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It’s as if I phoned Springsteen and told him just what he could do with himself and his book

I was shocked to find out how vehemently others could disagree with my opinion.

It’s the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction this week and I’m looking forward to finding out the winner. This time last year I was locked in a room with fellow Baileys judges, so I know how hard it is. The process was a revelation.

I was shocked to find out how vehemently others could disagree with my opinion of a book. We were a friendly and unfailingly polite group, but passionate in defence of the books we loved, and the greatest lesson I learned was that, in the end, it just comes down to a bunch of people in a room trying to agree.

You do your best to accommodate each other, and someone wins, and then the fun starts when other people get cross with you. I imagined the world of literary prizes to be refined and genteel but, believe me, things can get heated. At last year’s award ceremony one of our judges was snarled at by the agent of a writer who’d lost.

Later that year I also judged the Forward Poetry Prize, and our panel, chaired by the fantastic poet Malika Booker, was slagged off in Private Eye for being too right-on and giving prizes to women.

This year I’ve judged the Penderyn Music Book Prize. The announcement of our shortlist was covered in the Guardian under this headline: “Bruce Springsteen is snubbed in wide-ranging selection by judges including Tracey Thorn and Thurston Moore”. I laughed all day at the image this conjured up, of me phoning Springsteen to say, “You know what, Boss? F*** you and your book!”

The coverage is all about turning a prize into a battle, framing the conversation in terms of the books ignored rather than the ones chosen. This year’s Penderyn Music Book is Daniel Rachel’s Walls Come Tumbling Down, which I’ve written about here before, so, instead of ending on a sour note of complaint, I’ll return to what is the joy and the point of prizes, and shine a light on three that made our shortlist.

My personal favourite was This Is Grime by Hattie Collins and Olivia Rose, a respectful portrait of the scene. Told through verbatim accounts by all the main participants, it touches on the context of the music, and so deals with questions of race, religion and gender. Most of all, it’s contemporary where so many music books nowadays are historical, and a record of what may prove to be the last underground, subcultural music movement as we would recognise it. The story of a modern blues, lovingly put together by two women – what more could you want?

Also great is Brix Smith Start’s The Rise, the Fall, and the Rise. She has a wealth of anecdotes about Mark E Smith and the Fall which make her book enormously entertaining, so much of what makes good music writing being just this – having new stories to tell. Her viewpoint is that of the outsider: an American in England and a woman in the world of indie music. The scenes where Mark E Smith first introduces her to his beloved Manchester are priceless. At his flat, she is puzzled by the apparent absence of a fridge:

“Where do you keep your milk?” I asked.

“Out the window,” Mark said.

“What do you mean, ‘out the window’?”

Mark pushed open the sooty window at the back of the kitchen to reveal a cement ledge where perched precariously were a small bottle of milk, a pack of Danish back bacon, a carton of eggs and a loaf of Hovis white bread.

And finally, I’m Not With the Band by Sylvia Patterson. This is an idiosyncratic, iconoclastic take on the music business. Intercut with details of her own life, it is also a story of someone struggling to stay afloat in a chaotic world.

She is very good at chronicling the rise of celebrity culture and its increasing toxicity. I’ll leave you with this quotation, from when she’s trying to come to terms with the sensibleness of artists such as Ed Sheeran and Taylor Swift: “The kids are still alright. They’re just absolutely nothing like the olden days kids. Which is exactly as it’s always been, forever. Whether we old bastards like it or not.” 

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 08 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Election special

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I assumed the elephant orchestra was a gimmick. But those pachyderms can play

Training an animal, Pavlov-style, to do human-designed tricks is one thing, but to have it come, voluntarily, to music practice is quite another.

When I first heard about it, I assumed it was a gimmick; which says much about human prejudice, I suppose. Still, I like to think that my initial scepticism was founded, not on some anthropocentric impulse, but upon its precise opposite.

Of course, I know that animals make music, but an elephant orchestra, complete with drums, gongs and harmonicas? Playing pieces that humans would consider pleasing to the ear? That proposition took me back to the early nature programmes, where the animals had distinctly human personalities. The grumpy pelican. The shy hedgehog. The mischievous chimpanzee. When humans argue about whether, or to what extent, animals have feelings, what they usually mean is: do animals have human feelings? To which I think the answer is: no – and why should they?

No surprise, then, that when a friend offered to play me a CD recorded by the Elephant Orchestra of Thailand, I was as wary as I was curious.

The orchestra began as a side project of the Thai Elephant Conservation Center in 1999, after Richard Lair, a zoologist and artist (who had already begun teaching elephants to paint) met the experimental composer Dave Soldier and they decided that, if elephants could enjoy making pictures, perhaps they might also enjoy making music.

That word, enjoy, makes all the difference, of course: training an animal, Pavlov-style, to do human-designed tricks is one thing, but to have it come, voluntarily, to music practice on a damp Wednesday afternoon is quite another. Still, as the music began, I was aware that I had no way of knowing whether these majestic animals were being manipulated, merely to entertain humans – though as Lair has remarked, it isn’t that easy to manipulate an orchestra of around 12 players who, together, weigh three times as much as the entire Berlin Philharmonic.

Knowing that sales of the CD would benefit the Elephant Conservation Center itself didn’t altogether dispel my suspicions. Yet, listening to the various recorded performances, I began to feel that the elephant musicians really did get a kick out of banging drums and gongs, playing a thunder sheet, or wailing on a harmonica (a sound that is beautifully wistful to the human ear, though we can only speculate as to what it expresses for an elephant). There was an energy to the playing that I like to think betokened more than just a desire to satisfy a taskmaster.

The Thai Elephant Orchestra was started to raise funds to keep the animals in decent conditions after logging was restricted in Thailand in the early 1990s – and what better story than that of a community that learns how to survive by making art? As for the music, it seemed to fall into two categories: one where it was clear that the players had been directed to approximate existing orchestral works (there is a wild performance of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, for example) and these performances I could take or leave. Yet where the music arose more spontaneously, where it was allowed to be just elephant music, I was enthralled.

Dave Soldier has said that, “When you hear the elephant music you’re hearing what they mean to make” – and I find that idea infinitely intriguing. How does he know this? How can I know, just by listening? The fact is that I can’t, and yet, for long moments, I felt it in the marrow of my bones, like the resonance of a gong, or the eerie call of an elephant harmonica.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game