On the bus around Blighty

ENGLAND IS MINE: Pop Life in Albion from Wilde to Goldie by Michael Bracewell HarperCollins pounds 18
As a gentle preamble to in-depth consideration of this weighty pan-cultural blockbuster, readers might like to play a little game. Who do the following sentences refer to? A singer and songwriter who "was covering the territory of Angela Carter's Company of Wolves in the guise of a Pre-Raphaelite raised on Jackie"; a poet whose work suggested "the bitter visions of the early Eliot, redefined in the potent language of a working men's club, subverted by the sensual melancholy of the late Keats". Do not despair if your answers were other than Kate Bush and John Cooper Clarke. England Is Mine may still have something for you.

The novelist and critic Michael Bracewell has set himself to consider the mysterious nature of the English dream, as opposed to the American one, which everybody knows about (if you're looking for the Welsh or Scottish dream, expect to be disappointed). His book starts and finishes with an evocative linkage. The first few pages describe the scene in Powell & Pressburger's 1946 propaganda landmark, A Matter Of Life And Death, in which David Niven's dying flyer pours out his heart over his aeroplane wireless. The conclusion deals with Britain's jungle pirate radio stations of the 1990s, and their bid to transform the airwaves into an "outlaw, sonic sculpture". The author aims not just to join the cultural dots between these two ideas of what it is to be English, but to colour in the background as well.

This is an ambitious project. You can get a fair idea of just how broad is the scope of this book from setting a random selection of the cultural phenomena it considers at length - John Betjeman, The Fall, Nell Dunn, The Beatles, The Carry On Films, Wyndham Lewis and Radclyffe Hall - against a trio of those (The Rolling Stones, the Goons and The Sex Pistols) that it doesn't. One self-consciously ludicrous attempt to conflate the careers of Virginia Woolf and Kate Bush ("A Room of One's Own is Woolf's blistering Top 5 single in an otherwise somewhat patchy discography - her `Running up that Hill' as opposed to her `Wow' ") is a rare lapse into archness. Otherwise, Bracewell quotes Mark E Smith at the same length as E M Forster for exactly the right reasons: because it is a good idea and it is a wonder more people haven't tried it before.

Whatever else you might say about Bracewell's style, it would be a mistake to describe it as Carver-esque. Before attempting to get to grips with the following, by no means atypical, sentence, deep breaths are advised:

"As Evelyn Waugh had perceived the death of honour in his description of the allied retreat from Crete in 1940, and Noel Coward saw the Festival of Britain as a cross between a confidence trick and the selling of advertising copy to a nation in denial and despair, so Reggie Perrin, trapped in a society which gave no quarter in its sophistry, revealed the rat race as beginning in the home ..." The revelation that the full stop is still three lines away induces the same sensation the marathon runner feels on reaching out for the plastic cup at the 23-mile refreshments table, only to find it doesn't have any water in it.

Happily, there are many passages in this book that demand to be quoted for reasons other than to make sure they never happen again. Bracewell's fine description of English suburbia as the place "where all that appears most settled conspires to make its own drama", for example. Or, on a lighter, but still suburban note, his characterisation of The Cure's Robert Smith as having created "if not a wall of sound then a very high hedge of sound, over which he seemed to peer at the world like a boy who couldn't be bothered to ask for his ball back".

It is fortunate that the extraordinary depth of Bracewell's erudition is matched by a lively sense of mischief, because his English keenness not to be seen to be doing anything so vulgar as making an argument does rather count against him on occasion. Without the odd signpost and a clearer structure, the reader sometimes feels like a traveller whose regular train suddenly gives way to a replacement bus service. You know you'll get there in the end, but the route and the arrival time are something of a mystery.

Yet you often see things on these trips that you'd normally miss. Those who persevere through the rather forbidding opening chapters will be rewarded with an invigorating tour of the high plains of cultural endeavour. There are enough good ideas to sustain four or five smaller volumes. Things do go downhill a bit towards the end - Bracewell's original subtitle was "... from Wilde to Morrissey", and the final chapter on dance music and Britpop feels somewhat tacked on and overtaken by events - but that will only be a problem for those who have opened their fizzy drinks too early in the journey.