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The man in the papier mâché head

Stuart Maconie recalls the “real” Frank Sidebottom.

Huge in Timperley: Chris Sievey probed absurd life situations as “Big Frank” Sidebottom

The eminent Australian cultural critic Robert Hughes once skewered a wrong-headed standard dismissal of modern art (and specifically Carl Andre’s “bricks at the Tate”). It was wrong to say that even a child could do it, he said. In fact, the opposite was true: contrary to appearances, only anybody but a child could do it; it needed the knowingness and intention of adulthood.

I thought of this recently when, moving house, I was trawling nostalgically through a tranche of old vinyl records and came across a copy of Frank Sidebottom’s debut album, 5.9.88. On it was written: “To Stuart, with best fantastic regards, Frank”. I had friends round at the time and a wistful “Ahh” went up from everyone except their nine-year-old daughter. She looked at the cover dispassionately, suspiciously even, at the stylised, sad-eyed, giant-headed manchild, and concluded: “He’s weird.”

The man in the papier mâché head had something of the child about him, in his irresponsibility if not his appetites. Under his own name, he wrote for the claymation series Pingu, and his most familiar creation did appear from time to time on children’s TV and in comics. Yet kids weren’t his core audience. A child could get it, sure – the funny voice, the daft get-up, the puppets – but adults would find something more: the plangent bottom note in the nasal whine of silliness, the whimsy, absurdity and melancholy in the story of the overgrown, overdressed bloke still living in loving exasperation with his mum in Timperley – and, of course, the frisson that came from knowing that there was in fact a grown man in there, a beery, divorced post-punk musician from Manchester, who died of throat cancer four years ago and was destined for a pauper’s funeral until a Twitter and Facebook campaign bought him a decent burial. (Some weird juxtaposition, 21st-century technology preventing a 19th-century fate.)

The man in there was called Chris Sievey. He’d been a minor stalwart of the Manchester music scene with his band the Freshies since the mid-Seventies. Punk’s ethos had chimed with his outsider temperament and he had a couple of indie hits with “I Can’t Get ‘Bouncing Babies’ by the Teardrop Explodes” and “I’m In Love With the Girl on the Manchester Virgin Megastore Checkout Desk(later renamed “I’m In Love With the Girl on a Certain Manchester Megastore Checkout Desk”), which reached number 54 in the charts in 1981.

The Freshies produced the world’s first multimedia single by including a Sinclair Spectrum game, The Biz, on the B-side. On this, Sievey also first introduced the character that he would become best known for, and that would essentially subsume him for the rest of his adult life. Frank Sidebottom had a studiedly “northern” name, evoking generations of stage comics and their characters, who were daft losers and simpletons. The conceit was both simple and grotesque. Frank was an aspiring pop star and entertainer with an enormous spherical head and a mournfully cute visage. There were no jokes as such. It was situation comedy in the truest sense of the word; the absurdity of it all was what we were being invited to laugh at. Like much classic British comedy – Hancock, Steptoe, Morecambe and Wise, Norman Wisdom – the keynote was pathos: thwarted expectations, grandiose schemes, inevitable failure.

At 35, Frank still lived with his mum and used his shed as his artistic base, along with his occasional sidekick, the piping-voiced puppet Little Frank. His own voice was a parody of the nasal Manchester drawl, achieved at some discomfort by wearing a swimmer’s clip on his nose for hours under the paper head. The writer Jon Ronson remembers how “Chris would be Frank for such long periods, the clip had deformed him slightly, flattened his nose out of shape. When he’d remove the peg after a long stint I’d see him wince in pain.”

Ronson is one of several now well-known media personalities who served time in Frank’s Oh Blimey Big Band. The DJs Mark Radcliffe and Chris Evans were sidemen and drivers. Frank’s neighbour Mrs Merton was played by Caroline Aherne and became a successful comedy character in her own right. Ronson even quit college and moved to Manchester from London to be in the band. With Peter Straughan, he has co-written a film, Frank, based on the Sidebottom story, directed by Lenny Abrahamson and starring Domhnall Gleeson, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Michael Fassbender, who plays the lead. This last piece of casting has prompted amazement, as if Edward Norton were starring in a Noddy biopic.

I met Chris/Frank several times. I saw him play a gig in the late Eighties (with Ronson on keyboards) at Burberries club in Birmingham. It still ranks as one of the most enjoyable nights out of my life. At one point, a rare dissenter threw a ten-pence piece at the stage. “Oh great,” Frank said, delighted: “I collect decimal coins.” The set was a series of hubristic covers – “Material Girl”, “Radio Gaga”, etc – plus Frank’s inimitable originals, of which my favourites were always the oddest, such as “Hit Dick Turpin” or “Mr Custard You’re a Fool” (Mr Custard, you’re a fool/Red Indian chief, you’re a fool/Mike Tyson, you’re a fool/But at least you’re a millionaire). Sievey always struck me as both unassuming and utterly unpredictable, a portly chap with a permanent pint, constantly on the verge of some kind of situationist mischief.

Radcliffe recalls, “He was so creative, so brimming full of ideas . . . he lived his life as an elaborate extended act . . . One time we were talking about travel games and he decided that a good idea would be travel snooker. The next gig we went to, he’d brought a set that he was developing with Velcro balls. We went from Timperley to London in a van with a snooker table in the middle of it, which meant there was barely any room to sit. But that was worth it for Chris, because that was a good joke.”

With the head on, Sievey ceased to exist. Mick Middles, the author of a forthcoming biography, Out of His Head, puts it this way: “The moment the head is placed, the change occurs. Not merely a change in attitude or outlook, but a journey from one person to the other. I completely believe that Chris was born as two people.” Middles even goes as far as to make a comparison with transgender individuals.

Sievey wasn’t given to recriminations, in much the same way as he wasn’t given to pensions, tax planning and the like. Jon Ronson remembers how, after his death, “Someone said to me, ‘Were you surprised he’d died penniless?’ And I thought, ‘I’d be a lot more surprised if he’d died with a nest egg.’ It reminded me of Ken Dodd, when he was done for tax evasion. His excuse was ‘I’m an artist. All I think about is comedy and jokes.’ Chris was like that.”

But Ronson did feel that some people had borrowed heavily from Frank for their own work. And you hear his influence in much modern northern comedy – sometimes, it has to be said, in a stifling, clichéd, parochial way, a kind of exaggerated homespun northernness, in the references to “that there London”, chip shops and the like. Frank was always much stranger and sadder than that. It’s a pity he didn’t live long enough to see properly the wholesale media move to Salford. I’d have liked to see him on the piazza here, open-armed and fixed of expression, lips pursed and eyes wide, welcoming charmed and slightly terrified executives. Oh yes, I would, I really would, as he would have said.

“Frank” will be in cinemas from 4 May

Stuart Maconie is a radio DJ, television presenter, writer and critic working in the field of pop music and culture. His best-selling books include Cider with Roadies and Adventures on the High Teas; he currently hosts the afternoon show on BBC 6Music with Mark Radcliffe.

This article first appeared in the 09 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Anxiety nation

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

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