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All That Is Solid: Ten Songs With Danny Dorling
The Quietus , March 25th, 2015 10:19

Speaking in maps: geographer and inequality expert Danny Dorling talks to Karen Shook about data-spotting, the Duke of York, sexy Greek economists and Sleaford Mods' 'Lily Allen for older people'

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Geography, geographer Danny Dorling likes to joke, is the academic subject so forgiving of limited intellect that it's the one the Royals get downgraded to at university when they can't keep up with their wives-to-be in art history.

But in the space that's left to geography now that the pink bits of the maps of Empire are long gone, the Halford Mackinder professor of geography at the University of Oxford, to give Dorling his full academic title, has carved an increasingly significant furrow, totting up telling numbers in the long game of mapping the forces of inequality.

Last year, what can appropriately be called his umpteenth book, All That Is Solid, turned a spotlight on the con game/slow-pan nightmare that is the UK's housing and rental crisis, and his umpteenth-and-one, Inequality and the 1%, dished the stats on what the super-rich really cost society – enough stats, you'd say, to pin Tories and trickle-downers to the table of truth. Or at least let the rest of us win some pub arguments with dickheads.

Between books, Dorling lectures, researches, collaborates with fellow scholars on the useful-and-cool likes of Worldmapper.org, mucks in on living wage campaigns, advises the UN, the WHO and the Electoral Reform Society, pops up on Newsnight, CNN and Russia Today, and talks to overspill crowds everywhere from the London School of Economics to geography teachers' conventions, the People's Parliament, and, most tellingly, squatters' and tenants' rights groups of the kind your average telly academic's gaze scarcely registers, let alone settles on. And then asks them to tell him when he's talking rubbish. His academic CV is 88 pages long at last count, suggesting a frankly daft work rate and sleep patterns shared with Margaret Thatcher. A nice irony, that last bit, for someone you might sum up as Owen Jones' sweeter-natured, super-numerate, painfully humble big brother, and the author whose books you can plop down at bookshop tills and watch sales assistants – I've seen it three times in a row – start beaming.

In a two-hour space wedged into a Dorling day of meetings, lectures and general breathless deadlining, I follow him to what may well be Covent Garden's smallest attic hotel room, up a staircase covered in carpet that seems to predate not only gentrification but decimal currency. He flops down on a single bed of impeccable modesty, and I prop a laptop full of music on the end of it next to a box of cakes – financiers; there's nothing quite like pastries named after bankers, I find – that I've brought in compensation for his missing his tea before he hares off to Birkbeck to speak to yet another standing-room-only audience. He opens the box and tucks in.

1. The Fall – 'Lie Dream of a Casino Soul'

Let's start by looking north. First, because the singer shares your Stakhanovite work rate, and second, because I suspect there's a statutory requirement to include this band in any and all Ten Songs interviews in The Quietus.

Danny Dorling: The Fall!

Does this conjure up any memories?

DD: Yes: bald men, wearing the leather jackets they bought in the Seventies, holding their beer in plastic pint glasses, all doing this [nods head], trying to remember what it was like to be much younger. And because I hadn't been there from the start, it just looked awful to me. I was taken to see them by my friend George Davey Smith, professor of epidemiology at the University of Bristol. More than once.

So it wasn't a Damascene moment.

DD: No, because it had been so hyped about how wonderful it was. I'm too young. I am the generation that benefited from what came immediately after this. I was aware of The Fall and Captain Beefheart and the Velvet Underground. But we just weren't as angry. The punks were slightly older, and they'd done all the anger. [Reads proffered lyric sheet]. The words are much more coherent than I expected. I can now see why George loved them so much, because he came down to Oxford as a boy in the Seventies. [When I was lecturing in Bristol] he let me live in his house for free, and I remember seeing a big sign he had next to the side of his bed that just said, 'Work harder'. I used to go to sleep listening to him dictating papers at two or three in the morning. If you are going to link these things, he was one of that generation of working-class boys in the Seventies who knew that if you were lucky enough be given a chance, you worked harder because of all the people who hadn't been allowed to do it before.

This song's references to Victorian slums make me think about your angry and eye-opening book of last year, All That Is Solid: How The Great Housing Disaster Defines Our Times And What We Can Do About It, which has just come out in paperback. Your book titles seem to be getting longer, by the way.

DD: [Winces] I didn't even know it had a new subtitle until I saw it. It's more a case of the publishers insisting: 'He's got something to say, honestly, read the book.' Things are getting dramatically worse with housing, and I admit to a slight sense of guilt at Penguin Random House rubbing their hands, going, 'Yes, we've got our housing book. Now let's get our lemmings jumping off the cliff book ready for the next crisis.' I was in Blackwell's this morning and it's austerity chic everywhere; James Meek, Peter Hain…

In the updated bit in the paperback, you talk about the protests over the selling-off of the New Era estate in London, where long-term residents were threatened with huge rent hikes.

DD: Yes, it gets a mention, although the new bit is tiny. It ends with Alfie and Angel, 10- and 11-year-old children living on the New Era estate, in the news. Because – bang – that was the point at which the owners stopped trying to chuck them out of their homes. The idea that they were going to evict a 10-year-old girl called Angel, who was white, in London, before Christmas, so that a Tory MP could make a lot of money… well, that made the difference. But the update is short, just eight pages, because Penguin only wanted that much, and I was afraid that they were doing so well with Owen Jones' latest and all their other, 'Isn't it terrible' books that they might not have bothered. All that's happened in the last year is that George Osborne's given away more money to keep the house market up, house prices have increased, landlords have made more; just a continuation. All I could say was, really, I told you so, without saying 'I told you so'.

2. The Unthanks – 'Shipbuilding'

DD: This is a much nicer version than Elvis Costello's. They've got the right accents. I can remember this being on Top Of The Pops, and people didn't realise what it was about. Partly because Elvis' accent was even more incomprehensible. I think I must have been in Newcastle [as a student] when it came out. I remember looking down the terraced streets that went straight down to the river, and you'd walk into town and see that the top half of the streets were all Victorian houses, the original ones built when the shipyards were there, and the bottom was all slum-cleared council housing. The shipyards had all been closed down by then, and all there was to do was join the Army.

What was it like to go from Oxford, where you grew up, to university in Newcastle, where you took your undergraduate degree and your doctorate?

DD: Hah – it was an education. The difference was massive. I turned up five or six years after all the jobs had gone. The place was odd not because it was cold or because it was Northern, but because so much had been taken out of it. Things were getting worse each year, and carried on getting worse each of the ten years I was there. You could tell half the households had no work, and what work they did have wasn't well paid. The university was like a tiny little bubble, trying to hide, a bit worried about burglary; lots of security guards on campus.

Was it a town and gown situation?

DD: No, it was a money/not money situation. Newcastle students were disproportionately from the south, and disproportionately posh, and 80% private school. We were going into a place where, if you were local, there wasn't anything for you. Most of our interaction with local people was with the older generation, who had the jobs servicing the university or working in a pub or a shop. Anybody our age wasn't working.

But just as much of a shock as meeting Geordies and seeing mass poverty was the shock of meeting private school kids. I was a normal child in Oxford; I had only ever met one before. He held his hand out – and eventually I realised he wanted me to hold it; he wanted me to shake hands. And that was a few months before I went off to a university that was just full of people who shook hands. I was posher than your average state school kid, but I didn't get mugged. So I think I must have been cleverer, or slightly more sensible. Which was quite good for me, because I used to drink a lot.

Reflecting on this song… is it all Margaret Thatcher's fault?

DD: No. It's a group of people who put her and all that lot in to power. She was a puppet, I think. Yesterday I got an email from a student doing her dissertation on Thatcher and the family. I asked her to try to find any reference that Maggie made to her mum, or to her daughter, and what she actually meant by family.

The people around her – people like Keith Joseph and Leon Brittan and Rhodes Boyson – were particularly cruel men. I wonder quite how Britain created them. What happened to them in the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies that made them so bitter? And then the other side of it – why was the opposition to Thatcherism so feeble? How come Barbara Castle and co hadn't managed to create something a bit more robust? How on earth did we get into having that set of people, the SDP, think that what they were doing was useful, drinking their claret in Oxford, setting up a separate party and splitting the Left?

Was it because we'd weren't invaded, so we never had a resistance, and didn't have a set of people who had a bit more about them? Instead we had Shirley Williams and David Owen – if you really want to blame a group of people who were around at the time of this song. If they hadn't done what they did, and if the Labour Party had stuck together, she'd have been out in 1983.

As you'll see if you look at countries that were invaded, or lost wars, the fact that we weren't invaded is significant, and the fact that we still had a declining empire that we could hang on to for a bit more of the money, to keep the show on the road. I've drawn a graph recently that shows we were the second most equal country to Sweden in the Seventies, and we managed to hop over all of them to being the most unequal now.

3. The Jam – 'The Eton Rifles'

Speaking of classes, here's David Cameron's all-time favourite song, reportedly.

DD: They were always a bit ambiguous, really, these ones, about whether they really were Thatcherites. And what happened to all the ones who aren't Paul Weller?

Bruce Foxton later sent his kid to Eton, I believe. Weller's much-quoted comment early on that “We're going to vote Tory” seems to be an extremely third-hand anecdote. One hopes he hasn't much time for Cameron.

DD: When Cameron claims he was down at that club in the Cowley Road in Oxford [shakes head] – well, I saw those boys…

Which club was that?

DD: Oh, somewhere where somebody let them smoke a tiny bit of marijuana. There were no impressive posh boys in Oxford then. There were no Sebastians with a bit of flair. It might have happened in their own imaginations, or those of their extremely rich girlfriends, but there was nothing going on there. They were just kids smashing up restaurants, and they were just an embarrassment to themselves.

Etonians seem more present than ever.

DD: The school may have got bigger. It'd be interesting to look at the numbers enrolled in that school. It would have got bigger in the Eighties because more people would have been able to afford the fees. It's interesting that some of the private schools were half as big then as they are now.

I thought about this song when reading your book Inequality and the 1%.

DD: When you tease out the effects of education on perpetuating inequality, you can see it has a massive role. Honestly, if you send children to a school and tell them they're there because they're clever…I think the biggest con is the schools, like Eton, which demand that you have five or six GCSEs at A* level in order to be able to go to sixth form. Anybody who's got five or six GCSEs at A* level is going to get As at A-level anyway. It's a rip-off. It's not as if the school is doing that much. It's not actually getting them the As; they get the As themselves.

Should private schools do a little more for the local urchins?

DD: It requires a special degree of ignorance to think that they've got the talent to do anything useful for anyone. Although there's a big case for other people being allowed to use their playing fields. You just have to look at Oxford and all those cricket pitches. They're only used three months of the year, only at the weekend, only by 11 men…and if you were trying to think of a more arrogant waste of space, only allowing the cricket pitches to be used by people from particular expensive schools would be it. That's the one thing I'd change; bang the right to roam in, allow it by law. They'd have to make sure the pitches are in a good state for all their guests, a bit like farmers who have to look after their footpaths. That's the one thing they've got to give: their green fields. Grass. Good mowers.

The issue of school education is a social minefield in this country. It can be extremely uncomfortable to hear people you like talk about where their children should and shouldn't go to school.

DD: But it's a bit cruel to laugh about it, because it's no kiddy's fault where they end up at school. I just wish they'd stop calling those schools 'independent' and leave that term for things that actually are independent – can you imagine calling it 'independent medicine'? What you do get in children from private schools, apart from the most challenged ones, is a sense of embarrassment that comes with it. It's not their fault they went there. Exactly the same as it isn't your fault if you went to a 'bottom-end comprehensive'.

When education is talked about, it can be a little bit like somebody's just suddenly come out with a bit of racism or a bit of homophobia. Neither of which they do anymore; for 90% of the middle class, if they're harbouring something like that they've learned not to say it. It's not even that people say, 'Well, if you don't pay you're not going to get something good'. It's the silences. It's the silences that I can remember in the Seventies, when being black was being talked about, and somebody wouldn't say anything at all, and you'd realise they were racist. Maybe there's always going to be something like that, and this is our thing for these decades. Perhaps in the future it will be something I won't be able to understand. I will be part of the problem, because whatever it is, I won't be liberal enough. I'll be the grumpy old bigot who hasn't quite worked out that I'm not properly appreciating trans-seven-kinds-of-genderism that I'm not even aware of.

I think of all those people pulling that face when they say, 'It's a good school'.

DD: 'It's a good school. We know our children are very privileged, of course, but…' Or the slightly more awful thing when people know that it is thought that the state school their children go to is not so good, and then they insist, 'It is good, you know'. And the opposite, when people who you thought were on the radical side tell you that a particular school is awful, and you think, 'No, in fact it's fine, it's just that you don't understand that the problem that particular school has is people like you not thinking it's fine'.

People are really paranoid about exam results. They don't understand that exam results are so massively variable by child that they're not gaining that much for their kids by switching schools. There's a tendency to think that the poorer a school catchment area, the more drugs there'll be. But it's always inverse, because drugs depend entirely on how much money is in your parents' wallet that you can steal from to take to school to buy that pill after you buy your first cigarette for two quid. In fact, I'd love to do a survey in Oxford of children at the age of, now, amazingly, 11 or 12, on the going rate for a clandestine cigarette at each school. I'm absolutely certain in the poorest ones it's no price, because you just nick some fags from mum and dad, and in the richest one it could be a fiver that some enterprising young child has worked out to sell cigarettes for. Of course the only reason they can sell it for a fiver is because those parents don't notice when a fiver has been stolen from their wallet.

4. Sleaford Mods – 'Jobseeker'

You're a Guardian reader; you will have heard of Sleaford Mods.

DD: No, I'm too old.

These blokes are getting on for your age.

DD: The arts section of The Guardian's last on the iPad. [Laughs] So my chance of actually ever getting to it is slim.

This is like Lily Allen for older people, isn't it? It will be interesting to see what they do next. Ultimately people want subtlety. Like 'Shipbuilding'. It's not my kind of thing. But it would be quite funny if you heard it on the radio for the first time. 'Some of you smelly bastards need executing': they could do a lovely thing on the Cabinet, and Ian Duncan Smith kicking away people's crutches. Essentially people have always wanted a big range of things musically. You want your slightly uplifting reggae anthem that says, you know, it'll all be better. What's interesting, of course, is how little right-wing music you get. Besides Brian Ferry.

5. The Housemartins – 'Flag Day'

This is the Housemartins.

DD: From Hull – it's not good, is it, that I automatically geographically pigeonhole bands. Is this recent?

No; it's from 1985. Their first single – anti-royalist, sceptical of celebrity charity. Paul Heaton went on to be in the Beautiful South; he's the man who banned David Cameron from his pub.

DD: I've never heard this before.

You're probably too young.

DD: We didn't have a telly when I first turned up as a student at Newcastle. It took us some time to work out how to rent one. I can remember it arriving – it was really exciting. 'Get Blue Peter to stage an appeal': he was ahead of his time, wasn't he? When was Band Aid? I guess it had just happened. Yeah, it's good. I've never heard it.

Why do so few people say, 'Well of course I'm a republican?'

DD: Because they're waiting for the video to come out about Andy. [Chuckles] Of course, I didn't say what's going to be on the video – that's the fun [part]. But if you're trying to bring down the establishment, it'll be worth every penny. And what the hell do you think Charles has been up to all those years? Ask the people who take his pants off for him – apparently he doesn't dress himself.

On the subject of charity, what about bursaries for education? Should we agree with the Sutton Trust that we should be making special efforts to send poor kids specifically to Oxbridge?

DD: We need to measure the damage it causes. In Oxford there is a private school which in recent years has offered a bursary to 'save' a child from the state sector. If you were trying to cause upset within the city, it's probably your best way of doing it. If you want an example of why bursaries are in general a bad idea, just try and do them to other people in your town and see how they feel about not being treated equally. It's just a bad idea. It only works if you think of others like fluffy little rabbits and not as people. Would you want one for your child?

6. Leonard Cohen – 'Everybody Knows'

You're sounding very cynical, so how about this?

DD: I'm too young for this one, too.

C'mon, there's no age limit on Leonard Cohen, upper or lower. This is from his black-hearted Eighties years. What about the world view here – the plague is coming, the dice are loaded, the fight is fixed? You must think things like this; after all, you studied maths and statistics and you know what the numbers mean.

DD: In the Eighties you could begin to see it tumbling down and getting worse, and if you'd thought the dice were loaded, you would have been right. I can remember the Velvet Underground's 'Caroline Says'; music that I held small babies to, thinking, 'It's ok, they don't understand the lyrics'. There was a heroin epidemic in the Eighties. We were three minutes away from midnight on nuclear war. It's hard not to think the Seventies were great, but the Eighties in retrospect were absolutely shit. Aids. So we couldn't have sex. Nobody knew what it was, but you were going to die.

Are you cynical?

DD: Yeah; I've got that kind of humour. I've been around a lot of medics and they're like that. But I'm also optimistic – albeit partly in the MASH way of thinking it can't get any worse.

We've got an election coming up. How cynical are you feeling about that?

DD: I'm glad it's coming up. It'd be much worse if we were five years away from one. They're doing a lot of things now that they're only doing because there's an election, and they'll stop doing them the minute there is one. There'll be no need for the freebies to keep house prices up. I just hope we get another one or two elections this year.

And supposing it does all go tits up and you do have another election and another one. If it's a right mess, then we get nearer to proportional representation. And if we get to PR we can have minor parties and I can finally have a party I can support.

I'm supporting three parties in this election. I've already got in trouble over it; two have complained at me and the third one probably will. I'm supporting the National Health Action Party in Oxford West, and I've written one letter in support of them. And then the Greens and Labour both summoned me because I think they both thought I was a party member. I'm supporting the Greens in all the county seats and I'm supporting Labour, only just, in Oxford East. And the interesting new thing I learned is that if you support three different parties, nobody is happy.

A bit like unilaterally deciding monogamy is passé without mentioning it to the people involved, perhaps.

DD: They really were cross. They all dislike each other more than they dislike the Tories. It's a real problem. Among the people who are bothered to try to do something, they seem to object to each other more than the problem they're trying to fix.

7. Thom Yorke – 'Black Swan'

A little something from one of your fellow citizens of Oxford.

DD: Thom Yorke. He's the Abingdon School one.

Is Oxford, in the words of this song, fucked up? City or university - you choose.

DD: Tricky. I was talking at a city councillors' meeting in Oxford last night and I said if we were going to create a field trip to see the most unequal place in Europe, this would be it. The UK's the most unequal country and Oxford is the most unequal city, in both housing and education. The whole country's a bit of a mess, and it's not that Europe is some great utopia. But Oxford is currently, educationally, in terms of kids' life chances, fucked up, and house prices are more expensive than London, because the London wage is that little bit higher. It wouldn't be hard to do a good case that Oxford is fucked up, but it would be almost too easy put it that way. There's a book I saw today about what's wrong with the Nordic countries, where they've managed to find a few things that are odd, including that 5% of Danish men have had sex with animals. Though I don't know whether that's unusual. It might be a similar percentage in other semi-rural countries…

Where their data-gathering is not as rigorous. You mentioned at a recent talk in Oxford that you are 55 times more likely to get in to the University of Oxford if you come from a private school than if you are from a state school on free school meals. So Oxford decided not to recognise free school meals as an indicator of poverty.

DD: They thought they'd get away without anybody noticing. Maybe they're not that clever after all. [Reads lyric] 'Made it to the top…made it to the top…This is fucked up'. God, poor bloke!

There's something quite wonderful about Radiohead, I suspect I am not the first to say.

DD: My best friend Stacey's absolutely in love with them.

Are you a fan?

DD: Yeah, although I always thought that women liked Radiohead slightly more than men. Aha, you're giving me the look Stacey would give me, too. I always thought, hmm, a bit too much angst. I sometimes want to say, 'Oh, just pull yourself together…'

8. Mogwai – 'Take Me Somewhere Nice'

How about a positive song? This band's music is normally instrumental, they're from Glasgow…

DD: Oh yes! Mogwai; we did them with the children.

Your kids like Mogwai?

DD: No; when they were small we needed music to get them to sleep to. So we had lots of Mogwai; my wife Ally likes them.

They were among the bands to join the Yes campaign in the Scottish referendum. The song is called 'Somewhere Nice' – you might argue that the Yes side were inspired by a vision creating somewhere nice.

DD: They'll get there. It's only a matter of time. The more of a mess Oxford makes and England makes, the faster it'll happen. If things were sorted out south of the border there'd be less of a temptation to go, but instead they're looking south at somewhere that's going to be debating leaving Europe, and is busy kicking the poor down.

What about the possibility of an SNP-Labour coalition after this election?

DD: That'd be great; it'd teach Labour a thing or two. What I worry about – put it on the record – is a Labour-Tory coalition.

The red Tory/blue Tory gang-up?

DD: Yes. It would split the Labour Party, which might be a good thing. I wouldn't mind some pledges from Labour MPs saying that they would refuse to be part of it. Even if they were lying, it would be good to be able to say we know they lied. At the moment they won't even rule it out. I'm very close to thinking it doesn't matter if people do vote Labour in this election or not. Which is a real sin. It's the second great sin in Oxford, in fact, after talking about where your children go to school.

Did you hope that the yes side would win in the Scottish referendum, despite the arguments that the rest of us would be stuck with Tories forever?

DD: Yes. It would have made people realise that the world could be different. We've never needed the Scottish votes to actually form a parliamentary majority. Given all the role models around, Norway and Denmark and Sweden, Scotland could become the warm Scandinavian country.

The independence campaign was massive, and it was broad brush, all kinds of groups with different politics, and even the Tommy Sheridan folks rose up out of the ashes of swingers' clubs in Manchester. It shows anything's possible. And they worked with pretty nationalistic people who hadn't thought about these kind of things before, and got on, and drank together. And it was young. And then there that bad day when all the Labour MPs turned up, and you see the footage in which somebody said 'Welcome our colonial masters' – yeah, so nice of you to visit, once. And then they scared people shitless about their pensions.

9. Mikis Theodorakis And Milva – 'Sogno di Liberta'

How about another hopeful song… 'The Song Of Liberty', with lyrics in Italian but music composed by Mikis Theodorakis, Greece's greatest living composer, 89 years old and an icon of the Left, who formed the proto-Syriza.

DD: He's not the one who was almost shot as a boy by the Nazis, is he?

No - that's Manolis Glezos, an MEP, who's even older. What's your impression of Syriza?

DD: Have you seen the finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis? Have you seen his motorbike? Have you seen his long black cloak? He is Keanu Reeves, basically. If he fails there's something wrong.

He's pretty sexy for an academic.

DD: He's very sexy for an academic. Very good cheekbones. He's offering you the red pill or the green pill. I've been joking that somebody will take him out; he's too good. Of course, there's a lot of chance involved, but you never know; what Syriza are trying to do could just work. I only wish they had a reserve force, a subs' team of women ready to go in, when they lose their first five men. And preferably women under 55 just to balance out that Greek thing. Perhaps they could bring them in from London Left. Laurie Penny could reveal her secret Greek superhero side.

They're doing remarkably well so far. Not least for Varoufakis' ability to make the rounds of European finance ministers and point out that Boy George really is the weediest-looking one of all. Maybe that was the point of the whole tour, just to make George Osborne look awful.

And Varoufakis is an academic.

DD: Yeah, he didn't just take just A-level economics in a very posh school. But although I'm optimistic, there's one minor way in which it might not work, and then a much more important one. The minor way is that they might quietly just buy Greece off, like they did Iceland – 'Yeah, we'll cut your debt in half, just shut up for God's sake'. That would still be good, much better than it is now, although obviously it's not quite the same as overturning austerity for the whole of Europe via the revolutionary vanguard of Greece. But from the point of view of the Greek people, it means that your granny isn't dying from lack of medical attention.

But the really big worry is if some idiot in London and an idiot in Germany decide to be stubborn and stop it working. And the hunger gets worse and they are forced to hold another election and they vote in the Golden Dawn. And then it really collapses. If Golden Dawn ever got power…they're murderous. They're a proper fascist party. And if anybody with an education walks out, well, it will make it more dangerous for whoever's left; they will just kill people. I honestly don't think mainland Europeans understand how near Greece is to fascism. And that's not even worrying about somebody in Thebes with a tank deciding to roll in and have a coup, although that's looking less likely. The Syriza victory is good news; it's just that there's a scary side.

Would you put it past the powers in the rest of Europe to do something like that?

DD: To make an example of Greece by letting it collapse? It's more likely to be stupidity. None of this is actually in George Osborne's personal interest. He's just a stupid boy. You know, he's not protecting anything great – what, his family's land holdings in Ireland or the wonderful wallpaper firm's history? Same with Cameron – his daddy's stockbroker history? What do they think they're keeping great – the plantations? The memory of pith helmets going across Africa shooting negroes?

Aren't you proud of Britain?

DD: No, not of a lot of it. It's not that hard for me not to be proud to be British; I had two black brothers and I grew up supporting the West Indies at cricket. Of course it's great that by accident London has become multicultural. But otherwise, what kind of things would you be proud of? Groups of people doing something that is useful or positive: people inventing ways of nursing people so that they don't die, and understanding that babies get killed off by flies carrying infections. Those are things to be proud of. But being first to go up the Khyber Pass with five men with moustaches and a musket? Honestly. What is the point of an education if you're going to be proud of the fact that a Sherpa pulled our bloke up to the top of Everest and then didn't say that he got there first?

Don't you have to be proud of your country?

DD: No. I think you should be into your square mile, and your local area. I don't think it's particularly harmful if you care about who else is living near you. I'd go for a kind of mini-patriotism.

So you're not posh, you're a lefty, you're at Oxford, and you say uncomfortable things…

DD: [Laughs] But I try really hard not to!

But at a super-elite university, aren't you the kind of quirk they can afford, like weird transgressive art - 'Oh and we've got some of these as well'?

DD: There's a bit of that, certainly. That will have been in a few people's minds when I was appointed, I'm sure. But if you look at who was doing what in Oxford 70 or 80 or 90 years ago, you only remember the lefties on the social science side. Although admittedly Halford Mackinder, the person for whom my chair is named, nobody knows what he did… although they've just put a chest with all his weapons on display.

I'm middle class, I'm white and I'm male. There are people with far trickier positions in Oxford even before you even worry about what their views are. If I was ten years younger, I'd be less well behaved or less careful, but I don't think I'm a terrible problem for the university. It makes it easy for a lot of people to make out they're not as old-fashioned as all that, because there are people like me around saying, 'You've got to remember about free school meals'. A huge number of the staff at the university are very normal. They have normal salaries, live in normal bits of Oxford and are trying to send their children to normal schools.

In fields connected to social justice, for most academics, words are their weapons, but it seems numbers are yours.

DD: Yeah, but only because the opposition is so soft when it comes to numbers. You come up with one number and you're straight in there like a knife through butter. If you just say, it's morally wrong, or it feels bad, that hits a brick wall. But if you say, 'For every extra poor kid that got in to your university, in your biggest ever rise ever, there were actually three more posh kids who got in too.' Then they have say, 'Well, I guess it wasn't that much of an achievement, was it?'

Inequality and the 1% is full of pretty arresting numbers.

DD: That's my job. I spot unusual numbers. So when I'm reading something and I realise I haven't seen that data before, I notice. I collect them for other people. I can't do clever, well-worded arguments. It would be lovely to make grand philosophical arguments about social justice, and to be so brilliant that you could write them in normal language so that people could understand them. I'd love to – but there's no chance I'll ever be able to do that.

The biggest shift in the world is the rising power of women. The change in just the last two or three generations has been so quick. The drop to having no kids, one kid or two kids, children being rare – and then the first thing we've done is dump all this debt on them. If there were lots of them, we could sort of share it all out and tax them and we'd be rich in our old age. But because we haven't produced them, there aren't enough to keep us all as wealthy as we'd like to be, so our trick is to try handing them all the debt and tell them they somehow owe us. Because we want to keep this Ponzi scheme going for at least another 20 years, for us.

But if you just step back, you have to say it doesn't work. You can't have 2% or 3% growth a year – all you've got to do is press the button 30 times and see what number you get. [Laughs]. Whatever happens, it will be very different; I'd be very happy to bet a huge amount of money it won't be the same. The worry is you get some kind of Golden Dawn spreading, some Blade Runner world. It's a bit like the six degrees climate change thing, if there's a small chance that a Blade Runner world is possible, you certainly want to worry about it. And you can see how people react when they're scared. How they can be made to fear immigrants. Everybody loves the immigrant they know, it's just those hordes that you never see that are the problem.

10. Chumbawamba – 'You Can (Mass Trespass 1932)'

Here's an uplifting song to end with.

DD: I just wish my wife was here; she would tell you immediately who this is. [Looks at lyric sheet] Chumbawamba! Being more musical than normal! They've split up recently, haven't they? They used to live near me in Leeds, near Armley jail. I never once got to go to a Chumbawamba party, because I was never that cool.

So this is about the commies and Jews and rabble-rousers who led the…

DD: Mass trespass of Kinder Scout in 1932. Which is a pretty desolate moor that just happens to be halfway between Manchester and Sheffield, with a train station at the bottom of it. I almost killed the kids climbing up it in winter. It's really icy. I told them they had to do it as part of their education on 'the struggle'. [Laughs] You should hear my kids sing their song about Tories. It's really effective, if somebody cuts you up driving and is being a bastard, to get the kids to wind the window down and sing the Tory song at them. Which does involve the word dickhead. It sounds brilliant sung by a three or four-year-old.

The action Chumbawamba are singing about here was a success, wasn't it. And now rambling's a middle-class occupation.

One of the promises New Labour kept was the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000. And now people like my dad go and check paths and report them. The only problem is he's the only one walking on them. Everyone else is watching TV and playing PlayStation.

There wasn't PlayStation then. You had to put a rucksack on.

In Sheffield, because we lived on the edge – which was terribly easy to do, as there's a big edge; Sheffield's fractal – I'll never forget seeing men, almost always men, walking out down the valley with a rucksack on, just walking up and out. And there was a little bus that used to go past our house, out to the dams.

Do you miss what you must have seen in northern cities, the presence of a working-class left-wing tradition?

DD: I miss the left-wing bohemia bits of those cities, where you were boring and right-wing if you read The Guardian. Newcastle and to a big extent Sheffield and Leeds, and Manchester, and Bristol with the anarchists; they all have their square mile of vegetarian lefty greens without much money, and where it's normal to be like that. I miss living in a city with a set of people who made me worry that I was too right-wing.

In Oxford the equivalent in the Eighties might have been one small part of St Clements, where it now costs £800,000 to live in a three-bed. It does still have a little bit of that amongst a group of 25-year-olds. They're just hanging on there: the housing rights groups, the squatters. But it's pretty obvious when you look at them that there's nobody aged 36 – they've given up. Wherever else I've lived has had this group, but it's barely there in Oxford. Or it's hiding so well I haven't discovered them. They might be in tents.

You must feel that the phrase 'You can' has some resonance for you, and that what you are doing is valuable beyond simply furthering your own academic career.

DD: It might be. You never know. But there's always the fear that you could end up doing something that would be bad without realising it. Think up some stupid view later on and then wreck the whole thing. And it's only just chance that these latest books have ended up coming out at the right time.

So you've had a good austerity war?

DD: I've had a good war. I was around at the right time. Other people weren't doing it. Maybe because those academics could write better than me, they were worrying slightly more about their wonderfully crafted article in Transactions of the Institute of whatever. I could get into these top journals, but only just, and it was never a case of anyone saying, oh your prose is lovely. It may have been a huge advantage to me that I could do work like this, where I didn't have some journal referee going, 'I'm sorry, you've forgotten to cite this one obscure French person'.

I'm happy I'm in a situation where I'm fairly safe academically. It's hard for the powers that be to get at me, which they might be inclined to do elsewhere; you see it happening. Senior management at universities tend to be more right-wing and if you're lefty and you're not bringing in a £2 million research grant, and you happen to annoy them because of what you write, it could be difficult. Whereas I'm now old enough that it's not like I'm looking for any promotions, and the nice thing about Oxford being old-fashioned is that it is quite difficult to sack an academic; it's quite a public thing to do. It's not quite as easy as saying, 'Oh, by the way, your post doesn't exist anymore'. 'Oh, what, do you mean that established chair? Oh look I can see the chair, there it is – what, did you take it away and burn it?'

One reason that academics younger than me are not doing this is because of the pressure they feel, half of which is imagined, half is real. And the real is enough to make you imagine the rest of it, in an environment which is incredibly fearful, because we've got an impending free-for-all of how many students are going to be turning up. And if anything you wrote would put middle-class parents off sending their child to your Russell Group university, you're responsible for your colleagues losing their jobs. It's never put the other way around, that anything you wrote might make them want to come to your slightly more radical and interesting university.

The other thing to remember about universities is that the social sciences are only a tiny part of universities and the majority are conservative and elitist. They've swallowed the idea of there being a super-set of people and they're it: 'We are special and we deserve lots of money and other people can't be like us, with our enormous brains.'

When you go to talk to squatters and tenants' rights groups, do you want say, 'you can'? Or warn them that they are probably doomed to failure?

DD: No; you just don't know. Of the various housing-rights campaigns there have been, and there have really only been probably about a dozen big ones, most have failed and the various estates have been built on. But if they hadn't done it, then the New Era people wouldn't have done it last year, and they wouldn't have pulled out Alfie and Angel and they wouldn't have won. And then, when the next ones happen and eventually this thing turns around, it'll turn around five years earlier because of these efforts. All we have to do is add up five years' worth of evictions and misery to work out that it's worthwhile.

Or take the battles for the living wage. If London Citizens, those sort of slightly odd Christians with beards, hadn't bothered, and if a group of just six students at Oxford hadn't bothered, and the cleaners hadn't come from central London to support them, then there's absolutely no way that the University of Oxford and now most of the colleges would have switched over and be paying people an extra £500 a year.

None of it happens without trying. The vast majority of efforts will be failures. 19 out of 20. Just like when you're writing a book. 19 out of the 20 words you write don't end up in the final thing, and you end up with arthritis in your fingers. But what keeps you writing a book is forgetting that 19 out of 20 of the words won't go in. You write a sentence and you delete it, and you write another sentence and you delete it, and the copy editor deletes a bunch more. I've got whole books that haven't been published sitting on the computer. It's the same with struggles.

I think it helps knowing about things like compound interest, and the effects of tiny movements. Everything I've ever been involved in that has worked has come out of small chances. It's easier in hindsight, as you head towards 50, to see that whereas once it would have been the case that if you were facing a mountain, and it was foggy and there were 19 tracks and you knew 18 weren't going to work, it would be completely daunting. Whereas when you get older you realise you've got 20 years and eventually you're going to get up all of them. That's why I don't worry about it – only about becoming a bigot in old age and not realising it. Everyone will make mistakes, and there's more of a danger if you've got yourself by accident into a position of power. It doesn't really matter if you make mistakes if you're ranting away in the corner.

Whenever I do a talk, I ask people to tell me what's the most stupid thing I've said in the past 40 minutes. Because I really want to know, because I'd rather not say it again.

All That Is Solid is out now on Penguin

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Baikonour
Mar 25, 2015 2:06pm

Great article, I dodn't know this man until now, I will definitely check his books.

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ad hominem
Mar 25, 2015 2:36pm

Ten Songs is a brilliant premise, much prefer it to Baker's Dozen.

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Mar 25, 2015 3:49pm

Excellent piece (even if I scorn the Jam)-- hope to see some black American and British writers interviewed, thanks. Could use some Linton Kwesi Johnson on there also no?

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E.J. Moeran Jr.
Mar 25, 2015 5:47pm

All I wanted was a solid BM this morning-- too much Irish bangers & mush-- and now this. Quietus often stumbles but when they rise, they rise! Kudos for a fine piece.

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paul
Mar 25, 2015 10:49pm

A friend in Leeds crashed a Chumbawamba party with a homeless guy he had met drinking in the pub. They were evicted from the party. Not really sure what my point is but you get the idea.

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