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Music Made Of Winter: An Interview With Michael Bracewell
Kiran Sande , April 2nd, 2022 08:40

Kiran Sande interviews Michael Bracewell about his recent book, Souvenir

In Souvenir, Michael Bracewell explores the street-level fantasies of role-play, time-travel, style, exclusivity and individualism which propelled London’s journey from post-punk to postmodernity. Combining elements of memoir, cultural criticism, Debordian dérive and glinting, imagistic prose-poem, it is at heart a deeply felt but rigorously unsentimental elegy for a pre-digital, pre-ironic London, when pop still expressed the future, and the city itself was “dark and filled with urban mystery, yet to be prised open by the new economy, new technology, new consumerism”.

Like Remake/Remodel (2007), Bracewell’s dandified study of Roxy Music’s art-school origins, Souvenir is concerned not so much with music, still less politics, as it is with the poetry of applied aesthetics: art as lifestyle, lifestyle as art, the making up of oneself. Souvenir’s key protagonists are not musicians or painters or writers – but posers. Serious posers, mind: denizens of “a sub-culture of young people for whom wearing a mask was a need, a job, a work of art and their truth. The one idea for which they could live; existential.” Soho beat-boom revivalists channelling Expresso Bongo and Alma Cogan; black-clad dole queue decadents fetishising madness, occult ritual and violent death; office drones reborn as day-glo electro-bots in nightlife’s alternate reality – suburban fugitives all, “pursuing an art-directed lifestyle”, playing high-stakes dress-up in search of meaning, in search of themselves.

Rip it up and start again? Not exactly. Due tribute is played to the icy futurism of PiL’s Metal Box (1978), but as a new decade dawns the distinction between the avant- and retro-garde becomes increasingly blurred, London’s pop sophisticates forming “a transitional pageant … at once nostalgic and anticipatory”. For Bracewell, post-punk is essentially late modernism, and he is fascinated by its dialogue, conscious and unconscious, with early modernism: a young man on Sicilian Avenue in Holborn, 1983, eyeing up cinnamon-brown Jazz Age suits at Blax the tailor, listening to Kraftwerk on his Walkman, prompts thoughts of Ezra Pound meeting Wyndham Lewis at the Old Vienna Café three quarters of a century earlier. Echoes of Dada and Weimardammerung, a received idea of Europe, are discerned in clothes, songs, attitudes; while T.S. Eliot’s poem ‘The Waste Land’ – that haunting, hallucinatory post-WWI reckoning with the “unreal city” – directly influences Souvenir’s verbal texture and patterning, not to mention its disorienting slippages of time.

Eliot himself – unnamed but unmistakeable– appears as a character, or better to say presence, in the book, joining a cast that includes Marc Almond, Kathy Acker, Throbbing Gristle, the saggy-jowled spies of Le Carre’s Cambridge Circus, and William S. Burroughs (who, surrounded by sycophants at a party given in his honour, appears “translucent, millennia old, absorbed in the passing of aeons and the exchange of one wearisome ceremony for the next”). By the end of Souvenir’s narrative, London is on the cusp of a post-Pop, Computer-Caffeine-Commuter Age where “worker citizens travel wired, dressed in militarised sportswear with their coffee and technology”. All the world an office, all the world a shop. Sound familiar?

I met with Michael Bracewell at the offices of his publisher on London’s Embankment to learn a bit more about Souvenir’s “manifestations and disappearances”.

Why London?

I know London with a passion that you perhaps only find in people either born right in the middle of it, or right on the edges. I was born right on the edges of it, and I had this very common experience for my generation (I'll be 65 this year) of being inspired, primarily by pop music, to explore it. And that period of exploration - which in some ways is just youth, when the pores of your consciousness are unnaturally wide open - is something which has stayed with me.

How do you feel about the city today? Presumably it doesn’t have anything like the same hold over you?

’86 was the point at which computers became ubiquitous. And so the period ’79 to ’86 is the last few years of the old, modernist city – what Eliot called “the unreal city”. This would soon give way to a new unreal city: a digital city, or a digital approximation of a city. Of course, cities change, and it’s difficult to keep up with them. I’ve never wanted to be one of those “I remember when” types … even though there’s a terrific allure to all that. I’m as nostalgic as the next person but I also think it’s a short step between being a nostalgist and being a bore. Particularly when it comes to music.

And yet music is something that has always fascinated you.

Something I feel quite strongly is that for my parents, and their parents, the coalescent experience of their generations was World War. For my generation, it was pop music and shopping. We didn’t even get technology, that really all got started with the next generation. For the generation after that, it’s perhaps a combination of social media and identity politics – while the idea now that music might be anything more than a bit of fun, well, it’s a stretch, isn’t it? But people of my generation do have this huge, unnaturally heightened emotional investment in pop music.

You’ve written before that punk created a generation of chronic self-archivists…

I’ve always felt that the punk moment was like a mirror in a fairy story: you saw in it what you wanted to see. So for some people it would have been very political, for others it would have been a beer fight, and for others it was the Ballets Russes. People seem to have an amazing, comprehensive recall of that short period of time, yes, and this is going to sound awful, but I suppose you could say they’ve each become their own Proust: forever reconstructing that moment of time in their lives.

Souvenir’s lengthiest digression on music is about something which ostensibly occurred outside its 1979–86 purview: a T. Rex show in 1972. Why was it important to include this episode?

One little theory in the book is that pop music was extremely – to pinch a phrase from Neil Tennant – imperial between ‘56 and ‘86. It had this 30 year span, where it seemed to be this absolute venue for innovation of all kinds, right across the board. I was trying to think of a pure, High Pop moment when nobody would ever have conceived that pop music might one day be a little quaint, or have become this kind of heritage entertainment form, and the thing that came to mind was that T. Rex show at the Empire Pool: simply because of the scale of it, and the glorious meaninglessness of it. The film of that show is just thrilling. And then I introduce the thing at the end of that section from Sparky’s Magic Piano, where the piano says to Sparky, “Your time is up, I will no longer play for you,” and that led me into thinking quite a lot about age, and specifically about death. Just this idea that we fade to grey. So I wanted to look at pop’s pomp, pop’s great peacock flowering, but in the context of old age, and ageing.

The passage on PiL’s Metal Box’s “post-industrial Winterreise” is extraordinary. You describe it from the perspective of someone listening to it on headphones, riding an empty train into the “mist-hung open spaces” of the South London suburbs…

I mean, it’s not just Metal Box, for me there is something about a lot of the eclectic music of that time, ’79–‘86. I don’t want to generalise too much but there seems to have been this extraordinary balance of violence and elegy in it, simultaneously … I mean, I remember, even for spotty middle class kids from the outer suburbs, the trade routes led us to these places that were selling import dub reggae records – places like Greensleeves [in Ealing], which became a label. And of course listening to that, to our ears, it was on a frequency with Public Image. There was an undertow of melancholy in it, it felt like a portent.

What about your close reading of Prefab Sprout’s [1982 single] ‘Lions In My Own Garden (Exit Someone)’, which occurs later in the book?

The Prefab Sprout section was the opposite of that. It was about springtime and youth. I wanted to get across this idea that by the time that ‘Lions In My Own Garden’ came out, this bleak midwinter feel that had been around for a while was beginning to ease, and there was a sort of springtime, an excitement – but still connected to a kind of melancholy – which, for me, that record perfectly articulated. There’s something about it: McAloon’s voice, that sort of boyishness, with a slight Geordie Irish tinge to it, and those fabulously, wordy romantic lyrics. It’s a great pop song. Some of McAloon’s and Prefab Sprout’s records are just stunning, they’ve stood the test of time.

‘The Waste Land’ looms large over the book, and Eliot himself appears – as a ghost, essentially – in the narrative.

Writing Souvenir, I realised that I was as interested in things happening in London around 1910, as I was in things happening in that ’79–’86 period. I wanted to get across what I saw as a dialogue between the aggressive modernism happening in some factions of writing and architecture at the beginning of the 20th century, and the kind of audacities and extravagances of creativity that came out of music in the late 70s and early 80s. It didn’t seem to me either pretentious or stretching a point to see in it a re-run of Dada.

I didn’t really want to write about music. Music was obviously important to it, but what I really wanted to write about was manifestations and disappearances. It was driven by that sense of the occult which is present in bits of Eliot. I had a very uncomfortable visit a few months ago to the College of Psychic Studies in South Kensington, and I was looking at a lot of stuff generated around the time that Eliot was writing The Waste Land – stuff about, for want of a better word, ghosts. Numinosity. Intensities of atmosphere… things like that. And in that period of my youth, in the late 70s, the more I thought about it, there was quite a lot of weird stuff going on as well. Some of which now I’m sure was not just banal, but comic. But at the time…

It was quite… heavy?

Well, it’s particularly interesting in terms of London. For instance, I was reading in the annotated Eliot earlier that there was a belief going around that people had started to see the railway stations of London begin to levitate. And it was because the troop trains were leaving. But there was this sense that people were catching this glimpse of a literally unreal city, a ghost city. I’m sure over the years probably all manner of nutcases and psychogeographers have chiselled away at that one. In Souvenir I certainly am trying to overlay a visible city and an invisible city. I talk about two people meeting a friend at Euston and they remember him from some horrible club where they saw The Damned. And all this guy says is, “I cannot stand this reign of shit. And I think I’ve cracked a rib.” In my head, that was a ghost. Somebody that was probably dead, but they didn’t know that he was.

One of my favourite passages is where you describe a gathering of some of the “any taboo will do” industrial-occult crowd. You manage to capture how simultaneously ridiculous and alluring they could be… and, for certain lost souls, how dangerous.

Yeah, back then I happened, quite by chance, to run into some people on the fringes of the Throbbing Gristle / Psychic TV thing. And of course we were all absolutely bursting with a kind of ridiculous youthful romanticism, but there was a fragment of that society who were thinking very seriously in occult terms, and of course they went quite far into it. But yes, it seemed on one level to be insanely glamorous. We never forgot Bowie high in his room overlooking the ocean…

Can we talk about the style of Souvenir? The language, the form, the voice. It clearly stands apart from your other work.

When you’re looking back at the past, trying to recreate memories, it seems to want a poetic voice. I’m thinking of Nabokov, or particularly Stefan Zweig. And yet I discovered it responds far more accurately to an ironic voice. By which I don’t mean arch. But if you get overly poetic about it, well, it can become kitsch…  

I tried to avoid the first person singular as well. Because the moment you make yourself part of it, the I am a camera thing, you’re writing a different sort of book. Speaking of which, it’s always worth remembering Christopher Isherwood’s great warning: it’s so easy to write a book which is simply a description of the book you’d like to write.

Was it difficult to write the book you wanted to write? 

Well, the original draft was much larger. 45,000 words, ultimately cut down to something like 17,700… But also… I’m not trying to say I had a vision or anything, but there was something quite odd about writing Souvenir. Gilbert & George have talked to me about sometimes when they’re making pictures, there comes a moment when the imagery begins to almost guide itself, for them – regardless of what anyone else may make of it. And I’d say something similar happened to me, writing this book. I wish I understood it.

You began life as a poet, and then wrote several well-received novels before drifting into journalism and art criticism. Souvenir, despite being a work of non-fiction, feels like a self-consciously literary work…

Well, I made a conscious decision in 2002 that the only writing I would do, from that point on, would be commissioned pieces. I’d had a crack at writing fiction when I was younger and I was lucky: I had a very good publisher, Jonathan Cape, and a very good editor, Robin Robertson. The last piece of fiction I published, a little novella called Perfect Tense, is mostly set in the City, and in some ways it was a rehearsal for this book [Souvenir]. And Souvenir, in some ways, is a rehearsal for the next one: I’ve just written my first novel for 22 years.

Some of the commissioned writing I did was interesting, but it’s different. There’s this awful feeling you suddenly have where you actually need to write fiction. And I think you have to need to do it. There’s no point in just wanting to do it. Nobody, at my age, would sit down and try to write fiction, or even whatever Souvenir is – part fiction, part something else – unless they felt they really had to, unless they would feel utterly bereft if they didn’t write it.

Souvenir is incredibly lucid, compressed, precise – there isn’t a wasted word. Has the experience of writing this book changed your approach to writing fiction, or to writing in general? 

It’s made me much, much harder on myself. Because now I find it very difficult to live with anything in my writing that could possibly be a shortcut, or a self-satisfaction. I’ve noticed that the novel that I’ve recently finished is written in a very different way to any other fiction I’ve written before. It’s much colder, much harsher. I suppose [with Souvenir] I discovered that point at which cold fact meets lucid dream. There’s a lot of lists, there’s a lot of what you could call associative writing, which then had to be edited and edited and edited to get down to the bits that really matter.

As I say, I would have never put myself through the experience of trying to submit a novel to a publisher ever again unless I felt there was something I actually needed to say. Whereas when you’re younger, you’re maybe getting high on the idea that you’re Scott Fitzgerald or something, until reality kicks in. I felt tremendous sympathy for Sally Rooney – she’s in a terrible situation now. It’s not her fault she was claimed as “the voice of a generation”. At least those of us lumbering around in the shadows of obscurity have a bit more freedom…because nobody cares anyway.

I wanted to ask about antecedents or – dread word – influences on Souvenir.

You have to do so much work to shake them off! But one book that I've been constantly under the spell of is by Hugh Kenner, The Pound Era. It’s his account of what he calls the great London vortex and all about that gang. The way he writes, his sentences, it’s just extraordinary.

There was a nice review of Souvenir that sort of glancingly compared it to Betjeman’s verse autobiography, Summoned By Bells – which in fact I quote in the book, about the churches of the City of London. The films Betjeman made about London in the early 70s are extraordinary and certainly made an impression on me. I remember Alan Bennett once saying that he felt like Betjeman, if he was going to be remembered, would prefer it to be as somebody who’s not half as nice as people think he is.

Is that how you’d like to be remembered?

Well, most writers that I read or have read, I wouldn’t particularly want to have known. And anyway, I tend to know far more visual artists, and maybe even more musicians, than I know writers. I know hardly any writers.

The few I know are as haunted and worn down by life as you might expect. As I anticipated, you’re more on the human spectrum than most. I suppose it’s the age-old question: how to balance the life and the work?

Yep. I mean, as someone once said to me: do you know of anyone who got it right?