I’ve had some great feedback from all corners about this challenge recently – kicking off from a discussion about Cornwall – that has really got my head spinning. To make some sense of it, I thought I’d jot down a few notes in answer to some questions I’ve been asking myself for a while, and that some of you have also iterated.
Firstly, I openly apologise for my relative ignorance on the subject of the distinct Cornish identity – and indeed other regional/historical/personal identities that exist within the diverse area that is officially labelled ‘England’. Obviously, this literary venture aims to go some way to combat my lack of knowledge; I do not, and will never presume myself to be an expert on anyone’s identity. I struggle enough to understand how I might define my own.
Of course, it is not only me who is plagued with this kind of ignorance. That is one of the many problems with the terms ‘English’ and ‘British’ and even smaller designations such as by region (‘North-East’), county (‘Cornwall’) and city (‘London’). Not only do these homogenising labels fail to represent a heck of a lot, but they are often applied to individuals and areas that do not want to be represented by them. As these false representations become more widely accepted at face value, so ignorance of the complexities and disagreements beneath expands, across all aspects of society. I’m just starting to understand how important it is to critique these labels.
- So why have I chosen to divide the country by its (ceremonial) counties, which are labels in themselves?
This is something I struggled to decide upon for a long time: if ‘England’ is meaningless, surely all its official subdivisions are too. Instead of by its counties, I debated dividing the country by rural vs. urban areas, by trends in landscape, even by motorway routes. Ultimately, however, each of these ideas is as arbitrary as the next.
My final decision was made precisely because the official county designations are so problematic and enforced by the state on people. For example, as has been pointed out to me this week, calling Cornwall a ‘county’ is itself an offence, as it belittles its extensive Celtic history and linguistic uniqueness that gives the region its own sense of distinct nationhood.
I want to investigate the inadequacy of dissecting England’s area in this way: what happens when people don’t consider themselves part of any English county?; might there be similarities and differences between people’s attitudes that have nothing to do with county borders?; how else might people define themselves if not by county?; is there any sign of a discernible national spirit?
- Isn’t listing authors under these counties a bit hypocritical, being tantamount to assigning them identities that they may not consider accurate?
In actual fact, it’s not where the authors come from that determines where they are positioned on my list, but rather where their books are set geographically. But in short, yes, it is horribly difficult to justify. Who am I to say that the author Alan M Kent is writing about the county of Cornwall, when he considers himself fully Cornish and not part of English administrative or cultural society at all? I did try to get around this and other difficulties by referring, in my plan, to “England-based” rather than simply “English” authors, but obviously this hasn’t been completely successful.
At present, to continue with Alan M Kent as an example, he is listed under ‘Cornwall’ simply because of the arbitrary fact that his Cornish novel shares some of the coordinates of that English county. Some of the other books on the list do not name their settings at all; it is mere critical speculation that has attached them to a certain county and could be utterly incorrect. Regardless, with all the novels on my journey I aim to analyse the representations of place, whatever and wherever those places are considered to be, whether they are clear or blurry, accurate or subjective. The whole point of this challenge is to learn about different points of view; that is also why I’m choosing to blog about it!
- Why have I chosen to analyse these representations of place through literature, instead of tackling the politics of Englishness head-on?
As much as I hope this journey can stand as a critique of how dangerous and ridiculous it is for anyone – the government, institutions, even little old me – to assign labels of identity to others, it is also a personal journey. As such, I’m undertaking it through the medium of what I have always loved, studied and learnt about the world from: literature. Novels. Fiction. Of course it has struck me that reading ‘one book from every county’ will not teach me all I need to know about life in that part of England; it will teach me one person’s views, and maybe not even that if I get the wrong end of the stick. In a way, I’m just excited to find new things to read.
So the way I’m carrying out this challenge isn’t perfect, it won’t give me answers set in stone…but then again, I wouldn’t expect to find those anywhere.
In fact, I’m not really looking for answers. I’d rather just learn how to ask the right questions.
Your comments this week have helped massively in that, so keep them coming!