On Gatekeepers

Two important things happened this week, one to Britain, one to me.

A report was published on the murder of the black architecture student Stephen Lawrence, stabbed at a London bus stop two years ago by racists. The report concluded that the police had failed to bring Lawrence's killers to justice because they themselves were institutionally racist.

The other thing that happened is that I got a satellite dish installed on my balcony and began comparing British TV and the values it incarnates with the TV and values coming out of France, India and Japan.

A Little Zapping

I got satellite TV because I was sick to death of turning on terrestrial TV (which means national TV) and seeing snooker or football. When I do see something cultural being covered, I'm frustrated that the emphasis is always on other things. Even when they're talking about art, British commentators manage to make their every utterance about class, and more specifically about the white working class whose disappearing traditions are now being adopted ironically by their middle class descendants. It's as if, culturally, that's all that's been happening in '90s Britain, from Alexander McQueen to Oasis.

Let's do a little zapping, and see what the British are saying about, for example, pop music.

Last night British network Channel 4 screened the first of a new series in which veteran BBC radio presenter John Peel travels through Britain in his Mercedes talking (in theory, anyway) about the indie music that comes from economically depressed, post-industrial places.

John Peel, one of the most powerful Gatekeepers in the British music industry, has a job for life. You could say that one of its functions is weeding people like Momus, the unBritish British, out of the topsoil of national pop, forcing us to take our talent abroad. Being British but 'unBritish', being interested in things like architecture, and being attacked by football fans on the street for looking 'different', actually puts me pretty close to Stephen Lawrence.

The same process of 'rooting out' happens in Science. British industry appreciates salesmen more than inventors. A recent Radio 4 programme about innovation was dominated by businessmen agreeing that ideas are ten a penny, and that what counts is marketing them. The net result of attitudes like this is that ideas people leave Britain, and with them any chance of products as creative as those made in, for example, Japan.

Peely And Me

In Peel's film we see the likeable old DJ (usually described as 'avuncular' and 'curmudgeonly') going through a box of cassettes as he drives north to the Scottish county of Lanarkshire, his destination in the first programme, to meet members of BMX Bandits, The High Fidelity and the Soup Dragons.

He listens to a few seconds of one tape and tosses it onto the floor of the car. We don't hear why it failed the test.

I got filtered by Gatekeeper Peel in the 1980s. He played the single I made with my first band The Happy Family a few times. Then he played 'Hotel Marquis De Sade' and apologised at the end for the appearance of breasts in the lyric. ('Ironically', of course.) Since then he has ignored Momus completely. For Peel listeners (mostly students, as I was when I started in music) I simply don't exist.

Why not? Perhaps because in Britain, the clever thing to do would have been to appear stupid. That way you avoid all the anxieties of disunity.

But I AM British!

The odd thing is, no matter how disenchanted I am with the fact, I am British. I don't just have a lot in common with the typical Peel listener, I also have a lot in common with Peel himself.

Peel, like me, was privately educated. He is intensely ashamed of this fact, and has developed a compensatory dreamworld dominated by Blood and Football Turf in which a romanticised image of a vanished working class takes on almost fetishistic dimensions.

Peel, like me, is an articulate and thoughtful man who writes journalism in his spare time. And Peel, like me, has a soft spot for sex. Julie Burchill, another Gatekeeper, recently attacked him in one of her columns for his well-documented lust for young girls. The cunning old satyr replied that what Burchill really resented about him was that he owned property and had been born middle class, 'something I can't do much about'. He did that classic British thing of displacing attention from sex to class.

The Strange Case Of Duglas Stewart

There's a closer parallel. Like me, John Peel recently made a trip to Scotland to make a documentary and ended up hanging out with Duglas Stewart of BMX Bandits. I did exactly the same thing in mid-January. Let's compare our different experiences of this spookily similar event so that we can see the differences between Momism and Peelism, the real (which is global! radical! digital! sexual! complex! intellectual!) versus its representation in the national media of this parochial, conservative, nostalgic, sexually-repressed and intellectually phlegmatic country.

My Duglas Stewart works for the BBC in Glasgow as one of the producers of a show called Beat Road. I worked with him on a 30 minute Momus documentary to be narrowcast by the Scottish variant of BBC Choice later this year. We dressed up in silly wigs and did a spoof on the 1970s TV education network The Open University. This was the most playful and entertaining way we could devise to get some serious ideas across on television about pop in the age of digital, and its parallels with the media landscape of the 18th century (wigs, wit, elegance, foppish artifice, subscription publishing...). Duglas is now splicing in digital videos of my December Japan trip.

So my Duglas Stewart is a man who sits at a Macintosh editing suite immersed in digital production. The Duglas I know has cool taste, adores Serge Gainsbourg (he organised a tribute concert called 'Je T'Aime Gainsbourg' last year and even has a tattoo of Serge on his chest), a kitschy sense of humour, is clever, wickedly sexual ('Wouldn't it be great if girls had tails, Nick?') and adores Japan. My Duglas has a beautiful Japanese girlfriend called Midori.

But the Duglas in the Peel documentary, described in the Time Out preview as 'the bozo from BMX Bandits', was unrecognisable. Peel and his producer / director Camilla Deakin (which is a very British television name, the name of a brahmin in the business of making an oddly miscalculated state-subsidised populism based on Oxford-educated hunches about who the masses are and what will and won't interest them) left most of the Duglas I know on the cutting room floor.

In the process of being upgraded from Narrowcasting Digital Duglas to Broadcastable British Duglas, my friend became the guy who takes Peel to an East Kilbride chip shop and watches appreciatively while he tastes a deep-fried Mars bar.

For those of you outside Britain, deep-fried Mars bars (sometimes it's deep-fried pizza) are a kind of British bourgeois shorthand for the horror middle class people (like me, Peel and Camilla) have of the diets of the working class, or the disdain English people have for what industrial proletarians in Scotland eat.

We can laugh about it, but deep fried food actually lowers Scottish life expectancy by several years, making Scotland the heart attack centre of the world. Peel, with an ironic twinkle in his eye, ate his Mars bar with appreciation.

Arab Strap

Peel did point out that BMX Bandits were 'big in Japan' (his voice had a slightly scoffing tone as he said this inside the inverted commas of the vague and lazy bourgeois irony British people always use to express their mistrust of the foreign). He also made the very good point that the industrial decline of Lanarkshire has now been reversed by post-industrial investment from Japanese electronics companies.

I wanted to know more about that. I wanted Peel to talk seriously to Duglas and Midori about Japanese culture, and whether it has parallels with Scottish Protestant values, and whether the fact that the Japanese were able to ride in like the cavalry to save the Scottish new towns has anything to do with the fact that they value originality and intelligence in their art as well as their electronic products.

I wanted Peel, in other words, to talk about creativity.

I also wanted him to talk about sex. Later in the film Peel visits Chemikal Underground Records, Arab Strap's label. Scotland's greatest and most under-rated band recently spoke in French magazine Les Inrockuptibles about their feelings of alienation:

Les Inrocks: In your opionion are the problems you describe in your songs specific to British society?

Aidan Moffat: I don't think so, otherwise we'd be much more popular than we are in Britain. The problems we talk about have more to do with our relations with people in general. Our attitude has nothing typically British in it.

This is mainly because they sing with unrelenting realism about sex and relationships. The little coverage I've seen of Arab Strap in Britain tends to revolve around whether Moffat is misogynistic to sing stuff like:

The words that you used to think turned me on just made me laugh
"Do you want to suck my cunt" in real life just sounds naff
And when we were with your friends I might as well have been no-one
And you can't get over your dead dog -- well it takes one to know one

Lyrics like these, which aren't misogynistic but simply realistic and disenchanted, haven't stopped model Helena Christensen becoming a huge fan of the band, and I think their courage and talent put most other British pop music to shame.

But Arab Strap weren't even mentioned in the Peel film.

Instead the DJ got all tearful looking at the birthplace of Kier Hardy, the socialist politician, and a momument erected to Bill Shankly, the football manager. His emotion at these sights managed to be sincere, conformist and embarrassing all at the same time. We almost literally saw his eyes crowding with the sepia banners which, like Peel himself, are the symbols of a synthetic national unity: the emblems of vanished unions and defeated local league football teams.

Jarvis Cocker: This Is Outsidecore

'John Peel's Sounds Of The Suburbs' is in eight parts, so it'll be interesting to see where it goes. Channel 4 is showing another series right now with another celebrity presenter: 'Journeys Into The Outside With Jarvis Cocker'. Although this survey of Outsider Artists is much more my cup of tea than Peel's fuzzy sociology, the two programmes have more in common than just their 'celeb goes to cred margins' titles.

Jarvis, looking a bit bleary in his droopy woolly hat and trendy white-stitched anorak, begins by saying that his interest as a student at St Martin's College of Art had always been in people who weren't formally educated, didn't have diplomas, and made art without considering themselves artists.

The first film shows Jarvis driving through France interviewing old men who've made their houses and gardens into palaces of junk. The Pulp singer, in creditable if heavily-accented French, asks these men why they do what they do. Although I find Jarvis engaging, I've actually fallen asleep every time I've watched this on tape. The second programme, which is basically the same thing set in the States (the Reverend Howard Finster, and Jarvis in a baseball cap) was just as soporific.

I think the reason is that it quickly becomes apparent that all attempts to escape the complexity and sophistication of professional art look the same. And because Jarvis is on an anti-intellectual mission here, he can't offer any sort of analysis of why this should be, why these people all used their freedom to make exactly the same sort of ant heaps or graveyards of heavily-decorated junk. It's a bit like idealising the homeless for their intelligent originality in avoiding houses, then finding they all talk the same weird schizoid spiel.

Both series lure viewers with promises of escapes, new and fresh ideas, marginal perspectives, but both end up reinforcing the synthetic mainstream. Peel by invoking Blood and Soil, Cocker by showing us that all escapes from capitalist art production bear a hackneyed and schizoid resemblance to each other, and lead us to the scrapheap.

The Iron Lady

Finally, BBC 2 this week ran a documentary about Julie Burchill, a woman who, with her partner Tony Parsons, was the Stalinist high priestess of punk at the NME before becoming a Thatcherite columnist on tabloid daily papers (and, finally, attacking Peel's lechery from her new perch as the Guardian newspaper's resident batty old puritan).

I watched because I'd been asked to review Burchill's new novel for Scottish paper The Sunday Herald. The film shows Burchill walking on the pier at Brighton with Emma Forrest, a smart young Jewish columnist, advising her never to go to university. Like Cocker and Peel, Burchill seems to think that the greatest danger for the Noble Savage of today -- that endangered species, the white British proletarian -- is the rustle of higher education diplomas.

The amazing thing is that, despite having been a professional writer for twenty years and earning more money than a whole suburb of stockbrokers, Julie Burchill still claims to be working class. I don't know what her definition of working class is, but it's probably something to do with roots and emblems and synthetic solidarity.

Cocker, Peel and Burchill, three highly articulate media professionals, seem to be on a collective mission to define and identify with 'common people'.

They're not talking about people who work with their hands versus people who work with their brains. They're talking about a set of values like 'localness', 'rootedness', 'unpretentiousness'. The ironic thing is that in this global and rootless age these values are totally artificial and as pretentious as the glottal stops Julie Burchill still affects after twenty years in London media circles.

The trouble is that these values, which misrepresent and misremember a vanished working class which Marxism and Christianity made very international indeed, actually tend to the parochial and the fascist.

Loaded Little England

It's weird that the more postmodern Britain actually gets (check out the films of Patrick Keillor, 'London' and 'Robinson In Space' to see a convincing portrait of Britain unfiltered by the pseudo-working class values of guilty bourgeois), the more the media gatekeepers insist on Blood and Soil. And the more integrated we get financially with Europe, the US and Asia, the more we dream of Little England.

Fascist symbolism has always been attractive to ambitious Gatekeepers, because there are always fascist tendencies in the masses. Julie Burchill tried to excuse her '80s Thatcherism by saying that weak people are always looking for strong leaders.

James Brown, another ex-NME journalist, founded a magazine in the mid-'90s called Loaded which started ironising and recontextualising working class values (football, blondes with big breasts, bad behaviour, Lad Style) and became the template for the British media for the next five years. Like all spin, this recontextualisation cuts both ways: it allows the middle classes to shave their heads, support Arsenal and wear Doc Martens, the uniform of the xenophobic fascist skins of the '70s, whilst claiming that these codes are ironic and their meanings have changed. It also undermines the codes of white working class fascists themselves, forcing them to find new speech codes, cultural spaces and uniforms.

Xenophobia in Britain continues to wear a uniform, but now it's a Police uniform. The Stephen Lawrence affair has cracked open a can of worms which will not easily be closed. Lawrence, a black architecture student, was knifed to death by racists. His murderers (and everyone knows who they are) will never be brought to justice because lawyers say the media coverage has made a fair trial impossible.

Whether because they try in their liberal way to recontextualise it, or whether they condemn it outright and therefore spoil the judicial process by making impartiality impossible, the National Gatekeepers unwittingly become apologists and protectors of fascism.

This problem is actually endemic in the idea that you can supply a nation of divergent races with a 'mainstream' in which you invite some people to recognise a reassuring fascism and others to be ironic about it. The idea of the mainstream has all the same problems as the idea of kitsch, with its amalgamation of stupid and clever. That's why kitsch (not by accident a yiddish word, since jews have always understood the value in having up their sleeves a few clever readings of stupid phenomena) is the main style of our time, and why it's idiotic to dismiss art which employs it.

Gimme Satellite TV!

The only way around the national media's accidental valorisation of fascism is to abandon the idea of a 'mainstream' altogether and just let lots of foreign information flow around our media systems. Blocked by Gatekeepers? Simply reroute. Make your own media products, narrowcast the hell out of them, target people like yourself and the curious tourist.

I've just had satellite TV installed, and while British TV was showing snooker, football, and house make-overs, I discovered European channels like Arte talking intelligently about Tarkovsky, Pirandello, and Jimi Tenor. Arte, along with Japanese channel NHK and the overseas Asian chain Zee TV (24 hour Hindi movies! Hurrah! Beauty, sex, colour, kitsch and music: the perfect model of populism without fascism) are like a breath of the freshest air to me.

Thanks to globalism, foreign-ethnic-arty-intelligent ideas will keep arriving in Britain, despite our obsession with pseudo-brutality, Blood and Soil.

The 'last truly British people you will ever know', the ones Morrissey sang about, were long ago replaced by multi-ethnic sophisticates who only pretend to be fascists. But can you really buy into the imagery and leave the history behind?

Last week, James Brown (a man who, incidentally, binned all Momus features while editor of the NME) was forced to quit the helm of men's style magazine GQ because, in a feature on the best dressed men of the 20th Century, he thought it amusing to put the Nazi Rommel at number one. The Jewish publishers of the magazine were not as amused and sacked him.

Irony can only go so far. In the end, even recontextualised fascism is still fascism.

Momus, London, March 1999

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