Martin Newell’s Joy of Essex: Applause is alright but not the twaddle that goes with it

In drag for the camera, last week as the northern rock music academic - Janine Tempest.

In drag for the camera, last week as the northern rock music academic - Janine Tempest. - Credit: Archant

On a blazing Sunday morning, I conduct my ‘history soup’ tour of east central Colchester. We leave Firstsite for East Hill. With me are 22 participants, among them, my fellow tour guide, Sir Bob Russell. I went on his walking tour last week, this week he’s on mine. Maybe we should become a double act.

Tagging along at a discreet distance is a small film crew. They’re making a documentary about me. I do not know why, but I do know they’re serious. In the past I’ve done quite a lot of this filming business and can tell by their equipment that this isn’t a low-budget camcorder job.

Yvette Paxinos, ‘Paxi’ as she’s known in her world, is an ultra-cool Australian director and ‘motion designer’ working between Sydney and London. She makes unusual TV adverts and rock videos. She’s 32 years old, a keen cyclist and I’ve found, good at solving problems. Some may think it odd that I’d participate in a film project, when I don’t know exactly where it’s going but this one seems interesting.

Our initial telephone chats between Sydney and Wivenhoe were awkward. I behaved with all the curmudgeonly grace of Albert Steptoe. Why did she want to make a film about me, anyway?

It starts here. My old post-punk records from the early 1980s have lately become quietly fashionable in America – more fashionable in fact, than they ever were upon first release. About three years ago, a hip Brooklyn band called MGMT covered one of my songs. The name MGMT didn’t mean much to me, but a passing teenage daughter assured me they were “cool”. Behind every great man is an unimpressed teenage daughter, so I knew I was onto something. My responses to record company requests are now notorious: ”I’m not signing anything. I’m not touring. I’m not talking to any stupid rock journalists. Which part of **** and *** did you not understand?” I admit that this may seem a tad churlish, but I didn’t get where I’m not today by being polite to music industry movers. That was my opening shot. After some weeks, I calmed down and began negotiating. Then I digitised the furry old master tapes up in my attic, ready for cleaning up. Months later, we released the bats. Guess what? They actually paid me. Three years later, with a new ‘Best Of’ album just released, I’ve signed a short-term distribution deal. Nowadays I don’t do any other kind of deal.


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I still refuse to tour. Why? Take a look at the picture (above) from mid-August 1994. It was taken in a bus cafe. Just returned from Iceland. I’m only home for a tooth extraction before flying out to Japan. I’m 41, I’m tired, hungover and still waiting to be paid. Good mood? Yep. As it’s now August 2015 and all gone quiet, I can confess to both of my readers that I quite like my life as it is today.

I write this piece every week, I compose a weekly poem for one of the nationals, I make a little record once a year, write a little book every so often, I have a little house, I do my little Colchester tours and a few little gigs and everything’s all nice and little. It’s not a career as such but when it all joins up, I make a living.

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When you are in showbiz or politics, everyone else seems to know better than you how to do your job. Plumbers and roofers rarely experience this problem. Plumbers and roofers also don’t attract camera crews, not unless they’ve done something really terrible, anyway. Then Esther Rantzen arrives. Ask yourselves, plumbers and roofers, is that what you really want?

Explaining to a civilian that fame, like alcohol, is a toxin, and wealth will pollute friendships and integrity, is difficult. But when you’re in arts and ents, you find you do need paying at times. The odd bit of applause never goes amiss either. But you don’t need all the twaddle that goes with it. It’s not compulsory to attend the parties, the launches, to drink the fizz or take the powders. Nor do you need the industry awards, which are usually awarded by the industry – to itself.

It’s a good idea to avoid managers, who will have you on a hamster-wheel of tours and albums, while you gush to bored journalists about why you’re still valid. Also avoid literary agents. They’ll have you writing for vapid magazines and conducting writers’ workshops for ladies-who-lunch. It’s best never to do anything for our national broadcaster either, because a) they have no money and b) most arts TV is plain embarrassing. Here I cite programmes such as “Later...” a sort of rock music Crackerjack for the over-55s.

After my Colchester ‘history soup’ tour is finished, I sit down, attempting to convey some of my matured-in-oak-vats vitriol to the implaccable Paxi. I ask again, “Why are you making this film?” She initially wanted me to play some of my old material with some young US rock stars. I refused. Then she wanted to film me in drag, as Janine Tempest, ageing northern groupie, a creation of my own. This I readily consented to. We shot it last Saturday. It was more fun than working.

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