Let’s go backwards. Backwards in time, all the way to the beginning. Back to a country that neither of us would recognize, probably. Britain, 1973.
-Was it really that different, do you think?
– Completely different. Just think of it! A world without mobiles or videos or Playstations or even faxes. A world that had never heard of Princess Diana or Tony Blair, never thought for a moment of going to war in Kosovo or Afganistan. There were only three television channels in those days, Patrick! Three! And the unions were so powerful that, if they wanted to, they could close one of them down for a whole night. Sometimes people even had to do without electricity. Imagine!
– Jonathan Coe, The Rotters Club
At the moment, I’m making a concerted – if slightly reluctant – effort to bring my reading up to date. Indeed, if you glanced at the stacks of books currently gathering dust in storage back in the UK (ie. toppling precariously off my Dad’s ad hoc book shelves) you might be forgiven for thinking that the novel ceased existing some time around 1978 (which it didn’t, did it? Might as well have done, though. Arf arf. A little “situation of the novel” humour for you there. Jeez.)
Anyway, after a happy couple of days counting the erections in The Line of Beauty, I’m now onto Jonathan Coe’s The Rotter’s Club. I’m, oh, about 50 pages in, so not much cohesive to report at present, except this: Now, I’ve long held that English culture seems to develop unevenly around a series of time-lags, that there are certain manifestations or practices that persist, long past their appropriate chronology. However, it’s pretty disconcerting to find that Coe’s mid-seventies Birmingham, with its homemade light ale, Big School, prefabs and Black Forest gateau, meshes so easily with the 1990s Hull of my childhood.
As an undergraduate, a large part of my imaginative life was taken up by foreys into Englishness, a pursuit both blessed and blighted by the tinge of juvenilia, like all the best obsessions are. Indeed, with the sureity that only a nineteen year-old can muster, it hadn’t occurred to me that many, many others were similarly busyied away, constructing their own imaginative landscapes to form a vast, collective hallucination of ice cream cones, film stills of Julie Christie, bunting, Sarah Cracknell’s smile, seaside piers on fire, bald patches and anaglypta wallpaper.
Having spent the five years since then systematically chipping away at an instinct, on coming here I had thought I was too ensconced for a long spell in Hungary to reshuffle my picture of England. I was wrong, however; from here England has begun to reorganise itself into a solid shape and the view doesn’t look too sprightly. What this amounts to, I’m not yet sure. In terms of my, ahem, literary pursuits it’s a very timely boon (confidential to those with a friendly interest in my meatworld: it’s just under three weeks ’til my PhD application is due), clearing much of the fog around the subject. In a wider sense, I’m far to innured to the perils of cultural relativism to begin to think comparatively about this fine, strange, new place yet. I’ll think on…
I’ve been sneaking a peek at photographer Simon Roberts’ work-in-progress We English. He and his family have hit the road in a campervan; he’s documenting scenes from English life to produce a photographic journal of life in England in 2008. You can follow his progress on his blog here.
After a stint in Russia – which produced the startling monograph Motherland – Roberts is turning his lens homeward. In impulse and in method, his English journey reprises the Anglocentric turn of culture in the mid twentieth century moment, when the British Empire’s sun finally set and ravaged by German bombers, English culture began the anxious work of reevaluating, reinterpretating and reconstructing in pursuit of a national identity it seemed to have mislaid.
What’s interesting about Simon Roberts’ work is that his English journey seems so anachronistic. Taking in Cromer Fair, Midhurst Carnival and lawn bowls at Weston-Super-Mare, Roberts’ aesthetic is squarely rooted in the mid century moment. Roberts cites scenes from English life first seen in the work of Bill Brandt, Tony Ray-Jones and Martin Parr. And this is no criticism of Roberts’ endeavour; what his shooting itinerary highlights is how these elements have become a visual grammar of Englishness. On the present, what these archaisms reveal is the pervasive nostalgic feedback loop at the heart of the English cultural imagination.
The same was true of the mid century period during which this photographic lexicon first emerged. As now, these depictions of English life were already old photographs of the present day. Ray-Jones’s knowing archaism, his black and white pathos, was, in his words, the attempt ‘to record the “English way of life” before it becomes more Americanised’. Again, there’s this sense of shoring up a frail culture against its immiment demise.
Ray-Jones needn’t have worried. In Roberts’ (and others’) representations of Englishness, we see that Americanisation is no match for good old English nostalgia, indeed, these archaisms are England – at least in our imagination.
Beachy Head and Beauty Contest, Southport by Tony Ray-Jones