From top left: Glenda Jackson, Johnny Marr, A A Gill, Stephen Frears, Viv Albertine and Jason Williamson.
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Johnny Marr, Glenda Jackson, Viv Albertine and others on whether our society has become too posh

Key figures from politics and art tackle the issue of the “class ceiling”. Has the world of culture has got more posh – and does it matter?

A A Gill: Middle-class artists get to be mediocre longer

The talent for making art is not meritocratic, fair, just or predictable; genius never lands on the people who deserve it, but to have it is to be immediately, indelibly and permanently privileged. It is the ancient and universal irony of culture that art is made by radical people who want change and to topple the old order – but art is always bought and paid for by people who want continuity and heritage, and are the old order.

Being middle-class or independently wealthy never made anyone a better artist or performer. It does, though, allow some artists and performers to go on being mediocre for longer. 

 

Alan Milburn: “People shouldn't have to rely on luck”

I grew up in an old mining town in the north-east of England . . . I’ve been lucky in life, incredibly fortunate. It could’ve turned out very differently. But people shouldn’t have to rely on luck. I want to make sure that it’s possible for a kid somewhere growing up on a council estate like I was to turn up in the cabinet. But if I’m asked, “Do you think that’s likely right now?” I would say it’s much more unlikely than likely. 

Alan Milburn is a former Labour cabinet minister and chair of the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission

 

Glenda Jackson: “Should we define private school as ‘privilege’?”

What worries me is the idea of what constitutes privilege. Should we as a country define someone as being privileged because they go to a private school? Shouldn’t we see the essence of the state school as to be giving the best education it can? In politics, we absolutely want a House of Commons that represents present-day British society and I think we are moving towards that – we’ve got more women, more ethnic minorities; we’ve certainly got people who are not ashamed to say that their sexual orientation is different from what used to be the accepted norm. But it comes back, oddly, for me, to this criticism that there are all these MPs with no experience of “real life” at all. I remember hearing a bit on the radio about Prince George’s first birthday and they found it necessary to say that Catherine Middleton’s family had a miner in it. Come on, get a grip. What are we saying? There’s a kind of very English inverted snobbery here. Privilege does not necessarily make you heartless or insensitive or lacking in compassion. 

Glenda Jackson was speaking to the New Statesman in August 2014

 

Johnny Marr: “To be working class was a romantic notion”

Are there fewer working-class people in the arts compared to years ago? It does appear to be that way. But it really is an oversimplification: the culture has changed significantly, and the class system is quite different, too.

When I was starting out, it wasn’t “easier” for a working-class person to get into the music industry – how would that work? Just as I don’t think it’s any easier for a middle- or upper-class person to get into the music business now. It’s irrelevant what background an artist or band is from when they’re trying to break through; it’s just a matter of whether people like what you do and if you get a bit of luck through working at it. It was a thing in rock culture to have “working-class credentials”, but it wasn’t particularly political: it was simply a more romantic notion. It seemed more authentic for someone to have come “from the streets”, and that was more fitting with the narrative of rock’n’roll – hence Joe Strummer adopting a less educated persona. The reverse is the idea that someone who isn’t from an impoverished background has not “paid their dues” and is therefore not authentic. That’s just reverse snobbery – and not accurate or relevant either, in my opinion.

Starting out in music now is very different because the world is different. For example: the cost of getting a band around the country is higher. How do young musicians starting out afford to pay for it? Petrol, insurance, parking fees . . . Even for a band with an average type of record deal, flying over to Germany or Belgium to do a little gig is economically not possible now, in a lot of cases. You can’t throw your cymbals and bass guitar cases in the hold of a plane any more without blowing what little fee you might be getting on inflated airline costs, and that’s why income from the festival season is so important for a band’s economics these days.

The other difference now is that there is very little support from the establishment for a new band starting out. The record companies are no longer prepared to offer long-term investment. Young bands usually have to set themselves up as being totally self-employed and often when they turn up at many of the so-called independent small venues they’re given no money to cover their expenses. The worst part of this is the “pay to play” culture, which has become absolutely the norm in bars and small clubs, and means that bands have to hand over cash for 50 or more tickets, or pay for whatever tickets they haven’t sold, leaving many of them to lose heart. I really believe this has to stop if we want to nurture new music and create innovative scenes. Imagine what would have happened to the CBGB’s scene if the owner had insisted on the bands’ friends and relatives paying $10 a go. No Patti Smith, no Talking Heads, no Ramones. This is what’s happening to young musicians all over the UK, and it doesn’t matter what school you went to or what your parents’ background is.

Music streaming is a tricky issue because, ideologically, I’m personally in favour of the democratisation of music – but in practice it means there are an awful lot of people who would otherwise not be doing it, and that can mean quantity over quality. When things are more difficult you need to be more committed, which tends to sort out the artists who are in it because they really love it and need to express themselves from the ones who just fancy being in a band and seeing how it goes, so to speak. But I do believe that there will always be young people who want to be in bands and that there’s no substitute for what a band is and can do.

I think music has lost its political edge because people are less interested, simple as that. It seems the establishment has succeeded in distracting everyone from their activities and agendas, to the point where it’s too much for a lot of the public to want to bother with it. And who would blame them? 

Johnny Marr’s latest album, “Playland”, is out now on New Voodoo

 

Jason Williamson of Sleaford Mods: “The call centre was a life jacket for me”

Any notion about musicians surviving on the dole is arguably a bit of a myth. Today it’s very difficult to maintain the lifestyle for a lengthy period, given the amount you draw on Jobseeker’s Allowance every two weeks. It may also depend on the genre you’re working in: grime and hip-hop are very streamlined in their required tools, as opposed to, say, a traditional band set-up, which is much more costly. Other factors could fatten up that slender giro – for instance, under-the-radar income such as drug dealing, untaxed session work, paying gigs not put through the books and cash-in-hand casual work. But even with all this in mind, the liaising you now have to do with the Jobcentre makes it very hard to focus on your art.

Claiming benefits is an even more oppressive affair. It sucks the life from you and leaves you with very little to survive on. In my experience, the practice of full-time employment is the preferred option for most lower-class musicians these days. For me, the emergence of the call centre proved to be a kind of life jacket because its monotony suited me. It’s important to try to find work you don’t take home. Other jobs such as retail (which I’d been very active in) demanded you show some kind of passion, and the older you got, the more you were expected to fill manager roles and be actively motivated, which was awful. It got to a point where I couldn’t kid anybody in these types of roles and sackings aplenty occurred. Sackings are bleak affairs. To me, the call centre was similar to working on factory lines, and I have plenty of factory experience also. You zone out because the job generally calls for repetition, and once you’ve got used to that it is incredibly easy. Wages are low but you can make it work.

For me, music remained a viable practice due to my finding a kind of full-time employment that called for the least amount of effort-based allegiance. You can shape your musical activity in the evenings and at weekends only – that’s just how it is. You use holidays for tours, if that’s the level you’ve reached; if not, then you just have to leave your life as light as possible so you can accommodate music. Too many complications hold the creative quest back: being aware of this helps you to dedicate more time to formulating a strong collection of songs and to concentrate on live performance, finding an audience and on gaining popularity and a reputation.

Publishing deals are the new record deals in many ways – in the sense that you get cash advances – and if you have attracted attention via the points I mentioned, chances are that you will get publishing departments from record labels approaching you with offers. The offers aren’t massive but they’re another option for a chunk of income, and can direct your music towards adverts. If you are OK with hearing your tune while looking at a VW Polo on a clifftop, it can be quite lucrative. The more appealing you are to an audience, the more bookings you get. But bands at our level have to gig a lot – it’s the main source of income. Touring pays the mortgage.

The latest Sleaford Mods album, “Divide and Exit”, is out on Harbinger Sound

 

Stephen Frears: “I was lucky. I lived in sparky times”

I worry less about where actors went to school than about the composition of the cabinet. I thought Etonian Prime Ministers went out with Alec Douglas Home. I was lucky. I lived in sparky times. When I was young, we had Albert Finney and Alan Bates. Peter O'Toole and Tom Courtenay. We liked Elvis and John Lennon. We had a Welfare State. We had the Royal Court. We made If... Oh dear.

 

Viv Albertine: “Art made by the ruling class will change nothing”

The arts are dominated by the middle classes and yes, it does matter. No art is going to change any­thing when it’s made by the ruling class: it won’t move the world forward. Contemporary music has become mere entertainment, no matter how many tattoos, torn jeans and leather jackets you dress it up in.

Pop and rock comes from the blues and folk: it was outsider music, and used to be one of the few routes working-class people had to escape the confines prescribed for them by society. When I saw the Sex Pistols play I thought: this is the first time I’ve seen someone like me on stage. And the experience gave me the courage to have a go, too – even though I had no female role models and couldn’t play an instrument.

Instead of dismissing people when they raise the valid point that the arts are dominated by the middle classes (I’m not saying what they make is not enjoyable, but there’s something they simply cannot give), how about people in privileged positions helping to open the door for the less privileged? If they are given a glimpse of hope or validation, like I was, they will grab at the chance of making art. What they have to say, and how they say it, will benefit us all.

Viv Albertine was the guitarist in the punk band the Slits. Her memoir is published by Faber & Faber

 

This article first appeared in the 30 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Class Ceiling

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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear