England made me?

‘Regionalism is a sleeping giant that is now, after a short pause, ready to wake again out of sheer, obvious righteousness,’ writes Alex Niven, setting out his stall in his lively short book, New Model Island. The plates are already shifting. Ireland inches towards unification at ground level, in Scotland the Scottish National Party enjoys a near-monopoly of parliamentary seats, and the two major parties in the rest of the UK, the Conservatives and Labour, are locked a bitter struggle to commandeer anew the midlands and the north. Where Niven differs from those who want to see a new kind of English radical project, is that he is determined to drive a stake into the heart of England before it is re-invented as a nationalist enclave. ‘England does not, in the end,’ he argues, ‘have a substantial or coherent enough cultural imaginary to last the distance in the globalised, precarious twenty-first century.’

If not England, then what? Niven’s pitch is for an archipelago of regions or provinces to stimulate and disperse political self-confidence, and so begin to address the dilemma most famously captured by William Gibson’s remark that although the future has arrived it has been unevenly distributed. Niven’s book is strong on the cultural arguments for decentralisation, but doesn’t explain fully why Labour’s earlier proposals for regional assemblies failed to gain traction, nor how breaking up the power of London can be achieved – especially when he seems to believe that politicians such as Diane Abbott, Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell (all command and control career politicians representing north London constituencies it should be noted), might have been the ones who could have made it happen. Unfortunately for the author, the book went to press before the electoral rout of 12 December 2019, an election which Niven had hoped would produce a left-wing Labour government. This was not to be. Nevertheless, the arguments for decentralisation are not going to go away; indeed they are likely to become stronger.

As the book’s sub-title – How To Build A Radical Culture Beyond The Idea Of England – suggests, the political changes Niven wishes to see rest principally upon strengthening cultural identities at a regional level. He admits that his own identification with the Northumbrian region has been influenced by its early Christian formation under Oswald and Aidan in the seventh century, showing ‘what a radical ethical event Christianity must have been in the sparse, martial landscapes of this period of northern history.’ This larger story has been recently amplified in Tom Holland’s epic study of the administrative and ethical legacy of Christianity, Dominion. Anyone who thinks that radical politics and religion can’t sometimes reinforce each other’s greater purposes should visit the Miners’ Memorial in Durham Cathedral.

Where Niven sees cultural hope in the folk, punk and post-punk movements – especially strong in the northern cities, as well as Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales – my generation saw a similar hope in jazz. There was always a strong relation to civil rights movements in modern jazz, whether in the US, Britain and even in the lands of ‘actually existing socialism’, especially Poland and Czechoslovakia. My anxieties over Niven’s reliance on indigenous folk culture are because too often in the past this has fed into the cultural blind alley of anti-Americanism on the British left, something Dick Hebdige was alert too more than thirty years ago, and challenged in his 1980s essay ‘Towards a Cartography of Taste 1935 – 1962’, first published in Block magazine, and reprinted in his 1988 collection Hiding in the Light.

I would also argue that topography contributes as much to the cultural identity of a region as any other factor. In the version of economic geography we were taught at school, it is why you find ship-building on the Tyne, coal-mining in the north-east and south Wales, arable farming in East Anglia, sheep-farming in the Lake District, naval and maritime ports on the south coast, tin-mining in Cornwall, and all the national political and governmental institutions located in the capital city. Although most economists would now claim that the links between place and primary production have been sundered, and that most post-industrial jobs can be sited anywhere in the world, if there are serious moves towards a more sustainable economy, some of these connections might need to be re-discovered again.

And although the UK belatedly endorsed the European Landscape Convention which came into force in 2004, its central argument has largely been ignored (and post-Brexit can now be returned unused). Yet it was far-seeing, stating that: ‘Each party undertakes to recognise landscapes in law as an essential component of people’s surroundings, an expression of the diversity of their shared cultural and natural heritage, and a foundation of their identity.’ Niven’s aspirations for a new regionalism could well gain much by paying more attention to landscape and topography as he does to administrative issues, especially given the current revival of writing about place and all its historical, demographic and cultural complexities. Rightly questioning the consequences of the abandonment of the old county structure in 1974, Niven suggests that it marginalised ‘the region’s greatest asset: historical memory.’ He also observed that: ‘Regionalism draws as nationalisms do on certainly key historical legacies, but in a more diffuse, less racialised way: its deep appeal lies in its harnessing of volitional civic attachment to cities, towns and locales, rather than the over-simplifying medieval and romantic dreams of nationhood…’ This is very well put.

New Model Island is full of good things: a long, well-structured essay in short chapters, with occasional interludes combining personal reminiscence with brief cultural forays into Dylan Thomas’s poetry, Liverpudlian post-punk romanticism, and the architectural ‘new eerie’. It is also nicely published too: design, typography, layout and readability work to bring the text in clear engagement with the reader.

A sense of place and belonging is also the focus of Jon Lawrence’s timely Me,Me,Me? The search for community in post-war England. This is a close re-reading of some of the famous sociological studies of working class life and culture from the 1950’s onwards which sought to understand whether the alleged ideal of the working class community so often invoked by commentators still existed in Britain, or indeed whether it had ever existed at all. As someone who trained to be a teacher in the 1960s, the studies of family life in Bermondsey by Raymond Firth, the famous and much-cited Family and Kinship in East London by Peter Wilmott & Michael Young, and of Luton car workers and their aspirations by John Goldthorpe and David Lockwood were compulsory reading. At the time most of us thought that anything written by a sociologist or anthropologist must be true, not yet understanding the art of interpretation. Lawrence gives the material a thorough going over, as much for the interviewers’ assumptions as of the interviewees’ testimonies. It makes fascinating reading, and unsurprisingly Lawrence has his own thesis to suggest. This is that rather than the simplistic idea that affluence had brought a tide of consumerist individualism, and then subsequently de-industrialisation put a coffin nail into the organic, close-knit community, people have always been struggling to balance the social and the self, so that ‘personal betterment and social progress often went hand in hand’. So while economic and social impacts on work-based communities undermined men’s roles, they freed many women to explore their own sense of personal freedom and opportunity.

While Niven’s book takes the form of a lively essay, Lawrence’s study is more for the academic researcher, but both are equally fascinating. Lawrence concludes by suggesting that what has replaced the defensive structures of neighbourhood and class, is an ‘elective belonging’. By this he means that where you live, its topography, social mix, and where it lies on the rural/urban continuum – in short, its sheer ‘placeness’ – is still vitally important to people’s identity, as much as class, for many more so. As a sense of place becomes ever more important, it will require underpinning by a renewed respect and increase in powers for local government. I am not sure any longer that I would vote for anybody standing for Parliament who had not devoted some years to being a local councillor.

Paradoxically, the European Union with its earlier espousal of the concept of subsidiarity – that is to say, that all decisions should be taken at the smallest strategic level possible to be both acted upon and effective – did provide a model for a more devolved democracy, even if never fulfilled. But now we have ‘taken back control’ that prospect seems further off than ever.


Essex Book Festival 2020​​

Sunday, 15 March 2020, 11am – 12 noon

Firstsite Gallery, Lewis Gardens, High Street, Colchester, CO1 1JH

All at Sea?

Ken will be in conversation with Hana Loftus, co-director of award-winning architecture practice HAT Projects, currently working at Jaywick Sands on the Essex coast (where 35 people died in the 1953 tidal surge), in response to the new threats posed by climate change. Hana’s talk will be illustrated with archive and contemporary photographs, and material showing possible scenarios for developing more resilient coastal communities.

For more information & booking: https://essexbookfestival.org.uk/event/all-at-sea/