Sneering at the English

An extract from "Authentocrats": Good taste conservationist conservatism and optimistic traditionalism offers no useful challenge to nihilistic paranoid patriotism.

This is an extract from Authentocrats: Culture, Politics and the New Seriousness, published by Repeater Books .

The beginning of the reanimation of an English aesthetic was gradual, and occurred disparately at first. In the second half of the last decade, when I was still playing in a raucous, propulsive, wholly electrified and barely competent band clutching the coat-tails of the artrock revival that occurred at the turn of the millennium, I began to notice more and more folk bands, made up of people younger than me playing traditional instruments, on the bill at the venues we played. People I knew in Norfolk started talking about things like wassailing. The pricier pubs, and then the not-so-expensive ones, that sold food in the West End of Norwich gradually nudged olive oil drizzles and Thai basil off their menus, replacing them, fulsomely, with locally-sourced ingredients. At the time — for my sins — this all seemed pretty novel, almost like a wilful rejoinder to the superficialities of Blairism. The idea of seizing control of Englishness, or its signifiers, in the name of a way of “real” living was appealing. Like many others, I disregarded the unsavourily nationalistic aspects of this on the basis that this Englishness was “uncanny”, spooky, somehow a critique of patriotic surefootedness in its extraction of the dissonant undercurrents of the English peculiar. As with the title of David Keenan’s book on the experiments of an English musical avant-garde interested in occultism, esoteric varieties of political extremism, atonality and anarchy, I was drawn to the idea of “England’s Hidden Reverse”, listening to Current ’93 and Nurse With Wound, reading M.R. James and Algernon Blackwood, taking trips out into the desolate East Anglian countryside in search of the national weird.

At the same time, an Anglocentric turn was taking place in literary studies, prompted by the conclusions of the American academic Jed Esty’s book on the fortunes of late modernism in England. A Shrinking Island claimed, persuasively, that high modernism in the UK had been open, cosmopolitan, attuned outwardly in a fashion that matched the dynamics of the British Empire in an era of barely regulated international capital flows. Ideas, like finance, easily shrugged off the limits of the national, pouring in centripetally from Imperial peripheries: the modernist experiments in Britain of the early Twenties were, therefore, casting their nets much further afield than these shores. When the Great Depression began in 1929, though, British politics and economics became much more inwardly focused, entertaining for the first time in the industrial era the Keynesian idea of a “national economy”. Culture followed suit, winding in its horizons, and some of the most notable modernist artists of the 1920s domesticated their priorities. This can be seen in the gap between the adamant formalism of Virginia Woolf’s 1927 novel To the Lighthouse and her semi-pastoral 1940 work Between the Acts, which takes as its centrepiece an allegorically loaded village pageant, or in T.S. Eliot’s move from the intransigent, polyglot “The Waste Land” in 1922 to the purring localism of “Four Quartets” in the early Forties. Esty’s argument can be used, amongst other things, to explain Mass Observation’s “anthropology at home”, the ethnographic journeys of Orwell and Priestley and the provincial focus of the so-called “pylon poetry” of Stephen Spender, Louis MacNeice and others in the 1930s.

This story of a shift towards a probing of national identity within late modernism is by no means a celebration of a shift away from internationalism: although Esty’s exposure of the colonial exploitation much of high modernist experiment was founded on is disapproving, his work also seems to lament the shortened ambitions of this realignment in favour of the domestic. Nevertheless, the success of his argument opened the door for a less dialectically finessed school of thought in criticism that valourised Englishness, kicking back against the perceived snobbery of critics whose sympathies lay with internationalism. In 2010, the young scholar of British modernism Alexandra Harris produced Romantic Moderns, a lengthy piece of cultural criticism that confounded the expectations of its genre by finding its way into high-street bookstores across the country and whose dust jacket promised to save an England that “has had a bad press from the Modernist disciples of a shiny, high-speed future”. The book — it’s almost expected for critics of Harris to damn with faint praise by noting its lavish production — surveyed a panoply of British (but, really, English) writing, design, music, painting and photography from the Thirties and Forties in order to “prove” that modernism was accepted only conditionally in England, the condition being that it was drafted into a small-c conservative aesthetic that was essentially “romantic” in as much as it concerned itself with homeliness and rurality, with the “old-fashioned and whimsical”, with “souvenirs from an old country that might not survive”. Harris’ modernism was, from the off, not so much a straw man as a Corbusian plate-glass man speaking in Dadaist tongues, a caricature of modernism that portrayed it as oriented exclusively towards the “shiny, high-speed future”.

Despite this foundational error, broadsheet critics leapt in to proclaim the urgent necessity of the intervention, which supposedly corrected the pretentiousness of those whose investment in modernism was grounded in a conviction that it allowed the transcending of pettily national concerns. Kathryn Hughes, writing in the Guardian, wrote that “while high modernism hung out in smoky jazz bars, romantic modernism tended to pile on the jumpers and sit round the kitchen table, scoffing a delicious stew composed of ingredients foraged from the hedgerows”, thus making it seem as if the main objective of Beckett, Mondrian and Webern was the abolition of Mrs Beeton. In the Independent, meanwhile, Boyd Tonkin wrote a strikingly unpleasant dismissal of the “junior critics” who would surely be outmanoeuvred by Romantic Moderns, having previously “pompously opined on” Harris’ subject’s “humanism and provincialism in contrast with those thrilling avant-gardists sur le continong”. Such evaluations were calls for a liberal patriotism that was, if not quite totally unabashed, reasonably obvious.

Few mainstream critics — presumably, in Tonkin’s terms, the “senior” ones — showed much interest in asking about why Harris had characterised modernism so one dimensionally, or, perhaps even more bafflingly, why she had failed to stake her “romanticism” out conceptually. Reading the book, it seems to have few theoretical or philosophical links to Romanticism proper, other than in an idea of locatedness perhaps derived from Wordsworth. In fact, Harris’ arguments often seemed to boil down to little more than the fact that English modernists often lived in the countryside, that their work reflected a pastoral humbleness, and that modernism was but one style for these artists among many. Therefore, in paintings by Eric Ravilious or Paul Nash, the content is romantically (which seems to mean something like “patriotically”) motivated, but is mediated by a style that allows for a slightly updated experience of Deep Englishness. This is hardly a claim of earth-shattering significance, although its lack of critical risk inevitably means it isn’t appallingly wrong. It doesn’t tell the full story, though. For Nash, for example, the surrealism he subscribed to might have offered a new way of thinking English history and geography, but it also took English history and geography and sucked them precariously close to the edge of radical estrangement, hollowing out their cosiness as much as sucking up to it.

Harris, arguably belittlingly, inscribed modernism within a broader national tradition, or at least a supposed tradition, but hers was not the first well-received, vaguely interminable testimony to the flexibility of an alleged native genius in the twenty-first century. In some ways, Romantic Moderns feels like it inherits its critical prerogatives from Peter Ackroyd’s Albion, a 2002 study of how Englishness’ roots probe a well of innate melancholia and insular mist. Ackroyd’s is a muted hymn to an aesthetic of almost ineffable sadness that can be witnessed in church architecture, the teary compositions of John Dowland and Thomas Tallis, in M.R. James’ ghost stories and in landscape gardening. It often reads as a defence of English patriotism on the grounds that a national character rooted in melancholia, spooked by its own shadow, is in its essence too apologetic to flip into aggressive nationalism. The English “language itself […] propels the writer towards plangency”, the reader is told, and the “long sweet note of pathos [that] can be heard equally in the music of Delius and the poetry of Keats” “has always been there”. Albion’s is a non-toxic patriotism, too busy fingering its lute to fight wars of aggression.

The success of these works chimed with a pop-cultural play for the patriotic pound. The Libertines, and especially their frontman Pete Doherty, emerged as part of a glut of chaotic, druggily derivative garage bands rehashing Clash riffs in the early 2000s, but cemented their success in Doherty’s wide-eyed insistence on a myth of “Albion” he carried into his next band Babyshambles. His influence was such that, at Doherty’s recommendation, the NME exhorted its readers to get hold of a copy of Robert Burton’s exhaustive seventeenth-century treatise The Anatomy of Melancholy, a work that also played a central role in Ackroyd’s book, which the chief Libertine had, in turn, almost certainly read. Tapping once more into sad-faced English exceptionalism, Doherty crooned of doomed lovers drinking cheap gin from cracked teacups, an Englishness rooted in dry self-effacement, desolate out-of-season seaside towns and Graham Greene novels, but this air of prettified decline could ultimately be read as an inverted triumphalism. Paul Gilroy’s thesis that Britain (and especially England) is still in the grasp of a “postcolonial melancholia”, a shiftlessness that only just about masks a belief that this country should still rule over half the world, seems an appropriate idea to bring to bear on any attempt to make sense of Doherty.

It wasn’t long, either, before the melancholic Englishness curated and cultivated in various ways by Harris, Ackroyd and Doherty turned into a much more straightforward idea about the niceness of Englishness. The uncanniness and spookiness, even Harris’ soupcon of “sur le continong” experimentalism, was filed off in the ascendancy of what Alex Niven, in a slim polemic called Folk Opposition, describes as “Green Toryism”. This Enid Blyton vision of what it means to be English is graspable in the designs of Cath Kidston or Emma Bridgewater and in cookery shows like The Great British Menu. A whole approach to branding has come about that is recognisable for its epochally blurred vision of the past, absorbing both a chirpy, beardoiled Victoriana and, as Hatherley observes in The Ministry of Nostalgia, many of the trappings of the middle of last century, notably the last time the nation could be said to be almost homogenously white. On the day of the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton in 2011, and during Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee the following year, semi-official street parties were held across the land, with picnic tables festooned with jam tarts, coronation chicken and cakes baked to half-forgotten recipes found in notebooks handed down from grandparents. Bunting flapped between windows and streetlamps in red, white and blue: this was nostalgic communitarianism that sought to demonstrate the chummy inclusiveness of Englishness. An investigation that purported to be as interested in sounding out the nation’s pathologies as in rejoicing in its qualities had tipped over into indiscriminate boosterism.

At the same time as all this was going on, a revival in nature writing took place, and this also began to wear the insignia of progressive — and ultimately regressive — patriotism. One way of thinking about a highly personalized non-fiction that got its boots muddy, and was reminiscent of the prose of Edward Thomas as well as figures such as Richard Jefferies and Gavin Maxwell, was as a pastoralized successor to the increasingly idealess urban psychogeography of Iain Sinclair and his many imitators. Sinclair’s work, at its best, threatened to unlock London with a sub-atomic precision, drawing electrified associations between hardman scrap dealers in Bermondsey, occultist book-dealers off Charing Cross Road and exiled communist militants in Haringey in tribute to the endless combinatorial possibilities of the capital’s chance meetings. Gradually, it came to seem as if he was writing the same book repeatedly, and a horde of copyists sprang up, invariably aping the dominant Sinclairean motif of compulsion (“I was drawn irresistibly into the concourse of London Bridge Station, fascinated by the possibility that Shakespeare had once been initiated into esoteric astrology on this site…” and so on) but shedding its crucially important note of plausibility. Gradually, psychogeography, led by an aggravating Will Self column in the Independent, found itself dragged beyond the city limits, traipsing the Kentish Marshes or producing forcedly “obsessive” studies of Berkshire’s arterial roads.

Nevertheless, Macfarlane’s success, along with his ongoing generosity when it comes to writing encouraging blurbs, meant that, before long, there was barely a single facet of English rural life that wasn’t being prevaricated about from the three-for-two table in Waterstones. Each book in this emergent tradition promised to root about in the long grass to achieve a detailed ecological and social profile of the landscape that could help its readers embed themselves once more in their native soil. Generally, they were marketed as fragments shored against ruins, whose martyr-authors had forsaken many of modernity’s pleasures to salvage a vanishing lore. Nonetheless, they settled swiftly into a set of tropes one could have cheap fun second-guessing. A writer, fed up of the travails of an urban life blighted by disposability and insincerity moves out to a cottage in the Cotswolds or Northumberland. There, they identify species (rabbits/dragonflies/kestrels) or topographical features (meadows/hedgerows/haystacks) or earthy practices (wild swimming/ woodcutting/shepherding) “we” no longer know how to love. They struggle to master naturecraft, but gradually find the necessary abilities buried within themselves, then have an epiphanic coming-to about the intrinsic bond between man and land. Taking a stance against a putatively plastic, soulless present, this writing is itself mass-produced, a cookiecutter poetics of belonging and self-care (or self-indulgence) that hides its formulas behind a suitably meditative tone. It both commodifies an idea of wildness and quietly campaigns for a patriotic traditionalism.

This often-bad writing leverages itself as an alternative to the paranoid patriotism offered by UKIP and the rest of the right. Its good-taste conservationist conservatism looks worthy in comparison to the “non-utopian” fascism of an English Defence League march, and it is thereby implied by some nominally progressive commentators to be what can ultimately save the nation from Faragian nihilism. If the middle classes, the argument seems to run, can demonstrate their patriotism through an optimistic traditionalism, the “sociologically spectral” might be appeased in time.

As I write, a slew of post-Sinclair, post-Macfarlane books are being published that find contrived excuses — walking the Thames from source to estuary, or the route of the proposed High Speed 2 railway from London to Birmingham — to look the contradictions of Brexit Britain in the face. Englishness is still a publishing phenomenon, but it is becoming mingled increasingly with explorations of the damaged unconscious whose symptoms are visible in “legitimate concerns”. Cartwright’s The Iron Towns, which I looked at a couple of chapters back, is an example of a piece of writing that is an alchemy of these modes. Pretty much arbitrarily, its narrative about failing lower-league footballers is impinged upon by what are clearly supposed to be spooky irruptions of memories of long-distant Mercian history. This seems to be a metaphor for the barely repressed chagrin of the forgotten, a rage ready to explode if it is not succoured by some concessions from a supposedly flouncy metropolitan left.

Cartwright can hardly call the trope of a brewing mistral of nativist vengeance his own, though. The idea was previously advanced in 2014 in The Wake, a novel written in a form of Old English — updated for legibility’s sake — by the environmentalist and one-time scholar of antiglobalisation activism Paul Kingsnorth. The Wake itself also, seemingly, borrows, this time from the visceral provincial millenarianism of David Peace’s quartet of books about crime and occultism in Seventies Yorkshire; Kingsnorth’s narrator, a Saxon smallholder who organises a campaign of stay-behind terror against the recently arrived Normans, is not at all dissimilar to one of Peace’s few-(almost)-goodcops. This at times extremely violent insurgency against the Norman Yoke seems to be making a point about what “real” Englishness will get up to if it is “oppressed”. The oppressors here might be greedy, hierarchy-obsessed medieval barons, but, for all of the undoubted historical wrongs committed by William and his followers, there’s something fishy about Kingsnorth’s use of a foreign invasion here. It seems to stand in allegorically for anything “alien” to the authentic members of the tribe, anything that threatens difference. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the narrator begins the story at home in the Fens of Lincolnshire, a well-established destination on the agenda of journalistic Brexit tourism.

In the spring of 2017, Kingsnorth wrote a long piece for the Guardian announcing that he had voted for Brexit, using this confession as the lede for a rambling argument claiming that “the left” — the monolithic “left” strikes again!— had thrown in its lot with globalisation. As such, Brexit was an act of resistance akin to the one depicted in The Wake, an angry demonstration of the ongoing significance of the local and national, the only levels on which a snowballing precarity can be resisted. One passage in particular made some strong assertions of conservatism’s allegedly natural political advantages:

Who can promise the return of that solidity? Not the left, which long ago hitched its wagon to the globalist horse, enthusing about breaking down everything from gender identities to national borders and painting any dissent as prejudice or hatred. As ever, those who can harness people’s deep, old attachment to tribe, place and identity — to a belonging and meaning beyond money or argument — will win the day. This might be as iron a law as any human history can provide.

Even after Corbyn’s relative success in the 2017 election, which if nothing else confounded the centrist claim that Labour were on the edge of destruction, the argument continued to be made that the way to capture the “lost” heartlands vote was through an appeal to a political Englishness. This, we were told, was a lesson Labour could learn from the Scottish National Party and the Welsh nationalist Plaid Cymru, both to a certain degree social democratic in outlook and both relatively successful in using patriotism to articulate progressive themes. Of course, attempts to make analogies between English and Scottish or Welsh nationalism ring false for a variety of reasons: England’s much greater population produces a higher amount of regional difference, for a start, but there’s also the crucial question of historical hegemony. Left-wing nationalism makes some sense for countries that have been forced to shape their polities by the will of another, even when that relationship has enjoyed a significant degree of collaboration and mutuality, as in Scotland’s case. “The English” can tell themselves no such story, at least not without unpardonable acts of historical contortion, even though there seems to be some desire for a narrative in which England is oppressed. One can witness this in Kingsnorth’s invocation of the Norman yoke: the idea that the “real English” have been oppressed by an alien ruling class since 1066 is a way of turning very specific concerns about class and property into specious ones about cultural sovereignty. Brexit, of course, is the signal example in modern British history about what happens when liberal culture plays along with the idea that material inequalities are actually about culture.

More to the point, however, what do those within Blue Labour who, as opposed to the Blairites it shelters, behave in good faith, really think is to be gained through progressive patriotism? Shortly after the 2017 General Election, Jonathan Rutherford, one of the movement’s key academic thinkers, published an article in the New Statesman on the theme of why Labour lost (Labour, of course, might very possibly have won were it not for endless centrist wrecking) which once again insisted on the need for greater recognition of Englishness. This reiterated the argument that people needed to be persuaded that there is something intrinsically English about Fabian socialism, a common good-faith Blue Labour claim, which believes that equality can be demonstrated to be entrenched in the nation’s history through the celebration of historical radicals such as the Levellers. Something here is intrinsically bizarre. Are people really more likely to find policies that make basic, day-today living easier if they can be shown that, for example, the Diggers or the Chartists would have approved of them? Taken at face value, such a claim seems farcically naïve: there is, of course, nothing wrong with normalising socialism by showing how its roots are much deeper than conservatives claim, but there’s also a basic misunderstanding of actually existing social problems in modern Britain here. In fact, for all of the political centre’s indictments of Corbynism’s naïvety, this is surely the ultimate form of self-indulgence, a side-stepping of the urgent need for material solutions that involves suggesting that this will not happen until they have been made culturally appealing.

However, the Blue Labour catechism is only really believed by some of those who profess faith in it. For others, as I have suggested, it is a convenient way for Blairism and the Third Way in general to act out a kind of false penance by which it apologises for the “crime” of forgetting Englishness, thus making the failings of New Labour cultural — and amendable through apology — rather than material and economic. The deeper story here, though, is of how New Labour, in its early days, was energised by a mythology about the intrinsic ridiculousness of the traditional, a mythology that means that it has always carried traditionalism with it in its back pocket. In the following chapter, I examine how New Labour and its cultural manifestation, so-called Cool Britannia, were from the very beginning stuck in a complex dialectical relationship with what was at the time a deeply unfashionable conservative traditionalism.

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Joe Kennedy (@joekennedy81)

Joe Kennedy likes things. He has written two books and is writing another.