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All too human: How Bacon, Freud and the postwar British painters made realism both new and personal

A striking new exhibition at Tate Britain looks afresh at the “school of London” in a period seemingly dominated by American abstract expressionism and pop art.

In 1935, Kenneth Clark, then just 32 but already the director of the National Gallery, wrote an essay in The Listener entitled “The Future of Painting”. If it had one at all, he suggested, then it was irredeemably grim. “The art of painting has become not so much difficult as impossible,” he said, set around, as it was, by decaying old art peopled by “belated impressionists… who correspond to liberalism in politics”, over-civilised post-impressionists, brutalist Germans, and surrealism and abstraction with their “extreme reliance on theory”. Clark’s view of art was an offshoot of his view of society: both stood, he believed, at “the end of a period of self-consciousness, inbreeding and exhaustion”.

Clark wrote at a time of dark clouds gathering, but he was airing an old idea. The phrase “painting is dead” was first recorded in 1839 as issuing from the lips of the French salon darling Paul Delaroche. Delaroche was wrong (within 35 years the impressionists redefined what painting could be) and Clark was wrong too. The postwar years did indeed see the growth of anti-painting  – conceptualism, abstraction, performance, the found object and photography – but they also witnessed the reinvigoration of the old tradition of putting oil on canvas. The idea that painting was brought back to life though is misleading: for all Clark’s gloomy prognosis, it was never in extremis in the first place.

Just what happened in British painting after the Second World War is the subject of Tate Britain’s wonderfully enlightening survey “All Too Human”. The exhibition comes with a degree of throat clearing about artists who set out to capture “what it is that makes us human”, but really shows how painters from Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud to Leon Kossoff and Paula Rego made realism – defined as unsentimental objectivity – both new and personal. There is no room for Clark’s theory-reliant modes of art; this is an exhibition about paint.

In fact, paint itself was seen by some artists as a means of salvation, the drug through which to quieten the anxious postwar frame of mind. Leon Kossoff described endlessly painting the streets of London, many of them war damaged, because they conjured “a faintly glimmering memory of a long-forgotten, perhaps never experienced childhood, which, if rediscovered and illuminated, would ameliorate the pain of the present”. Freud, meanwhile, was less existential, stating simply that: “I want the paint to work as flesh does.”

Credit: The Whitworth, © The University of Manchester. © The Lucian Freud Archive/ Bridgeman images

What all the artists in the exhibition seemed to have felt was the intimacy involved in moving paint about on a surface and how that was in itself a way of processing their personal and intense individual experiences of life. In this they represent the opposite of modernism, with its belief in the rational and the progressive.

The exhibition takes the form of a family tree with, as its roots, a cluster of pre-war painters who embodied this distinctive vision: David Bomberg, Stanley Spencer, Walter Sickert and Chaïm Soutine. One of the many strengths of this show is the way that their work echoes through the rooms – Bacon and Freud’s nudes being inadvertant reworkings of Sickert’s unsparing and sexually unsettling paintings of naked models and prostitutes; Kossoff and Frank Auerbach’s paint-encrusted London landscapes recalling the fractured Spanish landscapes of Bomberg; the unwavering stare of Spencer’s second wife, Patricia Preece – both naked and clothed – re-emerging in Rego and Jenny Saville.

The links are not coincidental but in many cases were made directly. Between 1945 and 1953, for example, the financially struggling Bomberg (who had himself been taught by Sickert) was a teacher at Borough Polytechnic and both Kossoff and Auerbach were among his students. What they imbibed from him was that traditional representation was a “hand and eye disease” and that painting should seek to transmit “the sense of touch” and “the illusion of the third dimension”, that is the experience of forms rather than simply the look of forms.

Meanwhile, at the Slade School of Art, William Coldstream (who had attended Sickert lectures) taught both Michael Andrews and Euan Uglow and invited Lucian Freud to become a visiting tutor there. What they learned from him was how to fix their sitters on the canvas, like a pinned butterfly, and get to the truth of them through the exact representation of what they saw: as Uglow said to one model, “Nobody has ever looked at you as intensively as I have.”

This interrelatedness also manifested itself in the friendships between the leading artists. In 1976, in the introduction to a catalogue for an exhibition called “The Human Clay”, the American painter and honorary Londoner RB Kitaj christened the Bacon, Freud, Andrews, Kossoff and Auerbach circle, “the school of London”.

The artists drank together in Soho – where Andrews showed them in his Colony Room I of 1962 – and painted each other (Freud’s portrait of Auerbach, 1975-76, and a Bacon painting of Freud from 1964 are both included).

What the exhibition does is expand Kitaj’s school of London to include all the painters present, with mixed degrees of success. It is elastic enough to include, for example, the Indian painter FN Souza, who arrived in London in 1949 determined to be a modern artist but whose work didn’t begin to gain traction until the mid-1950s. His pictures have a painterly affinity with the thick impasto of his British peers – indeed Two Saints (After El Greco), a masterly study in shiny and matt black of 1965, is a bravura (if irreproducible) display of paint handling – but his subject matter is completely at odds with theirs.

Park Village East (2006) by Frank Auerbach. His London scenes use paint so gravity-defyingly thick that it is almost sculptural​. Credit: Frank Auerback, Courtesy Marlborough Fine Art

Souza’s work draws heavily on his Christian upbringing and is peopled with Christ and the saints. This appeal to an older and overtly religious tradition may be his response to the anomie of the age, but the other artists in the show all take reality as their starting point rather than metaphysics. Souza may have been in London painting at the same time as his fellows but he doesn’t belong with them.

The same is true of the Portuguese-born Rego, another of Coldstream’s pupils. A genuinely significant artist, her work is based in the realm of the imagination and suggests a narrative. Typically dealing with family or folk- and fairytales, her paintings are invariably ambivalent and there is always something at work in them, often with sinister or sexual overtones.

The Family of 1988, for example, shows a man seated on the edge of a bed being undressed by two women while a third looks on from a distance. The expressions of the women are rapt and complicit and the image carries the frisson of violation. In fact it refers to Rego’s husband, the painter Vic Willing, who suffered from multiple sclerosis, and the women are mother and daughters helping an invalid out of his clothes, rather than overpowering an unwilling man.

Rego has said that, “Stories are just as important as if they existed in reality; it makes no difference.” But while that may be true for her it is not necessarily the case for the viewer. The question prompted by her paintings has nothing to do with observation and intimate realism but is rather more straightforward: what is happening here?

More representative are the early Bacons which, despite the familiarity of the “Screaming Popes” (one version here has a businessman in place of Innocent X, his very anonymity making it all the more relevant), still have the ability to shock.

Strangely, it is his paintings of animals that most potently express some of the agonies of the human condition. Dog (1952) shows a near-feral animal, tongue hanging out and panting exhaustedly after endlessly circling, as if in a rage at itself, while in the background cars stream unheeding along an American coastal freeway. Study of a Baboon (1953) is an image of a howling creature conjured up in feathery brushstrokes that belie the violence of the image: the monkey’s bared teeth, exposed in a primal scream, are no defence against existence. As images of loneliness and pain they outmuscle even Bacon’s grief-infused Triptych 1974-77, in which he tries to work out his feelings about the suicide of his
lover George Dyer.

Where Bacon worked best at one remove from his subject, using photographs as inspiration and compositional tools, Freud needed endless hours in front of the live model. From the painstaking, miniaturist works of the 1950s such as Girl with a White Dog (1950-51), in which every hair of both woman and animal is shown with the care of a medieval manuscript illustration, to the slumped form of the plus-size “Big Sue” Tilley, Sleeping by the Lion Carpet (1996), Freud was haunted by flesh.

 Life lessons: a detail from Melanie and Me Swimming (1978-79) by Michael Andrews​. Credit: The Estate of Michael Andrews

In most cases the sitters do not look at the artist and there is no engagement between them: these are essentially paintings without a meaning. If they have a subject, it is the corporeality of individual human beings and the infinite variety of skin tone and colour. The sitters have bodies but not personalities. And if Bacon’s paintings are full of the sound of screaming, Freud’s are eerily silent.

Perhaps the most effective of the mini-retrospectives offered by the exhibition are the London paintings of Kossoff and Auerbach. Their pictures of streets and buildings use paint so gravity-defyingly thick that it is almost sculptural, and the ceaseless movement of their brushstrokes mimics the vibrations of the city. They faithfully followed Bomberg’s stricture to look for mass and structure and found them everywhere: Auerbach described London in the immediate postwar years as “a marvellous landscape with precipice and mountain and crags, full of drama formally”. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in Kossoff’s 1961 Building Site, Victoria Street, a painting of a hole in the ground that uses only viscous slatherings of black and brown but that could be painted in mud or London clay.

The one maladroit step in the exhibition is the curators’ attempt to update the predominantly white, male and venerable story of postwar British painting by co-opting women (and young ones if possible) into their expanded school of London. The last room shoehorns in Celia Paul (1959), Cecily Brown (born 1969), Jenny Saville (born 1970) and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye (born 1977).

Saville has a strong claim to membership – her huge and frank paintings of the naked female body (here her massive self-portrait, Reverse, 2002-2003) clearly belong to the Freud-Bacon bloodline, and indeed they expand the possibilities of rendering the human body in paint. The presence of the others is harder to justify and makes a curatorial rather than an authentic
artistic point.

This, though, hardly detracts from an exhibition that looks afresh at a period seemingly dominated by American abstract expressionism and pop art, and European heavyweights from Picasso to Gerhard Richter, and teases out a distinctive and important British strand. In 1966, Bacon defined it when he said, “What I want to do is distort the thing far beyond the appearance but in the distortion to bring it back to a recording of the appearance.” Reality through distortion became the British way.

“All Too Human” is at Tate Britain, London SW1, until 27 August

Tom Gatti and Kate Mossman are joined by Michael Prodger to discuss the "All Too Human" exhibition at Tate Britain. Plus the music of Sade, the loss of the dinner party album in the age of Spotify playlists, and the noniversary of the Final Destination franchise.

Listen on iTunes here, on Acast here or via the player below:

Our theme music is "God Speed" by Pistol Jazz, licensed under Creative Commons.

Michael Prodger is Reviews Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 08 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The new cold war

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"I call him the Pope of Jamaica": When Shaggy met Sting

What could a Boombastic Jamaican reggae character and a brooding Geordie rock star possibly have in common? "We are fans of women".


Perhaps it is not as odd as it seems. For a start, they both have “ridiculous names”, says Sting, “which people no longer question”. Shaggy and Sting were born Orville and Gordon. Their nicknames arrived in their youth: Sting’s, from a black-and-yellow striped jumper he wore in his days as bass player in a Newcastle jazz band – even his mother called him Sting. Shaggy’s, from his resemblance, at the age of 12 when he was living in Jamaica, to the character from Scooby-Doo – his mother calls him Richard.

Richard?” says Sting, looking momentarily thrown. That is Shaggy’s middle name. His wife calls him Richard too. “Don’t think you can come in my house being Shaggy,” she warns him.

They sit in a boardroom overlooking Central Park. Sting wears a fashionably dishevelled pinstripe suit and traces the edge of the table with his finger. His hair is as bleached as it ever was and his expression bears decades of heavy thinking. Shaggy has a red shiny baseball jacket and a cap turned to the side, a bit like a cartoon rapper. His arms are thrown comfortably on either side of his chair. Through a mutual musical acquaintance, they met last year and jammed in a studio. The mysterious alchemy of collaboration ensued. The story is less how their new record came about, more the fact that it did at all – because, light and sunshiny as 44/876 may be (it is named after the British and Jamaican dialling codes), it is also very strange. Shaggy says this album will disrupt. Go against the status quo, and the grain.

Shaggy was delighted, visiting England around the time of his hits in the Nineties, to learn the ruder significance of his name. It allowed him to flesh out his “character”– for that is what Shaggy is to Orville R Burrell, who speaks in a New York accent. Shaggy is a wining, grinding, priapic reggae star, composer of baby-makin’ music, whom one journalist compared to a Jamaican Benny Hill. And he is developing. The mid-nineties Shaggy was Mr Boombastic (“Come lay down in me jacuzzi and get some bubble bath”). The millennial Shaggy was a wealthy Branson/Bond-villain figure, masterminding a younger man’s shagging via state-of-the-art surveillance in the video for the song “It Wasn’t Me”. Of that tuneful and explicit international hit, he tells me:

“It’s about three things: either you’re banging, or somebody’s banging, or you wish you were banging somebody. It’s something relatable in everyday life.”

And the 2018 Shaggy is more politically correct. “I’m actually giving better advice than before,” he says. On the new album, he has a turn as moral arbiter. Sting wrote a cosmic courtroom drama called “Crooked Tree”, in which a man is sent down for a variety of sins including arson, murder, blackmail, grand larceny and human trafficking. Shaggy, Sting said, was to play the judge.

“It made me think of Jamaica,” says Shaggy. “We have the British legal system, with the high courts – all the weight, and the wig, but with these really thick Jamaican accents.” On the song, the “Honorable Judge Burrell” barks “guilty as chaaaaarged!” and convicts the defendant, played by Sting, with a seismic bang of his gavel.

Says Shaggy, “Here is this Englishman that comes to Jamaica to create a lot of felonies, and I’m just going to convict his ass!”

Sting wrote “Every Breath You Take” in 1982 in Ian Fleming’s Golden Eye estate on Jamaica’s northern coastline, at the desk where Fleming had written his Bonds. He was 31, already hugely successful and hiding out after a scandalous divorce. Seventy miles down the road in Kingston town, the 14-year-old Shaggy was already enjoying the Police, who’d had six hits in the US by then, and more in the UK, and whom he describes as “the gateway band to a lot of reggae music”. Songs like “Roxanne” were huge in Jamaica: Sting’s voice was high and strange, Shaggy says, and he could hold long notes for a very long time – it got through to you. The Police’s punk-reggae “brought that art form to the mainstream masses”. They’d toured with Burning Spear and Aswad. The child Shaggy lived with his mother. He wore Jamaican punk garb – a tie, a collar and no shirt – to parties.

“Jamaica has influenced pop culture in such a huge way,” he says.

“Profoundly,” says Sting. “Profoundly,” says Shaggy.

Sting’s interest in reggae was both political and academic. “Rock music is a very reactionary form,” he tells me. As Gil Evans’s jazz arrangements appealed to him as a teenager, so did calypso and ska, “in the way that the drums were played, and the bass was brought out on top. I had an understanding of Caribbean music, so for me it was always a homage, and not cultural appropriation.” You feel a bit sorry that he felt he had to bring up the phrase, but Sting is a questioning person. His first band after the Police consisted of black jazz musicians, and he asked then, “Am I the patrician white rock star? Or am I the novice?”

Another point of similarity between these two surprising counterparts is that, in the collective consciousness at least, they are both very sexual. Shaggy and Sting are the twin poles of masculine libido – one pursuing bikinied booty on a beach like a sniffer dog; the other a paragon of psychosexual stamina, who’d mastered the practice of tantric yoga, which led to a joke boast in the early Nineties (five hours) that has followed him ever since, but which pointed to a certain spirituality in Sting that few people knew what to do with.

When they interviewed him back then, male music journalists couldn’t get thoughts of Sting and sex out of their heads. They all mentioned his muscle tone, his chest, chiselled bones and tantric life. I was almost afraid to be in the room with Shaggy and Sting together, thinking the sexuality might be overwhelming – but Sting looks studiously into the middle distance and Shaggy merely admires my leg warmers.

Their first single, “Don’t Make Me Wait”, is a classic shagging song – Sting is thoughtful: “I’m already sold on the idea of you and/Just tell me where I need to sign” and Shaggy is horny: “Come on, girl!”

“In this climate, you know, the song could be misconstrued,” muses Sting. “As married men, you learn about compromise, you learn about…”

“Patience,” says Shaggy.

“Patience, as a man,” agrees Sting. “It’s not a natural thing for us! So the song needs to reflect a more balanced view. I hope we achieved it. But of course, you know, we are keen, we are conditioned that way. But asking a woman what she wants is one of the most important things a man can learn.”

“We’re fans of women,” concludes Shaggy. A survey by his record label around the turn of the millennium revealed that women are fans of him too. Has Mr Boombastic found his feminine side?

“Have I?” he says, eyes wide. “Embrace it all, man, and live!”

A live performance of “Don’t Make Me Wait” at the Grammys, in January, was met with some confusion, being the first that many people knew of the collaboration. It segued from Sting’s 1987 hit “Englishman in New York”, which was an interesting medley: that hymn to Quentin Crisp and the exceptional richness of what Jung, whom Sting studied in the Eighties, would call the hermaphroditic soul, followed by a classic banging song. Sting once said that the image of the hermaphrodite soul in art – Bowie, Boy George – was an ideal we all strive for. Crisp, “a singular man, a very brave man”, was one of the older figures he befriended in the Eighties; Crisp actually said those words to him – “I’m an alien, I’m a legal alien”.

Sting performed the song in Trump’s New York, because of “the ludicrous idea of calling anyone an alien”. He seems a bit reluctant to talk about hermaphrodite souls today but then says: “I think it’s important for an artist to see the world through other people’s eyes. I wrote a song a couple of years ago, and I don’t know why, but I started to channel a transgender prostitute. I have no experience of that but I thought it was interesting as a thought experiment. Music is an empathy machine, and I take that job seriously, even though it might be odd sometimes.”

Shaggy was described as a Jamaican Benny Hill. Credit: Rex


Three years ago, at the Public Theater just off Broadway, I watched a workshop of Sting’s musical The Last Ship, which is currently wending its way around regional theatres in Britain. It is the latest sign of a prediction Sting made in 1987 to Q magazine: that one day, mass appeal and his personal tastes would separate. He has done symphonies, lute music, gangster movies, Quadrophenia, a Stravinsky adaptation with Ian McKellen and a Threepenny Opera among many other things. The Last Ship is the story of a group of men who build a ginormous tanker in Newcastle and sail it to the New World. Jimmy Nail sang at the New York performance, perched alongside Sting on a stool.

Sting grew up on Gerald Street in Wallsend, where the hulk of a 10,000-tonne ship twice as high as the houses cast a permanent shadow from the Swan Hunter slipway. Such a ship would be built every year, and everyone would watch the launch. As it blocked the space and was then released, the vessel represented a constant cycle of constraint and departure for the child Sting. His father was a milkman: the class divide between him and his Police band mate Stewart Copeland, son of a CIA diplomat, fuelled much press interest in the early days.

“I always thought class ruled,” he says. “I wanted not to be judged by my accent. So I developed no accent. It made it easier to be fluid and not be judged. There were no regional accents on television. Now, I only speak Geordie when I’m angry or I’m with a Geordie – and I can speak it well.”

Sting and his brother would take part in the milk round, going to the dairy at 4am. He was particularly good at picking up the empties because he had big hands. He could do ten at a time, he once said. His father was hard to please – not overtly impressed by Sting’s academic achievements, his passing of the 11-plus, his athletics trophies or his music career. Grammar school alienated him from his family. Sting was a bus conductor and a labourer, before teaching English at St Paul’s First School in Cramlington. He wasn’t “ambitious” until he discovered music.

He lost both his parents at the height of his fame, within seven months of each other. His mother, whom he credits with his musical education, was a strong character – she died of cancer, and wanted to volunteer at Chernobyl, pointing out that she was already full of radiation. He found a point of connection with his father towards the end of his life, when he sat with him and noticed how similar their hands were. He didn’t write any lyrics for two years after his parents died, but his famous rainforest campaign followed instead.

At the theatre, Sting told a story about the time the Queen Mother came to their road in Wallsend. As she passed in her car and everyone lined up to wave, he told himself that he would one day be on the inside of a car like that. The wealthy donors in the theatre cheered. Sting’s is a truly American tale – the very way he put his sentences together riled a UK music press that liked to see musicians hymning their roots rather than escaping them. The rainforest campaign saved an area the size of Belgium, but that too was a sign of stepping outside one’s box. “The source of pain is your motives being misunderstood,” he told Q. He spends most of his time in New York these days. But he votes in Britain, and by the time we talk about Brexit he is slapping the boardroom table.

“The people who voted for it are as dispirited as the ones who voted against it, and at least we’re joined in that. We’re all in this fucking mess, no one knows how to fucking get out of it.”

Shaggy points out that they are both “citizens of the world”.

“But we have the privilege of our careers, we can do that,” says Sting. “Most people don’t have that privilege, they’re stuck. I find it depressing and dispiriting. Our society is violent and confused – and yeah, maybe all this is important for us to ‘figure out something about ourselves’. But I see things from a different perspective than someone who lives in Sunderland and is stuck, and saying, ‘I just want to vote for something different, that sticks a spanner in the works.’ It’s those people who will suffer, and that’s a tragedy.”

“I know people who have never seen the ocean,” Shaggy muses. “I was in the military with a guy, we were on the fighting roll together, and his first time he’d ever been on a plane was when they flew him over to the desert on a jet.”

Agitprop is worse than off-putting, it’s counterproductive”: Sting enjoying a glass in the 1980s. Credit: Graham Wood/Daily Mail/Rex


Shaggy’s mother, who raised him without his father, moved from Kingston to Flatbush, Brooklyn as an illegal immigrant and worked as a medical secretary, leaving him with his grandmother and then sending for him when she’d saved enough money. She was, Shaggy says, “the biggest dreamer”. He brings up their new song “Dreaming in the USA”, about the American Dream. Sting says: “It’s a love letter to Americans. It’s about culture, and this engine that is basically fed by immigrants. America is in danger and we know why.”

Shaggy worries that Americans will take the song literally, jingoistically, like they did Bruce Springsteen’s “Born In The USA”. He is not bothered about class – “I am motivated to better myself” – but he’s bothered about racism. “I don’t want our children to be raised with that. Which is why I am raising them in Jamaica.”

His Kingston youth spanned the changeover from the People’s National Party to the Jamaica Labour Party and a period of riots in the city. When he got to Brooklyn as a teenager, he enjoyed a mixed neighbourhood – Barbadians and Haitians, “a Caribbean-American kind of life” – but was shocked by the public laundromats.

“In Jamaica, you just wash it in the backyard, you put it up on the clothesline, with a little bit of bleach on the whites and the sun dries it,” he explains. “I’m sitting in Brooklyn and I feel embarrassed, because people were seeing my drawers. My mum would put me on folding duty: I’d sit there folding drawers. I’d say to her, ‘This is crazy: I’m doing this in public, there’s public people looking at my drawers.’ She’d say, ‘No, man, everybody’s doing it. They’re clean!’ That was a culture shock for me.”

Shaggy had an aptitude for pastels and won the Brooklyn Union Gas art competition more than once. He attended the Erasmus Hall High School in Flatbush, where “all the greats” had been pupils – among them Marky Ramone and Barbra Streisand.

“You went to the same school as Barbra Streisand?” says Sting.

“Second-oldest high school in the US,” says Shaggy proudly.

Didn’t Sting buy a house off Barbra Streisand?

“I did!”

After high school, Shaggy needed to get out of the house and away from his mother – “We weren’t getting along at that time, and still to this day we really don’t.” He joined the Marine Corps in 1988, aged 20, and stayed for four years. He served with the 5th Battalion, 10th Marines, and was sent to Saudi Arabia in 1991 for Operation Desert Storm, where he piloted a Humvee and worked as a cannon cocker. He became a lance corporal, but was not a committed soldier and was twice demoted in rank. His main problem was attendance – stationed at North Carolina’s Camp Lejeune, he regularly drove back to Brookyln for reggae nights.

To this day, he believes in the power of music over conflict, telling the Military Times in 2011 that the best way to combat Isis would be to distribute a massive bag of Jamaican weed and play them “Shaggy music”.

“When you’re listening to reggae, you only want to do two things: get high and have sex,” he observed. “If they’re listening to Shaggy music, they’re not going to want to cut somebody’s head off.”

Shaggy during his military service in the US Marines 

Next door to Sting’s management office looms the Trump International Hotel. When an NME journalist came to meet him in New York in 1991, he commented that Trump’s buildings were the mark of a declining empire, “a property developer’s empire capsizing under the cultural meltdown at the heart of New York City”. Shaggy says he knows people who voted Trump and “wondered if they’d been like that the whole time”. Earlier this month, he played the president in an elaborate Late Late Show parody, with James Corden as Special Counsel Robert Mueller ("Can we talk about the pee tape? It wasn't me"). I ask Sting about the man next door.

“I’m daunted and terrified by what is happening,” he says. “I’ve been brought up with safety nets – the National Health system, my education. My further education was something I never had to dream about paying for, I could never have afforded it. So I cherish those things and they’re all under threat at the moment, as is democracy. Xi Jingping and Trump saying, ‘I’m going to be president for life’ – it is medieval.”

He believes, though, that political messages in music should be “veiled”. Agitprop is “worse than off-putting – it is counterproductive”. And veiled they are on 44/876. Shaggy claims to write four songs a day on average – but says he never thinks about instrumentation. Sting, who emails Shaggy in bullet points and tends to “squirrel himself away”, is all about instruments and key changes. “Shaggy brought the vibe and I brought the structure,” he concludes.

Shaggy turns 50 this year – “his birthday is 20 days after mine,” offers Sting. The party will happen in Jamaica and Sting is going. He is impressed with Shaggy’s charity work on the island. “I look for consistency. When celebrities take on projects I think, OK, let me see you in six months and we’ll see how serious you are. I call him the Pope of Jamaica,” he says. “He’s a personage. A citizen with duties and responsibilities.”

“There is always a fear that I may be losing it,” Shaggy says. “Am I not hip anymore?” But at the end of the day, he reasons, “Shaggy is what Shaggy does.”

And Shaggy, after all, is an act. Is Sting an act too? “Absolutely,” says Sting. “Of course he is. It’s been very useful for the past four decades to have a persona you can hide behind.” But it’s hard to recall a time when Sting has hidden behind anything. He’s been in the business for 40 years now. Peers like Elton John, just a few years older, are starting to retire.

“Yeah, and he’s going to do 300 gigs before he retires,” Sting says. “That explanation didn’t quite add up for me.”

44/876 is released on 20 April on Polydor “The Last Ship” is on tour in the UK now

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

This article first appeared in the 08 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The new cold war