Out of print: NME’s demise shows pressure on consumer magazines

The closure of NME magazine after almost seven decades is the latest warning sign that the shift to digital media is threatening to kill the British love affair with print magazines.

NME.com continues but stopping the presses on the print edition after 66 years was the first decision made by the magazine’s new owners, the private equity firm Epiris, after its £130m deal to buy NME’s parent company, Time Inc, at the end of last month.

The closure of the weekly title is symbolic of the issues facing the wider consumer magazine market.

NME is just the latest once mighty magazine brand to cease regular publication in print, or to have embarked on a digital-only path in recent years, joining titles including Loaded, Maxim, FHM, The Face, i-D, Sugar, Bliss, Nuts and Arena.

UK and Ireland magazine sales
UK and Ireland magazine sales

While a number of these were shut when their print fans had already largely abandoned them, many were stunned at the news that that the magazine malaise had also spread to Glamour. The title, the 10th most popular paid-for magazine in the UK, halted its monthly print run last year.

The outlook for the UK magazine market is not good with the decline in sales and advertising figures making for grim reading.

Sales of the top 100 actively purchased print titles in the UK – those that readers buy or subscribe to – fell by 42% from 23.8m to 13.9m between 2010 and 2017. Since the start of the internet era in 2000, the decline is 55% from 30.8m, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations.

Similarly, advertising in consumer titles will have more than halved from £512m in 2010 to £250m by the end of this year, according to Group M, a media buying agency.

“Are magazines dead? No,” says James Wildman, the UK chief executive of Cosmopolitan and Good Housekeeping owner Hearst. “We sell nearly 5m a month, that’s hardly dead, and we have 20 million unique UK users online a month, and more than double that on social media.

“But it is true to say that some of the 1 million millennial women every week that look at Cosmopolitan on Snapchat don’t know we also have a magazine of the same name.”

The reinvention of magazine brands online is all well and good, but the problem is that the £268m fall in print advertising is nowhere near being replaced by the growth of digital ad revenue, a key factor as magazine sales income also falls.

By the end of the year, digital ad spend on consumer magazine brands is projected to be well under half that shortfall, at £111m. “The ad market is a fairly brutal place right now,” says Wildman.

Google and Facebook account for 65% of the $6.5bn (£4.7bn) UK digital display ad market. They are also strangling attempts by magazine and newspaper publishers to build their digital ad revenues by taking about 90% of all new spend.

This is without the added competition for readers traditional publishers face online from digital media startups such as BuzzFeed.

Taylor Swift on the cover of British Vogue, January 2018

Taylor Swift on the cover of British Vogue, January 2018. Luxury titles are proving resilient. Photograph: British Vogue

“Magazines do still play an important part in client schedules – if circulation is holding up,” says Phil Hall, the chief commercial strategy officer at the media buying agency MediaCom.

“But the issue at the moment is there is a glut of titles that are too similar, too generic. Reaching audience at scale is key to many advertisers and if readers are falling away then that’s a major issue.”

Not all sectors of the magazine market are under such pressure. Luxury titles such as Vogue and Tatler, where the advertising is often a big reason readers buy them, are proving resilient.

Specialist magazines, catering for more niche audiences with interests ranging from shooting to model railways and ponies, are likely to always have a print fanbase.

Wildman says for magazines to survive they must build a brand beyond the core print publication.

“It is overly simplistic to say it is just digital versus print,” he says. “Magazine businesses are much more diverse. We ran 100 events related to our magazines last year – [a] Harper’s Bazaar [event] sold out in hours at £600 a head.

“Endorsement, accreditation and licensing are increasingly lucrative. DFS sell House Beautiful and Country Living [named after titles] range sofas. And the bestselling premium home gym at Argos is branded after our Men’s Health magazine.”

Nevertheless, mounting pressure on the traditional print magazine business, which still drives most revenues, is forcing consolidation as publishers seek scale to survive.

Time Inc in the US, which publishes People, Fortune and Sports Illustrated, has just been sold to rival Meredith for $1.8bn; the UK arm was picked up by Epiris.

Last year, Immediate Media, which publishes 60 titles including Radio Times and Top Gear, was sold to the German publisher Hubert Burda, owner of Your Home and HomeStyle, for £270m.

Despite the gloom, magazine publishers, like their newspaper counterparts, sense an opportunity as brand safety and measurement issues have prompted advertisers to closely scrutinise the once unquestionable value of investing in digital media such as YouTube and Facebook.

“With issues such as fake news, we are seeing the pendulum swing back because of two things: trust and context,” says Wildman.

“They are two things that went out of fashion in recent years as media agencies pivoted to buying audiences but weren’t worried about where ads were running. Now we are seeing readers and advertisers leaning back towards trusted brands.”

Beyoncé and Jay-Z announce On the Run II tour

Beyoncé and Jay-Z have confirmed rumours that they will tour together this summer, detailing dates in the UK, Europe and North America. The married couple previously mounted the On the Run tour together in 2014, to promote their respective albums Beyoncé and Magna Carta Holy Grail.

The couple’s latest album releases are 2016’s Lemonade and 2017’s 4:44. They are appearing together on DJ Khaled’s current single, Top Off.

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Next month, Beyoncé will headline California’s Coachella festival. She was initially due to headline in 2017, but withdrew on doctors’ orders after discovering that she was pregnant with twins. The couple have three children in all – Blue Ivy Carter, six, and the twins Rumi and Sir, born 13 June 2017 – and will celebrate their 10th wedding anniversary on 4 April.

The On the Run II tour starts in the UK at Cardiff’s Principality Stadium on 6 June, before moving to Glasgow’s Hampden Park (9 June), Manchester’s Etihad Stadium (13 June) and the London Stadium (15 June). They will then head to Europe for 11 dates, before a run of 21 dates across north America, concluding on 2 October at Vancouver’s BC Place. A pre-sale begins on 14 March before tickets go on general sale on 23 March.

Bono: bullying allegations at charity made me furious

The singer Bono has apologised after claims were made that workers at a charity he co-founded were subjected to a culture of bullying and abuse.

The U2 singer, 57, said he was left furious after the allegations surfaced in November last year. He admitted the One organisation failed to protect some employees at its Johannesburg office and said: “I need to take some responsibility for that.”

The One campaign, created in 2004 to fight extreme poverty and preventable diseases, launched an investigation after a group of former employees from its Johannesburg office tweeted allegations of management misconduct, claiming that some staff in Africa were “treated worse than dogs”.

The group told an internal inquiry into events between 2011 and 2015 that they were repeatedly ridiculed and belittled, and that a supervisor ordered them to do domestic work at her home at weekends. Another alleged she was demoted for refusing to become intimate with a foreign government official, after her manager made “sexist and suggestive comments” about her to him.

The allegations were revealed in a letter to members from Gayle Smith, who became One’s chief executive in March 2017. She said One had filed a serious incident report to the Charity Commission this month.

The inquiry found that a former official subjected junior employees to “verbal or email statements such as calling individuals ‘worthless’, ‘stupid’ and an ‘idiot’, at times doing so in front of third parties,” One said.

Smith said the campaign had not been able to corroborate the “appalling claims” that the female employee had been demoted for not becoming intimate with the foreign official, but added: “We do not discount any allegation – we investigate them and will continue to do so should others arise.”

Bono told the Mail on Sunday: “We are all deeply sorry. I hate bullying, can’t stand it. The poorest people in the poorest places being bullied by their circumstance is the reason we set up One. So to discover last November that there were serious and multiple allegations of bullying in our office in Johannesburg left me and the One board reeling and furious.”

So here’s the story from A to Z: 20 Spice Girls bangers

A Spiceworld album track boasting the best use of disco strings on any Spice track, and in which Party Time is denoted by a lone “WOO!” at 0:17.

Track four from Forever was the first time since Wannabe that the Spice Girls lyrically referenced never-ending friendship, although it was an idea they wheeled out again – if less convincingly – for their 2007 comeback single, Headlines.

A 2 Become 1 B-side seemingly inspired by the ancient Sesame Street song One of These Things.

17: Step to Me

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A reminder of the speed with which the band ascended to the pop A-list: within months of releasing their debut single, they were the faces of Pepsi, with Step to Me only available to fans who posted 20 ringpulls to Pepsi HQ. Who’d bother doing that, right? Over half a million people, actually.

Slightly off topic, but is now the right time to point out that nothing in this list is as good as Geri Halliwell’s epic flamencofest, Mi Chico Latino?

Kicking off with Alexa’s mum barking a robotic “Spice Girls … Darkchild … Let’s dance!”, this Forever album track was everything a turn-of-the-millennium pop audience could have wanted from a Rodney Jerkins-Spice Girls collaboration. It also ensured the band’s first post-Geri album included the line “We could have stayed together but you wanted it this way” a full decade before the “eyes” emoji was invented.

Seriously, though, have you listened to Mi Chico Latino recently?

13: Who Do You Think You Are?

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The song that formed the bulk of the band’s iconic – and not in the 2018 sense of iconic, like, properly iconic – 1997 Brits performance. Big shout out to Sporty’s “SWING!” “SHAKE” “MOVE!” “MAKE!” bits.

As we move forward with this list you may wonder if the countdown is a little singles-heavy, and let’s just say that the Spice Girls were not what you might call an albums act. This “oft”-overlooked Forever album track is good evidence, however, that the band’s third album may actually be their most robust.

All the other big Spice hits have between 10m and 24m plays on Spotify. Wannabe has 210m, but does that make it their best song? Pop is not a democracy, and Wannabe is the 11th best Spice Girls song.

10: Stop

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Remembered for lyrics such as “do do do do” and “ba ba ba ba”, this single’s Fauxtown stylings were bolstered by hints of at least two different Supremes songs, and Mel C drifting into Stevie Wonder’s Uptight (Everything’s Alright) in her closing ad-libs.

One of the few Spice Girls album tracks that feels as if it could have been a No 1 single.

Put aside the none-more-1997 marketing trick of releasing this around Mother’s Day and, instead, go and read the lyrics. Then come back here and say you did not shed a tear. “I never thought you would become the friend I never had” – good grief! “All that you did was love” – stop it!!

These days, Wannabe might sound as alien as a 22-year-old No 1 like the Rubettes’ Sugar Baby Love did in 1996, but you can draw a direct line between Holler and pop in 2018. In fact, this song still gets 1% better every six months. If you’re reading this in 2020, move it up a place.

The entire amazingness of this pensive festive contraception banger pivots on one moment: the point at 2:40 when Bunton Spice sets her spirit free and dramatically chucks two extra syllables into the word “one”.

5: Say You’ll Be There

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Mel B’s “I’ll give you everything, on this I swear” mini-rap remains one of 90s pop’s greatest achievements.

4: Spice Up Your Life

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Geri later claimed that Margaret Thatcher was “the first lady of girl power”, but the Spice Girls were not immune to the public mood, encouraging listeners to “slam it to the left” in the same year that Britain voted in its first Labour government in a generation.

3: Sleigh Ride

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No, come back! It’s easy to forget that the Spice Girls felt really, really fun. At times they were a completely brilliant mess, and their winningly shambolic spirit is splashed all over this cover version, particularly its chaotic middle-eight in which Posh Spice tells the band’s young fanbase that Father Christmas doesn’t exist, prompting Mel B to shout: “You’re going to get hit in the face if you don’t shut up”.

2: Viva Forever

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The perfect Spice Girls farewell single, if you ignore the fact that they released another song later in the year, followed by another album. Either way, this is a magical ballad tarnished only by the fact that its title was also used, many years later, as the name of the worst thing to hit London’s West End since Crossrail.

1: Goodbye

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“Goodbye my friend. I know you’re gone, you said you’re gone. But I can still feel you here.” Is it about Geri leaving? No, it was written before she cleared off. Is it about the end of a relationship? Melanie C says yes. Is it though, Mel? Is it actually, in 2018, about how one day without realising it we all said goodbye to our younger selves? But is it also about how we don’t ever totally lose touch with the person we once were, or with a sense how life felt before things got so complicated? And is Goodbye really about the extraordinary power of pop music to bring everything right back, no matter what’s happened since and no matter how much you might think you left your favourite pop band behind? Yes, that’s exactly what it is.

Zig-a-zig-agggrh: The three worst Spice songs

(How Does It Feel to Be) On Top of the World

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It’s summer 1998: England are heading to France for the World Cup, and on home turf someone’s decided that the world needs a collaboration between Echo and the Bunnymen, Space, Ocean Colour Scene and the Spice Girls. England didn’t even make the quarter-finals and Geri left the band after shooting the video. It peaked at No 9. So well done, everyone.

I’m the Leader of the Gang (I Am!)

One set-piece in the band’s cinematic millstone Spiceworld involved the band performing a Gary Glitter song, with Glitter himself appearing in the song’s closing moments. The footage was delivered about two weeks before Glitter took his computer in for repair; he was removed from the film, but the song remained.

Power of Five

Channel 5 scored a coup for its 1997 launch: an exclusive new song from the planet’s biggest girl band. Sadly, the song in question was a criminally shonky rewrite of 33-year-old Manfred Mann hit 5-4-3-2-1 that switched lyrics, referencing Tennyson’s Charge of the Light Brigade for lines such as “Wicked shows for you to see, toons and sports and movies – free!”

Gaetano Donizetti opera lost for 200 years set for London premiere

Eight years of detective work will culminate in July’s first performance of ‘amazing’ tragedy by great Italian composer

Lucia Di Lammermoor

Diana Damrau and Charles Castronovo in Royal Opera’s 2016 production of Lucia Di Lammermoor, Donizetti’s best-known work.
Photograph: Tristram Kenton

A lost opera by one of the great Italian composers is to have its world premiere in London almost 180 years after it was written.

Gaetano Donizetti was a leading figure in 19th-century Italian music, along with Giuseppe Verdi and Vincenzo Bellini. His most famous work, Lucia di Lammermoor, written in 1835, is seen as one of the great European operas. But L’Ange de Nisida (The Angel of Nisida) – composed in the late 1830s after he moved to work in Paris – never saw the light of day. It was written for the city’s Théâtre de la Renaissance, but the company went bankrupt before it was premiered.

The opera was thought to have been lost until musicologist Candida Mantica, a PhD student at Southampton University, painstakingly located and deciphered the score’s fragments over eight years.

Mantica said she found some pages in Paris’s Bibliothèque Nationale, but they were scattered among 18 folders and in no specific order. The reconstruction involved archive research across Europe and the US. “I was able to identify about 470 pages of autograph music [in the composer’s hand] thanks to a draft copy of the libretto, which allowed me to establish their original order,” she added.

The work will be premiered on 18 July at Covent Garden by London-based Opera Rara, which performs and records rare and forgotten 19th-century operas, in partnership with the Royal Opera House.

L’Ange de Nisida is a romance, telling the story of a soldier, Leone, who is in love with his king’s mistress.

Gaetano Donizetti

Gaetano Donizetti in a portrait by Gennaro Ruo. Photograph: Getty

Sir Mark Elder, artistic director of Opera Rara and music director of the Hallé Orchestra, will conduct the performance. He told the Observer: “It’s a work of top quality. Very beautiful.” Donizetti used some of this music in later works, including 1840’s La Favorite, but Elder said: “Over half of [L’Ange] has never ever been heard, which is terribly exciting.”

He said it had some “very powerful scenes” and noted that, because it was designed for a smaller theatre, “there is a delicacy and intimacy about the writing that is gorgeous”.

Donizetti died in 1848, aged just 50, and his masterpieces also include the 1832 comedy L’Elisir d’Amore (The Elixir of Love).

Roger Parker, repertoire consultant to Opera Rara and music professor at King’s College, London, said: “For L’Ange to get as popular as Lucia di Lammermoor or L’Elisir d’Amore, that would be ambitious. Who knows what’s going to happen? But the musical quality is as good as anything he did. That’s the surprising thing about it. When operas are discovered, quite often you find they were undiscovered for good reason. But this one really is amazing music. It’s some of the best music that you’ll hear from Donizetti.”

He added: “All his other operas have been premiered now. This is the last one, and it’s one of the best.”

Donizetti’s letters of the period reflect his annoyance over his cancelled opera, and despair over the commissioning theatre company. In one he complains that: “The management were real donkeys.”

Parker believes that L’Ange de Nisida will “rewrite how we think about [Donizetti] as a composer, in particular about the breadth of his musical inspiration. It’s a curious mixture of the comic and the serious.”

Donizetti scholars knew of this opera, he said. “But they had no idea what it was like … So there was no discussion of it in any of the literature.”

He praised Mantica’s “astonishing” detective work: “Candida just went to Paris and kept finding another few bars. I think we’ve got more or less everything he wrote now.”

The opera is likely to last about two-and-a-half hours, excluding the interval. The soloists will include soprano Joyce El-Khoury as Sylvia. A live recording will be made for release next year. The premiere will be a concert performance rather than a full staging. Covent Garden is “a wonderful platform for bringing this unknown piece to people’s attention”, according to Elder. “I can imagine it being staged, absolutely.”

Poison pass: the man who became immune to snake venom

Rock singer Steve Ludwin has been injecting himself with snake venom for 30 years. In a strange twist, his bizarre habit could now save thousands of lives. His former partner Britt Collins tells his outlandish story

Steve Ludwin with a snake round his head

What a charmer: Steve Ludwin with a friendly Honduran milk snake.
Photograph: Pal Hansen for the Observer

Sometime in 2006, when my ex-boyfriend failed to show up for dinner, I assumed something was wrong or perhaps he’d forgotten. About a week later, calling to apologise, he told me he’d had an overdose, accidentally injecting a lethal cocktail of venom from three snakes. A lot has been written about Steve Ludwin, widely known as the man who injects snake venom, and lately his life has turned into a non-stop frenzy of international journalists and film crews revelling in the seeming sheer insanity of it.

Steve was once my great love; an animal lover, vegan and musician who wrote songs for Placebo and Ash, and played the Reading festival with Nirvana. In between tours and recordings he dabbled with snake venom. In his latest incarnation as a self-taught snake expert, moulding himself into the role of a lifetime, he appears as a kind of living specimen and star in a short film at the Natural History Museum’s new exhibition, Venom: Killer and Cure.

“How cool is that? You normally have to be dead or a fossil to be in a museum,” says Steve, now 51, as we sit in his in Kennington, with its roof terrace offering glimmers of the London Eye and Parliament. He lives there with his Australian banker girlfriend Suzy, Russian blue cat Pushkin, a rare iguana and several snakes.

He’s been shooting, swallowing and scratching venom into his skin from some of the world’s deadliest snakes for 30 years. “Snakes are fucking everywhere. The symbol for medicine is two snakes. They’re ingrained in our brain and DNA,” he tells me, proudly insisting that he hasn’t been ill for decades and has developed “a superhuman immune system”. And it’s tempting to believe him. He does look undeniably fit.

The first time he did it was in October 1988 and he showed me his swollen wrist. I refused to indulge him and thought he was stoned. Today, Steve laughs at the memory. “Not really… well maybe,” he says. “But you know I’ve always loved snakes. I had no idea what it would do to me, but I knew it’d been done before and was curious to see if it was possible to become immune to snake venom.”

‘You know I’ve always loved snakes’: Steve Ludwin holding an iguana with Britt Collins, shot at Steve’s home in London

‘You know I’ve always loved snakes’: Steve Ludwin holding an iguana with Britt Collins, shot at Steve’s home in London Photograph: Pal Hansen for the Observer

Now, ironically, Steve is on the cusp of something monumental, the development of a human-derived anti-venom that could potentially save many thousands of human and animal lives.

“When I was 17,” he says, “I knew I was going to inject snake venom in the future. I felt like Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, when he had that feeling ‘this means something’. It took many years and accidents of messing around with it to finally make sense.” He looks down at his arms, showing the maze of track marks. “I look like a junkie. You can see all the incisions.”

After university, Steve and I lived in Islington with our cream-tabby cat Tad and a couple of friends. Our house was a zoo, with our potbellied pig Lou who loved the Velvet Underground, a ginger-and-white rat Moo-Moo whom I saved from the fangs of a copperhead, a pair of rescued iguanas, a vicious baby caiman crocodile and a terrifying assortment of snakes and scorpions. But for us, to live among wild animals was all we ever wanted. While pursing his music career, Steve had his dream day job, handling reptiles at the Vivarium in Walthamstow. The pet shop had a back room with venomous snakes. And it wasn’t long before he began bringing home rattlesnakes, copperheads and vipers with enough venom to kill our entire street.

I started an indie-music glossy called Lime Lizard and everyone and their mates showed up at our Victorian terrace, turning it into a den for drugs, debauched rockers and deadly snakes. Inevitably there were accidents: a fugitive snake that reappeared through the floorboards eight months later; diamondback rattlers left carelessly beneath a baseball cap on our bed that our flatmate nearly sat on. I got bitten by a tarantula that left me swollen, bruised and hallucinating for days, and almost crushed by a boa constrictor after Steve draped it around me for a photo.

Steve and I met in February 1986 at Eckerd College, a small liberal-arts school on a sun-struck sliver of Florida coast. I was there as a transfer student from UC Berkeley for my one and only semester. I lived in the same co-ed dorm as Steve. One evening, walking back from dinner, I heard New Order’s Temptation blaring from his room and started dancing outside his window. We took one look at each other and that was it. He looked like the all-American boy – tall, lithe, chiselled, with a floppy fringe and faint dusting of freckles – except he was anything but. Steve was born on an air force base in Los Angeles. His father, Ray, was a pilot for Pan Am, who met his beautiful Canadian mother, Jacqueline, when she was a stewardess. Growing up with two sisters in New Milford, a sleepy Connecticut town, he lived next door to Eartha Kitt, the original Catwoman in the 60s Batman TV show. I knew Steve was a stoner, but he was funny and engaging, had a cool New-Romantics haircut and great taste in music. I remember being struck by his handsome face, his quirkiness and intensity: he believed in aliens, the deep state and punk as a philosophy. That night we went to a smoky indie club, dancing to the Violent Femmes and Psychedelic Furs until 4am and skipping morning classes. That was the start of our love affair and deep and enduring friendship. Neither of us realised it then, but it was a really romantic time.

On our second date, sitting on his bed, I felt something brush against my ankle and thought: “Perfect, he has a cat.” Glancing down, an 8ft boa, thick as a motorbike tire, slithered from under the bed. I screamed and shot out of his room.

When Steve calmed me down, taking my hand like a small child and showing me the satiny-softness of the boa, I lost my fear of an animal that had previously terrified me, and eventually fell in love with lizards, too, even naming my magazine after them. At the end of term, Steve was keen to show me Costa Rica, where he’d lived as a student. Soon enough, we found ourselves alone among iguanas, parrots and howler-monkeys on the deserted beaches of Manuel Antonio, traipsing bare-legged through remote rainforests filled with ultra-territorial predators like jaguars and pumas, and the baddest killers on earth: toxic frogs, spiders and snakes like the deadly bushmaster, which I nearly tread on, and crossing into Nicaragua to see the sea turtles in Tortuguero during the Sandinista-Contra conflict that was terrifying to everyone but us. Before we even got on the dodgy fisherman’s boat from Limón, we could hear gunfire and mortars exploding in the distance. Steve, unfazed, said, “Fuck it, we have to die sometime,” and I went along for the adventure. Steve bought a T-shirt off the back of a Sandinista rebel for $50. Like many college kids steeped in left-wing politics in Regan’s America, we were rebelling against the pervasive conservatism and generation that ran our lives, searching for something authentic.

‘On our second date I felt something brush against my ankle and thought, perfect, he has a cat. An 8ft boa slithered from under the bed’: when Britt met Steve, back in the 80s

‘On our second date I felt something brush against my ankle and thought, perfect, he has a cat. An 8ft boa slithered from under the bed’:
when Britt met Steve, back in the 80s

Our arrival in London happened to coincide with the late-80s underground scene exploding with bands like the Stone Roses, which for our generation felt like the 60s. Steve and I stayed together for seven mostly happy years and I remember it vividly – the gigs, stage-diving to Mudhoney and the Pixies and dancing at the Syndrome, an after-hours club on Oxford Street, hanging out with bands like Ride and Blur.

When Steve was “unsure what to do with the rest of his life” at 20, I encouraged him to pick up a guitar and write music. Months later, he auditioned for My Bloody Valentine. Inspired by the Beatles, REM and Black Flag, he started several semi-successful indie groups before landing a million-pound deal with Island Records with his band Carrie.

When an unscrupulous music-industry figure stole my magazine Lime Lizard, I was so crushed I couldn’t get out of bed for a month. Steve, in his laid-back way, said: “You have three choices: either you rot in bed like Brian Wilson; we can pay Bradley [one of his rough East End gangster mates] to break his legs; or you forget about it and create something else. Why don’t you write a book about your favourite band Nirvana, you know they’ll be huge?” I knocked out a proposal and asked my best friend Victoria Clarke, who was a little lost at the time, to write it with me. We instantly found an agent and a big publishing deal in 1991, before Nevermind was released.

As Steve and I were finding our way into adulthood – between the daily grind, drugs and groupies (he had crazed Japanese fans showing up on our doorstep at all hours, leaving love notes and giant teddy bears that terrified our cat) – our relationship ran its course. But we remained friends long after breaking up.

Steve was always insanely restless and curious and, in some ways, wilfully destructive. So I was hardly surprised when he had his venom overdose. He initially refused to go to hospital, fearing his snakes would be taken away. Instead, he sat down to watch David Attenborough’s series Life in Cold Blood about reptiles, over a Chinese takeaway, while his hand blew up into the size of baseball mitt. “I started thinking: ‘Wow, this is crazy. I could easily die here,’” he says, remembering feeling a pain with the intensity of “being stung by a thousand bees”.

Lethal shot: Steve milking venom from a pope’s pit viper.

Lethal shot: Steve milking venom from a pope’s pit viper. Photograph: Pal Hansen for the Observer

“But I was happy and didn’t care,” he adds. “I’d had such a great life. When they say your life flashes by, I saw all the good bits and felt them, all the rock’n’roll moments, every great gig I went to or played. This is what intrigues me about snake venom, that scientists say there are compounds in certain venoms that help its victims accept and relax into death. I felt that first-hand.”

The next morning the swelling had worsened. “My arm was all red and doughy with a sack of liquid hanging from it and I could see the blood vessels appear. It was like something out of Evil Dead. It’s evolution telling you to stay away. Why do you think monkeys, dogs and everyone is instinctively scared of snakes?”

When he finally went to hospital, the NHS doctors had never treated a snakebite victim, let alone someone with the venom of three different snakes coursing through their bloodstream. “They didn’t know what to do,” Steve says, when he had to tell the stunned A&E nurses he deliberately injected himself. The doctors put him on the phone to a renowned snake expert, who Steve recalls telling: “‘I used a Northern Pacific rattlesnake, an eyelash viper and a green tree viper from Asia.’ And he just said: ‘Well, you’re screwed. There isn’t an anti-venom because you used three different species.’ Then he said: ‘You’re probably going to die or, at best, lose your arm.’”

The doctors suggested “cutting his arm wide open in a fasciotomy” to release the pressure. “I said: ‘Fuck that, I’d rather die.’ The snakes that I used had a hemotoxin, which destroys red blood cells, and that’s why people’s legs and limbs fall off in Central America.”

They gave him the anti-venom CroFab to target the rattlesnake venom that most likely caused all the problems. After three days in intensive care with no improvement Steve, pulling out his IV, discharged himself. Contrary to all their dire predictions, his hand, aside from the bruising, was back to normal a week later. “The doctors were shocked when I went back. They’d never seen a recovery like it. I thought: ‘Cool, this shit’s working.’”

‘You could ask me why I’m continuing to inject. But my drive now is to come up with other ideas’: Steve Ludwin.

‘You could ask me why I’m continuing to inject. But my drive now is to come up with other ideas’: Steve Ludwin. Photograph: Pal Hansen for the Observer

Convinced his miraculous recovery was down to his self-immunisation, Steve became more fervent. He cheerfully admits mixing black mamba, cobra and puff-adder venom like the ingredients of an exotic cocktail and then, dizzied on pain and adrenaline, skateboarding through London traffic. “It made me feel invincible,” he says. “I was living like a madman. It got to the point where I was injecting almost daily, my legs, all over my body because you don’t want to do a lot of damage in one area as it could destroy nerves.”

He had literally turned himself into a science experiment, but there was a point to his madness. “For the past four years, I’ve been flying to Copenhagen to give blood and last year I had a bone-marrow operation. They drilled into my lower spine to take out bone marrow. It took me two months to recover.” Researchers at the University of Copenhagen have recently created an artificial library of antibodies, the Ludwin Library, generated by Steve’s immune system in response to the toxic injections, to develop the first human-derived anti-venom.

“What most people don’t realise is that anti-venom has been taken from horses’ blood for more than 100 years and sometimes snakebite victims die anyway, because their bodies reject it. When I walked into one of those blood farms and saw about 60 horses with holes in their necks being injected with venom, and with massive bags draining out blood, I was very emotional, knowing what they were going through.”

The World Health Organization considers venomous snakebites among the most neglected tropical diseases, killing more 125,000 people a year. “Anti-venom is very expensive. Pharmaceutical companies see it as a developing-world problem and have slowed the production, so snake fatalities are rising. These Danish scientists will solve that problem quickly by using technology and having found an idiot like me who spent decades injecting himself.”

His audacity and inventiveness is part of Steve’s appeal. “You could ask me why I’m continuing to inject. But my drive now is to come up with other ideas. People don’t self-experiment enough. Scientists are now saying using toxins, if you get it right, can have beneficial side effects to your body that slow ageing. It’s like a Jane Fonda workout video for my immune system.”

“I’m the happiest I’ve ever been,” he reflects, cranking up Adam Ant’s Puss ’n Boots and grabbing Pushkin, who’s high on catnip. He wanders out on to the terrace, lifting the cat over his head to show him London. “If those scientists win the Nobel Prize for medicine and I get recognition, that would be sweet.”

Venom: Killer and Cure is at the National History Museum until 13 May. See Steve behind the scenes at nhm.ac.uk/discover/the-making-of-venom.

Strays: A Homeless Man, a Lost Cat and Their Journey Across America by Britt Collins is being republished by Simon & Schuster

Brit awards nominations 2018: Dua Lipa beats Ed Sheeran with five

Dua Lipa, the breakthrough pop star who scored a huge summer hit with New Rules, has earned the most nominations at the 2018 Brit awards – even beating Ed Sheeran, despite his spectacular year-long assault on the charts on both sides of the Atlantic.

She was nominated in the British female solo artist, breakthrough act, single and video categories, along with the night’s biggest award, British album of the year. Without being able to be nominated in the breakthrough category, Ed Sheeran is the runner-up with four nominations, for British male solo artist, video and single (each for Shape of You), and the album award for ÷, the biggest-selling album of 2017 in the UK. East London rapper J Hus and platinum-selling songwriter Rag’n’Bone Man each received three nominations.

Lipa’s competition for the female solo artist award comes from Jessie Ware, Kate Tempest, Laura Marling and Paloma Faith – all have been nominated before, with Marling and Faith winning in 2011 and 2015 respectively. Sheeran, meanwhile, is up against a strong field for male solo artist: Liam Gallagher, Stormzy, Loyle Carner and Rag’n’Bone Man, aka Rory Graham, who had the second-biggest selling album of last year, and is also nominated in the album category, alongside Sheeran, Lipa, J Hus and Stormzy.

Ed Sheeran performing in New York in December – the singer-songwriter has four Brit nominations.

Ed Sheeran performing in New York in December – the singer-songwriter has four Brit nominations. Photograph: Mike Coppola/Getty Images

The third-biggest seller of 2017 however, Sam Smith’s The Thrill of it All, was shut out: Smith received no nominations at all, though the November release date of his album means he is also eligible for 2019’s awards, and he is confirmed to perform at the ceremony. Sampha, the current holder of another prestigious British music award, the Mercury prize, was nominated in only one category, for breakthrough artist.

All five former members of the massively successful British boyband One Direction put out solo material last year, but only three were nominated: Zayn, Harry Styles and Liam Payne.

Five acts are vying for the British group award: Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett’s cartoon band Gorillaz, mournful trios London Grammar and the xx, arena-filling hard rock duo Royal Blood, and female-fronted quartet Wolf Alice, on whose UK tour Michael Winterbottom made his most recent film.

Stars including Taylor Swift, Drake and Pink were nominated in the three international categories, as was Kendrick Lamar, who – given his tour takes him to London the day before the ceremony – is rumoured to be a surprise performer on the night. As well as Smith, confirmed performers at the ceremony so far include Foo Fighters, giving their first Brits performance in their 24-year history, plus Sheeran, Stormzy, Rag’N’Bone Man and Lipa.

Dua Lipa is a slow-burn success who upended music industry expectations to become the most-streamed female artist in the UK last year. Her upbeat yet melancholy debut single Be the One reached the Top 10 in 2015, but followup singles Hotter Than Hell and Blow Your Mind didn’t match its success. But after her song with Dutch EDM producer Martin Garrix, Scared to Be Lonely, spent 16 weeks in the Top 40, she released New Rules, an irrepressible track on which she sassily dispenses relationship advice with the endlessly quotable chorus: “If you’re under him, you ain’t getting over him”. It quickly ascended to No 1 and spent 10 weeks in the Top 5; its video has been viewed 888m times on YouTube, and it became her first US hit, reaching 11 on the Billboard chart.

Dua Lipa performs on the John Peel stage at Glastonbury 2017.

Dua Lipa performs on the John Peel stage at Glastonbury 2017. Photograph: Ian Gavan/Getty Images

Now 22, she was born in London to Kosovar Albanian parents, and moved to the Kosovan capital Pristina with them aged 11, before returning to London at 15, alone, to take GCSEs and A-levels while living with an older female friend. As a teenager she worked as a model for clothing retailer Asos, followed by spells on the doors of London restaurants and nightclubs. She pursued a singing career alongside these jobs by uploading herself singing cover versions and sharing them on social media, earning her a management deal and then a record contract. Despite her return to the UK, she frequently refers to her Kosovan heritage on Twitter, celebrating the country’s independence day, and its first gay pride march, in October 2017.

One Brit award has already been handed out, for producer of the year. The winner is Steve Mac, the man behind three of the 10 songs nominated for single of the year: Ed Sheeran’s Shape of You, Liam Payne’s Strip That Down, and Clean Bandit’s Symphony. Mac’s career stretches back to 1991 when he wrote and produced Nomad’s pop-rave hit Devotion, and he has also worked with Westlife, One Direction and Pink.

The Brit awards are voted for by the Academy, a group of music industry and media figures – except for the breakthrough artist award, which is voted for by the public, and the video award, where a public vote on social media whittles the 10 nominees down to five, before another public vote to decide the winner. The video and single nominees aren’t selected by the Academy, but are rather the year’s most viewed and biggest selling singles respectively.

The ceremony takes place on Wednesday 21 February at the O2 Arena in London, and will be broadcast live on ITV.

Full list of nominations

British male solo artist

Ed Sheeran
Liam Gallagher
Loyle Carner
Rag’n’Bone Man

British female solo artist

Dua Lipa
Jessie Ware
Kate Tempest
Laura Marling
Paloma Faith

British group

London Grammar
Royal Blood
Wolf Alice
The xx

British breakthrough act

Dua Lipa
J Hus
Loyle Carner

British single

Calvin Harris – Feels (feat Pharrell Williams, Katy Perry & Big Sean)
Clean Bandit – Symphony (feat Zara Larsson)
Dua Lipa – New Rules
Ed Sheeran – Shape of You
J Hus – Did U See
Jax Jones – U Don’t Know Me (feat Raye)
Jonas Blue – Mama (feat William Singe)
Liam Payne – Strip That Down (feat Quavo)
Little Mix – Touch
Rag’n’Bone Man – Human

British album

Dua Lipa – Dua Lipa
Ed Sheeran – ÷
J Hus – Common Sense
Rag’n’Bone Man – Human
Stormzy – Gangs Signs & Prayer

British artist video

Anne-Marie – Ciao Adios
Calvin Harris – Feels (feat Pharrell Williams, Katy Perry & Big Sean)
Clean Bandit – Symphony (feat Zara Larsson)
Dua Lipa – New Rules
Ed Sheeran – Shape of You
Harry Styles – Sign of the Times
Jonas Blue – Mama (feat William Singe)
Liam Payne – Strip That Down (feat Quavo)
Little Mix – Touch
Zayn & Taylor Swift – I Don’t Want to Live Forever

International male solo artist

Childish Gambino
DJ Khaled
Kendrick Lamar

International female solo artist

Alicia Keys
Taylor Swift

International group

Arcade Fire
Foo Fighters
The Killers
LCD Soundsystem