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Tracey Thorn: "The question was always, 'Do I fit in? Do I want to fit in?'"

The Books Interview.

On the cover of your book, Bedsit Disco Queen, Caitlin Moran describes you as the “Alan Bennett of pop memoirists”. What do you think she meant by that?
Thanks Caitlin! Essentially, this is a story about ambivalence, about wanting it [being in the spotlight] and not wanting it.

The question was always, “Do I fit in? Do I want to fit in?” There was always a tug between wanting attention and wanting to hide.

That ambivalence is also related to the aesthetic choices you made, isn’t it – the privileging of quietness and reticence?
It’s an argument I feel I’ve been having since the very beginning. I talk in the book about the early interviews where people would throw words like “easy listening” at us and I’d storm out of the room. I think, right from the beginning, I knew that what I was doing sonically couldn’t level people with sheer volume and bluster.

The cover of the book shows you playing the first guitar you bought – a black Les Paul copy. Were you aware of the iconography of that instrument, the sexual politics of it?
Well, no. As I try to point out in the book, I was much more innocent about it all. And ignorant – I didn’t even really understand how an electric guitar works.

When I look back now, I think, “That’s really revolutionary.” To be a girl and go and buy this thing just because you think it’s cool, when you haven’t even worked out how it works . . . In a way, just with that level of ignorance, you’re undermining all the seriousness and pre-existing iconography of the Les Paul guitar.

From very early on, you were struggling to find musical forms that could accommodate your desire to write raw, intimate songs.
In the Marine Girls, for instance, things were very rough and ready sonically and we were genuinely amateurish-sounding. So it was easy for people to see the rawness.

But I got a bit tired of that. I thought it was a bit of a dead end. As a singer, I could already hear that I had the potential to get a bit better than that. Inevitably, the records we made as Everything but the Girl became more polished-sounding and people lost the ability to say, “It’s punky because it’s rough-andready- sounding.”

Do you think you were misunderstood?
In the mid-1980s, we were writing often quite political lyrics but again they would sometimes be missed within the sonic setting. I do say something about coming on like the Gang of Four but sounding like Astrud Gilberto!

This was something that other people were wrestling with at the time, wasn’t it? Green Gartside of Scritti Politti, for instance.
Yes. He had come from the absolute outer limits of demystification and went as far as you could go in the other direction, in terms of pop production, gloss, appearance. It was a very bold journey to undertake.

As the 1980s progressed, a kind of political ambivalence set in.
It was difficult. We hit that point where I sometimes felt I was ranting on like an old harpy when everyone else had stopped thinking that argument was worth having. Then it struck me: “Is the ‘Should we or shouldn’t we go on Top of the Pops?’ argument actually over?”

One gets the impression that your career has been something that happened to you rather than being something you actively desired.
I didn’t start out wanting one. I’m sure there are people who started out genuinely believing in being pop stars but I honestly hadn’t thought about that.

Also, I don’t think we were a very careerist generation. We were much less organised than it seems to me young people are today. They’re terribly organised and ambitious and have everything mapped out. I think that’s because there’s less of a safety net now so you need to be organised. But we had the luxury of just bumbling along and assuming it’d all be fine.

Interview by Jonathan Derbyshire Tracey Thorn’s “Bedsit Disco Queen: How I Grew Up and Tried to Be a Pop Star” is published by Virago, (£13.99)

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 18 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq: ten years on

Flickr/Alfred Grupstra
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How will future videogame makers design a grand strategy game about the 21st century?

With the diminishing power of nation states, and the lack of conventional warfare, what would a 21st-century grand strategy game look like?

In the world of historical strategy games, it always seems clear how to win. Paint the map your colour. Raise your flag over the capitals of your rivals. Pave the streets of your cities with gold. Games based around statecraft in olden times will tend to have diverse objectives, they usually focus on the greatness of a nation in the traditional senses of the word: military might, technological advancement, religious and cultural hegemony. These same priorities hold up from the times of the Roman Republic to the Cold War.

Yet if games designers in the future were to look at the world of today, how would they interpret the actions of modern governments? Do the same goals as before apply or have we moved on? Are the objectives of contemporary societies different, and if so, just what would a player in a game of 21st-century grand strategy be trying to achieve?

One thing is for sure, the conventional measures of success in historical grand strategy games don’t stack up so easily in a modern setting.

War, for instance, has always been a staple part of historical games and it remains a preoccupation of contemporary society too. In the 15 years of the 21st century, Britain has invaded two countries, conducted armed interventions in three more and is even now lining up the procurement of new fighter jets, new aircraft carriers and new nuclear weapons at incredible expense. So we can safely say we do not live in a peaceful age.

But despite having all this firepower and the political will to bring it to bear at the drop of a dossier, war doesn’t seem to serve Her Majesty’s Government in the way it does in either the history books or the strategy games. There is no territory to be won and no rival great powers being thwarted – only air strikes, occupations and teetering puppet governments.

Indeed the only country whose military adventures bear any resemblance to the old-timey way of doing things is Russia, with Putin perhaps the last of the breed of world leaders who still thinks swapping out the flags on municipal buildings constitutes a legitimate redrawing of national boundaries. Given his famous distrust for technology it seems quite likely he didn’t get the tersely worded Tweet from Obama about how that kind of thing isn’t supposed to work anymore.

On the economic side of things the approaches opted for by governments today don’t fit with the historical mind set either. Nations are no longer trying to get rich for their own sake. Privatisation relinquishes the assets of the state in return for a temporary financial gain and long term loss of revenue. Deregulation and poor tax enforcement bleeds capital overseas. It is here we see perhaps the key difference between games where you play as The State itself and real countries, countries run by people who have bank balances of their own and competing party financiers to appease.

The idea of running a country for the purpose of making that country wealthier and then reinvesting that wealth back into the country by developing assets and infrastructure has gone out of the window. Simultaneously both the leftwing model of a state run for the benefit of its citizens and the rightwing ideal of a country mastering its economy to become a more powerful force on the world stage have been quietly phased out. Outsourcing and tax havens suggest that there is no longer room for patriotism in economic policy – unless you’re China, of course, but it wouldn’t be much of a game with only one nation playing it.

On a technological front there was the space race, and there have even been games built around it. But in the 21st century, the urgency and the sense of competition has been lost. Rovers on Mars, probes on comets and space stations tend to be viewed in a spirit of collective human achievement, partly because of the collaborative nature of modern space exploration, and also, I suspect, because lots of people in those fields are Star Trek fans.

The idea of going to Mars so you can stand on the surface of another planet and tell the Communists to stuff it no longer appeals as much as that whole "pushing back the scientific boundaries for the benefit of all life of Earth" deal. It is laudable, but not ideal for games built around competing with other countries.

In the 21st century grand strategy game, we wouldn’t be looking to conquer the world, we wouldn’t be looking to buy it and we wouldn’t be looking to leave it in our technological wake either. So what does that leave? What would 21st-century grand strategy look like?

It could be argued that we’ve moved beyond the era of nation states as the bodies driving world affairs, and such a game might reflect that. Maybe something more akin to a Crusader Kings game would be the way to go, with the player taking the role of an individual – a connected political blueblood, perhaps, like an oligarch, a CEO, an activist turned politician, a drugs baron or a terrorist leader. Or maybe we would play not as an individual, but as an organisation, for example the CIA, ExxonMobil, Isis, Amnesty International or the Solntsevskaya Bratva.

It may be that we never see the present day immortalised in a strategy game, at least outside of that passing phase in Civilization where everything is either settled down or exploding in nuclear fire. Perhaps we’re destined to nestle into a historically obscure crack between the tumult of the 20th century and something spectacular or horrible yet to come. It is nice to think, however, that the times we live in are at least interesting and that maybe we’ll get to see it all laid out in a game one day, if only to find out what winning the 21st century would look like.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture