The Break-Up of Britain

I started this task with the mission of finding an English identity. Not out of love of England or dislike of any other part of the UK or the British Isles, but out of interest, in order to see what might be left if the concept of ‘Britain’ had officially broken up on Thursday 18th September when the results of the Scottish referendum on independence were announced.

Referendum-calendar_tcm4-814401On that day last month, we learnt that the UK has not officially been decapitated by Scotland becoming an independent nation. Nevertheless, the social, political and cultural rupture between England and Scotland in particular is arguably at its most tangible of the recent age. Many feel it is only a matter of time before the subject is raised again, and again, with continued fervour. The disjuncture felt by so many of our population means that the questions I began asking myself before this challenge still stand: what does it mean to be a part of the UK and of the British nationality, now that an even firmer line has been carved between England and Scotland?

However disconcerted voters ultimately were by the unknown financial and institutional impacts of leaving the UK, it certainly seems true that the majority of Scottish people choose to identify themselves – in spirit and in name at least – as Scottish, rather than British. And, in doing so, they separate themselves from the homogenised concept of ‘Britishness’, leaving ‘Britishness’ to England, Wales and Northern Ireland to define. So how can it be defined?

better-together_0

Britishness, as it stands, is problematic. In fact, I can’t really think what it means to be British. There are stereotypes galore, of course, but an ability to wait patiently in queues or the appreciation of a cup of tea and a scone in the afternoon aren’t really true or convincing enough factors to found a whole national identity on. To work out what Britishness really is, the question should be:

What is it, being from England, in my character, way of life or world view that I share with people from Northern Ireland and Wales?

But, in order to work that out, surely I must first understand what it is, for that matter, that I even share with the rest of the population of England?

Hence this year-long challenge. If I, a devout bookworm, could read one book (if only I had time for more!) from every county in England, perhaps I would start to discover some innate characteristic of the English spirit that, however unpredictably, ties us all together. So what did I discover?

The Key Shared Themes

  1. Dislike or suspicion of neighbours, and a whole lot of tension…

David Almond's "The Fire Eaters"

One of the most recognisable traits across the English novels was the tendency of authors to portray their characters’ rejection of anything that is different to themselves or not perceived as ‘the Norm’; in other words, their characters’ hatred of ‘the Other’. Whether this ‘otherness’ is perceived as a result of differing religions, hometowns, education, values, income or any of a number of personal factors, if there is a difference in background, it is made to stand out.

UntitledIn most cases, characters in the novels I read this year were shown to feel most threatened and defensive against the examples of ‘Otherness’ which were closest to their own home, i.e. those characterised by their very neighbours. It has seemed to be the people next door, or on the same street, or in the same small community, whose differences are most apparent and the cause of most tension and unhappiness in main characters’ lives. Consider the huge number of references to “incomers” or “outsiders” we come across in almost all the counties’ novels, from where I started with David Almond’s The Fire-Eaters to where I ended up with Alan M. Kent’s Proper Job! Charlie Curnow. Both of these novels, for example, involve the arrival of new families or individuals from other parts of the country, bringing with them a very distinct set of behaviours and inciting a marked set of prejudices from the community they attempt (and, more often than not, fail) to infiltrate.

517rrfxbcllIt’s not just a matter of neighbourly rivalry, of course. Just as there is a lot of tension shown around the boundaries of people’s properties, so there is tension around town and county borders. For example, the majority of the books I read from Northern English counties – from Northumberland to Yorkshire and even below – featured unpopular, unpleasant or outcast Scottish characters from just over the border. I return to David Almond’s novel as an example, in which the eponymous ‘Fire-Eater’ is McNulty, a wild and tattooed Scottish street-performer who both delights and frightens young Bobby with his frantic energy – nay madness – but is utterly repulsive to Bobby’s mother. By representing Scotland through this strange, outcast character, Almond is able to reflect the region’s (subconscious?) suspicion and distrust felt towards England’s northern neighbours. This is also true of other areas where there are town and county borders: in Phil Rickman’s representation of the oddness of the Welsh in his Herefordshire-set novel, The Fabric of Sin, for example; and in the divide between ‘Central London’ and ‘Everywhere Else’ that can be felt in Xiaolu Guo’s A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary For Lovers. The ‘outsiders’ – even those who, geographically-speaking, aren’t really that far away at all – are demonised in the eyes of our novels’ protagonists, and are a source of great discomfort.

ad0246a6-ac0d-488b-9648-810136911b1eimg100I say once more, one key theme across these novels was how much English characters seem to distrust those closest to them, including their next-door neighbours. Through these narrative examples of unwelcoming communities, it seems as though England is a country of mini-nations, each one self-sufficient and resentful of incomers or anything alternative to their defined norms.

 

  1. The importance of owning property & having one’s own space

If I was ever in any doubt about the age-old saying, reading these novels has certainly confirmed that an Englishman’s home really does seem to be his castle. For our protagonists (as well as for many more minor characters), defining what belongs to oneself – and protecting it from those ghastly ‘outsiders’ – is of paramount concern.

c4142826-40eb-4e88-aaad-a1f42dd6c033img100For example, over this year, we’ve read novels where the physical purchase and upkeep of property is the main feature, as a matter of self-definition and pride, such as The Legacy of Hartlepool Hall by Paul Torday, and Money Can’t Buy Me Love by Julie Reilly. Without large houses to identify themselves by, these characters soon feel lost, their senses of selfhood undermined. We’ve also read novels where characters refuse or abhor the leaving of the homes they have made for themselves, due to fear and hatred of everything outside, such as The Woman Who Went To Bed For A Year by Sue Townsend. There are those characters who try to deny that anything exists outside their safe, four-walled universe, such as the father in My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece, by Annabel Pitcher, who creates a shrine for his dead daughter inside his family home and cocoons himself in the unhealthy belief that she is still alive. Even those characters who choose to rebel against the normative desire for property ownership do, at the very least, seek to mark out and define their own living areas, implementing private habits and traditions to make spaces their own – such as the nomadic gypsies who refuse to be pinned down to one location in Katherine Webb’s The Legacy but who are protective of their common-land field whilst they remain; or taciturn Anne who resolutely removes herself from society in Laura Beatty’s Pollard in order to build her own woodland habitat.

9780099516941There are a multitude of reasons why owning property or marking out places as one’s own is so important to the characters in these English novels but, whichever way you look at it, it seems to come down to a need to define oneself in a particular way – as having a particular social or financial status, perhaps, or in order to create one’s own reality without being inhibited by others, or simply to prove to oneself and everyone else that you are part of (or not part of, as the case may be) a certain family or community. These ideas are not limited to a particular area of England: the importance of property ownership or of defining one’s own space is a common theme all over.

15931361Ultimately, this appears to suggest a desperate urge felt by English people to construct and establish a stable sense of belonging and a very physical home that they are in charge of and that no one can take away. If the American Dream is centred on the pursuit of upward social mobility and equal opportunities for everyone, then the English Dream is focussed on setting out our home; being in control of where and how we belong. Which leads me conveniently to the next theme…

  1. The desperate urge to belong

bellNever have I come across so many characters all at once, from independent novels, who display such a complex about needing to belong somewhere. The majority of characters we’ve read about are presented as paranoid, miserable, socially awkward, unstable, self-loathing, nervous, pained and tormented individuals who are clearly ill at ease with their habitats or circumstances, who simply do not feel at home anywhere, and are not made to feel welcome by anyone around them either (perhaps because they display some aspect of ‘otherness’…see #1).

8351912Honestly, these English authors seem to have joined forces to show that there is a ginormous physical and emotional impact on people when they are not allowed to feel at home even in their own house. For me, the most memorable contrast between characters feeling in and out of place in their surroundings is in Benjamin Wood’s The Bellwether Revivals. Here, the arrogant but fascinating Eden, who is offensively and suffocatingly intelligent, considers himself thoroughly entitled to his prestigious position in the Cambridge University academic scene. Meanwhile, fellow Cambridge student Oscar, from a working class background and instinctively sceptical of the Cambridge hype, still finds himself, almost unwillingly, part of a daily fight to prove to himself and to his colleagues that he has the right to be there, or else face crippling insecurity.

after-phoenix-sleeveBut there are a whole host of other examples of characters struggling to process the changing world and their place within it. In some cases this comes in the guise of characters trying to fathom how to redefine their existence in a Zombie-infested world, as in Jannicke Howard’s Only One Way. Alternatively, Martine McDonagh’s characters have to face a new reality with the struggle to adapt to the death of family member Phoenix in After Phoenix; not only does their previous happy existence fall out from under them, leaving them emotionally unstable, but also in physical terms their family home no longer feels like one – Dad even goes to live in the garden shed. Unsurprisingly, he doesn’t find much comfort there either.

There is a clear difference in the way authors use language and imagery and manipulate characterisation to contrast individuals who ‘belong’ with those who have lost all sense of self. For the English, it seems, establishing a sense of belonging is the biggest step towards happiness.

  1. I could go on for hours, but I suppose it might be better for everyone if I bullet point some other key trends in the novels that I spotted:
  • the prevalence of the retail industry – there were countless trips to the high street, buying sprees and shop name-drops to count
  • the collective horror at the memory of 9/11 and the fear of other terrorist atrocities – this came up time and again all over the country where novels were first published after 2001
  • colin-grant-bageye-at-the-wheel-paperbackthe frequent use of children’s narrative perspectives, such as in Black Swan Green by David Mitchell or Bageye At The Wheel by Colin Grant. Authors seem to use their innocent outlooks as a means to emphasise the failings of adults and the brokenness of society.

 

coverJudging purely from my interpretation of these narrative works, England is represented as a country that abhors anything or anyone that is remotely different from the expected norm, whether in terms of appearance, behaviour, class, social background, education, age or ethnicity. In fact, England’s population is often presented as so single-mindedly focussed on protecting their own individual identities, homes, properties, and small places on Earth that there is very little established sense of community, even where similarities exist. Rather, England seems to be a nation of individuals intent on building as many walls between themselves and the rest of the country as possible, both as a means to improve their status and better their own existences through property ownership and development, as well as to ward off the dangerous incomers and outsiders that are so threatening and suspicious to them.

I found examples of this behaviour, to varying degrees, in every single one of the novels I read for this challenge. No wonder I struggle to define a sense of English national identity when authors themselves are critical of any aspect of unity within the country’s bounds. Perhaps this shows I’m not the only one in doubt.

What does it mean to be English? I’m still not too sure, but I think it has something to do with fighting your own corner, for good or for bad. It’s certainly not the most hopeful or sociable way to be – feeling constantly cornered, threatened, defensive against others. Whose fault is it that individuals feel this way? In some cases it’s shown to be the government that makes life unbearable and endangers people’s freedom or social mobility. In other cases it has simply become society’s habit after years of suspicion towards incomers and outsiders. It is not always clear. However, I suppose we have also witnessed some of the redeeming features of this behaviour too: the motivation to take agency and define oneself on one’s own terms; the safety and love felt on the rare occasions when there are true senses of and family community. Individuals in the novels sometimes found peace together in the unlikeliest of places.

Despite not finding a clear answer as to what Englishness might be, I am still incredibly pleased with the way the Placing Myself challenge has gone. I do at least now have an idea of what might be the true privateness of the English, and if that is a common trend across the country, then perhaps we can call that a national characteristic and take some satisfaction there.

English Cerem Counties ed

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Wham!

Phil Rickman's "The Fabric of Sin"

Phil Rickman’s “The Fabric of Sin”

The premise of the Merrily Watkins series by Phil Rickman certainly sounds original:

The confident single-mum to strong-minded teenager Jane leads a religious life (in contrast to her daughter’s determinedly pagan beliefs) as a vicar of her own parish in Herefordshire, and is also the country’s first female appointed Deliverance Minister (a sort of church-condoned exorcist of bad spirits, if you can believe it). Alongside this spiritualism she takes to amateur sleuthing (why not?), investigating in The Fabric of Sin, the ninth novel in the series, the ancient Master House in Garway, on the England-Wales border, which is thought to have Templar connections and an evil energy living within its walls. As violence, mysterious events and the uncovering of scandalous historic records ensue, the Church – nay, the Archbishop of Canterbury himself – becomes involved in the case, as does Prince Charles and the rest of the Royal Family. After all, “you must never trust the buggers. Never. Any of them. Not at this level” (57). (Honestly, the plot does get that wild.)

As you might guess, I spent most of the time I was reading this novel completely taken aback by its scale of bizarreness. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think there’s anything at all the matter with plotlines that are weird or ambitious…but the complete absence of conventionality in this novel’s characters, plot and structure was utterly throwing. In fact, I’m still reeling from the oddity: the bombardment of real religious imagery versus the tale of murderous cover-ups; the good-guy-bad-guy ambivalence towards the Church and the Royals; the sheer number of people across the country who seemed to have a stake and make an appearance in the melee; the tension and confusion between English and Welsh identities in their past and present manifestations…There’s so much going on in this novel politically, and so many characters who appear and disappear within a single page, and so many unfinished sentences and unanswered questions that, despite this novel being 539 pages long, blink and you’ll miss the point of it. The word that comes to mind to describe the reading experience of this novel is ‘WHAM!’

Garway Hill, Herefordshire

Garway Hill, Herefordshire

As a result, Rickman’s novel is certainly impressive and unpredictable, but also fairly stressful to read. It was more about politics than mystery-solving, so didn’t really turn out to be all that gripping. Oftentimes I was at a loss as to what was actually going on or who was involved. I don’t have much knowledge or interest in Church/Monarchy politics and that’s one the reasons I usually steer clear of Templar-centric novels: the legends behind them are so far-fetched to my simple mind that they irritate me. I didn’t really take to Rickman’s characters either – designed to be unconventional, their novelty soon wore off leaving an empty space – and so don’t feel the need to read any other novels in the series. This novel was also written in what I recognise as being a sort of lazy, careless style: non-dialogue sentences starting with “Like, when did that happen?” and non-dialogue explanations leading with the phrase, “Couple of years ago” (17), missing the indefinite article ‘a’ from the beginning. I know some people will think that’s incredibly pedantic, and point out the style is probably not lazy at all, but carefully crafted. Nevertheless, it’s a style that I personally don’t take to when there’s no obvious literary purpose.

On the other hand, I liked the powerful descriptions of the sentient landscape along the England-Wales border, and I think the novel offered significant observations on the formation of identity in England, Wales, Herefordshire and, quite separately, Garway.

“Three landmark hills were laid out along the horizon. Like ancient and venerated body parts, Merrily thought, the bones of the border. Holy relics on display in the sunset glow […] The volcanic-looking Sugar Loaf and the ruined profile of the Skirrid which legend said had cracked open when Jesus Christ died on the cross. Still somehow sacred, these hills. No towns crowded them, nobody messed with them […] The third hill had been stabbed under its summit, some kind of radio mast sticking out like a spear from the spine of a fallen warrior, a torn and bloody pennant of cloud flurrying horizontally from its shaft.” (9)

This, the England-Wales border, is the “forgotten bit of old England” (13), a landscape that “has two personalities […] Long, light views on the English side, and then deep green and full of drama as it swoops down to the Monnow Valley and Wales” (33). In this part of the country, (unlike the sometimes over-politicised Scottish-English border), lines get lost. Blurred. Is this Wales? Is this England? Who belongs where?

“Still England. It had to be; there, below the road, was the River Monnow, which was the border, failing to be crossed by a smashed and collapsing footbridge, fenced off, with a sign that said: Danger. But if this wasn’t Wales, neither was it truly Herefordshire, not with names like Bagwllydiart on the signposts.” (63-4)

The border seems harder to mark the closer you get; people struggle to cope with being “neither one place nor the other” (42); and “if someone lives just a few yards over the border in what might seem to be a very English part of Wales they become determinedly Welsh Welsh” (271) to compensate for their uncertainty of identity. This uncertainty has brought on, throughout history, a strange feeling of instability and violence which plagues the landscape, its villages and its inhabitants.

Garway Templar Church, Herefordshire

Garway Templar Church, Herefordshire

Garway is the main site of strangeness and disturbance. The village has become “like another country” (9), Merrily feels, “a remote and separate realm” (113). Even uneducated Gomer can identify that “Garway is its own contex. There’s Hereford and there’s Wales…and there’s Garway. And Garway’s its own contex” (362). Judging by this novel, the convergence of England and Wales, and the subsequent emotional and political significance, seems to be a key characteristic of Herefordshire identity, much as the northern English counties obsess about the proximity of Scotland.

Rickman also offers a criticism of modern English identity as a whole, focussing, as many other modern English writers seem to have done on this journey of discovery, on “rural warming” (18) (think ‘global warming’) – the rapid intrusion of city on countryside; on landmark events such as “Foot and Mouth in 2001” (53) or “nine-eleven and seven-seven” (199); on the level of “self-indulgent second-bloody-homers” (264) that are increasing the demand for rural property development; on “the [terrifying] amount of surveillance in this country” (82); on the “rampant overpopulation” (88) and on “shining-arsed buggers with clipboards” (186) who roam the country as troublesome representatives of bureaucracy, red-tape, and officialdom. These themes are becoming increasingly familiar as we progress through this challenge: is this all modern Englishness amounts to?

So overall, an interesting read; I was intrigued by the setting if not by the politics and, for that reason, will award the novel 3/5 stars.

Next week I’ll be reading Colin Grant’s Bageye At The Wheel for Bedfordshire. Until then!

RICKMAN, Phil. The Fabric of Sin. London: Quercus, 2007.

Featured Image: Green Man carving, Garway Church.

http://www.britainexpress.com/uk-picture-of-the-day-image.htm?photo=2030

Space-probing

Sue Townsend's "The Woman Who Went to Bed for a Year"

Sue Townsend’s “The Woman Who Went to Bed for a Year”

All the reviews I’ve read and almost everyone I’ve spoken to about this book have said the same thing: it’s not as good as the Adrian Mole books. Still, since I’ve never read any of the Adrian Mole books, or even have the faintest inkling of what they’re about, I was pleasantly surprised by Sue Townsend’s The Woman Who Went to Bed for a Year, the book I chose for Leicestershire.

Admittedly, it doesn’t say a whole lot about life in Leicester/the Midlands/England specifically, but as Eva builds herself a nest in her bed after her twins leave for university – not making any plans to emerge again – there’s a lot going on about forming a sense of belonging.

So why exactly does Eva crawl into bed in 2012 and refuse to get out again? Well, there’s a large amount of speculation from the other characters – her husband, Brian, her children Brian Junior and Brianna (yes, really), her mother Ruby and her mother-in-law Yvonne, her new handyman-crush Alex, her window-cleaner, the neighbours and, soon enough, the media and the hysterical followers outside her window…all have an opinion. Perhaps it’s depression caused by “empty-nest syndrome” (4) or by being taken for granted her whole life or by the knowledge of her husband’s lacklustre affair; perhaps she’s been “engulf[ed]” (248) by madness that makes her believe the floorboards are “made of jelly” (379); perhaps she’s an angel, a  saint, a prophet making a stand against “how horrid the world [is], what with wars and famine and little babies dying and stuff” (325). Maybe, suggests a psychologist, Eva is “in the grip of agoraphobia, probably as a result of childhood trauma” (351). However, Eva flatly denies there is any problem whatsoever – she simply doesn’t feel like getting out of bed. Even the reader is not privy to any inside information from Townsend as to what the reason behind her major plot choice is.

Space-themed chocolates produced by Mars Inc.

Space-themed chocolates produced by Mars Inc.

As the novel goes on, Eva’s relatives become increasingly irritated by her behaviour: she relies on them to get her food, rearrange and slowly dispose of her bedroom furniture, board up the windows and doors, repaint the walls a dazzling white, answer the bell to fans and crowd-controlling police officers, and, if only they would agree to it, to dispose of her urine and excrement without her even having to use the ensuite. Blame and anger are fired at her from all corners, understandably, but with crafty characterisation Townsend steers the reader to believe that these judgements are nothing but harsh and hypocritical; everyone else would willingly disengage from the world if they could, too. In fact, some already do. Brian is so feeble that he is “slightly apprehensive” (6) around his own mother; emasculated in almost every situation, he cowers in his sheds at the bottom of the garden rather than facing Eva. Brianna, self-loathing, awkward and shut-off from the world, lives her life with “her face […] mostly hidden behind a long straggly black fringe which she pushed out of her eyes only when she actually wanted to see something” (11). Autistic Brian Junior voluntarily lives “in a very small world call the internet, where cynicism is the norm and cruelty has taken the place of humour” (270); the twins do not hide the fact that they want only “to be together in their own box-world” (20). Ironically, despite their criticism, almost every other character in the novel ends up “wish[ing] it was me in that bed” (35) and at some points Eva’s bedroom becomes seriously crowded with them all “sat cross-legged on the floor” (222) trying to join with her in shutting out the world.

Property programme duo, Kirsty Allsop and Phil Spencer

Property programme duo, Kirsty Allsop and Phil Spencer

Just as all the characters are shown to be preoccupied with building themselves a nest to hide away in, so, Townsend seems to suggest, is the whole of real, English society: why else would “property programmes” have such popularity or “Kirsty and Phil” be classed as modern “heroes” (10)? In fact, this novel presents the process of constructing a place in which one can feel at home – with some combination of four walls, comfortable furniture, personally-chosen décor and private memories – as the obsession of modern England. Not because of the opportunity for investment or return, or dependent on bank borrowing and lending rates – not, in other words, with financial or economic motives – but simply because putting an individual stamp on one’s surroundings is like laying claim to a fixed, stable identity and a solid right to exist. Arguably, this is something that Eva hasn’t had before. She’s never been her own woman, only a wife to Brian and a mother to her children. It is only when left alone that she begins the struggle, like a “baby”, “start[ing] again” (420), to develop a sense of self and a sense of belonging. No more arguing with Brian now as to whether they should live “in a minimalist modular system, far away from street lighting” or “an old pile in which people had died, with bedbugs, fleas, rats and mice” (22); she makes her own decisions.

David Cameron and Nick Clegg outside No. 10 Downing Street

David Cameron and Nick Clegg outside No. 10 Downing Street

Although Townsend doesn’t provide any definitive answer as to why Eva chooses to separate herself from society for a year, it seems to me that she simply struggles to find anything to get excited about any more in a world where her husband is so middle-aged and “he had started to make a noise as he got up from a chair” (40); where there is “incessant English cloud” (102) blocking out the sun every day; where politics has become so mundane that no one is even inspired to elect a prime minister, so that confusion arises in the coalition government as to who is actually in charge: “’Is it Cameron…? Or is it Cameron and Clegg?’” (117). Even further afield, outside England, there is nothing she is drawn to, for “there was nothing on the earth left to find – not when remote South American primitives were smoking Marlboro Lights” (58) and the whole profundity of space is reduced to chocolate-bar-terms in the mass-production of Galaxy, Mars and Milky Way confectionery. Human insignificance weighs on Eva, and she is frustrated that the best the English can hope for is to “tick along nicely” (73) in obscurity. So, out of boredom, she takes to her bed to cause “chaos” (190). It doesn’t seem like one thing could possibly lead to the other – but, oh my, it does.

Strangely, I liked this novel more for its critique of society than its comedy; or, rather, I found its thorough examination of ‘belonging’ all the more striking because of its farcical undertones and fluff-less dialogue. True, the novel is not laugh-out-loud hilarious (as some fans had expected), but I don’t think it loses impact as a result, since this way tragic elements of Eva’s life are also allowed to pervade in ironic fashion. What’s more, I think it is rare to find, in a supposedly comic novel, characters to whom it is so easy to warm, despite their often ridiculous names or habits. Overall, the plot is original and interesting, surprisingly engaging considering the protagonist does not get out of bed for the whole of the narrative, and its tone is fresh. Sue Townsend has a distinctive style that I feel confident I could identify again – suffice it to say, Adrian Mole is now on my list. 3/5 stars for this one, I think.

Next week I’ll be reading my first crime thriller of the challenge, The Chemistry of Death, by Simon Beckett. Join me, if you dare…mwahahaha.

TOWNSEND, Sue. The Woman Who Went to Bed for a Year. London: Penguin, 2012.

Featured Image: Solar System, field of Brian, the astronomer.

http://uncannyflats.com/thank-you-finally-an-explanation-for-why-the-solar-system-is-flat/