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28 April 2017
“England is no more. That is why this is a good time to celebrate it, mourn it, sing elegies for it. This is not the place to analyse why, or when, the disappearance happened. World wars, tarmacadamed road, the influence of the Unites States of America, their music and their foods, the growth of commerce, and the growth of belief in growth; large numbers of immigrants from former colonies; shame at having possessed the colonies, regret at their loss, or a mingling of the two emotions – all these no doubt contributed to what we all know. We stand in what appears to be remote meadow land, and hear not the song bird, but the distant roar of motor traffic. We attend cathedral worship, and hear, not the words which have echoed in those stones since the reign of the first Elizabeth, but alien, jarring words, injurious to faith as well as repellent to the ear. We are of a generation that has never seen an old market town unmarred by thoughtless town planning, intrusive road signs, tactless functional building, and aggressive emendations to the doors and window frames of buildings which have stood since the the time of George III. We have watched those characters familiar in fact as well as in nursery rhyme – the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker – replaced by out-of-town shopping malls, and supermarkets. We have seen corn exchanges turned into mosques and old parsonages made into the second homes of hedge-fund managers.The England of our grandparents, then, is no more. And, what is more, the Union [of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland] is unlikely to survive….”
This is the editor’s preface to an anthology of poems entitled “England” edited by A. N. Wilson and published in 2008 by Eland Publishing Ltd.
The publisher’s blurb on the back cover says:
“This collection delights in the power of an English ideal, in well constructed metre and memorable line, helping to create a legendary past of honesty, energy and innocence. Whether recited in the secrecy of the bath, or babbling [“babbled” surely?] with wild emotion over a windswept picnic, a noisy bar or in a hushed tearoom, here is a sourcebook for passion, a song book for the patriot. Armed with Byron, Blake, Brooke, Belloc and Browning, we are given access to the glorious English empire of the mind.”
The tone of the collection can be surmised from the following poem, one of the most famous in the English language, written by William Blake (1757-1827).
And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountains green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England’s pleasant pastures seen?
And did the Countenance Divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among these dark Satanic Mills?
Bring me my Bow of burning gold!
Bring me my Arrows of desire!
Bring me my Spear! O clouds, unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!
I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand,
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.
The writer of the above lament for a supposedly lost Golden Age in England, A. N. (Andrew Norman) Wilson (b. 1950), is a prolific novelist, biographer, reviewer and writer on historical and religious subjects. A former literary editor of the conservative Spectator magazine, he was educated at Rugby public (ie private) school and New (ie not new) College, Oxford (founded in 1379). The Oxford Companion to English Literature (1995 revised edition) lauds him as follows: “As a reviewer, he achieved a reputation as an acerbic and provocatively conservative critic and became an often-quoted example of ‘fogeydom’ because of his espousal of traditional values and his High Church sympathies.”
The idea that life was better in the past and that things have been going to the dogs ever since what we might call the Garden of Eden is a view commonplace in many cultures and particularly among older people as the hopes of their youth are dashed with the passing of time.
Progressives, on the other hand, accuse retrophiliacs of seeing the past through rose-coloured spectacles. As Horace said in his Ars Poetica (lines 173-174), the senior citizen tends to be “difficilis, querulus, laudator temporis acti se puero, castigator censorque minorum” (“awkward, querulous, a cheer-leader for the good old days when he was a boy, and quick to correct and criticize the young”).
Others, with whom we agree, believe that the past is a curate’s egg – some parts good, some parts bad.
Politically, we at Antigone1984 are committed socialists – unabashed utopians, if you like – aiming for a brave new world of justice and equality. Culturally, however, we have a certain hankering for some of the traditions, habits and rituals of the past.
On the one hand, for instance, medical advances have immeasurably improved people’s health. On the other hand, the global consecration of market-based neoliberalism as the sole economic model has led to the homogenisation of cultural diversity, the extinction of solidarity with the casualisation (“uberisation”) of employment, and the destruction of traditional communities. In this respect Antigone1984 is at one with A.N. Wilson.
The conflict between the supposedly ideal past and a degraded present is addressed in the seminal 1961 essay “The Long Revolution” by the Cambridge literary critic Raymond Williams (1921-1988).
In this book Williams takes aim at fellow Cambridge don F.R. (Frank Raymond) Leavis (1895-1978) – a titan of the Cambridge English Faculty – because of his nostalgia for a supposed organic community of the past based on a widely shared stable set of beliefs and values – the only soil, according to Leavis, in which culture could flourish.
According to Williams, the notion of the organic community is “a surrender to a characteristically industrialist, or urban, nostalgia – a late version of mediaevalism, with its attachments to an ‘adjusted’ feudal society. If there is one thing certain about the ‘organic community’, it is that it has always [been] gone. Its period, in the contemporary myth, is the rural eighteenth century; but for Goldsmith, in “The Deserted Village” (1770), it had gone; for Crabbe, in “The Village” (1783), it had gone; for Cobbett, in 1820, it had gone since his boyhood (that is to say, it existed when Goldsmith and Crabbe were writing); for Sturt it was there until late in the nineteenth century; for myself…it was there – or the aspect quoted, the inherited skills of work, the slow traditional talk, the continuity of work and leisure – in the 1930s.”
However, Williams went on the warn that “it is foolish and dangerous to exclude from the so-called organic society the penury, petty tyranny, the disease and mortality, the ignorance and frustrated intelligence which were also among its ingredients.”
He concludes by accusing Leavis of “continued allegiance to an outline of history which tends to suggest that ‘what is commonly described as Progress’ is almost wholly decline.”
The attack on Leavis was pursued by leftwing academic Perry Anderson in his famous 1968 article “Components of the National Culture” (New Left Review No 50, July/August).
Slating Leavis’s “enormous nostalgia for the ‘organic community’ of the past”, Anderson says that “the illusory nature of this notion – its mythic character – has often been criticized…correctly….Leavis’s epistemology was necessarily accompanied by a philosophy of history. The organic community of the past, when there was no distinction between popular and sophisticated culture, died with the Augustan age; Bunyan was among its last witnesses. Thereafter history for Leavis traced a gradual decline. The industrial revolution finally swamped the old rural culture…With the twentieth century…the inexorable tide of industrialism began to invade the very precincts of humane culture itself. Leavis saw the new media of communication – newspapers, magazines, radio, cinema and television – as the menacing apogee of commercialism and industrial civilization. They threatened to obliterate every civilized standard, on which the existence of culture depended, in a new barbarism.”
What would Leavis have made of the internet? One need hardly ask. He must be turning in his grave.
A. N. Wilson and F. R. Leavis are not alone in their lamentation at the loss of innocence.
Antigone1984 has unearthed a yellowing cutting of an article by Alan Brien in the New Statesman of 14 August 1970:
“Historically, the English countryside has been continually on the verge of being ruined for ever. Almost a century ago, Henry James said our rural landscape was ‘Cockneyfied’ – there wasn’t a view without a bench, donated by an Alderman, from which to view it. E. M. Forster claimed that no one who did not remember the pre-war scenery could have any conception of how wild, untamed and exciting it still was. Today, we are told that Pan still piped and Artemis skinny-dipped, Romany jogged his caravan keeping a wary eye open for Mr Toad, as late as 1939. To think the natural world has declined since our youth seems an inevitable, emotional by-product of late middle-age. But the destruction of the green lungs which keep us breathing is not just a subjective illusion. The real cruelty is now, perhaps always was, in the towns where bureaucrats and businessmen sign away our rights in our own land. To hear someone like Bernard Levin say that so far as he is concerned, the entire countryside could be cemented over, gives me the sort of pain I once felt at the idea of an impaled dragonfly.”
Only today 28 April 2017 vicar Giles Fraser complains in the Guardian newspaper at the increasing obsolescence of the idea of “community”:
“It used to refer to the social togetherness contained within a particular area. Its key stations were the pub, the church, and the shops. In the general hubbub of such places, a magical chemistry of mutual attachment would soften the hard shells of our defensive individualism and bind otherwise very different people in a sense of common enterprise. And when people get to know each other like this they tend to look out for each other, including the most vulnerable among them. That’s probably why the church likes community: historically, it has easily been the most effective delivery mechanism for organized goodness and social care.
But in many places the very existence of community is under threat. My parish in south London is a case in point. On the Elephant and Castle edge of this parish is one of the largest property developments under way in the capital. It’s an attractive place for developers as it is a run-down area, some of it with a zone 1 [central London] postcode. Which is why the skyline is full of cranes and the cafes full of men in hi-vis jackets.”
For the most part, it seems, the new flats in the parish are being bought by foreign investors as juicy investments to park their spare cash for the nonce. Few seem actually to actually live in them. “Increasingly, my parishioners live in China,” says Mr Fraser. Local residents, many of whom have spent their lives in the parish, are being forced to move out: unlike wealthy foreign investors, their incomes are not high enough to buy flats in central London.
“It’s little wonder that people have a problem with globalisation. Street by street, areas like mine are being hollowed out by capitalism…I fear that capitalism is turning my parish into a ghost town…Wealthy liberal metropolitan types who are unaffected by this sort of change are puzzled that people are turning to the far right to find answers to the evisceration of their communities. But the centre ground of politics has nothing to offer by way of resistance to the huge global forces and capital flows that are turning places like this into some soulless pile of stratospherically expensive steel and glass.”
On a more positive note, at least so far as the rural scene is concerned, optimists might like to check out a recent edition of Country Life (12 April 2017) with a keynote article by Clive Aslet entitled “The Great Village Renaissance”. Aslet predicts that broadband (when it works), the trend towards home-working, the introduction of home deliveries, the increasing awfulness of commuting and, not least, a feisty spirit of cooperation among residents are bringing about a rural renaissance – and thwarting threats from unwanted development. According to the magazine, “Villageyness is a quality that the British aspire to, even when living in the immense global city that is London… None of this is to infer that there is no hardship, isolation or unemployment in rural communities, but many villages are rediscovering the do-it-yourself spirit and making life work.”
Finally, there is the joker in the pack – Brexit. Optimists would argue that, once Britain has escaped from the Procrustean bed of homogenizing Euro-regulation, as an independent nation once again in control of its own affairs, it will be in a position to resurrect past glories, recover its age-old customs and recreate the myth-laden Golden Age – now so wistfully remembered – prior to the European Communities Act of 1972, when national sovereignty was wantonly jettisoned in exchange for a mess of potage – and huge dollops of waffle – at the EU canteen in Brussels.
You might perhaps care to view some of our earlier posts. For instance:
- Why? or How? That is the question (3 Jan 2012)
- Partitocracy v. Democracy (20 July 2012)
- The shoddiest possible goods at the highest possible prices (2 Feb 2012)
- Capitalism in practice (4 July 2012)
- Ladder (21 June 2012)
- A tale of two cities (1) (6 June 2012)
- A tale of two cities (2) (7 June 2012)
- Where’s the beef? Ontology and tinned meat (31 Jan 2012)
Every so often we shall change this sample of previously published posts.