Book: England's dreaming

What connects the losers and the wasters of alternative Albion? Just the music, says Charles Jennings

Yes We Have No:

adventures in

another England

by Nik Cohn

Secker & Warburg, pounds 10, 357pp

JUNKIES, PIMPS, white racist suprematists, dealers, wasters, maniacs, estate vandals, semi-pro DJs, Odinists, bores, faith healers, travellers, piss-artists, bank robbers, boxers and his old English teacher: Nik Cohn's "other England" is clearly composed of the kind of people we (those of us who live in the England to which Cohn's is so other) normally cross the road to avoid; and past whose wrecky council flats and DIY tenements we accelerate in our cars, late at night. But this lost population - the marginal, the deracinated and the unaffiliated - is what Cohn calls The Republic, and Yes We Have No is his trip through it: wide-eyed, non-judgemental and ready to be impressed.

The book's trick is to present these nutters, obsessives and out-and- out losers as coherent, rational human beings, and somehow establish a continuity between their world and ours. Which Cohn does, by manfully taking them on their own terms - which are usually pitched somewhere between reach-me-down post-rationalisation, loopy self-promotion, rage and despair.

Thus we have Laurence, ex-crackhead, pimp and undergraduate at the London School of Economics, arguing that he "wants to tap the media, republican style", with the aid of a dodgy "Pamela Anderson" porn video. A lovelorn alcoholic called Martha explains how "I need to look after my head. If I don't, I get all wound up, and then at times I go Bang." A white witch from Huddersfield has trouble with the "malignant powers". And so on. We even get cameos from Arthur Scargill and The Chinese Elvis.

This is a terrain somewhere between the psychogeography of Iain Sinclair and straight, Studs Terkel-ish vox pop. Cohn maps out this alternative England, from Newcastle to Brighton to Liskeard, but with an inevitable city predisposition, beginning and ending with London: the town with the most nutters, with the most opportunities for apocalypse. You take your hat off to Cohn, not just for his ability to chat these people up - on street corners, in horrible bars - but for making friends with them as well, and then visiting their homes in the ruined estates.

And then you salute him again, for producing the edited highlights of what must have been some of the most nervously rambling, futile lectures ever recorded, and somehow making us feel a kind of kinship with his interlocutors. Amazingly, it never gets boring.

But what is the republic? No matter how assiduously Cohn works his way up and down the country, and however many people he talks to, the republic he wants to tell us about has no ideology, no goals, no structure. It's a void, bounded by certain tangentially-associated points of view, but not much more than that. What's more, Cohn himself is so generous, so acquiescent (especially in the face of some of the garbage that gets talked at him) that you miss the authorial voice, the lordly overview imposing some kind of sense on the clamour.

The nearest he gets to giving his republic a heart and an ambition is when he gets on to music. Doesn't matter what kind of music it is - techno, banghra, jazz, karaoke - it liberates and empowers. This is, after all, the guy who hit fame with his rock'n'roll critique Awopbopaloobop, Alopbamboom.

Music makes him feel young again, it allows his speakers to escape whatever condition they're trapped in. But apart from this one unifying force, it's hard to see why this other England should be a community of souls any more than a ragbag of isolated voices whose real main characteristic is that Nik Cohn is ready to listen to them. So what is this republic? It's a romantic Shelleyan conceit; the republic of Nik Cohn's own benevolent imagination.

Charles Jennings's new book `Fathers' Race' is published by Little, Brown in May

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