‘People are moving to Brussels, to Antwerp, to Berlin.’ ‘People are moving to Chicago, to L.A.’ Who are these people? Who is moodily strolling through Michael Bracewell’s London book in Oxford bags, floppy fringed, in a ‘cinnamon-brown three-piece suit’?
At first, I thought it might be me, as I flaneured (lacking bus fair) around London during the time period this book covers (1979-1986). Then I knew it was never me, although I recognised the type and many of the places and situations.
Pet Shop feller, Neil Tennant is quoted on the cover, ‘the best evocation I’ve read of London in the ‘80s’ and it might be, for those, like Neil, (who was a music journalist at this time), who lived a rarified version of the late ‘70s and early to mid ‘80s. That relatively tiny group of young people for whom fashion was a daily, lived experience and as much about stance and conversation, about who you can call a friend, as it was about shoes and shirts.
This book is built on imagined lists, the paraphernalia of the type of person it features. It’s not exactly a definitive list for the era. Nowhere do we read of mechanic’s tools, poor-house diets, soul-killing repetitive journeys, the journey to Greenham Common, hand-painting a placard, squatting a housing estate. The lists are misty, hazed with a blur of hip. Yes, train journeys seem epic when you’re young, sometimes. But hard work in a polluted city can make a cynic out of any paranoid romantic. The fag-strewn, broken facilities of new romantic London were no more romantic than the piss and lager swimming bars of Weill’s Hamburg, however lovingly we make time slow down in order to pan ever so slowly across brown carpets, or booths in a public toilet.
Occasionally the desperate making sense of an era, echoing The Face articles from some of the same time, the listing, the noting takes on the properties of a Google search made by a DJ looking for the ultimate obscure Northern Soul tune to add to his monthly playlist on Spotify. Like drone strikes, this kind of research isn’t sporting with the technology available nowadays. Even a Millennial could manage a decent essay on the connections between various western hipsters at various moments in the late 20th century, using Youtube and Ubuweb. What Bracewell brings, though, is apparently authentic, apparently experienced context. He describes the feeling of the moment.
And this is what is most fun about Souvenir. That it’s possible to get that useless thrill again as you remember how the exclusivity of just knowing a bit more about something or someone in the presence of others who would die to know the same can be brought to life as a sixty-year old man. Thrill once again to drinking a coffee in that special Italian cafe next to the Scala; wonder if you should dig out a second/third hand demob suit and join The Grey Organisation; blag an entrance into The WAG; find yourself at a party of weird faddists who understand their own lives in a way you’ll never experience about your own; follow a lead to something obscure you will only ever experience once but write a book about it in your sixties and make it happen all over again. “Eat your liver, Mr Ordinary, you will never know the true, mod reality, the exquisitely thin ice I skate on. The membership.”
Is it too late for me to join this imaginary club? Always.