England My England and All the Young Dudes are long-form essays, recently published online, by the internet’s favourite polymath and cultural critic Mark Dery in which he explores with his customary forensic analysis and Menckenesque wit two formative experiences: his adolescence as an outsider looking in with a mixture of horror and disdain at the banality of contemporary American culture which he suffered as a small-town kid with a hungry intellect who found solace in subversive aspects of Englishness; and as that same adolescent and mascara-eyed Bowie acolyte struggling against rigid heteronormativity and tedium in that very same small-town USA environment. The two essays are of a piece, being thematically connected, and therefore deserve to be discussed in tandem.
England My England centres on an Anglo-Proustian evocation of the writer’s exposure to a kind of Englishness in the shape of The Children’s Wonder Book of Colour, an encyclopaedia aimed at the kids of middle-class parents that came out after the War. It seems to have been a strangely Arthur Ransome-esque potpourri (Dery compares it to his beloved Wunderkammerer) of mildly racist colonialist propaganda, Boy’s Own Paper stories, ornithology, flower pressing and other ‘suitable’ interests for the genteel offspring of the bourgeoisie. I picture an amalgam of Swallows and Amazons, The Dangerous Book for Boys, a Stanley Gibbons catalogue and Kirstie Allsopp exhorting the impressionable little reader to make do and mend and adopt the shabby-chic aesthetic as a viable lifestyle option. Beginning with a disquisition on America’s version of Anglophilia (apparently a subject little considered by our old colony’s Theory types) and its roots in nostalgia for a more blatantly rigid class system, Dery goes into questions of postcolonial angst, racial politics and the televisual offerings from BBC America. Those US fans of Downton Abbey are aching for a simpler time and a simpler hierarchy, alienated as they are from a bewildering social situation created out of multiculturalism, the multiplicity of images generated by the mass media and the cross-border depredations of Neoliberal economics: processes that in different ways and for different reasons destabilise notions of an essential American identity, presumably one based on the WASP template.
The essay examines England´s own notions of Englishness and the ambivalence about it on the left, displaying an impressive awareness of the current debates (I had completely forgotten about Gordon Brown’s speech on reappropriating the Union Jack from the far right, which is cited). A surprising revelation is the influence of the esoteric joys of Progressive Rock on Dery. Prog was a doorway into a world of erudite rebellion, of deep pondering over lyrics and analysis of album sleeves, the antithesis of the leaden stoner subculture that surrounded him. Jethro Tull in particular illuminated his teenage intellectual’s fantasy England, with Ian Anderson´s literate evocations of such exotica as the Church of England and the Blackpool Tower. Thick as a Brick proved to be a key text for rabbinical feats of interpretation, offering visions of a strange otherworld as baroque as any dreamt up by Edward Lear or Mervyn Peake.
This multifariously overdetermined fictional England (but then all nations are fictional, are they not?), this Marmite-and-PG Tips teatime of second-order signs, is happily free of any essentialist taint. Mark Dery is well aware of the unreality of his England, that it is a metadiegetic concoction created out of happenstance encounters with a seductive Other. If only the same could be said of the American – and indeed much of the English – Downton Abbey set. It is as unreal and as fascinating as the 60 million numinous Americas that we British carry around in our mythbound minds.
The Dery cabinet of wonders reveals yet more exhibits in All the Young Dudes. Again English countercultural eccentricity expands the youthful rebel’s dandyfied consciousness via Glam Rock, heralded by the classic Mott the Hoople hit referenced in the essay’s title. Teenage Mark was eager to escape the narrow bonds of dudeness and jockism that were the only ways of being male in his world. For this neophyte aesthete and dandy these options would simply not do, being far from commensurate with his self-described heteroflexible identity. All the Young Dudes was lauded as an anthem for outsiders in general, when it was released in 1973 and topped the UK charts, and was also seen by some critics as a paean to the gay subculture. Dery sees this as erroneous, quoting Lester Bangs’s observations on the place of music in the gay scene – disco, R ‘n’ B, Latino dance, Broadway show tunes, definitely nothing to do with transatlantic pop-rock. There follows an overview of the etymology of ‘dude’, a point of contention between British and American lexicographers (it’s probably connected to the Aesthetic movement in vogue in the 1880s and Oscar Wilde’s lectures in the US), the hidden-in-plain-sight homoeroticism in Saturday Post illustrations and its possible influence on the sleeve art of the single. An interview with the photographer, the legendary Mick Rock, divulges something of the process of the sleeve design. The image chosen is considered an ambiguous one, hinting at dudeness in both the senses of effete dandyism and of blokeish bonhomie. For Dery this locates the record, and Glam as a cultural phenomenon, in a free space that does not stiffly signify a ‘straightforward’ Queerness or simply function as a generalised vehicle for the expression of a Iiberatory teen identity. Rather it is a wild zone where anyone can be gay, straight, bi, heteroflexible, weird, nerdy, dandyish, femme, butch, whatever. Bowie, the song’s composer, is the ‘leper messiah’ who represents all his pretty things as their queeny king totem, but also the revisionist who later deplored his probably commercially motivated coming-out in the early 70s and dismissed any Queer interpretation of All the Young Dudes as misguided. His account of the lyric as a rather siIIy SF plot is unconvincing.
Mark Dery deploys his customary strategy in these engaging essays. He uses his personal experiences as microcosmic takes on the larger questions of American life, showing how the individual and the wider culture make each other. This isn’t some mere writer’s shtick but a technique for structuring cultural criticism in a way that is relevant to the reader. It is a discursive form that blends the pleasures of evocatively written memoir with the intellectual zing of sharply observed analysis. These two essays are tours de force of Deriana.
EngIand My EngIand: Anglophilia Explained and All the Young Dudes: Why Glam Matters are available as Kindle ebooks.