Modern Life Isn't Rubbish
The Independent, June 5, 2000 (Monday)
Byline: Deborah Ross
Alex James enjoys being a rock star. He's rich enough to drink vintage champagne
and famous enough to go where he likes. He's so successful with Blur and Fat
Les that even his Mum is happy. And the best thing of all? 'No one tells you
when it's time to go to bed.'
I am going to meet Alex James who plays the bass and is, yes, "the beautiful one
from Blur." I am excited, obviously. I even say to my partner: "I'm off, now, to
meet Alex James, the beautiful one from Blur." Then I add: "And I might never
come back." He is perturbed, naturally: "Good," he says. "And while you're about
it, take the rubbish out with you." My young son then asks: "Where is Blur? Is
it in France? Can we all go?" Honestly, they are both so crashingly and absurdly
and shame-makingly un-hip. God knows how I ended up with them. I shan't return,
no. I shall run off with Alex and become a rock chick and have lots of daughters
called Fifi-Fou-Fou-Trixie-Wixie-Lamb-Chops, or Sindy-Windy-Rainbow-Sunshine-Wednesday-Peachy-Pie,
before settling down to my own beauty column in OK!. I wear the only thing I
have that isn't too Crouch End housewife. It's a cropped leather jacket, bought
in a mad moment when I forgot I was hideous and nearly 40. Still, it's quite
chic. It might even be rock chick chic. I might just crack it.
We meet, of course, at London's premiere, majorly exclusive celebrity eatery,
The Ivy. "Can I take your jacket madam?" "NO! DON'T YOU DARE! SHOVE OFF!" Alex
is already sitting, at the best table, just inside the door. Alex is, indeed,
very beautiful, with one of those tousled hair-dos which, I think, are meant to
look like they take no doing, but probably do. He can always get a table at The
Ivy, no trouble. "Yeah, I just have to phone. The Ivy index does tell you just
how famous you are. Does that make me sound like a wanker?" He likes being a
rock star. "It means no one tells you when it's time to go to bed, so you don't.
For days." He likes fame, too. "It's like operating in a different kind of
currency. It opens doors. It makes it easy to speak to other celebrities. It
makes your mum proud of you. Now, does that make me sound like a wanker?"
He's just come from GMTV, as it happens, where he had a very nice time being
interviewed by "two young sticks on a sofa." No, Blur don't have anything to
flog at the moment, but that rogue collective Fat Les do. Fat Les is Alex and
his Groucho Club mates, the actor Keith Allen, and the Brit Art main man, Damien
Hirst. Alex loves Keith, "although he's terrible when he get drunk, he tells
everyone he's the Listerine Fairy." Alex loves Damien, who has designed a
jellyfish tank for his house. Alex recommends jellyfish as pets. "They have no
brains, you see, so there is no moral or ethical dilemma about keeping them in
tanks." Fat Les had a big hit in 1998, when they recorded "Vindaloo" to coincide
with the World Cup. Now, they've recorded "Jerusalem", the hymn based on the
William Blake poem, for Euro 2000. Why "Jerusalem"? "Keith and I arrived at the
idea together. We thought well, we've done a yobbish thing, so let's do an
anthem. Something that's as English as fried slice but noble and dignified and
everything. It's a good song to do. It's like a posh aunt. You can take it
anywhere." It's been adopted by the FA as the official championship song. Was it
hard, talking them into it? "I think they were quite shocked by us. We knew our
reputations proceeded us, so really scrubbed up to meet them . . ."
I don't think Alex takes much scrubbing up, frankly. Certainly, he is gorgeously
turned out today. A Nigel Hall red jumper. Nigel Hall white linen trousers.
Camper sandals. And a badge that says, "Mars or bust." He is, it turns out,
fascinated by space, and would very much like to travel to Mars one day. "It's
the new Australia," he says. "It took five months to get there not so long ago."
He is wonderfully and magically childlike in his curiosity. He currently, he
says, has a "craving" for maths. Do you get logarithms? I ask. Does anybody?
"I've been reading about them, actually. A logarithm's only a differential that
enables you to do multiplication by adding." He likes to watch Learning Zone
programmes on the TV. "The Learning Zone is great. It's not trying to sell you
anything. It's like communist telly." He particularly likes programmes on
spirals. And triangles. And circles. "A circle is a very sophisticated thing.
It's a very elegant thing, completely indescribable. Pi is an unknowable
quantity. I do think about circles a lot." The only thing he isn't curious about
is the Dome. No, he hasn't been. Why? "Well, as my girlfriend says, who wants to
see a lot of prats on stilts?"
We order. Alex goes for the pea and lettuce soup, then the asparagus ravioli.
He's been a vegetarian, he explains, ever since he was a schoolboy and went on
one of those exchange trips to France and ended up with a family in Cherbourg
who "ate everything, including pigeon and the most weird, disgusting things from
the sea." Yes, he is quite a good cook himself, actually. "Well, I say that, but
like most men, it means I can only do one thing." Which is? "Yorkshire pudding.
I'm good at Yorkshire pudding. And I like watching it go up. That's better than
anything on telly. Can you play bridge?" No, can you? "Yes, I'm crap at it, but
I like it. I play with Bob and Betty Richardson, two physicists from New York."
He is brilliantly unexpected. And funny, too. We later talk about football. He
is mildly interested. He mildly supports Bournemouth and mildly supports
Arsenal. I ask, God knows why, if he had Subbuteo as a kid. He says: "Yes. But
it was never very satisfying. Your friend would come round. 'Got Subbuteo?'
'Yeah.' 'Wanna play?' 'Nah.' Super Striker was a better game. I wanted that but
never got it. I think I got Glitter Fun instead."
No, he says, he doesn't want to order any wine. He vowed in January that he
would give up all alcohol until June. Why? "Well, they say that people can only
hold one adjective in their minds about you and, with me, that adjective was
becoming drunkard." What would you prefer it to be? "Thin!" Have you missed
drinking? "Well, as Camus said, you get used to everything in three weeks." I
point out that it's June now. He knows, he says. He had a drink at midnight on
31 May. Nice? "Yes. But it's good not to be too reliant. Oh, sod it, let's have
a bottle of pop." He orders a bottle of champagne. He quotes Blake. "As Blake
said: the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom." Endearingly, he has an
appropriate quote for every occasion. He orders Crystal champagne. It comes in
at pounds 145 a bottle.
He is very rich. And extravagant? "Well, I have spent a lot of money on
champagne. Three bottles a day for three years. That's a house." But, then, Blur
have been, and continue to be, a phenomenally successful band. If there ever
truly was a Blur vs. Oasis battle, then Blur won, I think. They invented
Britpop, yes, but as soon as it got boring, they buried it and moved on. Unlike
Oasis - or even Suede or Pulp for that matter - they never carried on doing the
same thing. Each of their six albums has taken them off in new directions. Oasis
still shift records, I know, but as Alex says: "I think it's a residual
interest, and only that." OK, he would say that, but does it make it any less
true? Anyway, what was Britpop exactly? "You'll find it defined in dictionaries
now. It think it's defined as a British movement influenced by the guitars and
drums of Sixties groups, particularly the Beatles." Can you define Britishness?
He thinks. Then says: "It's walks. And trips to the countryside. That's very
British, isn't it? When we were once in Japan we said: 'We want to go to the
countryside. Can you take us to the countryside?' The Japanese were completely
perplexed. Go the countryside? To do what!"
Anyway, he says, it's amazing how quickly you get used to having money. Not so
long ago, "I was bunking off on the Tube." Not so long ago, even, he was working
behind the cheese counter at Safeway. The most popular cheese? "Your
three-strength cheddar. Nice, smooth, but inoffensive. Your Travis cheese." He
can be divinely bitchy. But now? Now he lives in a five-floored house in Covent
Garden with his girlfriend of 10 years, Justine. Does she work? "Does she hell!"
he exclaims. He has a pilot's license, and a plane he keeps at Elstree. Just the
other day he had to go to Bristol, so he flew himself there. I say surely, by
the time you got to Elstree, got the plane out, got clearance or whatever . . .
I mean, wouldn't it have been quicker by train? He looks at me with some
despair. I think I might be beginning to fail the rock-chick test.
He was born and brought up in Bournemouth. He had, he says, "a nice middle-class
childhood by the sea." His mother, Kelly, always did volunteer work. "My mother
is a very good person. A books-on-wheels trouper." His father, Jason, dealt in
waste-compactors and is "a handsome bugger who now loves The Ivy." Music was not
a big feature of Alex's early life. He can only ever remember doing Andrew Lloyd
Webber at school, "which is maybe why I want to shoot him now." Still, he got
into New Order in a big way when he was a teenager. "Bernard Sumner opened my
eyes to poetry. 'Tell me now, how do I feel.' What a great line for a
15-year-old." Actually, he's never been that much into poetry. "Although I have
recently been reading some Blakey bits and bobs, just in case anyone asks."
He bought himself a bass at 16, and started strumming in bands, but no one
particularly expected it to lead anywhere. It seemed much more likely that he'd
have an academic career. He'd always done well at school. He got 13 O-levels and
there was every reason to think he'd end up at Oxford. But then he messed up his
A-levels. He got a D and E and a fail. Were you upset when you opened the
notifying letter? "Nah," he says. "I was acid tripping at the time." So, it
isn't hard to work out why he did so badly. Still, he got accepted by
Goldsmith's in London to study French, and it was in London that he hooked up
with the other band members, including Damon Albarn. What did you initially make
of him? "I thought he was an obnoxious, arrogant know-it-all and I told him as
much. He's an exceptional character, though. He kept getting smacked back but he
had that drive to go on and on. It's good to have him around. He's very
motivated. Without him, I'd revert to sleep."
We finish our meal. Alex thinks that, now he's had one bottle of pop, he might
just have another at the Groucho. In for a penny, in for another 145 pounds and
all that. Do I want to come? Rather, I exclaim happily. I'm a rock chick and up
for anything! Let's do it! We walk through Soho, stopping for one or two at the
Colony Club on the way. Then it's onto the Groucho. By this time, I am having
quite a lot of trouble focusing. I think Keith Allen is here. I think Stephen
Fry is here. I think I hear Alex and Stephen talking about infinity. "As
Bertrand Russell said," says Alex, "it's terrifying, whichever way you look at
I think I ought to go home. I do. "Have you been to Blur? Did you get me
anything?" asks my boy, who, I now realise, should have been named
Thunder-Storm-Oh-River-Forest-Grassy-Banks. "Oh, you're back. Put the kettle
on," says my partner. I can see, now, I will always be a sad Crouch End
housewife without a beauty column in OK!. I even somehow managed to lose my
jacket. Still, pecker up. I do have another one. It's one of those waterproof
cape thingies. It's yellow. And I've been told I look very stylish in it.
Particularly with the hood up.