The Observer NOVEMBER 6, 2022 - by James McMahon


The musician and artist, seventy-four, on doing something about the climate crisis and a great joke he heard the other day

The first things that ever excited me were music and light. I was very young. I remember once being at my uncle's when he projected a Disney film on to the kitchen wall. It was intensely bright and it stayed in my mind for years as a sort of magical moment. It was the same with music. When I first heard Get A Job by The Silhouettes, from 1957, it was the weirdest feeling. It made me feel funny inside.

I always thought I'd be an artist. My uncle was a watercolour painter, and I just loved the idea you could bring something into existence that had never existed before, something new that nobody had ever seen or thought of. I still feel like that. Every time I walk into my studio I get butterflies thinking what might happen.

I'm an atheist, but I believe in religion. I've always been aware of the downsides, but when I got interested in gospel music I started to see what it could do for people, that it could create a place where you could surrender and become part of something bigger. I think we all want to achieve that, and we all do it in different ways. Sex, drugs, art... they're all ways of surrendering, of allowing our identities to lose their hard edges and merge with something else.

It's such a fantastic idea that life might have only happened here. If we discover life elsewhere it would change our mindset. But unless that happens, humanity being alone becomes a kind of responsibility. I think it would benefit us to be thinking, "Are we going to fuck up the only time this has ever happened?"

There are two stages to thinking about climate: "Shit, something awful is going on," and: "I'm going to do something about it." I'm in the second camp and I'm sensing more and more people are.

I'm a fan of nuclear. It is arguably the safest fuel humanity has ever invented if you calculate it by the macabre measure of deaths-per-megawatt. But it's a movement splitter. I try not to get into arguments about nuclear, because solidarity is the most important thing to the climate movement right now.

I heard a great joke the other day. A guy prays to God every night to win the lottery. He does it for twenty years and nothing happens. One night, God appears and says, "I've heard your prayers. But can you meet me halfway and buy a ticket?"

I exist on a tightrope between pessimism and optimism. We're living at a moment in time when there's more intelligence on the planet than there has ever been. There's also more connectivity between us, which multiplies that power. That gives me hope. But the power to direct the thoughts of the human race is in fewer and fewer hands. The Zuckerbergs, the Googles, the Rupert Murdochs. That's troublesome. There are a few people who want it all and will do anything to get it - that worries me.

I travel a lot because I live between Norfolk and London. I always go by train with my little suitcase with two computers in it and lots of books. The other day a wheel came off. I thought: "Oh, God, I have to buy another suitcase," but I really didn't want to bring another piece of shit into my life. So I spent about an hour fixing it. I had to make a bit to replace the bit I'd lost. It felt like a triumph.

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