My new paperback ‘The Last Goodbye’ is out February 2016

 

The Last Goodbye: A History of the world In Resignations is available at all good bookstores from 6th February 2016.

 

A new, updated and expanded ‘reboot’ of F**k You & Goodbye for the mass market, The Last Goodbye brings the tale of human history’s most misunderstood driver bang up to date with revealing insights into some of the highlights of the past two years – from Pope Benedict XVI’s mysterious self-sacking to the will-he-won’t-he resignation antics of FIFA’s former president, Sepp Blatter.

 

The Last Goodbye F**k You & Goodbye Author Matt Potter

The Last Goodbye is published by Little, Brown in the UK and Commonwealth, and Silvertail Books in the USA, Europe and rest of the world. Here’s what they said about the hardback edition last year…

 

“Rage, wit or breathtaking chutzpah that will leave you silently applauding or, maybe, looking to the door yourself” (Metro)

“A hilarious history of the resignation letter… Potter examines our fascination with parting shots” (Daily Telegraph)

“There is a poetry to the best resignations that comes from having nothing to lose” (Independent)

“Will make you want to quit your job immediately” (Buzzfeed)

“Just magnificent – an alternate history of our time” (Monocle)

“A fascinating and profound look at how quitters shape history” (The Current)

“A cracking read” (The Daily Politics)

“The sort of book that makes you think, long after you’ve put it down” (Rev. Richard Coles BBC Saturday Live)

“Celebrates the art of the elegant – or explosive – resignation” (The Week)

 

For any media or rights enquiries, please contact me via my agent, Humfrey Hunter at Hunter Profiles.

 

Doors of the mind: Ghosts and thresholds in Bowie, Dickens, and the Generation Game

 

I’ve never been able to pass a door in an ancient wall without wondering what’s behind it.

spooky door with ivy

I know the truth is overwhelmingly likely to be mundane, but my subconscious mind can’t help picking out the details: the old ivy growth across it; the absence of any mechanism on the outside; the permanent silence on the other side of the wall.

 

Maybe I’m just nosey, but I’ve noticed that this door brings out different responses in people. Some want to know what’s behind it. Some fantasise what’s behind it. Others want to leave it well alone and walk on.

 

Doors have always been been as much about us as them; what we’ll see and what it’ll cost us. Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception. The ones at the end of the hall in Jim Morrison’s ‘The End’, and the ones in his band’s name. In the tales of M.R. James, where they keep the living from the dead, for a while. In Bowie’s inner-demons-themed ‘Scary Monsters’, “opening strange doors that we’d never close again”.

 

 

What’s behind the door? Every gameshow and religion in history promises us that we can find out, if we play it right… but only ever at the end. Jacob Marley’s ghost comes to Scrooge as a door knocker: the future laid bare, if you’re ready to look and close enough to the void to see in. The scores are always on the doors – in the Generation Game just like they are for Marley/Scrooge and doorcheck St Peter.

 

This particular door – the one I pass and wonder about – reminds me of the last moments of ’60s acid guru Timothy Leary. On his deathbed, he fell silent, then as he died, he simply said “Why not?”

 

Maybe that silence from the other side of the threshold made him curious too.

 

Napoleon defeated, God dead, confidence up: How one London church reveals our secret history

 

This is a short story about what really happens to the things we think are permanent and powerful. And how they may not be at all what they seem.

 

In 1818, the British Government announced a bonanza of one million pounds to be spent on celebrating victory over Napoleon. Buildings, events, whatever. But make it impressive.

 

One result was a rash of ‘Waterloo churches’ such as Holy Trinity Church in Marylebone – designed and built by Sir John Soane, and completed in 1826.

 

(The picture shows its second, outdoor pulpit: a ballsy move amid the noise and thoroughfare, like a rock band promoting a new album by playing loud from the back of a truck. Turn heads, stop traffic. Or perhaps it was a desperate move. More of that in a moment.)

 

London Marylebone church history

 

Yet once it was finished in 1826, the church saw service for barely100 years.

 

By the 1930s, it was derelict. By 1936, it had been retooled as a warehouse for Penguin Books, who figured they could store inventory for longer in its dry, dark crypt. The crypt was down some stairs, lower than delivery vehicles or wheeled trolleys could get. So they put a slide from a children’s playground going from the street down into the darkness below, and used that as a book chute.

 

Since the second world war, it’s been an art installation space (once exhibiting a piece involving a crucified ape), and a Christian publishing office. There are currently proposals to redevelop the building’s interior, and turn it into a shopping arcade.

 

The building itself is a blank page. Every age has written its own narrative of very different kinds of redemption and salvation on it.

 

First, relief at the defeat of Napoleon and the need to manifest the national feel-good factor. Then, with the addition of the street pulpit, the crisis of faith and the urgent need for 19th-century Anglicanism to attract new adherents out there – to propagandise against Darwin and Owen and the ebbing of the tide, to save the religion itself by street preaching to the masses.

 

It was a books warehouse for Penguin amid the great rise in literacy, with the boom of state education, and the pressing need to serve affordable books to this new, empowered readership, lifted from the slums.

 

Post-war, as attendance lapsed, it became offices – a manifestation of the property developer phenomenon that promised to take all that was old and make it new. The regeneration of space.

 

And finally, the new national mission: shopping. Lift yourself and benefit the nation through consumer spend. Retail therapy as patriotic duty. Self service, customer service and service industry as the new national service; religious service, even.

 

After all, the term for converting money and credit into goods has always been “redemption”.

 

 

Zombies, punks & immigrants: What J.G. Ballard’s ‘High Rise’ says about Britain in 2015

 

Tower blocks in Ladbroke Grove, London

 

It’s there if you look for it, snaking like mist around the tower blocks of West London, from Acton to Ladbroke Grove. An atmosphere. A message for us, maybe.

 

This part of London was the inspiration and setting for JG Ballard as he wrote his 1975 dystopian novel High Rise.

 

In the book, life for residents of a luxury high-rise development degenerates as they turn inwards, shutting off the world outside. Soon, the usual (1970s) assortment of malfunctioning elevators, power cuts, small annoyances, neighbourhood frictions, and petty tiffs spiral into terrifying violence along class and block floor lines. As factions develop and amplify, the block tumbles into savagery and eventually, cannibalism and total isolation.

 

So what? High Rise is a dystopian novel; one from 40 years ago. That’s what they were like. What has it got to do with reality? And more to the point, what does it have to do with us?

J G Ballard High Rise( 1st Edition)

The ’70s was a time of huge anxiety around social cohesion. In Britain, it was the heyday of Class War, Punk, the National Front, and heightened paranoia about immigration, domestic and international terrorism and Britain’s relationship with Europe. Fear of Armageddon was measured by the Doomsday Clock’s minutes-to-midnight time. The Left, with the Labour Party having seemed so powerful, with a charismatic, modernising leader (for Tony Blair, read Harold Wilson) until so recently, was fragmenting, running out of steam, and turning on itself.

 

Across the developed West, recession and stagnation combined with high rates of urbanisation and urban development (all those high rises) to put fear of urban crime at an all time high. Ballard’s Britain in the early 1970s was beset by power cuts, strikes, and shortages of everything from bread to water. Industrial action caused backlogs of refuse (striking binmen) and cadavers (striking cemetery workers). In 1975, New York City was teetering on the brink of bankruptcy – so close that emergency services faced the prospect of paralysis. Public blocks went unrepaired, living conditions degenerated. The following year, West London saw the second wave of Notting Hill race riots. By 1977, New York had descended into lawlessness amid a blackout. The same summer saw the Battle of Lewisham, with National Front, locals and antifascists in pitched battles across South east London.

 

The social fabric, the contract we made with each other, seemed to be letting us down just when we needed it to protect and comfort us.

 

To those who remembered it a decade on, it must have seemed that Margaret Thatcher’s “There is no such thing as society” was less a credo than a statement of fact. The masses were fundamentally hostile; or at least, they were in competition with us, for whatever we wanted to take for ourselves and our family. They were everywhere, and they wanted to raid our pockets: communists pushing redistribution of wealth at home; criminals on our streets; strikers on the shop floor; immigrants at the gates; Europeans around the negotiating table.

 

In this context, the Conservatives’ famous Saatchi & Saatchi-produced 1979 General Election campaign poster, with its advancing, shuffling queue, looks very different.

 

 

Saatchi Labour isn't working 1979 general election

 

This fear of the hordes, the masses – the Other, who looks like us but means us harm – was also behind the high 1970s’ other big cultural explosion: the zombie movie.

 

A slow trickle had started a few years before against a backdrop of student riots, assassinations and impending anarchy with Night of the Living Dead (1968). But with the high ’70s, the flood broke. Zombies were everywhere. Suddenly, they were overrunning shopping malls, rural farms, homes, city streets. Unintelligible, irreducible, shambling and inelegant, ragged but unstoppable, they were the perfect metaphor for the invasive, alien masses Mr & Mrs Average saw moaning at the gates. In just under a century, those “poor… huddled masses” had gone from being beckoned by the Statue of Liberty to being decapitated by full-blood American heartlanders with shovels.

 

Tombs of the Blind Dead Zombie movie

 

(The zombie movie explosion arrived in perfect sync with its twin, the other great, quintessentially 1970s American cinema phenomenon. Blaxploitation movies attempted to deal with precisely the same anxieties of lone citizens standing alone against a rising tide of violent and degenerate Other, only from the other side. We can read in Shaft‘s urbanity and Superfly‘s threads an analogue to the British Mods’ emphasis on style as an outward expression of ‘clean living under difficult circumstances‘.)

 

No wonder politics got so beleaguered and panicky. No wonder Reagan’s winning 1980 manifesto was called ‘Morning In America’.

 

The mid-1970s was a dream from which it seemed we were trying to awake. A dystopia, narrowly averted. As Ballard wrote High Rise, he channeled this feeling. The block was a metaphor for society, its tribal split by floor – upper, middle and lower – mirroring the strata outside. But others were picking up on the mood too.

 

Think about that mood. Zombies – immigrants, the poor, the Other – were all over popular culture. Terror and immigration were all over the news. Urban high-density development was driving out residents. Atavism as politics, driven by a deep anxiety about the future, and about securing what we have. It was all very 1970s.

 

And in its own way, it’s all very 2010s, too. It’s no surprise that High Rise is being made into a film by Kill List director Ben Wheatley. So what does the rise of that old hysteria, those old anxieties mean? What do The Walking Dead, World War Z, I Am Legend and Zombie Apocalypse say about us? Who are our shambling, malevolent hordes, in ragged clothes, destroying the brains of young people and advancing on our gates?

 

And just as importantly, who are the people promising us easy answers, this time around? Answers that involve barricades, and turning inwards, and everyone for themselves? Or even turning our guns on these “unstoppable cockroaches” and crying “show me the dead bodies”?

 

And if we know that, then might we begin to change what happens next, in our very own luxury fortress-like High Rise?

 

 

 

Resignations as historical force: Jurassic Park, grunge, capitalism and the story of the 1990s

 Tyrannosaurus rex resigns in jurassic Park

There’s a lot of noise about Jurassic World cleaning up in cinemas right now. But what about the real back story? Back in the 1990s, Jurassic Park was – unlikely as it might seem – part of the same global breakdown as grunge and the Berlin Wall.

 

Sound weird? In this short extract from my book F***k You & Goodbye: A History of the Resignation, it gets weirder.

 

With hindsight, the 1990s’ great theme was refusal; the decade’s core act was not the salute, but the shrug. The ironic, the uncommitted, were about to take over the world.

 

Across the world, and in Britain more than anywhere, the coming decade was to be a fruitful time for creative, public quitters. On my return in late 1990, I started collecting resignations and analysing their backgrounds in earnest. It wasn’t easy, simply because over here, too, there were suddenly so many flying around. Thatcherism was imploding, with Michael Heseltine and Geoffrey Howe taking turns at playing Mark Antony and Brutus with their own parting shots. Then, as recession hit Britain and the West, and the eighties achievers’ party hit the buffers, it was business’s turn. These were not the quiet goodbyes of yesteryear, but great, furious, splattering media events.

 

This was the dawning of a great age of corporate dissent.

 

In the West, the slackers wandered off the career path with a shrug – their anti-aspiration the mirror image of all those refuseniks in the East now discovering the joys of consumer society – while Adbusters’ subversive ‘truth in advertising’ defacement campaigns echoed the theatrical marginalia of the Berlin Wall’s Eastside Gallery. Self-empowerment was in, and suddenly no soap opera, cabinet meeting, movie, international summit or AGM was complete without a grandstanding declaration of independence.

 

Climactic, public resignations became a powerful international currency, everywhere from Wall Street to Hollywood. The era’s defining movies – Slacker (1991), The Firm (1991), Glengarry Glen Ross (1992), A Few Good Men (1992), Groundhog Day (1993), Clerks (1994), even Jurassic Park (1993), all feature stars plotting and rehearsing their eventual break from the hypocrisy, villainy or empty repetition of their professional roles.

 

(Surely a candidate for least likely resignation speech in history is the Tyrannosaurus Rex in Jurassic Park: Richard Attenborough’s park boss, micro-managing every aspect of the lives of the revenue-generating animals inside his hermetically sealed biodome, is as clear an early-1990s everyboss or Iron Curtain dictator as ever lived, with his insistence that everyone could be bought, and his creation of minutely surveilled spaces for workers, human and reptile alike.

 

It’s great fun to watch it now as Berlin Wall or corporate allegory: the literal iron curtain keeping humans and dinos apart! Jeff Goldblum’s ominous soliloquy on chaos! The heroes’ suspicion of being co-opted into branded ideology! It’s no coincidence that when they rebel, the animals not only wreck the commercial plan, but vandalise his company’s iconic logo. As T. Rex tears apart the logos on the branded Jurassic Park hoardings in the final scene, he becomes the movie’s anti-corporate hero; its Adbuster; he gives his notice with a roar of independence that brings the whole venture crumbling down. The inhabitants have wrestled their own land back.)

 

By 1993, ‘getting on’ in your job had come to look, at least in pop-cultural terms, very much like being suckered. Irvine Welsh’s sarcastic jab at aspirational eighties consumerism in his bestseller of that year, Trainspotting – lifting the slogan of the iconic Katherine Hamnett/Wham T-shirt that symbolised the decade’s worst go-for-it platitudes – lifting the slogan of the iconic Katherine Hamnett/Wham! T-shirt that symbolised the decade’s worst go-for-it platitudes – became a pop-culture mantra, appearing on albums, club singles, and finally on T-shirts of its own: ‘Choose life. Choose a job . . . Choose rotting away at the end of it all, pishing your last in a miserable home, nothing more than an embarrassment to the selfish, fucked up brats you spawned to replace yourself. Choose your future.’

 

Pop culture’s superstars were Homer Simpson and Kurt Cobain, its key image the swimming baby chasing a dollar. Beck defined the mood with ‘Loser’ (1994), and vowed he wasn’t ‘going to work for no soul-sucking jerk’ on an album that seemed to dramatise quitting jobs (blowing leaves/washing dishes/putting chicken in a bucket with a soda/whatever) over and over again, while Rage Against The Machine created the ultimate ’90s chorus with ‘Killing In The Name’’s “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me.” (1992).

 

Berlin Wall Nirvana: The grunge take on 1990s history

 

The 1990s revolution was not about the fall of communism: it was about the realization by people all over the world that being a committed swallower of the post-war company line didn’t deliver what it promised. The ’80s contract, here as in the stagnating East, was a dud. The hour of the workplace dissident, the self-immolating truth-bomber, had come at last.

 

Loser by Beck Ceausescu remix

Review: Why new Ukraine documentary film Maïdan is right to resist the voiceover

 

I was asked to review Sergei Loznitsa’s 2014 documentary film Maïdan for Radio 4’s Front Row programme earlier this week. You can listen to the review, in the form of a stimulating conversation with presenter Samira Ahmed, here.

 

A year on from the massacre of Maidan protestors by president Viktor Yanukovich’s berkut officers, there’s a very real danger of the Maidan protests becoming lost from view.

 

Russia’s black propaganda efforts have been unrelenting – from official attempts to label the protestors ‘Nazis’ and their leaders in Kiev a ‘junta’ to the flooding of commetary with trolls and masking of their own forces as ‘separatists’, protesting in turn. So any document of Maidan that takes us back to first principles – that bears witness, rather than imposing a retrospective interpretation – is welcome.

 

And in a lot of ways, Maïdan is that document. The cameras are simply installed, and left to run, picking up the crowd, in parts and whole. There is no narrator. Or at least, not of the kind of narrator we’re used to in films. More of that in a moment.

In some ways, it’s as much a video installation piece as a film. I actually think the cinema is the wrong place for it: for my first viewing, I sat and watched. It was a strange, gripping but occasionally frustrating experience. For my second, I watched while pottering about, eating and wandering in and out… And it was amazing.

 

It’s a film that invites you to be part of it, in an almost ambient, inclusive way. For long stretches, it even feels like those long, late-night live-broadcast hours they used to do from the Big Brother house outside of scheduled programme time. There’s a screen between you, but there might as well not be. Life is being lived, sandwiches eaten, tea drunk on both sides of the glass. You feel like following buskers past the edges of the frame as they wanderout of shot. Faces in the crowd peer out at points just past your shoulder. But then suddenly – very suddenly – things turn. And by that time, you’re… what… tuned in and on their wavelength somehow. You feel involved, without being offered easy hooks, personal stories, heroes. No leading men or ladies, no leading politicians. You are one of the crowd.

 

In particular, what struck me about the protestors is just how sauntering and adhoc and The Mouse That Roared it all was. Hot drinks are clutched, volunteers make soup. Community centres, street corners become meeting places. They look, for the most part, like people with jobs, and mums and dads, and wholesome aspirations. People like us. Of course, that’s just how they look, and talk, and act. And amid all the noise, that’s all we have to go on. We don’t know them. We don’t follow them as individuals. There are no emblematic stories. It’s as if to say that emblematic stories have caused enough problems already. As a voice cries over the PA when imploring the crowd to remain calm even as the violence begins: “Emotion is your enemy.”

 

Maïdan’s insistence on not entering the mad arms race of over-narration and assertion and theorising all sides were/are being sucked into around Ukraine really does feel like the only sane thing to do.

 

I think that act of asking us to look and see what’s happening, and getting out of the way, is an absolute masterstroke.

 

Maïdan is not bums-on-seats, Hollywood-style commercial dynamite. And yet it feels like something people will return to for far longer. It feels, at times, like we’re seeing cinema stretching itself again, in ways that will have value in decades to come, like The Battle Of Algiers or even Eisenstein.

Of course, those are hardly examples of POV-free filmmaking. Which is, I guess, the twist.

 

Nothing is really that simple. Loznitsa shot more than a hundred hours of footage. We get two. Maybe Maidan does have more in common with narrated or polemical collages like Adam Curtis’s Bitter Lake after all.

For me, though, this is where Maïdan gets really interesting. In fact, the longer it goes on, the more snatches of PA appeals for doctors, crowd chants, half-conversations-in-passing, painted slogans, odd shouts, noises off, radio pop songs and so on you hear, the more that circus of voices becomes the chorus, the narrator. It felt at times like those great Robert Altman films, M.A.S.H. (narration comes from tannoy), Nashville (chorus/narration comes from overheard snatches of event PA/DJs on the radio), Short Cuts (character scenes are accompanied by TVs on which you overhear news bulletins of the impending earthquake and crime stuff) etc. If it’s a composition of broken voices in an hour of chaos, maybe it’s our, or Ukraine’s version of T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’.

But even if it is a collage, a composition, it’s one that leaves you alone for long periods, including extraordinarily long static shots.

 

There are no characters. No individual stories are asked to be emblematic of the whole. The subject is the crowd, and your responses to it. And while the camera is there, trained on the square or the refectory like a CCTV or weathercam, there’s no-one telling you what to think. You’re forced to pick your way through those voices and faces and messages… watch, listen and interpret which way things are about to turn as you watch the crowd at that moment. The crowd is all.

 

We don’t get to see inside anyone’s head. We’re among strangers. The anthem swells and disappears. People read demands to Putin. People talk about what Putin’s said back. People make and eat sandwiches. Mill about. Someone strums a guitar. There are moments when it feels closer to the infamous, unreleasable outtake-as-feature footage that made up Robert Franks’ Rolling Stones doc Cocksucker Blues, or Bob Dylan’s abandoned ’66 tour chronicle Eat the Document than anything else. Aimlessness as purpose. Chaos as direction. Crowd as motivational force.

In fact, for the most part – including the endless lulls, the itch to interpret someone coming towards us as a sign that ‘things are about to happen’, the comic moments, the slow-train-crash horror of things turning ugly and uncontrollable, whatever we intend – really is just like being part of a big demonstration/protest crowd. Key events are happening are out of sight. You hear that they’ve happened, or may be about to happen, elsewhere. You’re always reading the mood of the people around you and seeing how things are about to turn/who to be close to and who not/what happens next should someone kick off, etc.

 

This is a huge part of what I take from the film. The beginning really immerses you – sort of stretches your idea of what to expect I think. It’s like those long, fixed-camera hours broadcast live from the Big Brother house, or Andy Warhol films. You start getting itchy feet, thinking ‘When is something going to happen? Why all the waiting around in one place, camera?’ And of course that’s very much the start of any movement, if I recall my Iraq Demo, Occupy and Poll Tax Protest days right.

 

Maybe no-one telling you what to think is the point about revolutions. And about Maïdan. It’s messy. It’s bewildering.

 

And it might only make sense later, when it’s slipping away again.

 

‘F**k You & Goodbye’ is a Waterstone’s Christmas bestseller

 

Just got this stunning news from the people at Waterstone’s who compile the bestseller lists. F**k You & Goodbye is at No.22 the week before Christmas:

 

Christmas Bestseller list for Waterstone's features Matt Potter's Fuck You And Goodbye

Matt Potter’s F**k You & Goodbye at No.22 on the pre-Christmas bestseller list at Waterstone’s

 

Thanks to everyone who’s been so kind about my history of the resignation, and of course everyone who’s bought it. This is the second-best* Christmas present I’ve ever had. You can buy the book from Waterstone’s as a hardback here or ebook at a special price of £4.99 here.

 

*No. 1 is still the Airfix triceratops.

Matt Potter’s ‘F**k You & Goodbye’ is Christmas pick for Waterstone’s, Foyles & more

 

My new book, F**k You & Goodbye: The Dark & Hilarious History of the Resignation, is available to buy now in hardback and ebook, in shops and online.

 

F**k You & Goodbye by Matt Potter

Waterstone’s Christmas Recommendations 2014

 

 

It’s also now been promoted to the recommended Christmas gift buy for Waterstone’s and Foyles, who are offering extra Foyalty points with it as a bonus.

 

The book has been getting a lot of attention. It’s been treated to a four-page feature in The Independent, a 1,200 word piece in The Telegraph, a Buzzfeed viral piece where it became one of their Top 20 hits and hit the front page, been the topic of discussion from Radio 4’s Saturday Live to BBC 2’s The Daily Politics – where Andrew Neal grilled me and Clare Short (whose resignation to Tony Blair over Iraq is featured in the book) at length.

 

The title caused some controversy, too (funny, that): Andrew Neal complained that he couldn’t mention it before the Watershed, so we arranged for the cover to be clearly visible throughout!

 

Buy it at a special discounted price for early birds at Amazon here, or via the Telegraph bookshop here.

 

Rockin’ in the free world: Gorbachev, poppies and the death of Kurt Cobain

If you really want to know about Nirvana – from who killed Kurt Cobain to the rise of grunge and the Generation X tag – don’t listen to the conspiracy theories; ask a historian.

 

Soviet anti-drugs poster

 

The news of Kurt Cobain’s suicide broke 20 years ago today. The anniversary of his death – which probably took place sometime on the 5th April 1994 – from a self-inflicted gunshot at his home in Seattle, has already picked up its fair share of coverage.

 

There are also plenty of silly conspiracy theories. In the parlour game of ‘Who killed Kurt Cobain?’, anyone but Kurt Cobain will do.

 

Yet in historical terms, the story of what happened to Kurt Cobain is much bigger, darker and more mysterious – and ultimately, more important to us all here in 2014 – than the shopworn horror show of celebrity, depression, public addiction and suicide suggests. Like all the great detective stories, it deals in the kinds of details outside the jurisdiction of coroners and local cops. In this telling, the soap opera of a pop star’s life and the frenzied search for clues in the music is a distraction from another, more compelling trail of evidence, leading towards a far larger crime.

 

When American political economist Francis Fukuyama called the Cold War’s close ‘the end of history’ in 1989 – a phrase that gained global currency when he published The End of History & The Last Man in 1992, victorious, insulated America applauded. The rest of us weren’t sure whether to laugh or cry. Far from signalling the final, settled dominance of Western liberal democracy as Fukuyama predicted, the collapse of the Soviet Union had already led to the re-emergence of ethnic and political loyalties long suppressed – and nursed – by the comfortable stasis of the bipolar world. Because the same Cold War that had kept African puppet states, the Iron Curtain and European ethnic divisions in a kind of stasis for the past 40 years had also kept a little piece of death – the seed of his success and his suicide – away from Kurt Cobain. But it too was free now. And it was looking for him.

 

There’s an uncanny symmetry in Nirvana’s rise and the fall of the established order. The band’s breakthrough sophomore album (and the singer’s eventual albatross) Nevermind went nuclear over Christmas 1991 – the very week Mikhail Gorbachev signed the decree ending the USSR. Just a week later, on New Year’s Day 1992, Nevermind hit Number One, pushing Michael Jackson’s Pepsi-sponsored Bad off the top of the Billboard chart. We woke on that first morning since 1922 without a Soviet Union in the world (it ceased to exist as an entity at midnight on New Year’s Eve 1991) to find that Nevermind had conquered the globe instead.

 

It would be the first Nirvana record for which the band’s traditional way of sharing royalties out by even thirds would end up recarved by Cobain’s lawyers in the principal songwriter’s favour. No more comrades-in-arms indeed.

 

In fact, success had made lots of once-simple things dreadfully complicated for Kurt. Good, straightforward relationships – with his band, his record company, his wife, his fans – had become complex, shifting. They couldn’t be trusted. Everyone wanted something. All relationships and values were now calibrated in terms of money. It was a very post-Cold War feeling indeed.

 

No wonder the monstrous, freakish success of Nevermind led to the re-emergence of all sorts of long-dormant insecurities in Cobain. That happens when you’ve won, chart battle or political standoff. He’d become popular, but was it for the right reasons, in the right way? He worried away at his own worthiness, his authenticity. It didn’t help that he was convinced ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ was little more than a cop of another band’s tune. He and bassist Krist Novoselic were consumed with fear that people would see the song for the Pixies rip-off they confessed it had started life as. He didn’t like the fact that he wanted money enough to get heavy on Krist and Dave Grohl about it. ‘Pennyroyal Tea’ was a disguised dig at his own watching of every penny royalty. At the moment of his greatest triumph, Cobain was panicked. He felt like an impostor in his own life. And the more he felt like that, the further he retreated into the drug that made it matter less. Heroin. It have him the power to shrug it off. To say: Never mind. (By 1992, with the heroin-chic circus around him starting to reach the fashion glossies, he wrote a letter to fans explaining his struggle with rehab, in luring the phrase, “Hope I die before I turn into Pete Townshend.” )

 

Would he have been better off without Nevermind’s success? He often seemed to think so. What is beyond doubt is that while a global tsunami of fantastically good, cheap heroin from the former Central Asian borderlands of the USSR might have been the catalyst for grunge’s super-slow, warm’n’fuzzy sound and (to quote Billy Corgan) “I’m fucked up, you’re fucked up” mantra, it was the very worst thing for anyone experiencing exactly those feelings Cobain now harboured, exactly that need for refuge, at exactly that point.

 

Yet the wave of heroin kept building. And its appearance at grunge’s cradle was part of a Faustian pact much, much bigger than any that Kurt could make – or for that matter, Alice In Chains’ Layne Staley, or Blind Melon’s Shannon Hoon, or Hole’s Kristen Pfaff, or Mother Love Bone’s Andrew Wood, or anyone dealing in low-tuned, warm, slack, sludgy sleepwalking music in those melancholic, oceanic, autumnal-looking picture sleeves.

 

The invasion of Afghanistan just over a decade earlier had been the Soviet Union’s most public, costly and longest-drawn-out mistake. Before 1979, Afghanistan’s opium fields exported very little along westward routes. But the CIA’s (and Pakistan’s) assistance for mujahideen fighters resisting the Soviet occupation extended to getting the occupiers hooked on heroin. Production rose, and transportation was provided – Pakistan army trucks coming and going with bales of the stuff every day.

 

At the same time, there is evidence to suggest official (and increasingly desperate) Soviet plans to cultivate Afghanistan as a heroin patch, and to destabilize the West by facilitating supply lines to Europe and the US. (As early as 1971, a KGB directive designated M·120/00-050 outlined Soviet plans to use heroin to destabilize the West. And by 1986, Soviet state-operated freighters were sailing from Soviet Baltic ports, and arriving in Rotterdam, London, Denmark and elsewhere laden with hundreds of kilos of high-grade heroin.)

 

Encouraging it was one thing. Controlling it was another. Like a nuclear arms race that would leave unattended warheads lying around who-knew-how-many unstable, newly independent republics the day Nevermind hit the top, this was the sort of tactic that works during occupation and stasis, but backfires after.

 

The Soviets withdrew in 1989 – crippled by addiction, demotivated, bust. (How very early grunge.) The withdrawing soldiers, quartermasters, pilots, diplomats, drivers, construction workers, kids, all took their Jones with them. Their contacts and supply routes – often officially protected – stayed open for business. And sure enough, a huge problem that had been underground in the ’80s became a huge problem that had gone mainstream. And a system that put its faith in young pioneers, in ideology and the commitment and belief of workers, found itself ill-equipped to survive the point where those young pioneers shrugged, stayed home and jacked up.

 

And all the time, there came more heroin. And with the domestic market more or less saturated, it had to go somewhere. The product was there; the infrastructure was there; the corruption was still there. And now, as the ruble collapsed, came the sudden, pressing need to make hard, convertible currency. Down on the Afghan-Pakistan side, too many people had been making too many US dollars for too long to stop now. And on the now-ex-Soviet side, plenty of people – demobbed people, people whose future inside the system suddenly looked a lot less secure – suddenly found they had an opportunity. A simple trade.

 

South-East Asia’s heroin – difficult to transport to Europe or the US, and therefore invariably expensive and degraded by middle-men – suddenly had a far more attractive rival product to contend with.

 

These were wild times on a new Silk Route. Western Autobahns thronged with Trabis; Highway E55 on the Czech-German border became the world’s longest brothel, cars fitted with blackout screens and grubby curtains rocking and jerking through the bitter winter night. Adventurous tourists and robber capitalists alike swarmed East, overwhelming Moscow, Kiev, Minsk, Almaty and Tashkent with dollars and promises and legally enforceable contracts. And the heroin and the money flowed, aided by police corruption, desperation and the irresistible gradient of supply and demand.

 

Britain, Scandinavia and Western Europe were easy staging points for the now-free-to-travel vessels, trucks and containers of the former USSR. And once you were in Rotterdam, Copenhagen, Liverpool or London, the world – namely, the USA – was your oyster. The cheap heroin that had brought Russia to its knees was too good an opportunity for gangs on both sides to miss.

 

Slacker and grunge in the West, refuseniks in the East, were all borne along on the wave of unassailable apathy by history’s largest release of Afghan opium from a failed war. As a retort to the propaganda of struggle for a brighter utopian future (whether chasing a communist ideal or a floating hard-currency dollar), “Never mind” is pretty final.

 

It’s an intriguing thought. Had it not been for the disaster of the Soviet war in Afghanistan, and the ensuing collapse of the USSR, would Kurt Cobain have died as he did? Perhaps the bigger question is whether grunge itself could have become so big. Did that specific, one-time-only combination of the Afghan mujahideen, Gorbachev and Reagan, and a newly entrepreneurial network of heroin gangs save us all from LA hair metal?

 

Or perhaps the question is more important still. Maybe all those people in the East who shrugged and turned away from their manifest destiny were part of a more global idea of Generation X than we’d imagined. Maybe their piece of the Berlin Wall was our Adbusters. We’d all been peachy keen recruits to the system, before the shrug. This was history made not by people saluting or rallying, but by people retreating, copping out, shrugging it all off, saying ‘No’.

 

Which brings us back to that silent house in Seattle 20 years ago. Kurt Cobain didn’t die of a heroin overdose, of course. He died because he shot himself. The autopsy revealed large quantities of heroin in his system, alongside plenty of other stuff, mostly prescription Rohypnol and other garbage. Autopsies don’t say where the heroin came from. They don’t talk about why it’s suddenly flooding streets, gigs, friends’ bedrooms, hotels. They don’t address the economics. It takes history to do that.

 

Seattle, the E55, Berlin, Russia, Armenia, Kabul, Rwanda, Estonia, Rotterdam. 20 years later, you can trace more and more lines. Now it’s the West’s turn to retreat from Afghanistan. Opium production has soared during our occupation. It’s going to go somewhere. Maybe we should listen out for it. It’s there, in the music, and the celebrity news too.

 

To steal a 1989 line from Kurt’s hero Neil Young – whose “It’s better to burn out than to fade away” Cobain quoted in his suicide letter – we’re all rockin’ in the free world now.

 

New book for pre-order: ‘F*** You & Goodbye: The Dark, Moving & Often Hilarious History of the Resignation’

 

 

I’ve been waiting for this day. My new book of non-fiction is finally available on Amazon for pre-order as a print hardback. I’ve just signed off on the cover, and here it is. (Click to enlarge).

 

 

Titled F*** You & Goodbye: The Dark, Moving & Often Hilarious History of the Resignation, it’s out early next year, published in the UK by Constable & Robinson. Using resignations to trace the key stories, social developments and philosophies of the age, it takes in the Reformation, the American Civil War, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the rise of celebrity culture, and more. Here’s the publisher’s elevator pitch.

“History is written by the winners. It’s the survivors – the faithful servants, the insiders, the ones who stick around, who can adapt to almost any condition – who get to write the official histories. They publish the memoirs, park in the directors’ spots, erect the statues, form the new governments, wipe out the pockets of resistance, recruit the new starters, set the agendas, talk on the documentaries and retrospectives.

               Yet theirs – the official version – is never the whole story. There’s another side that we only glimpse through the cracks.

               The quitter’s tale offers a far more compelling, and often a more honest version of history. It’s full of self-deception, bloody knives, betrayal, honour, disgrace, disgust, thwarted ambition and shattered hopes, and sometimes a wicked sting in the tail…

              ‘F*** You & Goodbye’ includes famous – and not-so-famous – parting shots from famous resigners such as Richard Nixon, Steve Jobs, Roy Keane, Che Guevara, Wyatt Earp, Geoffrey Howe, Boris Yeltsin, Mikhail Gorbachev, Richard Peppiatt, Tony Blair, General Robert E. Lee, William Faulkner, Mikhail Bulgakov, George Orwell, Roy Edward Disney (Walt’s heir), King Edward VIII, Groucho Marx, John Profumo, Ruud Gullit, the Enron board, Dave Lee Travis, PResident Eisenhower, Winston Churchill, Andrew Mitchell, Giles Coren and Charlie Sheen, and countless others.

            It examines the exit wounds they left, and how they changed the world we think we live in, the jobs we do, even who we are – leading the reader on a journey into modern society’s real heart of darkness.”

 

The book is the fruit of a 25-year obsession, and continues the theme of secret history – and the idea that the real story of our time is the one you glimpse between the cracks – from Outlaws Inc. It’s been fun writing it. I hope you enjoy reading it.

 

Order it early, and let me know by email, and send you a personal invite to the swish publisher’s launch party in London early next year.