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22 July 2015

How to survive rock’n’roll excess, the BBC under fire, and Cameron’s festival guest slot

Tom Gatti’s Latitude Notebook.

By Tom Gatti

What do the BBC and the Labour Party have in common? They are both in a state of “existential threat”, according to Andrew Marr, who was talking to me and the social anthropologist Kate Fox about class, politics and national identity at a Latitude Festival event in Suffolk. Speaking the day after the government released its green paper on the BBC, Marr said that “some politicians” were setting a “great trap” for it: “They’re saying, ‘You don’t need to do The Voice, it’s a bit crass; same with Strictly Come Dancing. Pull out and leave those things to the commercial guys.’ And then when we do, they’ll say, ‘But no one is watching you on a Saturday night – you have lost your right to the licence fee.’” Marr, soundtracked by jaunty indie drifting in from the neighbouring stage, admitted that the corporation has “huge faults and failings”, but said it deserves public support: “And if we don’t get it, and earn it, they will kill us – and soon.”

If, as part of the BBC, Marr has a metaphorical death sentence hanging over him, he has been presented with a more literal threat online. Twitter, he has discovered, is “divided almost equally between people who regard me as a Marxist stooge – a classic BBC leftist who should be expelled for that reason – and people who regard me as a Tory shill”. The latest from the haters is a crowdfunding project to get him sent on holiday to Sousse in Tunisia, the site of the recent attack. Distasteful? Deeply. But I think Marr knows that, in the world of online abuse, this is the equivalent of gentle teasing. From there on, it gets a hell of a lot nastier.

Trip-hop v the Tories

Latitude is in its tenth year and, having gone most summers, I feel affection for it. From the beginning – at a time when the “arts” programming at music festivals usually involved semi-erotic cabaret, numbingly bad poetry and “urban” circus arts – it has taken literature and theatre seriously, programming top performers and writers. The NS has been there the past two years to provide, among other things, some political bite. This year, though, the starkest political statement came not from Owen Jones (rousing as he was), but from the least likely source possible: a Nineties Bristol trip-hop band. It took the form of a giant projection of David Cameron, coldly beaming evil blue laser eyes into the crowd, as Portishead, headlining the main stage, played their most abrasive song, “Machine Gun”. The legend “FIVE MORE YEARS” flashed up, interspersed with images of
anti-Trident and anti-austerity demos, and finally a CND logo, glowing sunlike over the field. Though it has lost some of its power through familiarity, it is still a remarkably potent design, created in 1958 by Gerald Holtom, a Royal College of Art graduate, by superimposing the semaphore symbols for N and D, the downward arms evoking a “human being in despair”.

The Campaign for Nuclear ­Disarmament had begun the previous year with an article by J B Priestley in the New Statesman, advocating that Britain abandon the bomb. The response prompted the then NS editor, Kingsley Martin, to hold a meeting where the campaign was formally launched. Martin wasn’t known for his avant-garde tastes – Virginia Woolf once complained of him: “He always interrupts our one resource against politics, which is music” – and what he would have made of Portishead’s dark and distorted drum loops, I have no idea. But he would, at least, have been glad to see that CND lives to fight another day.

Scorched-earth policy

Priestley, writing 12 years after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, makes no mention of those two attacks, which, between them, killed almost 300,000 people, most of whom were civilians. Reading a new edition of John Hersey’s powerful 1946 report, Hiroshima, as we approach the 70th anniversary of the attack, I feel we don’t talk nearly enough about Japan’s national tragedies, or the fact that – however exercised we get about “weapons of mass destruction” in the hands of Saddam Hussein or Iran – America is still the only power to have used nuclear weapons in warfare. For those of us born in the latter years of the cold war, it is not the Somme but the atom bomb that exerts a morbid pull on our imagination. I have never been to see the battlefields of the Western Front, but I have visited Hiroshima, and stared at the Pompeii-like memento mori in the city’s museum: a watch frozen at 8.15, the time of detonation; melted glass bottles; a child’s charred tricycle. On the ground, the bomb’s heat was 6,000° Centigrade: unstoppable, and unimaginable.

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Badly drawn man

Back at Latitude, the festival brought to mind casualties and survivors of a different sort. Fifteen years ago Badly Drawn Boy, aka Damon Gough, made The Hour of Bewilderbeast, a gorgeous suite of acoustic and orchestral manoeuvres that became a millennial classic. Playing the album in full on Saturday, Gough looked bloated and booze-damaged: I watched through my fingers as he shouted at the soundman, demanded a Jack Daniel’s and Coke (brought to him in a pint glass) and then refused to leave the stage, singing a cappella as the instruments were packed up around him and complaining that, as one of the best musicians of the past 15 years, he thought his £5,000 fee wasn’t good enough.

Two hours later I was watching a singer of a similar vintage show how to indulge in rock’n’roll excess and come up smelling of roses. At the height of their fame Tim Burgess and his group the Charlatans were taking cocaine “the Fleetwood Mac way” (blowing it up each other’s bums). When he finally cleaned up in 2006, his mojo came flooding back and now, at 48, he’s dancing around like a young buck, hips shaking in tight white trousers, blond mop occasionally parting to reveal his Mick Jagger mouth in a totally genuine grin. I just hope Tim bumped into Damon afterwards and gave him some advice, and possibly a hug. Middle-aged rock stars have feelings, too.

Tom Gatti is the culture editor of the NS


Now listen to highlights of the New Statesman’s events at the Latitude Festival:

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