Money to burn

I don’t know where I was on 23 August 1994. But I managed to miss an event then, and have managed to go on missing it for the past 23 years. Until a month ago, when I finally read about it. Two musicians, Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty, best known as the band KLF, set fire to a million pounds in £5 notes on the island of Jura. Burnt them. Destroyed them utterly.  

Two weeks ago (blog of 10 September) I suggested that, while there is nothing wrong in passing judgment on the actions of other people, we should not pass final judgment on those people as human beings. Not wishing to expose myself as a hypocrite quite so soon, I am now trying hard not to condemn Drummond and Cauty but, boy, do I condemn their action.

Offhand, I can recall few individual acts, in civilian life, of comparable wickedness. Parents sometimes kill their own children. Is that not more wicked? Well, maybe, but it is usually a spontaneous act performed under extreme duress. That does not excuse it, but it offers some mitigation. What Drummond and Cauty did was calculated and premeditated. Neither was it regretted, at least not immediately. Two years later, they toured the UK with a film of the event (Watch the K Foundation Burn a Million Quid), with the perpetrators engaging the audience in a debate about the burning and its meaning. Meaning?

The pair earned their money from a highly successful career in music, and well done to them for that. Was it not up to them to decide what they did with it? Up to a point, yes, but not up to this point. Had they stuffed it up their noses or done the hundred other things that pop stars habitually do with their money, I would not be writing this piece. At least the money would not have been destroyed. It would still be in circulation.

Drummond and Cauty’s was the ultimate two-fingered gesture to humanity. Use the money to help starving children in Africa? Screw that. Use it to support charities at home? Screw that. Use it to be of some small help to people who have not had the same luck in life as you’ve had? Screw that too. We’ll just burn it, thank you very much.

I only got to hear about this wanton outrage because, on 23 August this year, the band held a book launch and musical event in Liverpool to celebrate its 23rd anniversary (the pair have a thing about the number 23). It was an event with no discernible artistic merit, yet it attracted double page articles in The Times and The Observer and, for all I know, in other papers too. This coverage was almost as sickening as the original conflagration. It provided the excuse for an outpouring of sycophancy, pretentiousness, lack of awareness and, in some cases, utter ignorance.

Some samples.

Daisy Campbell asked: ‘What piece of art from 1994 is still talked about, still excites people, even causes people to go up to Jura and burn money themselves? … Making nothing from something is powerful. Money has the potential to be anything, so if you go to the source and burn it you are creating the ultimate nothing. You have monks self-immolating in the streets and you pause for a second as their image flies past on your Twitter feed.’ Gold help us. And you, Daisy.

Turner prize-winner Jeremy Deller ‘puts the act of burning money in the same auto-destructive tradition as Gustav Metzger corroding canvases with acid.’ Historian Annebella Pollen ‘sees the KLF’s work as a continuation of the ritualistic nature movement of the Twenties, the Kibbo Kift, which viewed finance as a death cult.’

Will Hodgkinson, who wrote the piece in The Times, thought that destroying the money was ‘as sacrilegious today as denying the existence of God would have been in medieval Europe.’ The journalist who wrote the Observer piece, Barbara Ellen, commented: ‘Where ethics are concerned, I don’t see why anyone should feel any more irritated by the KLF burning a million pounds than by others blowing huge sums on, say, lounging on yachts with supermodels.’

Can you really not see why, Barbara? If you burn money, it ceases to exist. It is no more. It can be used for nothing. Whatever one thinks of the hedonism of the super-rich, the money they spend is real. It finds its way into the hands of real boat-builders, real hoteliers, real shopkeepers, real dog-walkers, real champagne bottlers, and some of it from there into the hands of a real Inland Revenue, and from there into the hands of people who need it.

Fortunately, other people can spot the distinction. Barbara Ellen reported that the views of Liverpool taxi drivers were ‘unprintable’. And old-time Labour militants heckled the panellists at the August event. Back in the ’80s, I never thought that one day I would be applauding them.

In 2004, Drummond admitted to the BBC that he regretted burning the money. ‘It’s a hard one to explain to your kids and it doesn’t get any easier. I wish I could explain why I did it so people would understand.’ I think we all wish that.

Julian Cope, lead singer of The Teardrop Explodes, a group that Drummond managed, deserves the last word: ‘He burned a million pounds which was not all his, and some of it was mine. People should pay off their creditors before they pull intellectual dry-wank stunts like that.’