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Elite frequencies

Sheffield has produced some of the most consistently brilliant pop music of the last 30 years. But a

Warp 20

Various locations, Sheffield

At the centre of Steel City is something called the Cultural Industries Quarter. This contains the former National Centre for Popular Music, two steel blobs designed by Nigel Coates, a somewhat faded "Millennium Project" which closed within a couple of years, now used by Sheffield Hallam University for offices. There's the long-standing Leadmill Club, the Site Gallery and for some reason a branch of Spearmint Rhino. More to the point, it contains a 1930s building housing the Showroom cinema and Workstation, home of Warp Films, the only part of Warp Records' media empire that is still based in the city.

The very name "Cultural Industries Quarter" (one of ten "quarters" in the zoned city) is bright, Blairite nu-language that seems a bad joke amidst the recession's foreboding harshness. The notion that an economy can run itself through the "creative industries", financial services and tourism has taken an extremely heavy knock. It's particularly ironic that it sits next to the rail station of a once-proud heavy industrial metropolis, which has never quite worked out what to do with itself since the steel industry's "restructuring" in the 1980s (unlike South Yorkshire's coal mining, steel never ceased production, and the city makes as much of it as it ever did - only with a fraction of the workforce). What Sheffield has had since the late 1970s is perhaps the most consistently brilliant popular music of any city outside of London.

The city's electronic music, from The Human League and Cabaret Voltaire to early Warp artists Forgemasters and Sweet Exorcist, took palpable inspiration from the cyclopean factories of the Don Valley and the fearless, grandly scaled 1960s architecture built for their workers. It's no surprise, then, that Warp Records' 20th anniversary celebrations in the city the label left in 2000 take place in the disputed remnants of a council estate and a steelworks, with film screenings in the former and a rave in the latter. The proceedings are assisted by the local regeneration quango, which bears the instructive name "Creative Sheffield".

That this is not entirely benign is obvious as soon as you get to the first of the two events, a Warp Films showcase in the magnificent, mostly disused Park Hill Flats. Once a gigantic declaration of Sheffield's pride in itself as a centre of municipal socialism, only one wing of this snaking, complex building is inhabited, while on the other side the Mancunian property developers Urban Splash are stripping the block to its frame in preparation for transforming it into barely recognisable upmarket apartments - with the assistance of state money. In between is dereliction. It's this boarded-up part which was used by Warp for this showcase of their film production arm, and given the sheer quantity of public space that defines Park Hill, you might assume the pedestrian could just walk in. Instead, metal fencing marks off the film event from the inhabited parts of the estate, with police watching from the walkways. Even the playground is fenced off. As a preview of the "mixed class" estate promised by Urban Splash and its public sponsors, it is not encouraging.

Nonetheless, once inside the films (mostly) fit the space well. A film on the All Tomorrow's Parties music festival is about as interesting as someone else's home movies, but Warp's music videos, remain playful, ambitious and intriguing. Warp's videos, from Jarvis Cocker and Martin Wallace's early efforts for Sweet Exorcist and Tricky Disco, to more extravagant works like Alex Rutterford's "Gantz Graf" for Autechre, or Chris Cunningham's bling absurdist film for Aphex Twin's "Windowlicker", are mini-masterpieces of the form. Certainly the futurist melancholia of the latter record feels appropriate for this tragic, sublime building.

The main event takes place in - again, note the already dated nomenclature - the Magna Science Adventure Centre, a Stirling Prize-winning building in 2001. Again we have a perfect meeting of place and sound, and again an overwhelming reminder of the area's class conflicts and disputed transformations. Magna was once the Steel, Peech and Tozer steelworks, part of the industrial zone that stretches between Sheffield and Rotherham. Next to business parks, retail parks and still functioning (if recession-threatened) steel plants, Magna offers up steel as a spectacle - and it's an awe-inspiring one, a superhuman process whose eventual lack of use for human workers seems entirely unsurprising. Inside a hangar-like space, reached through views of the overwhelming machinery, are the hilariously tiny DJs.

Warp is now a decidedly international operation, lacking the regional sentimentality of, say, the late Tony Wilson's Factory Records, which has spared Sheffield the tedious myth-making of the Mancunian music scene. The label seldom signs local acts. Nonetheless, it was Yorkshire producers who created Warp's most enduring, powerful music in the early '90s: the precise, compulsive techno of Sweet Exorcist's "Testone", LFO's Frequencies, Nightmares on Wax's "Aftermath", or Forgemasters, named after a Sheffield steelworks. Nightmares on Wax feature at Magna, billed as a reformation of their original lineup - after several singles in a Yorkshire techno vein, they split in 1991, leaving one member to pursue a rather less interesting trip-hop direction. At Magna their DJ set starts worryingly with a couple of tracks from later albums, but after interspersing Nitro Deluxe's "Let's Get Brutal" it becomes a techno set, concentrating on the cavernous, concussively physical, spacious sound they pioneered 20 years ago. It's awe-inspiring to hear it in a space like this, although the irony that it would have once occurred in disused warehouses and factories illegally, but is now doing so with local government assistance is doubtless not lost on some of the older participants. Alongside this controlled ferocity, the juxtaposition with the whimsical, wistful electro-jazz of Chris Clark or Squarepusher is not kind to later Warp, with their prettiness woefully inappropriate to the context. Nonetheless, Hudson Mohawke's set of mutated, maximalist hip hop shows they can still make some adroit signings.

Sheffield does not lack new electronic music. Yet it's a very different kind, the sort I heard teenagers play off their phones that night on the Rotherham-Sheffield train - bassline house, Yorkshire's brutalist version of 2-step garage, which owes much to the tinny bleeps and enveloping bass pulses of early Warp, splicing it with a far from minimal commercial crassness. Yet rather than being quango-funded, Niche, the club where it started was closed by South Yorkshire Police in 2005, in the tactfully named "Operation Repatriation". There wasn't a hint of bassline at Magna. "Creative Sheffield" remains a divided place.

Owen Hatherley's "Militant Modernism" (Zero Books) is out now. He blogs at Sit Down Man, You're a Bloody Tragedy For more information about Warp's 20th birthday celebrations, click here.

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood