politely disagree: it will annoy her

A fascinating psychological portrait of a woman who seems to feel most alive when under fire.

Guardian Angel: My Story, My Britain
Melanie Phillips
emBooks, 128pp, £7.20 (ebook)

When I worked at the Daily Mail – I know, I’m sorry, please put down the pitchfork! – we had a running joke. Every week, we ran a “Saturday essay” and we discovered that, whatever the ostensible subject of this 1,800-word tract, it could always fit under the headline “The great betrayal”.

It’s tempting to suggest that this explains why Melanie Phillips found the paper to be such an agreeable home after 21 years working on the Guardian and the Observer. Despite her success and public profile – she has appeared on Question Time twice as often in the past 18 months as all of Britain’s scientists put together – Phillips feels betrayed, marginalised and vilified. She is a lone voice crying in the wilderness as hordes of lefties dominate the airwaves and newspapers, urging the destruction of the family, pushing the myth of climate change and insisting on compulsory gayness lessons for under-fives.

Does this sound like a Britain you recognise? It doesn’t to me and, as I read further through this book, I began to feel that Phillips was that most postmodern of literary devices – an unreliable narrator. She clearly describes the facts and then leaps to a conclusion so unexpected, so different to the one I would draw, that I feel breathless.

For example, after Phillips begins to write columns about education at the Guardian, she receives many letters disagreeing with her – although those that agree often mention that theirs is the minority view and they are afraid to challenge the consensus. She concludes: “What was being described was more akin to life in a totalitarian state. Dissent was being silenced, and those who ran against the orthodoxy were being forced to operate in secret.” Now, I know that rightwingers like to mock the Guardian’s relatively low circulation figures but writing a column there is hardly “operating in secret”. And where are all the columns supporting progressive ideas in the Mail? Or is it only “silencing dissent” when left-wing papers have an editorial line?

There are several incidents like this, in which Phillips recounts how oppressed she was by the Guardianistas, followed swiftly by the flat assertion that she was then appointed leader writer, news editor, columnist or editor of an environmental supplement (even after telling her then editor, Peter Preston, that she believed there was no evidence for man-made climate change).

The vocabulary of this book – “shibboleths”, “hate-mongering”, “denounced”, “besmirch”, “mind-bending” – suggests that she enjoys extreme adversarialism, even while raging against it. Finally, when she leaves the Observer – not before applying to be its editor – for the Sunday Times, she quickly becomes bored with not being attacked: “It just wasn’t where the action was because it was not in the front line of the culture war. My place was on the front line.”

This is a fascinating psychological portrait of a woman who seems to feel most alive when under fire. The chapters about her family – her controlling mother and passive father, her monstrous grandmother, suspected of being partially responsible for the death of her aunt – would provide fodder for an army of therapists. So read it and politely disagree. Phillips would hate that.

Melanie Phillips appearing on BBC Question Time.

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.

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Women don’t make concept albums: how BBC Four’s When Pop Went Epic erases popular music’s diverse history

Why are the only albums blessed with the grandiose description of “conceptual” the ones made by white men?

Tonight, BBC Four airs a documentary exploring the history of the concept album called When Pop Went Epic: The Crazy World of the Concept Album. Presented by prog rock veteran Rick Wakeman, the programme set out to “examine the roots of the concept album in its various forms”, as well as cycling through the greatest examples of the musical phenomenon.

“Tracing the story of the concept album is like going through a maze,” says dear old Rick incredulously, while ambling round a literal maze on screen, just so we fully get the symbolism. But if the history of concept albums is a labyrinth, Wakeman has chosen a gymnastic route through it, one filled with diversions and shortcuts that studiously avoid the diversity of the format’s history. He imagines the concept album to begin with Woody Guthrie’s 1940s record about poverty and class struggle in America, Dust Bowl Ballads, following on with Frank Sinatra’s Only the Lonely (1958) and The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds (1966), before moving on to big hitters like Sgt Pepper and Tommy. It quickly seems apparent that the first albums blessed with the grandiose description “conceptual” are the ones made by white men, and Wakeman’s history credits them with inventing the form.

What about Duke Ellington’s Black, Brown and Beige (1943-58), a history of American blackness? Miles Davis’s Milestones, a 1958 LP-length experiment with modal harmonies? Sun Ra’s particular blend of science fiction and Egyptian mythology on albums like The Futuristic Sounds of Sun Ra (1961)? When Wakeman reaches what he considers to be the first from a black artist, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On , he notes that it “comes from a musical culture where the concept album was quite alien”.

Certainly, Motown was a towering monument to the power of the single, not the album, but we know that one of Gaye’s greatest inflences was Nat King Cole: why not mention his 1960 concept album, centring  on a protagonist’s varied attempts to find The One, Wild Is Love? Wakeman does recognise the importance of black concept albums, from Parliament’s Mothership Connection to Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, but his history suggest black concept albums begin with Gaye, who is building on the work of his white predecessors.

It takes rather longer for Wakeman to pay his respects to any conceptual woman. 53 minutes into this 59 minute documentary, we discover our first concept album by a woman: Lady Gaga’s The Fame. The only other female artist discussed is Laura Marling, who, perhaps not coincidentally, is also a talking head on the documentary. That’s two albums by women out of the 25 discussed, given cursory attention in the last five minutes of the programme. It feels like a brief footnote in the epic history of conceptual albums.

Jean Shepherd’s Songs of a Love Affair is perhaps the earliest example of a female-led concept album that springs to my mind. A chronological narrative work exploring the breakdown of a marriage following an affair, it was released in 1956: Shepherd has a whole two years on Sinatra. Perhaps this is a little obscure, but far more mainstream and influential works are equally passed over: from themed covers albums like Mavis Staples’ duet record Boy Meets Girl to more conventionally conceptual works.

The Seventies was a decade that did not solely belong to pasty men rambling about fantasy worlds. Female-fronted concept albums flourished, from Manhole by Grace Slick, conceived as a soundtrack to a non-existent movie of the same name (1974) and Joni Mitchell’s mediations on travel in Hejira (1976), to Bjork’s debut, an Icelandic covers album (1977), and Heart’s Dog & Butterfly (1978).

The Eighties were no different, featuring gems like Grace Jones’ Slave to the Rhythm (1985), which pulled a single track into a wild variety of different songs; the Japanese distorted vocal experiment Fushigi by Akina Nakamori (1986), and Kate Bush’s playful faithfulness to A and B sides of a record, producing “The Ninth Wave” as a kind of mini concept album on Hounds of Love (1985).

Wakeman skips over the Nineties in his programme, arguing that conceptual works felt hackneyed and uncool at this time; but the decade is peppered with women making thematically unified works from Madonna’s Erotica (1992) to Hole’s mediations on physical beauty and trauma, Live Through This (1994) and The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998).

Since then, women arguably led the field of conceptual albums, whether through the creation of alter egos in works like Marina and the Diamonds’ Electra Heart, Beyoncé’s I Am… Sasha Fierce or through focusing on a very specific theme, like Kate Bush’s 50 Words for Snow or in their storytelling, like Anaïs Mitchell’s Hadestown and Aimee Mann’s The Forgotten Arm. Wakeman includes no black women artists in his programme, but today, black women are making the most experimental and influential conceptual records in modern pop, from Janelle Monáe and Kelis to Erykah Badu, and, of course, Beyoncé. It’s no coincidence that Lemonade, which would have been considered an abstract conceptual album from a male artist, was immediately regarded as a confessional piece by most tabloids. This issue extends far beyond one documentary, embedded in the fabric of music writing even today.

Of course, concept album is a slippery term that is largely subjective and impossible to strictly define: many will not agree that all my examples count as truly conceptual. But in his programme, Wakeman laments that the phrase should be so narrowly defined, saddened that “the dreaded words ‘the concept album’ probably conjure up visions of straggly-haired rockers jabbering on about unicorns, goblins and the end of the world”. Unfortunately, he only confirms this narrative with a self-serving programme that celebrates his musical peers and friends, and ignores the pioneers who would bring variety and colour to his limited classification. 

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.