Dawkins with the band in the studio.
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Richard Dawkins to feature on Finnish metal band Nightwish's new album

The biologist-turned-atheist campaigner is sampled on the band's forthcoming Endless Forms Most Beautiful.

Richard Dawkins is no stranger to controversy; musical and otherwise.

It’s hard to imagine, given how his recent remarks on the shooting of three Muslims in North Carolina have been taken, but the arguments against Dawkins were once quite mild. Back in 1995, after his appearance on Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs, the evolutionary biologist-turned-atheist campaigner was criticised for his choice of Bach’s St Matthew’s Passion — an odd choice, apparently, for such a vocal opponent of religion. 

If such a small thing can draw discussion, his latest foray into the arts will presumably garner some fairly raised eyebrows — at least, if my inbox is anything to go by. When I message a friend to say I’m about to interview Richard Dawkins about Finnish metal, her response is simply “please explain this”.

It’s hard to know where to begin. It’s not every day, after all, you sit down to listen to a 24-minute symphonic metal track with rolling piano, cello and ape noises; and fewer still you get to watch a Scandinavian rockstar discussing childhood clarinet lessons with one of the country’s most prominent and – not to put too fine a point on it – most criticised public intellectuals.

When I meet Dawkins and Nightwish lyricist Tuomas — who is wearing a T-shirt with Charles Darwin’s face on — in a Kensington hotel, however, it seems a surprisingly straightforward collaboration. Both of them are disarmingly earnest about their work together; indeed, by the time I leave, it seems almost inevitable that Dawkins would be sampled on a Nightwish album.

For that is exactly what’s happened. A self-declared “life-long science fan”, Tuomas studied the subject at university before dropping out to pursue music. A recent interest in the works of Dawkins, as well as Christopher Hitchens, Carl Sagan and other figures, led to him approaching the scientist.

“I wrote him a handwritten letter, explaining what we had in mind”, says Tuomas. Two weeks later, Dawkins replied via e-mail expressing his willingness. They set up a studio date in Oxford, and less than six months later, two tracks are ready for the forthcoming album Endless Forms Most Beautiful.

Richard Dawkins recording in Oxford.

I ask Dawkins if he’d heard of Nightwish before he received Tuomas’ letter. There’s no sense of irony in his response.

“No, I hadn’t. But I was interested, I was intrigued and fascinated. I asked advice of my assistant, and he urged me to do it. I was pleased to do it.”

When I suggest that perhaps the genre is a little unexpected, Dawkins is sanguine. “Yes, it’s a bit of a different kind of music, but I am capable of being very moved by music.” The lyrics Tuomas has him read, alongside his own writing and the works of other scientists, are “beautiful”. When I ask if he'll play at Nightwish's upcoming Wembley show, both parties seem keen. "Let's do it."

Being moved by music is a topic Dawkins spoken on before. Is this an attempt to make the scientific sublime? “Exactly”, Dawkins says. “That’s so important.” Tuamos agrees: people may think of science and evolution as dry, but it’s “exact opposite of that. It’s the most poetic thing there is, evolution.”

And what of people who think Dawkins should stick to his discipline? “Yes, I can’t think what else I’ve done… I did that rather strange thing for Saatchi & Saatchi. A psychedelic extravagorama.”

Dawkins's performance at Saatchi & Saatchi. 

It seems an easy thing to laugh at, but again, Dawkins seems to take it all at face value. His explanation of the “ewi” – which he plays at the end of the clip – is in-depth, conveying a genuine enthusiasm for the instrument.

I ask about other cultural gestures that have been awkwardly received in the press, like his recent Twitter poetry. “Did I do poetry?”

“I call that comic verse. I don’t know why the Independent keeps picking up these ridiculous things.”

It’s impossible to tell if Dawkins is unaware how he is perceived, or just gifted with a total lack of self-doubt. Either way, it might explain something about his public persona. I ask if there’s a certain pleasure in provoking people – his detractors on the Christian right, for instance, will surely be unhappy that he’s now collaborating with a metal band. Dawkins seems not to know what I’m getting at. There’s a certain image, I suggest – “satanic?”, he fills in. Yes, perhaps.

And what about the Nightwish fans? According to Tuomas, “people are really excited”, but there is some opposition. He imitates some of his fan responses: “I’ve been a fan of Nightwish for fifteen years, I’ve seen twenty of your shows, but I will never ever come to see you again. I just burned all your CDs.”

“It’s good for publicity, that sort of thing”, says Dawkins. And he would know.

Endless Forms Most Beautiful is due out on 30 March. Nightwish – possibly featuring Richard Dawkins? – will headline Wembley Arena in December this year.

 

Stephanie Boland is digital assistant at the New Statesman. She tweets at @stephanieboland

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Former MP Bob Marshall-Andrews: Why I’m leaving Labour and joining the Lib Dems

A former political ally of Jeremy Corbyn explains why he is leaving Labour after nearly 50 years.

I’m leaving home. It’s a very hard thing to do. All of my natural allegiances have been to Labour, and never had I contemplated leaving the party – not even in the gloomy years, when we were fighting Iraq and the battles over civil liberties. I have always taken the view that it’s far better to stay within it. But it has just gone too far. There has been a total failure to identify the major issues of our age.

The related problems of the environment, globalisation and the migration of impoverished people are almost ignored in favour of the renationalisation of the railways and mantras about the National Health Service. The assertion that Labour could run the NHS better than the Tories may be true, but it is not the battle hymn of a modern republic. It is at best well-meaning, at worst threadbare. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life talking about renationalising the railways while millions of people move across the world because of famine, war and climate change.

The centre left in British politics is in retreat, and the demise of the Labour Party has the grim inevitability of a Shakespearean tragedy. Ironically, history will show that Labour’s fatal flaw lay in its spectacular success.

Labour is, in essence, a party of the 20th century, and in those 100 years it did more to advance the freedom and well-being of working people and the disadvantaged than any other political movement in history. The aspirations of the founding fathers – access to education, health and welfare; equality before the law; collective organisation; universal franchise – have all to a large extent been achieved. The party’s record of racial and religious tolerance has been a beacon in a century of repression. These achievements have been enshrined in the fabric of British society and reproduced across the world.

The success brought deserved, unprecedented power and created political fortresses across the industrial heartlands of Britain. But with power, the party became increasingly moribund and corrupt. The manipulation of the union block vote at party conferences became a national disgrace. The Labour heartlands, particularly Scotland, were treated like rotten boroughs, and were too often represented by union placemen.

Instead of seeking a new radicalism appropriate to the challenges of the age, New Labour sought to ambush the Tories on the management of market capital and to outflank them on law and order: a fool’s errand. It inevitably succumbed to another form of corruption based on hubris and deceit, resulting in attacks on civil liberty, financial disaster and catastrophic war.

The reaction has been to lurch back to the status quo. The extraordinary fall from a massive majority of 179 in 1997 to a political basket case has been blamed on the false dichotomy between Blairism and the old, unionised Labour. Both have contributed to the disaster in equal measure.

I believe desperately in the politics of the 21st century, and Labour is at best paying lip service to it – epitomised in its failure to engage in the Brexit debate, which I was horrified by. The Liberal Democrats are far from perfect, but they have been consistent on Europe, as they were in their opposition to the Iraq War and on civil liberties. They deserve support.

But it’s a serious wrench. I’m leaving friends, and it hurts. Jeremy Corbyn was a political ally of mine on a number of serious issues. We made common cause on Tony Blair’s assaults on civil liberty and the Iraq War, and we went to Gaza together. He has many of the right ideas, but he simply has not moved into addressing the major problems.

To be blunt, I don’t think Corbyn is leadership material, but that is aside from politics. You need skills as a leader, and I don’t think he’s got them, but I was prepared to stick it out to see what happened. It has been a great, gradual disappointment, and Brexit has brought it all to the fore.

Frankly, I was surprised that he announced he was a Remainer, because I know that his natural sympathies have lain with a small cadre within Labour – an old-fashioned cadre that holds that any form of trade bloc among relatively wealthy nations is an abhorrence. It’s not: it’s the way forward. Yet there are people who believe that, and I know he has always been sympathetic to them.

But by signing up and then doing nothing, you sell the pass. Labour was uniquely qualified to confront the deliberate falsehoods trumpeted about the NHS – the absurd claims of massive financial dividends to offset the loss of doctors
and nurses already packing their bags – and it failed. Throughout that campaign, the Labour leadership was invisible, or worse.

At present, there is a huge vacuum on the centre left, represented in substantial part by an angry 48 per cent of the electorate who rejected Brexit and the lies on which it was based. Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum. There is no sign from Labour that the issue is even to be addressed, let alone actively campaigned on. The Labour leadership has signed up to Brexit and, in doing so, rejected the principles of international co-operation that Europe has fostered for half a century. That is not a place I want to be.

The failure to work with, or even acknowledge, other political parties is doctrinaire lunacy. And it will end very badly, I think. The centre left has an obligation to coalesce, and to renege on that obligation is reneging on responsibility. Not to sit on the same platform as other parties during the Brexit debate is an absurd statement of political purity, which has no place at all in modern politics.

The Liberal Democrats have grasped the political challenges of the 21st century as surely as their predecessors in the Liberal Party failed to comprehend those that faced the world a century ago. For that reason, I will sign up and do my best to lend support in my political dotage. After nearly 50 years as a Labour man, I do so with a heavy heart – but at least with some radical hope for my grandchildren.

Bob Marshall-Andrews was the Labour MP for Medway from 1997 to 2010.

As told to Anoosh Chakelian.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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