At the Brit Awards 1998, Chumbawamba's drummer poured water over John Prescott. Photo: Getty
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The Brits are so polite these days. One reason? There’s no bands left

It used to feel like a school canteen full of rival gangs - now it's a civilised dining room.

I’ve come to the Brit Awards, dear reader, in order to bring you news from the World of Pop, intending to observe in a neutral and detached manner. Unlike Morrissey – complaining last week that “the Brit Awards have hi-jacked modern music in order to kill off the heritage that produced so many interesting people” – or Kasabian, who snarled that wins for Ed Sheeran would be a victory for squares, quaintly couching their objections in the language of a 1960’s Cliff Richard film, I come not to bury the Brits but to watch them in a mood of nostalgic curiosity. I’m revisiting a scene where in the past I have been both bored witless and riotously entertained, to see what’s happened in my entirely insignificant absence.

I was last here in 1996, the Year of Jarvis Cocker, when my band’s song “Missing” was up for Best Single; and the year before that, in 1995, at the height of the Blur/Oasis Wars, I was seated with Massive Attack, “Protection” being nominated for Best Album. Madonna performed that night. She’d recently recorded with them and it was the first time I heard anyone refer to her as “Madge”. (I assumed that Nellee and 3D and Mushroom and Daddy G, no slouches when it came to nicknames, had invented it themselves.) After the awards we went to her private party at Brown’s in Soho, within which inner sanctum was a sanctum even more inner, where a velvet rope fenced off the area containing actual Madonna, and a handful of Chosen Ones.

And now here I am again, after a twenty year gap, at an event that’s bigger, glitzier and more of a TV show than an actual awards ceremony, but what else has changed? Not the winners, who are as predictable as ever, chosen by a voting process about which everyone is suitably vague. Oh, it’s more or less whoever in any category has sold the most, or is the best, – look, let’s not dwell on it. Like old Tory leaders, the winners emerge. There are no surprises.

What is different is the atmosphere in the room, which partly reflects the atmosphere in pop music, and is created I think by the fact that there are no bands. Where it used to feel like a school canteen full of rival gangs, with warring factions shooting insults and dirty looks at each other, poised on the brink of a food fight, now it is a civilised dining room, all the nominees, like their fans, being much-Selfied and much-Liked individuals. Solo artists, islands. They sit not with their mates and partners-in-crime, but with their managers and pluggers, and all of them on good terms with the similar individuals at the next table.

There’s less camaraderie, and less rivalry, and the absence of both is what dulls the air.

Band camaraderie is infectious, and enlivens an audience – you want to be part of that gang, whether it’s the Rolling Stones or the Spice Girls, the Libertines or One Direction – and bitchy rivalry is entertaining. Blur vs Oasis was silly but funny. Now, admiration and respect are the order of the day. Sam loves James, Ed loves Sam, and everybody is Taylor’s best friend.

In short, nothing happens. Almost nothing. With my Mum-face on I think that Paloma Faith holding a microphone in the pouring rain is a health and safety nightmare, but it turns out that the accident waiting to happen is an unforeseen one, involving stairs, a cape and a dancing bull. Madonna falls over, giving the evening its longed-for news angle. Seated only yards from the stage I hear the crash as she goes down, most shocking of all being the heavy ker-THUMP of her mic hitting the floor. Golly, I think, that mic’s actually on. Not a given nowadays – and quite a thrill.

What is most remarkable though, and confirms everything I’ve ever thought about the indestructible will-to-power of Stars, is her recovery. Have you ever fallen flat on your back? I have once, on the slippery decking outside my back door, and on landing whiplashed and winded did what you would do, and burst into tears of self-pity. Which is why I’m not a global superstar with a decades-spanning career, and neither are you.

Tracey Thorn appears at the Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on 18 April. Book tickets here.

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.

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The Underground Railroad is a novel which offers hope for the very strong of heart

Whitehead’s prize-winning novel of slavery in America is his finest work yet.

30 DOLLARS REWARD will be given to any person who will deliver to me, or confine in any gaol in the state so that I can get her again, a likely yellow NEGRO GIRL 18 years of age who ran away nine months past. She is an artfully lively girl and will, no doubt, attempt to pass as a free person, but has a noticeable scar on her elbow, occasioned by a burn.

 

“Want ads” for runaway slaves serve as section breaks throughout Colson Whitehead’s searing novel The Underground Rail­road, which takes a familiar story – concerning the manifold injustices of American slavery – and brings it to terrible, terrifying new life. Whitehead does so by revealing, in close view, just how brutal and businesslike were efforts to ignore, obscure and destroy the dignity and humanity of so many men and women for so very long.

The novel begins with an auction:

 

Onlookers chewed fresh oysters and hot corn as the auctioneers shouted into the air. The slaves stood naked on the platform. There was a bidding war over a group of Ashanti studs, those Africans of renowned industry and musculature, and the foreman of a limestone quarry bought a bunch of pickaninnies in an astounding bargain.

 

Thereafter we learn that “A young buck from strong tribal stock got customers into a froth”, that “A slave girl squeezing out pups was like a mint, money that bred money”, and that a mother “maintained a reserve of maternal feeling after the loss of her five children – three dead before they could walk and the others sold off when they were old enough to carry water and grab weeds around the great house”.

Finally – and this is still just in the opening pages of the novel – we discover, through the eyes of a young woman named Cora, what happens when any of these persons resists living as purchased property: “She had seen men hung from trees and left for buzzards and crows. Women carved open to the bones with the cat-o’-nine-tails. Bodies alive and dead roasted on pyres. Feet cut off to prevent escape and hands cut off to prevent theft.”

Whether in spite or because of these consequences – and mindful, even haunted by the knowledge, that her mother managed to escape her own bondage – Cora decides to join a fellow slave named Caesar in running away. In Whitehead’s treatment, a metaphor for the secret network of support that helped black slaves reach the free (or at least freer) American north and Canada becomes an actual makeshift train that travels underground, which Cora and Caesar ride across the South. They are in constant peril, relieved by passing periods of respite: sleeping in a bed for the first time, learning to read and write, and even coming into a small amount of money, which, Cora soon discovers, “was new and unpredictable and liked to go where it pleased”.

Throughout their escape, they are pursued by a vicious slave-catcher called Ridgeway, who is motivated by far more than merely financial reward: “Charging through the dark, branches lashing his face, stumps sending him ass over elbow before he got up again. In the chase his blood sang and glowed.” Ridgeway, Cora and their respective others meet throughout the novel, their positions of advantage and opportunity revolving in ways that make for flat-out suspenseful reading. Many others are grievously harmed in the meantime, as they move through a small-town, 19th-century American world of crafty and hypocritical politesse and ritualised violence. The violence is never rendered more awfully than in the festive, Friday-night lynching sessions that take place at a picturesque park which Cora watches from an attic refuge.

The Underground Railroad, awarded the American National Book Award for Fiction last month, is Whitehead’s sixth novel. Following the more playful novel of manners Sag Harbor and Zone One, a zombie romp, it is his most ambitious and accomplished book since the Pulitzer-nominated John Henry Days of 2001. In fact, the lack of literary showiness – vividly presenting the rudely built underground railway and the hard lives of those riding it – makes The Underground Railroad perhaps his finest work. Although the repeated encounters between Cora and Ridgeway across such a sprawling set will strain the credulity of anyone save a diehard Victor Hugo fan, Whitehead is a confident enough writer to let their lines of escape, pursuit and capture braid and break apart again and again, building to an exciting and rending conclusion. It is one that offers hope for the very strong of heart. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage