The strange patriotism of Iron Maiden

Kate Mossman catches the heavy metal giants on their "Maiden England" tour, and is perplexed by their nationalist aesthetic.

Iron Maiden
O2 Arena, London SE10

Last year, Iron Maiden’s Bruce Dickinson appeared on the late-night discussion show Hardtalk on BBC News. The line of interrogation was: “How can you mix the hard-rock lifestyle of a metalhead with the clean living required of a pilot and an entrepreneur?” I’m not sure why the BBC still hasn’t figured out how to ask rock stars intelligent questions. It also surprises me that – after 40 years – people fail to understand that members of Britain’s rock gentry got where they did by being conservative and having an eye for wise investments in the first place.

Dickinson’s Cardiff Aviation Ltd (pilot training, hangar space, plane maintenance, and so on) was founded in 2012. His previous work as a commercial pilot included more heroic exploits, appropriate to a man who sings in “Aces High”: “Jump in the cockpit and start up the engines/Remove all the wheel blocks, there’s no time to waste!”

In 2006, he “rescued” 200 UK citizens from Lebanon during the Israel/Hezbollah conflict; in 2008, he brought back 221 stranded holidaymakers from Egypt after the collapse of XL Airways and flew some RAF crew home from Afghanistan. There’s no band more British than Iron Maiden, from the flags brandished by their mascot, the death’s head Eddie, to their cod-Shakespearean lyrics, Churchill voice-overs, war-film backdrops and the kind of enthusiastic nods to multiculturalism we get at the O2 Arena on 3 August. “Every gig, we see all nationalities together,” says Dickinson, surveying the crowd. “And you know what, that’s all great, because it’s one nation under a fucking maiden!”

“Metalheads” (whatever that means) are as much soldiers as they are rebels. One Maiden fan I knew at university – an extreme case, admittedly – was teetotal and shavenheaded; he polished his boots every morning and kept his CDs in alphabetical order. Walking into the O2, I am struck by the throbbing cohesion of this crowd: it pulls you in, making you long to be part of it, wearing the T-shirt – though you know you’d be a fake if you bought one.

It makes me happy just to think that these bands exist: powerful little worlds spinning on their own axes, free from fashion, running on evangelism and eccentricity. Iron Maiden are still massive. Their most recent album, The Final Frontier (2010), reached number one in 28 countries. In the last week of July, this “Maiden England” tour grossed more than Taylor Swift and Justin Bieber. And this O2 gig sold out in 12 minutes.

They formed in 1975. The main difference today, notes my friend, who last saw them in 1983, is the number of families in attendance. The band’s warped cartoon aesthetic always appealed to children; in the late 1970s, 12- year-olds drew Eddie on their school bags. Now they’ve grown up and the arena is filled with their offspring, a joyous illustration of a crunched generation gap in music.

There are two tiny girls in boxing boots and “The Trooper” T-shirts and a small boy wearing a six-foot-long flag as a cape. Dickinson uses the stage like Freddie Mercury did, a tiny, crablike silhouette scuttling at speed across a cartoon backdrop (Eddie against a landscape of fire and ice). Soundless explosions radiate from the stage – to use a cliché of rock journalism, “melting your face off”. The band’s bassist, Steve Harris, down on the right, is the founder and mastermind but the group appears, at least, to be an efficient and democratic machine – especially when not two but three axes play lead in unison on a song called “Iron Maiden”.

Every night, at the same point in the show, Eddie appears onstage in living, breathing form: a man on stilts in a tricorne hat and tailcoat, who would not look out of place at a Cornish folk parade. “I am hard of hearing,” says Dickinson. “With all due respect, that was such bullshit: scream for me again, London!” He has that brilliant, old-fashioned accent that all rock stars from Mick Jagger to Rod Stewart seem to have – a cheeky, Ealing-comedy London you don’t hear much any more.

He was born in Worksop, Nottinghamshire, to a working-class family and was raised by his grandfather, a miner, who died of black lung. By the time he was a teenager, his parents had raised enough money doing up property to send him to Oundle public school, where he became the president of the war games society and handled real firearms – and from which he was later expelled.

Britain’s rock stars moved up quickly in the world, fraternised with the titled, bought castles and suits of armour, colonised Mustique and appeared in Tatler’s society pages. They helped usher in the only kind of patriotism with which we are comfortable today: self-mocking, cartoonish, ridiculous, loose.

Eddie and his flags mean many things to many people. He was co-opted by the Ulster Defence Association in the 1980s and appears on some murals in Belfast. On the artwork for the single “Sanctuary”, he stood over the vanquished figure of Thatcher. Then, in that Hardtalk interview, Dickinson observed that all working-class people were naturally conservative and someone on YouTube commented: “Maiden for Ukip!”

Lead singer Bruce Dickinson launching "Trooper" beer, in March 2013. Photograph: Ben Pruchnie/ Getty Images.

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

This article first appeared in the 19 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Why aren’t young people working

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Man in the mirror-ball: Simon Armitage's The Unaccompanied

With this mature, engaging and empathetic work, the poet softens the pain of passing years. 

The Unaccompanied, by Simon Armitage
Faber & Faber, 76pp, £14.99

“The centuries crawl past,” Simon Armitage notes in his new collection, “none of them going your way”. After a decade of acclaimed travelogues, transgressive prose poetry, and above all translation, Armitage has combed those centuries to produce innovative versions of ancient and medieval texts: Pearl, The Death of King Arthur, Homer’s Odyssey, Virgil’s Georgics. In The Unaccompanied he returns, refreshed from his sojourn in the past and bringing the classics with him; in the book’s dystopian present, in “Poundland”, Odysseus meets the ghost of his drunken comrade Elpenor not in the Underworld, but “slumped and shrunken by the Seasonal Products display”, the poem’s pseudo-archaic English underscoring its ironic rewriting of Homer. Meanwhile, the protagonist of “Prometheus”, holed up in a post-industrial wasteland, sees his father retrieve not fire, but a Champion spark plug.

To lighten its nightmarish visions, The Unaccompanied offers the same beguiling playfulness that has characterised Armitage’s verse from his 1989 debut, Zoom!, to the “Merrie England” of Tyrannosaurus Rex versus The Corduroy Kid (2006). “Tiny”, for instance, reads like an old-school Ladybird Book (“Simon has taken his father, Peter,/to the town’s museum”) and “The Poet Hosts His Annual Office Christmas Party” makes a mischievous nod to Yeats. As ever, there are pinpoint references to popular culture; in “Gravity”, it is the “six-minute-plus/album version” of Fleetwood Mac’s “Sara” that plays on the stereo in the sixth-form common room. Yet Armitage’s concern for the socially excluded – the “skinny kid in jeans and trainers” from “The Ice Age” to whom the poet offers a spurned coat, “brother to brother” – burns unabated.

This collection articulates a new anger that is more personal, a lament for individual mortality, the sadness of time moving on too far and too fast. In “The Present”, the poet attempts to take an icicle home to his daughter:

a taste of the glacier, a sense of the world

being pinned in place by a
diamond-like cold

at each pole, but I open my hand

and there’s nothing to pass on, nothing to hold.

Armitage’s fluid poetics are pitch-perfect and his imagery remains incisive. The bare winter larch trees become “widowed princesses in moth-eaten furs”. In “Poor Old Soul” an elderly man sits, “hunched and skeletal under a pile of clothes,/a Saxon king unearthed in a ditch”. This is the measured poetry of late middle-age, in which only the promise of more loss fills the “white paper, clean pages”. In “Kitchen Window”, the poet’s mother taps the smeared glass before she falls away “behind net curtains” and then further “to deeper/darker reaches and would not surface”. “Emergency” (published in the NS in 2013) could almost be his audition for Grumpy Old Men. “What is it we do now?” he asks as he details the closed banks, and pubs where “tin-foil wraps/change hands under cover/of Loot magazine”. W G Hoskins’s gentle topological classic is referenced in “The Making of the English Landscape”, though a very different country is seen at dusk from a satellite:

like a shipwreck’s carcass raised on a
sea-crane’s hook,

nothing but keel, beams, spars, down to its bare bones.

In “Harmonium”, the poet’s father – who, in 1993’s Book of Matches, berated him for having his ear pierced – helps his son lug an unwanted organ from their local church and reminds him “that the next box I’ll shoulder through this nave/will bear the load of his own dead weight”.

Armitage’s poetic world is instantly recognisable, always inclusive. We know the faded ballrooms that turn into even sadder discos in “The Empire”. Or the clumsy children’s shoe fitter of “The Cinderella of Ferndale”, who leaves her own footprints of disappointment. As the poet stumbles on a farmers’ fancy-dress parade for a breast cancer charity in “Tractors”, the slight incident bleeds into the universal shock of diagnosis: “the musket-ball/or distant star/in your left breast”. Critics often cite Philip Larkin as an influence on his work, but Armitage’s highly tuned sense of such “mirror-ball” moments – small but refracting repeatedly across time and lives – is all his own. Thankfully, with this mature, engaging and empathetic work, he is back to record them for us, softening the pain of passing years. 

Josephine Balmer is a poet and classical translator. “Letting Go: Mourning Sonnets” will be published by Agenda Editions in July

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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