This week I’ve been rereading Howards End. It’s one of my very favourite novels, and now I’m getting to teach it for the first time. I don’t love it uncritically; the class issues cause me problems just as they have other readers, and I still fail to see what the Wilcoxes really have going for them. But E.M. Forster is such an avuncular writer, so well-meaning in tone, so ready to sweeten his criticism with a restatement of faith, that it’s impossible not to love him. He’s one of the great English liberal humanists, and a minor hero of mine.
One of the chief glories of the novel is its wisdom on matters of English domesticity: the extraordinary spiritual attachment people have to their houses. I’m not sure it’s something that exists so markedly in the fictions of other cultures. Much classic American writing is fixated with planting roots and building walls, but even the most sentimental of homebodies always has one eye on the speedometer or a suppressed yearning for the interstate. Great German novels are often pervaded by the romantic outsider; classic French and Russian fiction also seems to abound in the adrift and the rebellious. But ask a lover of great English writing and the chances are they will remember bricks and mortar as much as flesh: Pemberley, Thornfield, Manderley, Brideshead, 22b Baker Street. And it’s not just the high-class residences. Switch to TV, and the humble terrace takes on timeless resonances. If Granada decided to move with the times and demolish Coronation Street – and let’s face it, how can it still be standing, now in 2012? – the public outcry would be nothing less than murder. Windows are eyes; letterboxes are mouths; fireplaces are beating hearts. An Englishman’s home is his castle. It’s still a powerful trope. Some pillocks take it literally of course, and invoice taxpayers for their moats; clearly there are bastilles to be stormed. But in this house-obsessed nation of ours, your armchair is your throne.
In the early 1980s, the Conservative government presided over a mass sell-off of public housing. “Property-owning democracy” was the buzz-phrase of the day. My grandparents were part of that vanguard. Liberated by Thatcher, they exercised the right to buy from Sunderland City Council, and upgraded their redbrick semi with rickety extensions and breakfast bars. Mrs T certainly knew how much people fetishised their four walls. I imagine you’ve seen that clip of her pruning the roses outside her Home Counties pile, while Denis mows the lawn; that was her initial shtick, you see – the national economy as household debit and credit. Some of this came through in the recent Iron Lady movie, which had its moments (even for this old leftie); but what I couldn’t countenance was the trailer. There, in full cinema surround, was Madness’s divine ‘Our House’, accompanying images of Thatcher’s heels shuffling down the parliamentary corridor. The period was right, at least, but was this a rather forced pun on Commons and Lords?
It’s not the first time that Madness have been politicised against their own grain. Their early ska-based material, not to mention their DMs and Ben Sherman combos, excited the interest of racist skinheads. I’ve always wondered how on earth a band with such a love of black music could be co-opted for bigotry, but then, I wasn’t alive in those times and am baffled by lots of these seemingly bizarre social contradictions. What I do love is their rejoinder. ‘Embarrassment’ is quite simply one of the finest singles by a British band, ever. The saxophonist’s sister becomes pregnant with a mixed-race child; her family disowns her, declaring her to be ‘a disgrace to the human race’. The irony of their comments is lost on them, but there is an irony more delicious for the listener, as the track is animated by a propulsive Motown swing. By the end, you realise that the final line, ‘You’re an embarrassment’, is directed at the family; they are the disgrace, and the groove has been used to judge them.
Madness aren’t really known for serious social commentary, though. For many, they’re all about silly videos, that formation street-walk, and ‘one step beyond’ party mixes. I guess these things are irritating to some people; I can’t think why. You never get a sense of cynicism from those early singles and their attendant videos. In fact, it’s really all joy, the fearlessness of youth, the sound of kids in the sweetshop: welcome to the house of fun indeed. Some of it is giddy in a too-much-squash sort of way, and yet a proper listen to their run of singles reveals a remarkable degree of musical fluency and intelligence. Mike Barson knows all about the power of the piano octave run and the tinkling arpeggio. Their grin-inducing cover of ‘It must be love’, and the early highlight ‘My girl’ (can I hear a bit of wonky proto-‘Ashes to Ashes’ in there?) are buoyed and bounced by Barson’s keys; joanna in excelsis. There are some surprising little vanguardist flecks in unlikely quarters too. Disentangle ‘Driving in my car’ from its Kwik-Fit fitter pasticherie, and it doesn’t half sound like Prokofiev. Honestly.
Out of all the British pop groups to come out of the late seventies New Wave, only Ian Dury’s Blockheads could match Madness for versatility, polish and joie-de-vivre. It’s something to do with them being a kind of family, rather than a band. Yes, I know they all fell out sometime in 1984, but while they were on top of their game, you really could imagine them all living together in a Camden terrace, zigzagging their way down to the caff for a full English, and writing song lyrics on the back of HP-sauce-blotched paper napkins. This is how I like to imagine ‘Our House’ was composed; their magnum opus, hatched out over rindless back bacon and sweet builders’ tea. Suggs, can you help me out?
‘Our house’ bagged Madness an Ivor Novello award in 1983 for best song, and to my mind it’s the perfect English pop symphony. Behind each anonymous door, on each identikit brick-built row of nondescript houses, lie lifetimes of quiet disappointment and rueful nostalgia. Yet there might, just might, be the possibility of stability, satisfaction and love too. It’s never one thing or the other; living as a family is a constant state of unknowing. The song celebrates this dichotomy. You get affirmations of familial excitement – there’s always something happening and it’s usually quite loud – but then there’s also the nagging feeling that in the past “everything was true” and “nothing could come between us, two dreamers”. It’s the worry that life is speeding up, the choices are closing down, and the dangers of rosy-tintage are looming behind the couch. This is universal stuff, of course; even America loved it (it remains Madness’s only top ten hit over there). But it’s also unmistakeably working-class English. Its message is that this may only be two-up two-down and no garden but it’s home. It’s where we fill in the pools on a Saturday. Where we argue with our parents over long-haired rebels on Top of the Pops. Where we return to on a Friday night after a skinful at the Jolly Potter. Where we rustle up a cheese and onion toastie after said skinful. Where we sleep and dream and wake up with a stinking hangover (and a noise in our heads not unlike the whirling Blackpool organs of ‘House of fun’). ‘Our house’ is a celebration of that whole life, but it also seems to be questioning how long it has left to run. Those lush Tchaikovsky-esque strings remind us that normal English houses can be dramatic too. They’re not all stasis and boredom. But there’s a real ache to them; it’s those minor chords that slot so easily and sweepingly into the irresistible chord sequence. Is this actually a lament for blue-collar Britain? I do wonder. Suggs as Morrissey? Well, not quite, but this is ambiguous writing.
Still, despite these traces, the overriding thrust of ‘Our House’ is affirmative, and the sparky brilliance of the arrangement and the production see it wrestle its demons and beat them hands down. For me, it really is a kind of home, in so many ways. We used to sing the song at primary school in the playground, reworking the words to fit a silly little formula: “our house, in the middle of our street, in the middle of our town, in the middle of the country, in the middle of the Earth, in the middle of the Galaxy, in the middle of my fridge, in the middle of our…” – you get the drift. Many years later, when I was in a band myself, we played the Dublin Castle in Camden. I was rather nervous, as I sometimes was (remedied too often by an extra pint before the set), but then happened to see a poster of Madness on the wall. At the time, I had no idea that the pub had been their base back in the early days; that it’s the backdrop of the ‘My Girl’ video, no less. Now, I feel rather cheered that we were part of a little continuity there, however small. I sometimes wish we’d covered a Madness number (one of the lovely album tracks from The Rise and Fall perhaps). You see, just like E.M. Forster, the magnificent seven are minor heroes of mine. Perhaps I might even get to teach my students about the joys of nutty boy dancing one day; and if not, next time I’m in the Dublin Castle I’ll be raising a glass and setting the jukebox to those sweeping strings and singalong choruses.