Square eyes: what do you mean, you can’t see how I see myself? Photo Express/Getty Images
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Tracey Thorn: When I got the TV request, I thought: don’t you know who I think I am?

No thanks – I really don’t want to take part in the “Identity Parade” on Never Mind the Buzzcocks.

A few weeks ago I was asked if I minded giving my email address to someone from a TV production company. No, I didn’t mind at all; in fact I was curious to find out what the request might be. I don’t really like being on telly – which is the only reason I’m not on your screen every weekday night (side-look to camera) – but on the other hand, I’m only human, and so I don’t dislike being asked. I suspect that however far down the VIP list, none of us is immune to wondering occasionally whether we’re eligible for a Bake Off or a Strictly or a fortnight in the jungle. I scanned my spam filter and kept an eye out for the email, anticipating some kind of flattering approach.

Then it came, and what a low blow it was, the very request most dreaded by anyone who’s had a musical career. For it was from the makers of Never Mind the Buzzcocks, asking me – not for the first time – if I would take part in the Identity Parade. If you’ve ever seen the show you’ll know the bit I mean. Out come four perfectly harmless yet anonymous-looking men who’ve had the temerity to become middle-aged and perhaps lose some hair. Then we are shown a clip of Mud on Top of the Pops from some time before the war and have to guess which of these men was the drummer. Jokes are cracked – is it this one? “Muddy Waters”? Or “Mud in your eye”? But there is really only one joke, and it is at the expense of the secret guest, who might as well be wearing a dunce’s hat with “Has-Been” written on it. This is what I was being asked to do.

In high dudgeon, I began to compose a reply, detailing my recent work and achievements – a top-ten bestselling book, appearances on Later . . . with Jools, a soundtrack for a forthcoming film, even this very column! – all of which essentially added up to me thundering: “Don’t you know who I think I am?

Then I started laughing at myself. Because of course that is the whole point; they don’t know who I think I am, or what I think I mean, and neither, they assume, do their viewers. And in this they may well be right. If I am simply that thin bird who sang that Rod Stewart number and/or that even thinner bird who sang that disco number about the deserts and the rain, what can I possibly say to persuade them that I am anything more? No amount of bluster can alter the fact that I used to be in the top 40 but now inhabit this sad wasteland of hitlessness, while also being so haggard and crone-like as to be barely recognisable.

When I wrote that memoir of mine, Bedsit Disco Queen, this was just the kind of story I relished – the anecdote that illustrates how ultimately humiliating it is to be a bit famous. Not famous enough to be known by everyone – a kind of Total Fame, where your power is unquestioned – but a more partial level of celebrity, which comes and goes, sometimes bringing benefits, but just as often opening you up to ridicule.

Agreeing to take part in these spectacles means colluding in your own ridicule, but in this instance I was reminded that nowadays we are all supposed to welcome any opportunity, no matter how undignified, to increase our exposure, and that there is no instance of humiliation or disgrace that can’t be repackaged as promotion. I’m not the first to reject this idea.

When Jim Bob, of the band Carter USM, was asked to appear in the same identity parade, his manager famously turned it down with great good humour but also an unassailable sense of the wrong that had been done to his artist. There was a defiant pride in his response, easier for a manager to express on your behalf. As victim, you just have to suck it up or laugh it off. Any other response risks making you look like a giant idiotic ego.

I originally wanted to call my memoir The Pitfalls, until I was persuaded against using such a “negative” title. But I stand by my belief that it’s avoiding these pitfalls that is the key to survival and sanity. There will always be plenty of people ready and willing to make you look like a fool; you don’t have to join in and help them do it. 

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 22 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Why Britain and Germany aren't natural enemies

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“The Hole-Up”: a poem by Matthew Sweeney

“You could taste the raw / seagull you’d killed and plucked, / the mussels you’d dug from sand, / the jellyfish that wobbled in your / hands as you slobbered it.”

Lying on your mouth and nose
on the hot sand, you recall
a trip in a boat to the island –
the fat rats that skittered about
after god-knows-what dinner,
the chubby seals staring up,
the sudden realisation that a man
on the run had wintered there
while the soldiers scoured
the entire shoreline to no avail –
you knew now you had been him
out there. You could taste the raw
seagull you’d killed and plucked,
the mussels you’d dug from sand,
the jellyfish that wobbled in your
hands as you slobbered it.
You saw again that first flame
those rubbed stones woke in
the driftwood pile, and that rat
you grilled on a spar and found
delicious. Yes, you’d been that man,
and you had to admit now you
missed that time, that life,
though you were very glad you
had no memory of how it ended.


Matthew Sweeney’s Black Moon was shortlisted for the 2007 T S Eliot Prize. His latest collection is Inquisition Lane (Bloodaxe).

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt