Friday, 20 February 2009

"Oh look at those clothes, now look at that face - it's so old..."

It was the rictus, dead eyed grin of the violently disappointed. And the fact that the bearers of it were wearing their now ubiquitous riot of colour and hand-made braiding and epaulets only heightened the insincerity.

For those of you who may erroneously think I was on a table adjacent to Coldplay and Elbow when the latter won Best Band at the BRITs, you are wrong. I haven't been since... 2006, I think. The year Prince blew everyone offstage. This year, I decided I'd like to watch it and indeed got to see about half of it before our toaster decided to fuse all the sockets in the house. I was making a snack while Kings of Leon were on.

The camera is cruel at awards ceremonies, lingering like a rubbernecker at a traffic accident as the losers do their best 'really happy for you' face. When I was interviewing people for that Times piece last week, I spoke to a friend of mine at EMI who attended the awards with one of his artists a few years back. Sadly, the artist didn't win the award they were nominated for and later, no doubt at one of the free-booze-laden aftershows where the real entertainment occurs, they confessed that they had had to work hard on achieving their 'not at all UPSET I HAVEN'T WON' face. Kirsten Scott Thomas who was quoted in the press in the run up to the BAFTAs complaining that it was unfair for Kate Winslet to win both Actress and Supporting Actress at the Golden Globes, didn't bother with The Happy Face - she kept her ice cool, insouciance - some would say, snooty look intact when the inevitable happened and Winslet won again and mounted the stage to gush. I applaud her and anyone honest enough to concur with the title of this week's first line - We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful.

I've been thinking a bit about professional jealously recently. Not just because of the BRITs or because Morrissey has another bilious album out this week, but also because it seems to me that as this recession deepens, and with it expectations on what is realistic and achievable get 'adjusted' in everyone's lives - including my own - I wonder if the spectre of a colleague doing very much better than you gets easier or harder to bear.

I found myself in meetings in various offices in West London last week, each one with a friend I have known for many years and during each one I stepped out of myself and watched the two of us talking and our body language. Is Ben showing signs of jealously that this person has a nice office and a secure job? Is he being over-deferential? Does the person he is in the meeting with behave in a different way to Ben, knowing that he is now a freelance writer in a recession rather than either a) a mate with a job and no agenda or b) a mate still working within the industry?

I'll be honest, the green-eyed monster did leap out and happy slap me a couple of times during these meetings. Incidentally, a massive aside: I saw Othello for the first time last week (I was reviewing it for thelondonpaper) and the green-eyed monster cliche originates there. Ditto the beast with two backs.

So yes, when I was sitting in Universal Records' subsidised Dean & Deluca style coffee bar, the sunlight dappling onto the lavishly presented promotional posters, I can't deny feeling a frisson of envy that several of my pals are safely ensconced here. And waiting to see a very dear friend in the London offices of CAA, the perfect air-conditioned silence in the meeting room, complete with its cinema-sized widescreen television and designer chairs, made me hanker after the sort of AirMile-rich lifestyle that these office furnishings clearly denoted.

But I didn't hate my friends in a Morrissey way - even if some of them are actually Northern. That same morning I had breakfast with my two Scared Hitless colleagues. Regular readers will know that we've been meeting every Christmas for 14 years since we first had a dabble at running our own indie label. We always have such a good time at these meetings that we've decided to have monthly breakfasts - my other two friends are now so successful, particularly the Northern one, that they don't really have time for lunches. We also decided, credit crunch style, to avoid having power breakfasts in poncy hotels but to meet in proper cafes. This time, because we all had things going on in West London, we decided to meet in Georges cafe behind Olympia. I used to come here a lot when I worked at AOL and I hadn't been there since I visited old AOL-ers when was working in the V2 office in Holland Park.

So to get there in time for breakfast I took the familiar tube route that I'd done for getting on for six years - all the way to Barons' Court then across the appalling Talgarth Road past the University of Hip Hop (I assume that's what they all study there, given the students' strict dress code) and down the fig tree-lined Gliddon Road. This journey, particularly the walk at the end brought back memories of having regular, reasonably normal employment and I had expected to feel a nostalgic yearning for more secure times. Guess what? I felt absolutely overjoyed not to be heading for that terrible black glass building. All the horror of AOL's petty bureaucracy, the passive aggressive bullying and general bad times of that part of my 'career' came flooding back and, like a patient undergoing Jungian therapy I almost broke down on Hammersmith Road and pounded the pavement with my bare fists.

And at breakfast with my two former music business colleagues I felt no jealousy - I am fortunate that they are doing well because they are friends and quite frankly in these times you need all the successful friends you can get.

In Toby Young's column in the Guardian,(always a good read) he uses the Anvil film (directed by a friend of his) to talk about just this sort of professional jealously and comes to the conclusion that as you get older you accept your friends' success much more gracefully. But he also points out that happiness in life is U shaped - you're happy when you're young and again happy when you're older but the most miserable years are your 30s and 40s when you realise the dreams you have are unrealistic and you start to face the reality that you won't perhaps be a pop star, or, I dunno, an international banker.

I'm not sure men ever give up on dreams like these - a mate of mine came up with the theory that this is why old women are generally a lot more sane than old men - because they frequently achieved fulfilment through childbirth and motherhood. Men carry on collecting coins, toy cars or - bit close to home this one - records, and harbouring dreams of becoming international playboys or Internet poker tycoons. That's why grandma is so adorable and wise, while grandpa sits growling in his chair holding a magnifying glass over the Telegraph crossword.

Which takes us back to Coldplay - do you think they really cared about losing out to Elbow? Maybe I was projecting my own suppressed jealousies onto their sweet angelic, internationally successful faces. No, I think they are young and ambitious enough to care. And there is nothing wrong with it; jealously and competitiveness is what drives ambition: no one is successful without it. From lifetime achievement BRIT winner Neil Tenant, who famously admitted putting Pet Shop Boys CDs to the front of record shop racks whenever he had the opportunity, to Paul McCartney who, despite all he has achieved, is still trying to be cool. Even someone you would think was above such pettiness, Franz Kafka, wrote in his diary about his close friend Oscar Baum, another writer in Prague at the time:
Envy of the apparent success of Baum whom I like so much. With this, the feeling of having in the middle of my body a ball of wool that quickly winds itself up, its innumerable threads pulling from the surface of my body to itself.
Yes, that ball of wool was present at the BRITs and if I'm honest, is present whenever I see other writers getting features, or indeed getting their calls returned by editors. I'm getting out that Morrissey CD right now in fact ...


  1. "Which takes us back to Coldplay - do you think they really cared about losing out to Elbow?"

    Well, the better band won, didn't it? Plus, COldplay already had their arms full with those nice Grammys that Elbow, the better band, will probably never get close to. So, by rights, they really shouldn't care.

    Nice post. Glad to see you still making sense.



  2. Thanks, Tony - yes, I've certainly listened to The Seldom Seen Kid more than Vida La Vida although not ashamed to say that I'm partial to that too. But do Coldplay's faces look bothered about losing? Well, I think Gore Vidal's words apply to anyone as ambitious as Chris Martin 'Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies'

  3. One moment, I'll post mine soon. just wanted to say I love your new site!