Cosey Fanni Tutti. Getty
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Cosey Fanni Tutti's memoir ends with an unexpectedly conventional romance

Art Sex Music by Cosey Fanni Tutti reviewed.

November 1969. “Sugar Sugar” by the Archies is number one for the month. The Beatles’ Abbey Road is just out, the band’s beautiful swansong. At a Hull students’ union, an 18-year-old girl spots a 19-year-old boy. She is ferociously bright, getting into the late-Sixties swing. He has the look of a Greek Orthodox priest and carries a “wooden staff, the full length of which he’d carved by hand into a continuous interwoven spiral which converged at the top with the yin-yang sign, above which were small horns for his thumb to hold the staff firm”. His mother named him Neil. He is now known as Genesis. He decides that her name is Cosmosis, abbreviated to Cosey when they become a couple. It is helpful to note that they meet at an acid test, where people are playing with a bathtub full of coloured jelly and where someone’s skronking free jazz on a saxophone makes Cosey run away.

Rock autobiographies are generally conventional tales of excess but Faber has published some properly alternative takes in recent years. And the great thing is that many of the most recent ones have been by women on the margins of pop culture, such as Viv Albertine of the Slits (who unwrapped the messy world of punk in Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys) and Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth, who described the death of her relationship with Thurston Moore in Girl in a Band. And now comes Cosey Fanni Tutti, a founder member of the radical music and art collective COUM Transmissions and later Throbbing Gristle, an important influence on the darker side of electronic music. She is far from a household name but her book Art Sex Music arrives laying out huge concepts in its title, confidently, as it should.

We begin with a story of an ordinary, ramshackle family living in the north-east. Christine Newby is born with her left elbow bent and fist wedged against her chin, like Rodin’s Thinker, at a hospital standing between a prison and a cemetery. Her female role models are caring and strong; her cold and detached father certainly isn’t.

This section is full of other seeds of portent, but buds of creativity, too. Hull’s bombsites become playgrounds where stories are made among “toys, pianos, kitchens left almost intact”. Aged seven, Christine and a friend find photographs of Belsen victims in a book. (“We should not have been looking at those images,” she states. Years later, Throbbing Gristle make Music from the Death Factory and put a picture of a Nazi death camp on the cover.) She is ten when the Cuban missile crisis reaches the Humber: “It was a frightening, life-changing moment to be told in my junior-school assembly that we could all go home early to our families because the world might end tomorrow.” Cosey’s tone throughout is full of such matter-of-fact tenderness.

Despite fascinating details, this part of the book is a tough read. The timeline darts haphazardly and it is hard to keep track of prominent and incidental players alike. The feeling extends through Cosey’s early forays into art and music: we are left with scattershot impressions of lives, moments and ideas. But perhaps that was the point. COUM’s work was about rejection of conventions, after all – they sent art through the post by direct mail, and proclaimed seven years before punk that “the future of music lies in non-musicians”. Still, their work was also about being accessible, and a firmer editing hand would have helped.

But then comes the sex. Cosey was a pornographic model and stripper in the middle of the 1970s and second-wave feminism, using her body in artworks to comment on the sex industry. “I was no ‘victim’ of exploitation,” she writes of that time, persuasively and fearlessly. “I was exploiting the sex industry for my own purposes . . . I wanted a purity in my work, to push against existing expectations and my own inhibitions, and to understand all the complex nuances and trials it imposed on everyone . . .” COUM’s 1976 exhibition at the ICA in London also featured her bloodied sanitary towels in installations, more than two decades before Tracey Emin’s much gentler, Turner Prize-winning My Bed. You boggle at how bold Cosey’s work is, even when its extremity puts it on the edge of parody – unless you and your boyfriend have ever ended an onstage performance by being penetrated with either end of a nail-studded pole.

The boyfriend (yes, the same one we met earlier) gets his comeuppance. Genesis P-Orridge throws a breeze block at her head and cats down the stairs, and reminds us of the darker sides of sexual liberation (“Gen says to gain more power I am to screw each cock that I don’t want,” reads one of Cosey’s particularly grim diary entries from 1976). But she rebels, settling down with her fellow bandmate Chris Carter (“my heartbeat”, as the dedication to the book reads) and continuing her avant-garde explorations in music and art with him, and their son, by her side. If there is any conventional narrative to this memoir, it’s this: here’s a life in art spurred by a meeting with a manipulative man, over whom the heroine triumphs. But it is unquestionably Cosey’s story, however radical and riotous a read it may be. 

Jude Rogers is a music critic and broadcaster

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

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The Last Wolf: Robert Winder's book examines the elusive concept of Englishness

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could this mean there is no such thing any more?

Is there anything more tiresome than debating the essence of “Englishness” – or any other national identity, come to that? Millions of words must have been spilt on this fruitless quest over the past century, generating gigatonnes of wind that could have been usefully harvested for energy. Each time, no “essence” is to be found, and everyone goes back to the beginning and starts again.

That’s how it used to be, anyway. More recently, in the wake of the Brexit vote and the divisions it has laid bare, the debate about who “we” are has become fraught and urgent. England, and Britain more widely, is hardly alone in its soul-searching. Arguments about belonging, culture, nationhood and identity are flooding across the Western world – and beyond – because people are increasingly unsure about who or where they are. The sweeping changes unleashed by hypercapitalism, technological change and unprecedented levels of migration are making rootlessness the norm, and the more people feel rootless the more they want to know where they belong and where they come from.

British politicians often respond to this by attempting to formulate some notion of our collective “values”. Here’s who we are, all 65 million of us, they say, and then proceed to read out a list of uniquely “British” things that only “British” people do, like valuing democracy, being tolerant with each other and standing in queues politely. These attempts at top-down unity are always failures, largely because, with the possible exception of the queuing, all the “values” asserted are pretty much universal. There’s nothing uniquely “British” about valuing the rule of law or freedom of speech (regularly clamping down on freedom of speech is a more reliably British virtue, if history is anything to go by). The failure of anyone to produce a list of “values” that are uniquely British – or English, or Welsh, or Scottish – suggests that they don’t exist. The island is just too teeming, diverse and disconnected now for much to be held in common at all.

So what, if anything, might define that elusive “Englishness”, the subject of Robert Winder’s new book? Cultural quirks, perhaps? I can confidently assert that the English know how to make a good cup of strong tea better than anyone else on earth (with the possible exception of the Irish), and we’re also world champions at dog shows, proper beer and indie guitar bands. But I’m not sure that these are things I would encourage my children to die patriotically in a trench for.

Winder offers a better answer, and it’s one that anyone brave or suicidal enough to pitch in to the contemporary European identity debate should consider. It offers a path through the horrible, thorny maze of arguments about race, ethnicity, migration and the like, towards something that, potentially, could unite people rather than divide them. What makes and forms a “people”, says Winder, in England as elsewhere, is the one thing they all share: the place itself. If there is an “Englishness” it is formed from the nature, literally, of England:

If we really wanted to search for the national identity, I thought, the real place to look was in the natural heritage of hills, valleys, rivers, stones and mists – the raw materials that had, over time, moulded the way we were. Landscape and history – the past and the elemental backdrop – were the only things we could truly claim as our own. Just as some plants thrive in sand and others in clay, so a national character is fed by nutrients it cannot alter.

Early on in the book, Winder quotes the novelist Lawrence Durrell, who makes the same case more provocatively:

I believe you could exterminate the French at a blow and resettle the land with Tartars, and within two generations discover… that the national characteristics were back at norm – the relentless metaphysical curiosity, the tenderness for good living and passionate individualism.

Durrell goes on to suggest that “a Cypriot who settled in London would in time become English, simply because human customs owe just as much to the local environment as to trees and flowers”. I’m in a position to test this hypothesis, because my grandmother was a Cypriot who settled in London. Did she become English? Well, she wore English clothes, lived in a bungalow, cooked roast dinners, won endless rosettes in endless dog shows and had her English friends call her Doris, because they had trouble pronouncing Demetra. On the other hand, she never lost her accent, her language or her connections to her homeland, and until the end of her life she made a mean baklava. I don’t know what any of that means, other than that labels can get confusing pretty quickly.

And that is Winder’s point: forget the labels, look at the land below your feet. That’s where your “identity” comes from. Take the last wolf in England, which gives the book its title. Allegedly killed in the 1290s by a Shropshire knight named Peter Corbet (the king had tasked this “mighty hunter” and other nobles with ridding the land of predators), the wolf’s end freed up the English to transform their landscape – in a way not available to many other European countries, whose wolf populations were too large and interlinked to kill off – into “the biggest sheep farm in the world”. This turned England, in the Middle Ages, into a wealthy wool economy. It was an agricultural revolution, shaping everything from land ownership to diet to class structures to the architecture of the Cotswolds, and it happened not just because the landscape was now wolfless, but because “the country was made for grass”.

The same soil and climate that made growing grass so easy did the same for wheat – which, mainly in the form of bread, has been the staple of the English diet from the rise of agriculture to the present day, when we eat more wheat than ever. Add in the later discovery of coal, which was found in rich seams across the country, and which gave rise to the Industrial Revolution and the British Empire, and Winder suggests, only slightly playfully, that the English national character can be summed up by way of an algebraic equation: e = cw4: “Englishness equals coal x wool, wheat and wet weather.”

The book’s central case – that “natural history might be a branch of political science” – is a necessary corrective to a public debate in which we are increasingly instructed to believe that virtually every aspect of our character is a “social construct”. Winder wants us to understand that much of it is actually a natural construct, which means in turn that our development is not entirely under our control. It’s not a message that many people want to hear in an age of selfies and consumer choice: “Just as each vineyard (or terroir) produces its own unique wine, so human beings are conditioned by their local landscape. We move around more now, so the lines are blurred, but the underlying skeleton of English culture – the bare bones of the national psyche – may have changed less than we think.”

I couldn’t help, as I read, wanting more detail on this “underlying skeleton”. Where are the folk songs, the rhymes and ballads? Where is the mythology? Where are the grainy details of the lives of the people who, throughout English history, were probably shaped by the landscape most of all, and who shaped it in turn – the peasantry? There are glimpses of all this, but there is also too much school-textbooky history of inventors and their inventions, of revolutions and wars. A book like this ought to start at the bottom – in the mud, in the mulch on the forest floor. I wanted an earthier, messier story.

Despite this, there is plenty to chew on here. The question that remained when it was over though, for this reviewer at least, was: is any of it true any more? It may once have been the case that human customs were formed by places, but is it now?

When people in England, or anywhere in the modern world, have more connection, via their handheld screens, with the mill race of global consumer “culture” than they do with the landscape around them, and when only a handful of us work on or really know that landscape, what chance does it have of forming the basis of our cultural life?

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could the reason simply be that there is no such thing any more; that the English, like other denizens of techno-post-modernity, are shaped not by their natural environment, but by the artificial one that is rising to enclose them like a silicon cocoon? When the heavy metals in your smartphone are mined in Indonesia, not Cornwall, what equation defines you – and do you even care? 

Paul Kingsnorth’s books include “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist ” (Faber & Faber)

The Last Wolf: the Hidden Springs of Englishness
Robert Winder
Little, Brown, 480pp, £20

This article first appeared in the 10 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, France’s new Napoleon