Wednesday, March 04, 2020

England's dreaming myth-making

The scope of any book-length study inevitably has to be circumscribed, but one of my criticisms of Jon Savage's England's Dreaming - which, to be absolutely clear, I generally love - is that he focuses too myopically on the UK and on a narrow period of time from the mid to late 1970s, and as a consequence turns a blind eye to punk's predecessors both at home and abroad. As great a read as it is, then, the book is complicit in maintaining the myth that punk was an exclusively British phenomenon belonging to a very particular time and place.

So I was delighted to see Don Letts - one of Savage's interviewees - give that myth a good kicking in a recent Guardian interview: "Punk didn't start and end in the 70s. It's a constant spirit. An attitude. A living thing. It's Woody Guthrie and Sun Ra. It's just that the British did that colonial thing and put a Union Jack all over it, so it feels like a moment trapped in time."

However, it seems as though it's only the way that punk has been retrospectively framed and packaged by books like England's Dreaming that irritates him. His first-hand memories of the period itself are suggestive of someone who knows he owes a great deal to punk, not least as "a refuge from racism" - vital for the rebellious son of Windrush-generation parents who was struggling to find his place and identity within British society.

Nevertheless, he acknowledges that the scene was only a "bubble" - and, sadly, that such a refuge is once again necessary, with overt racism on the rise: "thanks to Brexit, it's happening again. It's absolutely heartbreaking. I still believe in the power of music and culture to change people's lives, but I'm struggling."

(Incidentally, if you want to find out what came after the bubble burst, then Simon Reynolds' Rip It Up And Start Again is essential reading - not least because it avoids the pitfalls of England's Dreaming by adopting a far less parochial perspective.)

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