What’s wrong with grammar schools? Two words: secondary moderns

11-plusI’ve nothing against grammar schools; it’s the secondary moderns I don’t like. For younger readers, secondary moderns are the schools you go to if you don’t get into a grammar school. You can call them what you like, but secondary moderns is what they are: every child there has either failed the 11-plus or not even been entered for it. “A grammar school in every town” automatically turns all other schools in the area into secondary moderns.

If you support Theresa May and Nick Timothy in their drive to bring back these engines of social division, you’d better be very sure your kids, your grandkids, and your friends’ and neighbours’ kids if you care about them too, are going to pass the 11-plus. Because you really, really don’t want them ending up at a secondary modern.

Ask yourself honestly: once you have a grammar school and a secondary modern in your catchment area, which school will get the best teachers? Which school will get the investment? Which school will business want to sponsor and support? Which school will get the all-important “good reputation”? You know the answers. We will be creating sink schools by default.

Why would anyone “progressive” want to do that?

Three words that won it


LOOKING BACK on last month’s EU referendum, my hunch is that the “take back control” message probably swung it in the last week. As a political message it had everything, all packed into three words. I don’t know if this was a stroke of genuis on the part of someone at Vote Leave or just a happy (for them) accident. Although they never actually used these three words on their publicity material, here’s ten reasons why “take back control” was probably the most devastatingly effective political slogan of modern times.

1. It’s irrefutable

How could you not want to take back control? What’s your counter-argument: “Less control, more impotence!”? “Better off with someone else in charge”? To argue against it you have to waffle on about “pooled sovereignty” or “sharing control”, or you have to say something that sounds downright perverse. Either way, you lose.

2. It’s tangible

How clever to replace the abstract concept of “sovereignty” with the much more solid and immediate “control”. People have to think about what sovereignty means, and then you’re into a discussion. But everyone knows what it means and feels like to be in control.

3. It’s flattering

No one ever won an election by telling people they were shit. It says “you’re more powerful than you think”, “you can do this”. At a time when people feel increasingly powerless, telling them that they weren’t was incredibly powerful.

4. It’s optimistic

Instead of assailing people with a lot of doomy statistics about how bad the EU is and how many migrants are going to arrive, “take back control” simply told people that a better future is in their own hands. John Lanchester has written brilliantly about how most working people feel bewildered and powerless in the post-crash world. “Take back control” seemed to offer both an explanation and a way forward.

5. It’s nostalgic

The “back” was important. Nostalgia is very powerful because it’s reassuring. When proposing a radical change it’s much better to say we’re going back to something we had before. That way, it seems achievable and less of a leap in the dark. And it’s more tangible. For the same reason, “Bring Back British Rail” sounds much more attractive and doable than “take the railways back into public ownership”.

6. It’s empowering

It’s not us who will take back control, not the government, not even an abstract entity like “the British people”. YOU will take back control. This ties in very powerfully with the idea that the EU is remote and undemocratic, and carries the clear implication that individual people will somehow have more control over their lives.

7. It sounds grown up

It doesn’t promise free money, cheap beer or handouts. It says you are an adult, you can take responsibility for your and our future. It’s also quite challenging in a way: “it’s up to you to make this work”.

8. It blames

No one was under illusions about who we would be taking back control from. The target was clear, and if you’re going to base a campaign on blame, it’s better to be clear about who you’re blaming: we had control, the EU took it, we want it back.

9. It’s short

There’s a saying in the copywriting world: “good things come in threes”. Many of most our most effective and memorable political slogans delivered their hit in just three words: “thirteen wasted years” (1964), “Labour isn’t working” (1979), “Labour’s double whammy” (1992) and “Britain deserves better” (1997) were all election winners. Although there were shorter (#TakeControl) and longer (“Let’s take back control”) variants of Vote Leave’s slogan, it’s the three-word version Brexit leaders actually said out loud that everyone will remember. It says just what it needs to say and no more. By contrast, can anyone remember the Remain campaign slogan?

10. It’s not an argument at all

“Take back control” doesn’t promise anything, doesn’t refute anything, doesn’t warn about anything. It doesn’t pretend to offer real solutions to real problems. Like a mantra, it can be thrown back in the face of almost any argument, without making the speaker look too foolish. Probably the most effective way to sell anything is to make people feel good about buying it. “Take back control” was just a simple instruction to do something that would feel good.


May shuffles and leads with the joker

THE APPOINTMENT of Boris Johnson as foreign secretary is either a very smart move by Theresa May or an incredibly stupid one. I can’t make up my mind which.

It’s certainly a gamble of some sort. Until now, even May’s own supporters weren’t claiming that she was much more than “a safe pair of hands” – Westminster-speak for “boring and cautious”. Boris’s surprise elevation, the sacking of Osborne, Gove, Whittingdale, Crabb and Morgan, and the hospital pass of DEFRA to her vanquished rival Andrea Leadsom, were bolder moves than anyone expected. This could be the brisk radicalism of someone who has acquired power quickly and confidently. Or it could be a streak of Cameroonian carelessness.

It’s tempting to think she’s simply set Boris up to fail by finally giving him enough rope to hang himself with: either he crashes and burns within a few months, as many expect, or he ends up as the chief fall guy when the Brexit golden elephants turn out to be flying porkers after all. Who better to carry the can than the Brexit cheerleader-in-chief, a man who will probably give her an excuse to sack him every time he opens his mouth?

Not only does Boris rub foreigners up the wrong way, but he tends to self-destruct in the presence of real work. This will be real work. We know Boris has an almost desperate need to be liked. We know Boris wants to have his cake and eat it too. And we know, in this job, he’s going to spend most of his time locked in meeting rooms with people who don’t like him very much and won’t give him what he wants just because he stamps his feet and shouts louder than anybody else. If he flounders, will anyone blame Theresa May? She gave him a chance, but Boris was just Boris after all.

Or maybe, just maybe, he can pull it off. Maybe, as foreign secretary, he will emerge as a diamond in the rough in the Ernie Bevin mould. Maybe he can turn the bumbling charm that works so well at home to our advantage abroad. Maybe Boris can find some workable compromise he can sell to the Brexit majority in the country. If he does, Theresa May will look like a political genius.

And let’s not forget, Boris isn’t a real Brexiteer anyway. He never really wanted to leave the EU and even after 23 June he was still talking about “intensifying European cooperation” and making concessions on freedom of movement. And I doubt he’s entirely given up on the idea of a second referendum on a renegotiated EU deal. In Boris, May has got someone as foreign secretary who, while wearing Brexit colours, actually thinks along similar lines to her.

The awkward fact remains that Boris has failed at every real political job he’s been given (as well as failing at two proper jobs before becoming a politician). As a Tory frontbencher in the early noughties, he shambled around for a few months earning the eternal loathing of the city of Liverpool, before being sacked for lying to Tory leader Michael Howard about his affair with Petronella Wyatt. Even Tory MPs can’t find much good to say about his parliamentary performance, either as MP for Henley-on-Thames from 1999 to 2008, or for Uxbridge and South Ruislip since 2015. As London mayor for eight years, he will be mainly remembered for waving union flags while dangling from a zip wire and for rugby tackling a very small Japanese boy. People will, I suppose, continue to talk about “Boris Bikes”, although they were actually a Ken Livingstone initiative which Boris just stuck his name on. Ironically, his one lasting achievement will probably be the effective renationalisation of much of London’s rail network – hardly something a darling of the Tory right puts at the top of their CV.

Then came his dissembling over Brexit, that clueless, almost apologetic post-referendum press conference, and his disastrous leadership bid.

But for reasons that escape me, people in power keep giving this pampered man the benefit of the doubt. Boris has spent so much time drinking in the last chance saloon he has a stool with his name on it and an engraved tankard behind the bar. He’s 52, for God’s sake, even older than me, so let’s stop talking about him as he’s if he’s some talented youngster who just needs to calm down and find his feet in a grown up job. This isn’t a test for Boris to pass or fail, this isn’t a “chance” for him to show us what he can do. This is the real deal. A good part of our futures may depend on what Boris Johnson can achieve in this job.

The last three weeks have made Britain a laughing stock, and a byword for political stupidity, egotism and outright nastiness. Our standing with our friends and allies has never been lower. Theresa May’s first move was to put the chief clown in charge of the circus. It might yet be a shrewd move. But let’s see who’s laughing in six months’ time.

Photo: Financial Times/flickr.com/SE7/CC 2.0


WATCHING EVENTS UNFOLD post-Brexit reminds me of the scene in the original Dad’s Army movie when a streamroller “driven” by Captain Mainwaring and Corporal Jones accidentally crushes a line of tents at a training camp. Mainwaring says sorry for destroying the tents, only to be told: “You will be. It was you that was gonna be sleeping in ‘em.”

No one can stop Brexit, and no one can steer or control it either. The hapless Brexit leadership, stuck in the cab like Mainwaring and Jones, have been reduced to shouting “don’t panic” in a grim parody of their campaign strategy, which was simply to ignore facts and shout louder than anyone else. This is a self-inflicted disaster pressed on us by politicians who are simply out of their depth.

The speed with which Johnson, Gove, Hannan and Farage have backtracked on their campaign promises is breathtaking. Just days after the result, we now know there will be no access to the single market without free movement of workers – because all 27 remaining EU states say it won’t happen (and it only takes one). Daniel Hannan has admitted as much. We know there will be no £350m a week for the NHS – because Nigel Farage and Micheal Gove have admitted that wasn’t true. And we can see there will be no smooth landing for the British economy – firms are already axing jobs and our Triple-A credit rating has been downgraded, not by one notch, but two.

Brexit voters were lied to, and Vote Leave wiping their website won’t cover that up. Sooner or later there will be a reckoning. Boris Johnson knew this; hence his funereal victory speech on Friday morning. He tried hard, but mouthing platitudes in a lower register doesn’t amount to statesmanship. That wasn’t steely determination in his eyes, it was genuine befuddlement, with more than a hint of fear.

Nigel Farage’s idea of statesmanship was to jet off to Brussels to gloat for England on the floor of the European Parliament. Insulting the very people we will have to negotiate with is a bloody funny way to get that “special” deal with the EU he’s promised us. But like all demagogues he likes the sound of his own voice too much to care about the consequences of what he says. Cheers for that, Nige.

But let’s not pick on Farage. It’s our great misfortune to have been plunged into this crisis with the most useless political leadership of my lifetime.

Cameron, the dilettante prime minister who precipitated the crisis, cleared off with barely a word, lazily shoving everything into the lap of his successor.

Osborne disappeared for four days, quite possibly on an epic bender. Gove spent the weekend hiding from reporters, before getting down to the important business of plotting against his friends. Jeremy Corbyn turned up on College Green and mumbled something I didn’t quite catch, probably about Palestine.

I haven’t a clue what should happen next, but one way or another we have to hold the Brexit leaders’ feet to the fire. We want the extra cash for the NHS. We want the higher wages and job security they promised. We want our pensions protected. We expect housing to become more affordable.

It would be just if the Tories chose a Brexit leader so we could hold him or her personally accountable for delivering what they promised. But instead, it looks like we will get Remain “supporter” Theresa May, a politician whose idea of courage and leadership was to keep her head down during the campaign for fear it might damage her chances of becoming Tory leader.

Calls for the referendum to be re-run now are daft. You can’t just ask the same question again because you don’t like the last answer or because you think a few people have changed their minds. But if 23 June was Independence Day, it was quickly followed by Indecision Day on Friday. We have voted against something but without voting for anything.

The referendum question itself was another in the long line of stupid decisions taken by Cameron in this sorry affair. He should have insisted that Brexit campaigners present people with a worked out alternative to EU membership, so we could actually make a choice. Instead, we got to vote on a choice between the status quo or “something else”. Looking at it that way, I’m now quite surprised we got 48%.

Whatever settlement the coming Tory Brexit government comes up with, it’s bound to be crap. EU leaders hold all the cards and will make mincemeat of this sorry shower in negotiations. I doubt Brexit leaders will keep any of the big promises made in this wretched campaign. If we ever get another Labour government, it should put the Brexit deal to the people so we can really decide if we prefer it to being a proper member of the European Union.


Because it’s worth it

I WANT TO MAKE a final appeal to you to vote for Britain to stay in the European Union in tomorrow’s referendum. And I want to do it by addressing the issue of migration head on.

Let’s not pretend leaving the EU won’t give us more control over migration. It will. We may not want to do it, we may not need to do it, but we would have the power to limit migration from other EU countries. Of course, It won’t do anything about migration from outside the EU, which accounts for more than half of net migration into the UK.

It’s also unlikely we would even want to reduce EU migration to zero – are we really going to stop employers from bringing over French chefs, German engineers or Italian designers if they really need them? And, of course, we will still depend on the 600,000 workers from EU countries who work in vital public services like schools, hospitals and social care. How many of those will stick around once we make it much more difficult for them to live and work here remains to be seen.

But, yes Brexiteers, you will be able to bring in your beloved points system and we may see fewer people from the continent living and working over here.

And what a price we will pay for that.

Let’s nail down one thing straightaway. We will be leaving the single market. Brexiteers claim we can stop freedom of movement and still remain in that fabled free trade zone “stretching from Iceland to the Russian and Turkish borders” (they admit it excludes Belarus, but it actually excludes Serbia, Bosnia and Ukraine as well, while Switzerland and Albania have only limited access). That is a lie, perhaps the biggest whopper of the whole campaign.

Every single one of the countries in that free trade zone has to accept the same free movement of people from EU countries that we do now (it’s not complete freedom of movement, we can keep out criminals and benefit tourists, for example). There are no exceptions, it’s a condition of joining the single market. The idea that, once outside the EU, we will get some special deal which isn’t on offer to any other country in the world, is risible. Even more ridiculous is the idea that the likes of Michael Gove, Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage could bring it about. Their names are mud on the continent.

So, unless we accept freedom of movement for EU citizens with Britain, we will be locked out of a community where we can trade and work freely with more than 500 million people, with all that implies for jobs, trade, investment, political influence and the spirit of openness which had become a hallmark of Britain before this wretched campaign. Brexiteers know this full well, which is why they lie about it. Boris may be “pro having cake and pro eating it” but that doesn’t mean he can make it happen.

And let’s not forget our own freedom of movement. Once you start imposing restrictions on people from other countries, they have a habit of repaying you in kind. We’ll be back to worrying about visas, health insurance, residence permits, work permits, income checks, moving money around, and all the other things that made freedom of association between European people so unnecessarily difficult.

Our young people will no longer have the right to study at any of the many fantastic and historic universities across our great continent. You will no longer be free take a job or set up a business anywhere in the EU, or to retire to the Dordogne or the Costa del Sol without having to worry about whether you will get treated when you’re sick or whether your pension will get paid.

These are things which are getting more valuable all the time – in this globalised world, we should be opening out, spreading our wings, not putting up barriers which will keep our people in just so we can say we’re keeping foreigners out. If you want to be open to the world, you don’t start by slamming the door on your neighbours.

And Brexit will put an end to perhaps the most important free movement of all: it will close the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. We cannot “control” our own borders if we have an open one with an EU country whose borders are, in turn, open to the other 26 member states. So back will come the checkpoints and the barbed wire, the border police and passport checks, with all that implies for the peace process. If pro-EU Scotland chooses to leave the UK, the same logic applies. We will have a closed border on the British mainland for the first time in centuries.

You will have to decide whether it’s worth all that for a little bit of extra “control”, which we may not need or even want. Every other Brexit argument has been demolished, but on migration they do have a point: we could have more control. But it’s such a paltry gain to set against everything we stand to lose.

We are Europeans, whether we like it or not. Let’s embrace who we really are and stop blaming foreigners who are very much like us for our own problems. Outside Schengen and the eurozone, and with our global links to the US and the Commonwealth, we have an enviable position within the EU. Let’s play our full part, reap the full benefits and accept the responsibilities that come with it like grown ups.

Please vote to REMAIN tomorrow.

Photo: Eric Fischer/flickr.com/CC by 2.0

Today’s Britain was made in Downing Street, not Brussels

BREXIT CAMPAIGNERS have a long charge sheet against the EU. In fact, it sometimes seems like there’s nothing wrong in Britain today that can’t be solved by leaving the union. Whether they’re talking about NHS cuts, overcrowded schools, the decline of manufacturing industry, the shortage of housing, Islamist terrorists, rural poverty, urban poverty, unemployment, low wages, unions being too weak or unions being too strong, it’s usually “Brussels” that’s to blame. The other day, I even saw someone blaming the EU for underperforming kettles and hairdryers (not a problem I even realised we had).

If even a fraction of this were true, it would be very odd indeed that 27 other countries are still EU members and many others are clamouring to join. Maybe Brexiteers really do think that all foreigners are stupid, or maybe these things only affect Britain, leaving all other 27 member states mysteriously untouched.

The more I think about it, the more obvious it seems that most of the bad things Brexiteers blame on the EU can actually be laid at the door of something else: Thatcherism. The irony, of course, is that the chief clowns of the Brexit circus – Johnson, Gove, Farage, Redwood and Nigel “I own a chateau in France, you know” Lawson – have been among the biggest cheerleaders for Thatcherism and the casual destruction it has wrought on British industry and society over the last 35 years.

Take manufacturing industry. There’s been a lot of talk recently about job losses in key British industries – from Port Talbot steel works to the former Rootes Group factory in Ryton – and Brexiteers have been keen to pin it all on the EU. This culminated in this specious post from Vote Leave, which has been widely recycled on social media. (It only took me five minutes to find that the first five claims were false, so I wouldn’t waste too much time on it.)

Now, it’s hard to see how opening up a market of half a billion people to our companies could be responsible for destroying our manufacturing industry, unless there was something else wrong. Industrial decline is a feature of all western economies, in the face of cut-price competition from China and India (which has nothing to do with the EU), but why haven’t we seen a corresponding decline in other EU countries, like France, Germany and Italy?

If you want an explanantion, it’s simple. Our productivity has been rubbish for decades and it’s getting worse. Why? EU regulations? No, they apply to all 28 member states. It’s because countries like France and Germany invest much more in skills, research and capital equipment than we do. That is a choice we have made.

Likewise, the NHS is in crisis not because of migration but because it doesn’t have enough money. If we spent as much on the health service as France and Germany do, the NHS would have another £650m every week. That’s far more than the Brexiteers have “promised”. They don’t have the authority to promise anything, of course. But even if they did, you’d have to be very foolish indeed to believe that the likes of John Redwood would spend the money saved in EU contributions on a public service he has advocated closing down altogether.

There are all sorts of good reasons for worrying about migration levels, but blaming migrants for the NHS funding crisis is pathetic. The vast majority of migrants (especially from the EU) work and pay tax. They also provide a lot of the relatively cheap labour that helps the NHS keep going. The fact that we have chosen not to spend that extra money on the NHS is our choice, not their fault.

More or less the same argument applies to schools. And in both cases, the cash shortage has been made worse by stupid government “reforms”, which have wasted money and sapped the energies of teachers and NHS workers alike. Again, our choice.

On and on we go. The housing crisis is a direct consequence of the ending of council house building by Thatcher in the 1980s and the policy of selling off the social housing stock without replacing it. It has been made worse by the influx of foreign capital made neccesary by the need to finance our cavernous trade deficit. And if you want to know why we have the biggest trade deficit of any major economy, look no further than our post-Thatcher industrial collapse.

What about those low wages? Surely that’s down to all these EU migrants flooding into the UK to work for tu’pence an hour? Hardly. The share of national income going into wages started to fall (very sharply) 35 years ago, long before the recent period of mass migration (if anything it has stabilised a bit in recent years). That just happened to be the time when Thatcher started her campaign to break the power of the trade unions. You may not have liked the union barons of the 1960s and 1970s, but the fact is they did a good job at getting better wages and conditions for their members.

That was also the time when we gave up on trying to maintain full employment and gave up worrying about inequality. In 1977 we had the most equal society we have ever been, at least in terms of income. Ever since then a smaller and smaller share of economic growth has been going into people’s wages and a correspondingly greater share to shareholders and company bosses. Since the great recession of 2008-10, almost nothing has gone to wages. Again, our choice, and nothing to do with the EU.

The Thatcherite Brexiteers don’t seem to like the Britain their heroine has left us with. It’s completely dishonest of Johnson, Gove, Redwood et al to pretend the ills of today’s Britain can be solved by leaving the EU, when much of the problem lies with their own disintegrating ideology. Blaming foreigners is a favourite tactic of the right when their ideas fail to deliver what they promise. They need to look a lot closer to home.

Photo: R Barraeo D’Lucca/fickr.com

Talk to the hand

DESCRIBING YOUR OPPONENTS’ CLAIM as irresponsible is a funny way of refuting it. It implies that the claim is probably true, and the would-be rebutter knows it but doesn’t want to talk about it.

The implication is not only that the threatened thing is bad, but that the possibility of it happening should be taken so seriously that it’s better to avoid discussing it at all. We don’t want to put ideas into people’s heads. No one condemns talk about an alien invasion as “irresponsible” because hardly anyone thinks it’s going to happen. It could only be deemed “irresponsible” when a lot of people think it might. That’s the thing about not putting ideas into people’s heads: the ideas are usually already there.

So it was with John Major and Tony Blair’s claim yesterday that Brexit could put the Northern Ireland peace process in danger. Theresa Villiers, who is apparently the Northern Ireland secretary as well as a leading Brexit campaigner, condemned this as “highly irresponsible”. When people try to close down a debate like this, it’s usually because they don’t have an answer they can live with. Villiers could have just said it wasn’t true, that everything would be fine, Brexit or no Brexit. But she couldn’t. That would’ve made her look stupid.

It should be self-evident that anything that drives a wedge between the Northern Ireland and the Republic will put the peace process in peril. The peace process rests on a fragile compromise: on the willingness of Nationalists to accept closer association with the Republic as a proxy for unification, and the willingness of Unionists to tolerate the Republic being treated quite differently to other foreign countries.

Brexit will throw up a border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. A real border with checkpoints, passport control, police with dogs – the whole bit. It has to, because that is the logic of the Brexiteers’ own position. We have to control our own borders, remember? How can we control our borders if we have an open one with a European Union country whose borders are, in turn, open to the rest of the EU. Simple, we can’t.

Either we are going to have that border between the Republic, or we are going to put Northern Ireland in some sort of quarantine with an internal border between it and the rest of the UK. Either way, the fragile compromise will be shattered. Nationalists will feel they are back to square one – it will be as if the peace process never happened – or Unionists will be furious that they are not being treated as a proper part of the UK. All hell will break lose. As it will in Scotland if Scots vote to remain and are forced out of the EU by English voters.

There is another possibility, of course: I could be wrong and closing the border may not be necessary at all. But that would mean the Brexiteers were also plain wrong about the effects of the free movement of people. And they’re never going to admit that, are they?

Now, that’s really irresponsible.

Photo: Kelvin Boyes/Northern Ireland Executive/flickr.com.

The bright side of the wrong side

I feel better about it than I expected. Maybe because turning fifty is just so incredible, so obviously ridiculous that, like Death itself, I can’t take it seriously or think about it too much. This is the first age milestone that I’ve actually feared as it approached, but it passed last Friday with that monotonous sense of continuity that time uses to fool you that nothing’s changed. It’s going to happen, it happens, it’s gone.

I’m now “a man in his fifties” – irrefutably middle-aged, not only more than halfway through my life, but perhaps more than halfway through my adult life. We may be an ageing society, but more than 60% of the UK population is younger than me. I’ve got used to no longer being the youngest person in the room, but I’m not yet used to often being the oldest. In the good old days, if I’d had a proper job, I would have been able to retire in a decade’s time, perhaps less. If I’d become a police officer, I’d be gone already.

These are the things that preoccupied me as I approached fifty. And I sought, everywhere I could, crumbs of comfort. I had a relatively “old” Dad, so I am only the same age now as Dad was when I was four (and he lived until I was 43). If you discount university, and a bit of faffing around afterwards, and accept that I will probably have to work until I’m 70, I’m only just over halfway through my real, proper working life (and less – yes, less – than halfway through my self-employed career). My hair isn’t yet grey (I swear those few pale strands are blonde). I’m not sure I could say the same about my facial hair, which may be why I haven’t joined the Beard Bandwagon (anyway, we’re past “peak beard” now, aren’t we?). Someone told me the other day that they thought I must be approaching forty, not fifty. I still have a decade and a half to find the money to put my three-year-old daughter through college.

But suddenly, I’m there and none of those things seem to matter. As the day itself dawned (not literally, although I did wake up at 5.50am and couldn’t get back to sleep – another side effect of getting older, I’m told), I felt a burden of malevolent expectation lift from my somewhat stiffened shoulders. I didn’t exactly feel euphoric – more serene, and serene will do. It’s the oldest cliché in the book, but there really is bugger all you can do about it. And reaching fifty is obviously better than the alternative.

For a while at the weekend, I almost felt like I was entering a new, even exciting phase in my life. Fifty looks better from the other side. I kept looking around to see what had changed, but found I had the same money worries as yesterday, the same job, the same house, the same family, the same prospects for the future, the same annoying habits, the same body, the same face. I do have some new clothes courtesy of my Mum (who else would buy you a jumper in early June? But mums are, of course, usually right and my birthday turned out to be one of coldest June days I can remember). Nothing has changed, but it’s as if I’m seeing the same things in a different, brighter light.

So, I’m over the line, and now I have to make the best of it. Being the oldest in the room could mean I’m the wisest (mmm, maybe not often), or that I’m the most experienced (a bit more likely). I’m starting to form different expectations of myself, starting to think about doing more of the things I like doing and might be good at, and less of the things I think other people think I should be doing. And I like a lot of things I’m doing. I’m enjoying spending time with my daughter, I’m enjoying writing again (even if deadlines still bring me out in a cold sweat), and I’ve even found out that I quite like making websites. I still don’t like gardening much, but maybe that will come.

Photo: Me and my daughter, Matilda, on Cup Final day, 21 May 2016.

My thirty years of hurt and joy with Elvis

I STILL REMEMBER the day – it was 15 March 1986, an unusually warm, early spring Saturday – when I walked into an Our Price record shop and saw that cover for the first time: a scruffily bearded man wearing a country and western shirt and a replica of the Imperial State Crown. The sleeve simply said “King of America” but Our Price had helpfully put a sticker on the front: “The New LP from Elvis Costello: PLAY LOUD”. I did – more times than anyone around me will care to remember. But we all grew to love that record. Even my Dad liked it.

I already had a few Costello LPs – including his previous, slightly dodgy outing Goodbye Cruel World (1984) – but this was the moment I became a diehard fan. At some point I acquired a cassette of King of America (no idea why – I never bought tapes) and sometime in the 90s I bought a CD version too. I still have all three copies.

Mere months later, in September I think, another astonishing Costello LP appeared. Blood and Chocolate was recorded, unlike King of America, with his old band, the Attractions. Although they were very different records, I’ve always seen them as a pair. Not a day goes by without me singing at least one of these 26 songs in the shower or humming them as I walk down the street. Even today, songs I’ve heard a thousand times can make my eyes sting. They are the songs I turn to in both my brightest and darkest moments. They are the soundtrack to my life.

I had no idea that music was this powerful. That you could almost live inside the world created by a record. And here were two of them in the same year from the same man. To me they’ve become much more than mere recordings. King of America is a road movie, shifting between cheap Nashville motels, Las Vegas cabarets and the stifling streets of New Orleans. Its cast of characters includes nightclub singers and impresarios, prostitutes, drunken writers, army vets and unhappy GI brides. Blood and Chocolate is an altogether more claustrophobic affair: a howl of rage from the shut-up bedsits and shattered family homes of England. It contains one of Costello’s classic songs, I Want You, a desperate and dark ballad about sexual obsession and the suppressed anger of loneliness. Costello himself says singing the song night after night was a kind of punishment for all “the cruel and irrational things” he’d done – until he just got used to it. The American music critic Stephen Thomas Erlewine called it “nasty”. It is, but it’s beautiful too. And so truthful, it hurts.

I immediately bought a guitar and tried to write songs. I didn’t get far with that, but I still play, the same guitar, almost as badly as I did in 1986. More importantly, it was these two Costello LPs that made we want to write. I got my calling. I knew I wanted to use words to spark feelings, to paint pictures, to tell stories. Within months, I’d given up my job as an accounts clerk and gone to university, with the intention of becoming a writer. I’ve ended up doing a lot of different things (they call it a “portfolio career” now; I think the old term was “no career”) but I’ve always kept writing.

As a lyricist, Costello has that Joycean knack of making a word or phrase seem to express two or three different things at the same time. His songs can swoop from menace and vitriol to the utmost tenderness in the same verse, with melodies that can both soothe and hurt. It’s odd that anger – such a powerful, ubiquitous emotion – was mostly absent from popular music until the mid-70s, and no one does anger in music better than Costello: cutting and witty, often self-deprecating, but also brimming with the guilt and remorse that anger brings on. And anger can be tender too. If you don’t think so, listen to Alison, or Bullets for the New-Born King.

Take this couplet from the song I’ll Wear it Proudly on King of America:

Well, you seem to be shivering, dear, and the room is awfully warm/
In the white and scarlet billows that subside beyond the storm…

I have no idea what that means to Elvis, but there’s so much packed in there, it’s hard to know where to begin. There’s tenderness but also a hint of menace. There’s that beautiful (implied) association between the clouds outside and the pillows on the bed, and the reference to the passing storm which metaphorically suggests this is the aftermath of a row. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but I’ve carried the image of that stifling hotel room – and the loneliness inside it – around in my head for more than half my life.

So, to Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink, which is probably quite different from any other musician’s memoir you’ve read. First off, it’s actually written by the musician himself. In prose, Costello has a chatty, digressive style which is a million miles away from the gin-spiked vitriol of his early recordings. His 36 chapters follow a meandering course through his life (and those of his parents and grandparents – sometimes you wonder if he’s been lined up for the next series of Who do you think you are?), often veering off in the manner of Montaigne’s essays to talk about whatever takes his fancy before (sometimes) coming back to the point. It’s a bit like being holed up in a pub with Costello for a couple of days or sharing a long train journey with him. But unlike a long pub chat, it all begins to make sense towards the end.

whether he’s writing about marital break up, war, unemployment or the loss of a loved one, ELVIS sees straight through to the emotional core of the situation.

This is also a book about music, rather than rock star excess and battles with drink and drugs (though Costello owns up to a lot of drinking and a fair few “pills”): it’s a book set in recording studios and concert halls rather than mansions and luxury hotels. The extent of Costello’s musical knowledge and influence will knock your socks off; even I had no idea how many pies he’s had his fingers in. To some reviewers this cast of collaborators, friends and other artists seemed like namedropping, but almost all of them are people Costello has made music with. What was he supposed to do? Refer to Bob Dylan as “this bloke from Minnesota I met in New York”?

If this isn’t exactly The Confessions of Declan McManus, it wouldn’t be Elvis Costello if there wasn’t plenty of remorse on show. He is particularly contrite about the philandering that led to the break up of his first marriage, to Mary Burgoyne, and the hurt caused to many “reckless and sometimes damaged” women. He makes no excuses for all that, or for the racially offensive comments about Ray Charles he is alleged to have made during the Attractions first US tour in 1978. Given Costello’s otherwise-impeccable track record in opposing racism, you have to be very harsh or very ignorant to think that he ever harboured racist beliefs, and if his numerous apologies were good enough for Ray, they’re good enough for me.

No apology is necessary for the nastiness in some of Costello’s lyrics, especially his early stuff. If Elvis’s song-writing has been about anything, it’s confronting the emotions that people really feel, not just the ones that are laudable or even understandable. Some people are spiteful and young men do rage against women. We all feel bitter and angry from time to time. Holding Costello personally to everything expressed in his lyrics over 40 years is as stupid as attributing to Charles Dickens the violence and misogyny of Bill Sikes or accusing Martin Amis of psycopathy for putting the thoughts of John Self down on paper.

Costello’s father – the big band singer Ross McManus – looms large over the whole story. Without Ross, there would’ve been no Elvis Costello – and not just in the biological sense. Their relationship is the golden thread running through both the book and Elvis’s career itself. All his musical magpie-ism finally makes sense in the context of a shared musical heritage in the McManus family which goes back to the beginning of the 20th century. There are no boundaries in popular music: it certainly didn’t begin in 1976 with punk or in 1954 with rock and roll.

Costello’s current series of “Detour” gigs (apparently – I’m going to see the Paris show next month) feature a selection of Costello classics, music hall and big band songs going back to the 1920s and an miscellany of more recent country and rock and roll covers which change each night. In between, Elvis tells stories and shows video clips from his life and career. Much like those shows, this book is not just Costello’s own biography, but a sort of biography of popular music itself.

Passages about Ross’s slow decline and death from Alzheimer’s drift in and out of the story, especially towards the end. They are deeply moving for anyone who has lost a parent, and they also show why Costello is such a great songwriter: whether he’s writing about marital break up, war, unemployment or the loss of a loved one, he sees straight through to the emotional core of the situation.

If you’re already a Costello fan, you will lap this up and wish there were more than 674 pages (and an index!). If you’re not, this is an extended pub conversation with a real musician who knows everybody and has done everything. If you also buy the accompanying soundtrack LP, you might just see what I’m getting at.