Richard Benson

George Martin, the English Butler of Pop

I’m writing this listening to the 1964 album Off The Beatle Track in honour of Sir George Martin, who has died aged 90. His first solo album, it’s not exactly revered by Beatles fans, but I like it for the way its saccharine strings capture the ersatz sophistication of early 1960s Britain. To me, it’s the sound of gin and orange being drunk in a small Saturday night party in a suburban semi with a pale yellow Vauxhall Viva parked outside.

I have always thought George Martin must have had a role in making the Beatles palatable to older, middle-class audiences. He was reassuringly genteel, not upper-class but modestly competent in a way revered by the English – the sort of quiet technocrat-fixer gliding between social strata who is celebrated in popular fiction and media – M in the James Bond novels, John Jarndyce in Bleak House, even Miss Marple to an extent. Carson in Downton Abbey is a recent example, and telling one because the qualities of the type are more or less those of the English butler, one of the most influential archetypes of the 20th century.

Of course Martin was a creative  figure in his own right, but in the big Beatles story that was so important to post-war British history, he also played an essential part that might well have ensured his place in our affections even if he hadn’t made such great contributions to the actual music.

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I’ve Lived This: Kano’s Fire In The Booth Session and 21st Century Biography

Kano’s seven-and-a-half-minute Fire in The Booth posted today is attracting acclaim on social media, and you can see why: the performance would have looked impressive in any form, but to pull it off in a single take is pretty unusual, as Charlie Sloth says at the end.

Music can be overburdened by intellectual analysis, but if you listen to this in the context of the debate about what biographical writing should/could be in the era of self-documentation on social media, you have to wonder if it shouldn’t be covered on newspapers’ literary pages rather than those for music. I can’t think of anything else so adept at using popular references, and capturing the way in which brand names and celebrities have become a part of common speech.

There’s the reporting, which in recent years has disappeared from most mainstream and independent British music:

Too black for DSTRKT but the money too pinkish
So they’ll turn a non-colour blind eye for our business
So we can get in long as we’re spending like niggas?
Just as long as we don’t bring our sisters
£2K table in the club, Ikea for the kitchen
But know that the sparklers is a mad ting

But the impact owes as much to the basic textures and vocabulary, as in the rhyme of father and Balenciaga here:

You can’t evaluate my worth, leave that talk in the barbers
Guess overestimating gets a stink’s dick hard
And you want man to be your bredrin, your gyal and your father?
Stand on your own fucking two Balenciagas
You got the blue suedes, now what’d you need from me today?

And the use of Kanye, Prince and Linford here:

So still pinch myself that I’ve lived this
Life of a non-millionaire cause I’m gifted
Kanye moment coming up, I’m Prince sick
That so-called fans jumping back on my Linford

And then Gareth Southgate:

Touch mic, I leng down dance, I’m Mr Leng
Every time you see me, a new one, I’m Mr Benz
Why you putting pressure on the game like this again?
I had a Gareth Southgate couple summers, I’ve missed the pen

“‘Home Sweet Home’ was my ‘Off the Wall'” he says at one point, referring to his 2005 debut album, “But still, I’ve got a ‘Thriller’ in me, everybody warned”. On this showing, you might suspect he’s right.

Capitalist Propaganda on the 14.05

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A curious bit of ideological propaganda on the livery of a Virgin train at Manchester’s Piccadilly Station this afternoon. The carriage is interesting market of capitalism’s project to displace neutral academia and position itself as the pre-eminent engine of learning and knowledge; not since Manchester’s 19-the century glory days has British commerce so boldly proclaimed itself champion of culture and ideas.

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Fur Coats and Politics in 1971

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I came across this on the Toys & Games stall of my daughters’ school Christmas Fair this afternoon. It’s the 1971 edition of a board game that was invented 1950s by a celebrated sociologist who wanted to discourage materialism. It has been in continuous production, and is interesting for the way its various editions reflect changing social values. What I noticed was the Politics caption: I assume that being “caught with mink” is a means what it says, rather than being synecdochal reference to an affair; if so, it’s a telling relic of a time when the egalitarian standards applied to politicians were somewhat higher than they are in 2015.

How real are the Eighties youth culture references in the last men’s fashion collections?

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Northern Soul vests and jackets at TopMan. Jeremy Scott prints based on early-period MTV graphics, James Rizzi and Barney Bubbles. Late Eighties/early Nineties bagginess at Craig Green and E Tautz. An entire collectionbased on football casuals from Japanese designer Takahisa Maede (see picture above). Eighties youth culture was a key reference in the men’s fashion collections for Spring 2016 that were shown this autumn, which was good to see in many ways. But if you remember the reality, you might ask if that decade’s youth culture really deserves the reverence it is increasingly given.

I’m not saying that the youth cults of 1980s Britain weren’t inventive, a great laugh and an important source of identity to a lot of people, but these days people can be so respectful of it that its glory feels like an oppressive weight. Is there a single video of a rave on Youtube without a comment from a forlorn 20 year old wishing they “could of lived thru those days”? Any shakey footage of casuals without some 47 year old bloke claiming his former crew were “number 1 when it mattered”? Is there a sportswear label that hasn’t given up on the present and reinvented itself on the basis of its “80s street style heritage”?

The acclaim is all very well, but with the veteran champions of the various scenes mythologizing them and the genuflecting public lapping up the myths, reality tends to be somewhat tarted up and glossed over. Casuals, whose influence extends this season not only to Takahisa Maede and TopMan but also perhaps to the Stone Island revival, are perhaps the best example. They are now eulogised as a neo-mod movement that wore chiefly European golf and tennis wear with Lois cords and Ball jeans. Of course there’s a great deal of truth in that, but there were in fact lots of different looks over the course of the 80s Golden Years, and some more stylish than others. Here, by way of an evidence, is a selection from the Ins and Outs list from a 1982 issue of The End, the extremely influential fanzine published in Liverpool and much-read by casuals at the time.

 

IN:

Paul Weller’s new haircut

Bobble hats on a dead hot day

John Peel

Growing weed

Bob Marley

The Kinks

Disco Roller Boots

Unshaven armpits

Gold tie pins

The knights who say ‘Nee!!’ (sic)

 

OUT:

Dr Marten’s (sic)

Denim jackets

Saying ‘I’m trippin’’

Laughing

Digital watches

Yellow rain gear

Trousers tucked in socks

Dicky bows

Check shirts

Discos

 

The full lists ran to about 50 items each. Of course most if not all the observations were piss takes and private jokes understood only by the writers and editors, who included Peter Hooton of The Farm, and the novelist Kevin Sampson. Nevertheless, they were taken seriously by thousands people, particularly those outside Liverpool. I can testify to this because I had a casual period myself, and a few years after the above list was published, my friend Kev and I began wearing bottle-green corduroy jackets with jeans, purely because of Kev’s friends had told him that said jackets had featured high in an End In list. We were far from the only ones turning up at Elland Road looking like teenage geography teachers at the time.

The corduroy-heavy geography teacher ensembles were far from the strangest to be taken to boys’ hearts and wardrobes. My favourite cas-fashion became popular in 1984, when the masses began appropriating the smart, young-golfer-with-a-mullet style. Seeing themselves imitated by copyists, the originators responded by adopting what was known as the Scruff Look: longer hair, check shirts, shearling coats, tweedy jackets, bleached, frayed jeans, trainers with the laces left undone. It could look great on a group of 17-18 year olds, and could result in being laughed at by those who hadn’t caught up yet, which was one of the great aims in life. On the other hand it could look pretty bad on anyone without the verve to carry it off.

If you feel sceptical about the scruff look, by the way, I refer you to a letter from the pages of a 1984 issue of The End:

 

Dear End

 Lately I have been reading and noticing the scruff look that the scallies are into, and because I follow Liverpool I have seen a few. What I would like to know is where they get the ‘Norfolk’ style tweed jackets from. One national newspaper said that Dunn’s sell them. But when I went to Dunn’s they said they hadn’t sold jackets in that style for a few years… So I would be grateful if you could give me some names of shops that you think sell this style and also the price range. I have enclosed a SAE so I can get a quick reply as I want to be the dresser (scally) in Doncaster with one.

 Yours hopefully,

K Johnson

Doncaster

Yorks

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K Johnson’s letter captures much what it was like to be a lonely dresser in the provinces in 1980s Britain. Information hard to come by, horizons short, Dunn & Co one of the few shows in town. Contemporary journalists writing about 1980s youth cultures tend to make a lot of a tribe’s decision to get its clothes from non-fashion outlets like sports shops or army surplus stores, failing to realise that in many towns, such marginal spaces were all there was besides a Dunn and Co, Greenwood’s or department store. If you got bored with what was on offer, it was a question of appropriating something (hence the Norfolk jackets) or boiling up the Dylon (one of the great advantages of Goth was that you could just take fairly ordinary clothes and dye them, giving them new meaning in an all-black ensemble.

There are several other truths that have tended to be obscured by time. Firstly, it ‘s easy to get the idea that there were maybe a ten or so style tribes, all equally cool and rigorous in their own way. In reality there were dozens and dozens, groups dividing and subdividing until in some cases there seemed to be only a handful of members in existence. We all know about Northern Soul, Casuals, Punks, New Romantics, Rastas, Mods and Bikers of course, but what about Cowpunk (a sort of early 80s punk-country fusion, predating the American 1990s Cowpunk by ten years)? Or Oi? Grebo? Psychobilly? The Ted revival? The Rare Groove scene? There was the rump of hippy, and then all the mini cults that never really had a name, like that backcombed hair and raincoat coat thing perhaps most closely associated with Echo and the Bunnymen, or the slightly more mainstream commercial version of Goth that seemed to cohere around Fields of the Nephilim? And on top of that were the personality-based cults that became movements in their own right – Smiths fans, Guns n Roses fans, Madonna obsessives.

Many of the exponents of these styles, myself included, I hasten to add, looked terrible. It was worst when make up was involved.; the right of boys to wear make eyeliner and blusher really is a right worth fighting for, but it was a lot easier to believe that when the boy in question was David Sylvian than Chris Tice, the farm kid from one of the villages near our school. Chris turned up one day wearing blue eyeliner and with his hair coiffed in what you might call a post-new Romantic style. The headmaster sent him home, and while Chris’s admirers grumbled, it was hard to resist the idea that the head might have done him a favour, really.

On that fateful day Chris was also demonstrating another secret truth about 80s youth culture, which was that if you didn’t have the money for the full look, you would have to make do with one or two key signifiers. In this case, from the make up and hair we had to deduce his allegiance to the new Romantics; similarly, a quiff and bootlace tie would suffice for a Ted, and in extreme cases I have seen a pair of white socks and short-legged trousers express Mod allegiance. In most cases, a full look was enough to make you a sort of local celebrity whose legend would live on forever. Like most small towns, the place I lived had one punk, a die-hard, Oi!-listening, bondage trousered and mohicaned 20something called Merv, about 5 years older than me. I think Merv moved out in about 1987, but last year I went to a school reunion and his name was still being mentioned with the same reverence it was when he used to scold us for thinking the Sex Pistols after Never Mind The Bollocks was “true punk.”

That allegiances could be shown with only a few items of clothing and a haircut meant it was quite easy to defect from tribe to another, and the frequency with which this is another fact quite often swept beneath the carpet of history. One night in the mid to late Eighties I met another boy at school, Phil Hutchinson, out in a pub in town, and hardly recognised him because he had switched from spikey, dyed black hair and leather jackets to a crop, cagoule and Armani jeans.

“What are you wearing, Hutchy?” I asked. (We were very imaginative with nicknames)

“Proper gear now,” he said.

“I thought you were a goth?”

“Casual now. Been going to Leeds and you have to be dressed right.”

“Oh,” I said. The thing I most remember about this conversation looking back is that, although casuals and goths had very different values (ie the former liked fighting, the others really, really didn’t) I didn’t think that much of it. Youth cults are often depicted as loyal gangs of lads who would rather die than renounce the sartorial code bonding them and their mates, but while that was undoubtedly true for many people, a large degree of promiscuity was tolerated by many others. That’s probably why it was so easy for everyone to pile into raves after 1988. After all, there was so much to choose from! Why limit yourself? Lots of people switched between cultures that were similar – from metal fan to goth, or punk to New Romantic, or revivalist mod to casual were relatively small steps, in the grand scheme of things – but there plenty of bigger leaps too, and only the serious gulf-jumpers attracted serious derision. I can think of one who crossed from biker to mod, but I’m not sure he was ever taken seriously by either side – or anyone at all, possibly – again.

Looking back, the mix-and-match flexibility adopted by many in that decade might have been part of a reaction against the seriousness of the 1970s. “Youth culture” is sometimes spoken of as if it has evolved fairly smoothly between the 1950s and now, with a multifarious flowering in the Seventies and Eighties., but this overlooks the tensions between different generations. The first half of the 1990s, for instance, was a rejection of the crass materialism of the mid 1980s, the waify, fucked-up fashion aesthetic a repudiation of all those buff, heroic Amazonian models. Similarly, anything interesting that happened from late Seventies onwards was a rejection – conscious or otherwise – of pious hippies who had placed far too much faith in the Underground’s potential to save the world.

True, the casuals, cowpunks and psychobillies might not have actually been aware of the schism, but the pious hippies certainly were. Laying into David Bowie for commercialising the idea of the Underground in 1976, sociologists Ian Taylor and Dave Wall lamented the success of “consumer capitalism’s attempt to re-create a dependent adolescent class, involved as passive teenage consumers in the purchase of leisure prior to the assumption of ‘adulthood’ rather than being a youth culture of persons who question (from whatever class or cultural perspective) the value and meaning of adolescence and the transition to the adult world of work.”

It’s hard to grasp on first reading – perhaps the comma-makers union was on strike in 1976 – but what Tayor, Wall and their ilk resented was Bowie concentrating on fantasy and dressing up, rather than promoting the earnest, authentic politics of hippies, rastas or skinheads. Of course they were missing the fact that at that stage, a farm kid wearing eye make up to a comprehensive school in Yorkshire could be just as subversive in its way as an anti-war demo or the setting up of a commune, but then that’s why you can’t trust sociologists to explain pop stars.

The problem for the Sixties and early Seventies generation was that it was too obsessed with everyone getting in touch with their real self and rising up as one body. Carried away with the idea, it overlooked a) how white, male and heterosexual its idea of the “one” was, and b) the fact that lots of people don’t want to get in touch with their true self, preferring instead to transcend it and enter a more fun version that they have imagined. If you ask me, that as much as anything explains the weird proliferation of youth cults in Britain between punk and rave, though messrs Taylor and Wall would have disagreed I’m sure.

It will be pleasing to see so many of those cults revived in the collections of so many menswear designers this Spring, and it seems right that they are recognised as the great sources of sartorial style and innovation they were. But let’s remember that these will be honed, perfected versions of cool, free of the blunders and deviances of the real thing. And let’s remember too that many of the successes came from reckless experiment rather than mimicry of the past. The version of tale that omits cowpunk, the scruff look and K Johnson’s quest for a Norfolk jacket is only half the story at best.

End 8

 

 

Chumvertising: The Harder They Try, the Worse it Gets

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There ought to be a word to describe advertisements and signs that are left forlornly on streets after an event, like lost shoes or drugs casualties who have forgotten their ways home. Event laggage, maybe. The guerilla Diesel ads left around Brewer Street in Soho after London Fashion Week are particularly grating examples – not only out of place and left for street cleaners to tidy up, but also some of the worst examples of sleeve-tugging chumvertising, ie chumvertising trying to be hip.

Chumvertising tries to make you like it by addressing you directly in the second person, frequently personifying the product as “I”. It uses childish adjectives, and ingratiates itself by referring to human foibles (“Never mind if you spill me down your front when you’re relaxing with a fab box set” etc etc). It evolved from Innocent’s faux-naivete as a way of circumeventing the over-familiar cliches of advertising, and gained ground in the recession because in recessions, consumers are susceptible to products promising comfort.

That’s bad enough, but chumvertising that wants to be hip is worse. This kind of ad thinks it’s being clever by acknowledging that it’s an ad, and believes it will gain your respect with its humble self-knowingness. Diesel, who have been desperately trying to recapture the glories of their early 1990s campaigns for 20 years now, have really overdone it here, and nicely demonstrated how the approach goes wrong.

While it can work to acknowledge your own mechanism, it’s a mistake to assume you’ve succeeded in making the audience like you. If you do that, your ad just reads like a brief. “This ad communicates with you like someone at a party would, like someone at a party would, like someone who knows you know how these things work.” This is annoying chiefly because whoever made the ad didn’t think of the obvious, ie  “someone at a party” would not be trying to sell you stuff, and if they were, their conversation would seem insincere.

But it’s also annoying because it’s missing a layer of self-knowingness. Everyone KNOWS this approach now, it’s as old as Diesel itself. Nowadays to make it work you need absurdist irony, that Becketian tone that makes a point of its pointlessness, like a “Band name here” t shirt. The one below is slightly better, but still – no.

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Car Parks Are Not Just Car Parks Anymore: at London Fashion Week 09/15

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I encountered Luo Qian at the junction of Brewer and Great Windmill Streets last Thursday, the first day of London Fashion Week. She was 28, from Shanghai, visiting Britain for the first time. She had wanted to come to look at the London Fashion Week HQ in the famous art deco Brewer Street car park because, she said, “it is just so great to see everyone wearing what they like.” Luo Qian was wearing a vintage floral-print frock, black wool coat, Nike Huaraches and the eye-and-nose beak, which was in fact a replica plague doctors mask, bought from a shop in Edinburgh. I asked if she had put the outfit together for the occasion?

“Not really,” she said.

“But it looks very… fashion,” I said.

“No, it is for real life.”

“But it’s plague doctors’ mask! It ‘s 2015, and however thin the models might be, no one’s dying of the bubonic plague.”

“No, that is for real life. I wear it for the London flu, because I am afraid to catch it. Maybe it looks good, but anyway, now I am going to look at more people!” she said.

Since it began in 1984, London Fashion Week has shifted with the fickleness of hem-lengths from Olympia to Battersea Park to Duke of York Square to the Natural History Museum and Somerset House before moving slightly north-west to the car park in September. The move from Somerset House was the idea of Caroline Rush, a former PR who is now the BFC’s chief executive.

“We were looking for a venue that would be more connected to the West End.” She told the Daily Telegraph, “and right in the heartbeat of London. As you walk around Soho you feel a lot of excitement and energy. It’s really good for an international audience to witness that, and to understand the creative inspiration that we get from this incredible city.” This of course at time when Soho is being hollowed out by big international coffee chains and the like. When you ask old-school fashion people a lot of them say LFW moving to Soho will be far better for the former than the latter, because there is too much corporate branding in Soho already. though of course they won’t say so publicly.

It has to be said that much of the crappy, “experiential” branding signage was truly awful, particularly that in Golden Square.

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Anyway, I went to the car park for the launch/”opening breakfast” on Friday morning. There was a lot of avocado. The top two floors of the car park hosted catwalk shows, static designer showrooms, and areas for press, buyers and sponsors. Just around the corner in Golden Square, shows were broadcast to the public on giant screens (such opening up of the fashion process, pioneered by Christopher Bailey at Burberry, has become fashionable. For ten years I have been saying to my wife that the brands will turn the catwalk shows into paid-for spectator events eventually). And through the whole five days there were various spin-off events in the surrounding streets. Somewhere or other Georgia May Jagger was hosting a “punk avant-garde afternoon tea” in a loft.

At the breakfast, the BFC chairman, Net A Porter founder Natalie Massenet, stressed the fashion industry’s contribution to the British economy. James McArthur, CEO of Anya Hindmarch and President of the BFC “Business Pillar” (meaning: he’s in charge of making London’s traditionally gifted-but-not-that-great-at-business designers better at business) added that the BFC’s aim was “to do better to convert talent into major business stories”.

This emphasis on a more disciplined, commercial approach is hallmark of Massenet’s regime; one of the reasons for the change in venue is that it brings the event closer to the retail centre of Oxford Street. It will mean that there is far less of the old London tendency to make fantastic clothes and then go out of business because you can’t sort out the manufacturing, and so end up having to be a creative director at a big house i Paris. I wonder if it won’t also sieve out some of the genius talent, but that’s  not very positive, I know.

The journalists and fashion editors gathered at the event were pretty positive, in a qualified way at least. Karen Dacre, a friend who is fashion editor of the London Evening Standard, said Soho would appeal to visitors and made sense as a fashion-friendly location. “I think it’s a good idea. Somerset House was fine, but a little bit staid, maybe. The only potential problem is the traffic congestion and getting to Brewer Street, but if that works out, it’ll be a really good move.”

As the breakfast concluded, most of the journalists went up to the catwalk space on the floor above for the J. JS Lee show, while everyone else emptied out onto the street. Here it was already apparent that the most striking spectacle of the whole five days would be the hundreds of madly styled people turning up on Brewer Street to enjoy the atmosphere, watch people going in and out of the venue, and pose for photographs taken by their friends and pro photographers. On Friday there seemed to be more photographers than people.

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Purveyors of extravagant street style have been fixtures of fashion weeks everywhere for years now, but the mood felt different here, somehow. At Somerset House, it wa clear that the dedicated followers of fashion had turned up at an otherwise conservative locale for the event. In Soho, where to some extent every week is fashion week, there was a pleasing sense of the theatricality and madness of the shows merging with the familiar theatricality and eccentricity of the streets. Surely it is only here that you’d find an passer by who just happens to be wearing a replica of a piece of 17th-century medical equipment, and just happens to have noticed a lot of people wearing what they like?

I talked to two twentysomething sisters from Ireland, Dawn and Karen, both of whom looked a bit like Kate Bush circa Army Dreamers, except in pale pink Chanel-style suits. Karen lives here and was, she said, “researching”. “I’m planning to start my own label, and I’m looking for ideas for looks,” she said. Had she designed anything yet?

“I’m just looking at ideas at the moment,” she replied.

Such talk is not untypical of the fashion week preeners and posers on the street; rather than wearing outrageous outfits for the sake of it, as many might have a few years ago, the tendency now is for quieter clothes, but loud ambition. Everyone wants – no, plans – to work in fashion, and/or have their own label. This is fair enough, though sceptics might point out that there are more amateur fash-packers watching the showbizzy spectacle around the car park than there are checking out the actual shows on the screens in Golden Square. Shouldn’t the shows be of more interest to people seeking to monitor and exploit new trends?

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I went to the square on Saturday, where a calm, almost studious atmosphere prevailed. The large screen occupied one corner, and there were tasteful black deckchairs in which to sit; elsewhere there were branded pop up shops and information booths (Sunglass Hut, Mark Hix, Swatch, Lavazza, Amex), and a giant #LFW sign made from three foot high white letters. I watched as a bearded man collides with the W as he walks along using his mobile, which feels rather symbolic.

On the screen, Jasper Morrison’s, Emilia Wickstead’s and JW Anderson’s shows came and went; Jasper doid a lot of stripes, Emilia had a lot of tangerine, and JW Anderson invented a minuscule piece of underwear called the bra-let. Later on Gareth Pugh has models who look like a nightmare version of a glam rock band, and wear striped red and white dresses that remind you of toothpaste squeezed from a tube. Lindsay Lohan is in the FROW for that one, which seemed impressive.

I met an old friend who was a former Evening Standard Fashion department staffer. He worried that the BFC’s business-friendliness and attraction of more corporate sponsors would make Soho “feel more corporate at a time when it needs less of that, not more.”

“Do you really think that, or are you just being a miserable trendy?” I asked. He gestures towards the Amex stand, which is a pop-up concierge for “insiders”.

I can see his point, though it has to be said that most people seemed quite comfortable with all the logos and branding.

And what of business in general? Will the gladrags make moneybags of Soho’s traders? It certainly didn’t seem to be doing much for taxis. I went to meet some more friends in Soho on Sunday, and the cabbie who drove me into town (“just call me ‘Swiss Cottage Kev’, ‘Swiss’ to my friends”) said his mates were avoiding the area because “you can’t get near. Everyone knows its congested at the best of times! I dunno what they wanted to have it there for.”

“I think it was because of the car park,” I said. He gave me a look in the mirror.

“The car park?”

“Yes. It’s supposed to be trendy.”

Another mirror-look. He knew I was expecting him to laugh at this, so he said, “Well. If they wanted to do it in a car park, why didn’t they do in Portman Square? Portman Square, you got access. You can drive around it. “

“But Portman Square car park’s underground, and a spiral. So probably not good for catwalks.”

“You can’t have everything,” said Swiss, and I thought, this is the sort of thing we’re going to miss if Uber takes over: drivers with an opinion about the relative merits of Zone One Car parks vis-a-vis the staging if fashion shows.

The feelings of other traders on Brewer Street were mixed, and it was often hard to predict those who had done well out of it. A bloke in the Vintage Magazine Store, which had a great display of old fashion magazines, said they had had a 50% reduction in trade. Bhavesh, the manager of AZ Electrical on Brewer Street, said  had done quite nicely thank you, with an increase to 75 customers on Saturday from the usual 60.

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Bhavesh said the “fashion people” mainly wanted cable ties and screwdrivers. That made sense, given the proximity of the venue, but I wondered how he knew who were “fashion”?

“It’s the way they don’t know what they’re looking for,” he said.

“But then how do they know to ask for screwdrivers and cable ties?”

“They don’t. They say, ‘I need something to put screws in.’ I say, “Do you mean a screwdriver?” They say, ‘Er, will that do it?’ You can be fairly sure at that point you’re not dealing with a builder.”

One of the friends I met introduced me to Roger Ashley, NCP’s head of operations for London. Roger seemed proud of the car park, which is fair enough, because it is of recognised architectural significance. Constructed in 1929, the art deco building has been listed by English Heritage as an “important example of early motoring history”.

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Its top floor is now used almost exclusively for events, and in recent years the whole building has been adapted for art exhibitions, markets and pop-up restaurtants. This is in keeping, says Roger, with an NCP policy of allowing car parks to be used as entertainment and cultural spaces. “We recently had a big dance event in the car park in Farringdon, for example. That went very well, as did this year’s London Fashion Week. Car parks are not just car parks any more.”

“Car parks are not just car parks any more.” That’s 21st-century London for you right there.

Post-modern Pop: What Zayn’s departure from 1D tells us about modern music

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Anyone reading the hundreds of thousands of tweets about Zayn Malik’s announcement that he was leaving One Direction may have a noticed the frequent comparisons to teen-band stars quitting in the past – Ginger leaving the Spice Girls in ’98, Brian McFadden’s splitting from Westlife in 2004, or Robbie’s exit from Take That in 1996. Every generation has one, it seems: perhaps somewhere, someone saw echoes of Paul leaving the Beatles in 1970.

Being old enough to remember all these precedents bar Paul, I noticed a key difference between the reaction to them and to Zayn, however. When it happened before, people did not draw the parallels. Ginger and Robbie’s departures felt cataclysmic because they felt unprecedented. New episodes in unique stories – even though they weren’t.

This is not to say, in the way that older pop fans tend to, that nothing is new, and One Direction mean nothing  because they’ re just re-treads. Quite the opposite, in fact.

What the contextualisation and comparisons signify is One Direction’s utter newness, their total uniqueness and their unrivalled currency. Because what they signify is that One Direction were the first truly post-modern boy band.

From their inception on the X Factor, 1D enjoyed a level of interest from older fans (by older, I mean 18+) that marked them out from predecessors. It was a very reality TV-era fascination, reminiscent of the Truman Show, driven in large part because we were privy to their invention. Parents chuckled knowingly over their kids fanaticism and subtly participation as they sang along with the songs on Singstar. Chin stroking must dads said, “It’s interesting how it all works now, isn’t it?” Mums said of course they didn’t fancy Harry Styles, but he just had that perfect pop star’s face, didn’t he?

Their story was… the story. In the broadsheet features, the coverage was less about their personalities than about how they were experiencing Pop Stardom. It was never about them; it was about how famous they were, how much money they had made, where they had played. I was talking to someone about them last night, and when I questioned how important they really were, the person said “They’ve been to 140 cities in a year, that’s more than any other boy band in history.” I don’t know if that’s true, but then it doesn’t really matter, does it?

Little wonder that when they split, the event can only be understood in terms comparison. No wonder their logo featured an arrow; everything they did pointed to something else. They were a semiotician’s dream.

All this would just be intellectual speculation if it wasn’t for the fact that someone in the set up seemed well aware of the idea. It was there right in the songs, one of the most extraordinary, self-aware bodies of work in the history of pop. Their biggest hit, What Makes You Beautiful,was not just a love song; anyone who has ever idolised a pop act will know that it was a love song about what the fan secretly believes/hopes the member she/he likes would say to her: they would notice. Remember how you convinced yourself yu had caught their eye at the gig? “Right now I’m looking at you and I can’t believe/You don’t know/Oh, oh/You don’t know you’re beautiful.” Imagine that being sung live! Someone obviously did.

There were multiple suggestions of a self-consciousness about their role as teen idols: not for nothing did they  cover Teenage Kicks, or title track Best Song Ever and Live While We’re Young. If these were not exactly songs about being in a teen band, they certainly hinted at elements of it. Remember how the girl in Best Song Ever walks past the guards?

Maybe it’s the way she walked (wow)
Straight into my heart and stole it
Through the doors and passed the guards (wow)
Just like she already owned it

I said can you give it back to me
She said never in your wildest dreams

And we danced all night to the best song ever
We knew every line

This is subtly meta-song, without the cheesiness of actually singing about being up on stage tonight, which is what bands tend to do when they have run out of ideas. One Direction never lacked ideas. They were referential, but that was the point; it provided narrative and broadened their fanbase immeasurably.

Does it matter? Oh yes. Because this will hardly have gone unnoticed. And it means “manufactured” has become a far less dirty word in pop music terms, because of an old, old business lesson – if something that seems to be a problem, trying playing it up, and make it an interesting attribute. Zayn might not realise that yet, but he will.

And as for the distraught fans, they needn’t worry. The reunion gig is almost certain to be along somewhere round 2017.

Modern politics, sort of

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I saw this in the toilets of the Forest Cafe in Edinburgh last week, and just thought: it’s interesting how fringe left politics went from smashing the system to smashing selective parts of it. You can imagine Margaret Thatcher’s father Alderman Roberts stepping onto this volunteer-run vegetarian cafe and art space by mistake, and feeling a twinge of sympathy.

Water And Sky by Neil Sentence

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Water And Sky, published this month by Little Toller, collects together Neil Sentance’s Scenes From The Waterside essay sequence, which was first published by Caught By The River between 2010 and 2013. The essays have a muddy lyricism that has been recognised by critics for some time: “A marvellous and haunting sequence,” said Robert McFarlane. “It is wonderful to read such experiment of voice, tone and vision.” I was proud to be asked to write the following foreword. The illustration, which features on the cover of Water And Sky, is by Jonathan Gibbs.

 

Neil Sentance writes about his native Lincolnshire riverlands with the blend of toughness and tenderness that readers who know England’s working country people will recognise as a defining characteristic. The combination is found in his worldview, in his lyric descriptions of landscape, and in the characters that he brings out from the backstage of history to address us from the River Witham’s banks. It is there, for example, in the martins “skimming over the water” with “curvilinear wings the colour of sump oil”, and in his tale of the paranoid grandfather who thinks he is being robbed when he is struck on the head by a can of beans. It is also there, heartbreakingly so, in the decision of his other grandfather to sell his farm when he realises that “the old country attributes of hard work and patience were no longer enough in an era of paper mountains, aggressive marketing and diminishing returns.” Such cruel – and comic, and edifying – effects of passing time are everywhere in Water and Sky, and using his different keys Sentance uses them to communicate far more than conventional rural nostalgia.

In Water And Sky Sentance revisits the walks of his childhood, and tells a story of the land around the River Witham through memoir, biography, “family lore” and what could be called psychogeographic drift. He evokes a sense of transition from a rural culture based on meaningful work to one of leisure and commodification, but rather than lament a lost golden age he celebrates the countryside’s muddy reclamations of modernity. Anyone who grew up in or near a British market town, as I did, will recognise places like Swallows Mill, the water mill that “by the Seventies had been converted into a nightclub, entered by the gates just past the tractor company” and whose revellers “would row in small boats down from Saltersford Bridge on Somersby Hill and row back again, sculling upstream, after a night of partying in their polyester finery.” On the dry, chalk Wolds it was tractors not boats, but it comes to the same thing; as with the children’s play on the river, or the farmers using leisure trips to Holland to inspect their rivals’ husbandry, this is the anti-chocolate box countryside, but distinct and even idyllic nonetheless.

Sentance’s democracy and realism are of course – as he says of one of his stories – in the Thomas Hardy tradition of English writing about the countryside. However, when I first read his writing on the Caught By The River site, that 1970s nightclub brings to mind another reference in Psalm 137, the main source of the Rivers of Babylon lyric. By the river where we sat down and wept when we remembered; the link might seem grandiose or superficial depending on whether you have the Bible, The Melodians or Boney M in mind, but to me that words seem relevant to the writing in the second half of this book, in which Neil recalls childhood summers on his grandfather’s farm and then his final tour on the eve of the sale.

I have a particular interest in this, because as I wrote in The Farm, in my early 30s I had to help my father, brother and mother lay out and sell our family’s farm when agricultural economics did for them, too. I had grown up on the slightly ramshackle, 19th-century farmstead that in some ways resembles Sentence’s grandfather’s, and many of the beautifully-evoked details – the “barns like shops anchored over swells of wheat and barley”, the “fantastical cobwebs looped in high corners”, and the “ancient bulb hanging from a thin braided cord, rimed in straw dust and casting a buttery half-light” – feel entirely familiar to me. Also familiar were his grandfather’s feelings of confused resignation and self-blame. Farmers like this have been encouraged to subject their personal, tender feelings to the tough realities of life and markets, which is one reason why the loss of more than 300,000 of these farms since 1939 has not been more acknowledged or mourned. Sentance’s writing is never explicitly political, but in his personal meditation and his depiction of the culture of which these businesses are part, he makes a strong case for their better treatment by people who make the laws that govern our so-called free markets.

In recent years an increasing number of people have begun to wonder if we might could something better with the countryside than turn it into a series of giant suburban leisure parks set among anonymous large-scale farms. Writing like this, as well as being compelling in its own right, should part of that wondering. Tender and tough, ideal and real, past and present, do not have to be polarised; we are beginning to find that in some cases, blending them will work too. These voices from the riverside remind us of why it is worth trying. How shall we sing the Lords’ song in a Strange Land? Like this, perhaps, among martins the colour of sump oil and men rowing boats to night clubs in water mills; like this, somewhere between the poetry and the prose, the water and the sky, the tender and tough.