Dave Rowntree isn’t keen to dwell on the past. He’s proud of his achievements, sure, but it’s not something that engulfs him. Drummer with Blur, Labour councillor in Norfolk, and a keen amateur astronomer – his plate, it seems, is pretty damn full.
This summer has seen him indulge each of those passions in turn, with Blur playing an unexpected set at Africa Express in East London, and Dave Rowntree giving a talk – and DJing – at Wakefield’s Festival Of The Moon. It’s 50 years on from the moon landing, y’see, and the drummer has pored over this era of technological advancement since he was a child.
“I’ve been an astronomer since I was a young kid, and got my first telescope when I was about eight or 10,” he recalls. “I spent many a winter’s evening outside, freezing my arse off gazing at the stars.”
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Lacking the necessary skills in mathematics to truly pursue his love academically, he was fortunate enough to live in an era when astrophysics saturated the nightly news – including the Moon landings.
“I was very young then,” he explains. “I just remember watching it on the TV – I’m not sure if it was live, or on the news, I can just remember the flickering black and white images, and everyone being very excited. But I was only five years old, so I didn’t really get the significance of it all.”
The significance is still being debated. To some, the Space Race is an era of euphoric advancement, but Dave Rowntree isn’t one to obey rose-tinted viewpoints.
“I think that the space race was actually space being militarised for the first time,” he says. “The whole point of the space race was to establish dominance over the Soviet Union. And the race to the moon was a proxy race to see whether socialism or capitalism was the superior system – quite childish now when you think about it.”
“It was set against the backdrop of the proliferation of nuclear weapons, from the end of the Second World War to the continuation of the Cold War,” the drummer continues. “I grew up thinking I was going to die a fiery death – genuinely believing that one option for my future was the missiles raining down. It’s only recently that we’ve found out just how close that we actually were to that kind of Armageddon. Was it a period of optimism? I don’t think so. But what came out of it was astonishing.”
“It’s easy to look back on this kind of stuff with rose-tinted spectacles, and go: wasn’t it great in those days? Those days were just brilliant weren’t they? Such a shame that all the days are shit now, ‘cos it was so brilliant in those days!” he says, collapsing into laughter. “And, actually, that’s bollocks!”
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A pragmatist, Dave Rowntree’s passion for astronomy brought him into the orbit – both literally and metaphorically – of a deeply British space project. Beagle 2 was one of this country’s boldest interstellar endeavours, a project that utilised cutting edge technology to send a probe to Mars, where it would search for historic evidence of life.
Sadly, communication was lost, and it’s scheduled call-back time of December 25th, 2003 was missed. The experience, though, remains a point of absolute joy for the Blur musician.
“Well it certainly a first for the UK,” he argues. “The UK National Space Programme was – and still is – moribund, having been a world leader after the war, having been a leader in rocket design, all of that was abandoned on the grounds of cost and slowly the Space Programme was wound down to one single person, who had an office somewhere in Whitehall. And he was the UK’s Space Programme. But the private space industry was thriving. We had world leading companies building satellites, and lots of really hi-tech industries.”
Open University scientist Colin Pillinger came up with the concept for Beagle 2, and managed to trim the budget down to something which became eminently achievable – at which point Blur became involved, raising the profile of Beagle 2 to stratospheric levels.
“Colin found he had a brilliant idea that needed only a relatively small amount of money to bring it to fruition,” the drummer recalls. “Which is £25 million. Which coincidentally was what NASA had just spent developing a new screwdriver… and Colin was proposing to send a probe to Mars for the same cost. Except doors were slammed shut in his face. When we came across him we were determined to do something about that.”
“I think us talking it up and making a big noise about it and complaining loudly about it is one of the reasons it ended up getting funded,” he says. “We, the team, ended up getting the government to match-fund it – so every pound raised privately, they would chip in another pound. We had to raise £12.5 million – so instead of fundraising all that money, we went round to all these tech companies, people who build these things day to day, and asked them to built components for the lander.”
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Piece by borrowed piece, Beagle 2 came into focus. “A company called Martin-Baker – who make parachutes for ejector seats – we went to see them, and asked if they could make one for Beagle 2. They chipped in a parachute. Formula 1 cars are made out of carbon fibre and we needed a carbon fibre shell, so we rocked up and said: can you make us one of these?”
“So instead of raising £12.5 million in pound notes we raised it in kind. And some dodgy receipts. Then we took them to the government, which meant the government were forced – between gritted teeth – to put in £12.5 million for the UK to go to Mars. Which is just astonishing. It’s astonishingly short-sighted of them to think that this is even an issue. But there we are.”
Beagle 2 launched in the summer of 2003, but sadly contact was lost as it hit the surface of Mars. For years its ultimate fate remained a mystery – did it burn up on entry? Crash into a crater? Was its communication system knocked off balanced?
In 2015, though, NASA provided an image that solved all of those questions: a solar panel failed to unfurl, blocking its antennae. Tragically, the news came too late for Colin Pillinger – a pioneering scientist, he succumbed to MS only months before the discovery was made.
Dave Rowntree remains utterly ebullient about the entire experience. “We got to Mars. That’s the thing,” he gasps. “When we went looking for the lander but couldn’t find it the mission was written off as a failure, but actually we now know that almost everything went right: we did land on Mars, the parachutes worked, everything worked as advertised apart from one solar panel which got stuck for some reason or another. It didn’t unfurl, and that meant it couldn’t call home.”
“It’s not beyond the realms of possibility that the batteries are still operative, and it’s sitting there, buzzing away on the surface of Mars, waiting for the last solar panel to unfurl, to send home the results of the science package,” he continues.
“No country on Earth has ever done that. No country has ever even made it to Mars on their first attempt. America didn’t. The Soviet Union didn’t. China didn’t. All of them. America mistook feet and inches for metres and centimetres and missed Mars by a million miles on its first attempt! We actually got there, we landed, and we started doing science. We’re the only country on Earth that has ever done that on its first attempt.”
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It’s funny, though – this sense of national pride seems out of sorts in the UK right now. The national mood feels curiously bleak, this post-Brexit unleashing of ugly forces that comes 25 years after Blur’s own British opus ‘Parklife’.
“I think it’s actually quite a stark record,” he muses. Largely prompted by a spell on the road in the United States, ‘Parklife’ has both an insider and outsider mentality. He points out: “That was the start of our internationalisation, I would say. It’s only by leaving that you learn to look a bit more critically at where you come from, I think. It was that kind of critical thinking that fuelled the album. It wasn’t about painting lovely rosey glows of England, like: oh, isn’t England so great! We didn’t think it was that great – and still don’t.”
“This Little Englander mentality that now seems to be the official way to view the country after the Brexit referendum… we’ve all got very insular. It’s all a bit dismal and depressing, the way the national psyche seems to have lurched to the Right. It’s been suggested that that period was the start of it, and there may be some truth in that.”
“Whether that’s true or not, where it’s ended up is an absolutely terrible place. The rise of white nationalism and xenophobia… you look back at that period in the 90s and things were so far from that. In terms of the national psyche, it was a feeling of real optimism, this feeling that anything was possible, and everyone was included because we were all along for the right together. That was the last time I can remember that being the dominant attitude.”
In his own way, though, Dave Rowntree is continuing the fight for progressive, inclusive politics. A Labour councillor in Norfolk, he’s been forced to watch as successive Conservative governments have slashed budgets – except on the ground it isn’t statistics, it’s people’s lives.
“It’s incredibly frustrating,” he sighs. “Often it’s the most vulnerable people who are affected. Those people are now not able to get by. That’s the reality of where we are. Funding has been cut in half over the last decade. Local councils provide services to the most vulnerable, not the most wealthy, so it’s the services to the most vulnerable that are being cut.”
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“The positive part of it is getting out and about in my community, knocking on doors, looking for problems to fix. That’s incredibly rewarding, and it always has been – that’s what I’ve always done with my membership of the Labour Party. That’s what it’s all about as far as I’m concerned.”
Blur are enjoying a little bit of downtime, too. Each member had to forego their own pursuits when the band hit the road once more in 2009, and it’s been a long, sometimes exhausting journey since then.
“These days, we’ve all got lives outside the band, we’ve all got things we’re concentrating on – I do music for film and TV, Alex has got his festival, Graham is doing all kinds of solo stuff, and Damon has about four or five projects simultaneously going at any one time. We had to cancel all of that, all of us, for quite a long time. We’ve been playing catch up in our other lives. We’ll have to wait and see after we’ve caught up once we do next.”
“But I’m sure something will happen,” he says. “The reality is: there are no plans, we’ll just have to wait and see. I think something will happen, but I don’t have a timetable with ‘Next Blur Album’ written on it, unfortunately. I wish I did!”
But what Dave Rowntree does have is an excellent telescope, the clear skies of Norfolk, and enough time to make use of it all.
“The night sky is just so beautiful through a telescope,” he gushes. “With the naked eye it all looks black and white, but through a telescope it’s so full of colour, and vivid, because it gathers enough light to trigger the colour sensitivities in your eye, so you see things for what they are. You can see the colour of the cloud bands around Jupiter – it’s just an astonishingly beautiful thing to do.”#
“It’s the most amazing hobby, really,” he finishes. “It’s endlessly rewarding.”
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Dave Rowntree will be in conversation at Wakefield's Festival Of The Moon on August 24th.
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