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2 July 2023

Mat Osman Q&A: “The arts are turning into a desert”

The Suede bassist and novelist on Sherlock Holmes, the music of Kate Bush and life on the road.

By New Statesman

Mat Osman was born in Hertfordshire in 1967. Best known as the bassist in the rock band Suede, he is also a novelist and the composer of theme music for TV programmes such as 8 Out of 10 Cats.

What’s your earliest memory?

Me and my brother, Richard, looking on to the cul-de-sac from an upstairs window of our house in Haywards Heath. It was Christmas morning and we couldn’t open presents until our grandparents arrived.

Who are your heroes?

As a child it was Sherlock Holmes. He seemed a decent role model to a bookish kid who was useless at sport and fighting. Now it’s Kate Bush: she has spent 50 years making wild, idiosyncratic, sensuous music that still sells millions of copies.

What book last changed your thinking?

Overcomplicated by Samuel Arbesman. He looks at how almost all systems, such as the law, medicine and Amazon prices, are made up of overlapping and often contradictory subsystems. No one person understands how they work so it means that most technology is less like a tool and more like a weather system.

What would be your “Mastermind” specialist subject?

The Weimar cabaret scene. I’ve always wanted to set a book there and the threat of being humiliated on TV might actually make me do the research.

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Which political figure do you look up to?

Nye Bevan. I’m a total child of the welfare state. Growing up, it felt as if the playing field, if not completely level, was at least open to all, and if you were talented enough you could get to do what you wanted. I don’t think that’s true for kids nowadays and the arts especially are turning into a desert. Only those already independently wealthy can afford to act or make music or paint.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

Berlin Mitte in 1928, Laurel Canyon during the summer of 1969, or the Lower East Side in the late Seventies.

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Who would paint your portrait?

Smart-arse answer: Basil Hallward. But I have a spectacularly wonky face so maybe Picasso; it might turn out symmetrical.

[See also: An idiot’s guide to cancel culture]

What’s your theme tune?

“Express Yourself” by Charles Wright & the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

David Bowie once said – I’m paraphrasing – that he liked to work where “I’m far enough from the shore that my feet don’t touch the ground, but close enough that I can still see the land”. I keep that in mind.

What’s currently bugging you?

My to-read list. If everyone could hold off writing anything good for about a year it’d be a great help.

What single thing would make your life better?

The ability to read in vans without getting travel-sick. About a quarter of my life is spent in vans. If I could read and write on the move I’d be on my fifth novel by now.

When were you happiest?

In general, now. Artistically, at the end of any day when I’ve made something new. Personally, too many times to mention.

In another life, what job might you have chosen?

An astronomer, but in reality I have no transferable skills.

Are we all doomed?

I have faith that at some point the young are going to have had enough of the way my generation, and those older than us, have sold their future for some last tenuous grip on power. I fully expect to be Logan’s Run-ed at some point. Bring it on.

“The Ghost Theatre”, a novel by Mat Osman, is published by Bloomsbury

[See also: Fifty years after Picasso’s death, we still struggle with the figure of the monstrous genius]

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This article appears in the 05 Jul 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Broke Britannia