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British Politics and Failures of Leadership

Photo: Getty. Retrieved from https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/elections/2019/01/who-ll-blink-first-stand-between-jeremy-corbyn-and-theresa-may

Oh, to be in England
Now that April’s there

Robert Browning

Well, almost. The end of March beckons. Our gardens and open spaces are reawakening, the evenings are stretching their limbs, the weather is more friendly. Time to look forward to summer? Alas, no. Like an evil sorcerer, Covid-19 has cast its malignant spell over us all, playing tricks with our perceptions of time itself. We are in a race against time to hold back and then defeat the disease, but rarely has time seemed so relative. For those on the front line, under-resourced and overworked, time must be a blur. For the rest of us, meanwhile, confined to our homes for much of the day practising self-isolation or social distancing, time is slowing.

We are currently in partial lockdown. Everything not directly coronavirus-related seems like an irrelevance. But politics and the political process do not stop (though parliament itself has now risen for four weeks). The government still governs and, perhaps more than ever, MPs of all parties have a duty to fulfil one of their key functions — scrutinising those in power and holding them to account.

Our government — like all governments around the world — is being tested like never before in peacetime history, led by a prime minister only months into the job. What follows is not about the government’s handling of the current crisis, but it is a reminder that, when we make our choice at the ballot box — or when we don’t bother, for that matter — we have no idea what perils await those we elect. Events, dear boy. Events.

It is a sobering thought, one that suggests an interesting question: which UK administration ranks as the worst of modern times — ‘worst’ in the sense of ‘dysfunctional, not up to the job’?

The Eden government (1955–57) made a calamitous error of judgement over Suez, and Eden was out of office before really getting his feet under the prime ministerial table. The short-lived Douglas-Home government (1963–64) is but a footnote in the history books. The 1970s was a troubled, tempestuous decade but — though we might argue all day about strategic direction and individual policies — it is less easy to make the case for gross incompetence. Rather the opposite, in fact.

For a long time, my answer to the question would have been the government of John Major. For someone who first took an interest in politics in the Thatcher era — with its endless refrain of ‘competent Conservatives / incompetent Labour’ — it was hard to resist at least a frisson of schadenfreude watching a Conservative government taking ineptitude and mismanagement to new levels — the Black Wednesday debacle, in-fighting over Europe (the prime minister characterised fellow cabinet members as “bastards”), the citizen’s charter, back to basics.

A sorry list of mostly self-inflicted woe.

So the award used to go to John Major’s government … until, that is, Theresa May came along in 2016, picking up the pieces of David Cameron’s twelve-month-long “strong and stable” government. She played a fiendishly tricky hand badly, like a poor poker player on a run of rotten luck. Brexit brought paralysis; like dementors in Harry Potter World, it sucked up all the government’s energy and left devastation in its wake.

To switch metaphors, May charted an impossible course with her ridiculous red lines and appointed hardline Brexiteers to steer the ship. Parliament was treated with utter disdain until the government lost its majority and was forced to concede ground in one area after another. Inflexibility was the watchword, her lack of even basic interpersonal skills brilliantly captured by John Crace’s Maybot caricature in The Guardian.

For nearly three years May’s government tacked to the right rather than seeking a viable way forward, a parliamentary compromise around which elements of all parties might coalesce. This sorry chapter will figure prominently in future histories of the Conservatives — the party of Stanley Baldwin, Harold Macmillan and Edward Heath shunning pragmatic, moderate centrists such as David Gauke, Ken Clarke and Dominic Grieve and instead embracing the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg, Mark Francois and Priti Patel, blinkered, ludicrous and repulsive in equal measure.

Meanwhile, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn — elected, and then triumphantly re-elected, by an unprecedented number of party members, many of them recent recruits — failed to lay a glove.

For a lifelong protester, Corbyn is a surprisingly poor public speaker. He is leaden and flat-footed at the Commons despatch box. With Prime Minister’s Questions the only bit of parliament that many voters see, this matters. Time and again he had May’s hapless front bench at his mercy; time and again he proved incapable of delivering a decisive blow. It was backbench heavyweights who hit hardest — the likes of Hilary Benn and Yvette Cooper. The single most electrifying contribution of the last parliament was arguably Margaret Beckett’s speech of 4 December 2018 during one of the many, many Brexit debates.

I have argued elsewhere that Brexit confronted Labour with an impossible conundrum, but Brexit alone did not undermine Corbyn. The fact is, he has proved to be a poor leader. Corbyn is a campaigner, a maverick, an outsider; the march, rally or hastily assembled protest meeting is his comfort zone. He thrives on berating others for their lack of ideological purity but is deeply uncomfortable making the hard choices that leadership requires. To (slightly) rework an old saying, to lead is to choose.

The 2019 election result was neither shock nor surprise: despite nine years of austerity, the implosion of Cameron’s government and three years of utterly shambolic Brexit negotiations, the Labour Party consistently scored badly in opinion polls. The election campaign itself was awful — flat and uninspiring, as wet as the late-autumn season. We read of resources directed to the wrong seats, of poor campaign coordination. We can point to ill-judged policy announcements like broadband and WASPI women, and of a car-crash interview with Andrew Neil. But this runs the risk of deflecting the blame onto party officials or his de facto deputy, John McDonnell. The stark reality is that, in this highly presidential campaign, Corbyn wasn’t up to the job.

With so much hindsightery, it’s worth quoting a tweet from the excellent political journalist Steve Richards. It was written on 17 November, four weeks before election day:

Historians will wonder with good cause why J Corbyn and J Swinson gave B Johnson an election on the date he wanted and at the height of his prime ministerial honeymoon. They were leaders in a hung parliament with considerable powers to determine an election timing and much more.

Steve Richards, political journalist, 17 November 2019 (on Twitter)

Historians will also speculate on what led them to take the fateful decision.

Perhaps it was hubris — pride, arrogance, excessive self-confidence — which, as the ancient Greek playwrights worked out, always ends badly. Facing the pitiful May government in parliament, rarely a speech or intervention seemed to end without an impassioned demand for an immediate general election. But like Bernie Sanders predicting the “beginning of the end” for Trump after the New Hampshire primary in January 2020, it was empty rhetoric, nothing more than bluff and bluster, the cut and thrust of parliamentary swashbuckling. Along came Johnson and called their bluff.

The Liberal Democrats’ support for an election at least made some kind of sense: the party had a clearly articulated (if controversial) position on the central Brexit issue; they were for a time polling above 20% and had performed well in the earlier European elections; and they seemed genuinely to be on a surge, their tally of MPs growing by the week due to regular defections from the two main parties.

Add to the mix a sprinkling of groupthink. All leaders surround themselves with like-minded thinkers and ‘yes’-people. But the Corbyn phenomenon has been something else, more akin to a cult. Consider the signs: a devoted band of followers; a narrative setting out simplistic explanations for what is wrong with the world and equally simplistic solutions; intolerance of dissent and excoriation of non-followers. How ironic, then, that another of the features of a cult — a charismatic, supposedly omniscient leader — is something that Corbyn most assuredly is not.

The takeaway from the 1992 election was that it was John Major’s soapbox ‘wot won it’ for the Conservatives, an unlikely victory when defeat seemed on the cards: good old John, man of the people, doing things the old-fashioned way etc. And so, right on cue on the first day of the 1997 election, there he was on his soapbox, as if this would somehow make a 20-point poll deficit magically disappear. The strategy had spectacularly failed to differentiate between cause and correlation: A followed by B does not necessarily mean that A caused B.

Fast-forward to the 2019 election. The thinking seems to have gone something like this: Corbyn had a good campaign in 2017 (let’s ignore the inconvenient fact that Labour lost) so just do the same thing this time around. Let Corbyn be Corbyn, to borrow an idea from The West Wing: set him free on the campaign trail, meeting real people, generating a sense of momentum (sic) and all will turn out for the best. In other words, ignore the clear signs of popular disillusionment after years of parliamentary paralysis, ignore the polling evidence, ignore the catastrophic impact of the anti-semitism charge on the leadership’s credibility, ignore the time of year — the short days and long, dark evenings, the cold, the rain. All will turn out for the best. Except, it didn’t.

In a few days — voting ends on 2 April — the Labour Party membership will have chosen a new leader and deputy leader. An election campaign that feels like it has been going on forever, without at any point igniting the interest of the wider public, seems like an irrelevance in the midst of a global emergency. It is, in fact, anything but. As was noted in the opening few lines, politics and the political process go on, and there is important work to do in holding the government to account. But there is another reason too. In the 1920s the Liberal Party went through a catastrophic status update — from one of the two great parties of government to third-party irrelevance. The next Labour leadership team may well determine whether the Labour Party goes the same way in the 2020s.

NEXT: The future of the Labour Party

Click to read some thoughts on Brexit, the 2019 election and the state of British politics.

What I’m Reading, February 2020

3 February 2020

I finished A Divided Spy by Thomas Kell the other day. That means I managed to read four books in January, putting me comfortably ahead of my target. A nice balance, too, of fiction and non-fiction, academic and non-academic, challenging and ‘lighter’ reads etc.

Reading Peter Ackroyd’s Dominion brought me back to thinking about the development of socialism and the origins of the Labour Party. I am re-reading The Making of British Socialism by Mark Bevir, a book I first read perhaps five years ago, possibly more.

It’s a tough book to get into, not really one for the general reader. It’s essentially a collection of academic papers pulled together into some kind of coherent whole. It is essentially a history of ideas but, as I say, written for an academic audience, with its talk of “retrieving alternative socialist pasts” and “narrating those pasts”. I gulped when I saw the sub-heading ‘Theory’, not really my thing when it comes to history. Welcome to “aggregate concepts”, “naive empiricism”, “reification” and so on.

8 February 2020

The Making of British Socialism is proving an interesting challenge. It’s extremely repetitive in places — almost certainly due to its origins as a series of academic papers — which was annoying at first until I realised that the repetition was actually helping with the reinforcement of key ideas and aiding understanding.

The first couple of chapters were tough-going, with lots of terms and concepts unexplained. To take just one example, it assumed an understanding of the distinctions between popular radicalism, liberal radicalism and Tory radicalism.

As the book goes on, however, each of the key political ideas and concepts is being carefully unpicked, explained and analysed. One or two things still left me none the wiser — the discussion of German idealism, for example (nothing new there) — but most of the chapters have been rewarding and enlightening.

On a separate note, the BBC’s latest Agatha Christie adaptation — The Pale Horse (based on her novel of 1961) — starts tomorrow. A must-watch.

13 February 2020

I finally finished the origins of British socialism book — a couple of days behind schedule. It’s been a busy few days, and I have found it difficult to keep to my 10% target.

It was definitely worth re-reading. At a time when politics is in a mess and the future direction of the Labour Party — even its very survival — up in the air, it was a useful exercise going back to the core ideas and values that animated progressives in the left’s early days. I particularly enjoyed reading about the ideas of the ethical socialists, who eschewed a class-based analysis, and economics and politics more generally, in favour of an approach based on spiritual renewal. Call it naive and impossible to achieve, but it’s a compelling vision of what the ideal society might be like.

One of the cable film channels showed To the Devil a Daughter last Friday, a 1976 film based on a Dennis Wheatley novel. It’s a somewhat controversial film for a number of reasons, and Wheatley disowned it. It’s rarely shown, certainly far less often than The Devil Rides Out, which I count as one of my all-time favourite films. I was meaning to re-read one of these two books before writing a blogpost on the subject, so this has sealed it. My next read.

16 February 2020

Blimey. I thought Agatha Christie’s writing was dated, but Wheatley takes it to another level. The Devil Rides Out was first published in 1934. Like Christie’s Poirot, we’re mixing exclusively with the rich and privileged. Much of the characters’ wealth is obviously inherited, though Simon and Rex’s considerable incomes appear to be from finance and banking. Simon, we are told early on, is no longer living at his club. Max, meanwhile, is the Duke de Richleau’s ‘man’ — in other words, his butler. Indeed, butlers, maids, chauffeurs, cooks and nannies are an intrinsic part of this world. Globetrotting, too, is the norm: Rex, for example, has happened to notice a beautiful stranger called Tanith, who becomes central to the plot, in Budapest, New York and Biarritz in recent times.

The biggest shock is the use of language and the underlying attitudes it reveals. The meaning of words changes over time, of course, but it surely isn’t just poor writing craft that makes the use of the word ‘queer’ five times in the opening five pages seem alarming.

In Wheatley’s descriptions of the sinister guests at Simon’s party (it turns out they’re all satanists), the juxtaposition of each individual’s racial background with a list of their unpleasant characteristics is unfortunate to say the very least — the “grave-faced Chinaman … whose slit eyes betrayed a cold, merciless nature”; “a red-faced Teuton, who suffered the deformity of a hare lip”; a “fat, oily-looking Babu”.

To modern sensibilities, the most extraordinarily inappropriate exchange, however, goes as follows:

[Duke]: … he reminded me in a most unpleasant way of the Bogey Man with whom I used to be threatened in my infancy

[Rex]: Why, is he a black?

I kid you not.

20 February 2020

I read about 80 pages of The Devil Rides Out last night — staying up late, as is becoming a habit with exciting novels, to finish the story.

The book improves considerably as it goes on. The well-known pentacle scene — when Mocata sends various manifestations of evil to claim back Simon — is excellently written and genuinely unsettling even for the modern reader. Up to this point, the later film roughly follows the book, but the final third is completely reimagined — presumably on cost grounds.

The Eatons’ daughter has been kidnapped by the satanists and is to be offered as a sacrifice in a black mass. In the film, the location of the mass is close by and easily accessible. In the book, on the other hand, our heroes are forced to traverse the continent of Europe. Handily, Richard Eaton has an aeroplane parked at the bottom of the garden. Cue breathless flights to Paris and then to an inhospitable mountain range in Greece for the final showdown between good and evil.

21 February 2020

With the sad news of the death of philosopher Sir Roger Scruton, it felt right to pick out something of his as my next read. I have always found Scruton a curiously compelling figure. My politics are very different from his, though he is far from being an unthinking flag-waver for the right wing of the Conservative Party. His conservatism is grounded in his philosophical beliefs; unlike many on the right nowadays, he takes the ‘conserve’ of conservatism literally. He also writes beautifully.

25 February 2020

I actually plumped for a book about Sir Roger Scruton rather than one written by him, though quotes from his many writings are used extensively. Roger Scruton: The Philosopher on Dover Beach by Mark Dooley analyses Scruton’s core ideas. Dooley is a fully paid-up Scrutonian, so there’s little in the way of critical engagement. Rather, the book serves as a useful introduction. It’s rather a slight book — 180 pages, including extensive end-notes — and hardly the “major study” promised on the dust jacket.

Organised into five chapters, it takes the reader through Scruton’s thinking on matters such as aesthetics, sexuality, religion and culture. Dooley returns repeatedly to notions of the Lebenswelt (our ‘lived experience’), the sacred, home and community, and belonging. He pays particular attention to where Scruton’s views clash with other thinkers, especially those on the left.

A useful read, helping me understand Scruton’s thinking better — and one that makes me want to search out more of Scruton’s output.

By the way, there was an excellent obituary of the historian Zara Steiner in The Guardian the other day, written by Sir Richard Evans. I first came across her when my professor recommended her Britain and the Origins of the First World War to me for my dissertation at university.

Evans is great. His recent obituary of Norman Stone was absolutely brutal. Ouch!

What I’m Reading, January 2020

1 January 2020

New year — new decade — new resolution … a reading log or diary. Let’s see how this goes. Also thinking of setting myself a target of a book every ten days, equating to 36 books over the year. That means reading 10% of each book every day — a tall order for anything over about 300 pages. Seriously toying with the idea of cancelling my Guardian subscription (it takes me about two hours to read it).

I am starting the new year with a new read (or rather, re-read): Citizens to Lords by Ellen Meiskins Wood.

I finished my Christmas treat — The Burning Chambers by Kate Mosse — a few days ago and ended the year with a few Sherlock Holmes short stories (inspired by a comment during the election campaign by John Crace in The Guardian).

I now have only the very final Holmes short story to go — The Adventure of the Retired Colourman. I read almost the complete set of Conan Doyle Holmes books last year, most of them before watching the relevant ‘Jeremy Brett’ dramatisation. I may go back and re-read the short stories again this year — easy to dip into for half an hour or so. There are 56 of them.

The first episode of the latest Dracula dramatisation is on BBC1 tonight; it involves Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, so should be excellent. That’s reminded me: I must get round to reading Frankenstein this year.

2 January 2020

Last night, I read the very final Holmes short story, The Adventure of the Retired Colourman — so a milestone of sorts. I don’t know whether I have a memory of the TV adaptation or whether it’s a growing familiarity with Conan Doyle’s style, but I guessed the significance of a few of the plot ingredients like the newly painted house and the telegram from the vicarage. Having said that, I was convinced that the mysterious spectator outside the house was Holmes in disguise.

Definitely up to Conan Doyle’s usual standard, and so much more enjoyable as a read than the first Poirot novel, which I read last year. Kate Mosse was singing Agathe Christie’s praises on Twitter; she’s just re-read the Miss Marple books over Christmas. I must read more Poirot to see if the quality improves.

5 January 2020

Enjoying Citizens to Lords, a history of political thought in ancient and medieval times. Putting the political angle aside for a moment, it’s always enjoyable to read a Marxist writer who writes fluently and intelligibly. That’s one of the reasons why I always enjoy reading Ralph Miliband and Eric Hobsbawm. I first read it about four years ago, but I am finding it much easier to grasp this time around, having in the meantime read some reader-friendly introductions to the history of philosophy, particularly the brilliant The Dream of Reason by Anthony Gottlieb.

Richard Dawkins (a fan of audio books, which have never appealed to me) tweeted the other day about listening to Paperweight by Stephen Fry. He sang the praises of a Holmes short story that Stephen wrote. I must read that; his novels Making History and The Stars’ Tennis Balls are right up there for me.

10 January 2020

I finished Citizens to Lords yesterday, having managed to keep to my 10%-a-day target. So much packed into its 236 pages. Yes, it’s written from a Marxist perspective but it’s very readable, accessible (as long as you have a working knowledge of political theory and Ancient Greek philosophical ideas), erudite and compelling, with something illuminating on every page. Looking forward to reading the companion volume, Liberty and Property, at some point in the coming weeks and months.

Listening to a couple of James Bond dramas on BBC Sounds — what a discovery … the dramas, not the app! — has led me back to A Colder War by Charles Cumming. It’s the second of his Thomas Kell trilogy; I really enjoyed the first one, A Foreign Country, last year.

15 January 2020

The morning after the night before. I stayed up late to finish A Colder War. A gripping read; thoroughly enjoyable. It got to about 10pm and decision time: stay up and read a bit more, stay up until I finish it, or leave it until tomorrow. It was a no-brainer in the end. Fiction can get you like that: I felt exactly the same way reading Stephen King’s 11.22.63 a few years ago. I am determined to read more page-turning fiction this year.

I discovered Charles Cumming through The Trinity Six, a novel about a supposed sixth member of the Cambridge spy ring. A Colder War is set in the same fictional landscape as his earlier A Foreign Country and features an out-in-the-cold SIS spy called Thomas Kell.

It’s not as well written as Le Carré — what is? — and I felt myself giving him the benefit of the doubt after reading things like “Giles, a man so boring that he was dubbed ‘The Coma’ in the corridors of Vauxhall Cross”. But the writing is generally much better than that, and the structuring, plotting and sense of place are all excellent. Plus, there’s tons of spycraft to enjoy. The extended description of a surveillance operation through London is brilliantly told.

20 January 2020

Thoroughly enjoying Dominion, Volume V of Peter Ackroyd’s The History of England series, this one covering the period from 1815 to 1900. I actually read two thirds of it when I first bought it but then put it to one side, probably to read something ‘essential’ that was newly published. Can’t remember what.

I originally bought Volume I — Foundations — from a shop specialising in remaindered books. I wanted something accessible, as my knowledge of early history is woeful. This is broad-brush history, written by someone with highly developed literary sensibilities: line one of page one refers to Vanity Fair and there are also references to Byron, Southey, Dickens and Wilde within the first few pages.

There are no footnotes or end-notes and the historian in me squirms somewhat when encountering sweeping generalisations like: “They [the English people] differed from their predecessors and their successors with their implicit faith in the human will.” But it is wonderfully written and a joy to read.

25 January 2020

I finished Dominion today. Ackroyd is simply remarkable: his output is prodigious and ranges widely across disciplines, though London is never very far away from his thoughts.

He writes wonderful prose — the pen-portraits, in particular, are often engagingly drawn with an eye for amusing, often absurd, detail. Sometimes, however, his style simply doesn’t suit a work of serious history: “[Disraeli] could have flattered his way out of a condemned cell and stolen the axe.” Ugh.

On the other hand, there are echoes of the great AJP Taylor in sentences like: “The conflict did not assist or make any military reputations, and the war itself had emanated from the fear of an attack which was never contemplated and a threat which barely existed.” Therein, I suppose, lies the problem: it’s a wonderful read but is it good history — reasoned, balanced, nuanced?

One wonders, too, whether age is finally catching up with him. His daily routine apparently involves — certainly until recently; he may have finally slowed down — working on three projects at the same time, twelve-hour working days ending with copious amounts of alcohol, seven-day working weeks.

Something surely has to give. This is an annoyingly London-centric history, presumably reworking previously researched material and quoting, sometimes at considerable length, from primary sources. In a book of this size, every word counts: key people, events and developments merit no more than a chapter, maybe a page, perhaps only a paragraph or two. And yet Ackroyd devotes two full pages quoting at length from an 1894 book about the Golden Jubilee of 1887 — its focus, no surprise, the people of South London.

Anyway, I await the final volume with interest. Meanwhile, time for the third in the Thomas Kell spy trilogy by Charles Cumming.

30 January 2020

One month in and my new year reading resolution is going well. I am managing to keep to my 10%-a-day target … exceeding it, in fact. That’s partly because I chose medium-sized books this month rather than doorstoppers. It has also helped that my two fiction choices this month — both by Charles Cumming — have been page-turners.

A Divided Spy is the last of the Thomas Kell trilogy by Charles Cumming. I read about 100 pages a couple of days ago. It was about 8pm and the thought did cross my mind: 150 pages or so to go … do I pull an all-nighter? A daft idea, but a sign of a thoroughly enjoyable book.

Brexit, the 2019 Election and the State of British Politics

For someone who locates himself somewhere on the political left, the outcome of the 2019 general election was shattering and sobering, though surely not entirely unexpected: a substantial Commons majority for the Conservatives — memo to self: look up the definition of ‘landslide’ — and, what is worse, talk of ‘powerful’ mandates, ten years of Conservative rule and a ‘Boris revolution’. Note: this is the sole reference to ‘Boris’ and deliberately placed in inverted commas.

Unfortunately, election promises — especially Johnson promises — are, like many Christmas toys, cheaply made and easily broken.

Diogenes

It is possible that Johnson’s large parliamentary majority and the largesse promised to, and seats secured in, formerly solid Labour areas will free him of the urge to tack to the right in order to satisfy the whims of erstwhile ERG allies. Unfortunately, election promises — especially Johnson promises — are, like many Christmas toys, cheaply made and easily broken. We will know more after Javid’s next budget (expected in February 2020) and the forthcoming multi-annual spending review, but the early signs do not augur well.

The revised EU Withdrawal Agreement largely stripped away previous guarantees of workers’ rights, regulatory standards compliance and parliamentary scrutiny. Meanwhile, though a New Year’s Eve announcement of a 6.2% increase in the minimum wage is welcome, earlier promises to increase the minimum wage to £10.50 over five years now come with a small-print caveat — “provided economic conditions allow”.

The Labour Party in 2019 faces a threat to its existence as grave as that of 1979-1983. The loss of heartland seats such as Bolsover is historic …

Diogenes

Chapter 22 of (probably) my favourite set of political memoirs — Denis Healey’s The Time of My Life — covers the years after Margaret Thatcher’s election in 1979: he called it Labour in Travail. The Labour Party in 2019 faces a threat to its existence as grave as that of 1979–1983. The loss of heartland seats such as Bolsover is historic, though we don’t of course yet know if this represents a permanent shift in the political tectonic plates.

The facts and figures are not encouraging for Labour supporters. Since Harold Wilson’s 98-seat majority in 1966 — 53 years ago, at the time of writing — Tony Blair is the only Labour leader to be elected with a parliamentary majority. Assuming that the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act is repealed, Labour’s next realistic chance of forming a majority government is likely to be 2028 at the earliest, 23 years after Blair’s last victory in 2005. How we lefties hooted in 1997 when the Conservatives were wiped out in Scotland, with Labour winning 56 of the 72 seats. In 2019, Labour won just one seat out of 59.

The first time I didn’t vote Labour — I usually do, with a greater or lesser degree of enthusiasm — was my first general election in 1987. A student at Reading University (which is actually in the Wokingham constituency), I voted tactically for the SDP–Liberal Alliance candidate, defiantly denting John ‘Vulcan’ Redwood’s 20,000-ish Conservative majority by one.

December 2019 was the latest time that X didn’t mark the spot. I certainly wasn’t the only wandering voter, though I doubt too many people joined me in spoiling my ballot paper by scrawling None of the above. Bring back Tony Blair across it.

The influence of the media

Anti-Corbyn or anti-Labour media bias as an explanation for Labour’s defeat — the term ‘media’ used here to refer to the highly regulated broadcast media, the privately owned print media and social media, which is largely unregulated — lacks plausibility.

It is platitudinous to argue that howls of anguish from both sides means that the BBC has ‘got it about right’. Equally, the claim of overt broadcaster bias is risible …

Diogenes

For every complaint about an anti-Labour agenda or a bias against Corbyn, the attack-dogs of the right make exactly the opposite charge about the broadcast media — though not, of course, about the print media — particularly about the BBC. It is platitudinous to argue that howls of anguish from both sides means that the BBC has ‘got it about right’. Equally, the claim of overt broadcaster bias is risible, from whatever quarter it comes.

Andrew Neil’s skewering of Corbyn needs to be seen alongside the same broadcaster’s no-holds-barred interviews with other party leaders and particularly his five-minute empty-seating of Johnson. Andrew Marr’s fussy interview with Johnson generated 12,000 viewer complaints (some, at least, no doubt submitted at the behest of CCHQ).

For all the accusations of an institutional liberal-left bias at the BBC, we should remember that there are plenty of former Conservative Party personnel who hold key positions in the organisation. I wonder what Sarah Sands and Nick Robinson — both formerly prominent Conservative supporters — think of the (probably) Dominic Cummings-inspired boycott of the Today programme by senior ministers.

Perhaps doubters from both sides need to be force-fed an hour of Fox News.

The print media, meanwhile, has always been overwhelmingly anti-Labour in modern times. When, in 1992, a Sun front-page headline requested that the last person to leave Britain in the event of a Labour victory switch off the lights, the paper was selling around 4 million copies per day compared to around 1.4 million in 2019. Newspapers and their owners still wield influence, of course — it is a worry, for example, how much the daily television news agenda is influenced by newspaper headlines — but influence in what circles?

Social media feeds on our algorithmically determined preferences and prejudices, generating sensationalist soundbites and clickbait headlines, devoid of context or even of meaning. Lies are peddled as fact; ludicrous assertions are left unchallenged, bouncing around the echo chamber.

Diogenes

Many ‘ordinary’ voters — as opposed to political geeks and those who inhabit the Westminster bubble — increasingly consume their news via social media rather than from newspapers or TV news. Sadly, this is almost certainly damaging our political culture. Social media feeds on our algorithmically determined preferences and prejudices, generating sensationalist soundbites and clickbait headlines, devoid of context or even of meaning. Lies are peddled as fact; ludicrous assertions are left unchallenged, bouncing around the echo chamber.

But there is no reason why this development — good or bad — should disadvantage the Labour Party over and above their rivals: if anything, social media demographics ought to work in Labour’s favour. An excellent media analysis in The Guardian quoted Dr Richard Fletcher of the University of Oxford’s Reuters Institute: “One of the clearest differences is that most of those on the left prefer to get news online, and most of those on the right prefer to get it offline.”

But social media benefits those with the best lines, and in 2019 the best line of all consisted of just three words: Get Brexit Done.

Brexit

One Friday evening sometime during one of Theresa May’s parliamentary debacles — it’s impossible to pinpoint the specific one; there were so many — a brief pub conversation with a friend of a friend about the dismal performances of our local football team somehow strayed into Brexit territory. That I should be discussing politics at the bar of my local with someone I barely know is itself an indication of the extent to which Brexit weaves its malign magic.

And yet this shameless hyperbole was offered up so calmly, so matter-of-factly, as if pointing out a plain, unremarkable, common-sense fact along the lines of night following day, Saturday following Friday.

Diogenes

I was dumbfounded to hear him — an ordinary, unassuming chap in his seventies: friendly, mild-mannered, level-headed — assert that we (the British people) have been slaves for 40 years — yes, slaves. Stunned by this, my immediate reaction was ridicule, to mimic walking around as if lugging a ball and chain. And yet this shameless hyperbole was offered up so calmly, so matter-of-factly, as if pointing out a plain, unremarkable, common-sense fact along the lines of night following day, Saturday following Friday.

The issue of Britain’s relationship with Europe has obsessed the political classes since the days of ‘splendid isolation’ and long before; most ‘ordinary’ people, on the other hand, have been completely uninterested except, obviously, in times of war. An Ipsos MORI poll conducted during the 1992 general election campaign — the year of the Maastricht Treaty — asked voters to identify their top two or three issues of concern: 4% cited Europe and 1% cited immigration. As recently as 2010, an Ipsos MORI analysis of that year’s general election suggests that, though 14% cited asylum / immigration as a key issue, Europe was not one of the sixteen issues that registered at least 3%.

… the impact of Brexit on the Conservative Party has in some respects been at least as transformative, not to say revolutionary, as the leadership of Margaret Thatcher.

Diogenes

The Europe question has bedevilled both main political parties — it was Labour’s Harold Wilson who called the referendum in 1975, suspending collective cabinet responsibility for the campaign’s duration in an attempt to keep the party together — but the impact of Brexit on the Conservative Party has in some respects been at least as transformative, not to say revolutionary, as the leadership of Margaret Thatcher.

Anti-EU zealots, long in the wilderness, now wield significant influence at the highest levels, including in Cabinet. The Conservatives’ Brexit strategy over the last three years has placed severe strains on our constitutional arrangements and conventions. Moderates such as Ken Clarke and Dominic Grieve have effectively been cast adrift, some even expelled from the party. Astonishingly, during the election campaign, a former Conservative prime minister and deputy prime minister — John Major and Michael Heseltine respectively — urged voters to vote tactically against official Conservative candidates, with Major earlier threatening to take the Conservative government to court.

Listening to the government’s repeated insistence on the need to leave the EU single market in order to forge new trade deals around the world, it is worth remembering that Conservatives’ Euro-scepticism (as it used to be termed) was always political in origin and nature rather than economic — hostility to what they saw as the federalist project of ever-closer union. It was, after all, Margaret Thatcher who negotiated the Single European Act in the 1980s that paved the way for the single market and, though this is seldom mentioned in Thatcherite circles, monetary union.

In an interview with Sky News as recently as 2013, Boris Johnson said: “I’d vote to stay in the single market. I’m in favour of the single market.” In the same year, arch-Brexiteer Andrea Leadsom said that leaving the EU would be “a disaster for our economy and it would lead to a decade of economic and political uncertainty at a time when the tectonic plates of global success are moving.”

Suddenly, any such ‘Norway-style’ arrangement keeping Britain in or closely aligned to the single market has become a betrayal. This post-referendum Conservative and Unionist government — to give the party its full title — has also agreed a Withdrawal Agreement that puts in place separate customs arrangements for Northern Ireland. This is despite Johnson specifically and unequivocally denouncing the idea at the DUP annual conference in 2018.

Without doubt, the government’s Brexit policy has already severely weakened the Union and could potentially lead to its break-up. The Conservative Party of old used to accuse the left of constitutional vandalism: they, by contrast, posed as guardians of the integrity of the United Kingdom.

No longer, it seems. According to a YouGov poll in June 2019, a clear majority of Conservative Party members are prepared to countenance the break-up of the Union in order to achieve Brexit — 63% with respect to Scotland and 59% with respect to Northern Ireland. Extraordinary stuff.

From nowhere, Europe — more specifically our relationship to it — has become an existential issue for the general public, as bizarre and irrational in the visceral reactions it generates as arguments over religion in days of old …

Diogenes

But Brexit has spread its poison far beyond the Conservative Party. From nowhere, Europe — more specifically our relationship to it — has become an existential issue for the general public, as bizarre and irrational in the visceral reactions it generates as arguments over religion in days of old, when disagreements over such arcana as consubstantiation and transubstantiation, and justification by deeds or by faith alone, were often literally a matter of life and death.

Rather than healing divisions, as David Cameron had naively hoped, the legacy of the referendum has been three years (and counting) of anger, frustration and bitterness and, if claims that this was ‘the Brexit election’ are perhaps overstated — at least to the extent that issues such as health, the climate crisis and leaders’ trustworthiness were also widely debated — there seems little doubt that Brexit swayed many people’s vote.

… ‘Brexit’ stands, at least in part, as a proxy for other issues — from concrete concerns about immigration, about job insecurity and poverty, and about haves and have-nots to less tangible feelings of displacement and disconnect, of unease in changing times and of dissatisfaction with our political institutions.

Diogenes

On the reasonable assumption that people don’t deliberately vote to make their country poorer, ‘Brexit’ stands, at least in part, as a proxy for other issues — from concrete concerns about immigration, about job insecurity and poverty, and about haves and have-nots to less tangible feelings of displacement and disconnect, of unease in changing times and of dissatisfaction with our political institutions.

Concerns such as these resonate above all in poorer communities, particularly the former industrial heartlands that have largely missed out on the benefits of economic modernisation and globalisation — in other words, Labour-voting communities. Here was Labour’s Brexit conundrum: an instinctively Remain party whose traditional base largely voted to leave. It is one that the party leadership singularly failed to solve.

The question of Brexit quickly became the unilateral nuclear disarmament issue of our times, exposing a key fault line in the party’s cross-class coalition of support. Like unilateralism in the 1980s, opposition to Brexit was a policy espoused passionately and instinctively by Labour’s middle-class membership — young, university-educated, city-based, cosmopolitan in outlook and lifestyle — but largely alien to its traditional working-class base.

But Brexit alone cannot explain Labour’s catastrophic election …

NEXT: Corbyn — Labour’s manifesto — First Past The Post — Building a progressive alliance

London 1976: Genesis Bootlegs

It is June 1976, the beginning of a long and swelteringly hot British summer. The backdrop is one of industrial decline, financial crisis and political turmoil, and the music scene is soon to experience a not-unconnected upheaval of its own.

Deep Purple’s brilliant but moody guitarist has left the band. Emerson, Lake and Palmer are on an extended break, having released no new material since 1973 — and fellow prog-rock giants, Yes, none since 1974. Led Zeppelin are battling both the UK exchequer and personal demons: they are tax exiles and Robert Plant is lucky to have survived a serious car crash. Pink Floyd are holed up at their new Britannia Row Studios in London, writing their bleakest album to date.

In short, rock music’s titans are lacking a sense of direction, and punk is about to emerge from the underground to chart a very different course.

Genesis are also undergoing a revolution of sorts, their music fast evolving out of its prog-rock beginnings. The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway had itself been a departure, a boundaries-redefining concept album recorded under highly strained circumstances. Eventually, Peter Gabriel — lead vocalist, focus of much of the on-stage theatrics and, in the eyes of most uninformed onlookers, the group’s leader — left.

And then there were four.

The band were keen to continue without Peter. The musical ideas flowed, but it was music in search of a vocalist, the story often told of how one replacement singer after the next was tested and rejected before drummer Phil Collins eventually stepped up.

Rather than the usual catch-all ‘Words and music by Genesis’ formula, songwriters were now individually credited for the first time. Tony Banks’s growing dominance is therefore evident to the reader as well as the listener. Two of the eight tracks on 1976’s A Trick of the Tail are Banks solo compositions, and he is credited as co-writer on all the others. Overall, the mood is undeniably softer, warmer and more FM-friendly — easier on the ear after the shock of The Lamb: the sharp edges we associate with Gabriel-era Genesis have been smoothed away.

This bootleg, which sounds wonderful throughout, is from the Hammersmith Odeon in London on 10 June 1976. It is complete except for a couple of fade-ins between songs and is probably an official recording, as Phil announces to the audience that the show is being taped for release. It was recorded midway through a British and European tour, the second night of a run of shows at Hammersmith.

It wasn’t only the music for The Lamb that was wildly ambitious: the stage production featured elaborate costumes (for Peter at least), triple screens to project images illustrating the narrative, even a giant inflatable penis. On this tour, the staging is more conventional, though on a budget more suited to the larger venues they are now playing.

The setlist, like the band, has undergone something of a transformation:

Dance on a Volcano / The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway / Fly on a Windshield / Carpet Crawlers / The Cinema Show / Robbery, Assault and Battery /White Mountain / Firth of Fifth / Entangled / Squonk / Supper’s Ready / I Know What I Like / Los Endos / it. / Watcher of the Skies


Much of what is familiar to fans from the 1977 Seconds Out album, which omitted most of the Wind and Wuthering tracks played on that tour, is already in place. Indeed, the version of The Cinema Show included on side four of the original live album was actually recorded on this 1976 tour. Squonk is here too, placed midway in the set. Firth of Fifth has lost its piano introduction; I Know What I Like has found its tambourine solo. We are also introduced for the first time to Harry, anti-hero of Robbery, Assault and Battery, here preparing to “rob the Brentford Nylon Offices of their weekly takings”.

“Good evening, London! Great to be back,” announces the band’s new lead vocalist, Phil Collins, after the opening song. No explanations for Peter’s absence; no apologies, certainly. One of only two references to past Genesis history is a mention of the previous tour when they played the Lamb album in its entirety, Phil’s happy-go-lucky persona immediately asserting itself:

…tonight we’ve taken three pieces from the story — a bit here, a bit over there and a bit around here — put ‘em together and rather casually retitled it ‘Lamb Stew’.

Phil has huge shoes to fill, but he fits into them comfortably. The spotlight wasn’t a completely new experience for him: he had, of course, performed on stage from a young age. A tour of North America had also presumably ironed out a few front-man wrinkles. His voice is not yet as strong as it will become — he reaches the falsettos but struggles to find the necessary power at times, particularly on Entangled — but he is superb with the classic Gabriel-era songs and, despite disappearing behind the drum kit from time to time, never seems to miss a mark.

Gone, then, is the manic intensity of Peter and his ever more bizarre cast of characters. Gone, too, is a brooding presence stage right. Steve Hackett has grown — literally so, as he now stands throughout the show. His appearance, too, is visibly altering — no longer shielded behind the heavy-rimmed glasses, the thick, black beard and the dark clothes. The release of his debut solo album, Voyage of the Acolyte, was clearly about more than just the music.

He even gets to speak. Introducing Entangled as a song about a man who needs psychiatric help for a recurring nightmare, he responds to a playful shout of “Why?” from out in the audience with: “because he’s suffering from insomnia, that’s why, you idiot!” A more assertive Steve, indeed.

Unlike on Seconds Out — he left the band during the mixing process — Hackett’s guitar is delightfully prominent in the mix throughout this recording and is a joy to hear, not least during Carpet Crawlers and, of course, the epic Firth of Fifth. It must be said that Phil’s introduction of Steve as “the man they couldn’t gag, the Cambridge rapist” is jaw-droppingly inappropriate to modern sensibilities.

And then we are introduced to the new man at the back:

… our resident, temporary, permanent, stand-in drummer … the well-known misprint and typing error Mr Bill Bloomington … Straight £5 a night, he’s not bad, is he?

Bill Bruford is far from being an anonymous presence. To these untrained ears, the duets with Phil sound terrific, and he serves up a percussion masterclass, particularly on Supper’s Ready: indeed, during the latter stage of Willow Farm, Bruford seems determined to hit everything except for the empty milk bottles outside the stage door. However, he was apparently too much of a maverick for a band highly reliant on cues on stage, and he did not return for the Wind and Wuthering tour.

An unexpected delight on first hearing is the return of White Mountain to the set. Mike Rutherford takes us on a nostalgic journey back into Genesis’s past to when “the clinking of beer mugs could be heard very clearly” during songs from the Trespass album — “acoustic songs off the Trespass album”, he quickly clarifies, presumably after shouts for The Knife. Elsewhere, Steve informs us that the lyrics of Entangled are based on a painting by Kim Poor, who went on to design several of his solo album covers and who he later married.

Dance on a Volcano and Los Endos bookend the show, as they do on A Trick of the Tail. For fans growing up on Seconds Out, it’s odd to hear them separated out in this way — particularly the drawn-out introduction to Los Endos which was omitted on subsequent tours. The encore, familiar from the (UK version of the) Three Sides Live album, starts with the song it. from The Lamb before segueing into a shortened version of Watcher of the Skies. The same format — with two different songs — was used on the Wind and Wuthering tour.

Selling England by the Pound is probably (at least in this fan’s opinion) their best studio album, but the 1976–1977 period — what we might refer to as ‘The Tony Banks Years’ — represents Genesis in their prime, particularly on stage. Their music, led by Tony’s keyboards, is ambitious yet accessible, Steve Hackett is still committed (it seems) to the band, and Phil Collins has successfully made the transition from drummer to front man, able to deliver Gabriel-era material as least as convincingly as Peter himself. Their stage lighting and production is also becoming vastly more ambitious. This bootleg, then, is an outstanding recording of Genesis at their peak.

Note: This Hammersmith 10 June bootleg is, to my knowledge, the best audio recording of a complete Genesis show from 1976. A 42-minute film of Genesis live in 1976 called Genesis: In Concert is now widely available, having been officially released as part of a reissues package for A Trick of the Tail. Sadly, it is heavily edited but features about 30 minutes’ worth of excellent footage shot elsewhere on the British tour. It sounds great too. As mentioned above, the version of The Cinema Show used on Seconds Out was from 1976, as was it. / Watcher of the Skies from the UK version of Three Sides Live. Entangled, recorded at Stafford Bingley Hall, appeared on the Archive 2: 1976–1992 collection.

Click to read Montreal 1974: Genesis Bootlegs

Click to read about Seconds Out and Genesis live in 1977

Montreal 1974: Genesis Bootlegs

It is 1974. In Britain and parts of Europe, notably Italy — though not yet North America — Genesis have broken through to the big time: top-ten albums, decent-sized venues such as the London Rainbow, front-cover status in Melody Maker. This bootleg — an FM radio broadcast — captures the band in Montreal on 21 April. For many longtime fans, this is ‘classic’ Genesis: the Tony Banks / Phil Collins / Peter Gabriel / Steve Hackett / Mike Rutherford line-up. It is the era of the Mellotron and twelve-string guitars, of fox heads and old-man masks, of hermaphrodites and hogweed.

As on the previous tour, Watcher of the Skies opens proceedings — the eerie, doom-laden sound of the Mellotron familiar to fans from the Foxtrot and Genesis Live albums, a foretaste of the drama and (imagined) theatrics to come. Prog rock à la Genesis delights in long, complex pieces with repeated changes of mood and tempo. The set-list draws from three classic albums of the genre — Nursery Cryme, Foxtrot and the then-current Selling England by the Pound:

Watcher of the Skies / Dancing with the Moonlit Knight / The Cinema Show / I Know What I Like / Firth of Fifth / The Musical Box / Horizons / The Battle of Epping Forest / Supper’s Ready

The first ‘proper’ Genesis album, Trespass, is here unrepresented. The Knife, the standout Trespass track, was only very occasionally played on the tour as an encore, it seems. Indeed, on most nights they appear to have ditched an encore altogether.

Lacking the studio polish of the official releases to balance the sound and smooth away the rough edges, several passages here sound pleasingly urgent and aggressive, and it is interesting to compare the songs that also feature on the official Genesis Live album, released a year or so earlier. The bass (or bass pedal) during the Watcher of the Skies opening is more apparent, for example, adding to the sense of drama and foreboding, and during the heavier Musical Box sections it is as if Steve is battling to control his volume pedal.

One of many examples of amateurish cover art for this much-copied radio broadcast: at least part of the image (Mike Rutherford) is reversed and it is actually from the later Lamb Lies Down tour.

This recording is by no means perfect — radio interference leaks into the sound during quieter passages — but one of the pleasures of bootlegs for fans is the chance to hear their favourite bands in the raw, as it were: the mistakes and mishaps on stage, the experiments that didn’t work and were subsequently dropped, the early performances of songs before further reworking.

Firth of Fifth is a case in point. An undoubted Genesis masterpiece, it is hard to believe (see the Chapter and Verse book) that it almost wasn’t recorded. Here it is played in full, complete with Tony’s opening solo, dropped for subsequent tours. Played on keyboard rather than grand piano, it lacks the majesty of the original recording — in other words, it’s easy to see why it was dropped in favour of the powerful “The path is clear…” opening. Steve’s playing also seems at times to be a little less fluent than on the later Seconds Out version, for example.

Other than the opening and closing drone sound, I Know What I Like is less drawn-out than in later years — and better for it. Bootlegs capture Peter weaving his elaborate between-song stories — here delivered in schoolboy-though-passable French to the Quebecois French-Canadian audience. They are also the only way — at the time of writing, at least — to hear live versions of The Battle of Epping Forest. Only Steve’s Horizons, played here on electric guitar, seems a little out of place. It appears to have been alternated on this tour with another slight song, More Feel Me, sung by Phil, which features on the Genesis Archive #1 release, recorded at the Rainbow in October ‘73.

Searching for images of the band to accompany this article, I was struck by how bare the visual record of the Gabriel period appears to be. For more thoughts on Genesis as a visual spectacle at this time, see below.

Much of the sense of drama came from Peter’s on-stage antics, inevitably all but lost in audio-only recordings. To the already established costume-changes — bat wings, fox’s head and the rest — he has now added the character of Britannia, who introduces Dancing with the Moonlit Knight. Its closing section evokes a pastoral feel; Steve’s lilting guitar combines with the soft tones of the Mellotron, Peter’s flute, the sound of church bells ringing and even the call of the cuckoo.

It serves to further accentuate a strain of eccentric Englishness that lies at the heart of early Genesis, with lyrical themes and references ranging from King Canute and Kew Gardens to fox hunting and evocations of quiet country villages. The lyrics — and Peter’s vocal delivery more generally — are also a source of much of the quietly eccentric humour. As well as bringing to life a rich cast of characters, he has developed a number of peculiar vocal mannerisms, enunciating particular words and phrases in a singular style — “has life again destroyed life?” during Watcher of the Skies, to take one example. Elsewhere, with the band still not quite ready to begin after Peter’s ‘Britannia’ monologue setting up Dancing with the Moonlit Knight, he utters a single word — “Interlude” — as if he were part of a Monty Python continuity sketch.

This quaint and quirky and distinctly English sense of the absurd is further explored in I Know What I Like and The Battle of Epping Forest, each with its cast of characters, whose eccentricities are played out on stage by Peter. The latter, in particular, features whimsical wordplay — “a robbing hood”, “a karmamechanic with overall charms” — and there’s an amusingly down-to-earth little interchange involving Phil on backing vocals: “What’s the trouble, then?” It’s easy to picture Peter shuffling across the stage as the lecherous old man in The Musical Box, as he wheezes lines like “Brush back your hair and let me feel your flesh”.

The climax of the show is the epic Supper’s Ready, perhaps the quintessential prog-rock piece. The closing section of the song, As Sure as Eggs Is Eggs, is soaring, magnificent, glorious. Yet, watching the official Shepperton Studios live footage, shot the previous October, the song’s visual power comes principally from the use of simple fluorescent effects. Indeed, watching the film as a whole, the viewer is struck by its amateurish feel: the set is extremely basic, the lighting is poor and Peter’s costumes look home-made. The dramatic energy comes from the music and, in particular, from Peter’s extraordinary on-stage performance. In this sense, too, the ‘Selling England’ tour represents a crossroads for Genesis.

Genesis at Headley Grange recording the Lamb album, a few months after the Montreal concert. This photo was by Richard Haines. You can see more of his work at genesisfan.net

In a radical departure, the band played The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway in its entirety on the following tour, with only The Musical Box and sometimes Watcher of the Skies surviving as encores. Peter then left the band. This bootleg is valuable, therefore, in capturing the end of a Genesis era, with the band at their prog-rock peak. By 1976, they were back with Phil on vocals, a much more expensive and professional-looking stage show, much — though by no means all — of this classic material retired, and a warmer, less edgy sound.

Note: Officially released live recordings at the time of writing are Genesis Live, and the Genesis Archive #1 recordings from the Rainbow (October 1973) and The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. The official but as-yet-unreleased film of the band recorded at Shepperton Studios in late-October 1973 is widely available online, as is a longer version of the Genesis Live recordings, including more between-song audio and Supper’s Ready, and a longer version of the Rainbow show.

An Apostrophes Question: Or Is It?

TOWNS PLAN ran a Mirror headline last week on a page tweeted by Wigan MP Lisa Nandy. Which towns are planning what, I wondered, before realising that it was in fact a reference to a plan for towns. Ambiguous, to say the least — but that’s newspaper headlines for you. Brevity rules. My favourite — again in the Mirror and dating, I believe, to 1943 — refers to the movements of General Montgomery: MONTY FLIES BACK TO FRONT.

Anyway, I digress. What actually intrigued me about the TOWNS PLAN headline was this: is it good English?

To backtrack a little …

It started with a simple question that has long been nagging away: does the phrase parents evening require an apostrophe? Should it be parents’ evening? I have seen it with and — probably more frequently — without. Having worked my whole life in education, it’s one of those phrases I can’t avoid or sidestep, and so I decided to search out the categorical, authoritative answer — better still, a rule.

Instead, I found a muddle, prompting questions rather than answers and confusion instead of clarity.

For starters, are we dealing with a grammar issue to do with nouns or a punctuation issue to do with apostrophes — or a combination of the two? Welcome to a world of nouns functioning as adjectives, of singular and plural nouns used interchangeably, of apostrophes sometimes used and sometimes not.

Plural noun modifiers

The admissions facilitator at a genetics testing firm, a part-time comics author and public affairs professional, recently sat with the elections commissioner on the energy emergencies executive committee. A former member of the British Growers Association interested in arms sales, he left the airport departures area to seek careers guidance. After consulting the retail prices index, he changed the airline’s fares policy in order to prevent a prisons emergency.

Eh?

Utter drivel, obviously — a nonsense paragraph intended solely to illustrate the ubiquity of plural noun modifiers (the underlined bits) in contemporary English usage. All these phrases — and many, many more — have appeared in my newspaper of choice (The Guardian) recently.

Is this language evolution in action, a Guardian fetish perhaps — or have plural noun modifiers always been a standard part of English grammar? Am I just suffering from a form of availability bias? In other words, plural noun modifiers are on my mind at the moment, and so my brain is consciously noting each and every example I see, leading me to the erroneous conclusion that there are now far more of them in use than there used to be.

Attributive nouns

Two words, two nouns – one in front of the other: admissions and facilitator, departures and area. If I understand it correctly, in constructions like these the first noun is called — depending on your source — a noun modifier, a noun premodifier, a noun adjunct or an attributive noun (the one I will use). In simple terms, in the same way that the adjective green modifies door when Shakin’ Stevens sings Green Door, the noun admissions is acting like an adjective to modify the word facilitator.

I should add for clarity purposes (or perhaps that should be ‘for purposes of clarity’) that I initially googled the phrase ‘adjectival noun’, only to find that it apparently relates to the opposite of what I am discussing here — in other words, an adjective acting like a noun rather than the other way round. Examples are:

The Irish
The rich

We use attributive nouns all the time, usually without any problem. As the website Grammar Style in British English says:

In many cases, we naturally avoid both the apostrophe s and the of-possessive and instead use the possessing noun as an adjective or an attribute of another noun. For example, we would say the bathroom window rather than the bathroom’s window or the window of the bathroom. In this context, the word bathroom is an attributive noun describing the window.

They are all around us — literally, in my case, as I sit here and type:

  • computer keyboard
  • pencil case
  • compact disc player
  • picture frame
  • bookcase (a compound noun made up of book and case)
  • jigsaw piece

Some nouns are used exclusively or primarily as plurals, such as arms meaning ‘weapons’ or customs, referring to what you go through at the border between countries. Clearly, these act as attributive nouns in phrases like arms race and customs union in the same way that singular nouns do — bicycle race and credit union, for example.

That’s fine, but then I read this in the entry on ‘noun adjuncts’ on Wikipedia:

Noun adjuncts were traditionally mostly singular (eg “trouser press”), but there is a recent trend towards more use of plural ones. Many of these can also be or were originally interpreted and spelled as plural possessives (e.g. “chemicals’ agency”, “writers’ conference”, “Rangers’ hockey game”), but they are now often written without the apostrophe, although decisions on when to do so require editorial judgement.

Rules 0 Judgement 1. For someone who yearns for clarity, that’s not an encouraging sign.

Singular or plural modifier — or both?

Does my copy of the Oxford Guide To English Usage [1993 edition] clarify matters? Alas, no — though I note that its section on the different ways that plurals are formed is headed plural formation rather than plurals’ formation or plurals formation. I wonder whether that is because, strictly speaking, I should have written the previous sentence ‘… the different ways that the plural is formed’ — hence, plural formation.

A 28 August Guardian article on schools was headlined Tories’ controversial school plans. Forgetting the apostrophe issue for a moment, why did they not write schools plans — the Tories’ plans for schools? The article then mentioned plans for a crackdown on pupils’ behaviour. Why not a crackdown on pupil behaviour? It spoke of the government’s academies and free schools policy but then quoted from a leaked government document that spoke of the free school programme.

A singular noun modifier often does the job of a plural noun modifier without changing the meaning of the sentence: the government could introduce a carbon credit scheme or a carbon credits scheme; Britain might be facing a prison emergency or a prisons emergency; Hong Kong protesters can fill the airport departure area or the airport departures area; the power cut can result from system failure or systems failure; and we can surely talk about the food and drink industry — there is in fact an organisation called the Food and Drink Federation — or the food and drinks industry.

Alas, this doesn’t always work. Adults clothing (whether it should be with or without an apostrophe) is surely not the same thing as adult clothing. A schools minister (again, with or without the apostrophe) is part of the government, but a school minister sounds like someone who says prayers in assembly. On a school website, the phrase student representative John Smith might mean that John is a student, a representative of students, or both.

And I am still no clearer about which of these phrases — if any — require an apostrophe.

Possessive noun or attributive noun?

I have written for years about humanities teachers, special needs education, options evenings and sports days. It has never once occurred to me that an apostrophe might be required in any of these constructions. So why, then, do I write about parents’ evening or the local boys’ school? Should it in fact be boys school and parents evening?

I don’t think so, but why not? To put it in another way: when is it a possessive noun (requiring an apostrophe) and when is it an attributive noun (not requiring an apostrophe)?

The website ThoughtCo.com offers the following advice:

The apostrophe is omitted when a plural head noun ending in s functions as an adjective rather than as a possessor; in other words, when the relation between the plural head noun and the second noun could be expressed by the prepositions ‘for’ or ‘by’ rather than the possessive ‘of’: carpenters union, New York Mets first baseman. If the plural form of the head noun does not end in s, however, the apostrophe is used: the people’s republic, a children’s hospital.

Hmm. Yes, the rules of English usage are full of quirks, inconsistencies and exceptions, but this separate rule for plurals not ending in ‘s’ strikes me as less than satisfactory. As for the sense of ‘for’ or ‘by’, let’s go back to basics for a moment.

We know that one of the uses of the apostrophe is to denote possession:

The boy’s pencils means ‘the pencils of/belonging to the boy’
The boys’ pencils means ‘the pencils of/belonging to the boys’ (more than one)

But there’s a little more to it than that. To quote Gyles Brandreth from page 73 of his informative, useful and funny book Have You Eaten Grandma?:

It is there to show possession — to indicate that a thing or a person belongs or relates to someone or something [my underlining]

That’s the point: the apostrophe sometimes indicates something other than possession. Gyles cites some examples:

  • The boys’ school
  • Teachers’ Break Room
  • Ladies’ and Men’s Outfitters
  • Birmingham Children’s Hospital

These all made perfect sense to me, demonstrating that the apostrophe sometimes denotes more than mere possession and/or ownership:

  • The boys’ school is a school exclusively for boys — they don’t own it
  • The teachers’ break room – I assume an American equivalent of our staff room – is for the use of teachers
  • Ladies’ outfitters supply ladies with clothes — it’s a supplier for ladies
  • The children’s hospital treats children specifically — it’s a hospital for them

Here’s the rub. All of these plural-noun-modifier phrases — carbon credits scheme, human rights protester, accounts scandal — also carry with them the sense of ‘for’, ‘by’ or ‘relating to’.

So, to repeat the question: when is an apostrophe required and when is it not? How do we distinguish between a possessive noun phrase (requiring an apostrophe) like boys’ school and an attributive noun phrase (apostrophe not required) like prisons emergency?

The BBC to the rescue?

Whenever I am struggling with a question relating to English usage, I often look for relevant examples on the BBC website. It’s not perfect, by any means: news articles are obviously usually written at pace; I am guessing that copy-editing processes will inevitably be less thorough than in, say, the book-publishing industry; and it’s not unusual to find inconsistencies — try googling BBC + special advisor and then BBC + special adviser.

Speaking of the BBC, I note that Dragons’ Den is back on — apostrophe in place. But, hang on, they have also been showing repeats of Dad’s Army. Apostrophe in place — but shouldn’t it be Dads’ Army? How many older gents were there in the Home Guard?

But it’s a starting-point, and so I was spooked when I saw, splashed across my television screen, a banner headline on the BBC News channel that included the phrase schools minister. It just looked a bit iffy. Nick Gibb is the minister for schools (well, school standards). Ditto, prisons minister, equalities minister and so on. When Rory Stewart was the minister for prisons, was he not the prisons’ minister? To be clear, this isn’t just a BBC thing, as a cursory check on government websites confirms.

We don’t use an apostrophe. Okay, I get that — but why not? What’s the rule?

Animate or inanimate?

One obvious point is that schools, prisons, equalities, carbon credits, human rights, accounts etc are all inanimate objects or abstract nouns, as opposed to sentient beings — people or animals. The Guardian did include an apostrophe in these phrases it has used recently:

  • pilots’ union
  • taxpayers’ money
  • workers’ compensation agency and workers’ compensation case
  • treasurers’ review
  • frequent flyers’ levy

The noun modifier in all of these examples relates to people. Is that, then, a deciding factor? Possibly — and possibly not. I am currently reading Peter H Wilson’s book Europe’s Tragedy, which refers to the four monasteries dispute (no apostrophe and no capitals) and the Brothers’ Quarrel (apostrophe and capitals). A Foreign Country by Charles Cumming (the fiction book I was reading when I began drafting this article) refers to the residents’ bar, the reservations system and a baggage handlers’ strike.

On the other hand — damn it! — The Guardian referred recently to 2014’s football hooligans drama The Guvnors. Even football hooligans qualify as sentient beings. The paper referred to the Taxpayers’ Alliance and then, later in the same article, to the Taxpayers Alliance. The organisation itself, by the way, does use an apostrophe in its name.

In fact, organisations are highly inconsistent in this regard. The Girls’ Day School Trust, the National Police Chiefs’ Council and BALPA (in full it’s the British Airline Pilots’ Association) use the apostrophe; the Magistrates Association, the self-styled HomeOwners Alliance and Citizens Advice don’t. Actually, that’s not quite true. Click around the Magistrates Association website and you quickly realise that they themselves can’t decide.

The Grammar and Style in British English website — the apostrophe section of which refers to dogs’ home and teachers’ union — describes business organisations, clubs and trade unions as “a law unto themselves” and makes clear its dim view of the absence of an apostrophe in names such as Barclays, Prison Officers Association, Queens Park Rangers and United Nations Headquarters, as well as street names and the like.

I thought I was starting to get to grips with The Guardian’s style rules, but they had a bafflingly inconsistent day on 17 August — The Grauniad at its best:

  • …animals rights’ march
  • …citizen’s assembly — surely a typo
  • …April Fools Day

Here are a few more, seen since I first uploaded this article:

  • …a number of terrorist victims campaign groups (3 October 2019)
  • …criticism of fossil fuel corporations involvement in the arts (3 October 2019)

Perhaps I should write to Paul Chadwick – he’s their readers’ editor (their title, not mine).

The Americans to the rescue — not

I continued my Google quest for enlightenment. Another US website, The Guide to Grammar and Writing suggests an interesting test:

If you can insert another modifer between the -s word and whatever it modifies, you’re probably dealing with a possessive. Additional modifiers will also help determine which form to use.

Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe threw three touchdown passes. (plural as modifier)
The Patriots’ [new] quarterback, Drew Bledsoe, threw three touchdown passes. (possessive as modifier]

Following this guidance, I guess I might write about the girls’ outstanding school to refer to a specific group of girls — the school itself might or might not be a single-sex establishment — but the outstanding girls school.

The same website goes on to refer to the Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS), which apparently says (note: it is behind a paywall, so I cannot confirm the accuracy of this paraphrasing):

… if singular nouns can act as attributive nouns — city government, tax relief — then plural nouns should be able to act as attributive nouns: consumers group, teachers union. This principle is not universally endorsed, however, and writers must remember to be consistent within a document.

Gulp: they just look wrong to me. I was more than a little relieved to read that final sentence.

The American author and occasional blogger CS Lakin also refers to the “venerable” (her word) CMOS in an interesting blog. She writes:

Their solution is to remove the apostrophe in proper nouns. For example:

Midwest Governors Association
Department of Veterans Affairs
North Dakota Hamster Lovers Association.

But keep these types as possessives:

employees’ cafeteria
farmers’ market
men’s soccer club

This distinction seems ridiculous to me. It also seems to contradict what the Guide to Grammar and Writing (quoted above) claims that the CMOS advises – consumers group, teachers union etc.

Back to Gyles Brandreth’s book, he refers on page 82 to the 2018 Oscars’ Ceremony. What rule or convention is that following, I ask myself?

Plural nouns that don’t end in ‘s’

The dilemma seems to instantly disappear with plurals that don’t end in an ‘s’:

Men’s clothing; women’s football, children’s toys

We would never see the words mens, womens or childrens.

If it’s men’s clothing, surely it is boys’ clothing? If it’s women’s football, surely it is girls’ football? Amber Rudd was until recently the minister for women and equalities in the government. News organisations (including the BBC) are happy to refer to the women’s minister but also to the equalities minister. If she was the women’s minister, why not the equalities’ minister?

As a political aside, legislation is interesting. The 1989 act relating to children, to take just one example, is the Children Act — not the Children’s Act — as is Ian McEwan’s book and the 2004 legislation relating to children, the latter nevertheless detailing the role of the children’s commissioner, not the children commissioner.

A (very) cursory glance at a list of legislation enacted by parliament seems to confirm the above: the apostrophe is not used in the title of an act to denote that it is relating to something. So, for example, in 2019 we had the Tenant Fees Act, the Kew Gardens (Leases) Act and the Offensive Weapons Act. This seems to apply even if — like the Children Act — the something is a sentient creature. We have legislation on the books such as the Farriers Act, the Football Spectators Act and many other such examples, with — according to the 2020 Queen’s Speech — a Prisoners Act to come.

A way forward?
So am I any the wiser?

It seems to me that there are plural (possessive) noun phrases that definitely require an apostrophe and there are plural (attributive) noun phrases that are clearly functioning adjectivally and therefore don’t require an apostrophe — United States senator, economics professor.

It is possible that examples of the latter are on the increase. There are also phrases about which there seems to be no consensus: apostrophes are sometimes used and sometimes not.

Does any of this actually matter? A Guardian ‘Long Read’ feature on Thursday 15 August called The Myth of Language Decline discussed the question of language evolution, making the point that it has always happened. Language is fluid. The author quoted remarks made by Douglas Adams about people’s attitudes to change, actually about technology but equally applicable to language:

Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.
Anything that’s invented between when you’re 15 and 35 is new and exciting and revolutionary.
Anything invented after you’re 35 is against the natural order of things.

My love of language started as a teenager with two inspirational Latin teachers: Latin schools you in the importance of logical rules. The authorities I tend to consult for guidance – anything published by Oxford University Press, the websites of universities and high-performing schools, the Grammar and Style in British English website, the Queen’s English Society – are all likely to be upholders of rules and tradition, instinctively wary of change, perhaps prone to seeing a failure to follow set rules and established conventions as a decline in standards.

American websites, on the other hand, seem far more willing to embrace language evolution. After all, the Americans rewrote the rules on spelling in the nineteenth century.

Is this, then, all a conspiracy by an unholy alliance of Americans and language anarchists to debase the Queen’s English? It would be entirely in keeping with the ethos of The Guardian that, if indeed there is a “recent trend” [a Wikipedia phrase] towards use of plural modifiers without an apostrophe, the paper has embraced it. It prides itself on being at the cutting edge of style.

The Guardian‘s policy on the use of capital letters, for example, reflects its hostility to deference. This example featured on its front page on 16 August 2019: “… after public pressure from president Donald Trump”. It also seems to have declared war on hyphens: antisemitism, nonfiction, multibillion, noncompliance. Non-compliance, indeed.

I referred earlier to Europe’s Tragedy by Peter H Wilson. It’s a history of (in the book’s rendering) the Thirty Years War. Many (perhaps most, but definitely not all — Simon Schama’s book Citizens refers repeatedly to the Seven Years’ War) writers omit the apostrophe — ditto the Hundred Years War. Yet it seems to be generally accepted that phrases such as two minutes’ notice are correct — the venerable Fowler’s Modern English Usage apparently commenting that an apostrophe was required if only because it would be essential if we were writing one minute’s notice. That consistency thing again — and the difficulty caused by plural nouns ending in an ‘s’.

Until I come across some unambiguous guidance, I will attempt to keep to these ‘rules’:

  • Always use an apostrophe with nouns relating to sentient beings: parents’ evening but also options evening
  • Always use an apostrophe if the plural noun does not end in an ‘s’
  • In the case of organisations etc, use capitals and follow how they themselves render their name: Taxpayers’ Alliance but also HomeOwners Alliance
  • Further to the above, the HomeOwners Alliance sees itself as a homeowners’ alliance
  • Adhere to the basic principle: use as little punctuation as possible while maintaining clarity and accuracy

Calling All Stations: Not The Worst Genesis Album

Setting to one side From Genesis to Revelation, essentially a pre-Genesis album written and recorded by schoolboys — literally so: they were still pupils at Charterhouse when the first demos were put down — Calling All Stations is almost certainly most fans’ least favourite Genesis album. It’s the embarrassing uncle, the black sheep of the family, the unloved one, the one that nobody mentions.

It was released in 1997, five or so years after We Can’t Dance and one year after the official announcement that Phil Collins — drummer, lead vocalist and one-man ‘80s hit machine — was leaving the band. And then there were two.

Enter Ray Wilson on vocals, ex-singer with a minor-league outfit called Stiltskin, whose fifteen minutes in the spotlight — a number-one single — came courtesy of a Levi’s advert. And then there were three … again. It was a distinctly odd choice, with age and musical experience only two of the glaring differences between, on the one hand, Tony Banks and Mike Rutherford — ex-public school, softly-spoken practitioners of traditional English reserve, home-counties chaps to the marrow — and, on the other, Wilson, a brash working-class lad from Scotland.

In relative terms — relative, that is, to previous Genesis record sales — the album bombed, as did the subsequent tour: the US leg was cancelled due to poor ticket sales. Plans for a second album were scrapped out of concern for the Genesis name. And then there were none.

Looking back, Tony and Mike damned the album with the faintest of praise:

I felt that the … album was OK (Mike Rutherford)
I … thought the album turned out pretty well (Tony Banks)

Quotes from Genesis — Chapter and Verse (2007)

I remember checking out the lead-off single, Congo, a couple of times and taking an immediate dislike to it, not least the cringeworthy attempt at an arty, politically on-message video. Middle-aged men desperately trying to look cool didn’t work for me (aged 30 at the time). On the back of Congo, I gave the album one highly sceptical and cursory listen, decided it was crap and duly parked it for the best part of twenty years.

Out of curiosity, I dusted it off — literally — just a couple of years ago and gave it a spin. At first, only two or three tracks stood out, but I persisted and the whole album soon started to grow on me.

Eleven tracks, 67 minutes of music — and no out-and-out fillers or obvious padding. It certainly starts strongly, the title track a moody and dramatic guitar-driven affair with BIG Collins-esque drums and a soaring chorus. Congo isn’t as poor as I remember, though the inclusion of African rhythms to bookend the song invites inevitable comparisons — and not flattering ones — with Peter Gabriel’s epic Biko.

Even the more run-of-the-mill efforts — Small Talk, If That’s What You Need, There Must Be Some Other Way — are listenable and certainly no weaker than the selection of songs on side two of their self-titled 1983 album (the one that starts with Mama, a song that isn’t as strong as people say it is). The Abacab album runs for 47 minutes and includes two of the weakest songs in the entire Genesis canon — Who Dunnit? and Another Record.

Calling All Stations isn’t classic Genesis, of course, but it sounds good, there are some great hooks and instrumental passages dotted around, and Ray can certainly sing — a husky voice, deeper and less warm than Phil’s, closer in fact to Peter Gabriel’s.

Tony and Mike are in charge, of course. Drafted in after much of the music had already been written, Ray’s creative input was apparently minimal — a musical idea here, some lyrics there. I have recently bought Banks Vaults, a box set of Tony’s solo albums. A Curious Feeling apart, I am hearing his solo stuff for the first time and currently playing it non-stop. Much of it is great; some of it is outstanding. There are echoes of his solo work, particularly from Still and Strictly Inc, all through Calling All Stations. Other than The Living Years, I am unfamiliar with the back catalogue of Mike and the Mechanics — Mike’s extra-curricular project — but If That’s What You Need is what I imagine a typical Mechanics song sounds like.

When Calling All Stations is good, it’s very good. Shipwrecked, for example, has a great chorus. Anyone familiar with Morrissey’s work might note a similarity between the main keyboard riff and a fairly obscure Morrissey b-side called Lost (released, coincidentally, in the same year).

As on the previous We Can’t Dance album, the inclusion of longer songs allows the band to break free from the verse-chorus-bridge straitjacket. The Dividing Line runs to eight minutes and features some terrific keyboard lines, reminding me of Tony’s excellent The Serpent Said from his 1995 album Strictly Inc.

It also sounds like they enticed Phil back to play drums on the track. In fact, the drumming throughout the album is strikingly good, especially considering that Genesis were without a permanent drummer. The stool at the back was occupied by two guest musicians, one of whom — Nir Zidkyahu — was then invited on the subsequent tour.

The lyrics of One Man’s Fool (among other songs) may be distinctly uninspired at times — “One man’s hot is another man’s cold” — but its overall message about the dangers of (religious) fanaticism, written pre-9/11, of course, resonates now more than ever. This, the closing song, was the first to really hold my attention. At nine minutes, it’s the longest of the album’s eleven tracks, shifting gear midway through to conclude the album in style. Tony — the writer, presumably — sees it differently. Speaking about writing music with Phil’s voice (and creative input) in mind, he is quoted thus:

The first half of the song was good, but the second half suffered. If Phil had been there I just know it would have just taken off and gone somewhere else.

Tony Banks, quoted in Genesis — Chapter and Verse (2007)

Alien Afternoon is the quirkiest song on the album. It quickly settles into a fairly unremarkable groove: a humdrum tune with humdrum lyrics about a humdrum existence. Something seems to happen to our narrator mid-song — a paranormal episode or extra-terrestrial experience of some kind. Ghostly voices ring out like an angelic choir — “We are home / We are your home / We are all your home” — with suitably unsettling and other-worldly mood music from Tony and Mike. A close encounter of the Genesis kind. Great stuff.

Again, it very much reminds me of another song — probably my favourite by Simon and Garfunkel, The Only Living Boy in New York. Paul is fed up, stuck at home writing songs for the new album while Art is away in Mexico pursuing a film career. Then we hear Art’s heavily treated vocal calling from the ether — “Here I am” — as if he’s hearing Paul from afar.

Genesis excel at songs dealing with despair, pain and loss — the live version of Afterglow on Seconds Out towers above everything. Not About Us sounds like classic Mike writing. It is not unlike his Snowbound, a favourite from And Then There Were Three. Along the same lines, Uncertain Weather is probably the best song on the album. The ease with which the listener can project his or her own experiences onto lines about fading photographs and fading memories gives the song added power:

All gone long ago
Leaving no trace
Disappearing like smoke in the wind

Uncertain Weather

Goosebumps-good. Alas, the spell is broken by the inclusion of awful half-spoken lines midway through the song.

Overall, then, Calling All Stations is not bad at all: it’s time to bring the uncle in from the cold. For readers who know their Genesis history, it’s nowhere near as good as anything from the ‘70s but, especially if shortened to about 50 minutes (the length of a typical first-released-on-vinyl Genesis album), it would certainly stand comparison with anything released post-Duke (1980). It is better than Abacab (1981) and Genesis (1983), and probably on a par with Invisible Touch (1986) and We Can’t Dance (1991).

Queen On Fire — Live at the Bowl: Reviewing the Review

Introduction

I was interested to see what, if anything, had changed — my knowledge of Queen, my thoughts and opinions, other contextual information — in the fifteen years since I wrote my review of the Queen On Fire – Live at the Bowl DVD. At the time, I titled the review ‘A Crown Jewel’ and awarded the DVD five stars out of five. It was published on Amazon in November 2004, a week or so after the DVD’s release.

As I write now (July 2019), the DVD is not available from the official online shop, though the audio is available for download. It was never officially released on Blu-ray.

The original review text is shown in italics.


For Queen obsessives, the advent of remastered CD and DVD has served to keep the – ahem – ‘magic’ alive long after the demise of the band itself as a creative unit. The latest release is this long-awaited Milton Keynes Bowl concert, recorded June 1982, on the European leg of the Hot Space tour. A heavily-edited film of the show was first used, improbably enough, on Channel 4’s alternative music show The Tube in 1983; that edit has since featured regularly on VH1. Individual songs have also appeared in video montages and compilations. Now, after the success of the Live at Wembley Stadium DVD, this is the MK show in its entirety – warts ‘n’ all – and very welcome it is too.

The opening sentence was obviously written in the resigned belief that the days of Queen as a going concern were over. Though purists would doubtless question the whole notion that Queen are again a creative unit, the ‘Queen’ brand is certainly very much alive and kicking. The beginnings of the Queen/Paul Rodgers collaboration were in 2004, leading to major tours in 2005 and 2008 and to the The Cosmos Rocks album. Even more successful has been the Queen/Adam Lambert collaboration. That’s not to mention the longevity of the We Will Rock You stage musical and the phenomenal success of the Bohemian Rhapsody film.

Alas, contrary to my remark in the last sentence, not quite every wart was in fact included in the DVD. Check out the clip below [at roughly 2:22] which was left in the original Channel 4 broadcast but polished out of the Live at the Bowl release.

Previous ‘live’ offerings from Queen too often suffered from heavy handed editing, remixing and general interference, sometimes due to the limitations of technology at the time but more often in a mistaken attempt at quality assurance. The nadir is 1986’s Live Magic which employs a ghastly mixture of omission and (unbelievably) song editing to fit a two-hour show onto LP. A close second is the video of 1985’s Rock in Rio triumph: Brian May’s guitar is hopelessly buried in the mix and the overall band sound is dull and blunted. Now, as this DVD demonstrates, even on basic home equipment, digital remastering brings a raw freshness to the sound as well as sharpness and colour to the picture.

I think this paragraph generally holds true, though whether the freshness and sharpness I applauded at the time is simply the result of digital mastering I now realise I am not expert enough to say. I have written elsewhere about the failure of official releases to capture and authentically convey the live Queen sound. The release of the Live at the Rainbow ’74 box set in 2014 set a new benchmark. Despite the “limitations of technology at the time” [my words], both of the 1974 concerts sound superb, particularly the 31 March gig. I still regard the Procession/Father to Son opening as probably the most powerful beginning to a live album that I am aware of, though to be fair the Milton Keynes opener (Flash/The Hero) is great too.


After the pomp and grandeur of two world tours between 1977 and 1979, their stage show by 1982 had adopted a pared-down, ‘hot and spacey’ feel to match their changing musical direction. The grandiose ‘Crown’ lighting rig in 1977-78 and the ‘Pizza Oven’ roof of lights that spectacularly adorns the Live Killers sleeve were replaced by relatively modest, moving banks of lights and powerful spots. Musically, while the new songs from the sharply criticised Hot Space album undoubtedly benefit from a live work-out, this viewer well remembers their muted greeting by the crowd at the previous week’s Elland Road concert.

Absolutely. Back Chat and Staying Power both sound superb. It baffles me why one of these two songs was not released as the lead-off single for the Hot Space album. For the subsequent US and Japanese tours, other Hot Space tracks were given a workout, notably Put Out the Fire and Calling All Girls. Even Body Language didn’t sound completely awful played live. As it happens, I have recently been listening to Genesis bootlegs from roughly the same period: the muted crowd reaction to the newer Abacab material is similar to what I describe here. It was a tough time to be a fan of ’70s rock giants!


However, Queen always delivered onstage and this DVD magnificently captures the power of Queen live. Freddie is in particularly mischievous form, teasing and energising the crowd (“are you ready…are you ready brothers and sisters?”). The consummate showman bounds across the stage and athletically utilises gangways incorporated into the stage set to project the band in larger venues. Though Freddie did not personally write a Queen blockbuster after 1979’s Crazy Little Thing Called Love, he was still fit and lithe, aged 35 in 1982, the singing voice strong and assured. Only later did a combination of wear and tear, age and smoking lead to difficulties at the end of long shows and tours. Before AIDS (first identified in 1983), it is also interesting to note the overtly sexual nature of much of his onstage banter, strutting and posing.

The obvious error in the above paragraph is the one relating to Freddie’s voice. When I wrote those words, I hadn’t really heard many bootlegs of Queen shows, so I only had official releases and what I remember actually hearing live to go on — neither of which is (sad to say) a reliable guide. Having listened to a lot of bootlegs since 2004, I now realise how inaccurate the statement is. In reality, from the later-1970s at the very latest, Freddie was regularly struggling with his voice on stage, especially towards the end of long tours and particularly towards the end of shows.

Japan definitely got the shortest of short straws in this respect – unfortunate, as they were particularly keen to film the band’s concerts. With the exception of the February ’81 Budokan shows, all of the band’s tours to Japan followed on from extensive touring in other parts of the world. Listen, to take just one example, to how Freddie struggles to sing Bohemian Rhapsody during the 1979 Japanese dates. You can point to lots of similar examples from the ’82 and ’85 tours. We Are the Champions always presented problems — Roger to the rescue! — as did (from 1984 onwards) Radio Ga Ga.

Now think about the official releases. Montreal ’81 — voice superb — came after a month-long break. Milton Keynes ’82 — voice superb — came after a three-day break on a mini-British tour of just four shows. Live Aid too — voice superb — came after a very lengthy break. Hammersmith ’79 — not an official release (yet, but we live in hope!) but generally acknowledged to be a superb vocal performance — came after a four-day break (and Christmas dinner).

Jumping ahead to Wembley ’86, there were relatively long breaks between most shows on the Magic Tour. But Freddie was older, the stage was enormous and the filmed Saturday show followed on from the additional Friday concert. It’s not too bad vocally, but there’s lots of stuff sung in — what is it called? — the lower register, masked by the impressive-sounding cod-operatic delivery. True, Budapest was a stronger vocal performance than Wembley, but it came on the back of a five-day break.


The performance – and the filming – is not quite as polished as 1986 and casual buyers might begin their collection with the aforementioned Live at Wembley Stadium DVD. It was 1985’s Live Aid that truly elevated Queen to superstar status. In 1982, the set list still contained obligatory new-album material and hard-rocking (but relatively uncommercial) stage favourites like We Will Rock You (fast) and Sheer Heart Attack. For the Queen connoisseur, however, there is much to enjoy. Particular highlights include Somebody to Love: a singalong favourite and live staple from 1976, it was inexplicably left off the Live Killers LP and finally dropped in 1986. If Queen’s finest hour (or, rather, 17 minutes) at Live Aid can be criticised, it is surely the inclusion of Hammer to Fall at the expense of Somebody to Love.

Absolutely. The whole show sounds great, and the performance of Somebody to Love is indeed a highlight, as is The Hero opening, Fat Bottomed Girls — “You made an asshole outta me!” — and Save Me, to choose just three. I also still think I am correct about the Live Aid set.

One criticism I don’t mention is that the final twenty minutes or so feel a touch predictable. Once Freddie plays the opening bars of Bohemian Rhapsody, you can guess how things are going to pan out. The close of the show could have done with some refreshing by this point, I think. After all, albeit with some moving things around on occasion (and the introduction along the way of Another One Bites the Dust), Tie Your Mother Down / Sheer Heart Attack / We Will Rock You / We Are the Champions had been the basis of the latter part of the show since late-1977.

We now know that earlier in the Hot Space tour they appear to have mixed things up a bit — Tie Your Mother Down and Sheer Heart Attack were both tried out at the beginning of the set after The Hero, for example, and Liar was even played in its entirety on a couple of occasions — but by the time of the British shows they had reverted to the ‘usual’ ending. It’s just a thought, but one wonders whether they were nervous at the reaction to their new material and tacking to safer waters.


Another fine Milton Keynes moment is the gloriously un-PC Fat Bottomed Girls. Unfortunately, a raucously out-of-tune scream by Freddie has been polished out – but at least problems with Brian May’s lead during his earlier solo spot have been left in; anoraks truly treasure such moments! This tour is also noteworthy for fans as the first to feature additional (off-stage) keyboards to supplement the band’s sound. Brian’s ‘chat’ before Love of My Life is also somewhat unusual. Dedicating the song to people “who have given up their lives for what they believe”, it is a reference to the Falklands War that dominated the headlines that spring and summer: Queen were in an acutely difficult position as they had played in Argentina the previous year, were selling phenomenally well over there and had just released a single in English and Spanish – Las Palabras de Amor.

Overall, Live At Milton Keynes Bowl is another top quality Queen DVD. What delights await next Christmas? Paris 1979? Houston or Earl’s Court 1977? Hyde Park 1976, please.

As it happens, none of the above suggestions have yet seen the official light of day in full. Oddly enough, I didn’t mention Hammersmith 1979. I had high hopes that footage from 1979 might be released this year — there is plenty of it — to tie in with the fortieth anniversary of the release of Live Killers. Alas, nothing has appeared as yet.

Footage of Sweet Lady from Hyde Park has appeared as a DVD extra, and some of the Houston footage was used in the Old Grey Whistle Test documentary released in 2017. My Melancholy Blues and We Will Rock You (fast) from the same gig have also appeared officially, as have Fat Bottomed Girls and Sheer Heart Attack from Paris.

I neglected in the original review to mention the bonus material in the original review. It’s decidely patchy. There are some tour interviews, a photo gallery backed with a live version of Calling All Girls, some backstage Milton Keynes material, and some footage from Austria earlier in the tour. The highlight is about thirty minutes’ worth of footage from Japan from November 1982, the very final show of the world tour. It has long been available as a Japan-only VHS release. As suggested above, with Freddie’s voice cracking in places, the show is unlikely ever to be given a full release.

Seconds Out — The Greatest Live Album?

Reflections on Seconds Out and Genesis live on the 1977 Wind and Wuthering tour

I probably bought Seconds Out in 1979 aged twelve or thirteen, having discovered the band via And Then There Were Three. As luck would have it, my local library stocked Armando Gallo’s lavishly illustrated book, I Know What I Like, so I soon had a good sense of how Seconds Out fitted into the Genesis story. Recorded in Paris in June 1977 towards the end of six months on the road promoting the Wind and Wuthering album, it captures ‘old’ Genesis and features almost the very last performances of the four-plus-one line-up: Steve Hackett’s absence from mixing-desk duties over the summer effectively signalled his departure from the band. If memory serves, Gallo refers in his book to this being his favourite tour, the band, he says, performing almost flawlessly night after night.

The original October 1977 release featured twelve tracks spread across four sides of vinyl:

Side 1: Squonk / Carpet Crawlers / Robbery, Assault and Battery / Afterglow
Side 2: Firth of Fifth / I Know What I Like / The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway / The Musical Box (excerpt)
Side 3: Supper’s Ready
Side 4: The Cinema Show / Dance on a Volcano / Los Endos

With Peter Gabriel’s departure in 1975, the harshness and aggression noticeable in their earlier material — the likes of The Return of the Giant Hogweed — has given way to a softer and more polished sound. In part, this comes from Phil Collins – his vocal more soothing and melodic than Peter’s husky voice. Tony Banks, meanwhile, is the dominant musical presence, his lush keyboard sound leading the way in song after song and smoothing away the rough edges of the original recordings. With Steve Hackett’s guitar often an elusive, spectral presence floating free in the air, it falls to Mike Rutherford’s bass to provide counterpoint to Tony, such as during the exquisite keyboard solo starting at roughly 2:25 of Robbery, Assault and Battery.

I found this list when I was going through some old papers. It’s called ‘Top 50 Albums’ and dated 14 August 1983. I’m more than a little surprised that I put Simon and Garfunkel at number one; I think I’d just bought the album and was blown away with it. However, pretty much everything listed here would still be in my top 40 (though not necessarily in the same order) and much of it in my top 20.

Carpet Crawlers — an unlikely staple of the live show over the years — builds gently but insistently from its delicate opening. Robbery, Assault and Battery bounces with cockney swagger, allowing Phil to dust off his boyhood Artful Dodger character. The Dance on a Volcano / Los Endos medley closes the main set in thrilling fashion, as the 747 landing lights and dry ice depicted in the spectacular front-cover photo bathe the stage in ghostly white.

It gets better. Ahead of us lie perhaps the four finest Genesis moments on record.

A Genesis diehard will more than likely argue that Supper’s Ready, which dominates the third quarter of the set, is the band’s signature song – their Stairway to Heaven, their Smoke on the Water. It is epic, ambitious, daring — and on Seconds Out it is magnificent. The delightful sound mix helps, of course, but so does Phil’s front-man masterclass — by turns quirky and playful, soaring and majestic — offering his own interpretation of the song and more than doing justice to Peter’s original vocal.

The finale, As Sure as Eggs Is Eggs, is heady stuff indeed:

The lord of lords
King of kings
Has returned to lead his children home
To take them to the New Jerusalem

Supper’s Ready

Turn it up to 11, sit back and try not to shed a tear or two.

Two songs from arguably their best album — Selling England by the Pound — are a particular joy. The Cinema Show is a patchwork quilt of musical ideas — a succession of miniature keyboard flourishes and dazzling drum fills from the Bruford–Collins combination at the back, building to a show-stopping bass run from Mike at approximately 9:52. Though it is primarily a Tony Banks song, Firth of Fifth is Steve’s moment in the limelight. Often a peripheral presence, here is a chance for guitar to take centre stage.

And then there is Afterglow — an as-good-as-it-gets, goosebumps Genesis moment.

Now I’ve lost everything I give to you my soul
The meaning of all that I believed before escapes me in this world of none
I miss you more

Afterglow

Written in minutes (says Tony) and set lyrically in the immediate aftermath of some cataclysm or other, it builds from a hypnotic guitar riff to a spine-tingling climax, complete with angelic choir1, an effect he uses elsewhere on the album with equally dramatic results.

Ironically, Squonk is, for this fan at least, one of the weaker tracks – ironic in the sense that, for obvious reasons, the set opener is usually exceptionally strong. I Know What I Like, their first hit single, is also a dip of sorts. Performed live, it stretches out over eight minutes and more, a space for Phil’s on-stage antics with a tambourine. It’s an interlude of musical light relief, though the improvised middle section drags somewhat.

Everything I thought I knew about Genesis live in the seventies came from three sources: the Gabriel-era Genesis Live album, Gallo’s book and Seconds Out. Times change. Today the Genesis fan has an abundance of source material – the lengthy interviews making up the official Chapter and Verse book, for example, are a mine of useful detail, anecdote and context.

Armando Gallo had privileged behind-the-scenes access, but we can all now follow in his footsteps and check out the tour at various stops along the way. These reflections are based on seven excellent bootlegs from the Wind and Wuthering tour, all readily available for download completely free of charge: the London Rainbow and Southampton (January), Dallas and San Francisco (March), Sao Paolo (May), Earl’s Court, London (June) and Zurich (July). Listening to them offers us a far more complete picture of Genesis live in 1977 than the one presented by Seconds Out.

A cover of one of several excellent Genesis bootlegs from 1977. Sadly the Viva Les Bootlegs website is no longer updated, but there are other sites where bootlegs can be downloaded free of charge.

The actual running-order of the live show varied considerably from the Seconds Out track-listing. After some experimentation during the initial British dates (including, it seems, the short-lived inclusion of Lilywhite Lilith and Wot Gorilla), the set list eventually settled down to this:

Squonk / One for the Vine / Robbery, Assault and Battery / Your Own Special Way / Firth of Fifth / Carpet Crawlers / In That Quiet Earth / Afterglow / Eleventh Earl of Mar / Supper’s Ready / Dance on a Volcano / Los Endos / The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway / The Musical Box (excerpt)

Songs that were played live but don’t appear on Seconds Out are shown struck through

Eleventh Earl of Mar occasionally opened the set, and The Knife was included as an additional encore towards the very end of the tour, featuring on the Earl’s Court bootleg. All in a Mouse’s Night was played in the first few shows and then dropped relatively quickly for no obvious reason. Your Own Special Way was probably included as the then-current single. On stage, it falls rather flat despite some gorgeous additional piano from Tony. With the release of the Spot the Pigeon EP later in the year, the lesser-known but excellent b-side Inside and Out, another showcase for Steve’s guitar, took its place.

The Cinema Show was recorded on the band’s previous tour, having been dropped from the set by 1977. The reason for its inclusion here is not immediately obvious — a courtesy to Bill Bruford, perhaps (the band’s first fill-in drummer on stage: Chester Thompson took over drumming duties for the Wind and Wuthering tour and features on the rest of the album), or a discreet admission that leaving it out of the set had been an error (it was back for the next tour).

The decision to include The Cinema Show on Seconds Out and to omit several songs from Wind and Wuthering has a significant impact on the overall musical balance of the album. Unlike the live show, it is dominated by Gabriel-era music — in total, something like two-thirds, including the entirety of sides two and three — whereas at Dallas on 19 March, to choose one gig at random, Gabriel-era music comprises less than half the set. Five songs from Wind and Wuthering are performed (it was six in the early shows when All in a Mouse’s Night was played), of which only Afterglow eventually made it onto Seconds Out.

A cutting from the excellent The Genesis Archive fan site

The words ‘supper’s ready’ are spoken by Phil to introduce, well, Supper’s Ready. They are the only words spoken on the album (except for a brief, breathless “merci, Paris” and “merci, bonsoir”). It is all deeply serious. Except, in reality, it wasn’t. Seconds Out omits all the between-song chatter — and there’s a lot of it — and with it much of the humour that was integral to a Genesis show.

Phil is at the centre of it all, naturally. He’s following a tradition started by Peter, filling space to allow time for retuning and assorted tweaking and twiddling. So we miss out on the dodgy exploits of Harry the bank robber and the saucy goings-on of two virgins, Romeo and Juliet, the detail more or less titillating from one night to the next, presumably depending on whether the show was being broadcast live on radio. Mike joins in the fun. Your Own Special Way — about “Myrtle the Mermaid” — is apparently “racing up the Venezualan charts”. The story of Eleventh Earl of Mar, meanwhile, is set in Scotland, “a small country just north of England”. This levity is all perhaps a bit too much for Steve, who politely informs the audience that Firth of Fifth is “a song about a river”.

When the audience heard Phil announce at, say, Southampton Gaumont Theatre on 20 January 1977 that “this next one is from our new record”, did they already have an inkling that what they were hearing was one of a collection of songs that would stand the test of time — songs that are as fresh and exhilarating to hear in 2019 as they were when first released over forty years earlier?

Bootlegs offer us a more rounded picture than official releases — rough edges and raw mixes, mistakes and miscues — and as such they are essential listening for any fan. But Seconds Out provides something more. Beautifully mixed (to this amateur’s ears, at least), it captures a band at the peak of their game, playing many of their finest songs and sounding exquisite throughout. It is a classic album – classic in the sense of ‘the best, the highest quality’, but classic also in its timelessness. It deserves a place on the shortest of shortlists of the greatest live albums of all time.