[15 January 2014]
Nathan Wiseman-Trowse’s exploration of Englishness in Nick Drake’s music in this slender volume seems promising enough. Drake’s homeland has absorbed music from around the globe into its collective bloodstream and emerged time and again with some of the planet’s best music for its efforts.
Drake lived at the right time. The ‘60s, the period during which he attended university, saw a broadening of the English consciousness; his own interest in a variety of musics and Eastern spirituality informed his work. But problems with Dreaming England, a book with a promising if somewhat difficult thesis, emerge quickly.
In the earliest paragraphs the author draws a link between an early ‘80s television adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s classic novel Brideshead Revisited and Drake’s “River Man”. Wiseman-Trowse suggests that “River Man”, although not used in said adaptation, would have made a perfect companion for a scene in which friends Sebastian Flyte and Charles Ryder enjoy a short picnic. Wiseman-Trowse writes that “one could almost imagine the gentle strains” of the song “echoing the evocation of English pastoralism”. It’s a nice image, and to this the author adds “Drakes music seems to suggest a moment of stillness that is linked to rural bliss and a suspension between the mundane nature of reality and the potentiality of something far greater and unknowable”. Lovely words, a lovely and agreeable sentiment that, like so much of this book, never convinces the reader. The thesis is aloof, untamable, and, perhaps worst of all, tenuous.
Witness Wiseman-Trowse’s next statement: “While Drake’s music was never used for Brideshead Revisited, the picnic scene and ‘River Man’ seem to echo the same inherent Englishness: something that seems both timeless and deeply rooted in the past.” It’s an agreeable enough statement but here, as above, the author’s lack of commitment to the idea, his tendency to rely on “seems to” rather than “is” undermines an intriguing and worthwhile idea. To the statement above he adds “They both convey an intangible quality that nonetheless speaks of a landscape that is instantly recognizable and deeply longed for.”
That intangibility is the problem. One would hope that the author would draw links that would bring us closer to the tangible, provide evidence that convinces but instead he speculates and ultimately leaves the burden of proof too much to the reader. If we can imagine it, he seems to argue, it will make it so. It is, as is the case with so much of this book, a lovely sentiment but one that is deeply flawed.
Writing about place and art can be difficult. There’s often an unspoken quality about the character of a people, a code that must be cracked through long-term immersion and deep exploration. To explain this to an outsider requires evidence that draws the outsider closer to the edge of the circle they, along with the author, are exploring. In the best cases we find ourselves as immersed as the author, separated only by time and location.
Once more, however, it is Wiseman-Trowse’s own language that defeats him. He adds that his book is “an attempt to understand why it may be possible” to draw a link between a scene in a television adaptation of Waugh’s elegant novel and one of Drake’s most beautifully rendered songs, “but more broadly between much of Drake’s music and the idea of Englishness”.
I have no problem with the second portion of this statement. There is an Englishness that runs through the work of Robert Wyatt, Pink Floyd, and John Wesley Harding (through the filter of American culture in the case of this last) and, like Wiseman-Trowse writes of his subject, is not solely down to the nationality of the artist. There is evidence, however, in the case of each of these artists that can be linked to the art in a way that is in its way tangible.
We know all about Roger Waters’ quip, on Dark Side of the Moon about hanging on in quiet desperation being the English way. Inspired by the remnants of an empire in waste, the physical and psychological detritus of World War II, a generation raised by mums and aunties, and the notion that one needed to prepare for their future while the present evaporated before their very eyes, the statement is exacting, incisive, memorable. Of course, we can also look to Waters’ character and argue that his father’s death in World War II has become an important motif in his work and one that is revisited again and again. We might argue that that thread will not die until Waters himself ceases to practice his craft. And then, of course, it is preserved for all time, allowing us to revisit his authorial concerns as well as examining the historical context which gave rise to his statement.
The problem with Wiseman-Trowse’s assertion that the Brideshead scene “seems” to echo “River Man” is that it’s not tied to anything other than an authorial fancy. One might just as easily imagine Brian May’s guitar providing the score to a Medieval battle in a film but that doesn’t mean that there’s a connection anywhere but in the mind of the imaginer. It is, of course, a hallmark of modernism that works are both complete (the artist has “finished” a song or a painting) and incomplete (the work relies on some interaction with the viewer/reader/listener). But so what?
This authorial fancy is not just evident in the book’s introduction (on which we have focused solely on to this point) but throughout the body of the work. Despite two English-language Drake biographies, numerous articles, a smattering of documentaries and, of course, his recorded output, Drake’s life remains something of a mystery. His death alone could be the subject of a book-length work as we try to unwind the mystery as to whether he intended to kill himself or if it was a mere accident. But so what? Speculation is interesting, but it seems that the best option for someone writing about Drake would be assertiveness, conclusiveness, definition.
Wiseman-Trowse’s work is built on a broad range of speculation and arguments built more on the prism through which the author hears Drake’s work rather than accepting the work as it exists. His opening chapter begins with the observation that “There are no explicit references to England, the country, or indeed Britain, the political union, anywhere in the music of Nick Drake.” That an explicit reference does not exist is not enough to entirely dissuade the reader from believing that one might find a connection. But it seems paramount that the author himself find a connection and make that explicit to his reader. Instead, the author spins circles, remarking on how other artists shared an “Englishness” with Drake but never arriving at a remotely convincing definition of what “Englishness” is.
Is there a strong lyrical connection between the Romantic poets and Drake? If so, where are the lyrical connections? A quotation from Blake offered up and compared with one of Drake’s own lines here or there would be sufficient but no such comparison materializes. There are some nice and detailed discussions about how George Orwell influenced the idea of “Englishness” (a yardstick for some, but not all) or how certain sleeve photos may have been influenced by the work of J.G. Ballard because they were taken in close proximity to where Ballard set a particular scene in one of his novels.
It’s the kind of speculation that spins the reader in circles and proves, well, nothing. Why not suggest that Thomas Pynchon carries a patina of “Englishness” because he, like Drake, remains enigmatic?
So much more it seems could be done by relying on national character during the era which Drake wrote and recorded his music, on the things he is known to have done (read, listened to, watched) than the fanciful thoughts the author and Drake fans have about this or that. This is not to condemn the work outright. There are many interesting observations throughout, though the author’s tendency to speculate on the significance of album sleeve art rather than dive into analysis of lyrics or chord progressions (two things that might better illuminate his thesis) quickly dulls one’s enthusiasm.
The most useful element of Wiseman-Trowse’s book is the final chapter, a mere 20 pages about Drake’s legacy, including the many tributes that have populated the musical landscape in recent years and how his popularity swelled with the use of his music in a Volkswagen commercial. (Curiously, the author neglects a work that might have offered greater support to his claims, Robyn Hitchcock’s excellent “I Saw Nick Drake”, a fitting tribute to Drake’s Englishness from another artist who remains enigmatically and overwhelmingly English.) A detailed chronology and a select bibliography and detailed discography prove amusing for those wanting to know more about Drake and who find themselves wanting after finishing Dreaming England.