A DISLOYAL LABEL
You may have already heard, but I was enjoying a moment’s repose in the Gladwell Arms last month, where I’d been taking a break from committee-watching for a snifter of port and a sideways glance through some specialty magazines.
‘Defected!’ came the cry over my shoulder, as Chuka Umunna hove into view. He had spied ‘4 Across: Label Lacking Loyalty’, for I was at that moment halfway through MixMag’s cryptic crossword. I could tell it was Umunna from the interjection alone, since his status as a shoulder-snoop is legendary across London.
His habit of shoulder-peeping resulted in one famous down-dressing from Nicholas Soames, when the former Member for Streatham guffawed at a Dear Deirdre the elder statesman had not yet finished reading. For one thing, the honourable Sir Nick is self-conscious about how long it takes him to read anything to do with the lower orders. A life of steamed shirts and brushed turbot means that to him, the world of the common man is very much a foreign country. On one occasion he is said to have been so distracted by one TV entertainment named Countdown, that he telegrammed the head of the armed forces requesting a six-point explainer on its rules.
Quite apart from all that, of course, Soames objected to the laughter itself. He’s always found Deirdre’s solutions decidedly empathetic, and most certainly not a fit subject for mirth.
AND SO ON
‘I just did that myself earlier,’ Umunna chuffed, as I withdrew my mag from view.
‘Defected?’ said I.
‘The crossword!’ said he, as the Velcro scratch of chair-on-carpet rang through the snug, and he plonked himself to my opposite. He said he did not know me personally but friends etc etc. Had heard of my interests and very great insights etc etc. Would love to gain my favour in critiquing an ongoing venture etc etc.
The interests in question pertained to Rave Review, a pseudonymous periodical I publish each quarter, collecting highbrow judgements from the discerning ranks of dance-crazed politicos. You doubtless remember Mike Gapes’ deep dive into Planet Mu’s back catalogue (collected as Planet of the Gapes), and indeed we may never outdo Shami Chakrabarti’s 46-page meditation on Darude’s Sandstorm.
The magazine started as a ruse to get tax-friendly access to the brain-mangling solvents used in ink production, but then gradually became something of a hobby, then at last a mild passion for those select few of us who enjoy a deeper delve into the outer shores of four-to-the-floor culture.
Rave Review has a long and storied history but I usually balk at public association, since reactions to its contents tend to be what the many-stabbed enemies of Herod might call ‘keenly felt’. I need only mention Sir Graham Brady. You will doubtless recall him headbutting John McDonnell for the latter’s tepid review of Peggy Gou’s DJ KICKS (Rave Reviews passim).
Luckily Chuka Umunna wasn't angling for a scrap, but declaring his earnest fandom. A DJ himself, I had at least some inkling of his interest, since in companion to his repute for reading other people’s papers, he’d gained infamy for the desultory centrist club nights he’d run around Westminster. All very transparent stuff, of course, not so much deep house as ankle-level house, mixed with the kind of techno you might hear bestride an anti-piracy advert. These were tunes for the complacent lanyard-bearer, so we had always kept a wide berth whenever possible and passed up every previous invitation to attend.
Not that the music was ever the thing for our Rt Hon. friend, who hoped that in peddling his blend of groove-allergic leg tranquilisers, each as middle-of-the-road as the cat’s eyes, he could appeal to as many of the more hip undecideds in the area.
These nights were often short-lived, since he usually insisted on a headline slot to himself, which once denied, would see him pack up his belt-drive CDJs and emerge – like a prelate shooed across county lines for imbibing too much of the sacristy plonk – in some other venue a few weeks later. There, he would declare a fresh start, resume filling the air with bloodless wilters, and invariably claim this new spot to be the true beacon of centrist clubbing, disavowing the last venue as a pony and a sham.
However, he was now at pains to stress to me that his new direction was of a different order, jettisoning his traditional music policy for something more adventurous entirely. I should, he burbled, put all thoughts of what to expect out of my pretty little head. All he requested was an official grading in the pages of Rave Review.
I’d managed to avoid attending his previous shindigs by crying off with this or that excuse, contriving a helpfully dead niece or, on one occasion, improvising some severe ill health by eating thick, foamy fistfuls of hand sanitiser in the parliamentary toilets. Now, caught off guard, I couldn’t quite muster a sufficiently believable cry-off in time, and proved lamentably lost for words as my attendance was begged.
‘So I’ll put you down plus one?’
‘If,’ said I, with something like resignation, ‘a minus one isn’t available’.
Sashaying into Mahiki the following evening, I was pleased to see a thickening crowd of political movers and shakers filling the floor. I was confounded to discover that they were moving, and indeed shaking, in barren, vapid silence. With a shudder of malaise, I cringed as the bar was reached. ‘A silent disco?’ I gasped. Had I missed my stop and stepped into a mid-00s time machine? I tried to hide my face with a menu before a resounding voice crept through the arid silence.
‘Try the £14 mojito!’ shouted Umunna, gesturing at the drinks options he had, true to form, been reading over my shoulder. Apologising for the volume, he gestured to his Bluetooth earbuds and begged pardon. He handed me my own and I placed them in ear. I recoiled in horror.
To my astonishment, I discerned the bold new direction he had implied. Not one coherent track but two entirely different pieces emanating from left and right, with no discernible match in rhythm or key or even genre between them. In my left, Autechre’s algebraic 2002 ear-dismantler Gantz Graf; in my right, Close To You by The Carpenters.
‘Are you hearing it, Flann?’ Chuka quizzed.
‘Dear lord, I fear I must be’.
I gestured, sceptically, to the complacent crowd.
‘Is everyone in here listening like this?’
‘Good heavens no,’ he replied, ‘you can trade with your co-patrons for their left or right bud, and therefore avail of one audiostream in both ears. None of you have to hear anything you don’t like, and the bartering enables you to make a firm friend with someone from an altogether opposite echo chamber’.
‘Hands across the aisle!’ cried I, with no little admiration.
‘Quite, although that’s not for me.’
‘Why,’ I asked ‘etc?’
‘Because this,’ he here steepled his fingers meaningfully, ‘the centre rhythm,’ now voguing, ’the mix of the two,’ his eyes rolled now, into the back of his head, ‘it is the future of music. Not merely the left or right – ’
He was by now shuffling quite furiously, his lime green Acupuncture trainers little more than a strobing blur, his eyes closed with a forced calm.
‘ – but the third, middle piece that emerges between the two, making sense of both. The best of both extremes’.
‘And the problem of earwax, friend, has this been taken into consideration?’
‘We have wipes!’, he bellowed, already in retreat to the mosh pit, scored by the duelling sounds of Hyph Mngo and Dreadlock Holiday.
I scouted around for someone whose earbud I could trade and saw, to my delight, that Umunna’s dream of harmony was laid out before me. Here, a parliamentary undersecretary trading buds with a union bigwig, there the former Speaker of the House buying a round of drinks for the entire staff of The Telegraph.
I was already penning the sweep of the revelatory piece in my mind when the lights went up and we collapsed, spent, in a sweating mass of political bonhomie. All around were the signs of a perfect evening, with disjected cannisters of nitrous oxide piling up around Antoinette Sandbach, as she plucked, inflated and knotted balloons in every direction.
The air was general with that unmistakeable sense of mediocre euphoria that only the most tepidly enjoyable dance music can evoke. I was just about to tell Chuka that Owen Paterson and Richard Benyon had been seen embracing in the cloakroom, when I was informed that the movement’s leader had left the venue. While in the smoking area, he had grown tired of the initiative’s lack of ambition and swiftly issued news of its dissolution on social media, disavowing the entire venture into the bargain.
Our night of political equanimity was a beautiful dream, and nothing more. Without its charismatic and visionary leader, its likes may never be seen again. The mercurial maven of the middleground had evaporated once again. That’s the problem with centrist projects, of course: eventually you run out of other people’s Umunna.
Illustrations by Matthieu Cossé