Erland Cooper is a new discovery, and his 2018 release Solan Goose is already one of my albums of the year. Reminiscent at times of Mogwai at their most gentle and contemplative, it also retains an indefinable strangeness all of its own. Opening track ‘Whitemaa’, for example, could be the theme tune to the greatest weird 1970’s kid’s TV show never made. Overall, the tone is both elegiac and uplifting, shot through with melodies that carry ghostly echoes of traditional Scottish folk music, but shredded and born aloft by the westerly winds that flood across his native Orkney.
In all of England, I do not believe that I could have fixed on a situation so completely removed from the stir of society. A perfect misanthropist’s Heaven.
Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights
Photograph taken at Hyde Park, Leeds, November 2018
First published in 1997, Michael Bracewell’s England Is Mine is an interesting and entertaining overview of specifically English ‘pop’ (as in ‘popular’) culture, covering the hundred years from the Victorian fin de siecle era through to the fag-end of ‘Britpop’. I suspect it was the damp fizzling out of ‘Britpop’ that prompted Bracewell to write the book, sensing that it would serve as a neat book-end to a century of cultural upheavals that he could comment on – at length – in his own distinctive style. He covers a lot of ground, with chapters thematically linked around the likes of English gay culture, the post-war suburbs, the ‘grim’ north, and the post-industrial legacy of Thatcherism. It should have been called England’s Dreaming, but Jon Savage had already beaten him to it with his definitive account of the 1970’s and the Sex Pistols, as the overarching conceit is that the myth of Arcadia is a collective English dreamscape through which we are sleepwalking. A dream logic pervades the entire book, and the rules of space/time no longer apply, allowing John Betjeman to rub shoulders with John Cooper Clarke, Evelyn Waugh, Derek Jarman, Sid James, Siousixe Sioux, Malcolm MacDowell, Virginia Woolf, Cecil Collins and – inevitably – Morrissey, to name just a few. Re-reading it twenty years later, it still stands up. Some of the people in there are now dead (Mark E.Smith, David Bowie) or have long since retreated into an obscurity that even ‘reality’ TV can’t penetrate, but Bracewell’s consistent focus is on the work they made in the times that it had its most significant impact. Bowie’s early 70’s output is discussed (favourably) at length, Keith Waterhouse’s Billy Liar (along with Barry Hines’ Kes a compulsory text in most working class houses from my childhood) is reappraised for it’s streak of blackly fatalistic humour (that I always felt informed The League of Gentlemen, along with the more obvious collision of Hammer Horror and Alan Bennet), Sham 69’s 1978 ‘concept’ album That’s Life is acknowledged as a commercial failure but an artistic success for its “mesmeric squalor”, and Joanne Catherall and Susanne Sulley of the Human League (first crushes for an entire generation of Grange Hill-era lads) are proposed as the real key to the band’s 80’s success, claiming that they “embody a kind of feminist consciousness that could either dance around a handbag or hit you with it.” The book is full to overflowing with that kind of Wildean bon mot, and here’s just a few of the better ones:
Kate Bush: “…covering the territory of Angela Carter’s Company Of Wolves in the guise of a Pre-Raphaelite raised on Jackie.”
Robert Smith (of The Cure): “…moans his lyrics about blood, death and loneliness with all the plaintive weariness of a person whose library books are eternally overdue.”
Dexy’s Midnight Runners: “…proto-New Men with muscles, challenging themselves to build a cult of the soul like Dominicans in donkey jackets.”
All in all, good fun, but beneath the witticisms there’s a serious point to be made: that England’s cultural legacy is far too often overlooked in favour of America or Europe, and when it is celebrated, it’s often for its worst examples, not its best. Bracewell’s a smart bloke, who if he opened his mouth in a pub in my home town he’d get glassed, and yet he’s as well versed in unrepentant working class culture as he is in high art nonsense. Over the years Bracewell has written some of the most pretentious and indigestable art essays I’ve ever read, but in this book he was focussed and on top form. Recommended.
It has to be said that the 1998 Flamingo paperback edition has one of the worst book covers of all time. It’s almost the perfect encapsulation of shit late 90’s design, and I hate it so much that I desgned my own alternative (see above and the full wrap-around version below) and reclad the book with it. When I was in the 6th Form my teachers tried to steer me towards a career in graphic design (and I resisted, which is how I ended up spending the last 33 years working in offices) and I’ve always retained a fascination with it that has led me to try my hand over the years. In this instance, I’m quite pleased with the results, and should any publisher see fit to release a new edition of the book, well, you know where I am.