IN PRINCIPIO ERAT VERBUM - The Latin formula translates the opening of the prologue to the Gospel of St John: "In the beginning was the Word". Cast in iron, the phrase spans the gateway into St Mary's College, a reminder that a century before its foundation in 1538 the scholars of St Andrews gathered there in a long lost "College of St John".
Six hundred years later a man in a leather jacket stands in the gateway and passers-by slow down to check that it's really him: Suggs, lead singer of Madness, the group described as the "missing link" between The Kinks and Blur. A woman with young children stops to shake his hand, a pair of postgrads approach for autographs, even senior academics begin to hover in the background. Earlier, across at St Salvator's College, it was the same story: seated in a stall of the 15th-century chapel or standing in the cloister, visitors approach; a cleaner makes her way around the quad just to say she thought it was him, and secretarial staff come from their offices.
Twenty years ago, the visit and the photos might have made for the headline "Madness in the Quad", just the sort of thing to evoke images of the "nutty boys" of Camden lurching in close formation to the growling saxophone and ska-beat of One Step Beyond. But that was then, and this is now. Suggs is in St Andrews not to jive and jape in a funny hat, but to talk reflectively about life, his own course through it and his take on what - if anything - it all means. Still, the music of Madness is not far away, and with a new record and tour on the horizon it promises to get closer.
Formed in 1978 out of an earlier group, The Invaders, the line-up settled and acquired the name Madness in 1979, recording and performing in happy harmony for the next four years until the departure of the pianist Mike Barson, one of the founding members. The band played on, but by the mid-1980s "the inevitable weariness" had taken grip. In 1986 the group announced its break-up and released a farewell single Waiting for the Ghost Train. The response was denial: it was impossible that so popular and irrepressible a source of fun should simply die. Such had been their success, 20 hit singles, and such was their continuing following, that Madness was willed back to life. In 1992 the band re-formed for two open-air performances at Finsbury Park, unintentionally initiating a series of occasional "Madstock" concerts. Again, the demand of fans was probably a greater force than the will of its members. New recordings followed, as did collections of earlier material, and by 2002 Madness was being celebrated in the West End musical Our House.
Suggs describes how the band has now gone back to its roots, recording a series of cover versions of ska and blue-beat songs by the likes of Prince Buster, which is what they played when they first took to the stage in the late 1970s. The result, The Dangermen Sessions, is being released on 1 August to coincide with a series of open-air concerts performed on Forestry Commission land: "Madness in the Forest".
Later in the year there will be extensive tours in the UK and North America and it looks as if a new set of fans is being added to the following. Suggs mentions with pleasure and pride the fact that at one of the recent forest concerts he met four generations of a family for whom the band was a uniting thread. This ability to span ages and eras he attributes to what he calls "the Holy Grail for Madness: to be simple without being stupid".
Although more closely associated with the band than any other member, Suggs's career has several strands, some of which have led him into areas other than musical performance. Songwriter, record producer, actor and TV presenter, he is currently hosting a Virgin Radio programme two nights a week. He is unique among popular musicians in having such diverse interests and in having been successful in pursuing them over three decades.
Born Graham MacPherson in Hastings in 1961 and raised in Wales and London, by the time he was making his way into music he had also developed an interest in art and a talent for drawing. He wasn't able to pursue this but it attracted him to the art school fashion-culture out of which groups such as Roxy Music emerged. In particular, he says it drew him to the band Deaf School, two of whose members helped shape his future.
One was the guitarist and songwriter Clive Langer, who soon noticed the presence of Madness at Deaf School concerts, describing them as "the best dressed kids from North London". More to the point, he listened to them play, and on the strength of that offered to produce their first album: One Step Beyond. Along with co-producer Alan Winstanley, Langer went on to make another six Madness albums, as well as records by Elvis Costello, Dexy's Midnight Runners, David Bowie, Morrissey, Blur, and last year, the Fife band, Dogs Die in Hot Cars.
The other great influence was Deaf School singer Bette Bright, whom Suggs married in 1981. By the time of their meeting Deaf School was on the point of breaking up, and 1978 saw the release of their third and final album, English Boys, Working Girls, produced by Robert Lange (later Mr Shania Twain). Bette continued to record as Bette Bright and the Illuminations, making a Langer/Winstanley produced album Rhythm Breaks the Ice and reaching the charts with a single. Even before then, however, it was clear that Madness was in the ascendant, and with a family in prospect the couple resolved to establish a domestic existence.
Here I declare an interest: "Bette" (Anne Martin) is my cousin, and I first met Suggs at the time of their marriage. Apart from interlinking musical careers, their lives were otherwise very different. But Suggs looks to the "stability and confidence" of his wife's background as providing a kind of reassurance that he was attracted to and felt the need of. He adds, "it helped that her family also had a music and theatre side to it" providing enough of a Bohemian element to excite, but not so much as to unsettle. Anne's own art school education and fashion interests have been duplicated by their two daughters, Viva and Scarlett, who have both studied art and design.
Suggs contrasts his own somewhat "limited existence" as a youth with the "sophisticated domesticity" he found through marriage. He has worked hard to maintain family life and it is a mark of success in that although they are now in their early twenties, his daughters are still happy to live in the family home in North London. With a house in Italy, a share of Anne's childhood home in Kent, and friends near and far, there is inevitably much coming and going, quite apart from the travel associated with work; but whereas that might unsettle a less secure life, Suggs feels that it intensifies his appreciation of the strength provided by family.
In a recent film made for the BBC as part of its Picture of Britain project, Suggs toured "his London" atop a red Routemaster bus: through Soho where he lived for part of his childhood and where his mother still lives, along the canal by Regent's Park, and around Camden Town where he stopped off at Arlington House, still as he remembers it from his youth: "a home to the homeless". The picture of London that emerges is neither nostalgic nor radical, more one of perennial recurrence - which is how he sees metropolitan life in general.
His own feeling for settled family life engages something deeper. Walking around St Andrews he observes that he is "drawn to things that have some lineage" and he rejects the idea that in some overall sense "things are ever improving". I ask whether this suggests that he is a conservative at heart, to which he counters that he wonders whether some of his feelings aren't "just nostalgia after all", and he remarks that some of those who complain about the loss of community in London forget that "it was often terrible hardships that forced people together".
Pressing the matter, I ask what progress he sees in the world he grew up in and he gives the examples of the decline of racism in London, and a greater degree of openness, honesty and opportunity. Yet at the same time he worries that the last of these has brought new problems, citing "materialism", "self-indulgence", and the fact that "among some people the bringing up of children is looked down upon". It's significant, perhaps, that the phrase "Spending more time with your family" has become synonymous with "suffering a setback in your career". Sitting in the 17th-century King James library beneath the first known inscription of the University motto Aien arioteuein "Ever to be the best", I ask Suggs about his ideals.
He thinks for a while, then offers "openness, listening, loyalty and fidelity". The mention of faithfulness echoes his appreciation of family commitment, but as we sit surrounded by works of philosophy and theology, I wonder whether Suggs has anything to say about faith in the religious sense of the word.
He mentions that the Catholicism of his wife's family was something he respected, but denominational religion is not something he is attracted to or has really explored. What does attract him, however, is the kind of spiritual insight he takes to be part of most religions: "reflecting and catching sight of what you are". The subject is evidently one he has thought about a good deal. Mentioning that one of the band introduced him to Buddhist meditation techniques Suggs develops the theme of contemplation: "by letting important things through you also let the irrelevance of other things show itself". "You also come to see how you were with someone" and "feel humble before some kind of higher truth or reality".
That brings us back to the quotation above the gateway: "In the beginning was the word". Suggs likes it as a setting for a photograph in part because of its dignity, but also because it echoes his sense of his own basic commitment to expressing ideas and feelings through simple and direct language.
In the past he has said that he thinks "part of the reason Madness is still held in great esteem is that it encapsulates something in people's lives - that's what people tell me, anyway". Reflecting on the popular musicians that influenced him - Prince Buster, the Coasters, Ian Drury, The Kinks and others - he describes them as "ordinary people, good at what they did, doing it unpretentiously ... producing good tunes, good rhythms and good lyrics".
It is hard not to hear in this an expression of hope that the same might be said of Madness. There is no reason to doubt the general verdict, and so far as lyrics are concerned, more than one critic has described Suggs and his fellow band members as the most able commentators on London life since The Kinks.
As he flew back to London I couldn't help but wonder whether the time spent reflecting in St Andrews might bear fruit in some future project: if so, however, no-one should hope - or fear - that it will be a musical account of the Clan MacPherson. Like most creative people, Suggs draws inspiration from lived experience, not imagined sentiment. In that respect he is a common sense realist. SM
John Haldane is Professor of Philosophy at the University of St Andrews.
n Madness, The Dangermen Sessions Volume 1, is in the shops on 1 August.