Before his passport read ‘novelist’, Michael Bracewell learnt his trade on the first rush of British style magazines. Much of Bracewell’s work from the mid-’80s could be found in Arena, sibling to The Face but with a considerably higher brow. Sadly, the magazine got crushed in the publishing stampede that has instead brought respectability to top shelf reading. After the breakdown-and-prozac cocktail of his last novel Saint Rachel – a moving meditation on mental distress – Bracewell has resumed his former cultural commentary. This time the canvas is broader. England Is Mine purports to have a thesis but is more a collection of essays masquerading as a whole, short stories rather than a novel. His subject is pop. Does this mean pop as in popular, Pop as in Art, or pop as in Top Of The? Well, Bracewell would argue all three. I’m not sure he’s right.
He claims that domestic art of the twentieth century is always fighting for its own piece of England: ‘The rebels in England’s Arcady.. are defending the Arcadian values that they love, passionately, from what they recognise as abuse at the hands of self-serving tyrants and their occupying armies.’ According to Bracewell, this Arcady satisfies the ‘need within the psyche of Englishness to look back to an idealized past…’ Nostalgia is apparently intrinsic to our national culture.
The title of the book comes, presumably, from a line in The Smiths’ Still Ill. Bracewell’s cause finds a strong ally in Morrissey, who sang ‘A rush and a push and the land that we stand on is ours.’ Morrissey is the conscience of lost Arcady: beleaguered, revolutionary, pastoral and drenched in the perfume of the past.
England Is Mine, however, wants to plot the entire century through these tinted spectacles. The opening chapter deals with the Culture and Anarchy paranoia of the new century and, in doing so, attempts to lay foundations. We drop in on Wilde and Waugh and Forster to see if they think Old England is dying. We take in a movie, a War and hear a few poems and songs. It isn’t always clear where we are going. I mean, who invited Enid Blyton to this party? Bracewell might be excellent on the fine details but his sense of overall design is rickety. Whenever his theme comes up, it seems frankly incidental.
Surprisingly, this hardly matters. The book becomes fascinating, at least to this reader, once it puts the Penguin Modern Classics back on the shelf and turns on the stereo. In fact, Bracewell writes in such a way to make Art seem a mere rehearsal for pop’s Great Performance. Bracewell gives both time and energy to what he clearly loves the best – his record collection.
What is most engaging about England Is Mine is Bracewell’s insistence on treating pop music as an explosive and pensive form, often most thoughtful precisely at its most physical. By the time the Mods arrive, Bracewell is really guzzling the gas. He casts them as smart modernists rather than the retro-obsessed, tent-wearing, hairdrier-riders of public imagination. The Mods are asking what others are afraid to:
“The question, in fact, was a massive: ‘Who am I?’ The male sensibility in English pop, as it built its muscles through Mod, was both a reaction against adolescent (even teenage) conformity, and a belief that pop could be a spiritual quest through the boredom and hostility of modern English life in search of self-knowledge.”
Bracewell is right in there with his subject.
The gulf between academia and getting down with The Kids is a whole language apart, which is why ‘quality’ journalism often lacks credibility. It requires deftness to pull the trick without the cards all falling from your sleeve. Bracewell manages it better than most. He rarely attempts to score points with the cred police, nor does he bring his lap-top to the disco. Reynolds, Hebdige and Marcus, on the other hand, those other professors of pop, make their appeal to the eggheads. It doesn’t often translate. When Bracewell’s taste and wit compound, the results can be dee-liteful. Of The Cure he says, “The soul is not so much bared as reduced to wandering around in its dressing gown.”
By dealing with relatively unacknowledged areas of ‘prole art’, the book proposes a convincing alternative to the received canon, pop or otherwise. Mark E Smith’s output is seen as an oeuvre and reverence is paid to largely forgotten individuals like John Cooper Clarke. As such, the approach fresh and fruitful. The entirety doesn’t quite convince the jury, but the mixture of art forms does have the advantage of comparing pop with literature favourably, a rare admission.
There are a few factual errors, the most ironic of which is accidentally renaming Oasis’ Don’t Look Back In Anger as Sally Can Wait. Noel Gallagher’s tempering of the Angry Young Man could have become the lynch pin in a discussion of Britpop’s conservatism and the oversight is uncharacteristic of Bracewell’s normal attentiveness.
Unfortunately, England Is Mine closes as weakly as it began. The 90s are telescoped into a single chapter. The passion that illuminates the finest parts of the book has withered. The verdict is that the needle has stuck, repeating the same phrase with decreasing clarity. We exist in a kind of shopping Arcady in which Bracewell consigns the 90s as “an age of cultural sampling”, the victory of the past over the future: “there is a sense in our archival condition, as nostalgic consumers scavenging for bargain rarities of the past, that a car boot sale can double as a faculty of Cultural Studies.” This is a mistake; the future is created from the ruins of the past and every music that Bracewell celebrates has hastened that destruction. It is not nostalgia but the reverse, a hatred of the past that attempts to confine us. We want to break it into little pieces and build anew. This is as true for our decade as any other. From The Who’s reworking of the Union Jack to The Chemical Brothers’ smash-and-grab approach to sonic material this has been pop’s prime attraction. At its best, pop (and Pop) has no reverence for the past and is hell-bent on the future. In this sense, pop will always be intrinsically modernist.
Michael Bracewell’s book reminds us that England really is ours for the taking and, for that, it is a stimulating read which does ample justice to its subject. It is possible for a book to fail utterly in its designs yet still be a thorough success. I found England Is Mine an inspiration. To demand anything more would just be greed.