Pop Goes the Nation

By Keates, Jonathan | The Spectator, June 7, 1997 | Go to article overview

Pop Goes the Nation


Keates, Jonathan, The Spectator


Jonathan Keates ENGLAND IS MINE by Michael Bracewell HarperCollins, 18, pp. 245

Englishness is up for grabs. Everyone nowadays wants to give you their version of it, not simply our lost leader, the Member for Huntingdon, with his recycling of Orwell's warm beer and old maids, or Prince Charles whingeing about the nation's verbal impoverishment while trying to recover its soul by encouraging timid pastiches of vernacular architecture. The more we wring our hands over the loss of sovereignty to filthy foreigners and the louder grow our cries of `Popery and wooden shoes!' or their modern equivalents, the deeper, apparently, extends our search for that mysterious essence, that Powder of Sympathy, that Philosopher's Stone, known as national identity.

Michael Bracewell does not go so far as to claim that he has reached the end of the rainbow in this respect. At the close of England is Mine we are perhaps no wiser as to what defines cultural Englishness than we were to start with. Yet the basic assumption of this book, that popular music and its satellites in cinema, television and video feed on springs welling from deep among the primal sediments of Albion, is an arresting one, however minimal the reader's faith may be in much of the author's source material.

Such books often grow less absorbing as their initial ideas become familiar to us. This one, on the other hand, is worth sitting out for its first three chapters, epitomising, from a fairly detached, handsin-pocket position, the development of an England mystically conceived through such avatars as Powell and Pressburger's propagandistic cine-fantasy A Matter of Life and Death, Enid Blyton's schoolgirl yarn Third Year at Malory Towers, Forster's The Longest Journey and the multifaceted symbol of the 1951 Festival of Britain, wittily if predictably reviled by Noel Coward as the ultimate in lefty modernism.

Much of this we have heard before, its images more acutely focused in studies like Patrick Wright's recently published The Village that Died for England, arguably the subtlest, most exhaustive rummaging through the overstuffed baggage of 20thcentury Englishness so far attempted. What is new here is the implication that pop, in its more markedly anthropological manifestations during the past 30 or 40 years, has essentially been sipping at the very fountains which nurtured Auden, Betjeman and Evelyn Waugh.

Such figures, the author insists, by way of their sexuality, their political conscience, their urbane romanticism and their wit, are rehearsing much of the melancholy, humour and satire that the Pet Shop Boys were to bring to their own brand of `pop rush' disco music in the 1980s. …

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