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Suspect Culture - Still Timeless After All These Years

I'd been waiting for Suspect Culture to happen for a very long time. By the time I walked down Leith Walk in Edinburgh on August 27th 1997 to spend my thirty-third birthday watching the company's Edinburgh International Festival contribution, Timeless, at the now derelict Gateway Theatre, it already felt like we shared the same world. By the time I walked back up the Walk, towards town and late night celebrations, that world had been rocked forever.

As inarticulate as I felt in my immediate responses to the play, it was clear from this treatise on friendship, loss and the pains of shared experience that the company weren't just talking about my generation, even though they were a few crucial years younger than me. Graham Eatough, David Greig, Nick Powell, Ian Scott, their cast of four and the quartet of musicians that soundtracked Timeless weren't even just in tune with contemporary mores. Rather, to a greater or lesser degree, they were attempting to navigate their way through – live through, if you like – those increasingly confusing times just as we all were.

But my God, how did we get here?

Anyone who came of age in Britain during the Thatcher years will understand how fucked up it was. The Tory iron lady may have walked to stubborn victory on the back of the Falklands War, the Miners Strike, the IRA hunger strikes, the Yuppie invasion and the denial of society, but there remained, against all odds, a cogently ideological sense of resistance. Sired on the intellectual if not actual barricades of 1968, that resistance understood its own history, and, for many a young shaver, provided a practical education that turned protest into spectacle by way of marches and, in Brixton, Toxteth and elsewhere in 1981, full-on riots that provoked the first ever use of CS gas in mainland Britain.

Culturally, while the post-punk music scene was righteously tense, alternative cabaret flourished on the cheap. The arrival of Channel Four in 1982 opened up already crazy mixed-up kids to the avant-garde of Fassbinder and Godard, not to mention the puerile delight of nudity and swearing. On John Peel's late night Radio 1 show, serious young men exiled under the bed-clothes are listening to the Gramsci-inspired Scritti Politti's Green Gartside sing jaunty Country and gospel-tinged paeans to philosopher Jacques Derrida or else getting even more post-modern on our asses by deconstructing the love song in a honeyed concoction called ‘The “Sweetest Girl”’ - ironic inverted commas Gartside's – which concluded its opaquely bittersweet conspiracy with the didactic proclamation how 'politics is prior to the vagaries of science,' and how the presumed ‘Girl‘ of the title 'left because she understood the value of defiance'. With gender studies high on the agenda, the personal had become political, and vice versa.

Essentially, all of this was about ideas. Which is where Suspect Culture came in. Although, to be honest, at that time, or certainly a few years later, they were probably hanging about the drama sections of sixth form libraries. Probably among the Bs; Barker, Beckett, Bond, Brenton, poets all.

As the Berlin Wall came down, we found ourselves floating uncertainly in a state of ontological flux. Art became more scattershot, less focused. Theatre became physical, and sometimes liked to throw itself around the room to a techno soundtrack for no apparent reason. In England, something called the in-yer-face generation turned up, which actually turned out to be more poetic than the initial outrage that greeted Sarah Kane's Blasted and Mark Ravenhill's Shopping and Fucking suggested. In Scotland things were quieter. David Harrower's Knives in Hens and David Greig's Europe were just as fractured in their search for meaning and identity among the madness, but their ideas – them again – were more meditative in approach.

And now, as if by magic, here we were in 1997, a world of Brit-pop optimism in which friends had become the new family and in which a perma-smiling Tony Blair had convinced us by way of an electro-pop anthem that things could only get better. If the 90s were just the 60s turned upside down, as some wag – possibly Edwyn Collins – suggested - the glossy iconography looked naggingly familiar.

Suspect Culture had already made an impact in a small way with their first two professional shows since forming at Bristol University. One Way Street was a solo piece based on the life of German-Jewish intellectual Walter Benjamin. Airport was about arrivals and departures. Both, in different ways, were about lives criss-crossing in urban spaces.

Timeless was something else again. The fact that such a young company as Suspect Culture were in the Edinburgh International Festival spoke volumes about how much they'd come of age. Here was a late twentieth century fin-de-siècle epic about friendship and all the littler epiphanies that bind people. Unlike other plays that looked at disaffected twentysomethings, it spoke eloquently and moved fluidly and, in a deceptively domestic scenario, didn't smash the furniture around. If it had been a novel, it would have been Gordon Legge's The Shoe or Geoff Dyer's The Colour of Memory, both of which looked at the unspoken ties that bind, love, estrange and sometimes, just sometimes, break hearts.

Best of all, Timeless was soundtracked by a live string quartet, who underscored the action with Nick Powell's poignant compositions. That's right. A string quartet. This wasn't some live-fast-die-young-leave-a-beautiful-corpse tale of rock and roll rebellion. Neither was it some nihilistic punk future fantasy. Timeless wore its heart on its sleeve with the most plaintively emotional musical instruments in a way that Estonian composer Arvo Pärt might. All these elements were knitted together to make a beautifully sad meditation on love and life, which, if it happened be your thirty-third birthday, was bound to hit a nerve.

Of course, all of the above is culled from memory, and may or may not have happened.

Suspect Culture may not have been rock and roll, but they were honest-to-goodness indie-kids at heart, the geeks who, like Belle and Sebastian, would inherit at least some of the earth.

Nick had played with Strangelove and The Blue Aeroplanes, two very hip left-field troupes who will eventually be hailed as post-punk auteurs par excellence. Graham would go on to work with Stephen Pastel and Japanese toy-shop savants Maher Shalal Hash Baz and David, in Midsummer, got to work with Edinburgh's ultimate John Peel band, Ballboy.

Best of all was the string section, because in these increasingly baroque musical times, string sections are always in demand. Violinist Lucy Wilkins' name in particular was scattered about my credits of my CD collection. She played on The Magical World of the Strands, and toured with Tindersticks when they were at their full orchestral glory. I saw them at the Royal Albert Hall, and one side of the stage was occupied by what appeared to be an army of stringed-instrument wielding blonde women dressed in black. Lucy would go on to play live with Bryan Ferry and Roxy Music, with Ferry even going so far as to rearrange his tour dates to accommodate Lucy playing in Suspect Culture's Candide 2000. And how cool was that?

On the Sunday after Timeless rocked my world, my gushing review of the show appeared. It suggested, in its suitably over-the-top way, that everyone who saw Timeless should immediately turn to the friend next to them and squeeze their hand in some silently undemonstrative display of emotional solidarity. If anyone did or not isn't on record, but it's doubtful. I certainly didn't. In retrospect, it's doubtful whether anyone even read the review. Because the same day's paper carried a hastily put together supplement following breaking news in the middle of the night, when I and most Edinburgh Festival-philes were probably just making it home, dead-drunk and dead to the world. Princess Diana and her lover Dodi Fayed had been killed in a high-speed car crash on the run from the paparazzi. Things would never be the same again, public displays of emotion in particular.

So what happened next?

Suspect Culture followed Timeless with Mainstream, which was about two strangers making connections in the limbo of a cheap hotel. Other shows followed, some of which were better than others, but all of which used a particularly personal aesthetic to engage with ideas great and small.

I wrote an essay for a booklet that accompanied Suspect Culture's tenth anniversary. I called it Ten Years In Open-Necked Shirts, after the John Cooper-Clarke poem. In style and syntax it was wilfully idiosyncratic. In tone it was confessional, attempting to capture how Suspect Culture summed up my and their generation in a way that hoped to match the spirit of their work. It didn't and never could do, but it was then and remains the most honest thing I've ever written.
In 1997 I would never have described Timeless as political. Today, as we huddle together for comfort in the face of socio-economic adversity, it feels like the most personally political play in the world.

The core group behind Suspect Culture are ploughing other furrows, their part-debating-society, part-gang mentality having given way to more individual lines of creative inquiries. It's not that we might never see them work together again – all the best bands eventually reform, after all – it's more that they've grown up, moved on and have other things going on in their lives.

In this way, what were once new kids on the block have become elder statesmen. So what happened in-between? That would be telling. That would be Timeless.

Originally commissioned in 2011 by Graham Eatough, this essay appeared in The Suspect Culture Book, edited by Graham Eatough and Dan Rebellato, and published by Oberon in August 2013.



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