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Is it time we gave Bono a break?

We are conditioned to be annoyed by everything the U2 frontman does.

One night in the late 1980s, when Dylan was down the dumper and U2 were on top of the world, Bono went round to Bob’s house. Spending time with him was like having dinner on a train, Bob wrote: “Feels like you’re moving, going somewhere”. Bono knew a lot about the States, and what he didn’t know he was curious about. He could say things to sway anybody, said Bob: if he had come to America in the early part of the century, he would have been a cop.

Today, no one listens to Bono. Those who have met him recall his charm and his phenomenal memory – like a good politician, he knows where you last met, the names of your kids. Yet when he opens his mouth to speak out on A Cause, he activates rage in half the English-speaking world. We are so conditioned to being annoyed by everything he does, in fact, that when a 15-year-old Syrian girl is beamed up at U2’s Twickenham show from a refugee camp in Jordan, and is asked what message she would send to a stadium full of people, some automatic reflex in your brain says: There he goes again. Which makes me think, people, we need to take a long, hard look at ourselves!

After a weekend of gigs at which the band played their 1987 album The Joshua Tree in its entirety, I watched an interesting sea change as rock journalists discussed a band they’d long been required to loathe. U2, like Queen, were always uncool because they were hugely successful and beloved of ordinary people. They were disdained because of their wealth (Bono made a billion from Facebook), tax dodging, “preachy” attachment to humanitarian causes, and their somewhat telescopic coverage of the Troubles.

But over the weekend, folk started asking what we really want of a rock star: a feckless manchild who doesn’t give a damn about the bigger picture, or a billionaire who gives airtime to good causes. In rock music, there is always some poor sod in the stocks for the duration of their career. Could Bono finally be released, leaving only Sting?

The vast panoramic screen at Twickenham – U2’s latest technological innovation – contains 11 million pixels and is powered by enough electricity to supply 700 houses: (“so much for green celeb Bono!” yelps your automatic Bono-decrying brain reflex). On it is broadcast stunning new footage of the US landscape by Anton Corbijn, a bit like that movie you watch on repeat when going through US border control. Mexicans making a dusty path through the desert; a thin cowgirl painting a hut in red, white and blue.

When U2 recorded The Joshua Tree, they couldn’t decide what order to put the songs in, so Kirsty MacColl did it for them, creating, Bono said, an album with a beginning, a middle and an end. Thirty years later, that means hit after hit: “With or Without You”, “Where the Streets Have No Name”, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”. 

It must be terrifying touring an old, beloved album, playing your trump card, when you still strive to be relevant. What next for U2? Their new records are not of mass interest – their last, which appeared for free in your iTunes library, was considered malware by many.

At Twickenham, they perform the crucial first half hour clustered together on a mini stage with no visual props at all – which could backfire, were it not that every move is expertly choreographed to say: here is the loudest folk band on the planet (their phrase), unchanged in line-up, personal relationships a mystery, working in service of you.

Bono, with Cuban heels and hair that grows more lustrous with every passing year, keeps the commentary to a minimum: shout-outs to London (for offering sanctuary to the Irish); Brian Eno and Natasha Richardson – between squirts of harmonica, his own equivalent of David Bowie’s saxophone.

The onslaught of so many hits turns the stadium into a giant karaoke machine. A 30-foot silk flag bearing the face of the Syrian refugee girl makes a billowing passage across the crowd, as at a football match. There he goes again.

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 13 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Maybot malfunctions

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The Sad Part Was: this story collection puts the real Bangkok on display

Thai author Prabda Yoon descends into the voices and minds of a small cast of characters.

In Bangkok’s budding literary scene, Prabda Yoon sits at the centre. Born in 1973, he’s the scion of a well-known family (his father Suthichai Sae-Yoon is the co-founder of the Nation newspaper) and is known in Thailand as not only an enfant terrible of letters but as an illustrator, screen-writer and director (his first film, Motel Mist, was shown at European festivals in 2016).

His reputation rests mainly on a collection of short stories published in 2000 entitled in Thai Kwam Na Ja Pen, roughly translated as Probability, and it is from this early collection that most of the stories now collected in The Sad Part Was are derived. Translated with cool elegance by Mui Poopoksakul, they are among the first modern Thai stories to be published in the UK.

As Poopoksakul points out in her afterword, she and Yoon are the products of similar backgrounds and epochs: upper-middle class children of Bangkok who came to consciousness in the late Eighties and Nineties. Often foreign-educated, fluent in English and conversant in global pop culture and media – Yoon did a stint at Parsons in New York after prep school at the Cambridge School of Weston – this new generation of Thai writers and artists were born into a society changing so fast that they had to virtually invent a new language to transcribe it.

In The Sad Part Was, the result is stories that one could glibly label as “post-modern” but which, in reality, perfectly match the qualities of the megacity where they are set. Bangkok is infamously mired in lurid contradiction, but it’s also a city of subtle and distorted moods that journalism and film have hitherto mostly failed to capture. The whimsical and playful surfaces of these stories have to be read against the high-octane anxieties and surreal dislocations of what was, until recently, one of the fastest-growing cities in the world.

Yoon uses the short form of the ten-page story to descend into the voices and minds of a small cast of characters: a schoolgirl and a beautiful female teacher who form a platonic lesbian infatuation while riding a daily bus in “Miss Space”; a couple making love during a thunderstorm whose activities are interrupted by the dismantling of two giant letters, which fall onto their roof in “Something in the Air”; a young man who meets a mysterious older man in Lumpini Park called Ei Ploang, who forces him to consider the intertwined nature of good and evil. In “Snow for Mother”, a mother waits for her little boy to grow up so that she can take him to Alaska to experience the real snow, which he never knew as a little boy in the tropics.

In “The Sharp Sleeper”, a man named Natee obsesses over losing his shirt buttons and is led into a strange reverie on the nature of dreams and the competing qualities of red and yellow pyjama shirts (Thailand’s political culture is riven by two parties popularly known as Red and Yellow Shirts). The commentary slips into effortless sarcasm:

Natee has proudly worn the red pyjama shirt several times since then, and his dream personality hasn’t altered at all. On the contrary, the shirt has encouraged him to become a man of conviction in his waking life. As to what those convictions were supposed to be, Natee wasn’t quite sure. But it was safe to say that a night shirt so principled wouldn’t drop a button so easily.

Since these stories were written, Bangkok’s political schizophrenia has lost its former air of apathy and innocence, but Yoon’s tone is quietly prescient about the eruption of violent irrationality a few years later. It’s a reminder how precious the subtlety of fiction is when set against the shrill certitudes of activism and reportage.

My favorite story here is “Something in the Air”. Its dialogues are written with hilariously archaic, bureaucratic formality, while delving into the disorientation of sexual and romantic hopes in the present century. After the couple’s love-making is interrupted, the young man suggests insolently to the woman that they resume in the open air, exposed to the furious elements. She agrees. They then notice that a dead body is lying on the roof nearby, crushed by the giant letters.

While waiting for the police to arrive, the woman sits quietly and describes her future, a happily married future in which her current lover will play no part whatsoever. He listens in melancholy astonishment until the couple are called to give their testimonies about the dead man. The officers then suspect that the couple themselves have done something scandalous – and so, stung by shame, the woman considers breaking off the relationship and setting in motion her own prophesy.

The Sad Part Was is unique in the contemporary literature of Bangkok – it doesn’t feature bar girls, white men, gangsters or scenes redolent of The Hangover Part II. Instead it reveals, sotto voce, the Thai voices that are swept up in their own city’s wild confusion and energy, and it does so obliquely, by a technique of partial revelation always susceptible to tenderness.

Lawrence Osborne is a British novelist living in Bangkok. His next book, “Beautiful Animals”, will be published by Hogarth in August

The Sad Part Was
Prabda Yoon
Tilted Axis Press, 192pp, £8.99

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