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The sound of shyness

The xx, winners of the Mercury Prize 2010, have invented an urban sound at once intimate and familia

Putney Bridge, south London, December 2010. Thick snow clings to the banks of the Thames and icicles hang from wrought-iron railings. The xx used to call this their manor, but they have been away touring the world for the past 12 months - a year whose peak came in September, when their debut album, xx, beat Paul Weller, Dizzee Rascal and others to win the Barclaycard Mercury Prize. The band's melancholic songs, with lyrics about loneliness, lust and love, have struck a chord in Britain in particular, providing the perfect soundtrack to our troubled times. The BBC chose their song "Intro" for its election coverage - and their popularity was even latched on to by the Tories, who used their music without permission at the Conservative party conference in October.

Tonight, The xx are home to do something deeply un-rock'n'roll: turn on the local Christmas lights. "They probably wanted Barbara Windsor, didn't they?" laughs Oliver Sim, the tall, handsome singer and bassist, who shaved off his old, Fifties-style quiff when the band finished touring in October.

Next to him is the singer and guitarist Romy Madley Croft, Sim's best friend since they were toddlers. She smiles shyly under her severe, triangular fringe and explains that they are here because they owe it to Putney. "Especially given all the time we spent lurking around Greggs," she laughs. The third member, Jamie Smith, who met the others in the playground when they were 11, is now one of the UK's most respected young producers and DJs. He is a quiet soul, who most often nods mutely in agreement at what his bandmates have to say.

What is striking about these three, whom I first met 18 months ago, is how humble they have remained throughout their rapid ascent. Even now, where others in their position would happily put themselves forward as spokespeople for this or that issue, The xx are characteristically reticent. This is the third time I have interviewed them, yet even now it feels like we're playing mind games. When the Dictaphone is off, they are warm and talkative; as soon as it is on, they become cautious.

Never is this more so than when we move on to the subject of politics. When The xx's music was used at the Tory conference, a represen­tative of their record label, Young Turks, posted an angry message on the social networking website Twitter. "The xx . . . didn't approve the use of their music at the party [conference] and certainly don't approve of said party," he wrote at the time.

Now, however, they quickly clam up when asked about it: Sim will only express his irritation at their name being used to confer kudos on anyone at all. When I ask if they voted, they stare at each other nervously and grimace. After a long silence, Sim tries to explain why they do this. "It's protection, I suppose," he says. "Not to flatter myself, but I know that you can influence people's opinion as a musician and I don't want to." Madley Croft nods. "Every one of us has our opinions but we are quite private people. We wouldn't want to be associated with anything."

Later, they tell me that they did vote and that they care deeply about the future of Britain - particularly its youth. But The xx desperately want to avoid being held up as moral icons or ambassadors for a generation. As Madley Croft reminds me, they made an album full of personal sentiments that they initially thought only "four people would hear".

Putney is where I first met The xx. This was pre-fame, when they used to rehearse in a tiny space under the railway arches, where sticky carpet covered the walls and empty Coke cans littered the floor. Baria Qureshi, then the fourth member of the band - whose departure last autumn Madley Croft still describes as feeling "like a divorce" - was there, too. They were all dressed head-to-toe in black, as they still do. They talked about the different artists and genres that they loved - Chris Isaak and Mariah Carey, hip-hop and dubstep - as trains rattled the walls. "That room was like a womb," Sim says now. "I miss it."

Now The xx move in a very different world. Their album recently went platinum (325,000 copies have been sold to date) and its songs have been covered by stars as various as Damon Albarn, Shakira and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. That they have achieved this success while keeping themselves to themselves is quite a feat in our flaunt-yourself pop culture. Instead, they have worked their way into our collective consciousness by inventing an urban sound that unites the emotions of indie rock with the drama of dance music.

Madley Croft is astonished at the acclaim they have received. "I'm baffled. After all this time, I just think: 'How?' We made this record for ourselves - to try to make music that all of us would like." Perhaps their success is due to the way their combined influences tick a range of critical boxes - or, less cynically, maybe the mood of intimacy and familiarity they inspire is something that people crave, especially in a world bombarded with 24-hour content.

With the music industry dominated by sons and daughters of rock's aristocracy and by privately educated musicians (according to a recent survey by The Word magazine, 60 per cent of acts that charted during one week in October had been to public school), it is refreshing that The xx come from very ordinary backgrounds. Brought up in lower-middle-class families - Sim in a council house at Clapham Junction - they went to the Elliott School, a comprehensive in Putney Heath that also counts the electropop band Hot Chip and the dubstep artist Burial among its alumni.

It isn't the state equivalent of the Brit School, however, says Madley Croft, who thinks her school's influence has been overplayed in the media. "A teacher from Elliott who had never even taught us said how great we were. It's a bit annoying. We were left alone, more than anything - although I'm sure that helped us in its own way."

After leaving school, they signed to a small indie label, Young Turks, which had the financial backing of XL Recordings, home to Radiohead and the White Stripes. Unusually for a new group starting out in the modern record industry, the band was given time and space to develop. They decided on the name "The xx" because it suggested so many things - chromosomes, kisses, pornography and even their ages - each pushing 20 - at the time of
the album's release.

By day, they worked in chain stores such as Costa and Uniqlo, making their album at night. Sim and Madley Croft would record their vocals straight on to their laptops at home, trying not to wake their parents; Smith mixed the songs in a tiny room under the XL offices in Notting Hill. Its dark, moody sound deepened as a result of this nocturnal process. It is no coincidence that xx ends with songs called "Night Time" and "Stars".

Although the album received good reviews, the bigger boys in the media didn't get The xx straight away. Radio 1 didn't seem very interested in playlisting their singles and the NME didn't think that they were cover material. Even after I accompanied the band in November last year to New York, where I watched fans queue outside for returned tickets and Courtney Love fight her way backstage to meet them, I was told by an NME editor that they weren't quite "right" for heavy coverage. The xx were not conventionally glamorous, after all, nor were they interested in pompously touting themselves as the next big thing.

But by March 2010, strengthened by constant touring and some astonishing live gigs that were lit by the band's simple, black-and-white, x-shaped light boxes, the band sold out two nights at the Shepherd's Bush Empire in London. That month, The xx finally got their first NME cover, which blazed, without irony, that they were "the most underrated band in Brit­ain". What's more, their music was pricking the ears of television music programmers, whose choices of soundtrack material are now highly influential in the music business. The opening track from xx, "Intro", was picked up for a BBC general election ident that ran throughout the spring. Its menacing notes complemented the BBC's smoke-clouded images of British hospitals, schools and soldiers perfectly. In May, the band was invited to perform live at the close of BBC2's Newsnight Election Special.

Looking back, Sim is amused by the brief period in which "Intro" became "the Rocky theme tune of politics". He was impressed by Jeremy Paxman, too. "He's quite a smooth guy," Sim laughs, noting that the presenter even played Smith's electronic drum pads just before the band's soundcheck. But they did the show largely out of curiosity, he adds. "You're asked lots of times to be on Jools Holland but only so many to be on Newsnight."

Then, after a triumphant performance at the Glastonbury Festival, came the Mercury Prize, the shortlist for which was announced in July. Due to a policy of avoiding reading their press - Sim tells me that the most he will do is occasionally flick through the scrapbook of cuttings his father keeps - they were unprepared for all the media attention, particularly after they were named the bookies' favourites.

As a member of the Mercury judging panel, I had spent the summer listening again and again to xx. Much as I tried to fight temptation, the other shortlisted albums often sat forlornly on my speakers. Each time I listened to it, I found something new: the gorgeous, building drones in "Fantasy"; the vast silence and space in "Crystalised"; and how the rough edges of Sim's voice rubbed against the sweetness of Madley Croft's.

At the award ceremony, which took place on 7 September at the Grosvenor House Hotel in London, I was worried about how the band would react when they won. I was relieved to see them accept their prize with warmth. My lasting memory of that night is seeing the trio head off into the night with their arms tightly around each other, and yet, true to form, they admit that they would have preferred to have been somewhere more modest.

“We'd hired a bar nearby for our friends and family," says Sim, "where there was a big video screen which played the announcement live. Our soundman recorded what happened and we watched it later - my mum there, running past the camera, crying, as if England had won the World Cup."

Through the summer, and The xx's post-Mercury autumn, the band's confidence appeared to grow: in live performances, Madley Croft would sing more boldly, Sim developed an onstage swagger and Smith began experimenting with different rhythms and textures. And Madley Croft revealed, to a small online magazine called Tourist, that she was gay. "I outed myself to the whole world on my friend's tiny little blog," she says shyly. "I forgot that everyone could see it. I'm proud of having a girlfriend; it just doesn't have anything to do with my music." Sim, who was also described as gay in the band's early interviews, has said nothing since about his own sexuality, and that is unlikely to change.

For me, this guardedness adds depth to The xx's confessional songs, suggesting that extra­ordinary emotions lurk behind such ordinary lives. Perhaps that is what their fans most respond to: how they articulate the drama and power of that inner life.

Back at the Christmas market in Putney, it's nearly 6pm. Hundreds of local people are gathered to watch them flick the switch, including Sim's father and old friends who find the whole business hilarious. The three friends walk on to the stage as their host counts down to zero and then turn the Christmas tree behind them all silver and gold. Sim politely thanks Putney for having them, wishes everyone a merry Christmas and poses for pictures with Madley Croft and their fans. Smith hides behind a marquee, looking sheepish.

Tonight is The xx's last press engagement for the near future and, as they leave, they engulf me in bear hugs. They must be relieved to be stepping off the promotional treadmill, but their warmth feels sincere all the same. They are not a band about pop's flash and burn and they never were. They understand, you can tell, that there is no place like home. l

This article first appeared in the 20 December 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special

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What lies beneath: how Europe succumbed to toxic ideology and violence

A review of Ian Kershaw and Heinrich August Winkler’s accounts of Europe’s “age of catastrophe”, 1914-49.

In the current climate of apprehension about what an influx of Muslim immigrants might mean for European values, we should remember what those have included in the past: slavery, serfdom and tyranny, as well as religious wars, violent revolution and rapacious imperialism. And the horrors of earlier centuries pale beside what Europeans did in the 20th century to their own continent and the rest of the world. The titles of two new histories sum up that miserable story, with its ethnic conflicts, industrial-scale warfare, totalitarianism and genocide: “hell”, in the case of Ian Kershaw, and “catastrophe” for Heinrich August Winkler.

Twentieth-century Europe remains such a puzzle for us all. How could a civilisation that produced Shakespeare, Beethoven and Kant, which generated the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and the scientific revolution, or which formulated and promulgated ideas such as constitutional government and human rights, also have produced such appalling cruelties?

These two vast histories aim to explain why Europe went through such a very bad period between the start of the First World War and the end of the Second World War. Both authors try to find that difficult balance between looking at Europe as a whole and as a set of separate countries. For all that it is admirably researched, Winkler’s is the less satisfying, in part because he fails to define his terms. He talks of something called the west (which at various points seems to include the United States and Japan and at others seems to be only Europe) without ever clearly stating what he means by either definition: is it a set of ideas and values, a collection of nation states, or perhaps a typology of political, economic and social organisation? In this, the second in a projected three-volume history of the west, he starts out by saying that he will examine Europe’s “normative project”, which he defines, very briefly, as putting into effect the ideas and ideals of the American and French Revolutions. But which ones? The Rights of Man or the Terror? In any case, the “normative project” largely vanishes in what is nevertheless a useful and thorough history of Europe. If you want to know about the politics of Luxembourg as well as those of bigger states you will find that here.

Kershaw inevitably goes over much of the same ground but provides the more sustained analysis. In his view, several forces came together in the 20th century to produce a toxic brew of suspicion and hatred among Europe’s people. A new kind of nationalism emerged, driven by the assumption that nations are based on not only shared ethnicity, but blood – inhabitants of another nation were often described as being another “race”. Given the mix of peoples in Europe, demands for territory often led to nations claiming lands inhabited by those of other, supposedly lesser “races”. Class conflict often overlapped with ethnic conflict, so that, for example, Slavic peasants and Polish landowners found even more reason to hate each other. The long crisis of capitalism was undermining the legitimacy of the existing regimes, some of them weak enough to begin with. And caught up in the midst were Europe’s Jews, the unjustified focus for ethnic and class hatreds, blamed for the problems created by capitalism.

Both writers take some pains to look at ideas (fascism, communism, liberalism) or trends, from economic growth to changes in the position of women, that transcended borders. They also point out that Europe contained very different levels of development that were not necessarily coterminous with national borders. Such measures as literacy, standards of living or urbanisation were generally higher in the western parts of Europe. In terms of constitutional and democratic government, the east lagged behind. And while the likes of France and Britain had long since taken diverse peoples and instilled in them a strong sense of shared nationhood (though Britain failed with the Irish, who persisted in seeing themselves as a separate people), the old empires of Russia and Austria-Hungary had failed to do so before the First World War. Indeed, the gradual introduction of representative institutions and a broader franchise in ethnically diverse areas led to an unedifying search for spoils. After 1918 the dominant elites in the successor states often lacked the will to respect their own substantial ethnic minorities. Political leaders all too frequently used demagogic and ethnic appeals to their masses to keep themselves in power.

While there are clearly continuities between the worlds before and after the First World War, that prolonged and costly conflict served to shatter much of the old order and to speed the introduction of certain ideas, attitudes and practices. As Kershaw rightly says of 1914, armies with values belonging to the 19th century or earlier found themselves fighting a 20th-century war as Europe’s organised, industrialised mass societies hurled themselves against each other. In its course, European nations threw away the lives and talents of millions of their men and exhausted their resources. The French coined a new term: total war. For this was not like the wars of the previous century, fought for clear and limited aims, but rather a struggle between peoples for dominance and survival. In the course of the war, racial and national stereotyping entered the public discourse. For Germans it was the barbaric Asiatics; for the French and the British, the brutal Huns. Conflict broadened to include civilians: men, women, children were all part of the war effort. And in the mixed regions of the east and southern Europe and the Ottoman empire the first ethnic cleansings and genocides occurred, though they were not yet called by these names.

Towards the end of the war the US president Woodrow Wilson’s public support for self-determination, inspired by noble sentiments about the rights of peoples to govern themselves, spurred demands in the heart of Europe for ethnically based nations to be established in defined territories. New nations, which might have worked and traded with each other, too often fell out over competing claims to the same pieces of land. And because ethnic nationalisms are generally intolerant of multiple and overlapping identities, those who refused (or were perceived to refuse) to accept a single identity became useful scapegoats. Older traditions of anti-Semitism were now reinforced by the pseudo-sciences of racism and social Darwinism. The pre-war pogroms against Jews expanded with renewed vigour into the war and the postwar years. In Russia’s revolutionary civil war, for instance, up to 60,000 Jews were killed in the Ukraine.

The war made violence normal as a way of settling disputes and carrying out politics. Fighting on a large scale carried on for several years after 1918. In the Russian civil war, which finally ended in 1922, some seven million people died of various causes. In many countries, Italy and Germany among them, politics often took the form of violent street theatre, with opposing factions beating and killing each other. Mussolini rode to power in Italy in 1922 partly because his Fascists intimidated and cowed their opponents, and partly because conservative elites hoped that he could restore order. In Germany, adherents of the right committed 352 political murders between 1919 and 1922. And war retained its glamour and fascination. Despite what we might think, given the popularity of anti-war literature such as All Quiet on the Western Front (1929), many veterans joined paramilitary organisations after the First World War ended, 400,000 of them signing up for the German Freikorps, which fought in the Baltic and along Germany’s eastern borders.

The war also left large numbers of Europeans deracinated: what Winkler describes as “personal shock”. What had seemed solid – whether empires, regimes, their position in society, even their pensions and savings – vanished overnight. Not surprisingly, Oswald Spengler’s deeply pessimistic The Decline of the West (published in German between 1918 and 1922 and in English in 1926), which posited that European civilisation was reaching its end, was very influential and sold thousands of copies, especially in Germany. Many Europeans retreated from engagement in the compromise-heavy sphere of democratic politics because it seemed to provide few solutions in the present and little hope for the future. Outsiders, such as the self-serving Italian poet Gabriele d’Annunzio, who attacked conventional society and expressed nothing but contempt for elected politicians, were dangerously attractive because they somehow sounded more “authentic”. As we look, today, at the antics of Donald Trump and Nigel Farage, that seems uncomfortably familiar.

Europe presented unpromising soil for the new democracies in Poland and Yugoslavia, or older, shaky ones in Italy or Spain. The widespread adoption of proportional representation only led to further political fragmentation and made it increasingly difficult to form stable coalitions. While democracy struggled in parts of Europe, its enemies mobilised, often using its own institutions against it. Challenged by new forces from below, the old elites, especially in eastern and southern Europe, drifted into counter-revolution and threw their support behind conservative parties advocating authoritarian governments. On the left, the new communist parties, modelled on Bolshevik lines, appeared to present a credible alternative both to authoritarianism and to “bourgeois” democracy. Under the strict rule of the Communist International, itself a tool of Soviet policy by the late 1920s, communists across Europe obeyed orders to attack and disrupt democracy. In the streets of Germany communists and Nazis sometimes fought together to ­destroy the Weimar Republic.

On the right, fascism in all its varieties was equally appealing to those who had given up on democracy. Across Europe, fascist leaders attacked what they saw as an outmoded and corrupt system, promising national renewal and a bright and bustling future. Here is how Mussolini described fascism in his 1932 article for the Enciclopedia Italiana: “The Fascist state, the synthesis and unity of all values, interprets, develops and gives strength to the whole life of the people.” It is hard today to understand how even intellectuals could take such vacuous rubbish seriously as a coherent doctrine but many did. When Winston Churchill visited Italy in 1927, he wrote approvingly, “this country gives the impression of discipline, order, good will, smiling faces”. Although the impetus behind fascism differed from that behind Soviet-style communism – one was nationalist and racist, the other promised a classless utopia – in method and style both were totalitarian, another new word that had to be coined to describe the 20th century. Unlike older types of authoritarianism (of which there were still many examples), totalitarian regimes, whether in the Soviet Union or in Nazi Germany, sought to possess the souls and innermost thoughts of their subjects. Both types of totalitarianism used modern media and propaganda to mobilise and sway the masses; both had cults of the all-wise, omni-competent leader; both dealt with any dissent by means of intimidation, imprisonment or murder; and both needed enemies, internal or external, to justify their existence.

The First World War helped to create the conditions that made Europe’s descent into the second war and barbarism possible – yet it did not have to end like that. “But we do dance on volcanoes and sometimes the fires below subside,” said Gustav Stresemann, the German statesman. By the mid-1920s there were grounds to hope that he was right. The world had recovered, certainly in economic terms, from the war. Although the United States had failed to join the new League of Nations, it did not disengage itself entirely from Europe. American observers came to League meetings and American diplomats and bankers took the lead in trying to negotiate a more workable set of reparations demands for Germany, first in the Dawes Plan of 1924 and then the Young of 1929. Under Stresemann’s wise leadership, briefly as chancellor and then as foreign minister, Germany became an international player again, settling its outstanding border disputes with its neighbours in the east, joining the League, and working reasonably amicably with its former enemies.

In 1928 Germany, France and the United States signed the Kellogg-Briand Pact, a solemn agreement to renounce war as an instrument of national policy. Ultimately, 63 nations, including Britain, Italy, Japan and the Soviet Union, added their signatures. Three years later Japan invaded Manchuria; in October 1935 Italy invaded Ethiopia; five months later Hitler marched his troops into the Rhineland, which had been demilitarised under the Treaty of Versailles; and in 1939 Europe was at war again. What went wrong can be summed up in two words: “depression” and “Germany”. Without the collapse of much of the world’s economy and the consequent misery and mass unemployment, democracy and capitalism would not have been seen as bankrupt, failed systems. The extremes of fascism and communism would never have gained the traction they did. If the Weimar Republic had managed to survive beyond its first decade it might have struck deeper roots gradually in Germany.

For both Kershaw and Winkler, what happened in Germany was of critical importance to the fate of Europe, given that country’s location at the heart of the continent, its large population, strong economy and powerful military traditions. The Depression had a disastrous impact on an already polarised and resentful nation. The Weimar Republic was tolerated but not loved, even by many of its own supporters. Key elites, whether the military, the civil service or business, had never accepted it.

Weimar also bore the burden of having signed the Treaty of Versailles. Germans had never really absorbed Germany’s military defeat in 1918, a refusal to recognise reality which was endorsed enthusiastically by the High Command, with its irresponsible talk of German forces having been “stabbed in the back” by defeatists at home. As a result, in Germany, the treaty’s terms were widely seen as illegitimate and punitive, a national humiliation. Hitler and the Nazis offered simple solutions for the country’s complex economic and political problems. They promised a prosperous and dynamic nation, restored to its rightful dominance of Europe. Still, Hitler would never have got into power without the folly and blindness of those who should have known better – from the conservatives around the ageing President Hindenburg to the socialists who, at a vital stage, withdrew their support from the last workable coalition of democratic parties.

Not surprisingly, given that both are primarily historians of Germany, Kershaw and Winkler are at their best analysing the Nazi seizure of power and the steps by which Hitler moved inexorably towards war. Their accounts are less satisfactory when it comes to other players such as Britain and France and, later, the United States. It is hard to disagree with the conclusion, however, that Hitler was not to be appeased, no matter how far the democracies were prepared to go. His vision was of a Germany dominating Europe, if not the world, and of the expansion of the German race into territories that were to be cleared of their inhabitants through expulsion, starvation or murder. Europe as a whole was to be cleansed of Jews. For Hitler, genocide was not a by-product of the war but an integral part. And as both accounts make clear, he found many willing accomplices across Europe.

If Europe had been badly shaken by the First World War, it was all but destroyed by the Second. By 1945 millions of its people were dead or barely surviving. The great European empires were crumbling fast, and European nations lay at the mercy of the two new superpowers – the United States and the Soviet Union. In eastern Europe the Soviet Union was building its own empire. Yet within four years, Europe, especially the western part, had started to recover; more than that, the foundations for what turned out to be an enduring peace had been laid. Kershaw rightly describes it as “astonishing”, although his account of how it happened is regrettably brief.

We face the danger today of forgetting what Europe did to itself in the 20th century and how that came about. The passage of time has made us complacent and we assure ourselves that we would never make the same mistakes as our forebears did decades ago. Yet not all Europe’s demons have been killed for ever. Intolerant nationalisms are growing again. Let us hope that the fulminations of, say, the Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán, against the dangers to European society from “outsiders” – whether gypsies or Syrians – are passing froth on the political scene and not signs of something deeper and more sinister happening below the surface.

To Hell and Back: Europe, 1914-1949 by Ian Kershaw is published  by Allen Lane (593pp, £30). The Age of Catastrophe: A History of the West 1914–1945 by Heinrich August Winkler, translated
by Stewart Spencer, is published by Yale University Press (998pp, £35). Margaret MacMillan is Professor of International History at the University of Oxford and Warden of St Antony’s College. Her books include “The War that Ended Peace” (Profile)

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide