I picked this book up thinking that it was another biography of Nick Drake. Wrong: it’s a critical study of his music instead. I wasn’t pleased. It’s irritating when interesting topics are slathered in pretentious jargon: terms like “locus”, “hybridization”, “performance of class”, “articulations of authenticity” and “musico-topographical features” do not go well with Drake’s delicate and melancholic music. To use the same jargon: they don’t “resonate”. Or rather, they do: jarringly and crudely. Putting cultural theory to work on Nick Drake is like driving through a bluebell wood in a tank.
A rusty, badly maintained tank. Exhaust fuming, gears grinding, driver drunk, unshaven and unkempt. But this book could have been much worse and if Drake can survive having some of his songs covered by Elton John, he can probably survive cultural theory. The topics remain interesting despite the jargon: Englishness, pastoralism, nostalgia, modernity, the end of empire, the continuing appeal of a singer who died young and a failure. Or so he must have thought. But it was a good career move: Drake died young and became very famous. If he’d lived and got old, he might now be almost unknown. Lots of good musicians never get what they deserve, just as lots of bad musicians get what they don’t.
I’d prefer Nathan Wiseman-Trowse, a “Senior Lecturer in Popular Culture” at the University of Northampton, to have examined that side of Drake’s story in greater detail. His early death, probably by suicide, is central to his cult. And cult is an appropriate word: mythical figures like Adonis and Hyacinth prove the psychological power of handsome youths who go before their time. So do Jim Morrison and Kurt Cobain. But those two were thunderous musicians, playing rock and filling arenas. Drake’s music was quiet and introspective: acoustic, not amplified; English, not American; for the countryside, not the town. But he was influenced by American music and “Eastern mysticism” and he lived in a very big city while he tried to make his name. That’s where Wiseman-Trowse comes in, trying to unpick the paradoxes, classify the hybridities and problematicize the construction of Drake as quintessentially English.
As he might have put it somewhere. But he puts other things better, as in the chapter on “Melancholia and Loss”, where he discusses Peter Akroyd’s book Albion and its “exploration of English culture”:
For Akroyd, the melancholic strain is to be found in the earliest Anglo-Saxon poetry, focussing on transience, decay, desolation and dustsceawung, or the “contemplation of dust”. It manifests itself through the elegy, the lament and the dirge. Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur meditates on the passing of all things, while melancholic themes run throughout the work of John Donne, Thomas Browne and Samuel Johnson to the more contemporary poetry of Philip Larkin and Ted Hughes. (ch. 4, “Melancholia and Loss”, pg. 96)
Dustsceawung is a beautiful word and I’m glad to have discovered it here. But words, concepts and speculation are all you’ll get from a book like this: I didn’t need to spot an occasional “in terms of” to be sure that Wiseman-Trowse is a dedicated Guardianista. This means that he will regard biological explanations for English character and culture as unacceptable and appalling. Race doesn’t exist, after all. We’re all the same under the skin. Except that it does exist and we aren’t the same. Those old ideas about the English weather influencing the English mind are not ridiculous. The brain did not stop evolving when human beings left Africa and the new environments found by the migrants re-shaped their psychology and sharpened their intellect. Higher intelligence was useful in colder climates and so was neuroticism: people who didn’t worry about the approach of winter were less likely to survive it.
So Nick Drake will eventually be explained by biology and brain-science, not by cultural theory. Will that unweave the rainbow and empty the gnomèd mine? Perhaps it will, but it will also end the ugly jargon and the pseudo-profundity. And Drake himself is beyond caring. That’s part of his appeal and his appeal can’t be killed by cultural theory. Indeed, it’s an important fact about Drake that his music attracts cultural theorists, even as it evades their apparatus. I’d have preferred less jargon and no “in terms of” in this book, but you could see them as a contrast with the subtlety and beauty of its subject. Either way, Dreaming England contains some good photos and some interesting ideas about the music, the man and the myth. It isn’t a biography but there is a lot about Drake’s life here, with a detailed timeline and a discography. It has a good title and index too.