I once had a teacher who'd written a book called "See Europe Next Time You Go There." I never got a chance to read it, but I always thought its title spoke beautifully for itself. It's so easy to visit a place (a continent, a country, a city, a village), to seek out every discernible high point it has to offer, and yet to completely miss it. Maybe that's what accounts for the vaguely melancholy feelings many of us have after even a wonderful vacation -- that somehow none of it seemed real, as if aside from a few good meals and the occasional moment of hyper-clarity, we were really just engaged in a kind of half-aware sleepwalking.
With "Yes We Have No," novelist and cultural critic Nik Cohn isn't chronicling a vacation to England; he lives both there and in the United States. Born in London but raised in Ireland, Cohn returned to England in his mid-teens, only to find that the country, long established and secure in its refinement, wanted little to do with him. And then, suddenly, in the early '60s, when "rebels and misfits became fashionable," Cohn rode the wave and published his first novel. He had little to do with mainstream England, he admits, until he started to notice, sometime in the '90s, how much life had changed in Hertfordshire, where he'd owned a house for years. He'd heard the reports that the old England was dead or dying, that people were struggling for survival, that the certainty and comfort of "the English way of life" could no longer be relied upon. And so, feeling suddenly restless, he set out to find out what this other England was really like.
He did find a land full of troubles, but he also found a vital population of "outsiders," many more than he had encountered on his earlier travels through the country. Assembled, he writes, they constitute
... a mighty power to me. A whole country within a country, many millions strong. The jobless, the homeless, the fucked ... Miners and dockers and steelworkers who would never work again, and school-leavers who would never work at all ... Born-agains, bikers, fetishists, faith healers, visionaries, squatters, druggies, lunatics, and street heroes. Many of them were lost, and many would never be found. But they were full of sap, even so; wild and bursting with the stuff. This other England, unlike the older model, was permanently on heat.
Starting in London and fanning out through Bristol, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle and countless pockets in between, Cohn navigates a country that's by and large veiled to the rest of us, and one that even plenty of native Britons are unable, or unwilling, to see. With his pal Mary Carson -- an Irishwoman who's done research on cultural fringe groups, and who also never passes up an opportunity to go clubbing -- he meets an assortment of low-rent gangsters, techno DJs, spiritual wanderers, lost women, buskers, football hooligans and karaoke specialists. Cohn comes around to the obvious conclusion -- that it's people who make places what they are -- in wholly un-obvious, entertaining and deeply moving ways.
"Yes We Have No" is a bundle of raggedy adventure stories, frayed around the edges. But by its end it ties itself up into a gracious and humane chronicle. It's an underground social history made altogether more rare and precious by the fact that it's written by a red-blooded hipster: Usually only the poseur squares have the audacity to take on projects like these.
Part of what makes Cohn's book work is that he approaches his home country as both an Englishman and an eternal outsider, never forgetting that his circumstances set him far apart from most of the people he meets. (He is a fairly well-known writer, financially comfortable enough to reside in two countries.) When he visits the Yorkshire Mining Museum and gets lowered down a 450-foot shaft into a spanking-clean coal mine, he's filled with momentary self-congratulation: Working the mines might not have been all that bad. Then he shakes himself back to reality by rereading a portion of George Orwell's "The Road to Wigan Pier," which describes the mines as a nightmare of dust, heat and noise -- 400 yards down, not 450 feet. He sums up his own admittedly lame experience baldly: "In other words, I've not been down a mine at all."
Cohn travels to towns where tourism is both the most visible means of support and also a kind of death grip. He chats with a bunch of young stoners in Stratford-upon-Avon:
The bong circulates, and I enquire what life is like here, and one boy tries to tell me. "Shakespeare's from here, you know," he explains earnestly. The town's a museum, all tourists, and nothing left over for people. "What can I tell you?" The boy draws deep, and passes the bong. "It's just a small, shit town."
But Cohn's compassion rests light as gossamer: What always comes through is how much he likes these people, how readily they make him laugh. He's not interested in plucking at their misfortunes as if they were violin strings. And he can never pass up a good joke. He comes upon this scene in Walberswick, an old Suffolk fishing village: "Some kids are playing wanna-be Oasis in the sludge, air-guitaring to 'Wonderwall.' 'I'll be Noel, and you can be the wanker,' one says."
"Yes We Have No" covers so much territory that it leaves you with the feeling that you'll never be able to see England next time you go there, at least not in the way Cohn does. I hesitate to call "Yes We Have No" a travel book -- it seems to strain such a concrete category to its breaking point -- but like the best travel books, it does have the power to transport you. Better yet, it's a brilliant, beautiful agitator, vibrant and loud enough to wake the dead -- or even just the sleepwalking. Cohn opens our eyes to this other England, reminding us that it's good to be alive, but it's even better to be awake.