Tom Fleming On Class, Machismo, and Hopelessness in the UK

The Wild Beasts and One True Pairing frontman contemplates the state of his homeland.

If you’ve missed any of the news, we’ve been having a bit of a reckoning in the UK for the last few years. The country has been going through an economic bad patch for over ten years now, and it shows. The services we all rely on have been squeezed and squeezed, and the wealth gap between rich and poor has grown exponentially wider. The country is divided along lines that could take a long time to go away.

Now these flames have been fanned by a select few people who have the least to risk, and the most to gain from all this divide-and-conquer stuff. To dismantle essential services, drive out businesses, then point to someone else as the cause. To give credit where it’s due, it looks like a masterplan for a power grab. The UK, and England especially, has a vapid, drooling regard for the higher classes and the wealthy, and a definite mistrust of social climbers. 

The UK is about pulling up the ladder, about glass ceilings and doors where your name isn’t down. The more good fortune I’ve had the more true it seems to be. You get to the top of the hill and find a larger one in front of you that someone has already bought the deed to. To make it worse, every so often someone will indeed have climbed the greasy rope, and forever be pointed to as an example of how one should pull oneself up and that it’s about hard work and application. As if anyone with money is ever paid commensurate with the amount of work they put in. As if that’s even the game that is being played. 

You can go to any small town, any city to see what’s going on. People are bored, under-utilized, have few prospects, are looked down upon. All those old manual jobs gone, and increasingly, the middle class ones too. Pound shops, bookies, Wetherspoons, payday lenders. Needless to say, this affects everyone. If you’re a young person looking down the barrel of this, what choice do you have but to move? And then the community suffers even further as there are fewer and fewer people left who could help a little. And those that move feel dreadful because they know they’re contributing to it. 

When Wild Beasts first achieved the unthinkable and actually put a record out, we were coded as a “posh” band. And to be fair, we did sort of play to that — deliberately effete, performative, had read a few books. But posh? To be called that whilst so many of our contemporaries were private schoolboys making oi guv’nor skiffle. Galling. Music was and remains an old boys club. Any success in spite of that doesn’t prove it doesn’t exist. I knew I’d have to move to do what I was wanting to do. It’s music, it’s niche, it’s centralized, I understand that. But that outsider attitude never goes away. 

During my time at university, I was canvassed very hard by the far-right, racist British National Party. I was exactly what they wanted. White, Northern, working class, educated. They knew that the presence of those like me would give them some legitimacy. They wanted to use my anger to fuel their hatred and their half-truths. These days, the armed forces direct most of their advertising towards smaller semi-rural towns — Carlisle, or Blyth in their recent TV adverts. The message is clear. You’ll never be anything in life stuck here, come and make yourself useful with us. Be a man, not a waste of space like your friends. We’ve cleared out all your jobs, now we’ve got our soldiers. 

I think people talk about toxic masculinity as if a new diagnosis makes it a new disease. It’s not. You grow up in it, marinated, it’s everywhere. There are of course virtues in traditional manly behavior (which never gets said), but it comes with so much baggage. I see the increasing street violence in the UK and it seems shocking, but really it’s an extension of the same thing. If you have no hope, then what’s the difference? You can be that big fish in that stagnant pond. The world really isn’t any bigger than your area. 

It takes someone trying to help and the UK is just not about that. The oft-quoted (and shocking) figures about suicide are the headline, but that is just the light generated by all that heat beneath it. People are justifiably angry, people want jobs, people want help when they need it, people want a deck that isn’t loaded against them. They’re then told it’s their fault.

We were children of New Labour, born in an economic black hole, but raised in a speculative bubble. We were promised the world — record numbers of teenagers went on to further education, in increasing numbers of courses at increasing numbers of institutions. Then just as we were all coming of age, the bottom fell out of the UK in a big way. So everyone drifts and wonders what on earth they do now. Now, people with longer memories might have already understood this, but damn sure we didn’t. That the UK has been gutted by policy rather than economic reality is particularly enraging. We’re talking about managed decline. Of course people will act out. 

Even that narrative of escape. It shouldn’t be like that, it should be possible to stay in your community and achieve things without that tension of knowing you abandoned ship as it was sinking. It’s not the kids’ fault, don’t blame the kids for the mess that we created by not talking to each other. And when they talk about checking our privilege, we need to do so in a way that doesn’t just make us look good. We’re implicated in this, it’s burning while we sweat the small stuff. Let’s use this anger as fuel. Let’s not bundle up our stuff and cut our losses. Let’s throw down a rope for people. If we actually wanted change we’d do it. 

Tom Fleming was the frontman for the British indie-rock band Wild Beasts from 2002 until the band’s split in 2017. Fleming just released his first solo album, under the name One True Pairing. He calls it “the angry northern Springsteen record that I’d always wanted to make. It’s neo-heartland rock.” These “heartlands” are the moors above Bradford or Cumbernauld, “places where people live their whole lives and do these things and succeed and fail.” Within this, there’s a continued exploration of masculinity that made his former band so unique.