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How Half Man Half Biscuit have forged a career mocking middle-class idiocy

In a world in which chav-baiting is the norm, Nigel Blackwell nails the grotesqueness of the caring, sharing BoBos: the bohemian bourgeoisie.

It took me four decades to learn the lesson that meeting your musical heroes is a dish best sampled cold, with a long spoon, alone with an imaginary conversation in a locked room. Thus, ever since I first became a fan of Half Man Half Biscuit some twenty years ago I have nurtured my adoration in private, indulging only with my husband – a fellow fan, and the fine fellow who first introduced me to HMHB (Nigel Blackwell, genius; Neil Crossley, bass and vocals; Ken Hancock, lead guitar; and Carl Henry, drums) on road trips.

The principal reason I love them is for their supremely clever and funny lyrics, but also because listening to HMHB is like finally having an enjoyable experience of punk, which I pretended to like forty years ago in order to get my first writing job. They are punk with a sense of humour and a sense of perspective, both of which are surely essential for anyone over the age of 12 if they are not to appear an asinine ass-hat of the highest order.

Paul Du Noyer summed up HMHB well when he wrote: “The songs of their leader, Nigel Blackwell, suggest a very real world of people too educated to be on the dole but too luckless or lazy to be anywhere else. They take a witty revenge on the drivel of popular culture, without denying their fascination with it.” Blackwell is a troubadour of minor trouble, a chronicler of chronic dismay, a misfortune-teller, whose world-view – like that of those other seers of savage amusement Shena Mackay and Joe Orton – can easily overlay one’s own small world the moment one comes to appreciate it.

As we set out on our car journey from Brighton to Bristol last week to see my first HMHB show, the sky was blue but quickly became pleasingly overcast (“Opinionated weather forecasters telling me it’s going to be a miserable day/Miserable to who?/
I quite like a bit of drizzle,/so stick to the facts” – “A Country Practice”), we saw one magpie (sorrow) and a chip of road flew up to mar our immaculate windscreen. I spotted bragging lorries – A PASSION FOR LOGISTICS – and needy vans – HOW’S MY DRIVING? – a yuppie flat development courtesy of Bray & Slaughter and signposts to places with a dolorous, menacing feel: Warninglid, Cowfold, Slaugham, Wantage.

HMHB have been around since the mid-Eighties, breaking up briefly after their first single, citing with typical deadpan drollery “musical similarities”: probably another way of saying none of them could be arsed to turn up. (Fearless front-runners of inertia innovation, they once turned down the chance to appear on The Tube, because Tranmere Rovers were playing on the proffered night.) Despite this maverick apathy they have managed to knock out 14 albums, in the course of which Blackwell has somehow steered a path between being a silly child and a grumpy codger – both with too much daytime TV watching time on their hands – and has emerged as the cleverest, funniest man in British pop.

In a piece for the Social Issues Research Centre, the anthropologist Kate Fox recently wrote, under the heading “The benefits of negative gossip”:

While we would not wish to dwell disproportionately on the 5 per cent or so of gossip-time devoted to criticism and negative evaluation of others, it is important to recognise that such gossip is not just a verbal form of “gratuitous violence”. It is not pointless or unnecessary, but in fact has a perfectly reasonable purpose, and clear social benefits . . . Negative gossip also promotes social bonding between the gossipers. By criticising someone else, we are affirming the values and opinions we share with each other – emphasising what we have in common, cementing our friendships, building alliances.

HMHB have built their fiercely loyal following on div-dissing ditties about the long-lost likes of Ted Moult, Rod Hull and Dickie Davies. The gloriously nasty “Bastard Son of Dean Friedman” starts with the lines “Well I heard a lovely rumour that Bette Midler had a tumour/So gleefully I went to tell my friends . . .” before even mentioning the titular tit. “Upon Westminster Bridge” contains the quatrain: “Oh help me Mrs Medlicott/I don’t know what to do/I’ve only got three bullets/And there’s four of Mötley Crüe”. “You’re Hard” is simply a long list of those we have loathed, from Jimmy Nail to Lenny Henry, and is all the better for it.

But these entertainments are fluffy dice dangling above the roaring engine of the righteous social criticism that makes HMHB so special. “Never not knowingly giving offence” might be their USP, and when they hit their target it can make you wince and hoot at once. In a world in which chav-baiting is the norm, Blackwell nails the grotesqueness of the caring, sharing BoBos: the bohemian bourgeoisie. And, in an age when “diversity” has been used as a cheap bagatelle blinding us to the vile fact that, the social mobility of the late 20th century reversed, rich dim children are outshining bright poor children academically before both sides stop believing in the Tooth Fairy (make the best of that shiny coin, baby chavs, because it’ll be the last reward you ever get), there is a pleasing whiff of the if . . . finale about their best work:

They looked at my postcode
They asked me to speak
It was then I decided my prospects were bleak
Well it may be through goose rule
It may be through God
But one day there’s going to be blood on the quad
Me in the belltower and blood on the quad.

"Blood on the Quad”

Outside Goldsmiths’ coughing up blood
Turner Prize judge gasps “Christ that’s good
Leave it as it is, it’ll get first place
We’ll call it A Full Shift at the Coalface”
Oh well you’re neither a Stuckist or a YBA
And you’re no longer a miner as of today . . .

“If I Had Possession Over Pancake Day”

HMHB have two speeds/stances: stand up and snarl and sit back and sneer, giving their work a pleasing chiaroscuro of chippiness. Blackwell has an uncanny knack of fingering first-time offenders long before they become the usual suspects. He predicted today’s bed-wetting chart-botherers in 2000’s “Look Dad No Tunes”: “My life is comfortable/But I don’t want that image for my band/Inside, I’m reasonable/But I’ll make out they just don’t understand . . ./Somebody’s knocking on my door/It’s the boy from over the road . . ./I think we’d better let him in/I heard he’s got a theremin!”

He is thrilling when he goes for the jugular of those sad sacks for whom the simple act of spawning has become the ultimate virtue-signalling, and the extraordinary manner in which, parallel to the demise of religion in this country, it sometimes seems like every middle-class child is treated as a mucky messiah. “Is your child hyperactive/Or is he perhaps a twat?” HMHB wonder aloud in “Surging Out of Convalescence”, before urging caution in the naming of brats in “Breaking News” – “Don’t be calling him Fred or Archie/With all its cheeky but lovable working-class scamp connotations/Unless you really do have plans for him to spend his life in William Hill’s/Waiting for them to weigh in at Newton Abbot” – and finally threatening a spouse with the ultimate indignity: “I’m gonna feed our children non-organic food/And with the money saved take ’em to the zoo” (“Totnes Bickering Fair”).

By the time we get to Bristol I’m overexcited at the prospect of hearing the Biscuit classic “Paintball’s Coming Home” (in which the lifestyle of a couple of know-all bell-ends is dissected – “They buy soup in cartons, NOT IN TINS! . . ./They’ve got nothing but total respect for Annie Lennox . . ./They didn’t choose their cat, their cat chose them/And what do you know: it’s got its own website’’ – to the tune of “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands”) live. I’m not disappointed. Somehow all the fuming and fulminating has produced a huge fountain of fun, and the crowd dance around having the time of their lives.

Despite the knowingness and media-obsessed modernity of HMHB, there is something quite affecting about the idea of the four men packing up their instruments afterwards and after a bit of beer-drinking setting off to a new town to tell a new set of people about another set of people, like medieval mummers. They are, as Du Noyer nailed it, “flintily incorruptible”, never surprised in shame or compromise; it’s like they made a conscious decision long ago to sell as few records as possible and in the process became realised – and successful – to an extent most musicians can barely imagine. I felt honoured to see them.

But I still don’t want to meet them.

This article first appeared in the 03 March 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Germany's migrant crisis

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Netflix's Ozark is overstuffed – not to mention tonally weird

Could the channel use a hit? Every time my subscription leaves my bank account, I think again that it could.

The main reason why Ozark, the new Netflix series, feels so underpowered has to do with its star, Jason Bateman (who also directs): a good actor who badly wants for charisma, he simply can’t carry it alone. Watching the first few episodes, I kept thinking of Jon Hamm in Mad Men and (a better example here) Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad, both of whom played, as does Bateman, characters around which the plots of their respective series turned. When they were on screen, which was often, it was all but impossible to tear your eyes from them; when they were off it, you felt like you were only biding your time until they returned. But when Bateman disappears from view, you hardly notice. In fact, it feels like a plus: at least now you might get to see a bit more of the deft and adorable Laura Linney.

In Ozark, Bateman is Marty, an outwardly square guy whose big secret is that he is a money launderer for the second biggest drugs cartel in Mexico. When the series opens, he and his wife Wendy (Linney) and their two children are living in Chicago, where he nominally works as a financial advisor.

By the end of the first episode, however, they’re on their way to the Lake of the Ozarks in rural Missouri. Marty’s partner, Bruce, has been on the fiddle, and the cartel, having summarily executed him, now wants Marty both to pay back the cash, and to establish a few new businesses in which future income may be cleaned far from the prying eyes of the law enforcement agencies. If this sounds derivative, it is. We’re in the realm of Breaking Bad, only where that show gave us out-of-control Bunsen burners and flesh-eating chemicals, this one is more preoccupied with percentages and margins.

Where’s the friction? Well, not only is the FBI on Marty’s tail, his wife has been cheating on him, with the result that their marriage is now just another of his business arrangements. The locals (think Trump supporters with beards as big as pine trees) have proved thus far to be on the unfriendly side, and having paid off their debts, the only house Marty can afford has a cliché – sorry, crotchety old guy – living in the basement. On paper, admittedly, this all sounds moderately promising. But hilarity does not ensue. As dull as the Lake of the Ozarks when the tourist season is over, not even Linney can make Bill Dubuque’s dialogue come alive. Her character should be traumatised: before they left Chicago, the cartel, for reasons I do not completely understand, pushed her podgy lover – splat! – off his balcony. Instead, she’s fussing about the crotchety old guy’s sexism.

Ozark is overstuffed and tonally weird, so I won’t be binge-watching this one. This completes rather a bad run for me and Netflix; after the lame new series of House of Cards and the egregious Gypsy, this is the third of its shows on the trot to bore me rigid. Could the channel use a hit? Every time my subscription leaves my bank account, I think again that it could.

And now to The Sweet Makers: A Tudor Treat (19 July, 8pm), in which we hear the sound of the “living history” barrel being scraped so loudly, those attending the meeting at which it was commissioned must surely have worn ear defenders. Basically, this is a series in which four confectioners “go back in time” to discover how their forebears used sugar (first, the Tudors; next week, the Georgians).

What it means in practice is lots of Generation Game-style faffing with candied roses and coriander comfits by people in long skirts and silly hats – a hey-nonny-nonny fiesta of pointlessness that is itself a sugar coating for those nasty things called facts (ie a bit of tokenism about slavery and our ancestors’ trouble with their teeth).

Resident expert, food historian Dr Annie Gray, strained to give the proceedings urgency, sternly reminding the confectioners that the sugar house they’d spent hours building did not yet have a roof. But who cared if it didn’t? Destined to be eaten by fake Tudor guests at a fake Tudor banquet, it wasn’t as if anyone was going to lose their head for it – not even, alas, at Broadcasting House. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder

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