A letter to my MP

Johnson Cummings

To Simon Jupp, MP

House of Commons

London SW1A 0AA

Thursday, 28th May, 2020

Dear Mr Jupp,

I am a resident of East Devon, the parliamentary constituency which you currently represent. I am writing to express my deepest concerns about the conduct of the Prime Minister and of his senior adviser, Dominic Cummings.

You and I both know that Boris Johnson is a dishonest man and an incompetent politician, unfit for the office of Prime Minister and unequal to the challenges of the current crisis. You and I also both know that your position as a Conservative MP makes it impossible for you to acknowledge openly that this is the case, so I suggest that we just take that as read, and spare ourselves the bother and embarrassment of your having to go through the motions of “disagreeing” with facts that you, as an intelligent person, know to be true.

In an ideal world I would prefer to see you cross the floor of the House of Commons to join the opposition, which, for the first time in several years, now has a capable and credible leader whose moral and intellectual rigour stand in stark contrast to those of the Prime Minister. However, we don’t live in an ideal world, and I appreciate that you are unlikely to contemplate such a step. So let’s try to work within the boundaries of the possible. You are my MP, which means that you represent me in Parliament, and as such I urge you in the strongest possible terms to reject the increasingly desperate exhortations of the Prime Minister and his inner circle to “move on” from the Dominic Cummings scandal.

It is not time to “move on”. On the contrary, it is time to stand firm and hold Mr Cummings to account for his reckless and unacceptable conduct. As you know, Mr Cummings breached the lockdown rules, a fact confirmed today by the Durham Police investigation. As you also know, the Prime Minister has continued to insist, in denial of the facts, that Mr Cummings did not break the rules. Worse than that, the Prime Minister has asserted that the conduct of Mr Cummings was praiseworthy. To quote the Prime Minister on 24th May: “I believe that in every respect he has acted responsibly, legally and with integrity.”

This is beyond ridiculous. You are aware, of course, that Mr Cummings’s account of his drive to Barnard Castle, hedged about with a festoon of preposterous excuses which kick “The dog ate my homework” into the long grass, has become a national joke. And yes, it’s funny – just as any culpable public figure making a jackass of himself at a press conference will always be funny – but it would be altogether funnier if the ramifications were not so gravely serious. Tens of thousands of people are already dead. The government’s incompetent handling of the crisis over the last few months has led us to where we are now: the UK’s statistics of infection and death from Covid-19 are, shamefully, among the worst in the world. All of this you know, so let’s not labour the point. Let us instead focus on the fact that the conduct of Mr Cummings has lit a fire under a dangerous and misguided notion that the lockdown is all but over. Police forces around the country are now reporting that foolhardy people have been breaking the lockdown rules in increasing numbers this week, offering the not entirely unreasonable argument that if Dominic Cummings can do it, then so can they.

Worse still, in the frantic attempt to chivvy the nation into “moving on” from the scandal, Mr Johnson and Mr Cummings have resorted to blurting out headline-grabbing new measures which are ill-considered and premature. The test-and-trace programme, appallingly belated though it may be, has been rushed out before it is ready. Enticing hints from the Prime Minister about pubs reopening, about lockdown being eased, fly in the face of the increasingly sidelined advice of medical experts. But no matter: anything to divert and distract from the Cummings scandal.

But despite these strenuous efforts, it’s not going well for the Prime Minister, who, like Mr Cummings, seems to believe that a global health crisis can be handled in much the same way as they handled the general election and the vote leave campaign: with dishonesty, bluster and slogans. This week, the scripted soundbite “Move on” has become the new “Get Brexit done”, but it turns out that the British people aren’t quite as stupid as that. Covid-19 is a deadly pandemic, not a PR opportunity. Mr Johnson’s latest polling figures are atrocious, and there is every indication that Mr Cummings is the principal cause. Needless to say, there are those around the Prime Minister who continue to cling to the wreckage. It was quite a spectacle to see Matt Hancock lecturing us from the podium yesterday about our “civic duty” at a time when the entire country is reeling from the knowledge that Mr Cummings so signally failed to do his civic duty, and that those who leaped to his defence earlier this week included Mr Hancock himself. Other members of your party, yourself included, have been less hypocritical. One minister has resigned, and at the time of writing, some 47 Conservative MPs have called for the removal of Mr Cummings.

Yet still the Prime Minister digs in his heels. In his decision to place the job of an adviser above every other consideration, Mr Johnson has been persuaded (one can only assume by Mr Cummings himself) not only to torpedo his own popularity ratings, but to endanger, directly, the health and safety of the British public.

The Conservative Party has a long tradition of defenestrating its leaders without ceremony or sentiment once they become a liability to the party and to the country. In any sane world, your party would never have elected a charlatan like Mr Johnson as its leader in the first place, and I am confident that it is only a matter of time before you and your colleagues remove him from a position which, as he is now demonstrating on a daily basis, he is unfit to hold. However, in the matter of Dominic Cummings, we cannot wait that long. Mr Cummings is a wholly malign presence at the heart of this disastrous government. He must be dismissed from his post immediately, and denied any future influence on policy-making, on Downing Street, and on the British people whom he manifestly holds in such contempt. His continued presence at the heart of government is a stain on the Conservative Party and on the United Kingdom.

I would be grateful if you could convey my feelings to the Prime Minister.

Yours sincerely,

Nicholas Pegg



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Bear in mind

Bearmouth cover

Once in a while, you read a book that’s so absorbing, so powerful, so spellbindingly good that you can’t keep the news to yourself. Rarer still is the privilege of reading such a book before publication, before the explosion of accolades that you just know it’s going to get. Rarest of all are those times when you realise that the buzz from all sides is unanimous, and that everyone else who has read it is just as excited as you are.

It’s happening at the moment with a book called Bearmouth, which is published next week by Pushkin Press. It’s the debut novel by Liz Hyder, a Shropshire-based author who has worked for many years behind the scenes in the arts and publishing worlds, encouraging and helping other creative people to achieve the success and acclaim that they deserve. And now, with Bearmouth, it’s her turn.

Lest I be accused of log-rolling, before going any further I’ll declare an interest: Liz Hyder is a friend of mine. We’ve known each other for many years. Liz is clever, funny, modest, a voracious reader, a passionate advocate for the arts, a great gardener, a fantastic cook. I always knew that she sneaked away to her room to write stories, and like all her friends I was overjoyed by the news that her novel had been snapped up by a publisher. But until she sent me an advance copy of Bearmouth a few months ago, I’d never read any of her work. I honestly didn’t know what to expect.

I picked up Bearmouth and started reading. And I didn’t stop. It’s a rusty old cliché to say “I devoured it at one sitting”, but on this occasion it’s no more than the truth. I put down the book and I blinked. I took a deep breath. And then I dropped Liz a line to tell her what I’m going to tell you now: Bearmouth is so staggeringly good that, quite frankly, I was taken aback. You think you know someone, and then without warning they pull something like this out of the hat. It’s not that I doubted Liz was a hugely talented person. That much I’ve known for years. It’s just that… well, you know. It isn’t every day that an old mate goes and writes what is genuinely the best novel you’ve read in ages. I was thrilled. I was excited. I was moved. And when you read Bearmouth, you will be too.

Bearmouth is the story of Newt, a young mineworker whose world is an underground hell of darkness, cruelty and superstition. And actually, that’s pretty much all I want to tell you about the plot, because it’s a novel that deserves to be discovered and explored without foreknowledge, without spoilers. It’ll be found in the “Young Adult” section of your local Waterstones, and there’s nothing wrong with that – a YA novel is a fine, upstanding thing to be – but really and truly, like all good literature, Bearmouth transcends easy categorisation. Certainly it’s YA fiction, just as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or To Kill a Mockingbird are. But like them, this is a book for everyone. Bearmouth isn’t really a this novel or a that novel. It’s a novel.

Newt’s adventure is an exciting one, but it’s the dirt in the grain that gives Bearmouth its extraordinary, haunting power. Woven into its fabric are big subjects: gender identity, child exploitation, the lies we are told by our leaders, religion as an instrument of state oppression. Filtering through the darkness, and through Newt’s doughty resilience, echoes a Dickensian rage at the way, not so very long ago, we sent children down mines to toil and die. Not unlike its plucky young narrator, Bearmouth is a novel that works on many levels.

There will doubtless be comparisons with the likes of Riddley Walker and A Clockwork Orange, because Newt’s story is narrated – brilliantly – in a mangled argot all its own. But whether this is the broken-down dialect of some future dystopia, or the voice of an unschooled child from the past, is a question that is left carefully opaque. It’s one of the novel’s masterstrokes. Yes, comparisons are inevitable, because that’s how we all measure art, how we review it, how we make up our minds about it. But in the end, Bearmouth is unique. It is entirely its own creation. It heralds the arrival of a striking new voice in English fiction, and I still haven’t quite got over the delicious shock of realising that it’s the voice of my old chum Liz.

Morrissey famously sang “We hate it when our friends become successful,” but then he was always a miserable old sod, wasn’t he? Personally, I bloody love it when my friends become successful. With Bearmouth, Liz Hyder is about to become very successful indeed, and she deserves every drop of it. You’re going to be hearing a lot more about this dark, compelling, wonderful, world-class novel. I urge you to read it.

Bearmouth by Liz Hyder is published on 19th September 2019 by Pushkin Press.

Bearmouth HB


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The Pull of the Bush


At the end of 2018, Kate Bush released freshly remastered editions of her complete catalogue of albums, together with a selection of B-sides and rare tracks. At the same time Faber & Faber published a handsome anthology of her lyrics. For newcomers and devotees alike, both of these treats are highly recommended. The remastered audio is a revelation (the early albums in particular have never sounded richer, warmer and clearer), while the book, with its often surprising juxtapositions of lyrics selected and grouped together by Kate herself, offers an engrossing and rewarding opportunity to become acquainted, or reacquainted, with those beguiling words.

Like many who write from time to time about pop music, I was approached during the run-up to these releases and asked whether I’d like to consider setting down some thoughts about Kate Bush – in my case, for the Winter 2018 edition of Pride Life magazine. I accepted without hesitation. Kate Bush is an artist I’ve adored since childhood, and in my gallery of musical heroes, many of whom seem to begin with the letter B, she stands tall, occupying a pedestal right alongside Bach, Beethoven and Bowie. Even so, I’d never actually written anything about Kate before – and once I’d begun, I found it difficult to stop. Before long, I’d catastrophically overshot the word limit for the Pride Life feature. In the end some heavy pruning got it down to a manageable size, and the magazine was published just before Christmas.

All the same, having written nearly 4000 words instead of the requested 1200, it seemed a shame to waste them. Here, then, with the kind blessing of editor Nigel Robinson and all at Pride Life, is the full-length version of my Kate Bush piece. The Director’s Cut, if you will.

Title jpeg

The Pull of the Bush

“I found a book on how to be invisible,” Kate Bush once sang – and now, in a splendidly metatextual flourish, she has published an actual book called How To Be Invisible. Taken from a track on her 2005 album Aerial, the title of Faber’s new anthology of selected lyrics is an appropriate one: not just because Kate Bush famously knows a thing or two about how to be invisible, but also because the song in question encapsulates so much about her art. Slinky and dark, sinister and droll, ‘How To Be Invisible’ is at once a fairytale, a talismanic spell, an ontological reverie on the infinite complexity of existence – and, oh yes, a sublimely beautiful piece of music.

Those of us who love Kate Bush tend to love her with a special kind of devotion, and I’ll put my cards on the table and declare that I love Kate Bush as much as I love any artist who ever drew breath. I was ten years old when ‘Wuthering Heights’ topped the charts in 1978, and no pop singer before or since has ever reached out and grabbed me in quite the same way as that wild-eyed enchantress, so strange and wise and full of secrets. I was bewitched by the poetry and the theatre of it all, the twinkling piano, the strings, the guitars, and the most important instrument of all: that swooping, soaring, spectacular voice. I knew that I had to hear more, and I dropped hints as my eleventh birthday approached. And thus it came to pass that The Kick Inside, Kate Bush’s debut album, was the first proper grown-up LP that I owned.

I don’t suppose my parents knew what lay in store for me on that album: indeed, had they known, they might have thought twice before buying it for a boy of such tender years. But I’ll be forever grateful that they took the plunge, because it’s no exaggeration to say that The Kick Inside blew my eleven-year-old mind. It was vivid and magical and captivating, all the more so because it was smoky and shadowy and elusive. In places I barely understood it at all, but that only added to the fascination. What a peculiar little boy I must have been, lying alone on the living room floor, immersing myself in all that mind-expanding mysticism (“Who’s Gurdjieff?” I casually asked my mother one day), the warm, unfettered femininity (“Every girl knows about the punctual blues” – I knew what that meant, but it was so outside my experience as to be mesmerising), and the subtle agonies which adults seemed to inflict on each other in those mysterious, louche love songs. As for the simmering eroticism (“My stockings fall to the floor, desperate for more”) – well, it was clearly best not to trouble my parents with that sort of thing, so lyrics like ‘Feel It’ and ‘L’Amour Looks Something Like You’ remained a secret between me and Kate. Capping it all was the title track, a suicide note from a woman who has been made pregnant by her own brother. I was only eleven; but the astonishing thing is that the sorceress singing these eerie, enthralling songs to me was only nineteen.


Like every great artist, Kate Bush has tended over the years to explore and re-explore her own particular territory. From The Kick Inside to Hounds of Love to 50 Words for Snow, the modes of expression may have evolved and matured, but the themes and motifs remain remarkably consistent. Items on the agenda in a typical Kate Bush lyric might include sexuality, classical mythology, femininity, Biblical allusion, puberty, self-actualization, our relationship with nature, reaching out for the unreachable, and the possibility of discovering the divine in the everyday. If this all sounds a bit heavy, an abiding wonder of Kate’s work is the miraculous lightness of touch with which she spins it all together. Alight, for example, on ‘Suspended in Gaffa’, a track from her 1982 avant-garde masterpiece The Dreaming, which manages to tackle all of the above topics in a little under four minutes while remaining the prettiest, bounciest, loveliest pop song you could hope to hear.

Kate’s songwriting has always moved fluidly between the abstract and the narrative: on The Dreaming as on all her albums, esoteric philosophical investigations like ‘Gaffa’ rub shoulders with impressionistic vignettes and straightforward short stories, all of them dripping with implication in their own different ways. The title track addresses the plight of indigenous Australians at the hands of white men; ‘Houdini’ finds the escapologist’s widow trying to contact him at a séance; ‘Pull Out The Pin’ eavesdrops on the emotions of a Viet Cong soldier going into battle; ‘Leave It Open’ is a turbulent meditation on the challenge of keeping our minds receptive to stimulus; and ‘Get Out Of My House’ is a frenzied labyrinth of metaphor which rebuilds its emotionally damaged narrator as a shuttered, besieged house, obsessively repelling intrusion by the outside world.

These are the kinds of wild abstractions you can expect to find in a Kate Bush lyric – and not only there. A significant part of her genius lies in the way the lyrics are burnished and expanded by the music, and by the baroque, multi-layered complexity for which her recordings are famed: the immersive jungle soundscape of ‘Pull Out The Pin’, the Australian outback vibe of ‘The Dreaming’, or the exquisitely governed sonic chaos of ‘Get Out Of My House’ are cases in point. But there are other, calmer currents too: a Keatsian insistence on the beauty of truth and the truth of beauty, bound up in a comprehensive awareness of the literary, poetic and musical traditions to which Kate Bush is heir. Amid the exotic trips to Egypt, Malta and Baghdad, there’s no shortage of Englishness: her lyrics brim with Shakespeare, Delius, Peter Pan, Tennyson, summer afternoons, trees, birds and flowers (‘Night Scented Stock’, a wordless vocal confection on 1980’s Never For Ever, celebrates one of the quintessential flowers in the traditional English garden). And then, of course, there’s a certain Emily Brontë novel.


Literature, music and art are Kate’s constant companions. ‘An Architect’s Dream’ marvels at the craft of the painter; ‘Violin’ pays tribute to Paganini and features one of Kate’s most remarkable vocals, impersonating the squeals and swoops of a fiddler’s bow with acrobatic dexterity; ‘December Will Be Magic Again’ – surely the greatest Christmas pop song ever – tips its hat to Oscar Wilde; and ‘The Sensual World’ is a gorgeous adaptation of Molly Bloom’s closing soliloquy from James Joyce’s Ulysses. The literature, music and folklore of Ireland loom large: born to an English father and an Irish mother, Kate grew up surrounded by folksong and fairytale, by the fiddles, bodhráns and uilleann pipes that would later enrich her music.

The appropriation of that famously sensual passage from Ulysses highlights the theme which, more than any other, runs like a seam of gold through the entire Bush oeuvre. “The more I think about sex, the better it gets,” she sings on ‘Symphony in Blue’, and if her lyrics are anything to go by, she thinks about sex a great deal. But this isn’t the saucy seaside postcard sex of repressed curtain-twitchers and sniggering tabloids: this is sex as our profoundest purpose in life, sex as an expression of our deepest emotions, hopes and fears. That’s what we find in the Joycean lovemaking of ‘The Sensual World’, in the marital fairytale of ‘Babooshka’, in the pansexual calypso of ‘Eat the Music’, and in the tender insecurities of ‘Hounds of Love’ and ‘The Man With the Child in his Eyes’. In these and in dozens more, Kate Bush sings at the transformative crossroads where sex meets love, and where we plunge headlong into it all.

Explicit songs of sexual adventure, of which there are many, sometimes veer into transgressive territory. There’s that incestuous pregnancy in ‘The Kick Inside’, inspired in part by the traditional folk ballad of Lizie Wan; there’s ‘Kashka From Baghdad’ on 1978’s Lionheart, which celebrates the joy of a gay couple at a time when most artists were still steering clear of such subject matter; and from the same album, ‘Wow’ has that celebrated innuendo about “hitting the Vaseline”. Most startling of all her taboo songs is ‘The Infant Kiss’ from 1980’s Never For Ever: referencing Henry James’s novella The Turn of the Screw via a famously unsettling scene in its 1961 film adaptation The Innocents, the song bristles with febrile tension as its protagonist wrestles with her inappropriate feelings for a young boy.

Here is as good a point as any to observe that Kate Bush’s songs are not self-portraits. She’s a storyteller, and has cautioned against interpreting her lyrics as autobiographical, something which ought to be obvious to anyone familiar with the likes of ‘There Goes a Tenner’ (a serio-comic heist caper, delivered in a Cockney accent), ‘Ran Tan Waltz’ (a kitchen-sink comedy in which daddy is left holding the baby while mummy goes out on the lash), ‘Heads We’re Dancing’ (a period piece about an encounter with a charming stranger who turns out to be Adolf Hitler), or ‘Coffee Homeground’ (a delirious murder ballad in Brechtian cabaret style, complete with an outrageous German accent from Kate).


These and dozens more are purposely staged pieces: like one of her idols, David Bowie, Bush’s work thrives on the drama and the distancing of its own strong sense of theatricality. In performance, the effect is heightened by that famously flamboyant physicality, honed by the lessons she took as a teenager with Bowie’s legendary dance and mime teacher Lindsay Kemp, to whom she later dedicated The Kick Inside’s opening number ‘Moving’. Her early videos, and her 1979 concert tour, showcase a visual style that is equal parts student and teacher: those expressively mimetic moves are pure Lindsay Kemp, but it’s Kate herself who provides the dramatic vignettes, the props and business, that persistent mise en scène of shady men in trenchcoats and trilbies who populate the knockabout punch-up of ‘Them Heavy People’ and the shotgun melodrama of ‘The Wedding List’, an unforgettable highlight of her 1979 TV special. That netherworld of gangsters and molls is another motif that keeps resurfacing, from ‘James and the Cold Gun’ to ‘There Goes A Tenner’, from the fugitive aviator in ‘Night of the Swallow’ to the sinister government men who populate the videos of ‘Cloudbusting’ and ‘Experiment IV’.

And what videos they are. Again like Bowie, Bush established herself in the 1980s as a pioneer of rock video as an artform in its own right, a visual experience to expand and illuminate the music. 1985’s ‘Cloudbusting’, a seven-minute epic co-starring Donald Sutherland (and inspired, as is the song, by Peter Reich’s memoir A Book of Dreams, about his childhood relationship with his psychoanalyst father Wilhelm Reich) is perhaps her finest video, although the following year’s ‘Experiment IV’ runs it a close second. A horror film in miniature about a military experiment to create a lethal sound, its eye-catching cast includes Peter Vaughan, Richard Vernon, Dawn French and Hugh Laurie. Kate’s fraternisation with luminaries of the comedy circuit is another longstanding fixture (her deliciously smutty Comic Relief duet with Rowan Atkinson is the stuff of legend, as is her Comic Strip Presents song ‘Ken’, while The Red Shoes is the only album ever to feature Prince and Lenny Henry on the same track) – but ‘Experiment IV’ is no spoof. It’s a masterpiece of Cold War atmospherics, oozing macabre wit and escalating menace right up to the final twist as Kate herself, the deadly sound made flesh, turns to camera and places a nonchalant finger to her lips.

Played straight it may be, but in ‘Experiment IV’ as in all her work, there’s a playfulness which is key: however weighty the topic, there’s always a twinkle in those great big eyes. A government file seen in the ‘Experiment IV’ video reveals that the scientist charged with creating that murderous sound is ‘Professor Jerry Coe’ (geddit?). Kate Bush has always had a taste for the corny pun, whether lyrical (in ‘Hammer Horror’ she sings “I’ve got a hunch that you’re following me, to get your own back on me”) or visual (in the video of ‘The Dreaming’, the line “pull of the bush” is accompanied by Bush being literally pulled to and fro by her dancers). Few songwriters would conceive the notion of constructing a lyric about a girl’s emotional commitment around an extended metaphor in which the heroine is portrayed as an out-of-control car; fewer still would have the audacity to call it ‘Don’t Push Your Foot On The Heartbrake’. The title track of 50 Words for Snow finds guest vocalist Stephen Fry enumerating just that: half a hundred snowy synonyms of escalating daftness, from “blackbird braille” and “phlegm de neige” to “creaky-creaky” and “boomerangablanca”. On ‘Pi’, a celebration of the “circle of infinity”, Kate sings the mathematical constant to its 137th decimal place. In a Kate Bush lyric nothing, however preposterous, is off limits.


Of course, there’s no light without shade, and the shadows here are long ones. Another recurrent theme is grief, particularly the grief of bereavement. In her early work there’s a sense that she is writing about such topics at second hand, imagining herself into the role of a grieving mother in ‘Army Dreamers’, or a ghost looking down on her loved ones in ‘Watching You Without Me’. By the time of 1993’s The Red Shoes, perhaps her most underrated album and certainly her saddest, personal loss has begun to infiltrate the lyrics. The Red Shoes is dedicated to Kate’s mother Hannah, who died during the album’s development, and its standout track ‘Moments of Pleasure’, in which she gently invokes her mother’s words and recalls other departed friends including her longtime guitarist Alan Murphy, is almost unbearably poignant. So, too, is ‘You’re the One’, quite simply the saddest break-up song you’ll ever hear; Kate’s relationship with her long-time partner and bassist Del Palmer had recently ended, and here the loss feels like another bereavement. Twelve years later on Aerial, the pain is less raw but the emotion runs, if anything, even deeper. ‘Mrs Bartolozzi’, at first glance a kooky song about a washing machine, discloses itself upon closer inspection to be a hypnotically moving portrait of a woman grieving for her lover; and ‘A Coral Room’ is one of Kate’s quiet masterpieces, a monumental meditation on the waves of time and the keenly felt absence of her mother.

Family is a crucial element in Kate Bush’s work: her narrative songs might not be autobiographical, but the personal touches are clear. Kate’s brothers have made countless contributions over the years: multi-instrumentalist Paddy plays everything from the sitar on ‘Delius’ to the Madagascan valiha on ‘Love and Anger’, while John’s credits include the sleeve photography for Hounds of Love and the hypnotic narrative voice on ‘Jig of Life’. With exquisite poignancy, Kate enlisted her father to provide the spoken voice on 1989’s ‘The Fog’, a song which uses the image of a parent teaching his daughter to swim (“Just put your feet down, child, cos you’re all grown up now”) as a jumping-off point to address the mingled emotions of pride and loss that come with watching a child fly the nest. Two decades later, Kate duetted with her own son, Albert, on the opening track of 50 Words for Snow: then aged thirteen and singing the role of a snowflake falling to earth, the ephemerality of Albert’s soon-to-break treble intertwining with Kate’s motherly timbre achieves an extraordinary pathos.


That magical, adamantine bond between mother and child is another thread in the tapestry that Kate Bush has been weaving for decades. It’s there on The Kick Inside, not just in the title track but also in the meltingly beautiful ‘Room For The Life’, a meditation on the miracle of motherhood in which Kate hovers like an angel of comfort over every “lady in tears”, wrapping womanhood in its own strength and wonder: “No, we never die for long, while we’ve got that little life to live for”. Explorations of motherhood find new and more complex expressions in ‘Army Dreamers’ and ‘Breathing’, the latter among the most remarkable tracks of Bush’s early period. Part hymn to the bond between mother and child, part Kate’s entry in the roll-call of early eighties pop songs addressing the imminent threat of nuclear armageddon, ‘Breathing’ is sung by an unborn infant in the womb, inhaling her mother’s gift of life and, simultaneously, the deadly fallout that hangs in the poisoned air after a nuclear holocaust. Tender, dramatic, terrible and lovely, ‘Breathing’ is as close as rock music has ever come to touching the pellucid beauty and visionary horror of William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience.

The impermanence of youth, and the pain of losing the protective embrace of parenthood, are constant themes, from ‘All We Ever Look For’ (“Leave the breast and then the nest and then regret you ever left”) to ‘Mother Stands for Comfort’ (“Mother hides the madman, mother will stay mum”). So too is the simple affirmation of love. Years before her own son was born, another choirboy treble had provided a voice of fleeting innocence on 1982’s ‘All The Love’, a song which Kate explained was about “how we forget to tell people we love that we do love them”. Three years after that, at the end of ‘The Morning Fog’, the track which concludes 1985’s song cycle The Ninth Wave, Kate sang with limpid simplicity: “I’ll tell my father, I’ll tell my mother, I’ll tell my loved one, I’ll tell my brothers, how much I love them.” When she performed The Ninth Wave in its entirety as part of her 2014 live extravaganza Before the Dawn, she updated the lyric to add “I’ll tell my son,” gesturing as she did so to Albert, now sixteen, who was on stage with her. You’ve never heard a reaction like it. I don’t think there was a dry eye in the house.

Kate Bush: Before the Dawn

Talking of Albert, perhaps the least abstract of all Kate’s lyrics is ‘Bertie’, her 2005 encomium to her son, then just seven. Like David Bowie’s ‘Kooks’ or Thin Lizzy’s ‘Sarah’, ‘Bertie’ is a song of such unalloyed loveliness that only the most hard-hearted could fail to be moved; significantly, it also brightens the darker shades of Aerial, countering the desolation of ‘A Coral Room’ and helping to establish the more complex framework of the album’s second half. Subtitled A Sky of Honey, it is perhaps Kate Bush’s greatest achievement to date: a symphony of light and dark, a coming together of all the themes and motifs which had populated her work since its earliest days, and the most extravagant and profoundly imagined yet of her rhapsodies on the transformative power of beauty, sensuality, art and nature. Like the passage of the sun across the sky which links its nine songs, the colours and moods on its canvas are ever-changing, building at last to a mystical, transcendent climax.

One extraordinary moment among many on A Sky of Honey is a short piece called ‘Aerial Tal’ in which Kate duets with a blackbird, mimicking the strophes of its twilight song in perfect unison. Birds feature heavily throughout Aerial, whose sleeve artwork depicts the waveform of a blackbird’s song; and once again, it’s a fascination which echoes throughout Kate’s earlier work. “I turn into a bird,” she fantasises in ‘Get Out Of My House’; “Help this blackbird, there’s a stone around my leg!” she howls in ‘Waking the Witch’; “Would you break even my wings?” she demands in ‘Night of the Swallow’; “Who knows who wrote that song of summer that blackbirds sing at dusk?” she muses in ‘Sunset’. From the bird-infested sleeve of Never For Ever to the “blackbird braille” in ‘50 Words For Snow’, and from the “many birds” in the chorus of the newly released rarity ‘Humming’ to the dying blackbird in the video of ‘And So is Love’, there’s an ongoing preoccupation with birds, and with blackbirds in particular: their beauty, their freedom, their fecundity, their ruthlessness, their fragility. It’s surely no coincidence that a dead bird plays a prominent role in that disconcerting “infant kiss” scene in The Innocents, a film of ghosts, family secrets and psychological horror which opens and closes with a soundtrack of birdsong; in short, a film which clearly exerted a profound influence on Kate’s imagination.


The bird fixation came to a head in Kate’s spectacular 2014 concerts, which included a complete staging of A Sky of Honey. The backdrop was awash with projected images of birds in flight; Kate sang her blackbird duet live; a puppet bird entranced the audience before meeting a grisly fate; and in the shamanic climax of the final number, Kate and her band transformed into birds before the audience’s eyes while giant trees smashed into the stage. It was dark, emotive, beautiful and strange, and it cut to the quick of everything that’s great about Kate. At the heart of her work, intertwined with the celebration of beauty and love and sensuality, there’s an ever-present edge of mania. It’s always been there, from ‘Wuthering Heights’ to ‘Sat In Your Lap’, from ‘Running Up That Hill’ to ‘King of the Mountain’ – those wild eyes darting left and right, those explosive Banshee shrieks, those softly obscure whispers, that hint of something dark and murderous lurking beneath the surface of life. All of this is fundamental, double-distilled Kate Bush. It’s what entranced that little boy all those years ago as he pored in wonder over that first album, and it’s what continues to entrance him today. “You stand in front of a million doors,” Kate reminds us in ‘How To Be Invisible’, “And each one holds a million more.” There are mysteries here: deep, dark mysteries that will never be solved. Nor should they be. That’s the magic of Kate.

This is an expanded version of an article which originally appeared in the Winter 2018 edition of Pride Life magazine. The 2018 remastered editions of Kate Bush’s albums are available in a variety of formats, including the CD box sets Remastered Part I and Remastered Part II. The anthology of Kate’s selected lyrics, How to Be Invisible, is published in hardback by Faber & Faber.



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To be insulted by these fascists




‘From now on, I’m really going to speak my mind!’ declared Nigel Farage earlier today. In the long run this might be considered good news, given that it presumably means that from now on Mr Farage is going to be almost entirely silent apart from the occasional belch, but that’s for the future. This morning he certainly had plenty to say. I’m not here to talk about what he said – it was the same discourteous, self-aggrandising, weapons-grade arseblurting with which we are all wearily familiar – no, I’m here to talk about his choice of soundtrack. Because, for his farewell speech as Ukip leader, Nigel Farage elected to bow out on stage to the strains of David Bowie’s “Heroes”.

So now, like Mr Farage, I’m going to speak my mind.

For a xenophobic, misogynist, homophobic, anti-immigration extremist politician to appropriate the music of David Bowie of all people is so acutely grotesque, so extravagantly warped, so olympically insulting and so colossally stupid that it fair takes the breath away. Do you know anything about David Bowie, Mr Farage? Anything at all?

Hey, hang on a minute, says a passing ignoramus. Wasn’t the Thin White Duke himself a bit of an old fascist back in the day?

Er, no, actually, he wasn’t. However, in order to head off what will otherwise be an inevitable torrent of ill-informed comments from Ukip supporters, we must now pause for a moment to address one of the facts that people who don’t know about David Bowie think that they do know about David Bowie. That thing about him being fan of Hitler and doing a Nazi salute and all that. That’s true, isn’t it? Must be true, I read it somewhere.

Now then. I freely admit that I don’t know much about football, or cars, or telebiogenesis, but trust me: one of the subjects about which I do know rather a lot is David Bowie. So, just for the avoidance of doubt, here is a handy cut-out-and-keep guide to everything you ever wanted to know about whether David Bowie was ever a fascist:

  1. Was David Bowie ever a fascist? No.
  1. Did David Bowie ever give a Nazi salute? No.
  1. Did David Bowie ever voice support for the National Front? No.
  1. Did David Bowie ever say that he was a fan of Hitler? No.
  1. Did David Bowie ingest a prodigious quantity of cocaine in the mid-1970s and go extremely peculiar for a little while, during which period he spouted all sorts of nonsense including a couple of naïve and irresponsible comments about fascism which were blown out of all proportion in a tabloid feeding frenzy one week in May 1976, comments which he immediately disowned, revoked and apologised for, before unequivocally describing far-right politics as ‘an answer to an idiot’s dream’? Yes.

There we go. If you’d like to read a full and thorough account of the whole episode, you can find one in my book The Complete David Bowie, of which a new expanded and updated edition just happens to be due for publication next month. But for now, I think we can move on.

David Bowie is famed for his ‘changes’, but beneath that celebrated and ever-evolving experimentation in musical genres, his subject matter remained remarkably consistent. One of his pet topics was our disturbing tendency as a species to succumb to powerful and dangerous people and their twisted ideologies. Lyrics about the perilously charismatic lure of demagogues and dictators, tyrants and false messiahs, run like a seam through Bowie’s fifty years of songwriting. Have a listen to 1967’s ‘We Are Hungry Men’ (‘Why do you look that way at me, your messiah?’), or 1974’s ‘Big Brother’ (‘Someone to claim us, someone to follow’), or the ranting despot in 2013’s ‘If You Can See Me’ (‘I am the spirit of greed, a lord of theft, I’ll burn all your books and the problems they make’). Take a look at the baby-kissing, media-savvy politician on the rise in 1975’s ‘Somebody Up There Likes Me’, a song so entirely about Donald Trump that one wonders whether that telephone box on the back cover of the Ziggy Stardust album was some kind of Tardis. And talking of Ziggy – ‘like a leper messiah’ – there’s another one. There are plenty more.

Bowie was never a party man, not of any kind – one feels that he subscribed to the old Marxist apophthegm (Groucho, not Karl) that he wouldn’t have wanted to be a member of any club that would have him as a member. He declined civil honours on at least two occasions – yes, the Dame turned down a knighthood – and he never made a secret of where his sympathies lay. He despaired of George W Bush and the Iraq War (at a UK concert in November 2003, during Bush’s behind-closed-doors ‘state visit’ to Downing Street, Bowie tartly dedicated his song ‘I’m Afraid Of Americans’ to ‘our visitor this week’ and earned a thunderous response), and in 2008 he greeted the election of Barack Obama as ‘a great day’.

David Bowie shone a light into millions of lives, and not just with his sublimely brilliant music. In the dark ages of the early 1970s he made life a whole lot better for gay kids. He spoke out about racism at a time when doing so was by no means de rigueur. He championed civil rights and equalities of every kind. He worked for HIV charities, homelessness charities, women’s shelter charities, refugee charities. He wrote a famous song about the possibility of harmony between Christianity and Islam (the inattentive thought it was a song about spacemen, because he called it ‘Loving The Alien’). In short, David Bowie was everything that Nigel Farage and his squalid cabal are proud to despise.

If you have four minutes, have a click on the link at the end of this paragraph. It’s not perhaps the most nuanced song that David Bowie ever wrote, but that’s the very point. He meant it to be direct, because he was angry. It dates from 1989, and it’s about the rise of far-right politics. It’s about the kind of people who end up joining the English Defence League, or Britain First, or Ukip. ‘Washing their heads in the toilet bowl, they don’t see supremacist hate / Right-wing dicks in their boiler suits, picking out who to annihilate…’

So, Mr Farage, you go ahead and speak your mind all you like. Play “Heroes” again if you want to. It doesn’t matter. David Bowie had the measure of you.

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I believe in the power of good


I know I’m always going on about David Bowie, so forgive me if I’m being tiresome, but sitting quietly and thinking about the awful events of the last 24 hours has prompted me to dust off this remarkable piece of music, which sadly feels more apt today than ever.

Written and recorded in 1969 by a 22-year-old who was working out his anger and disillusion with the hippy movement with which he’d briefly dallied over the preceding months, it’s an extraordinarily complex and nuanced exploration of the process by which idealism can be corrupted and poisoned into stupid, self-serving extremism. It’s a slow burner, deceptively soft and tender in the opening act, before gradually gathering momentum until it plunges headlong into a furious diatribe against the madness of doctrinaire ideologies. ‘We can force you to be free, and we can force you to believe… I will fight for the right to be right, I will kill for the good of the fight for the right to be right.’

Bowie wanted to release it as the follow-up single to ‘Space Oddity’, but the record company refused point blank. I think it’s one of his greatest songs, and I’m not particularly embarrassed to say that it has just reduced me to tears.

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Just a little bit evil


You might be aware that I’m a bit of a David Bowie fan. If you share my remarkable good taste, you might also be aware that a couple of milestones have just popped up. Alarmingly, today is the 20th anniversary of the release of 1.Outside, the album that marked the pinnacle of the gloriously uncompromising avant-garde phase through which Bowie nonchalantly strode in the mid-nineties. Almost certainly the only concept album ever to be made about ritual murder, performance art, architecture and Minotaurs, 1.Outside sounds as fresh today as it did in 1995, when its experimental ambient leanings, its spoken segues, its juxtapositions of bleepy synths with jazz piano and thunderous guitar, and its downright confrontational weirdness elicited bafflement and hostility from some critics – in much the same way that albums like Diamond Dogs, Young Americans and Low were initially greeted back in the seventies. Like those classics, 1.Outside has since taken its place among the great man’s acknowledged masterpieces. If it’s not an album you’re familiar with, I urge you to rectify that situation without delay.

But we’re not actually here to talk about 1.Outside. Today also sees the release of Five Years (1969-1973), a lavish new box set containing remasters of eight albums from Bowie’s first golden age, accompanied by two discs of B-sides and rarities. For Bowie anoraks everywhere, present company included, the most enticing nugget in the new box set is the original single version of ‘Holy Holy’, a recording so obscure that it has been unavailable on any format besides crackly bootlegs since its short-lived vinyl release back in 1971.

And so, to mark this long-awaited reissue, here’s a piece I originally wrote last year for the liner notes of a single by the supergroup Holy Holy, a band which takes its name from David Bowie’s song and is headed by veteran Bowie collaborators Woody Woodmansey and Tony Visconti, together with Glenn Gregory of Heaven 17 on vocals, Steve Norman of Spandau Ballet on saxophone, and many more besides. My essay is reproduced here with thanks to producer Tom Wilcox and to all in the band. And thank you again, Holy Holy, for those fabulous gigs.

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Just a little bit evil: the story of Holy Holy

As 1970 dawned, David Bowie was teetering on the brink of success. ‘Space Oddity’ had given him his first hit the previous autumn, and there had been critical acclaim for the accompanying album despite its disappointing sales. To those in the know, Bowie was one to watch. But beyond the rarefied world of the music business, the word wasn’t really out: not yet, not quite.

Meantime, 1970 would be a year of mixed fortunes. Despite making no commercial impact whatsoever on its initial release, The Man Who Sold the World was a creative and critical triumph for Bowie: a truly remarkable album on which the ever-growing scope and ambition of his songwriting were matched by a series of dazzling contributions from the core team of drummer Woody Woodmansey, guitarist Mick Ronson, and bassist/producer Tony Visconti. Earlier in the year, before the album sessions began, Bowie had enlisted the latter pair and Woodmansey’s predecessor, drummer John Cambridge, to record the single version of ‘Memory of a Free Festival’ and to play a series of gigs under the band name Hype (just Hype, by the way – not The Hype. That’s a common mistake). Rocking out in lurex tights, thigh boots, silver capes and other outrageous superhero accoutrements long before anyone else had thought to do the same, Hype would be credited in retrospect with presiding over the birth of glam rock – but in February 1970 their outlandish stage gear was way ahead of the game, and Hype’s audiences were as much bemused as impressed. By the early summer, with work now completed on The Man Who Sold the World, the band went their separate ways, and things fell quiet… until ‘Holy Holy’ came along in the autumn and kick-started the next phase of Bowie’s career.

To unpack the story of ‘Holy Holy’, we must first leap ahead. Bowie’s most familiar version of the song – the one we all know from bonus tracks and compilation albums – is actually a re-recording, taped a year later during the Ziggy Stardust sessions and briefly slated for inclusion on that album. Dropped from the final selection, it wouldn’t see the light of day until 1974, when it became the B-side of the ‘Diamond Dogs’ single. As befits the Ziggy sessions it’s a superb track, crackling with energy, confidence and flair, and showcasing Mick Ronson and his fellow Spiders from Mars at their shimmering, coruscating best. And yet this version of ‘Holy Holy’ isn’t the original: the composition pre-dates the Ziggy sessions by 12 months, which might not sound like much, but at this particular point in Bowie’s sensationally rapid evolution as a songwriter, a year was a very long time indeed – and ‘Holy Holy’ is a song whose lyrics have less in common with Ziggy Stardust than with the darker psychosexual milieu of The Man Who Sold the World.

The first thing that hits you about ‘Holy Holy’ is, of course, the title. David Bowie’s writing has always been informed by a complex relationship with spirituality and religion: at the heart of many of his best-known songs there’s a nagging sense of existential anxiety, sometimes articulated via an interest in such systems as the Kabbalah or Tibetan Buddhism, but more often through his ongoing dialogue with the icons, litanies and rituals of his own suburban Christian upbringing. From the very earliest songs right through to more recent controversies, Bowie has always sung of God and man, of heaven and hell, of heathens and believers, of churches and cathedrals, of divine prophets and false messiahs. It’s a preoccupation which rears its head throughout his 1960s work, but the first album on which it becomes systematic – at times, perhaps, obsessive – is The Man Who Sold the World. From the wayward spiritual journey of ‘The Width of a Circle’ (‘when God did take my logic for a ride’) to the messianic super-computer of ‘Saviour Machine’ (‘They called it The Prayer, its answer was law’), the album finds David pushing himself into a series of uncomfortable confrontations with what he would later describe as the ‘devils and angels’ within himself. The theme of madness, a topic of great immediacy for David at the time owing to the mental health issues faced by his own half-brother, has been well documented; less so the fact that the album is steeped in religious imagery. There’s a recurring motif of journeying to a high vantage-point where a disturbing, apocalyptic or revelatory experience unfolds. It happens again and again, in song after song: ‘We met upon a hill’, ‘We passed upon the stair’, ‘It’s pointless to be high cos it’s such a long way down’, ‘Some say the view is crazy but you may adopt another point of view’, ‘He struck the ground, a cavern appeared’. In and among all this ‘mountain magic’, there’s surely an echo of Christ’s encounter with the Devil who, in Matthew’s Gospel, ‘taketh him up to an exceeding high mountain, and showeth him all the kingdoms of the world’ – before tempting him to become, in effect, the man who sold the world.


But Bowie was doing far more than just dipping into hazy memories of Sunday School; he’d recently been reading Nietzsche too, and a dash of Crowley for good measure. The introduction of the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche into the faux-fairytale landscape already mapped out by Bowie’s earlier albums paved the way for the nightmare visions of ‘Saviour Machine’ and, more obviously, ‘The Supermen’. The album also marks the point at which the voice of the occultist poet Aleister Crowley, sometime member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, scourge of Edwardian decency and peddler of his own dubious interpretations of morality, begins to echo through Bowie’s work, most clearly in the sweetly sinister ‘After All’ with its imprecation to ‘live till your rebirth and do what you will’. Both Nietzsche and Crowley would return with a vengeance on Hunky Dory, and they’ve continued to crop up in Bowie’s work ever since.

It’s in the light of such themes that we should consider ‘Holy Holy’. For anyone whose childhood even remotely resembled Bowie’s, the song’s title instantly and ineluctably calls to mind the Christian hymn ‘Holy Holy Holy’, a ubiquitous fixture for English churchgoers since the nineteenth century – but, with a casually blasphemous swagger of the kind he would later hone to perfection on the Ziggy album, Bowie promptly subverts such associations with an opening verse that drips with sexual suggestiveness: there’s a palpable relish in his voice as he sings ‘slowly, we get good and holy’. The angels and devils are circling again, but the key reference is once more to Aleister Crowley: when Bowie likens himself in ‘Holy Holy’ to ‘a Righteous Brother’, he’s not referring to the popular Californian blue-eyed soul duo, but to an everyman character who appears in the texts of Freemasonry and was later adopted in the terminology of the Golden Dawn. Thus the lyric ‘I don’t wanna be angel, just a little bit evil, I feel a devil in me’ hints none too subtly at a journey into the arcane pseudo-religious practices of Crowley’s infamous ‘Sexmagickal’ system. In a few brief lines, ‘Holy Holy’ plunges us into dark, kinky, transgressive territory.


Bowie’s original version was recorded in November 1970, during that brief but significant fallow period between The Man Who Sold the World and Hunky Dory. Poised midway between those two masterpieces, ‘Holy Holy’ captures a moment of transition: there’s something of both albums in it, and yet at the same time it belongs to neither. The songwriting, although distinct and evocative in ways unique to Bowie, can’t quite match the dizzying heights soon to be scaled on Hunky Dory – and sonically, the absence of The Man Who Sold the World’s studio personnel is keenly felt. Tony Visconti, whose visionary production style and pneumatically pumped-up bass guitar had lent the previous album so much of its energy, identity and power, was now out of the picture, busy working with Marc Bolan. In years to come he’d be reunited with Bowie many times over, but for ‘Holy Holy’ David had to look elsewhere. The single was produced instead by Herbie Flowers, another doyen of the bass guitar whose previous credits included not only ‘Space Oddity’, but such diverse pleasures as Blue Mink’s ‘Melting Pot’, Elton John’s Tumbleweed Connection, and Clive Dunn’s novelty hit ‘Grandad’, the latter released just a week before ‘Holy Holy’ entered the studio. A distinguished career lay ahead for Herbie Flowers – among many other highlights he would later play on Lou Reed’s Transformer (that’s his brilliant bassline on ‘Walk on the Wild Side’), Bowie’s Diamond Dogs, and Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds, before becoming a founder member of the hugely popular classical-rock fusion group Sky – but few, least of all Flowers himself, have ever claimed that the original version of ‘Holy Holy’ was his finest hour. On guitar and drums, Flowers drafted in two of his Blue Mink colleagues, Alan Parker and Barry Morgan: fine musicians both, but the line-up failed to connect with Bowie’s music or to find that explosive alchemy so evident in the spectacular work of The Man Who Sold the World’s Visconti-Ronson-Woodmansey trio. Today, the seldom-heard original version of ‘Holy Holy’ sounds turgid and plodding by comparison with Bowie’s other work of the period. Released as a single in January 1971, it sank without trace.

Holy Holy single 1

But although the single flopped, its place in Bowie’s story is absolutely crucial. It was the original demo of ‘Holy Holy’ which, in the autumn of 1970, secured David his all-important new publishing contract with Chrysalis, a development which was of fundamental significance in the sudden and miraculous upswing in the quantity and quality of his songwriting over the coming months. By the spring of 1971, new songs were pouring from the young artist as never before: songs like ‘Changes’, ‘Queen Bitch’, ‘Moonage Daydream’, and many more besides – classic numbers which would go on to grace the Hunky Dory and Ziggy Stardust albums. ‘Holy Holy’ was the composition which helped to unleash that tsunami of talent.

And make no mistake about it: back in the day David Bowie believed in ‘Holy Holy’, promoting it to the hilt. Remarkably, there was even an attempt to give his new LP a last-minute change of name to support the single. David’s favoured title for his 1970 album had originally been Metrobolist, which the record company considered too abstruse, prompting them to change it – without consultation and somewhat to David’s chagrin – to The Man Who Sold the World. It was released in America in November 1970, just as Bowie was recording his first version of ‘Holy Holy’ – but unusually, the album wasn’t scheduled for release in Britain until April 1971. Such was Bowie’s enthusiasm for his new single, coupled perhaps with displeasure at having already seen the album’s title changed against his wishes, that he tried to persuade Mercury Records to rename the forthcoming UK album release Holy Holy – despite the fact that the song wasn’t even on it. In a letter to Mercury on 10 November 1970, David’s manager Tony Defries wrote: ‘if the single is a success then it will generally assist the album sales to have the same title, notwithstanding that the title track is not on the album.’ In the event, as we’ve already seen, the single was a flop, and the album remained The Man Who Sold the World on both sides of the Atlantic.

The failure of the single wasn’t for want of trying: on 18 January 1971, resplendent in an embroidered Mr Fish frock of the kind soon to be seen on the The Man Who Sold the World’s UK sleeve, Bowie performed ‘Holy Holy’ for Granada Television’s magazine show Six-O-One: Newsday. While in Manchester to record the performance (one of several TV spots from the period which are sadly long lost), David encountered a budding television writer called Roger Price, who admired Bowie’s work and shared his long-standing interest in UFOs, the paranormal, and all manner of things strange. Their conversation that day helped to light a spark under one of the new songs that Bowie was working on, a slice of Nietzschean sci-fi about a race of super-developed children called the Homo Superior. The song would shortly bloom into the classic ‘Oh! You Pretty Things’ – while two years later Roger Price made his own mark on popular culture with the launch of his fondly remembered ITV children’s series The Tomorrow People… about a race of super-developed children called the Homo Superior.

‘Oh! You Pretty Things’ was destined to become David Bowie’s second hit, albeit in a version not his own: Peter Noone’s cover, featuring David on piano, reached number 12 in the summer of 1971, giving Bowie his most significant commercial success since ‘Space Oddity’. It was a good omen: by now the Hunky Dory sessions were in full swing, and at last the word was beginning to creep out that the singer-songwriter with the flowing hair, the striking clothes and the head full of books was a serious contender. ‘Holy Holy’ had played its quiet but vital part in the chain of events – and within a year, David Bowie would be a superstar.

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This article originally appeared in the liner notes of the 7” single ‘We Are King’ / ‘Holy Holy’, released in September 2014.

I can also recommend Holy Holy’s live album The Man Who Sold the World: Live in London, recorded at Shepherd’s Bush Empire on 22 September 2014.

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Dirty old mac

Faerie Queene

At the beginning of Edmund Spenser’s sixteenth-century allegorical masterpiece The Faerie Queene, a knight gets lost in a dark forest. He’s a knight errant, and he has erred – see, I told you it was allegorical – so it’s no coincidence that the fearsome monster lurking at the heart of the forest is called Error. Conjured into existence by the very act of erring, she’s a serpentine tangle of knots with a venomous sting in her tail, and before long she has our knight gripped fast in her snaky coils: ‘God help the man so wrapped in Error’s endless train’, observes the poet, just in case we haven’t quite got the point. But all is not lost! With his free hand, our hero grips Error’s throat and squeezes it tight, with spectacular results:

            Therewith she spewed out of her filthy maw
            A flood of poison horrible and black,
            Full of great lumps of flesh and gobbets raw,
            Which stunk so vilely, that it forced him slack
            His grasping hold, and from her turn him back:
            Her vomit full of books and papers was,
            With loathly frogs and toads, which eyes did lack,
            And creeping sought way in the weedy grass:
            Her filthy parbreak all the place defiled has.

Spenser wrote his poem more than 400 years ago, but nothing has changed. Error is still a monster that spews out sightless toads and half-digested books, incomplete gobbets and abused fragments of knowledge that defile the ground with poison horrible. Error takes on many forms. Error is religious intolerance. Error is Ukip. And Error is, most assuredly, the Daily Mail.

Yes, yes, I know. Having a go at the Daily Mail is about as useful as rising to the bait of a common-or-garden Twitter troll. It’s exactly what they want. It’s how they feed. From its wearisomely ‘controversial’ columnists to its grisly sidebar of shame, the Mail’s website is one great concerted exercise in trolling. Like Spenser’s allegorical monster, it feeds and it feeds and it feeds, gorging itself on our clicks and our outrage, consuming everything that’s good and kind and honest, chewing up decency and spitting out filth. Best to avoid getting wrapped up in those scaly coils in the first place. But there are times when the monster’s throat needs to be grasped. Yesterday I inadvertently wandered into the dark forest and came across something which stank as vilely as any vomit that ever spewed from Error’s maw. It’s a cartoon by the Mail’s veteran contributor Mac, and here it is:


It’s difficult to know where to start, isn’t it? Perhaps we should begin by noting that, across its many pages and platforms, the Mail has made a fine contribution to the outpourings of love and affection which, quite rightly, have greeted the sad death of Cilla Black. I could have sworn that the same paper took a slightly different tack the last time a pop singer died in Spain of natural causes, but let’s not split hairs.

Instead, let’s take the death of a much-loved entertainer and forcibly insert it up the rectum of a serious ongoing humanitarian crisis in the most grotesque, inflammatory, ignorant and idiotic way imaginable.

It scarcely needs saying that the cartoon is quivering with xenophobia, from that nasty neologism ‘illegals’ to those jaw-dropping blackface caricatures among the overwhelmingly white crowd of patiently queuing non-‘illegals’, their faces no doubt thoughtfully shaded in by the cartoonist in the time-honoured tradition of ‘I’m not a racist, but…’ (which, as anyone who isn’t a fool knows, is merely the sound of racism clearing its throat). Just take a look at those black cartoon faces again. Jesus tap-dancing Christ. This is 2015, right? Not 1915?

Setting aside the suppurating racism, how does the cartoon actually function? Where’s the joke? Well, let’s have a look. We’re at at the pearly gates of heaven, and we’re at the back of a queue of the recently deceased. They are waiting patiently while, in the distance, some ‘illegals’ are trying to scale the celestial barricades. An apologetic angel, wearing a riot helmet and carrying a truncheon, is explaining the situation to Cilla (who actually looks more like Margaret Thatcher, but let that pass). The only way that the ‘joke’ can possibly function is if we accept that we’re not just being asked to have a general giggle at the expense of those horrid ‘illegals’ down on Earth – we’re actually being asked to laugh at the dead ones. The men, women and children who have died by drowning, by malnutrition, by asphyxiation. The ones that Katie Hopkins says she doesn’t care about. And we’re not just being invited to laugh at them; we’re being invited to judge them too, like a vengeful Old Testament God, because the cartoon also relies on the assumption that we all agree that the ‘illegals’ don’t belong in heaven with Cilla and her friends.

Perhaps, in his touching portrayal of this archangelic queue and its undeserving queue-jumpers, the cartoonist is offering us a weighty Biblical point. Are we not all migrants through this life? And verily, is it not easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven, and all that jazz? The unfortunate downside of this interpretation is the implication that Cilla might not get in – particularly when we consider the additional possibility that the cartoonist is subtly reminding us that Cilla was herself a migrant to Spain. Yes, surely that was intentional.

So who is this latter-day Goya, whose multi-faceted masterpieces unravel into eschatological meditations of such bottomless profundity? His real name is Stanley McMurtry. Born in 1936, he adopted the nom de plume ‘Mac’ while working for the Daily Sketch in 1969, and he has been drawing cartoons for the Daily Mail since it absorbed the Sketch in the early seventies. In 2003 he received an MBE for ‘services to the newspaper industry’.

Stanley McMurtry MBE has often said that he regards his work as apolitical. So, just to clarify, there’s nothing political about that Cilla cartoon, okay? Likewise, I’m sure we can all agree that this little beauty from 2010 is entirely non-political, and should in no way be construed as racist or homophobic or just plain frothingly mad:


And there’s definitely nothing iffy about this absolute charmer from 2011, swastika tattoo and all:


But when all’s said and done, it’s hard to beat the McMurtry cartoon which the Daily Mail published on 21 August 2001, in response to a story about the NHS recruiting doctors from overseas. Don’t say I didn’t warn you:


Unsurprisingly, the British Medical Association lodged a complaint about that one, and even extracted an apology of sorts from the newspaper’s editor – albeit an apology of the ‘I’m not a racist but…’ variety.

Yes, it goes without saying that we shouldn’t give the Daily Mail our clicks (you’ll never find a direct Mail link on this blog). And yes, of course they’re only cartoons. They can’t hurt us. But from time to time we, like Spenser’s knight, need to hold these excrescences up to the light and see them for what they really are.

            She poured forth out of her hellish sink
            Her fruitful cursed spawn of serpents small,
            Deformed monsters, foul, and black as ink,
            Which swarming all about his legs did crawl,
            And him encumbered sore, but could not hurt at all.


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The s-word


Once upon a time, not so long ago, it was perfectly respectable to call oneself a socialist. It was a badge that one might wear with pride alongside the likes of Albert Einstein, George Orwell and Bertrand Russell. Nowadays, for reasons we’ll come to in a moment, to call oneself a socialist is to risk being perceived as some sort of cartoon amalgam of Arthur Scargill, Wolfie Smith, Derek Hatton, and Rik from The Young Ones. I have a neighbour who thinks it hilarious to tell people as a matter of routine that I am a fan of Joseph Stalin. Happily, I know that you’re not that stupid, so here goes.

I am a socialist. By that I mean that I believe in the socialism of Bevan and Beveridge, the socialism that gave us nationalised utilities, the NHS and the welfare state. Over the past couple of decades, since Labour was colonised by the right, politicians and media commentators of every mainstream party affiliation have done a very good job of turning ‘socialism’ into a dirty word, a conveniently misunderstood word, more often than not a meaningless knee-jerk buzzword, synonymous with ‘communism’ in the minds of people who have no real idea what either of those terms mean. It’s been a long time since any mainstream politician has dared to describe themselves with the s-word.

Granted, there was a brief period in the early noughties when Charles Kennedy’s Liberal Democrats appeared to be repositioning themselves to present a credible left-wing alternative to the Blair government, but how long ago that seems now. Otherwise, the concerted demonisation of left-wing politics has continued unabated. By the time of the 2015 general election campaign, we had reached the stage at which a TV audience and, more damningly, various high-profile Tories, were happy to applaud a politically illiterate pop singer for describing Ed Miliband as ‘a fucking Communist’. Never mind that Ed Miliband, like Tony Blair before him, is a politician demonstrably more right-wing than Harold Macmillan; the idea that parties might drift this way or that is far too complicated for this sort of idiot rhetoric, and anyway it doesn’t fit the tribal narrative.

For twenty years or more, the political and media establishments have worked jolly hard to promulgate the notion that socialism is foolish, naive, hopelessly idealistic, and – best of all – dead. Socialists have become accustomed to being patted on the head and told that one day we’ll understand, one day we’ll grow out of it. As anyone will know who heard Tony Blair’s imperious intervention on the Labour leadership contest last week, or has ever had the misfortune to watch the likes of Andrew Neil and Michael Portillo pleasuring each other on BBC One’s macabre Thursday night Tory harlequinade This Week, there are many on the right who have become so accustomed to dishing out this condescending treatment that they appear to have quite lost sight of the fact that the left are not actually a bunch of amusing children. Turns out that some of them are really quite clever. It’s not that they’re wrong about everything, Mr Blair. It’s just that they happen not to agree with you about everything. Amazing, I know, but there it is.

Which is where Jeremy Corbyn comes in. I don’t happen to believe that Mr Corbyn is the answer to all the world’s problems. I disagree with him on many points. I’ll be surprised if he is able to win a general election. But I don’t think that any of that is tremendously relevant right now. What has been fascinating over the last week has been to watch the gradual realisation among politicians and pundits alike that there are an awful lot of socialists out there who’d really like to have someone they can vote for. That dawning awareness has become obvious in the remarkable savagery of the attacks launched on Corbyn by panicking grandees and careerists on every side, ranging from the inevitable ‘hard-left’ and ‘Communist’ nonsense to ad hominem abuse based on Corbyn’s age and appearance (both of which, as his popularity increases, appear to be counting in his favour: apparently there are plenty of folk out there who would rather take an experienced, principled politician over a young firebrand or a media-savvy marketing executive. Who knew?).

Yes, I’m a socialist. And I’m proud of that. Whatever one’s reservations about Jeremy Corbyn – and I have mine – I hope it’s understandable that those of us who have spent the last couple of decades being patronised and unrepresented by mainstream politics are perhaps finding all of this just a teensy bit exhilarating.



February 1st 2019. Three and a half years have passed since I wrote the above post. I’ve just re-read it, and while I happily stand by every word of it, I suppose it’s inevitable that it has already become something of a period piece. It gives me no pleasure at all to note that the reservations I expressed above about Jeremy Corbyn have turned out to be more than justified, nor to observe that he has turned out to be perhaps the most incompetent, hubristic, misguided, arrogant, blinkered, morally compromised and downright disastrous leader with whom the Labour Party has ever had the misfortune to be saddled. At the time of writing the United Kingdom, and every precious value that it once stood for, are being smashed to pieces before our eyes by Theresa May’s openly corrupt, shamelessly mendacious, viciously xenophobic and utterly out-of-control wrecking ball of a government, while Corbyn stands by gormlessly, either unable or unwilling to land a single punch on the worst administration in UK history, let alone to represent the fabled “many” by whom he claims to set so much store. Jeremy Corbyn is a disgrace, and furthermore he’s not actually much of a socialist, is he? Thanks for listening. Just needed to get that off my chest.

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The Incredible Hulke

Hulke 1

Currently in its 36th year and just a few months shy of its 500th issue, Doctor Who Magazine is a remarkable publication, often carrying journalism of the highest calibre – but every now and then, it runs something quite exceptional. Such is the case in the latest edition (issue 489 if you’re counting), which includes a piece by John Williams about veteran Doctor Who author Malcolm Hulke – the man who kept a generation behind the sofa with such memorable creations as the Sea Devils and the Silurians.

But this piece isn’t about monsters in string vests emerging from the waves of the Solent; it’s about something altogether more fantastical. John Williams has been researching the recently released surveillance files on Malcolm Hulke which were kept by MI5. Those crazy cats had him bugged for years. They listened in on him. They steamed open his mail. It’s an extraordinary tale, opening a window onto a world of Cold War spookery both sinister and farcical. As sinister and as farcical, indeed, as anything that Graham Greene ever cooked up in the name of fiction. It’s an eye-opening read and an outstanding piece of research – and I’m rather thrilled to learn that one of my childhood heroes, whose trenchant teatime parables about kindness, compassion and common humanity played no small part in expanding my own moral horizons, was considered by the authorities to be ‘a dangerous man, and without scruples, so far as his Communistic outlook is concerned’.

Not a lot changes really, does it?


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A day in the life of George Osborne



“Ah, hello. I gather you’re are an internationally renowned, much published and highly qualified Doctor of Economics, and that you’ve been a Fellow at Cambridge University, a Lecturer in Economics at the University of Texas, Senior Lecturer in Economics at the University of Sydney, and Professor of Economic Theory at the University of Athens. Pleased to meet you. Me, I got a 2:1 in Modern History, unsuccessfully applied to be a trainee journalist with The Times, and then got a job at Conservative Central Office. I urge you to act responsibly and reconsider your naïve and ill-informed ideas about economics.”

“Um – ”

“Splendid. Now do run along, there’s a good chap. We have an election coming up and I’ve been told to go and get myself photographed shaking hands with some proletarian scum.”




“Righty-ho, all kitted out. Now, which way to the plebs?”




“What-ho, you fine fellows. I dare say you’re looking forward to a well-earned drink of beer. How do you fancy Arsenal United’s chances in the Soccer Cup?”




“Really? Good gracious. I had absolutely no idea. And what’s yeast again?”




“I haven’t a clue what you’re pointing at, or why.”




“Whatever this is, I literally don’t care.”




“God, I’m bored. Wonder what’s for dinner tonight. Hope it’s venison again.”




“Don’t talk to me. Don’t even look at me. Here’s how this works. I do a clever splayed hand gesture to make it look like I’m fascinated by you and your crummy building site, and then I leave. Understood?”




“Jesus, why are they all smiling? How I despise them.”




“Oh Christ, these ones are women. Stay calm. Don’t panic. Keep smiling and nodding, and eventually they’ll piss off back to their ghastly little council houses.”




“How I wish this frightful peasant would shut his face. I wonder which button blows up the BBC. The big red one, probably.”




“And so the handsome prince and the beautiful princess were married and lived happily ever after, while the woodcutter and his family scrounged off the state until their benefits were scrapped, the parasitic bastard immigrant scum.”



George Osborne in hard hat

“Don’t you dare try to upstage my splayed hand gesture, you impertinent sod.”




“If you only knew where I’d like to shove this.”




“You really cannot imagine the extent to which I don’t give a shit about these sodding cotton reels.”



Chancellor George Osborne And Prime Minster David Cameron Visit Manchester

“What are we doing here, Gideon?”

“Absolutely no idea, Dave.”

“Never mind. I’ll pretend I’m pointing at a fish, and you do that splayed hand gesture of yours.”




“I say, Boris. When you’re PM, can we put an end to these ridiculous high-vis-jacket-and-hard-hat photo opportunities?”

“Crikey no, my old wiff-waff. Goes down awfully well with the piccaninnies.”




“When I was in the Bullingdon Club we used to set fire to tramps with these. Ah, happy days.”




“Ooh, talk of the devil. Funnily enough, this is the only time in my life that I’ve ever been on the far left. Far left! Geddit? Tee hee!”




“Phew. I thought that all went rather well.”

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