360°Sound caught up with Guy Mankowski, author of Albion’s Secret History: Snapshots of England’s Pop Rebels and Outsiders (out now on Zer0 Books), which covers such British artists as Syd Barrett, David Bowie, PJ Harvey, Kate Bush, and Goldfrapp. Mankowski is a full-time lecturer in Creative Writing at Lincoln University in Lincoln, England. He is the author of the novels The Intimates, Letters from Yelena, and How I Left the National Grid.
360°: Please start by telling us about the idea for your book came about.
Guy Mankowski: After thinking about music in a very formal way during my Ph.D., reading Zer0 Books publications like Mark Fisher’s Ghosts Of My Life, it made me realize there was an appetite for writing that darted between high and low culture but had some sort of academic bent to it. Then Michael Bracewell’s England Is Mine made me realize you could write about art in a highly subjective way that crystallizes rather than analyzes, allowing you to stay abstract and emotional rather than be dry. Then Joy Press and Simon Reynolds’s books made me also realize you could write about artists the way I emotionally responded to them – as clusters, scenes, or even as feelings.
In my mind, when I think about early PJ Harvey, wrapped in leopard print and wearing kitsch plastic sunglasses, I see a clear link with Pulp’s whole charity shop vibe, which to me is part of a vein that includes later iterations of glam rock, movies like Velvet Goldmine. Once I had this voice and cluster way of writing about culture validated, I found myself charging through the chapters!
Please talk a little about what Britishness and British identity entails, and what are a few ways in which the artists in your book embodied those characteristics?
I think my deep dive into British culture taught me that eccentricity and a sense of rebelliousness are peculiarly British traits. I say a “sense” of rebelliousness because even so-called comedy mavericks like Peter Cook, when they founded after-hours clubs in Soho, only ever used them to drink tea and read papers rather than to actually try and change anything. I think we English like to convey a sense of kicking against something and admire those who claim they do, but usually, we are kicking against ourselves and the people we appoint to do the kicking (Boris Johnson, for example) are usually consummate insiders, with the greatest vested interest in preserving existing power structures, despite how scampish they pretend to be. I think the Brexiters typify that kind of confused – and disingenuous – sense of rebellion.
As I say in the first line of the book “the English have always loved a rebel – but only once they have obliterated him.” You only have to look at the way Oscar Wilde and Alan Turing get persecuted by the English and later put on their banknotes. And, more darkly, the way compulsive liars and elitists like Jacob Rees-Mogg get put in positions of influence and treated as if they are wise, witty and clever purely because they have a posh accent and are anachronistic. We’re suckers, we really are. Ruffle your hair and tell a few jokes in Latin and we’ll make you PM, regardless of the trail of destruction you’ve left in your wake throughout your life.
A chapter discusses how Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett and folk singer Nick Drake both drew inspiration from English rivers and countryside. You write that this played a role in the development of British psychedelia. Tell us a little about how the setting of England inspired their music.
The backdrop of Cambridge, with its cobbles, spires and glistening rivers, seemed to, in some alchemical way, birth the idea of psychedelia, which led to the likes of Pink Floyd. But then Nick Drake, with his lyrics about a “lilac” time, had a psychedelic, atemporal quality to his music too. I think that proximity to water is always an inspiration, and the riverbanks and the rich sense of history bearing down in Cambridge all coalesced into the place being a goldmine of inspiration. The imaginations of people like Syd Barrett were already deeply steeped in stories like The Wind In The Willows, so when you add May Balls and drugs he was ready to create songs with mice called Gerald after the setting gave him the slightest nudge.
In the US, some British artists get pinned as being “too British.” Do you think there are some artists who, by virtue of their lyrics, style, fashion, etc. do not resonate with audiences outside of the UK?
I think by and large the US has a limited appetite for English culture. The idea of “breaking America” is always a hiding to nothing. Which English bands broke America? Bush? They were pretending to be American! I think America is understandably pretty interested in itself, and England has barmy ideas of the rest of the world being more interested in us than it actually is. During the Britpop era there was so much looking inside America, to quote Blur, that for once it coalesced into a misguided – and often sexist – sense of jingoism with that whole Britpop scene. But the Britpop scene (a lot of talented people forced under a banner by some wily publicists) didn’t convince or endure, it was just a few magazine covers, a constellation that briefly aligned.
There’s a chapter on the UK post-punk scene and how the music and image of those bands were reflective of Brutalist architecture. How was the angular and often dark and bleak post-punk music of bands like Joy Division connected to this minimalist architecture style?
I think it was combining a punk sense of freedom with a post-punk sense of intellect. It unlocked, in turn, a sense of possibility and the idea that in these new freedoms a new clarity could come into focus (hence all the minimalism and sharp lines of post-punk album covers). I think the post-punks like Joy Division, and in an unconnected way the Brutalist architecture, was all a part of an impetuous to create a fresh, sharp future post World War II, one with clean lines. Ian Curtis, from one of the key post-punk bands Joy Division, was deeply steeped in World War II with all his Nazi imagery, but he also read JG Ballard and had the will to power to create new visions for the future, even if they were dystopian.
What do you think are your book’s main contributions to the body of literature on British music and popular culture?
I think the main thing I learned is that cultures generally need to cherish the artists and thinkers they have amongst them that are forward-thinking, and not persecute and dismiss them due to the narrow values of the day, which will soon erode anyway. But the tolerance for eccentrics and charismatics must also not lead to destructive people being put in positions of authority. We mustn’t mistake superficial charm for insight, and we must cherish insight more.
My book might be read as having a left-leaning inflection, but I think it is more that I take a view that fringe thinkers need to be incorporated into the fold, and for us to not just allow ourselves to be run by the most ruthless amongst us. If the more outward-looking, compassionate and visionary members of society can demonstrate alternative ways to live without being sidelined, and if we allow ourselves to be led by visionaries and simply not by the people we are familiar with being led by I’m hopeful that our culture can only benefit long term.