It used to be the case that the English were so comfortable with their own
identity that Englishness itself required no analysis or explanation.
Englishness as an idea was never reflected upon in the abstract, but merely uncovered as one followed the progressive course of her people.
However, with the evolution of a recognisably multi-ethnic society, the
constitutional devolution of component parts of the United Kingdom and,
paradoxically, the seemingly inexorable political absorption of the nation
as a whole into the European Union, the question of what it means to be
English has suddenly becoming an object of public comment. A plethora of
recent publications such as Pete Davies’ This England, Jeremy Paxman’s The English, Nick Danziger’s Danziger’s Britain, Nick Davies’ Dark Heart and
Ian Buruma’s Voltaire’s Coconuts have all attempted to get to grips with this issue from varying angles.
At first sight, Yes We Have No appears to follow Dark Heart in its exploration of the subterranean aspects of English life. However, it soon becomes apparent that this is an altogether different kind of book. Cohn’s subject matter is encapsulated by Laurence, the West Indian street philosopher of King’s Cross, as “the republic”, defined as “Anyone who is not in the Anglo Club”. “Outsiders?” “Insiders.” The republic consists of those who express allegiance to causes or institutions that are unrelated or hostile to what would be termed the indigenous culture. And it is entirely appropriate that such people should be called insiders rather than outsiders for there can be no doubt that the characters in this book fit comfortably within the liberal consensus that is forever expanding the boundaries of what it conceives to be the conventional.
This is an important point for what Cohn terms as the “the republic” is
nothing more than the contemporary urban landscape. Cohn’s travels consist
of visits to the major conurbations and digressions to sea-side towns, but
both reflecting the same urban values. Above all else, this is a London
book since much of the narrative is concerned with the capital, otherwise
known as ‘the heart of the great republic.’
But in dealing with this material, Cohn hardly puts a foot wrong in his
rendering of both character and place. What is particularly admirable is
his ability to compose intimate portraits of his subjects whilst avoiding
sentimentality, superciliousness and straightforward indignation. He
demonstrates an easy detachment that allows him to view events with realism and humour. We learn, for example, that the 1980 Bristol riots were sparked off when a certain Dr Prince Brown ‘suffered a torn and mutilated trouser leg’ at the hands of the police. On occasion, Cohn does allow his personality to intrude and the results are less than satisfying.
Exclamations such as ‘There are days when just the sight of Mary fills me
with envy’ and ‘I have always been besotted by boxers’ just get in the way
as does the resort to the odd nostalgic anecdote.
But there can be no quibbling with the lustre of Cohn’s descriptive
passages. His ability to encapsulate the character of a place within the
space of a few words appears effortless, but rarely misses the mark.
Toxteth in Liverpool is ‘a mangled magnificence’, Bristol possesses ‘a
shabby ease, that works itself under the skin, sucks out all rawness and
rage.’ And the people of East Lancashire ‘whatever else they might be short of, have density: spiritual mass.’
But Cohn deploys his most effective prose for the extraordinary cast of
characters who populate the book. He possesses the novelist’s talent of
being able to outline the main contours of a personality and then engage it with sustained conviction. It seems unfair to select any for special
distinction, but it is impossible to avoid mentioning the Asian wide-boy
from Hounslow, Bobby Friction (‘constitutionally incapable of understatement’) and the Dutch Odinist of Tufnell Park, Freya Aswynn
(‘Every sentence is spiced with fookers, vankers and coonts.’). These are
just two of the many portraits that viewed together make up an
extraordinary gallery of contemporary character and experience. This is a
book that should be read, digested and revelled in as one of the most
convincing portraits of modern urban England yet published.
Reviewed by Robert Whitehouse