At the Brit Awards 1998, Chumbawamba's drummer poured water over John Prescott. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

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.

FADEL SENNA/AFP/Getty Images
Show Hide image

Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism