Radio 3’s The Essay had one of its better runs last week, with Michael Bracewell talking about Germany. With only five quarter-hour episodes, he didn’t have enough space to say much original about the country itself. But he did a great job of pinning down a ‘fantasy of febrile decadence and alienated modernism’ which attracted a certain type of arty British punks there. I was a generation too young to be caught up in this particular fantasy — and had never thought much about Germany before coming here. But it remains utterly comprehensible as a dream; because the worries he describes remain as free-floating cultural sentiments, ready to attach themselves to whatver place or subculture seems momentarily to embody them:
‘somewhere in the middle of punk was the idea, fanciful no doubt and swollen with youthful egoism, that we were growing to adulthood in the ruins of history. In every racing, snarling punk record was the message that modernity itself had accelerated to a point of critical mass, and what was left was a tribe of lost urban youth who dressed as though Dickensian urchins had time-travelled to the 23rd century….It flattered us to believe we were living in a new decadence, of melancholy urban ruin, dark covert little bars, and febrile nightclubs, a place caught in the louche cafe culture of the Weimar republic, where young men and women of ambiguous sexuality spent their days and nights in a cocoon of unreality, the better to shut out the premonition of disaster.
Besides, I’d enjoy the turn of phrase even if he was talking nonsense. In fact,I was intrigued enough to look up Bracewell. Unsurprisingly he turns up writing for Frieze, despite the fact that music, rather than art, is obviously his primary love. He’s also written a few novels; the reviews online don’t tell me much, except that they fall into the stereotypically British genre of people trying hopelessly to find meaning in pedestrian but outwardly painless lives. Putting it enthusiastically:
Bracewell is to Middle England what David Lynch is to Middle America – his is a noticeably eloquent voice disguised by a surreal touch and a poetic sensibility. In Bracewell there is always an attempt to locate some kind of spiritual purpose
Maybe he has done something interesting with this background, but I’m going to chicken out and stick with his writing on culture and pop music. I’m probably in for yet another explanation of how we’re living in an age of nostalgia and cultural collage — but at least it’ll be fun to read.