Once upon a time there was land where the people seemed very happy. They lived squashed together yet valued above all things privacy . They cut their grass, kept good credit ratings, loved Queen Delia and went on family days out on Bank Holidays. But in the cracks in this land was another land, the ‘Republic’, into which some had fallen or jumped. Nik Cohn and his friend Mary got in their car and went to the ‘Republic’. And in this book is what they found.
They began, of course, in Kings Cross. They found Odinists in Tuffnell Park, the Antichrist in Isleworth and Arthur Scargill in Barnsley. They shared a smoke with the new age settlers at Fraggle Rock in Cornwall, porn with a West Indian pimp called Laurence in London and rock and roll with Mr. Chan the Chinese Elvis on the Old Kent Road. They went via clubbers, anarchists, squatters, faith healers, karaoke wannabe babes and dodged football fans chanting Ingerland! Ingerland !
They searched Blackpool for a ‘wine me, dine me, 69 me’ T-shirt. Their travels were exhaustive. Not even John Noakes threw himself into his work with this much gusto Everyone they met had extraordinary stories to tell them. Where most would just have seen misfits they saw epic lives and stories.
In between all this are fleeting glimpses of Cohn himself. His life inspired Pin Ball Wizard, he made his fortune in the seventies with an article on New York that became the basis of Saturday Night Fever then lost it all again then made his name by writing about the outsiders he met. This is his gift. His portraits are worth the price of the book alone.
There is another story going on this book too. Cohn resists throughout coming to a point. There is no state of the nation passage here unless you take the whole book. It’s all or nothing. Cohn is brilliant at telling us what these people are like but we are left to wonder why they are as they are. It would be too easy to say that it just got harder to annoy your parents, requiring these days old buses and Odinism where long hair and loud music would have done.
The many groups that make up what Cohn calls the ‘Republic’ would loathe each other on sight yet they are united by what they are not and this is as much a book about what they have rejected. Many of Cohn’s subjects seem still perversely shaped and held by the ‘normal’ England they hate. It’s values stifled but now haunt them. In caravans and squats they get moved on. They leave but can’t escape. Hope seems scarce. ‘We’re not so much Down and Out in London and Paris, more fucked up in Liskeard and Saltash,’ says a traveller at one point.
This is a book about invisible people brought to life by a unique writer but it is also about the myth of England. The powerful seductive myth of Agatha Christie, warm beer, chirpy cockneys, stout yeomanry and plucky war values sold the land short. There is a feeling here that England this century has had less space for those that didn’t fit. The pressure to fit in may be receding again like the tide. National Identity, cosy or not, doesn’t fit any more. The truth was, outside the war, it never did. On the evidence here, as Europe and the Celtic fringe changes around it, England needs to return to a land big enough for oddballs and eccentrics and one fit for its lost souls and heroes.
Reviewed by Graham Dickson