Over the last few months I’ve encountered a range of ‘stuff’ – exhibitions, books and articles – that has English written through it like seaside rock; some are featured here, more may follow in future. It seems there’s been increasing debate about this elusive quality of Englishness going on for a while now (centuries really), and clearly there’s been some specific focus on the topic lately – the forthcoming Scotland vote on independence is churning up an awareness of the UK nations; the wild aspirations of our national football team had some people’s blood up for a while in the summer and much was made in the media of the Commonwealth Games a few weeks back – I was intrigued to discover that the English ‘national anthem’ played at the Commonwealth Games was ‘Jerusalem’ – but it’s only now that I seem to have become attuned to the recent output on Englishness.
In terms of generating a sense of belonging, to a ‘tribe’ or a nation, sport has to be one of the most powerful forces. Although I can see the appeal of sport and have a memory of being fairly athletic in my teens, I admit I’d had little interest in it for years as either participant or spectator, but working on a Cultural Olympiad project at Watershed in Bristol with David Goldblatt over four years led me to understand – through his engrossing lectures, broadcasts and excellent writing – what a significant and fascinating role sport plays in every country.
David’s writing splits the spotlight beam that’s focused on the sport in question into multiple component parts revealing the spectrum of political, social and economic factors that contribute to, and are part of major sporting events; all of this makes for a big impact on large and small nations. So, though I still wouldn’t call myself a sports fan I do follow David’s blogs as a) they’re a great read and b) they provide a really interesting insight into all these elements. David recently made some astute observations on the wobbly status of English identity in one his blog posts on the World Cup (before England’s departure from the contest) for Al Jazeera America;
“Why had the English finally [by Euro 96] begun to recognize themselves? To a great extent, this was a reaction to what had been happening in Scotland and Wales. A decade and a half of Conservative rule had seen sharply rising regional economic inequalities whose impact fell particularly heavily on the Celtic periphery and its old industries. At the same time, the Tories had weakened key British institutions, like the National Health Service, or abolished them, like nationalized industries, both of which were prominent in the economies of Scotland and Wales. By 1996, Scotland and Wales had begun to feel like different countries from England, and there was growing momentum in politics for some kind of devolution of government. England, like it or not, was going to have to take legal, constitutional and cultural shape.”
Without that chain of allegiance to a national sporting team I don’t think I’ve ever given a lot of thought to my own nationality, and pause when completing forms that ask for it – I’m British, but could I put English, or European? But if I was Welsh or Scottish I’m sure I’d feel differently and if I came from Northern Ireland, well I imagine that’s another can of worms altogether. But I do have a sense of being part of, and moulded by the particular environment of where I grew up.
After generations of agricultural and manual labouring, or domestic service my families, along with many others after WW1, gradually became middle class and settled in St Albans, a moderate sized cathedral town (technically a city) in Hertfordshire. In the fifties and sixties there were working farms all round, weekly street and cattle markets and two thousand plus years-worth of history that generated a distinctive range of buildings made of local materials. All these elements say ‘English’ to me now, though I’m very aware that this is a personal, mid 20th century, white, middle-class take on England. However, that’s where I started and I’m curious to pick up different views, interpretations and perceptions of what England might be for others; so what is ‘Englishness’?
It was David Goldblatt’s post that ‘kicked off’ (I’m sure he’d appreciate the use of the cliche!) my chance encounters with other people’s perceptions of Englishness and from what he writes it would appear that ‘we English’ are having to define ourselves by what we know we’re not, in the absence of having a clear idea of what we might actually be, so when this book – ‘How England made the English’ by Harry Mount (2012) – was lent to me recently I thought I might find some answers.
“A[…] generalisation to consider is the question of English versus British. There has been endless discussion about what we mean by English as opposed to British, but this book is focused primarily on English rural and urban landscapes and on the English character.”
So this will provide a useful starting point for defining ‘English’ then…
“There are differences between England, Scotland and Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland, and their inhabitants, which could fill a book of their own…”
“I didn’t want to get bogged down in those relatively small, if compelling differences. Instead, I want to talk about the differences that separate England from the rest of the world (the vast majority of which, in fact, England shares with NI, Wales and Scotland)”
Thanks Mr Mount. What follows is a breathless race through an over-abundance of examples and assumptions about the four main factors he’s chosen to illustrate the national character – England’s geography, geology, history and weather. For example, the English population’s ‘fevered drinking habits’ can be accounted for by our gloomy northern climate that doesn’t allow us to stay ‘calm in large open spaces after dark’; this ties in with gender segregation that has ‘a great deal to do with early industrialisation, itself related to England’s geology’, and only a little later, after a flying reference to Jacques Derrida and why the weather ‘dictates our clumsy approach to sex’ we are told that most public statues in France are by male artists, of women while in England they’re mostly of and by men.
Then there are the microclimates of urban garden squares; 11.5 million sheds in Britain (not just England); frost pockets in Rickmansworth and 25 species of seabird breeding on the British coast. All this and more in just a few pages, all fairly engaging, but quickly forgotten as you’re dragged across a landscape of tiresomely short, tenuously connected, fact-filled paragraphs.
But there was some respite – what did stick with me after I finished the book was the penultimate chapter ‘Why England doesn’t look like England’ where Harry pauses for some more reflective thoughts. Despite being a second cousin of David Cameron, a former Bullingdon Club member, correspondent at the Daily Telegraph and a generation younger than me, there’s a personal note of ire in this chapter that seems at odds with both his age and the Tory credentials. He’s lamenting the loss of the slightly broken down, the shabby (genuine as opposed to chic), the untended;
“Anything a little downmarket, dusty or cheap can’t survive in the shade of the onslaught of the glossy, the new and expensive […] Seaside towns – which became artistic colonies and, by extension, bohemian boltholes because of their beauty and cheapness – have been cleaned up and turned into kitsch versions of themselves”
“English beauty was traditionally an under-designed, accidental beauty – like the beauty of the classic English field gate, which happens to have the same aspect ratio as a 35mm film, old fashioned televisions and human vision[….] That accidental beauty is increasingly being regulated out of existence […] The antiseptic spick-and-spanification of provincial England has destroyed the pleasing air of decay”
I recognise and am deeply comfortable with these worn qualities and regret that the low-key, often DIY, updating of older houses on a shoestring – while also retaining the ‘fit’ of the building within its context – appear much less common now. That began I think in the early 60s and was dwindling by the 80s under Thatcher and was both a reaction against and a legacy of the post-war period; a reaction against (from some quarters) the immediate post-war sweeping aside of the old in favour of a new, uncluttered British version of modernism, while the legacy was the ‘make do and mend’, ‘making the best of it’ approach to creating a home for your family – an expedient as opposed to the current fashionable ‘lifestyle choice’.
There were also of course many DIY abominations created in this period too, but the old codgeress in me resents how too much money is now used to appropriate what were once unassuming, understated and affordable houses in city and country, and convert them into presumptuous trophy properties or second homes that loudly broadcast their prosperity – and investment potential – from their tastefully blinded windows while pricing local families out of the area. [Since writing this section of the post I’ve started reading Real England by Paul Kingsnorth that goes into this topic and many parallel themes with a grace and urgency that’s not apparent in Harry Mount’s book]
Today’s England, especially the seaside, would, I think have dismayed, though maybe not surprised, the photographer Tony Ray-Jones, whose ghost re-appeared in my life when a well produced catalogue of an exhibition ‘Only in England – Photographs by Tony Ray-Jones’, came my way on loan. I learned about this show, infuriatingly, the day after it ended – it was the inaugural exhibition of the Science Museum’s new Media Space Gallery, and I’m so sorry to have missed it. Tony Ray-Jones captured some quintessentially ‘English’ scenes and moments in the mid to late 1960s and tragically died aged just 30 in 1972. He was someone that many photographic students like myself were aware of in the early 70s; Martin Parr was also one of these students and he has selected the images for this exhibition as well as having some of his own work as part of the show and he’s written a piece in the catalogue.
Tony Ray-Jones was perceived in a way as England’s younger version of Henri Cartier Bresson – they both captured images that framed a configuration of people and objects at a moment when some particular facial expression, gesture, curious movement or wayward creature would create a marvellous congruency. Although Tony Ray-Jones had honed his skills on the streets of New York, on returning to England he translated this sensibility into something that suggests he photographed with a twinkle in his eye and wry smile that may have been disparaged in the States.
Many of the photographs have complex compositions with lots going on and often contain surreal elements. There’s a wonderful tension between the static moment where he’s pressed the shutter on recognising a natural tableau, and the viewer’s sense of the movements that have just happened and what will follow – the next step, the turn of a head – that would make for such a different picture. There are some marked-up contact sheets included in the book so it’s possible to see his process and there’s a great unravelling of the narrative found in two films and their contact sheets relating to the well known Beachy Head boat trip photo (on the book cover image above) by Ian Walker. So within these dynamic, humorous and surprising compositions of England’s beaches, ballrooms and beauty pageants, village rituals and London streets and markets, his images expressed an affection and respect for his subjects and their whimsical, occasionally absurd, activities;
“My aim is to communicate something of the spirit and the mentality of the English, their habits and the way they do things, partly through tradition and the nature of their environment and mentality. I have tried to present some of these daily anachronisms in an honest and descriptive manner, the visual aspect being directed by the content. For me, there is something very special and rather humorous about the ‘English way of life’ and I want to record it from my particular view before it becomes more Americanised.” Tony Ray-Jones in Creative Camera 1968, taken from an article by the very readable photography writer Gerry Badger. There’s also a very good piece on the exhibition on this great blog ‘That’s How the Light Gets In’
These images don’t make me nostalgic for the 60s but I’m glad he was there to reflect back to me now, so artfully, that time full of odd, English magic. Then, my next encounter was with more, but different English Magic as Jeremy Deller’s show pitched up in Bristol:
“English Magic reflects the artist’s interest in the diverse nature of British society and it’s broad cultural, socio-political and economic history.” [Note the interchangeable use of British and English here, and the parallel between this artist’s interests and the function of sport within societies mentioned above] “Deller acknowledges magic can be both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ and the trickery and concealment practised by politicians and oligarchs does not go unpunished.” From the exhibition leaflet.
There’s a real diversity of work in this show – in no particular order there’s a historically sequenced display of Neolithic hand axes from the Thames Valley, a painted mural of fire consuming a shopping mall in Jersey in 2017 and an intriguing set of (mostly press) photographs from 1972 – 1973 that focus on two parallel but ostensibly unrelated events across the UK; David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust tour is shown with images of various news-worthy incidents of social disorder on the streets and town centres of Britain. Juxtaposing these strands aimed to show the alternative worlds inhabited concurrently by young Brits in a time of strikes, economic gloom and the IRA bombing campaign in England. These pictures resonate curiously with Tony Ray-Jones’s more amiable and slightly surreal photographs from only 5 years earlier.
Then there are William Morris woodblocks (see a nice post on these by Flow Contemporary Arts); a giant Hen Harrier – representing the two birds allegedly shot by Prince Harry and a chum at Sandringham – snatching a Range Rover off road; a film with wistfully joyous music played by a steel pan band; imprisoned soldiers’ artwork; Trade Union style banners with their usual iconography of strength and unity substituted by diagrams of tax avoidance schemes, and the aspirational scene in a mural (by Stuart Sam Hughes) of, once again, William Morris as a colossus destroying Chelsea Football club owner Roman Abramovich’s yacht in Venice; the motivation for this painting can be found here.
There’s a mournful, and pivotal, collision created in the show between William Morris’s ideals of beauty and utility (his commitment to crafting the beautiful along with his socialist principles to make this available for everyone) and the post-Soviet carve-up of state companies and subsequent accumulation of great wealth for a few oligarchs – who are now major players in the art world we’re currently visiting. There is an echo here of Morris’s anguished confession that he was ‘ministering to the swinish luxury of the rich’.
I was thoroughly absorbed by the content, rhythms and textures of the mix of media and came away from the show with a strong feeling that I’d been given some kind of invisible optical device – a prism, a magnifier, maybe a camera lucida – that had allowed a different perspective, a more oblique viewpoint on separate elements within the show that were often familiar. This virtual device was obviously a cunning contrivance of Deller’s – an uncatalogued but useful tool to accompany the exhibition – a bit of English Magic, bending the visitor’s vision through his themes, juxtapositions and changeling tactics to provide additional depth and coherence to the narrative.
This imaginary lens also directed a stark light on the machinations of money and power, the ‘tide of new money’ that Harry Mount holds accountable for the transformation of the modest streets, villages and seaside resorts – captured so eloquently by Tony Ray-Jones – into the sterile, corporate variants now (dis)gracing the country.
Now, bring me my rusty spear and my dented chariot of fire.
English Magic is on at Bristol Museum and Art Gallery until September 21st 2014. You can get the catalogue of the Tony Ray-Jones ‘Only in England’ show from here, and you could probably pick up a suitably dilapidated copy of Harry Mount’s England book from your local charity bookshop, but read Real England first by Paul Kingsnorth.