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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Putin's vote-winning trick? He makes power personal

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular. Yet President Putin is immune to voter's discontent.

A week before Russia’s parliamentary elections, the central square in Ekaterinburg – the fourth-largest city in Russia, a thousand miles east of Moscow – was packed with people, huddling close on a wet September night. They faced a stage decorated with a poster imploring the crowd to vote for “ours”, meaning United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s political party.

Yet it wasn’t politics for which thousands of people had braved the rain – it was music. During the perestroika and glasnost years of post-Soviet openness, Ekaterinburg was the cradle of the Russian rock scene. The home-grown bands Nautilus Pompilius, Chaif and Agata Kristi sang about freedom and change. Thus, this free concert to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the legendary Sverdlovsk Rock Club was bound to draw a crowd, and United Russia latched on to that.

A message from Dmitry Medvedev, the United Russia leader, praising local rock bands for their bravery “in those days when freedom was in deficit”, was read to the assembled fans. If freedom was a powerful word thirty years ago it has little impact on Russians today. Turnout in the election on 18 September was less than 50 per cent (and only 41.5 per cent in the Ekaterinburg region), a sign of the general political apathy. Before they went to the polls, it was hard to find anyone who was enthusiastic about voting.

“Why should I bother with voting? The result is clear: United Russia will, as always, win,” says Vyacheslav Bakhtin, who owns a small construction company in Ekaterinburg. He added: “Elections are the last thing on my mind. My business has been suffering for the last two years. We couldn’t even afford to go on a family vacation this summer.”

The Russian economy is struggling because of low oil prices, trade embargoes and geopolitical concerns. There have been public spending cuts, and the free float of the rouble led to currency devaluation and high inflation (7 per cent in August). Unemployment is rising and the base interest rate is 10.5 per cent.

There are many reasons for Russians to want a change in government, yet it appears that people do not see the link between their daily struggles and Putin’s policies.

Anna Mikhailova has recently returned from a tour of the Golden Ring of Russia (a circuit of medieval cities to the north-east of Moscow), where there is a stark contrast between the restored onion-domed churches and the crumbling villages.

“People live in poverty in crammed kummunalki [Soviet-style communal flats with several families sharing one kitchen and bathroom],” she tells me. “But they still talk about Putin the Saviour, standing up for Mother Russia.”

Apart from United Russia, 13 parties were judged eligible to stand, but the range of choice was an illusion. Olga, who requested anonymity for her own safety, explained. “We have one party – United Russia – a few pseudo-opposition parties, the Communists, the LDPR and Fair Russia who support Putin’s cause, and a bunch of nobodies that people don’t care about.”

Indeed, Gennady Zyuganov, who has led the Communist Party since 1993, campaigned under the slogan “Ten Stalinist punches against capitalism”. But although he criticised Medvedev, he didn’t touch Putin. The populist leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Vladimir Zhirinovsky, another political dinosaur, actively endorses Putin’s foreign policy.

If there is discontent among voters, Putin is immune to it. On the eve of the elections, United Russia’s popularity slid to just 30 per cent of total respondents in one poll, though it scored 50 per cent among those who said they were definitely going to vote. Medvedev’s own approval rating fell to 48 per cent. His message to the elderly that state pensions wouldn’t increase, and his advice to teachers to get jobs in the private sector if they weren’t happy with their state salaries, might have had something to do with it. Yet Putin’s popularity remained consistently high, at 82 per cent, according to independent pollsters the Levada Centre.

Alexey Volkov, a 40-year-old business manager, says he voted for the Communists. “I voted against United Russia, the apparatchiks stifling the president,” he explains. “Putin, on the other hand, is the best ruler since Alexander III [Russia’s emperor at the end of the 19th century].”

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular and considered ineffective by the Russian people. Over the past 16 years, presidential power has expanded hugely. Since Russia adopted its new constitution in 1993, successive presidents have introduced legislation to stretch the office’s authority. In his first term as president, Putin acquired 219 new rights and duties, and as his successor Medvedev enjoyed an additional 114 responsibilities. These range from educational appointments to federal government decisions.

As predicted, United Russia topped the ballot with 54 per cent of the vote. Putin’s party claimed 343 of the 450 seats (up from 238 in 2011). The same four parties will form the Duma. The Yabloko and PARNAS parties, seen by voters as a token gesture of protest against the Kremlin, gained negligible support, with 2 per cent and 0.7 per cent, respectively.

It is ultimately Putin’s victory. In the eyes of the majority, he has restored Russia’s strength abroad, revived the defence industry and army, and reinvigorated the country with patriotism. The latter was accomplished via manipulation of the media, which has reinstated the West as the enemy and focused attention on foreign affairs at the expense of the social and economic agenda at home.

Still, with the low turnout, only 26 per cent of eligible Russians voted for Putin’s party. Though that was enough to tighten the president’s grip on the Duma, nationwide the elections paint a picture of a dejected Russia just beginning to feel discontent with the status quo. It is not yet enough to unseat Putin, but as the old Russian saying goes: a drop of water can cut through stone.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times