Elvis Costello is right about England
09 November 2007
The grumpy English expatriate tends to cut a faintly ludicrous figure. Usually male, invariably middle-aged, he takes a bilious view of the country where he was born and, with an unattractive combination of the sour and the smug, sounds off about the many ways in which it is in decline. Modern Britain is ill-mannered, over-crowded, boorish, violent, cynical, he says. It lacks the quality of life which expats like him are lucky enough to enjoy in their adopted countries.
Of all the Brits abroad, the most annoying are those actors, writers, musicians or comedians who, unwilling to admit that their real motive for decamping from these islands involved their dealings with HM Inspector of Taxes, come up with a variety of excuses. Some blame excessive attention from our famously beastly press. Others maunder on about how they are not taken seriously enough. Some (thank you, Tina Brown) blame English politics, or (take a bow, Salman Rushdie) the bitchy, uninspiring character of our culture. The Duchess of York felt insufficiently loved, while our latest celebrity, the racing driver Lewis Hamilton, has, rather enterprisingly, complained that too many people recognise him in Britain.
When Martin Amis made a brief bolt for freedom, he gave his defection an artistic spin. “The novelist is trying to get a taste, a vignette of the future, and America is the place to be for that,” he explained. “English genteelism can be inhibiting, and British writers are gravitating towards America.”
Most of these people soon gravitate back and the bold, ungrateful remarks they made on their departure become something of an embarrassment. But this week a long-term exile has delivered a snarlingly negative view of England which should be taken more seriously. Elvis Costello, for some years a resident of New York, has told Mojo magazine that he would be quite happy never to play to another English audience.
Costello is famously grouchy, and it is tempting to put his words down to an attack of long-distance pique. On the other hand, he is not just another bolshy, ageing rocker. One of the most interesting and radical English musicians to emerge in the past 30 years, he has written songs that are thoughtful, politically engaged and hip. His work, deft and perceptive, has been celebrated in novels by, among others, Jay McInerney, Nick Hornby and Bret Easton Ellis.
His view of contemporary England and its attitude to music is more interesting than it first appears. “I don’t dig it, they don’t dig me,” he told Mojo. An appearance more than two years ago at the Glastonbury Festival was apparently the final straw but bad reviews from British critics had not helped. “The truth is that every time I do something different, there’s a small – and totally untalented – group of people who jump up and down and make a fuss about it,” he has complained in the past. “Five years later, the same people are kissing my arse about the same piece of work.”
But lurking behind all this huffiness is a real argument. Music fans in England, Costello claims, have a different attitude towards music and its history from those in America. Here musicians of previous generations, representing different styles and genres, are seen as alien from the hip young bands and songwriters of today. They are irrelevant to modern music, embarrassing. If, say, Dylan, Willie Nelson or Stevie Wonder were English (a difficult concept, admittedly), they would be seen by young fans as oddities, at best, representatives of a lost age of music who have not had the good sense to retire.
Yet music should be the great unifier. In most other countries in the world, it brings together those from different generations and from different backgrounds. If, in an Irish pub, an old man sang an old song, he would be listened to; in England, he would be ignored or laughed down. We are living through a time which is rich in new songwriting but, mysteriously, there is little interest in the roots of the new music, where it came from.
It is odd, this lack of interest in the past. At the MerleFest bluegrass festival in North Carolina, musicians of all ages, from ten to 80, gather in “picking tents” to play together: the whole point of the occasion is to unite old and new music. The idea of anything comparable happening in England is unthinkable.
Perhaps age snobbery has always been part of the English music scene. In the Sixties, the new wave of music defined itself by its difference from all that preceded it. By contrast, the folkies who were breaking through in New York’s Greenwich Village in the early 1960s unashamedly declared themselves to be part of an old tradition. Costello was himself part of a later wave of re-invention and newness. Only when he began to explore different types, eventually performing with such resolutely unhip oldies like Burt Bacharach, did he discover how small and excluding the English musical sensibility can be.
Sadly, the same kind of blinkered snobbery, a lack of interest in the past which amounts almost to fear, is to be found elsewhere in our culture. When a British political party had a leader who was in his 60s, we quickly discovered that, while it is unacceptable to mock someone for the size of their waistline, it is just fine for lazy sketch-writers and giggling television satirists to bring out the Zimmer frame jokes.
The literary world is every bit as edgy about age as the music scene. Publishers quietly cull authors over 50 from their lists. In America, there is an impressive line-up of writers who, in their 70s and 80s, are still regarded as being part of the cultural mainstream – Roth, Updike, Pynchon and others. Where are our Grand Old Men and Women?
As a nation, we have become uneasy about recognising a debt to those who have gone before and are still alive. We prefer to deal jokily and dismissively with age. England is the country of grumpy old men, of old farts. To contribute seriously to music, art, writing or politics, anyone over 65 is obliged to play the part, to become self-parodic and clownishly doddery.
So Elvis Costello is probably wise to live in America. There he can play concerts with Bob Dylan without the press making silly jokes. He can top the bill at Hillary Clinton’s 60th birthday party, making the event, we are told, “younger, hipper, more fun”.
Now imagine Gordon Brown or David Cameron throwing a well-publicised birthday party and inviting this prickly, talented man to play there. Think of their publicists announcing straight-faced that they had needed Elvis to make the event hip and fun. And envisage the press headlines the next day. Costello was right. Age snobbery is alive and well and living in England.