Rather than Union Jacks and “God Save the Queen”, Guy Mankowski’s England is about alienation, negative space, and the ghosts borne from industrialized oppression. In his new book Albion’s Secret History, Mankowski aims to pierce the “surface of England’s pop culture history” and in the process “(throw) new light on ideas of Englishness”. He details the richness of that pop culture history with much affection but has no interest in celebrating English nationalism nor lingering in nostalgia for merrier times. The book spans cultural touchstones from Evelyn Waugh to Gazelle Twin (at a spritely 151 pages, no less) and opts instead to gaze in intellectual wonder at the British condition’s peculiarity. It acknowledges the strangeness of Britain in its current state but also conveys optimism for a better future.
Unlike many British pop-cultural retrospectives, Albion’s Secret History eschews the big guns — the Beatles, the Stones, the Sex Pistols, even the Clash — and instead focuses on the “rebels and outsiders” who comprise Britain’s secret history. When those who are more universally iconic, like David Bowie, are chronicled, these chapters feel less riveting than chapters on lesser-known artists such as Patrick Wolf, Black Box Recorder, and Ultravox. With such an array of talent and with forays into film, literature, and comedy, the running themes Mankowski draws from his varied subjects are as ambitious as they are thrilling. The book may begin on two of those more universally recognized icons — Oscar Wilde and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes — but the way Mankowski uses them to ignite his thesis is intriguing and fresh. In discussing Holmes, Mankowski writes:
Holmes was placed by Arthur Conan Doyle in a conceptual space outside of society, which allowed him to traverse its layers at will. It was perhaps a device gleaned from his fascination with the paranormal, where Mediums are not restricted by physical boundaries. As a freelance detective often working in tension with Establishment figure Inspector Lestrade, Holmes was a master of disguise. His ability to change his appearance to blend into any situation in cause of his mission helped him personify the idea of the English eccentric chameleon, in a way that prefigured the likes of David Bowie.
Along with his passage on the “adopted by London” Wilde and the persecution he faced as the decadent “other” in the face of conformist authority figures, Albion’s Secret History’s foundation is laid. We also see the themes of liminal and negative space brought up in all manner of ways. My favorite chapter on this subject is “Interzones, Edgelands, Psykick Dancehalls and Shamans – Gary Numan, Joy Division and Mark E Smith”, which discusses how Joy Division’s sound spoke to and emulated the factory surrounds of its hometown, Manchester. The chapter also brings back the paranormal, by pointing to the “channeling” aspect of Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis’ possessed stage performance. There’s also talk of the spiritual, otherworldly bent seen in the Fall, especially in frontman Mark E Smith’s fixation on “repetition” and “discipline”.
Yet, regarding Curtis’ lyrics, Mankowski writes, “The otherworldly is less ‘somewhere else’ but more a sense of the ‘other’ within the crushingly familiar urban present.” Unlike Holmes, using the spiritual to his advantage, in Joy Division, that aspect of “channeling” has become darker, more tainted by the oppressiveness and alienation of a modern-day cityscape. The paranormal is summoned yet again when we reach the ‘90s and Mankowski’s chapter on Tricky, whose use of female vocalists and sampling takes on a mediumistic quality. “Tricky is not the voice calling out to future destinations, merely the ghostly hand on the tiller,” channeling ghosts “stranded in unresolved states of anguish and identity crisis.”
Sometimes being “outside” breeds less than desirable results. In discussing pedophile Jimmy Savile, Mankowski writes about a man exploiting outsiderdom, a TV host who “developed a lifestyle that enabled him to live outside the legal and domestic paradigms England often takes for granted”. Likewise, the chapter on Morrissey — while giving no short shrift to his attributes and significance as a cultural icon for the dejected — also references the calculations behind his bricolage, through wearing NHS glasses and hearing aids as part of his onstage costume. By setting himself alongside “those select English figures he found relatable” in his lyrics. In discussing some of Morrissey’s questionable political stances as of late, Mankowski writes, “…one side effect has been that the nuances of his lyrics have seemed of less relevance. But to the fans who have associated themselves with his outsider status, it is fuel to the fire of those who see themselves as unfairly maligned.”
Still, this book is about celebrating the unsung, and Mankowski displays a reverence for the majority of his subjects. He also has a knack for succinctly articulating what makes each one so special. In particular, the PJ Harvey chapter (which also rather epically covers everything from Pulp to the short-lived “Romo” movement) achieves a true feat by distilling her varied career into a few brief paragraphs. By referring back to Wilde, Mankowski illustrates how Harvey utilized the concept of putting on a mask to tell the truth in dazzlingly original ways and how her deft use of English locales proved “fertile ground for extreme emotional states”. Along with Tricky and Suede’s Brett Anderson, who used both a Rimbaudian “derangement of the senses” and do-it-yourself androgyny to reject English orthodoxy, Mankowski cites Harvey as one of the few British artists of the ‘90s who communicated a sense of the “other” via self-erasure, somewhat paradoxically forging their own personae in the process.
Albion’s Secret History’s penultimate chapter focuses on Gazelle Twin, whose three albums have expressed a sort of dystopian horror not terribly removed from J.G. Ballard. Yet Mankowski also finds comfort in Gazelle Twin’s artistry, and this fuels his closing belief that “Millennial prioritsation of the environment could be the engine for (British cultural) change and could lead to a stronger sense of moral leadership in the political class once the next generation are finally in post.” Gazelle Twin’s music is at times serenely bucolic, and at others akin to a digital exorcism. It is far away from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s portrayal of the paranormal, but it could also be the perfect banishing spell for the ghosts currently plaguing England.