Interviews: Alex James

Byline: Stephen Dalton

Behind his shallow facade as an Austin Powers-style pop playboy and living dandy, Blur's floppy-fringed bass player Alex James has some blunt opinions about student loans and Blairite attacks on further education.

As probably Britain's most famous quartet of former undergraduates, Blur have never attempted to deny their student past like so many bands. Indeed, as their recent South Bank show proved, they positively revel in their reputation as cultured pop intellectuals. Which might explain why Damon Albarn shunned his invitation to Number 10 but threw his weight behind campaigns against student loands, and more recently, Ken Livingstone's bid to become mayor of London.

Between sips of champagne, Alex says: "I think I'm a socialist, if I know what it means."

He adds, "The worst thing about the Nineties has definitely been the way the money's been siphoned out of education. I wouldn't have a band if I hadn't gone to college. I dropped out after two years but I learned a lot at college - a lot of new words like 'extemporisation' and 'iconoclasm'."

"Taking the money out of it stops it being a meritocratic thing and just means that, if people have rich parents, their parents will pay for them to go to university. My cousin's totally in that situation now - he's taken a year out an got a job with an insurance company, and I can't see him going up to college after getting a taste of money."

Although he never completed his languages degree at Goldsmiths in South London, Alex believes a univeristy education should be not just free but compulsory, like National Service. "Because you don't know what you want to do when you're 18," he argues.

"You're very privileged if you do. We 're very good at loafing around, British people. That's when we have all our best ideas. Did you know that more than 50 percent of marketable inventions since the war have been British? That's a fucking ridiculous figure!"

"Look at it in these terms: if somebody's got to university they must have worked quite hard at school so they've spent like 10, 14 years working really hard. So the least you can do is pay for somebody to go to college. I'm sure students are a good investment for the country."

Worthy sentiments are all very well, but science-loving Alex is also using his celebrity clout to help publicise home-grown ingenuity by composing music for a proposed British space project. "I've been working on trying to raise money for a British mission to Mars because they guy has convinced me that he's able to detect traces of life there."

"This is probably like the first question that was ever asked by conscious man: am I alone in the universe? And in the last 50 years we've been in a position to answer the question, but nobody's interested."

"I went around to a few TV producers I know saying they should make a film of it and they said 'Are there any famous people going . . . ?'"

But as for that other technological marvel of our age, The Millenium Dome, Alex is less enthusiastic. "The Mars probe was supposed to be exhibited in the Dome but, I don't know, there's something dodgy going on south of the river. I don't want to talk about it too much or I'll get in trouble."

"You ain't seen me, right?"

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