John Harris

Journalist & Author

Archive for April, 2012

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The metropolitan milieu’s disdain poisons our country’s politics | John Harris

Monday, April 23rd, 2012

A roped-off ruling elite sneers at large swaths of the country, but the case for a local government revival is unanswerable

Not that the current pantomimic phase of the government’s progress makes it much of a surprise, but its familiar mixture of arrogance, free-market ideology and apparent stupidity has struck again. We now learn that thanks to Andrew Lansley, the English NHS is poised to fall in with George Osborne’s plan for “market-facing” regional public sector pay, so that future nurses, orderlies and paramedics may well be faced with a simple enough choice: to be paid half-decently in England’s wealthier parts, or earn a relative pittance anywhere else.

By way of taking this plan to widen the north/south divide deep into the realm of the indefensible, it looks like there will be one exception: “high-calibre leaders and staff responsible for transforming delivery”, which is official-speak for some of the NHS’s most handsomely paid staff, involved in implementing Lansley’s ill-starred reforms. Should they have to work in Sunderland or Selby, it seems, their standard pay levels – along, perhaps, with the option of a pied-à-terre closer to London – will remain in place.

And so to a couple of very big questions that have jumped into the media over the last 10 days, partly thanks to a cover story in the Spectator titled Planet London and focused on “the great divide between the capital and the country”. How much longer can Britain go on with our economy, politics and culture – and now, if we’re not careful, our public services – in such an unbalanced state? And if what passes for public life increasingly seems to amount to a collection of cloistered elites loathed by the population at large, might all this have something to do with it?

The phenomenon has not been analysed nearly enough, but one of the most poisonous legacies of the Blair years is the syndrome whereby the three parties’ big figures have tended to come from a roped-off metropolitan milieu. They talk endlessly about “modernisation” and pride themselves on an arrogant disdain not just for their parties’ traditions and grassroots but, by implication, large swaths of the country. The Blairites pretty much invented all this, and the idea that Gordon Brown was any different was surely smashed by the infamous Gillian Duffy incident. The Cameron project – whatever that is – is based on very similar instincts: quietly sneering at the Thatcherite heartlands, from a couple of London postcodes. And if Nick Clegg actually has any coherent politics, where would you imagine they originate: in his party’s regional redoubts, or the same charmed London circles as his Tory colleagues?

The tendency has been to see a thread that runs between all three main parties in terms of the left-right axis and such elevated ideas as “triangulation”, but it also embodies the politics of place. This, in short, is what happens when London groupthink settles on an immovable mixture of economic and social liberalism, and maligns everywhere else as being hopelessly behind the times.

Such is the key source of the current golden period of Scottish nationalism. If power and wealth were more equitably distributed within England, and London was not quite so full of itself, would the SNP’s claims of Scotland still being in thrall to a distant, unaccountable elite ring as true?

Note also the voices of a very underrated English revolt. Not that anyone in London seems to have much noticed, but in recent opinion polls, the UK Independence party has been doing rather well, either overtaking the Lib Dems or drawing level with them, and scoring as high as 11%. Nigel Farage is a brilliant frontman for his party’s politics: swashbuckling, bluff and, like Alex Salmond, aware enough of his own theatricality to give his public face an appealingly knowing aspect. He is also the embodiment of an almost absurdly anti-metropolitan standpoint, leading a party of British Poujadistes. Europe is what ostensibly gets them out of bed, but their politics of refusal is focused just as much on the London-based political class.

Last week, one-time New Labour stalwart Andrew Adonis revived a suggestion he first made in 2007: moving the House of Lords out of the capital, so as to make a modest start of chipping away at London’s monolithic dominance. “London is New York, Washington and LA rolled into one,” he said, “which is unhealthy for our national politics.” He’s right, but we should be thinking much bigger. The case for properly reviving local government (Adonis’s beloved elected mayors are a London-conceived distraction) is now unanswerable. Moreover, the national state should shift anything and everything it can well beyond the capital, and reverse the logic of the Lansley/Osborne manoeuvre – incentivising moving out of London, rather than penalising it.

Increasingly, I like the idea of a federal UK, with the devolved government of England based in Manchester or Birmingham, and London secure in the fact that as well as the residual institutions of the British nation state, the City, tourism, most of the media and the so-called “creative industries” would ensure that it carried on doing fine. And the chances? As usual, all this is largely in the hands of people who seem to think civilisation stops at the M25 – so even when it comes to the most tentative move in the right direction, we can presumably whistle for it.

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Ed Miliband’s bold donations cap is a glimmer of hope for Labour | John Harris

Monday, April 16th, 2012

Some will try to frame Miliband’s proposals on union contributions as a betrayal, but diluting power is all to the good

The current condition of the Labour party does not exactly suggest sunlit uplands and boundless confidence. No sooner had the budget opened up a pleasing poll lead over the Tories, than the resurrection of George Galloway sparked some very unsettling questions: most pointedly, how exactly does any party with a half-decent grassroots operation get ambushed by a 36% swing? Now, we hear, nerves are so jangled by the prospect of similar byelection upsets that plans have been drawn up to somehow prevent Labour MPs running to be mayors and police commissioners this October, lest hard-lefties and anti-war activists once again hoover up the votes of the disaffected.

From around the country, there comes grim news of old Brownites and Blairites fixing candidate selections using standard-issue Tammany Hall methods. Labour blogs and the party’s corner of the Twittersphere frequently suggest a rum mixture of nastiness and delusion: the habitual shooting down of any halfway promising ideas, mean-spirited delight in internecine strife and the kind of whispers that suggest things are not right. Some of these can be unexpected: a couple of weeks ago, a Labour insider told me that in the wake of his deification during the phone-hacking scandal, the latest person to fancy their chances as the next Labour leader is Tom Watson.

Here, though, is one very under-reported aspect of Labour’s present. Ed Miliband, we are usually told, is the party’s uncertain predicament incarnate. But his grasp of the leader’s job grows surer by the month, his sense of where both policy and the practice of politics have to go in such turbulent times is sound. And his move on party funding is one of his best strokes yet: brave, unapologetic about the most fundamental aspects of Labour’s identity and wrapped up in a keen sense of how to go on exposing the Tories’ association with privilege and wealth. It may just point the way to a future in which Labour politics starts to slip free of some of its serial limitations and failures.

In the midst of Miliband’s turn on the Andrew Marr Show, there it all was, in bold colours: much more stringent and longer-term spending limits (”If you can’t spend it, you don’t have to raise it” is the Labour line), a strong defence of working people funding Labour via the annual £3 political levy and that head-turning proposal for donations to be capped at £5,000, which will include discretionary contributions from the unions. Reasonable questions are being asked about the prospect of affiliation fees being raised to make up some of the difference, but to say that the plan may create a big financial hole for Labour is an understatement. In 2010, donations in advance of Miliband’s figure from both the unions and wealthy individuals accounted for £9.2m of Labour funds – “a real chunk of change” as an aide said.

Talks between the three main parties about the future of funding are ongoing. Their basis is the report issued last November by the committee on standards in public life, and fronted by its chairman, Sir Christopher Kelly, whose proposals included three headline suggestions: an annual donations cap of £10,000 (an idea first floated by the Power Inquiry of 2004-2006); a change whereby trade union members would have to actively opt in to funding the Labour party; and another idea pinched from the Power Inquiry, whereby each parliament, £3 per vote should be given to parties from public funds. The parties reacted with varying degrees of unease: all three had a neuralgic response to the idea of increased state funding, Labour bemoaned opting-in, and the Tories were panicked by what a low donation cap would do to their funding base. With no little chutzpah, they claimed that Kelly’s £10,000 limit would “hugely inhibit the ability of political parties to engage with the electorate”, and insisted on a £50,000 ceiling.

That, strangely enough, is the price of membership of the Conservatives’ specially branded Leader’s Group, which involves “dinners, post-PMQ lunches, drinks receptions” and more, and provides the party with mountains of cash. Last year, a study by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism discovered that in the year up to June 2011, 50 City donors had given more than £50,000, that three of the biggest name hedge fund bosses had together donated £636,300, and that one David Rowland – the boss of an outfit called Blackfish Capital Management – had contributed a cool £1.1m.

Miliband wants rid of all this, and not just from the Tory side. No party leader much likes soliciting money, but he seems to find it painful beyond words: a reflection, perhaps, of the fact that whereas many of his New Labour predecessors were Cavaliers, often ecstatic to be feted by the rich, Miliband is a self-evident Roundhead, devoid of the taste for opulence and easy living that made the likes of Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson such capable fundraisers. When he tries, the results can be borderline catastrophic: witness last month’s ride in a Rolls-Royce to Hull City FC, where he shared the company of the club’s Labour-donating chairman, having allegedly cried off an anti-cuts rally on grounds of ill health. The resulting pictures, equal parts Get Carter and The Thick of It, were not exactly pretty.

As infuriating as the habitual conflation of millionaires’ donations with union funding can be, you will not even begin to cleanse politics of any of this, without some change in approach to the unions. Besides, though it is a leftwing habit to assume that even modifying the union link is tantamount to revisionist betrayal, Miliband’s move on union donations may actually boost the best elements of Labour politics.

Even some of those on Labour’s left are beginning to understand that as long as the bond between the unions and the Labour party remains, diluting their influence need not be such a bad thing, for either side. What follows will doubtless prompt howls of hostility, but what the hell: the big unions wield truly clunking fists, often seeming much more interested in short-term factional advantage than the development of ideas. On such issues as electoral reform and climate change, their influence has been conservative rather than progressive – and all too often, they are at the centre of the kind of machine politics that sits increasingly awkwardly with rising public expectations of transparency. At the same time, the unions would often do well to be less mindful of tight relationships with Labour politicians, not least in an age of direct action and spontaneous protest.

Right now, most of the noise about party funding is mechanistic, focusing on party accounts, numerous loopholes, and funding gaps that may or may not be bridged by public money. Exactly what will happen in the mincing-machine of three-party talks is anyone’s guess. But in the next months, bear in mind this glimpse of a reimagined Labour future, offered by a leader who is proving to be cleverer than some people would like to think.

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John Harris

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Elected city mayors: the delusions and dangers of power freak politics | John Harris

Tuesday, April 10th, 2012

A comfy consensus has been reached on the merits of elected mayors, despite an absence of any real debate on the issue

The north-south divide, the tyranny of the City, the decline of mainstream politics, and more: to listen to a range of voices that have now settled into comfy consensus, no end of British problems can be solved by the introduction of elected mayors.

Strange that such a unanimous chorus should be going up just as Boris Johnson and Ken Livingstone are again proving that the first casualty of mayoral elections may be serious politics. But anyway, 3 May will see referendums on the adoption of directly elected mayors in another 11 cities, including Birmingham, Bradford, Manchester, Newcastle and Sheffield, imposed by central government and apparently supported by the entire political establishment.

What powers might they possess? From the minister in charge, the assuredly modernised Greg Clark, there have been only vague half-ideas. Even the idea’s supporters admit than in most places, real debate has failed to materialise. Liverpool, though, has decided to jump straight in, and nominations closed last week. By way of heralding a fresh start, all 12 candidates are white men, the frontrunner is the current leader of the city’s Labour council, and as if to decisively push things into the 21st century, the field also includes Tony Mulhearn, whose had his last turn on the national stage when he and Derek Hatton were pioneering municipal Trotksyism. How any of this is meant to get Liverpool going is anyone’s guess.

It also fits with the dreary, monocultural history of the elected mayors we’ve had so far. Maybe it’s down to the way that, to quote one of the Liverpudlian candidates, “big personality politics appeals to testosterone-charged male egos”. For all the claims that mayoral contests can weaken the grip of party bureaucracies, it’s probably also traceable to the fact the usual machines remain very powerful. Whatever, the figures are remarkable: of the 14 people currently serving as elected mayors in England, two are women and only one is from an ethnic minority. Much the same picture applies in Salford, where a referendum in January saw a “yes” vote on an 18% turnout, leading to an election this May. Out of a field of 10, only two candidates are women, and all are white.

Meanwhile, up in Doncaster, they are looking forward to a vote on whether to keep their mayoral system, introduced in 2001 in the wake of the infamous “Donnygate” council corruption scandal. The present incumbent is Peter Davies, of the English Democrats, who won the job in 2009, with 22% of first preferences on a 36% turnout (that is, 8% of the total electorate). Following on from the amazingly troubled tenure of his predecessor, he then commenced three years of misrule: among his greatest hits are the claim that there is “no such thing as child poverty” and the suggestion that Britain could learn about something about family values from the Taliban.

In 2010, the audit commission declared that Davies lacked “the political skills to build and maintain consensus” and acknowledged that his public statements had served “to worry sections of the community who are already vulnerable”. Eric Pickles duly sent a team of commissioners to South Yorkshire to “support, challenge and monitor” the running of the town and report back to Whitehall – an arrangement that remains in place.

This is what happens when two very dangerous factors collide: low and unrepresentative turnouts and powers that can be exercised with surprisingly little scrutiny, let alone checks and balances (both Davies and Doncaster’s previous mayor have ignored votes of no confidence). Note also that contrary to all those claims that elected mayors are ideally positioned to lead local economic revivals, there is no evidence to this effect, nor any proof that mayors’ arrival on the political scene increases political engagement – indeed, if the narcissistic tedium that currently grips the London contest is anything to go by, sooner or later you may well get the opposite.

Can we at last recognise the risks and delusions of Superman politics, whether national or local? In Birmingham, the current “No” campaign is titled “Vote No to a Power Freak”, and local nerves are being jangled by the momentum behind two of the Labour contenders: Liam Byrne, who has some claim to being New Labour circa 2001 incarnate; and Siôn Simon, last seen establishing his credentials for high office with his miserable online spoof of David Cameron’s “webcameron” wheeze. Neither looks like the kind of figure who might single-handedly lead a city to unheard-of heights of renown and success.

By contrast, look at Manchester, whose spectacular regeneration has been accomplished with the leadership of a boring old traditional city council, and where plenty of local opinion is completely bamboozled by the imposition of a mayoral referendum. “Structural change rarely does anything other than take time and energy away from more important things,” reckons its eminently successful leader, Richard Leese. “What is on offer at the moment does not – in any way, shape or form – help us with what we want to do.”

Quite so. What the great mayoral delusion really highlights is the modern establishment’s talent for messing with things for the sake of it, with no sense of history, experience, or even clarity about what exactly they want. All that, and dangers that have barely even been talked about.

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Blur’s summer concert should be their last, Damon Albarn says

Sunday, April 8th, 2012

New song, Under the Westway, likely to bring Blur’s recording career to an end

Blur look likely to end a quarter-century career this summer with their final concert and single release. In an exclusive interview, the band’s singer and chief songwriter Damon Albarn has told the Guardian that he intends a new song titled Under the Westway to mark the end of their recording career, and that “in all likelihood”, a huge gig on 12 August in Hyde Park, London, will be their last.

Albarn has also cast doubt on the other brand name that has defined his career, revealing that new activity under the banner of Gorillaz, the hugely successful pop project he created with the artist and illustrator Jamie Hewlett, is unlikely, after the pair ended up at “cross-purposes”.

The Hyde Park event, which will also feature New Order and the Specials, is being staged as part of the closing festivities for the Olympics, and follows two Blur shows at the same location three years ago. “I’ll give it 100%, like I did last time,” said Albarn. “And that’s it.

“And I hope that’s the truth: that that’s how we end it.”

Since Albarn reunited in 2009 with guitarist Graham Coxon, bassist Alex James and drummer Dave Rowntree, there has been regular speculation about concerts and new music from Blur. In the past, Albarn himself said that the quartet could still “make a fantastic record together”.

Hopes that a substantial amount of new material might be recorded were raised by a single titled Fool’s Day, released to mark the annual Record Store Day in 2010, and Blur’s appearance at this year’s Brit awards, where they were given the show-closing honour for outstanding contribution to music.

But Albarn intends Under the Westway, whose London-centred subject matter harks back to Blur’s 1990s period, to mark a full stop.

With Oasis having split in 2009, the news arguably marks the final falling of the curtain on Britpop, the cultural wave that reached its peak when the two groups fought for the No 1 position on the singles chart in August 1995.

Under the Westway is to be released around the time of the Hyde Park concert, and included in the band’s performance.

“We recorded it live,” Albarn said. “One take. It’s the first Blur song where it’s been one take, because previously I never finished the lyrics before we recorded.

“This time, I’d done that, so we were actually able to perform it. Which is quite nice, because I don’t really see any more recordings after this. So it’s nice to have finally done one song where we did it properly.”

Albarn and Coxon remain working musicians. Coxon has just released his eighth solo album, and before the Hyde Park concert, Albarn is staging his musical production Dr Dee – based on the life of the Elizabethan courtier and alchemist John Dee — at the Coliseum in London as part of the Cultural Olympiad.

James splits his time between the production of cheese on his Cotswolds farm and a writing career that has included two memoirs, a column in the Spectator, and his current food writing in the Sun.

Rowntree is a solicitor and Labour party activist who stood as a candidate in the general election of 2010.

“I find it very easy to record with Graham,” Albarn said. “He’s a daily musician. With the other two, it’s harder for them to reconnect … It’s fine when we play live: it’s really magical still. But actually recording new stuff, and swapping musical influences … it’s quite difficult.”

Revealing that Gorillaz are also unlikely to be revived, Albarn said that he and Hewlett – who created the four fictional characters that represented the project’s public face – had serious creative disagreements during the making of the 2010 album Plastic Beach and the concerts that followed it. Until “a time comes when that knot has been untied”, he said, the enterprise would be dormant.

Since being unveiled in 2000, Gorillaz have sold more than 20m albums worldwide. When asked if he and Hewlett had fallen out, Albarn said: “That sounds very juvenile, doesn’t it? But being juvenile about it, it happens. It’s a shame.”

Albarn’s Guardian interview also touched on his past use of heroin, and the effect the drug had on his music. He acknowledged that the 1997 Blur single Beetlebum and the band’s 1999 album 13 betrayed the drug’s influence on him, although no critics or interviewers had mentioned it.

“I thought everyone was just being really nice, and not making too much of a deal of it,” he said, and sounded a cautionary note about the drug’s dangers.

“The reality of any experimentation is that it can become habitual, and it can take over your life. I would never, ever disagree with the enlightening abilities of drugs. I also respect their potency … even the best intentions in the world can go awry.”

Classic bands who have, and haven’t, reunited

The Stone Roses Playing three huge gigs in Heaton Park, Manchester, on 29 June, 30 June and 1 July, with festival dates to follow. Understood to be intensively rehearsing in preparation, and working on new material. “The new songs are way more important than the shows,” said singer Ian Brown last year.

Happy Mondays Have reformed in the past, but never with their original six-man line-up, plus singer Rowetta Satchell, seen on the X Factor in 2004. Playing British arenas in May. Onstage dancer/mascot Mark “Bez” Berry will be present, but confined to a DJ-ing role. “It’s me whole pelvic-leg region that’s given up the chase,” he told Mojo magazine.

Pulp Reunited last year for concerts that included Glastonbury, Hyde Park, and the Reading Festival. Playing four shows in the US this month, ending with the Coachella Festival in California. Singer Jarvis Cocker is now 48. “I still want to move about a bit so I’ve been to the gym a couple of times,” he said.

Oasis Finally split in 2009. Last year, Liam Gallagher mooted a 2015 reunion around the 20th anniversary of their second album, a suggestion squashed by his elder brother Noel. By way of consolation, Noel plays Oasis songs live, and after initially spurning Oasis material, Liam is to follow suit with his band Beady Eye, who are supporting The Stone Roses at Heaton Park on 30 June.

The Smiths The subject of regular speculation about a reunion, which remains unlikely. Guitarist and co-songwriter Johnny Marr recently pinned their chances of reforming to UK politics: “If this government stepped down, I’d reform the band. How’s that?”

Queen Guitarist Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor did not deem the death of Freddie Mercury an obstacle to reviving the Queen brand. In 2005, they teamed up with former Free and Bad Company singer Paul Rodgers, and have recruited Adam Lambert, runner-up in the 2009 series of American Idol. The trio were set to perform at the Sonisphere Festival at Knebworth Park on 7 July, but the event has now been cancelled; an official statement says that Queen (or rather “Queen”) are “working to see if we can redress the situation at some other venue”.

John Harris

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Damon Albarn: Gorillaz, heroin and the last days of Blur

Sunday, April 8th, 2012

Do Blur have a future? Are Gorillaz gone for good? Is his feud with Noel Gallagher really over? The heroin issue… Damon Albarn answers some tricky questions

You get a good view from the top floor of Damon Albarn’s west London studio: the uneven sprawl extending out towards Kensal Green and Wormwood Scrubs. The first thing you notice, though, is the huge elevated road celebrated by Albarn’s band Blur, whose single For Tomorrow crystallised the queasy alienation of London living as a matter of being “lost on the Westway”.

Soon enough, Albarn tells me, what we can see is set to be transformed by a 34-storey student hall of residence. He is not best pleased, and having registered a planning objection, his pain has been poured into a new song he plays me just before I go home, full of references to “men in yellow hats” and a world “where the money always comes first”.

This is Under The Westway, premiered by Albarn and Blur’s guitarist Graham Coxon at a charity concert in February, now recorded by the group as a one-off single and set to feature in the huge show they will play in Hyde Park on 12 August, as part of the closing festivities for the Olympics. “We recorded it live,” he says. “One take. It’s the first Blur song where it’s been one take, because previously I never finished the lyrics before we recorded. This time, I’d done that, so we were actually able to perform it.”

A tentative smile. “Which is quite nice, because I don’t really see any more recordings after this. So it’s nice to have finally done one song where we did it properly.”

This is big news. Having seemingly been laid to rest in 2003, Blur got back together five years later. In 2009, they played at Glastonbury, Hyde Park, the Oxegen Festival in Ireland and the Scots festival T In The Park. It looked as if that was probably that, but ever since, some people’s hopes that Blur might make a new album and return to the touring circuit have been regularly tickled – by news of rehearsals and recording sessions, a stand-alone single titled Fool’s Day (2010), and of late, their performance at the Brit Awards and the announcement the Hyde Park gig. In what remains of the music press, the four of them are regularly exhorted just to get on with it and decisively reunite.

This is what the popular culture of the early 21st century is like. Happy Mondays and the Stone Roses are both back together. Pulp reunited last year; Blur’s old adversaries Suede were also on the road. This summer, you can once again see Queen without Freddie Mercury.

Albarn, though, is going against the grain – and what he’s talking about sounds like a full stop, certainly as far as new music is concerned. “I believe so,” he says. “I believe so. I find it very easy to record with Graham. He’s a daily musician. With the other two, it’s harder for them to reconnect. You know what I mean? It’s fine when we play live – it’s really magical still – but actually recording new stuff, and swapping musical influences… it’s quite difficult.”

So no more Blur records?

“No, I don’t think so.”

And will you play live again after Hyde Park?

“No, not really.”

This is even bigger news. So that’s it?

“I think so, yeah,” he says. A little later, he goes on: “And I hope that’s the truth: that that’s how we end it. I don’t know: you can write scripts, and they always end up going… [pause]… well, one thing I’ve learned, and I’m sure you’re exactly the same, is that everything I think I’ve got totally sorted out, and I know exactly what’s going to happen – it never works out that way…”

So how should I put it? That in all likelihood, this is the end of Blur?

“In all likelihood, I would say. [pause] Oh, God…”

I meet Albarn at 10 o’clock on a Thursday morning, the day before he turns 44. Whenever possible, he keeps office-ish hours at his west London base (”10 till 5 or 5.30, five days a week – all school holidays off”), which partly explains a work rate that makes most musicians look like sloths. A self-titled album by Rocket Juice And The Moon has just been released: the work of Albarn, the renowned Nigerian drummer Tony Allen, Michael “Flea” Balzary of Red Hot Chili Peppers and a diverse supporting cast. In the role of producer, Albarn has just finished a record by the soul icon Bobby Womack. He is also starting a new solo album. Yet he does not have the appearance of a man burdened by work: he explains all this while sporadically tugging on an early-morning joint.

Before I set off to meet him, I spend an afternoon going through 1990s music magazines. Tucked into a copy of Select from 1998, I find a photocopied handbill for a production of Jacques Offenbach’s operetta Orpheus In The Underworld, staged at Stanway Comprehensive in Colchester in the early 1980s. The cast list features Albarn as “Jupiter (King of the Gods)”, while Coxon is a bit further down, playing “Styx (servant of Pluto)”.

“How have you got that?” he marvels. He says he must have been 12 or 13 at the time.

As school productions go, it looks quite high end. “You should have seen it. It wasn’t that high end. But we were incredibly lucky: we had a fantastic music teacher, Mr Hildreth. We did Orpheus, Oh! What A Lovely War – fantastic. We did The Boy Friend – not so fantastic. We did Guys & Dolls – incredible. And we did a bit of West Side Story as well. A really nice cross section.”

And do you recall what playing Jupiter actually involved? “A lot of cotton wool for a beard. And a piece of lightning made from BacoFoil and card.”

The memories chime with another of Albarn’s summer commitments: a second staging of Dr Dee, the opera that premiered at last year’s Manchester International Festival and is now set to arrive at the English National Opera in London in late June, as part of the cultural Olympiad. Its subject is John Dee, the mathematician, alchemist and confidante of Elizabeth I, and it’s less a straightforward story than an evocation of a very English mysticism that Albarn’s songs project on to the country of today. His intention, he says, is to “sing about the past, but feel it in the present”.

Albarn suspects that at least some of the production’s hosts remain sceptical. “I know for a fact that there are some high up people at the English National Opera who are not particularly amused by my presence this summer,” he says. “But, you know, I promise to clean up and shut the door at the end. I won’t leave any mess.”

What’s fascinating about the production is that, for all its musical exotica and historical subject matter, Dr Dee has qualities that run through just about all the music Albarn has created since the late 1990s, whether with Blur, his hugely successful pop project Gorillaz, the short-lived quartet The Good, The Bad And The Queen, or in collaboration with the Chinese musicians who worked on the music for the jaw-dropping musical production Monkey: Journey To The West. All exude a craving for the sublime, and the abiding impression that the essence of what Albarn wants to convey is best captured by music, rather than mere words. This is hard stuff to explain, but he comes close when he says this: “I write emotionally. That’s the only way I can do it.”

And therein lies a tale. In the past, Albarn has talked about a point in the late 1990s where he broke through “the barrier of self-consciousness” and “never really looked back”. And I wonder: what triggered it?

He mentions 13, the fuzzy, experimental, Blur album put out in 1999, and written in the aftermath of his split with Justine Frischmann, the one-time leader of Elastica, a band whose brilliance was almost completely snuffed out by heroin. He then goes quiet. “Well… a lot of things triggered it. I can’t talk about this area, really. It’s not really…”

He gets up, goes to the window, and distractedly looks at the view. “How does one talk about one’s journey through life? It becomes a very different thing, doesn’t it?”

Five minutes later, we’re sitting on the balcony, talking about 13, whose second half is among the most underrated swathes of music in his career. And I ask him again: what happened?

“Oh God. Well, what do you think happened? Be honest.”

Albarn has been asked about this before: in No Distance Left To Run, the documentary released after Blur’s reunion in 2009, he talks very cagily about this period – when Britpop’s garish colour scheme was replaced by much darker shades – and offers nothing more specific than the observation that “a lot of people’s lives were fairly muddied by heroin”. So, I give him my interpretation of what changed his approach to music: that he had an experience common to a lot of musicians from bohemian backgrounds. For all its grave dangers, that drug – perhaps in moderation, if such a thing is possible – sometimes opens up a side of them that they didn’t know existed.

“That’s an astute observation on your part,” he says, “and I wouldn’t disagree with it.” For some reason, he then shakes my hand.

What’s long struck me, I tell him, is that he wasn’t exactly subtle about it. “I’m never subtle!” he laughs. In 1997, Blur released Beetlebum, the single that seemed to capture smack’s soporific, ethereal effects, and ended with a refrain of “He’s on/He’s on/He’s on it”. On 13 there was a song titled Caramel, seemingly referring to the brown goo produced when heroin is heated up, and Trimm Trabb, a picture of sedated solitude in which Albarn sings, “I doze, doze away.” But even though Frischmann’s drug problems were becoming well known, nobody who wrote about Blur – myself included – seemed to cotton on (much like, perhaps, when Britain averted its eyes from the fact that YMCA by the Village People was a joyous hymn to the gay lifestyle).

“I thought everyone did,” he says with a groan. “I thought everyone was just being really nice, and not making too much of a deal of it. Cos, you know, although I totally agree with your astute observation, the reality of any experimentation is that it can become habitual, and it can take over your life… [pause] I would never, ever disagree with the enlightening abilities of drugs, I also… you know… respect their potency. You have to have very good intentions, otherwise… even the best intentions in the world can go awry.”

And did they with you?

“I think inevitably, they do with anybody who… you know… has that innate, spiritual kind of yearning.”

In other words, nobody manages to do heroin on their terms.

“There’s no such thing as our terms. There are only universal terms that we all have to abide by. And live with.”

Interestingly, during the time we’re talking about, heroin sent a lot of musicians into torpor and silence, as they hid behind their curtains. At the very least, a lot of them slowed down. But Albarn didn’t. “No. I’ve always got up in the morning, excited about making music. I genuinely feel lucky in that sense.”

He regains his coherence. “It wasn’t just that that changed me profoundly. It was going to Africa. That was a rehabilitation, in a sense, from that previous experience. And the opposite: it was all about clarity: freedom through clarity. An amazing, beautiful, humbling experience.”

Albarn’s partner, and the mother of his daughter Missy, is the artist Suzi Winstanley, who works in collaboration with Olly Williams: their working lives are centred on expeditions to remote parts of the world, where they produce paintings of both wild animals and the landscapes in which they live. She and Albarn became a couple circa 1998, and she gave him one particular idea that would quickly change his life: “She’d been travelling in Africa for 10 years previously. Going there was something I’d always wanted to do, but she inspired me to do it.” In 2000, he went on an Oxfam trip to Mali and was profoundly affected by just about everything he experienced.

“It was just a really inspiring, colourful, bright, gorgeous place, you know? Apart from the music, which really is like a river that flows through Bamako [Mali's capital], I think the recycling market was the thing that stayed with me. It’s just so huge…” He points to the top of a nearby street, and then indicates an area of around a square half-mile, at least. “You have women and children essentially, in temperatures up to 100 degrees, on the rubbish, picking out anything that has some use… they take the plastic and metal and rubber, and that’s given to cleaners and renderers and preparers, and then down to where the road is, where there are ploughs, and rockets, and computers, all for sale.

“It’s shocking in the sense that you think, ‘This is really hard work.’ But it’s very practical. And extremely honest, and very productive. And if you could translate that humility, and ingenuity – well, there are lessons for all of us.”

He has been going back ever since: Mali Music, an album made with some of the country’s most notable musicians, was released in 2002, and African influences in Albarn’s music remain a constant: the aforementioned Tony Allen was a member of the The Good, The Bad And The Queen, and is at the heart of Rocket Juice And The Moon (whose album also features the Ghanian rapper M.anifest), as well as being involved in Dr Dee; the same production’s cast of musicians includes Madou Diabate, a virtuoso player of a Malian instrument called the kora.

Albarn’s first visit to Mali capped a run of apparent epiphanies that had started with a visit to Iceland in 1996, and another “cleansing”. “I used to have a recurring dream, as a child, of a black sand beach. And one hazy, lazy day [laughs], I was watching the TV and I saw a programme about Iceland, and they had black beaches. So I got on a plane, and booked into the Saga hotel. I didn’t know it meant Saga holidays, for older people – I thought it was Saga as in Nordic sagas. But it was actually an OAP cruise hotel. I was on my own: I didn’t know anybody. I went into the street, Laugavegur, where the bars are, and that was it.”

What is it like since its catastrophic banking crisis? “Icelanders are a bit more durable. They’re true existentialists. They really understand their environment and why they are all connected to it. I think it’s to do with having lots of space.”

Albarn was last there on New Year’s Eve, when just before an early-morning drive back to the airport, he saw “the best Northern Lights I’ve ever seen… this blue, green, illumination, just flying across the whole of the sky”.

So: Iceland, his drug-assisted artistic breakthrough, two months in Jamaica in 1999 (”An absolutely wonderful time,” he later said. “I really felt like I’d escaped the darkness”) – and, let us not forget, the birth of his daughter not long before. “All powerful experiences,” he agrees. “And having a child, the most powerful of all of them.”

Among the first products of Albarn’s rebirth was Gorillaz, the project fronted by four cartoon characters and created in collaboration with Jamie Hewlett, the artist with whom he shared a house in between the end of his relationship with Frischmann and the decisive start of his life with Winstanley. To date, four albums, smattered with such wildly diverse guests as Shaun Ryder and Lou Reed, have been released under that name, and brought Albarn success often even greater than he enjoyed with Blur: certainly, Gorillaz has taken him much closer to the American mainstream than his first band ever managed.

“Gorillaz was a really wonderful, spontaneous thing,” he says. “It started with two people sitting on a sofa, going, ‘Let’s make a band.’

‘All right, I’ll go into my studio and draw some characters.’

‘I’ll go in mine and make a tune, and we’ll put them together.’”

Which brings us to another of today’s revelations. Will there be more Gorillaz music?

“Er… unlikely.”

Really?

“Yeah.”

That’s a shame. Do you feel you’re done?

“Jamie does, which is fair enough. I think we were at cross purposes somewhat on that last record, which is a shame. So until a time comes when that knot has been untied…”

The project’s demise, he says, is a “long story”, which seems to have reached a head in 2010, when Gorillaz toured as a huge band, and Hewlett’s visuals were not nearly as central to the show as they had been. “It was one of those things,” Albarn says. “The music and the videos weren’t working as well together, but I felt we’d made a really good record, and I was into it. So we went and played it.”

So are you and Hewlett talking? Did you fall out?

“Erm… well, that sounds very juvenile, doesn’t it? But being juvenile about it, it happens. It’s a shame.”

By contrast, one very unlikely friendship has recently been cemented. Seventeen long years ago, in the wake of their famed 1995 fight over the number one position in the singles chart, Blur’s rivalry with Oasis turned poisonous and was reflected in a particularly nasty standoff between Albarn and Noel Gallagher. It was stoked by the class differences between them, and gleefully talked up by the press. But earlier this year, they had a chance encounter, began to get on – and marked their joint attendance at the Brit awards by posing for the cameras, locked in a stagey embrace.

“I met him in Mayfair, in a nightclub. What normally happened in that situation was, we had a way of looking a certain way and walking past. It was like a code. But we broke the code that night, instantly. We looked at each other and said hello, and it made all the difference. A lovely man.”

A man who, in 1995, said he hoped Albarn would “catch Aids and die”.

He shrugs. “I know. There you go. I like his sense of humour. I like people I can be daft with.”

Part of their rapprochement, he acknowledges, is that back in the frenzied era of Britpop, they had similar experiences at the exact same time. Coincidentally, they will soon have something else in common: an artistic life without the band that made their name. Which brings me to the last question: with Blur and Gorillaz gone, how will Albarn feel, setting out on a future with neither of his most famous brand names to help him?

“I’m just doing what I always do. It’s a bit daunting sometimes, but it’s important to keep challenging yourself. Maybe that’s really old-fashioned.” He thinks for minute. “I’m not old-fashioned, though. I’m…” He gropes for the right word, and then gives up, evidently itching to get back downstairs to work on some music. Below, the men in yellow hats are hard at work, getting ready to blot out the view for ever.

• Dr Dee is released on 7 May on Parlophone Records.

John Harris

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