He's my Squeeze from suburbia
England Is Mine: pop life in Albion from Wilde to Goldie by Michael Bracewell, HarperCollins, pounds 18; Is pop music the key to a lost Arcady of Englishness? In your dreams, says D J Taylor
Summarised as briefly as possible, Michael Bracewell's thesis is that the first half of the 20th century brought a sustained attempt by certain artists - E M Forster's novels and the films of Powell and Pressburger are key reference points - to create a lost Arcady of Englishness. Perpetuated via a range of cultural artefacts, from Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited to the Carry On films, this was given its sharpest focus by popular music ("a belief that pop could be a spiritual quest through the boredom and hostility of modern English life in search of self-identity") and made manifest in a number of artistic obsessions.
Two that Bracewell picks out, for example, are the pre- and postwar fascination with suburbia, and the idea of "the North", which hangs over everything from the career of the Beatles (who, after all, called their publishing company Northern Songs) to Keith Waterhouse's novel Billy Liar.
At the very least, this type of cross-cultural enquiry leads to some eye-catching juxtapositions: Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys as a modern Auden; Brian Howard as the 1920s equivalent of Boy George, the Cure as Laurence Durrell's musical blood-brothers; A Room of One's Own described (admittedly tongue-in-cheek) as the "Top Five single in Virginia Woolf's otherwise patchy discography". I was particularly taken with a paragraph that somehow manages to skate from Dexy's Midnight Runners to the cast of Auf Weidersehen Pet, and thence to the Angry Young Men and the Dominican order of friars, all within a couple of brisk sentences.
Nothing wrong with cultural relativism, of course, and when Bracewell is good he is very good. The chapter on the suburbs - from Betjeman to Siouxsie Sioux by way of Orwell's Coming Up For Air - is a shrewd investigation of a particular set of English attitudes, while the section on Manchester rock-poets such as John Cooper Clarke and the Fall's Mark E Smith confirms long-held opinions that their dramatic use of vernacular idiom (see, for example, Clarke's "Beasley Street" from 1980) is considerably more interesting than a lot of what passes for modern poetry.
He also has a nice line, rounded off in a discussion of Nicholas Roeg's 1970 film Performance, of a new kind of late 1960s pop male "for whom life is a quest for identity and sincerity which doubled as an assault course between traditional masculine roles and the pop underground".
England is Mine's failings, inevitably, are the faults of nearly all post-modern pop theorising. There is the occasional tumble into naked Savagery (as in Jon), which might be defined as the tendency to assert without actually demonstrating; a faintly inappropriate seminar vocabulary ("officialization", "indurate", etc); not to mention some conspicuous overlooking of evidence that would have been helpful to his thesis.
It's odd to find a discussion of pastoral noise in English pop that doesn't mention XTC, or an account of late 1970s musical social realism that ignores bands like Squeeze. The literary references, too, could have been better checked. George Bowling's birthplace in Coming Up For Air is Lower not Little Binfield, and you fear that "Captain" Hooper from Brideshead Revisited was actually a subaltern.
Bracewell's hero, as one suspected all along, is Steven Morrissey - late of the Smiths, now an increasingly sporadic solo performer. His point about Morrissey - that "his project was organically English, at a time when popular culture was synthetically international" - and his readings of the songs are excellent, but other performers mentioned here could have done with this degree of particularisation. Howard Devoto, for instance, who has some claims to be considered the great lost genius of English pop, barely gets a couple of paragraphs.
But Bracewell's reflections on the different personae that postwar culture has thrown up are always worth thinking about. If his book occasionally seems to lose its centre, this is more than compensated for by the incidental diversions along the way.
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