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It’s as if I phoned Springsteen and told him just what he could do with himself and his book

I was shocked to find out how vehemently others could disagree with my opinion.

It’s the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction this week and I’m looking forward to finding out the winner. This time last year I was locked in a room with fellow Baileys judges, so I know how hard it is. The process was a revelation.

I was shocked to find out how vehemently others could disagree with my opinion of a book. We were a friendly and unfailingly polite group, but passionate in defence of the books we loved, and the greatest lesson I learned was that, in the end, it just comes down to a bunch of people in a room trying to agree.

You do your best to accommodate each other, and someone wins, and then the fun starts when other people get cross with you. I imagined the world of literary prizes to be refined and genteel but, believe me, things can get heated. At last year’s award ceremony one of our judges was snarled at by the agent of a writer who’d lost.

Later that year I also judged the Forward Poetry Prize, and our panel, chaired by the fantastic poet Malika Booker, was slagged off in Private Eye for being too right-on and giving prizes to women.

This year I’ve judged the Penderyn Music Book Prize. The announcement of our shortlist was covered in the Guardian under this headline: “Bruce Springsteen is snubbed in wide-ranging selection by judges including Tracey Thorn and Thurston Moore”. I laughed all day at the image this conjured up, of me phoning Springsteen to say, “You know what, Boss? F*** you and your book!”

The coverage is all about turning a prize into a battle, framing the conversation in terms of the books ignored rather than the ones chosen. This year’s Penderyn Music Book is Daniel Rachel’s Walls Come Tumbling Down, which I’ve written about here before, so, instead of ending on a sour note of complaint, I’ll return to what is the joy and the point of prizes, and shine a light on three that made our shortlist.

My personal favourite was This Is Grime by Hattie Collins and Olivia Rose, a respectful portrait of the scene. Told through verbatim accounts by all the main participants, it touches on the context of the music, and so deals with questions of race, religion and gender. Most of all, it’s contemporary where so many music books nowadays are historical, and a record of what may prove to be the last underground, subcultural music movement as we would recognise it. The story of a modern blues, lovingly put together by two women – what more could you want?

Also great is Brix Smith Start’s The Rise, the Fall, and the Rise. She has a wealth of anecdotes about Mark E Smith and the Fall which make her book enormously entertaining, so much of what makes good music writing being just this – having new stories to tell. Her viewpoint is that of the outsider: an American in England and a woman in the world of indie music. The scenes where Mark E Smith first introduces her to his beloved Manchester are priceless. At his flat, she is puzzled by the apparent absence of a fridge:

“Where do you keep your milk?” I asked.

“Out the window,” Mark said.

“What do you mean, ‘out the window’?”

Mark pushed open the sooty window at the back of the kitchen to reveal a cement ledge where perched precariously were a small bottle of milk, a pack of Danish back bacon, a carton of eggs and a loaf of Hovis white bread.

And finally, I’m Not With the Band by Sylvia Patterson. This is an idiosyncratic, iconoclastic take on the music business. Intercut with details of her own life, it is also a story of someone struggling to stay afloat in a chaotic world.

She is very good at chronicling the rise of celebrity culture and its increasing toxicity. I’ll leave you with this quotation, from when she’s trying to come to terms with the sensibleness of artists such as Ed Sheeran and Taylor Swift: “The kids are still alright. They’re just absolutely nothing like the olden days kids. Which is exactly as it’s always been, forever. Whether we old bastards like it or not.” 

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.

This article first appeared in the 08 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Election special

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Poo jokes and pessimism – the scatological legacy of British humour

Is it simply a testament to our good nature, or a sign of a darker kind of cynicism?

Many Brits will have amused themselves this summer by packing a tent, stashing their narcotics and heading over to a muddy field in the middle of nowhere to brave the torrential rain at a music festival.

Wallowing in the mud and other more faecal byproducts to the soundtrack of up-and-coming bands is considered the peak of hedonism for many in the UK, and there is something quintessentially British about the way we willfully embrace the general state of depravity that most of our festivals inevitably collapse into.

One internet meme that perfectly epitomises the difference between British and American festival culture shows an image of a woman at a US event pulling a sad face as she reveals the worst thing she’s seen: “Spitting on the ground.” On her right, a British man slumped in a camping chair holds up his sign, reading: “A man covered in his own shit sniffing ketamine off his mate’s unwashed scrotum.”

There’s a cheerful pride with which Brits embrace bodily dysfunction as a part of our comic culture, and a common trope of British humour involves undermining the stiff upper lip attitude associated with English people, often with an act of complete depravity that dispels any illusion of class and respectability. Britons have always been partial to a good old-fashioned dose of scatological humour, from Chaucer’s bawdy fabliaux that celebrate obscenity, to Shakespeare’s Falstaff, or Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or Swift’s "Scatological Cycle".

Much of the comic effect that these writers create derives from undermining high-brow intellect or spirituality with the low-brow of the rear end – for example the part in Chaucer’s Summoner’s Tale, where the division of an old man’s fart into 12 serves as a parody of the descent of the holy ghost at Pentecost.

Faeces has long since been ingrained in our past literary and historical culture – after all, as the great Shakespeare was writing some of the western world’s most seminal pieces of English literature, his chamber-maid was most likely throwing pieces of his own faeces out of the window next to him.

In English literature, scatological humour can be juvenile, but it has also been used to represent wider social anxieties. In turning bottoms up and exposing the rear end, "shiterature" is often about breaking taboos, and exposing the dirty underbelly of society. Part of the "civilising" process that societies perform to reach a high level of sophistication involves distancing oneself from one’s own excrement, and scatology reverses this by shedding a light on our dirtiest natural habits. Swift’s excremental vision asked us to peel back the mask of genteel individuals, revealing their true and disgusting selves.

Scatology can also represent collective self-disgust, and has been used to question the integrity of a British national identity that has in the past denied its colonial wrongdoings. In Tristram Shandy, the protagonist's porous and leaking diseased body has been interpreted as a metaphor for the British Empire, and indeed the whole being of the Shandean gentleman is sub-textually supported by British colonialism, being as they are descended from merchants who profited from eastern goods sold to the European bourgeois and aristocrats.

Scatology has been used to represent hypochondria, the crisis of the aristocracy, self-disgust and sexual disgust – incidentally all things that we might find at an English festival.

The onslaught of the modern era hasn’t managed to dispel our fondness for injecting sophisticated comedy with snippets of scatological humour. In Peep Show for example, a show largely appreciated for its dry wit and irony, a hilarious scene involves Mark suffering from uncontrollable diarrhea as his boss watches on in disgust. Another brilliant scene is where Jeremy’s employer at the gym confronts him with a plastic bag filled with a human stool, which Jez had used to frame another employee for pooing in the pool.

In a similar vein, one of the most famous scenes in The Inbetweeners is where the uptight Will manages to poo himself during one of his A-level exams. In the second movie, there is another disgusting poo in the pool scene.

In the dark comedy series The Mighty Boosh, characters reference "taking a shit" on objects ranging from a salad, to a swan, to even "your mum". Almost all of these characters (Mark from Peep Show, Will from The Inbetweeners and The Mighty Boosh's Howard Moon) see themselves in some way as representative of a modern British gentleman – prudish, well educated and well spoken. Each of them at points embarrasses themselves and their image with reference to their bowel movements.

It’s a cliché that British humour is about losers, and that we are more prone to self-deprecation than our friends across the pond – a cliché that is not without some truth. 

Admittedly nowadays, much American humour similarly relies on self-deprecation and laughing at the sorry fate of "losers", but cynicism and irony are more fundamental to British comedy. On commenting on the difference between the American and British versions of The Office, Ricky Gervais once said that in the UK: "Failure and disappointment lurk around every corner… We use (irony) as liberally as prepositions in every day speech. We tease our friends. We use sarcasm as a shield and weapon." 

It is certainly true that in Britain, we are particularly pre-occupied with laughing at the failures of the self, and this can manifest itself potently through deprecation of the body.

Maybe the general sense of pessimism that is alluded to so much in the UK is due to our dismal weather, and maybe our ability to laugh at ourselves and our dysfunctions is a simply a testament to our good nature, and something to be applauded. Perhaps it is just something in the air rising from our manure-ploughed green and pleasant lands that inspires in our British comedians the desire to return time and time again to the scatological trope. Or perhaps, if we dig a bit deeper into our dung-fertilised lands, we might find that an anxiety about the foundations of British identity is behind the relentless desire to represent the permeability of the personal and national body.

Should we be embracing our tendency towards self-deprecation, or does it lead to a more problematic kind of cynicism that is restrictive, making us resistant to the idea of radical change? Perhaps we are destined to remain stuck in the mud forever, grumbling about the bad weather as we desperately shelter from the rain under a gazebo, sipping on the dregs of warm beer, pretending we’re having a good time – and who knows? Maybe this is what a good time looks like. Swift once told us to bless the "gaudy tulips raised from dung" – British comedy continues to do so quite literally.