AN INTERVIEW WITH MICHAEL BRACEWELL
"Suddenly our generation had people in it we knew who had been through that conveyor belt that shouldn't break down -- you go to grammar school, public school, you get your A levels, you go to college, you get a job. So how come all these people are having nervous breakdowns and trying to commit suicide and having terrible affairs? Real dysfunctional stuff. We saw it, this middle class dysfunctionalism, people going steadily mad in these sunlit suburban places."
Richard Marshall interviews Michael Bracewell
COPYRIGHT © 2001, 3 A.M. MAGAZINE. ALL RIGHTS
MB: (in medias res) . . . I was about eleven and I won a poetry prize in 1970 which was organised by an outfit called Blonde Educational. The prize was given away in Hull so we all had to go there to pick up the prize with my English teacher. We were all trying to guess who would be handing out the prize and my teacher was hoping it would be Brian Pattern or Roger McGough, some happening Mersey Beat poet. When we got there it was John Betjeman and Stevie Smith. Stevie Smith had just had a stroke and so she wasn't as articulate as she would have been, but Betjeman held forth. I don't think I knew who they were at the time. But, of course, twenty years later both of them are incredibly important to what I am thinking about. I think at that age if you find something that you are good at you follow it. It was a pretty straight path from there.
3AM: Late 70s, early 80s. Punk was happening. You were very much part of that scene.
MB: The districts of your personality could be classified as either pastoral or urban. The pastoral district tends to be nostalgic and sentimental and looking for some kind of security, serenity and piece of mind. The urban side is more enquiring, more curious, more glamorous. I went to a minor public school in Surrey which was landscaped in a Victorian way and this, when you are fifteen and in a place that that, makes it easy to start getting into the whole Wildean trip. I went from Wilde specifically into all the little roads that lead out of Wilde. Wilde is such a stepping stone into pop culture. It didn't take much imagination to be, say, Tom Verlaine or Patti Smith. What was happening in the urban side of things was a new kind of poetry. It was an opening up of creative possibilities, particularly the idea of the city as being a bottomless well of enquiry. In my case it was inner London setting itself up as the ultimate romantic road, the romantic route that if you follow the right street you would get to that one point in the city that would reward you, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. It's what Evelyn Waugh calls the secret door in the garden. People come up with different versions of the same thing. Scott Fitzgerald calls it "come back, come back oh glittering and white." I think most generations reinvent it for themselves.
What I found interesting was that as an entirely first generation middle class suburbanite there was this tug towards whatever it was at the centre of the city. Had I been a third generation North London liberal and had I been more sophisticated and culturally aware, then I wouldn't have been so drawn to the idea. It really is to do with that process of commuting.
With my first book Crypto Amnesia I was still trying to write poetry. I had been published in poetry magazines like Agenda. William Cookson had published some bits which were urban haikus in the style of Joni Mitchell. I hit a point where I thought to myself that real poets are pretty few and far between, when I realised that I didn't have that extra ear that poets need to make the edits. What I did do was start cutting up lots of poems and gluing them onto sheets of tracing paper. I also cut up photocopied pages from Roland Barthes' Lover's Discourse and things like that -- trying to make collages out of them which I felt was a way of bringing together my feelings about London or Romance or Writing, whatever.
I also discovered fairly soon that that sort of cultural practice had already been done by 1970. I started working on how to tell a story. Crypto Amnesia came out of this new direction. Writing narrative was a grand liberation. With poetry it had been all to do with economy of language, trying to cut things down and down and down, trying to get things to as few words as possible. But with the novel I started enjoying letting myself go and to some extent trying to be funny.
Kathy Acker had arrived in London in 1984/85 and she and I became friends through someone else. Two more opposed writers you couldn't hope to meet. But I didn't tread on her territory. I was unpublished and she was very kind and encouraging to people who were trying to write. She did a gig at the Riverside Studios and she asked myself and two other writers to be the support act. I remember reading the first chapter of Crypto Amnesia and discovering that people liked the jokes. That was extremely important. That was how the book came about. It happened at the time when the brainy end of the fashionable media were starting to pick up on the idea of literature. Everybody was looking for the literary equivalent of the style press which was then so influential -- think of The Face and Id and Blitz. Those magazines run their course by the end of the eighties but the industry at that time had just caught up with what was happening. My book was called Crypto Amnesia Club so everyone thought this was a novel about London clubs and it caught on very fast. Very, very fast, incredibly fast.
3AM: Then you did Divine Concepts of Physical Beauty.
MB: Style culture had created a world I didn't have a role in. I never went to clubs, I wasn't interested in fashion. I was interested in the idea of aspirational types. I started reading E.M. Forster and it seemed to me that everything he had been writing about fitted. How suburbia breeds muddle and that muddle is real, an absolute, in-your-face 24 carat cosmic spiritual shit of nature and that if you can't resolve that muddle then you will probably die. If not physically then spiritually, morally. You will be finished. I roared through A Room With A View and The Longest Journey noticing in each one how he came to terms with this idea of muddle. That really ran straight into me with what I had been trying to do with Divine Concepts. I started writing using the prose rhythms, the sentence rhythms of Forster and in my naivety I found this hilarious. I remember sitting there in Mulgrave Road where I had lived all my life with my mum and dad in Cheam, tears streaming down my face thinking 'This is going to slay them.' It did very well when it was auctioned. This was the late eighties and lots of publishers were throwing money around. I felt that I had genuinely updated Forster's ideas. It was about the spirit of panic being let loose in the drawing room. I think the spirit of Forster took me too far -- I wouldn't now have characters from Eton or a model, but at the time I thought it was a pretty interesting take on middle class England. It was contemporary. Whole swathes of the younger generation for which middle class upbringing had run parallel to exposure to popular culture, or to aspirations to career paths or whatever. It was only when the reviews came out and it got absolutely crucified - partly because I'd been paid a lot of money for it in America, Germany, Holland, Italy, Spain and people were out to get me. Bt also there was this sudden turning around, particularly from the style press in this country. They turned against the middle class and found it not hip. It took me a long time to recover from that because it was my first inkling that I was being lumped in with the Hampstead novel. We'd all known about the pitfalls of a certain sort of middle class but it hadn't occurred that I could be seen as one of them. If you said the word courgette then you were seen as the enemy of the people.
3AM: Interesting that David Lynch and JG Ballard are also working their imaginations from the suburbs and they're ultra hip now. It was the weirdness and fear in your novels that always drew me to your writing. I guess it was missed at the time.
MB: With Divine Concepts there was a double death in it when a woman performance artist hanging from a wall plummets and for me that's quite funny. It was also supposed to have a kind of high operatic mellow dramatic camp atmosphere. But you were in a minority. No one saw it at the time.
3AM: Ahead of our time undoubtedly! So then came The Conclave, a different kind of book.
MB: The writing became more economical and I was trying to drain myself out of it. I was trying to see if I could make a book which was simply fact follows fact. I ended the first draft mid-sentence. My editor at Secker just sat there and said I couldn't take a reader through a 360 page biography of someone and then just cut the tape. It's still one of my favourite pieces of work though because it's one of the only books from that period which was about its time rather than of its time. I still think it stands up as a kind of anatomy of a new middle class standpoint. There really were young people at that time thinking in terms of how near am I to somewhere where I can buy a bottle of Perrier water at eleven o'clock at night. I was interested in that state of banality. I was asking where the moral centre of that mind was. I was thinking in terms of the American minimalist Dean Graham. He did a project with homes for America in which he simply lifted the names of American housing estates and that was it. That was such a big influence on The Conclave. The fact that this really out there guy who had written an opera about hippies taking over lighthouses and stuff, had done a signature piece that consisted of simply the names of American suburban housing estates and published it in an art magazine, that had such a huge influence on me at the time.
A sub editor at Cape went through the manuscript before it went to the printers and put lots of inverted commas in it and the name of every single food item he put in italics. When it came out there were so many inverted commas that it just read weirdly -- even sandwich would be in inverted commas and quite rightly reviewers found this mystifying. As did the author. The sub editor ended up running Macmillan!
What was interesting was that whereas Divine Concepts had turned a lot of people off with The Conclave they were saying "My life is exactly this. I am so depressed, I don't know, I can't cope with it." At the same time the demonstration of middle class experience was really underway. One of the things that Ballard and Lynch achieved was to describe the pathology of ordinariness. This anatomy of anxiety and strangeness made The Conclave a very weird book but it passed most people's eyes. Having said that it did get short-listed for the John Llwellyn Green prize.
Then came St Rachel. The objective from the word go was to try and communicate the shallows of emotional illness. I was trying to bring everything I had previously written about the emotive power of paradox and contradiction into focus. Crypto Amnesia had been about a nightclub owner who couldn't stand people. A short story I had written, "Missing Margate", had been about an architect who had put up his own building. It was essentially about a glamorous couple who couldn't have a relationship. The Conclave was about somebody who wanted to be extraordinary but his life was completely pedestrian. St Rachel was that territory of learning to hate your body, biology and sexuality turning in on itself but again abutted to a very ordinary, pedestrian life, a couple who had a bit of inherited money who'd gone on the rocks. I suppose it does seem tom me that the only way the story could end was that there was no escape. You don't get out of it.
3AM: It was very Scott Fitzgerald. The tone.
MB: "Crazy Sunday" and "May Day" were the two Fitzgerald stories that I was really under the thumb of whilst I was writing it. "Crazy Sunday" ends up with two drunk partygoers trying to get more champagne at breakfast time and they go up in a lift and the man in the lift tells them they are on the top floor and they say "well put another floor on." There's a feeling that they're going into the ether. Suddenly our generation had people in it we knew who had been through that conveyor belt that shouldn't break down -- you go to grammar school, public school, you get your A levels, you go to college, you get a job. So how come all these people are having nervous breakdowns and trying to commit suicide and having terrible affairs? Real dysfunctional stuff. We saw it, this middle class dysfunctionalism, people going steadily mad in these sunlit suburban places.
3AM: There's quite a big gap between writing St Rachel and Perfect Tense.
TP: I wasn't going to write another one. Perfect Tense is now officially my favourite of all the things I have done. Strangely, it has fared the best critically too. There are one or two people in the mainstream literary press who have twigged that this actually isn't just a kind of satire of office life but is something different.
3AM: So are you not going to write anything else? Where does Bracewell the writer go from here? Is it back to journalism?
TP: I don't know. I'm doing at the moment a collection of pieces that I published between 1989 and 1999 with a 40,000 word commentary on them. It's interesting that the commentary is really me translating into non-fiction what I said in Perfect Tense. I think that what will emerge from this is a very coherent view of a particular era which has been as shot through with loathing and self-consciousness as it is possible for an era to be. Increasingly I feel I keep ending up where we started, in that oscillation between the suburbs and the city. I remember Kathy Acker saying -- in 1985 I think it was -- that there are two cultures and we all leaned forward eagerly for instruction. She said that arson was done. She was right. I would love to know what's going to happen with Acker, with her legacy.
3AM: Did you keep in touch with her? She hit me once at one of your readings.
MB: I'm sure it was affection. I lost it with her works after Don Quixote. I saw her on and off.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
was born in 1958. The author of two novellas, three novels and a study of English culture, England Is Mine
, he writes regularly on music, art and literature for the Independent On Sunday
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