Pure happiness in eight minutes, guaranteed

In the late 80s, during the period known at the time as The Second Summer of Love, two brothers from Sevenoaks in Kent, Phil and Paul Hartnoll, began making electronic music. Inspired by punk, anti-Thatcher politics and the idealism of the rave scene they called themselves Orbital – after the M25 motorway that kids drove around looking for illegal raves. Their first track, released in December 1989, was a 10-minute anthem called Chime, created in a knocked-through cupboard under the stairs that their dad had set up as a home office, using a synthesizer they’d bought for £100 from a bloke in a working men’s club.

Chime was a huge hit at raves, clubs and, subsequently, in the charts. Over in Northern Ireland, a passionate young Irish DJ David Holmes loved it and wanted to book Orbital for his club night in Belfast. The brothers, concerned about the city’s reputation for sectarian violence, were unsure at first. There was still a British Army presence on the streets, paramilitary brutality was depressingly commonplace and politically-motivated killings were a grim fact of life. However, Holmes played the Hartnoll brothers’ fears down and persuaded them everything would be OK.

When they got to Belfast, David Holmes showed them around the city, including the Falls Road, with its army checkpoints and political murals. On first impressions it felt foreboding and the Hartnoll brothers were scared and hesitant. But, after they’d spent the night in various pubs meeting the locals they warmed to the city. They stayed at Holmes’ mum’s house and, in the morning, she made them her famous ‘Ulster fry’. The next day they played their set at Holmes’ club and the place went nuts. Hanging out with their new Irish friends afterwards, they started to understand that the city’s dance music fans were a mishmash of Catholics and Protestants – and none of them gave a flying f*%k about the religious divide. They just wanted to enjoy the positivity and chaos of the music, to embrace its loved-up vibe.

The next day, before they left Belfast, David Holmes asked the Hartnoll brothers if they had any new music they were working on. They gave him a cassette with two tracks on it. After they’d gone, he spent a whole day driving around in a his mate’s car, playing the tape over and over again. He phoned them to say he was absolutely in love with the second track; they told him it wasn’t finished yet.

A few months later, the track was finished, released and acclaimed as an instant masterpiece. It was named Belfast. David Holmes was blown away by this tribute to his city: the track moved him as a musician but, beyond that, the gesture inspired him as a human being. Paul Hartnoll said, “We’d had such positive experience in Belfast, it had been so beautiful, we’d met so many great people, we thought – wouldn’t it be good to actually name something that’s beautiful, soft and lovely about Belfast and put it out in England where everyone has this completely different view of the place.”

Like many fans of the track, the first time I heard it I wondered why it was called Belfast; the story of how it came by its seemingly paradoxical name made me love it even more. There was an idea that went about back in the early 90s that if all the world leaders sat down and took MDMA together, the world’s problems could be solved in an evening. As mental and naïve as that perhaps was, the fact that in the 25 years since this track’s release the city it’s named after has been through a peace process which culminated in the Good Friday Agreement and paved the way for (cautious) optimism seems wonderfully fitting.

Routinely nominated in the top five of ‘best electronic tracks ever’ polls, Belfast is indelibly etched on the memories of the generation that grew up with it, danced to it, came down to it. But whether or not you’re a fan of electronic music, stick your headphones on and listen to it all the way through. It’s as beautiful and moving as a Rothko painting, as poignant and elegiac as a TS Eliot poem. Like all great music it seems to communicate on a gut level, to bypass the cerebral cortex and punch straight through to the core of your being. The way the music ripples and swirls around the sample of the soprano’s refrain, then swells and builds…swells and builds…swells and builds, it clears the distracting buzz of everyday stuff from your brain, makes your heart vibrate and your skin tingle. Or, to put it another way, it makes you feel happy. And here’s another plus point: when it’s over, you’re not left with a soul-crushing hangover that lasts until Wednesday afternoon 🙂

PS. Let’s hope the guy who uploaded the video has finally purchased the full version of Video Edit Magic!

“You have to believe in yourself…because you’re going to come across that moment where you’re the only one who does. And I failed that test.”

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Since I finished reading A Brief History of Seven Killings I’ve had lots of interesting conversations with people who have read it, are reading it or want to read it. Of those who’ve read it, many call it a great ‘gay novel’, ‘post-colonial novel’ or ‘novel of exile’. I’d just say it’s a bloody great novel, full stop. But having read up a bit on the author, Marlon James, I can see how his background has bled into discussions about the book even more than would normally be the case. He’s a fascinating character whose troubled upbringing in Jamaica and subsequent move to the US have driven his art to uniquely insightful places; his writing often oscillates between the heart-achingly beautiful and the grimly violent – sometimes within the same sentence.

Among tales of dealing with childhood bullying, dealing with his homosexuality and finally coming out (via an article in the New York Times), the most surprising thing I read about Marlon James is that he came within a gnat’s whisker of not being a writer. In 2003, aged 33, he’d received 78 rejections from US publishers, for his first novel, John Crow’s Devil. When that 78th rejection said “Not for us”, something in him snapped  – perhaps he thought the remark was aimed at him as much as his manuscript – and he deleted the entire novel from his laptop. He then went to the houses of the friends who had the novel and deleted it from their computers too. “I just thought if so many people thought this was not good, it couldn’t possibly be good. Maybe I wasn’t meant to be a writer,” he said.

What happened after this is astonishing case of karmic justice combined with awesome serendipity. Marlon James had forgotten about the novel and started working as a copywriter, graphic designer and location scout. Then, an American author, Kaylie Jones, went to the Calabash Book Festival in Jamaica in 2003 and held a creative writing workshop. Marlon James went along and after he’d done some of the writing exercises, Jones immediately saw that he was talented and asked if he’d written anything longer. James, having resigned his book to the past, said he hadn’t – but his classmates told her that he’d written a novel. Jones asked him if she could read it and James began the difficult task of tracking down a copy. After many false starts he finally found a friend who’d disobeyed his order to delete the novel. He got it from them and gave it to Kaylie Jones; she read it in three days, loved it and called her publisher. They also loved it and in 2005, John Crow’s Road was published.

When Kaylie Jones heard that Marlon James had won the Booker Prize she cried with happiness and, talking about the many rejections he’d faced on his journey to literary acceptance, said, “I was stunned that nobody had said we should take this seriously, that nobody had recognised his talent. Everything he has now and is now – he was then.”

When I was reading about all of this, one thing struck me as strange. I found it hard to believe that when Marlon James had deleted his novel, he hadn’t kept a copy filed away somewhere all along. But, when he was asked about this, he said his loss of self-belief had been hardcore and resolute, he’d just wanted to move on. This is why I tell my students when they ask for advice – you have to believe in yourself. Because if you’re a writer, you’re going to come across that moment where you’re the only one who does. And I failed that test.” Isn’t that sad? And isn’t it somehow equally amazing, inspiring and depressing that his career came so close to not happening? That, at the very point at which even he’d lost faith in his talent – the universe, coincidence, luck (or whatever you want to call it) found a way to spot that brilliance and shine a light on it.