Tuesday, 23 October 2007

Frank Dobson

Frank Dobson has become one of the Labour Party’s defining MP. A constructive critic of the New Labour experiment, he is a former Secretary of State for Health as well as an LSE graduate. He says he studied Economics, “In theory anyway. I know enough Economics to know when someone else is talking bollocks and that’s about it really.”

“I think LSE has changed, I think more attention is now paid to undergraduates than used to be. Certainly at the time I was there, my impression was that there wasn’t a great deal of attention. In the past I’ve caused offence by saying that I don’t think I really got very much from the academic staff there. But I gained a lot from talking and listening to my fellow students, who were from all over the world. It was a remarkable change for me coming from an all-white grammar school in the north of England.“ Dobson says he enjoyed student life immensely. “If you don’t enjoy yourself for three years of pretending to be an academic, you’re never going to enjoy yourself are you?”

Perhaps surprisingly for a man who is now in his 28th year as an MP, he was not involved in SU politics. “I didn’t particularly like student politics, and I still don’t. I think it’s certainly a way of learning the ‘dark arts’ of politics, but generally speaking, it never appealed to me. I was involved in other political campaigning but that wasn’t done through the Students’ Union, which was fairly tedious and a lot of willy-waving, and whatever is the female equivalent of willy-waving.” I told him that it hasn’t changed much, and he leant back in his chair, laughing heartily.

After leaving LSE Dobson became a local councillor. “I was a member of the Labour party throughout that whole period. I lived in Passfield Hall and then in a flat in Bury Place, near the British Museum, and continued living there when I ceased to be a student. I got heavily involved in local campaigns, basically related to stopping the residential population being driven out, and houses and flats being turned into offices. That was how I got involved in campaigning and the local Labour party, and in many senses that was why I stood for the council in 64. I didn’t get on, but I then stood for the council again in 71, and was elected. That was very heavily to do with trying to make sure that there remained a normal, ordinary, resident population.”

Dobson has now been a member of the Labour party for almost half a century. I asked him how he has dealt with the changes that have occurred in that time. “It was frustrating – I spent eighteen years in opposition, of which I think sixteen were on the front bench. Also, playing a part in - being close to Neil Kinnock – saving the party from ruin, really. Gradually strengthening the party, and after 1992, when Neil decided to pack in, I was a strong supporter of John Smith. I was very saddened by his premature death. Then supporting Tony Blair.”

I asked him what he thinks of Martin Bell’s recent assessment that New Labour got a lot of things right but threw them away with an illegal war. “The bulk of our election manifesto in 1997 was an up-to-date Labour manifesto. Most of the things that were introduced then were a modern version of a fairly traditional Labour approach to things. Things like the national minimum wage, actually getting people back to work or tax credits to ensure people actually got a decent wage. The last time John Smith spoke at the TUC he asked me to help with the speech, and I think I contributed two phrases. One was ‘A Britain on work, not a Britain on benefits’, and we wanted to make sure that when “people worked for a living, they were paid a living wage”. The Labour government in the first few years delivered on that, and continues to deliver on it, which is a dramatic assertion of timeless Labour values. Quite a lot of the things that we did in health, and in education, were along the same lines, and most of the things that have worked fall into that category. The things that haven’t worked are the fancy Blairite ideas, this obsession with choice and diversity. A certain elitism, and a belief that the best way to improve local hospitals is to have one supremely wonderful and the others will aspire to be like it. Similarly with schools, which is clearly claptrap. If you want to improve the worst performing institutions, you attend to the worst performing institutions. It is an obsession with elitism and management-ism, if you see what I mean, because if you look at it from the point of view of the patient, or the pupils, then you should be addressing the needs of the people who are getting the worst deal. Not marginal improvements for the people who are getting the best deal.”

“As far as the war’s concerned, I don’t think the fact that it’s illegal is of much consequence one way or the other. Combinations of powerful nation states make up international law, and it may have been an illegal law or not. But it was stupid. That’s the main offence. We’re in a worse position now than if we’d not got involved in the invasion and occupation of Iraq. The first duty of any government is to ensure the safety and security of the country and it’s citizens at home and abroad. No one could possibly argue that we’re safer either at home or abroad. We’re infinitely less so. I used to carry around the page out of Hansard which was my speech in the February debate about a month before we actually went to war. My only criticism of myself in there was that I think I give the Prime Minister too much…I don’t doubt his intentions at that time. Also, I understate the things that I predict will go wrong. They’ve been worse than predicted. That continued and continued, and it was what led in the end to him going as soon as he did. Because my impression is that the absolutely craven, stupid position we got into over the Israeli invasion of the Lebanon, when we were the only country in the world, apart from Israel and the US, who weren’t saying that they should withdraw. That was the pits. I think a lot of people who’d given him the benefit of the doubt up until that point decided that there really wasn’t any doubt any more. He was just getting it wrong, wrong and wrong again, because we were tied into the United States. I think Iraq has also restricted our capacity to prevent Iran getting nuclear weapons if they want to. I don’t want Iran having nuclear weapons, and I can’t see any sensible person who does, but Iraq has made it more difficult to do anything about that. Also, I think action would have been taken to prevent what’s been happening in Darfur, apart from the embarrassment of you can’t have a go at another Muslim, another Arab government. It has been a total, unrelenting disaster.”

There have been successes of course, Dobson mentions the “phenomenal” investments in the NHS, Gordon Brown’s work on overseas aid and cites John Prescott as an unsung hero for his work on the Kyoto agreement. He even singles out Blair for “a huge amount of credit for the settlement in Northern Ireland.”

However, he retains his belief that Labour can do better. He points out that NHS improvements have been undermined by costs spent on consultants and lawyers, and the private sector currently receives 11% more per operation than the NHS.

As a former London Mayoral candidate, I asked Dobson for his thoughts on the position. “My view on the mayor’s position has always been that I think this total singling out of the mayor is not the best approach. I’ve always preferred what might be called the ‘Barcelona Model’ which was that each political group would have councillors elected and they would say which of theirs would be mayor if they won, but the mayor would not be so separate as is the case in the United States and now here, but would remain part of the ruling group.”

And as for Boris Johnson? “Were, by some freak of fate, he to become Mayor I don’t think he would succeed. But I doubt he will do very well. You never know because there is this sort of “oh, well he’s quite funny on TV” “He can’t be as stupid as he pretends to be”. I think in some aspects he is as stupid as he pretends to be. Well not quite as stupid, very few people could be as stupid as he pretends to be and still be able to ride a bike.”

“More bothersome is trying to combat the BNP. With our current electoral system there is a significant danger that the BNP will get some members of the Greater London Authority this coming year, which would be very harmful for lots and lots of people in London.”

Tuesday, 9 October 2007

Paul Oakenfold

“I never said that. That’s the last thing I’d want to do. Fuckin’ Ell!”

Paul Oakenfold reacted with amusement and seemingly genuine shock when I mentioned a rumour that I’d read online about him planning to sing on his new tracks.

“I don’t even sing in the shower that’s how bad I am. That’s the last thing I’d want to do. Fuckin’ Ell!” Well, I suppose that’s what you get for using Wikipedia for research. Let this be a lesson to us all.

We were sat in the Ascott Hotel, an exclusive Mayfair hotel just off Hyde Park. It is not one of the grander, showier affairs on the park itself, but its discreet entrance indicates an understated elegance. We were in the basement, in a conference room where Oakenfold had spent the day answering questions, apparently mostly about the Big Brother theme - the only cultural context within which Middle England understands him. His assistant left us alone, and despite the size of the room we squeezed ourselves into two chairs close together at one end of the mahogany conference table.

He asked me whether I wanted a cup of coffee, and indicated a pot on the far side of the room. Without thinking I said ‘yes’, and a moment of awkwardness followed. I wanted a drink, but I couldn’t get to the coffee without squeezing uncomfortably past him. Either I asked a man who’s sold over five million albums, without including his countless remix sales, to go and get me a drink, or I stick my ass in his face.

Noticing my hesitation, Oakenfold rose to get me my coffee, apparently without thinking anything of it. Thank fuck for that, I thought, but then realised I’d have to say something to break the silence before being waited on became too weird. “Sorry to come at the end of a day of interviews – I’ll try and think of something original to talk about. ”He flashed a wide grin back at me from across the room. “Good Luck!” he chuckled, with the air of a man who has been dealing with the attention of journalists for twenty years.

In that time he’s gone from playing tiny provincial clubs to selling out the Hollywood Bowl. But now, strangely enough, he’s going back. “I’m really looking forward to the tour. I left the UK five years ago, so it’s been a long time. I’m excited to be going to the likes of Swansea or Hull, and playing small venues in Manchester.”

It was in Manchester, of course, in which Oakenfold first made his name producing the Happy Monday’s seminal ‘Pills ‘n’ Thrills and Bellyaches.’ I ask him whether this tour feels like a homecoming. “It doesn’t at the moment, but it will. I’ve got bunches of friends all over the country, so I’ll be meeting up with them, going to dinner – I just spoke to a friend from Liverpool who tells me they’re tearing up the city at the moment – road works and that. You always notice the differences. I haven’t played in some of these places for 10 years.”

By his own admission, Oakenfold is not the sort of person to spend time looking back. He describes his biography, on which he collaborated with Richard Norris, as a “long process”. “I’ve always thought the past’s the past and you can’t change it so let’s move on. I’ve never kept a diary. But people are interested. The question I get asked most is ‘How do you do it?’ So the book tries to answer that. I went back and spoke to people, and I think we’ve built up a pretty good timeline of how it all happened. Maybe it’s not the specific day when I did this or that, but its close enough.”

Even without his music, Oakenfold has a presence which fills the room. His tattooed forearms are in perpetual motion, and he has an expansive grin, especially when he’s talking about having a point to prove on the forthcoming tour. “I love it. I’m playing to a whole new generation of kids who’ve never seen me DJ. They maybe know the name, but they’ve never heard me play so it’s like ‘Who the fuck are you?’ I enjoy that challenge.”

You get the impression that it is also an opportunity for Oakenfold to prove to himself that he’s still got what it takes. More than anything he hates the idea that living in LA, where he moved when he scored 'Swordfish', might have taken his edge off. “DJing isn’t my main job any more. I’m living in Hollywood – which is the last place I thought I’d be. I never thought I’d move to the States. But I was offered the chance to score a film and I thought, ‘A door’s opened here, and if I don’t take this opportunity I’ll regret it for my whole life.”

As well as the DJing, the film scores and the remixing, Oakenfold has produced two of his own studio albums. His most recent album, last year’s ‘A Lively Mind’ featured vocals from the likes of Brittany Murphy and Pharrel Williams, but his debut, 2002’s ‘Bunkka’, featured an even more eclectic mix of guest vocalists, ranging from Perry Farrell to Ice Cube.

Crazy Town’s Shifty Shellshock featured on the single ‘Starry Eyed Surprise’, which was omnipresent upon it’s release, but surely the strangest collaboration was on the track ‘Nixon’s Spirit’, featuring the excess scarred growl of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson. How on earth did that come about? “Well, I was a big fan of Hunter’s work, so I approached him and said ‘Look, I know you’ve never done anything like this before, but I can introduce you to a whole different demographic to the people who read your books.’ I got the idea from the fact that three or four different clubs were using his quotes on flyers at the time. He agreed to it and so we got together for a couple of nights, two sessions of six hours. We became friends, we drank a few beers and partied. But I learnt a lot. I learnt a lot about American History. And the idea for ‘Nixon’s Spirit’ came from talking about growing up. The younger you are the stronger your dreams are. And that’s where that twisted lyric came from. The fact that we had both grown up with these dreams and that we were both living them. And with Hunter you were never going to get a straight message from him, a ‘Believe in yourself and you can achieve your dreams’, but we wanted to do something that would connect with young people, because it was dance music, and that would say that if you wanted to be a fireman or whatever then you could be. And that’s where Nixon’s Spirit came from.”

At this point I asked Oakenfold about the connection between drugs and dance music. Moving from Hunter Thompson to recreational drugs seemed to me like a natural segue, but Oakenfold curled up defensively in his chair, sliding a foot underneath his thigh, and that illuminating smile switched off. I feel I have stepped onto a subject that he is bored of discussing. “Drugs are society’s problem, not dance music’s. You don’t have to take drugs to listen to dance music and you don’t have to listen to dance music to take drugs. I think it’s a shame if you associate the two, and its plain na├»ve to blame drugs on dance music.”

What he is happy to associate with music is his love of travel. From the journeys to India which produced the ‘Goa Mix’, his 1994 set which was massively influential in the rise of trance, to his more recent sojourns in Ibiza, Oakenfold has always been adept at selecting the best of what the world’s music scenes have to offer.

“If there’s anything good, then share it. The whole idea is to share. That’s what DJing is all about. But not just DJing; the internet, travel. I mean, I’m dyslexic, so I suffered at school. Everything I’ve learnt I’ve learnt by experience. It’s about giving something back, smiling at people, opening doors for people and giving two pounds a month to charity. The society you’re in is the whole world and you’re a fool if you don’t think you are. I used to believe, wrongly, that one person couldn’t change the world. But I saw this television programme about a National Geographic photographer. He was off taking photos in Bumfuck somewhere, I dunno where he was, somewhere in Africa. But the government was oppressing its people. This one guy took photos of what was happening, and they put these pictures on the cover of National Geographic. It brought all this awareness to the situation, and so the UN put pressure on the government and they stopped fucking with their people. One guy did that. One guy changed the world. So hopefully I can do my little bit. It’s just laziness otherwise.

People used to think things weren’t their problem, but times have changed. It is your problem.”