David Bowie performing in 2003. Photo: Getty.
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Let’s not pretend: David Bowie’s Brit Award was for being alive

Musicians and pundits need to get over their obsessive, nostalgic hero-worship. In 2014, David Bowie is irrelevant.

In ten years time, if we should happen to look over the Brits winners of 2014, among the list of forgotten flash in the pans and now-stadium-dependables David Bowie’s award for Best Male Artist will be the Proust’s madeleine or forgotten TV theme that sends us hurtling back to 2014. And, with a lurch of embarrassment for the time and all of us here, the question will form on our lips: “What were we thinking?”

Let’s not pretend: Bowie’s award was for being alive, as was the acclaim that greeted his single, “Where Are We Now”. We thought he was dead/in a coma/suffering from dementia/Parkinson’s Disease and he wasn’t. If that didn’t do it, the song (calculatedly or not, who knows?) was even about nostalgia – walking through Berlin, looking back – and came with a wistful chorus guaranteed to send Pavlovian shivers down the spine of anyone who’d seen him perform “Starman” on Top Of The Pops, or listened to “Station to Station” in a dark bedroom, or remembered him leaning against a wall in the video for “Let’s Dance”. Solo acts can’t break up and reform; Bowie had (calculatedly or not) figured out his own way to rekindle that love.

I’m as happy as anyone that he’s alive and well enough to make a record and disappoint me by appearing in an advert for Louis Vuitton. But let’s not get this out of proportion. Let’s not pretend he’s made a great album: I don’t even want to listen to the whole of that song again, let alone the album it comes from. It was the same when Bob Dylan released his Tempest in 2012. Asked what the best albums of the year were, I put that in. How could I not? It was Bob Dylan, the man who changed rock music and, more importantly, nursed me through my student days and three separate heartbreaks, played the best gig I’ve ever seen, whose greatest moments still work their magic for me. And I haven’t listened to Tempest since.

Bowie, like Dylan, is irrelevant. Any of the other nominees for Best Male Artist – folk throwback Jake Bugg, angsty electronicist James Blake, retro-soulboy John Newman or plangent piano manchild Tom Odell – represent a strand of popular music in the UK now, for good or ill. Marvellously, none of them were born when Bowie last won the same award, in 1984 – for Let’s Dance, the album where he was last relevant, though first stopped dictating what relevance was. Another twinkle in his father’s eye was Harry Styles of One Direction, whose reaction to Bowie’s win, for Radio 4’s Today programme, was, “He’s a legend.” The boy put his finger on it – a legend is exactly what Bowie is, and his award came from the ancestor-worship pop music has been indulging in for some time as it tries to come to terms with its own old age.

Radio 6, a station created in order to connect pop past and present, has been one of the most committed participants in the past year’s Bowie worship. Perhaps they can draw a line under it now. Moving on doesn’t have to take away from what he did before – we can still love that. We can enjoy his new stuff, too, but let’s not get them confused. It’s a shame Bowie’s comeback didn’t take the form of dense art music like Scott Walker’s, or painting. Instead, it seems he still wants to be in the game. But to humour him, for the sake of our various pasts, is ludicrous.

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The conflict in Yemen is a Civil War by numbers

Amid the battles, a generation starves.

Ten thousand dead – a conservative estimate at best. Three million internally displaced. Twenty million in need of aid. Two hundred thousand besieged for over a year. Thirty-four ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia. More than 140 mourners killed in a double-tap strike on a funeral. These are just some of the numerical subscripts of the war in Yemen.

The British government would probably prefer to draw attention to the money being spent on aid in Yemen – £37m extra, according to figures released by the Department for International Development in September – rather than the £3.3bn worth of arms that the UK licensed for sale to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the kingdom’s bombing campaign against one of the poorest nations in the Middle East.

Yet, on the ground, the numbers are meaningless. What they do not show is how the conflict is tearing Yemeni society apart. Nor do they account for the deaths from disease and starvation caused by the hindering of food imports and medical supplies – siege tactics used by both sides – and for the appropriation of aid for financial gain.

Since the war began in March 2015 I have travelled more than 2,500 miles across Yemen, criss-crossing the front lines in and out of territories controlled by Houthi rebels, or by their opponents, the Saudi-backed resistance forces, or through vast stretches of land held by al-Qaeda. On those journeys, what struck me most was the deepening resentment expressed by so many people towards their fellow Yemenis.

The object of that loathing can change in the space of a few hundred metres. The soundtrack to this hatred emanates from smartphones resting on rusting oil drums, protruding from the breast pockets of military fatigues, or lying on chairs under makeshift awnings where flags denote the beginning of the dead ground of no-man’s-land. The rabble-rousing propaganda songs preach to the watchful gunmen about a feeble and irreligious enemy backed by foreign powers. Down the road, an almost identical scene awaits, only the flag is different and the song, though echoing the same sentiment, chants of an opponent altogether different from the one decried barely out of earshot in the dust behind you.

“We hate them. They hate us. We kill each other. Who wins?” mused a fellow passenger on one of my trips as he pressed green leaves of the mildly narcotic khat plant into his mouth.

Mohammed was a friend of a friend who helped to smuggle me – dressed in the all-black, face-covering garb of a Yemeni woman – across front lines into the besieged enclave of Taiz. “We lose everything,” he said. “They win. They always win.” He gesticulated as he spoke of these invisible yet omnipresent powers: Yemen’s political elite and the foreign states entangled in his country’s conflict.

This promotion of hatred, creating what are likely to be irreversible divisions, is necessary for the war’s belligerents in order to incite tens of thousands to fight. It is essential to perpetuate the cycle of revenge unleashed by the territorial advances in 2014 and 2015 by Houthi rebels and the forces of their patron, the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This demand for retribution is matched by those who are now seeking vengeance for the lives lost in a UK-supported, Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign.

More than 25 years after the two states of North and South Yemen united, the gulf between them has never been wider. The political south, now controlled by forces aligned with the Saudi-led coalition, is logistically as well as politically severed from the north-western territories under the command of the Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists. Caught in the middle is the city of Taiz, which is steadily being reduced to rubble after a year-long siege imposed by the Houthi-Saleh forces.

Revenge nourishes the violence, but it cannot feed those who are dying from malnutrition. Blowing in the sandy wind on roadsides up and down the country are tattered tents that hundreds of thousands of displaced families now call home. Others have fled from the cities and towns affected by the conflict to remote but safer village areas. There, food and medical care are scarce.

The acute child malnutrition reported in urban hospitals remains largely hidden in these isolated villages, far from tarmac roads, beyond the reach of international aid agencies. On my road trips across Yemen, a journey that would normally take 45 minutes on asphalt could take five hours on tracks across scrubland and rock, climbing mountainsides and descending into valleys where bridges stand useless, snapped in half by air strikes.

Among the other statistics are the missing millions needed by the state – the country’s largest employer. Workers haven’t been paid in months, amid fears of an economic collapse. This is apparently a deliberate tactic of fiscal strangulation by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government-in-exile. The recent relocation of the central bank from the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a, to the southern city of Aden is so far proving symbolic, given that the institution remains devoid of funds. The workforce on both sides of the conflict has taken to the streets to protest against salaries being overdue.

Following the deaths of more than 140 people in Saudi-led air strikes on a funeral hall on 8 October, Saleh and the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, called for yet more revenge. Within hours, ballistic missiles were fired from within Houthi territory, reaching up to 350 miles into Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, in the Red Sea, Houthi missile attacks on US warships resulted in retaliation, sucking the US further into the mire. Hours later, Iran announced its intention to deploy naval vessels in the area.

Vengeance continues to drive the violence in Yemen, which is being drawn ever closer to proxy conflicts being fought elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet the impact on Yemeni society and the consequences for the population’s health for generations to come are unlikely to appear to the outside world, not even as annotated numbers in the brief glimpses we get of this war. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood