Saturday, July 11, 2009

Triumphant British Melancholy

The most interesting choice in Patrick Humphries' 1997 Nick Drake biography is in the introduction. In this book about a depressed singer-songwriter, the stage is set with the sinking of the Titanic. The only link between Drake's life and the 300-foot gash in "The Unsinkable" is the presence of the biographer's Uncle Jim at the Titanic's launch. This same uncle would officiate at the birth of Nick Drake, in colonial Burma.

The fate of the Titanic is an appropriate beginning to the Nick Drake story because of the historical sweep of Humphries' book. The biographer situates Drake in the context of a tragic century. The Titanic in 1912 foretold the end of peaceful industrial technotopia. Two years later the assassination of an obscure nobleman would lead to a serious derailment of civilization. Drake would inherit a world where atomic bombs had exploded, where genocide had been carried out on an unimaginable scale...and where the superiority of the Anglo-Saxon race was not taken for granted.

England's post-imperial decline has been steady. And yet somehow the rainy island has kept its grip on global capital as well as cultural prominence. No one still regards the English as the greatest people on Earth, and the notion of a happily Anglicized planet is laughable, even if parliamentarianism and beans-on-toast have gained footing overseas.

The secret to England's baffling relevance lies in their genius for flipping the script. In the glory days of Her Majesty's Empire, the doctrine in play was British triumphalism--and the world cowered in fear. Now, no one exceeds the British at acting miserable. It is this trait of expressed thwartedness that is the true genius of the English. The rest of the world rushes to comfort England's sensitive males.

Nick Drake was only the first in a line of world-conquering sadsacks. Ian Curtis, before joining Drake in an early grave, caught the world's attention with the depths of his misery. Then came Robert Smith of the Cure. Today, Radiohead's Thom Yorke and Pulp's Jarvis Cocker lead the phalanx of unhappy English anti-heroes.

But no bloke's self-pity has been globally indulged like Morrissey's. Moz has transcended the great guitar band he used to sing in and is now alone atop a majestic, melancholy pedestal. His fame is utterly borderless, having caught on especially with Mexican-Americans. The artist Phil Collins has explored the strange power of this Mancunian to tap into the alienated feelings of people from Turkey to Brazil.

The English hold a near-monopoly on fashionable sadness, although Russia is poised for a meltdown, India has yet to shed its caste system, and Germany seems to have a congenital knack for the morose.