David Holmes

Illustration: Jimmy Turrell - www.jimmyturrell.com
Illustration: Jimmy Turrell - www.jimmyturrell.com

A good film soundtrack hangs in the background, carried along by the film’s momentum, giving way to dialogue or standing in its place as the narrative requires, but without intruding into the viewer’s consciousness.

David Holmes is like that soundtrack; releasing album after album of unusual, thoughtful music over 15 years that swing between ambient soundscapes, clattering breaks, techno and jazz, he still remains a background figure, known more among producers and studios than the record-buying public.

Holmes, 41, is the youngest of ten children born and raised in Belfast, giving him, he says, the “brass neck” to propel him through his career. Belfast in the 1970s was short on fun and long on Troubles, and while the paramilitaries warred on the streets outside, young David spent his days under curfew watching films, unwittingly sowing the seeds of what would become his signature musical style.

Holmes says: “It was purely accidental. Andrew Weatherall once told me if you’re going to go into the studio try and find your own sound. As a DJ I used to spin soundtracks over the top of my sets, and that gave me the idea – it just became my thing.”

Playing rhythm and blues records in nightclubs as a teenager, Holmes found his musical interests abruptly altered in the late 80s. “Like millions of other people, I got completely obsessed with the acid house revolution. So while I was always buying different music – soundtracks, country, rock and roll – my next obsession became electronic music,” he says.

“And that in itself opened me up to primitive electronic music, library music, musique concrete – all this electronic music that existed long before acid house.”

His first release to overtly sample cinema was DeNiro, (under the moniker The Disco Evangelists), intertwining themes from Apocalypse Now, Once Upon A Time In The West and Blade Runner.

This Film’s Crap Let’s Slash The Seats, his first full length album in 1995, is a brooding, atmospheric soundtrack in search of a film, from the dark foreboding intro No Man’s Land – sounding every bit the backdrop to an opening scene – through acid techno, fractured funk, and breathy ambience.

For his 1997 follow up Let’s Get Killed Holmes, instead of sampling films directly, Holmes used recordings he had made as a mere teenager – that brass neck again – of street people in New York, splicing together captured dialogue and drawing on his early Mod and soul influences.

Traipsing through the underbelly of New York City as a teenager had been “an enormous trip”, Holmes recalls. “We were recording in the wee hours, under the influence of mind-altering chemicals. I remember consciously just trying to focus on pressing the record button.

“The whole thing was like Fear and Loathing in New York. The experience of making those tapes is the one I’ll take to my grave – it was such an adventure.”

Many of the titles come from the NYC experience too – Let’s Get Killed was a phrase that readily came to mind walking through the Bronx at night. Holmes says: “Just after that, we found sprayed on wall in fresh paint ‘Don’t Die Just Yet’. To be honest I began to freak out a little.”

A warm and upbeat album, it became Holmes biggest hit, chiming well as it did with the late 90s ‘big beat’ sound of the time. A third album, Bow Down To The Exit Sign, was also well received.

There is a certain irony Holmes’ music’s affinity for cinema has become what he’s better known for, providing soundtracks and compositions for a dozen films. Steve McQueen’s film about IRA prisoner Bobby Sands, Hunger, was one that he sought out.

“There’s been more than a fair share of glamorised films made about the Troubles in Northern Ireland, and I really wanted one to do it right. I knew McQueen would. He made a film about an IRA icon without turning it into a pro-IRA film, and in a way that made it relevant to what’s going on in Abu Grahib and Guantanamo. It’s a great, great film.”

Holmes has scored for many of Steven Soderbergh’s films, including Ocean’s 11 and its sequels and most recently The Girlfriend Experience, featuring the first major crossover role for adult star Sasha Grey as a high-class escort.

“I haven’t seen the film, but I’m a big fan of Sasha in her other job,” Holmes laughs. “She’s a really interesting character, a real 21st century porn star – a very smart girl.”

The Girlfriend Experience features on a retrospective of tracks from the last 15 years, The Dogs Are Parading, which also includes tracks from his most recent original album, The Holy Pictures – made in 2008 after the deaths of his parents.

It is an album full of tender moments, and for the first time, Holmes steps out from behind the shield of cinematic themes and adds his voice to the mix, sounding not a million miles from Jim Reid of the Jesus and Mary Chain.

“I’d toyed with the idea of singing in the past but it was only after I lost both parents I felt I had something important to say,” he says. “I wasn’t really intending to make such a personal album, it just happened. I felt no one else could’ve sung those lyrics so every day when my family went to school and record them myself. It was a very cathartic experience.”

A man with many strings to his bow, Holmes latest project is not a film score, but a film – Good Vibrations, co-produced with Michael Winterbottom, looks at the life of Terri Hooley, a colourful Belfast character and his titular record shop on the city’s most dangerous street. “He discovered The Undertones and sold the rights to Teenage Kicks for £500 and a signed photo of the Shangri-Las – he never got the photo,” Holmes chuckles. “I’ve been buying records off him since I was a boy, and all my friends for 20 years are involved in the film. We’ve been talking about making it for years – it’s a real Belfast production.”

But for all his Belfast history, the future for Holmes lies in LA, where he’s moving with his wife and five-year-old daughter. “I don’t want to hit 50 and never have lived anywhere but Belfast,” he muses. “And just think of the weather!”


[This article was originally published in The Big Issue, May 2010]


On Ralph Millward, one year later

Ralph Millward. Photo: Bournemouth Daily Echo
Ralph Millward. Photo: Bournemouth Daily Echo

Does what the eye not see not hurt us? If a tree falls in the woods and no one’s around to hear, does it make a sound? Among equals, are some more equal than others?

Compared to many others, Britain is not a violent country. Residents of Somalia, Congo, Brazil, Russia, or South Africa for example might disagree with a stereotypical something-must-be-done rant about the declining state of our Albion. But violence does exist on our streets and in our homes, and newspapers report it when it happens.

Or do they? In May last year, 41-year-old Ralph Millward was kicked to death outside a branch of Marks and Spencer’s in leafy Westbourne, Dorset. A few days later three teenage boys were arrested and charged with his murder. Their trial begins tomorrow in Poole.

Millward was homeless. He sold The Big Issue magazine from his pitch outside Marks, said his hellos and how-are-yous to his regulars, and slept each night in the bushes behind the shop.

His death and the manner of his death – a quiet, unassuming man who read books, kept to himself and was well liked, apparently attacked by three boys barely old enough to get a job, aged 14, 16 and 16 – sent a shockwave of revulsion through Westbourne. A few weeks later, hundreds of people walked the half mile from the spot to a nearby church to pay their last respects. The local paper, the Bournemouth Echo, of course covered the events in detail. But for the national newspapers, that a member of the street community had been brutally killed apparently by schoolboys was worth barely a word.

The day after Millward was killed, another senseless death shocked another community – 39-year-old Craig Wass, a father of four from a small village outside Sheffield, was beaten to death by a group of young men. Wass had stepped out of his house to tell the group to be quiet after their arguing had woken his children. Again, those arrested and charged with his murder were all young, late teens and early 20s.

This appalling attack was widely reported – the Sun said Wass had been “slaughtered with bricks”, the Daily Mail reported how his bride-to-be Andrea had cradled him as he breathed his last, and The Times remarked on how the “gentle giant” had been struck down.

For Millward, only a brief 100 word piece appeared in the Daily Mail noting his death, and another of similar size in The Times later remarked on the crowds at his memorial.

In a country in which only around 1,000 murders occur each year, most are reported. A murder is serious – it sends ripples through society, it can stoke fears and create change; in the law, in problem estates, in the practices and procedures of institutions like the police, social workers, or local authorities.

But a glance at newspapers over the last few years reveals a bleak trend that seems not yet to have stirred any response.

In January, a homeless man was attacked by four men while travelling by train from Croydon to London, breaking bones in his face.

In Norwich, a homeless man was kicked and beaten in the city centre in November last year, and a video of the attack posted on internet site YouTube.

Will Cameron, 27, was stabbed in the neck with a bottle last May while living homeless in Reading, where police said it was a “miracle” he was not killed.

Keiff Hunt, 45, was left for dead with multiple fractures, stitches and head wounds after being attacked by 10 men while living homeless in Bournemouth in April last year, just two weeks before Millward was killed.

Big Issue vendor Matt Browning, 33, had a glass bottle smashed over his head in Aberdeen in January 2009.

Valerie Manning, 55, living homeless in Reading, was battered and robbed on her way to church in 2008. Rough sleeper Michael Kennedy was “kicked like a football” during an assault in Norwich in April the same year, while in 2002, homeless Big Issue seller Keith Swan was attacked and killed by three men in the same city.

One rough sleeper, quoted in the Norwich Evening News earlier this year following the conviction of Manning’s attacker, said: “I have just come back from the hospital today where I had 10 stitches removed. I was attacked by a group of boys and girls who were laughing while they did it.”

Random, unprovoked violence is rare. Most murders, rapes and assaults are perpetrated by people known to the victim. The homeless face a greater level of threats, intimidation, violence and abuse by virtue of the fact that their ‘home’ is often a public thoroughfare in which the full spectrum of human life pass by.

But there seems also to be a disproportionate rise in the frequency and severity of attacks on the homeless and others in the street community, as if they have become acceptable punchbags on which society can take out its frustrations. It remains to be seen whether this week’s trial, or others like it in the future, receives the column inches it deserves within a national press obsessed with the fleeting and the banal. Because by treating those at the bottom of the pile differently from anyone else, the media risk being party to a tacit acceptance that, in Orwell’s words, some are more equal than others. That the violent and pointless death of one is worth less than another, as determined by arbitrary factors like one’s luck in life or propensity toward addictions, mental health problems, or any of the other main drivers of homelessness.

Granted, every news day sees stories competing for priority and space. Some will not make the cut. But the mark of a civilised society is how it treats its weakest and most vulnerable, and to ignore the violence they endure without comment is to condone it. And in the end, if our society begins to accept that degree of savagery upon one group, then it will grow to infect and affect the whole of society. Just because we don’t know about it now doesn’t mean that it won’t hurt us in the future.


[This article was originally published in The Big Issue, May 2010]


A new Standard? Geordie takes the reins


“Ah, the competition is here,” says the editor of the Evening Standard ushering me into his office, all smiles, warm handshake, sit-on-my-sofa. I hadn’t thought of London’s thrice-daily paper and The Big Issue in quite that light, but considering how the streets throng these days with people hawking papers, free or otherwise, he may have a point.

“We’re all competitors,” he laughs, “and while we’re extremely happy to be on the street opposite some competitors like The Big Issue, there are others we wish we weren’t.”

Geordie Greig, 48 and father of twin daughters, has spent nearly 30 years as a journalist; cutting his teeth in Deptford, serving time on national tabloids and broadsheets, five years a US correspondent in New York, and finally 10 years as editor of Tatler. But his new role in charge of the Standard, he says, “is the most exhilarating job you can have.”

“The tempo of the paper, that’s the most incredible thing. You can see your paper come out during the day before your very eyes and you can see events change – and be changed by – the paper.”

The cool, calm office three floors above Kensington High Street in Northcliffe House is far literally and metaphorically from the offices of the South East London & Kentish Mercury where he began.

Greig, Eton and Oxford educated, had on one hand forged connections with high movers while at school. Personable, softly-spoken but persistent, he wrote to leading lights of the arts including Lucian Freud, Damien Hockney, Ted Hughes and, er, Poly Styrene from punk band X-Ray Spex.

“Poly Styrene embarrassed me terribly. I had 200 boys who’d paid 50p to see her speak and she didn’t show up – twice. You can’t rely on a punk, as I found out the hard way,” he laughs.

He has kept this up throughout his life, meeting Ted Hughes only after 25 years of exchanging letters, and going on to publish the then poet laureate’s last poems in the Sunday Times.

It is an somewhat unreal feat, especially in these times where men of letters are rare. “It’s about recognising those with whom you do have a connection and keeping it going,” Greig says. “I wrote to Lucien Freud for years, and when we met we liked each other. He’s one of the best conversationalists I’ve ever met, with memories going back 50 years – meeting Picasso, hanging out with Francis Bacon.”

This, on the other hand, is a world away from Greig’s experiences as a reporter in south London: crime stake-outs, a week in the Falklands after the war in 1982 and notorious gang land bosses.

Greig recalls: “I had lunch with Charlie Richardson and ‘Mad’ Frankie Fraser once, a lunch that it soon became clear I would be paying for. Frankie said to me: ‘Geord – can I call you Geord?’ I told him, ‘You can call me what you like, Frankie.’ He said he’d mentioned me in a codicil, an addition to his will. ‘I’ve left you my pliers,’ Frankie said.”

He adds: “Actually I got a call from a reporter on the Standard at the time when Charlie was released from prison who said, you know, help us out here, because you might want shifts on the Standard one day.”

Coming full circle from occasional shifts to the editor’s chair, Greig takes the helm at a difficult time not just for the Standard, but for newspapers in general. Magazines and newspapers are folding, and around 2,000 journalists have lost their jobs in Britain in barely a year as circulation and advertising rates plunge. In London, the Standard is caught in a damaging circulation war with the London Paper, London Lite, and Metro freesheets.

Greig was tipped for the job when his friend, former KGB officer, diplomat and billionaire Russian Alexander Lebedev, bought the Standard in February. But their first act took many by surprise – posters around London proclaimed ‘Sorry’; for losing touch, for being negative, for taking you for granted.

What were you apologising for? Was this about shrugging off the shackles of previous owners, the Daily Mail and General Trust?

“For every perception that was damaging to us we wanted to say to readers, look again, it’s not real,” Greig says. “We talked to many Evening Standard readers and there was a sense that they all wanted a paper more celebratory, more supportive, more listening, and more broad-based in its political approach to London.”

Under former editor Veronica Wadley and editor-in-chief Paul Dacre of the Daily Mail the Standard had adopted a somewhat doom-laden Mail-esque style, and its aggressive line towards Ken Livingston during the Mayoral election campaign in 2008 polarised readers.

“It is no reflection on the great qualities of every journalist here,” he qualifies, “but like being in a relationship, if you want to make things better you have to apologise for things that aren’t perfect. It was that candour which we needed to demonstrate.

“Also,” he says, more practically, “we had to face up to the fact that the Standard had been losing circulation in last five years, and that if we reengaged with readers that had stopped buying it we could reverse that.”

Latest circulation figures report the decline has been stemmed, for now at least. The idea of filling a paper with ‘good news’ has been mooted before, but the twitching hard noses of journalists – and readers – simply find shock-horror more appealing. Does Greig see it as a local paper that should contain more local London news?

“London is like a separate country, and we are that country’s paper. By definition we are London’s local paper, but by instinct and by influence and by significance we are a cosmopolitan, world-class paper,” he argues.

The paper seems very nationally or internationally focused, despite a full-time City Hall reporter covering Mayor Boris Johnson. If readers hoped the paper it would tackle issues in Town Halls across the 32 London boroughs as their respective local newspapers struggle to stay afloat, the paper has yet to demonstrate it.

Can journalism survive the death of newspapers? Will the Standard be around in 10 years? “Yes.” In 20 years? “For at least 20 years,” Greig says, looking momentarily less sure of himself, “Even if it’s an electronic version. Look, we’ve gone from pigeon to post, from fax to emails to Twitter – soon it will soon be brainwaves. Sending messages hasn’t gone out of fashion.”

But Greig’s pedigree as a newsman, his intellectual leanings, recognition of the need for wit and humour and ability to weather the storm should not be underestimated – former boss Andrew Neill said Greig “belonged” in newspapers, not magazines.

“I feel very lucky to be in what is one of the great jobs in journalism,” Greig admits. “Maybe I am lucky. I hadn’t intended to become a journalist, and I don’t think of my letter writing as purposeful pursuit. I’m just interested in people that have done something interesting, something that alters the world.”


[This article was originally published in The Big Issue, May 2010]


Watching Erasing David, on being watched

Erasing David. Photo credit: Amanda Lockhart
Erasing David. Photo credit: Amanda Lockhart

Every day we appear on hundreds if not thousands of surveillance cameras throughout our towns, cities, our offices and public transport. Our everyday mundane activities – a credit card purchase, bank transaction, tube journey, phone call, paying a bill, seeing a doctor, clocking on, clocking off – is recorded somewhere, a transcript of our lives.

Filmmaker David Bond was one of 25m people who in 2007 received a letter from HM Revenue and Customs, apologising for losing his, his wife Katie and baby daughter Ivy’s personal details. He began to wonder what details the public and private sector knew about him and his family, and so he began to investigate, firing off scores of subject access requests – which require any organisation to release all the information it holds on an individual under the Data Protection Act.

He was shocked by the hundreds of pages he received, from online retailers, mobile phone and internet provider companies, banks, shops and government agencies like the NHS, the DVLA, and the Passport Office. It revealed the extent to which tiny details were recorded, including sometimes baffling notes – “Seemed angry,” one document dated 21st November 2006 records. “That’s more information than I have,” Bond exclaims. “I have no idea how I felt on the 21st November 2006.”

For children like Ivy, in fact, the number of databases that record them from birth and throughout their childhood is extraordinary. ARCH, the Action on Rights for Children campaign, lists more than a dozen: blood and DNA samples, the ContactPoint database of all children, social services records through the eCAF system, school databases like the National Pupil Database and Connexions, or companies like Bounty, which boasts the most complete marketing database of children and parents for firms seeking to sell them products.

Sitting in his tiny, paper-strewn office in Hoxton, Bond, 38, explains why he and producer Ashley Jones, his partner in Green Lions Films, created Erasing David, a film that explores the extent to which privacy in Britain is becoming a thing of the past.

“We are the third most surveilled nation in the world after China and Russia,” Bond says, starting from day one: “When my daughter was born they took a heel prick in hospital to take her blood,” Bond recalls. “I was interested so I asked, what do you do with it? How long do you keep it? They didn’t know. I realised that my child was effectively being DNA scanned, and there was no response to my reasonable questions. I was made to feel quite mad for even caring.”

Erasing David is not a straightforward documentary about privacy. “We wanted to make a personal story, so we thought, let’s have a chase. It seemed a really accurate way of asking the question: can we be private?”

The film follows Bond as he, rucksack in hand, attempts to evade the clutches of commercial private investigators Cerberus – two men who use every last piece of publically available information, and not-so-public but easily acquired, to track him down. Bond’s eyes stand out on stalks when he later sees their operations room board pinned with mugshots and notes that is reminiscent of The Wire.

He travels to Berlin to meet those with first-hand experience of the East German Stasi, the most extensive police state the world has ever seen. As his sense of paranoia and fear of being watched and found grows, a maniacal Bond even spends a night or two in a roundhouse in the remote Welsh mountains.

The narrative skips between his prior research into what lengths he would have to go to avoid detection, and hand-held footage of Bond on the run. We see his efforts to persuade his pregnant wife Katie that the project matters sufficiently for her to be left holding the baby for 30 days. In an entertaining sequence, we meet privacy expert and survivalist Frank Aherne who points out how anything from a mobile phone, a credit card, even a radio baby monitor which Frank hacks into from across the street, can be used against him.

Bond says: “It says something that we’re alright with a baby alarm broadcasting intimate conversations between us and our baby in exchange for the convenience of hearing them when they cry. And it’s always the convenience sell – nowhere is the down side ever mentioned.”

On the journey, we meet a young woman who was refused a job because of a false criminal record that appeared after a Criminal Records Bureau check, and a man who lost his job and reputation after his credit card details, having been stolen, were swept up in the Operation Ore child pornography swoop, despite having no charges brought against him publically.

“She had been caring for her disabled brother since her teens, and the place she was applying to and who refused her was the same centre that cared for her brother,” says Bond. “I don’t know who I was more angry with, the CRB or those people at the centre who believed it, as they’d already known her for years.”

Despite our “eternal optimism” toward state benevolence of the state, it seems we are constantly asked to hand over our rights, responsibilities, even our reasoned judgement to an incompetent state – one which, as Bond and 25m other families found out, is incapable of safeguarding the valuable and personal information that we entrust to it.

“Privacy is not something we necessary feel except in its absence,” says Phil Booth from the privacy campaign NO2ID. “Intrusion of the database state into our private lives is eliminating something that is at the very heart of what it is to be human.”

And certainly, being hunted plays havoc with Bond’s mental health, to the extent that a psychiatrist remarks on his symptoms of paranoia and anxiety. Feeling that he is being watched, double-thinking every action for fear that his hunters are lying in wait begins to tear away Bond’s nerves and sense of perspective. David Davis MP, former shadow Home Secretary turned civil liberties champion, puts it well: “The feeling that you control your own life is invigorating, it gives you energy. The feeling that you do not makes you cautious, makes you less than you were. Liberty and privacy are not abstract virtues – they change the nature of the people who do or do not have them.”

And while Bond’s wife, Katie, is unimpressed at the outset of the film, she too is surprised by what it reveals. “She was very shocked and upset to see the level of detail they’d gone into about her and the kids. She’s a big shredder now,” Bond adds.


[This article was originally published in The Big Issue, May 2010]