A look at lost London – before the yuppie invasion
In a book called Echo de Paris, published in 1923, the writer Laurence Houseman tried, in a very narrow, elegant volume, to conjure up the atmosphere and, above all, the entertainment of an afternoon he had spent a quarter of a century earlier in the company of the exiled Oscar Wilde . It was a deliberate act of imaginative recreation to seat the reader at the same tabloid table next to the participants. As the author explains in his introduction:
“The scenery is true to history in relation to its surroundings – the exterior of a Parisian restaurant; and with a touch of drama introduced towards the end, the reader will understand that it is symbolic rather than actual.
Michael Bracewell’s new work looks back on even more years and, in impressionistic and allusive prose, is reminiscent of London four decades ago, which sometimes deliberately reads like poetry or an experimental novella: history that is remembered in non-fiction books that imitate fiction. This is a lost world out of the sight of the Blitz Club patrons, the ICA bookstore goers, the readers of Face and ID magazines – young people inspired by William Burroughs and Guy Debord, the residual energy of punk and glam rock , Weimar Berlin or the newer electronic sounds from Soft Cell and Throbbing Gristle, gate crashing parties in Notting Hill, where they meet random strangers like the man who was skillfully impaled in Bracewell’s abbreviated description: “In a band, in a commune in Kreuzberg; Kurt Schwitters; industrial dada; Runic tattoos; Fuck the police. ‘
Despite the self-imposed time span of 1979-1986, the episodic narrative often jumps back and forth between those years and the previous decade to highlight changes in the city’s architecture, the gradual onset of computerization, or the myriad effects of the mid-1970s punk. Upheaval. However, it seems strange at one point to claim that Martin Green’s 1976 book Children of the Sun – a study of the interlocking lives of various upper-middle-class men by Harold Acton, such as Waugh, Auden, Spender, and the traitors Burgess, Philby and Maclean – “adopted as a suburban punk manual”. The DIY teens in ripped and tagged charity shop gowns that sprang up in response to the Clash or the Sex Pistols took inspiration from a much wider range of sources than is often thought, but in the 45 years since my own time as suburban punk in Portsmouth I’ve never heard anyone cite Green as an inspiration.
However, this is a very personal book, and it is hardly necessary to understand every clue in order to enjoy the trip; but a number of Bracewell’s specific memories of the early 1980s resonated with me. During the period in question, I was working near the Tottenham Court Road underground station, on Charlotte Street, then on Wardour Street. I drank in semi-legal after-hour bars nearby, bought records in the newly opened Virgin mega-store (which is affectionately described here) and went dancing in Soho clubs like the Batcave or Replicant, where the DJ let the evening fade away by playing Bowie’s version of Jacques Brel’s “My Death”.
Marc Almond – often referred to in Bracewell’s book – lived right in the middle of it near the Raymond Revue Bar, and I saw him sometimes on my lunch breaks on the street, in the last few years before the area started to fill up with a very different one Kind of people who didn’t seem ironic about Harry Enfield’s 1980s television comedy Loadsamoney.
By the end of that decade, much of the underlying harshness and individuality of this and other London boroughs that Bracewell celebrates had already been wiped away, its rough edges sanded down as business rates rose and the yuppies inherited the earth. As he remarks at one point above Docklands, “the ragged gray ghosts of poorer, colder London have fled like a pale daybreak”.
The images are consistently precise and carefully judged, whether it is a gentleman tailor with vintage taste on Sicilian Avenue (“the house models should be Aldous Huxley and Louis MacNeice”) or hippies from the early 1970s (” quiet long-haired couples “Bake Bread, Restore Eden in Paddington or Maida Vale”). Not a conventional story with a beginning, a middle, and an end – let alone one that follows Samuel Goldwyn’s succinct advice for storytellers: “Start with an earthquake and then build to a climax” – Bracewell’s book is appropriately named. It is a memento of the spirit of a particular London that existed for a while in the life and enthusiasm of a particular section of its population, and on its own it manages very well.
As producer Mark Hellinger said at the end of perhaps his most famous film noir in 1948: “There are eight million stories in the Naked City. This was one of them. ‘
In Soho clubs the DJ ended the evening with Bowie’s version of Jacque Brel’s “My Death”