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

The Lookout

Graham Swift's "Wish You Were Here"

Graham Swift’s “Wish You Were Here”

While appearing to be very different, there are some startling similarities in theme between the last two novels I’ve read: Katherine Webb’s The Half Forgotten Song, for Dorset, and Graham Swift’s Wish You Were Here, set partly in the Isle of Wight. Both are grounded at the English seaside and yet contradict the usual idyllic stereotypes; both feature aging characters tied to their landscape and haunted by their past; both are hung up on the horrors of war, whether that be WWII, the Iraq War or even war within oneself. What’s more, the main households in the novels are called The Watch (Webb) and The Lookout (Swift)…The theme of looking on at the world outside whilst being cut off from it – of being left alone, in other words, to be terrorised by one’s own mind – could not be more strongly shared. Strange, eh?

The protagonist of Wish You Were Here is the taciturn but quietly emotional (and frankly brilliantly- and heart-wrenchingly-written) Jack Luxton. Jack is the last in a long line of Luxton farmers from Devon, but he cut all ties with the area and moved to the Isle of Wight with his wife Ellie after his parents’ death. His Devon years, at the family home at Jebb Farm, were wracked with hardship and grief though, at times (almost exclusively because of the love and admiration he has for his little brother Tom), filled with immense joy. Having to cope with their mother’s death, an outbreak of the fatal BSE (mad cow disease) in the UK – at which point they were forced to murder their own beloved cattle and plunge themselves into economic hardship – and their father’s deterioration after both events was too much for the young Jack and Tom. On the morning of Tom’s eighteenth birthday, after having confided in Jack, Tom ran away before sunrise to join the army; ran away from the home that has become their prison, filled with bitterness and hatred. Jack, meanwhile, protected Tom’s flight, bottled his own emotions against all odds, and remained.

Cows suffering from BSE disease display an inability to stand up or walk and lower milk production, among other symptoms.

Cows suffering from BSE disease display an inability to stand up or walk and lower milk production, among other symptoms.

Years later, having heard nothing from Tom despite his numerous letters, but no less well-remembered of him, Jack has become the owner of Lookout caravan park on the Isle of Wight. He fled with Ellie, as soon as his father’s death freed him, away from Jebb Farmhouse and all its horrible memories, to “the bottom of the Isle of Wight” (4) where he could no longer see or be reminded of the Devonshire landscape, to “a whole separate land, with only a short sea to cross, but happily cut off from the land of their past” (210). Not only cut off from the past, as it happens, but also from current events in the rest of the world that would otherwise fill him with concern: such as wars that Tom may be involved in. “There was a war going on, that was the story. Though who would know, or want to know, down here at Sands End?” (60).

Another thing the Isle of Wight offers Jack that he never had at Jebb farm (thanks to his father) is the opportunity to be in control, to take agency. He sees his new herd – caravans this time, rather than cattle – as “an encampment, down there […] some expeditionary, ragtag army” (30). He even has souvenir flags of the site to stake his claim (yet again those war themes and motifs). In his new position, he is no longer only “that common enough creature, a landsman, by experience and disposition” but has also become “an islander” (135) – someone with a well-defined, watery-bordered, manageable-sized patch to patrol. On an island, there can be no confusion about where the boundaries lie. Can there?

Caravan Park on the Isle of Wight

Caravan Park on the Isle of Wight

Well, it turns out there can, because Jack simply cannot allow himself to fully let go of his past. Despite trying to convince himself that he is an army general, in possession of his own little piece of England, displaying no vulnerability, there are times when his confusion about his “proper place” (3) and his true identity have him at war with himself: “A war on terror, that was the general story. Jack knew that terror was a thing you felt inside, so what could a war on terror be, in the end, but a war against yourself?” (60).

Jack is haunted, daily, by “the strange, opposite feeling: that he should have been there, back at Jebb, in the thick of it; it was his proper place” (3). His is a farming family of “generations going back and forwards, like the hills” (22) around Jebb, and to leave that place is, in essence, to forsake everything and everyone he loved. He remembers the feeling, with pain and regret, of being so tied to the Devon farmland that “England had meant only what the eye could see from Jebb Farmhouse – or what lay within a ten-mile journey in the Land Rover or pick-up. There’d been a few day-trips to Exeter or Barnstaple. Two stays, once, in another county: Dorset. Even the Isle of Wight, once, would have seemed like going abroad” (56). There is an intimate connection between himself and “a certain kind of bulging hill, a certain kind of hunched, bunched geography […] areas of bare hearth with a familiar ruddy hue” (219). It is a connection that he fears to reawaken because of the grief and guilt he feels for running away. Ironically, he is only filled with admiration for Tom for doing precisely the same thing at age eighteen.

Author Graham Swift

Author Graham Swift

But I haven’t even pointed out the main crux of the novel. As the blurb says, “on an autumn day in 2006”, Jack “receives the news that his brother Tom, not seen for years, has been killed in Iraq.” Hurled into the midst of repatriative and funereal affairs, Jack’s emotional state, married life and whole understanding of self hangs by a thread: memories of the brothers’ past together whirl by him all the stronger, and “the map of England wheel[s] in his head” (217) as the world becomes “all unknown country now” (132), with “the rain beating a tattoo against it” (353).

This novel is utterly mesmerising, dizzyingly suspenseful and, above all, completely heart-wrenching in every respect. It is not often that I am as genuinely moved by a novel as I was by this one. There are a whole cast of characters that I have not even mentioned who simply and yet deeply drawn, being fundamentally relatable even in sometimes such bizarre situations. Above all, however, Jack Luxton is Swift’s absolute star feature of this novel. The non-linear approach Swift uses (he jumps about between past and present and narrative perspective regularly) means the reader clings to Jack’s perception of events to ground their understanding; we are intimately tied up in the way he sees the world, and my goodness it is a unique way. You must read this, you really must. 5/5 stars for a thoroughly moving read.

Next week I’ll be reading my penultimate book for this challenge! It’s Eva Ibbotson’s The Dragonfly Pool. Join me then!

 

SWIFT, Graham. Wish You Were Here. London: Picador, 2012.

Featured Image: Military repatriation.

http://www.barrowuponsoarwarmemorial.co.uk/page6.htm

Buried Dead

Berlie Doherty's Deep Secret

Berlie Doherty’s Deep Secret

I may have said this already but, after this challenge is over, I’d love to explore fiction for children and young adults in more depth because, for the life of me, I can’t work out how to differentiate some of the books from adult fiction. Some of the classifications seem completely arbitrary – is it the writers who categorise themselves or is that the job of the Carnegie Medal judges or editors or publishers…? I want to get to a point where I can encourage adults to read more of this young literature instead of, dare I say, stigmatising it. I do find it hard to believe that a novel as eerie and moving as Deep Secret, by Berlie Doherty, about the flooding of a tiny, beloved village in Derbyshire to make way for a modern dam and reservoir, and about the mature grief felt by young Madeleine after the loss of her twin sister, should be missed out on by the majority of adults simply because it is labelled as ‘too young’ for them.

According to Doherty’s footnote and website, the novel is based loosely on the construction of the Ladybower reservoir between 1935 and 1945, for which the villages of Ashopton and Derwent were submerged. In 1986, Doherty visited the site during a drought which exposed the ruined houses, farm buildings and church below; it was this spine-tingling trip which convinced her to write this story.

Derwent Hall, Derbyshire, demolished in 1944.

Derwent Hall, Derbyshire, demolished in 1944.

Doherty creates a vision of village life that is difficult to fault: there is hierarchy, to be sure, with Lord Henry and his family, who inhabit the Hall estate, owning all the land that the villagers live and farm upon; but they are benevolent masters and looked upon as deeply “romantic” (8) and respectable. The hardworking farmers and their families are “never going to leave the valley” (8) out of choice, but would each choose to “die before they turn […] into a townie” (108) and, despite their status, the Lord and Lady are no more detached from their earth, for “the scents of the flowers and the murmurings of the river, and how peaceful it all is compared with [their] London home” (86) is all they can talk about. The villagers are not hungry for the outside world and want nothing more than “to be running free […] wild and wonderful” (52) in their valley.

It is by their relationship to the land that the villagers define themselves – a trend we have seen in so many novels on this challenge already – but the politics of land ownership itself is more apparent and more emotional here than in any of the others. In the beginning, the villagers are content with their lush farmland “rented from Lord Henry” (6) for their ambitions are small and do not involve the hungry, capitalistic pursuit for their own property; the modern world still seems far away from this small community. Their idea of ownership is simple and unjealous; they work the land that their families have lived on “for donkey’s years” (12) and therefore consider themselves to have more right to it than the workers from the Water Board, who slowly begin making their way into the valley “like an army taking possession by stealth” (78) to complete surveys and then building work. The families try to keep the peace for a time, their protests limited to “frowning Stranger with their eyes” (36) as wagons trundle past, for they have ultimate faith in Lord Henry to protect them.

Ladybower Reservoir, today

Ladybower Reservoir, today

It is therefore all the more crushing for them to hear Lord Henry himself admit that there is nothing he can do to stop the incomers in their effort to “flood the whole of our valley” (90). In an “Act of Parliament” (92) that is completely incomprehensible to the villagers, whose families have lived contentedly in the traditional, feudal way of life for centuries, the Water Board has “obtained permission from the government” (88) to “purchase this entire estate – the Hall, the farms and cottages that go with it” (92), without so much as an introduction or a handshake. This is business and property ownership in unintelligible terms for the farmers – not only has their powerful Lordship been revealed as impotent in the modern world, but the land itself will no longer be owned by people but by a corporation; it will be “the bloomin’ Water Board’s” (179). How can it be that politicians in London, so far removed from this idyll in Derbyshire, have seen fit to prioritise “a massive container of water” (92) over a whole way of life? This is a dramatic power shift that the villagers are forced to witness. They may not have minded answering to His Lordship, but to suddenly find themselves 150 miles from their new southern masters and treated as completely subaltern is more than they can bear.

Derwent Church tower, uncovered during 1940s drought

Derwent Church tower, uncovered during 1940s drought

Not only are the valley-dwellers forced to come to terms with the fact that power – rather than courtesy – rules the country, but they also see how money rules the world, as when the news arrives that “the Water Board is now selling the Hall to a wealthy American [who] is planning to have it taken down, stone by stone, and to rebuild it elsewhere” (142). Once again, their land is at the mercy of those who have no moral claim to it and, once again, they have to learn how unimportant they are considered in modern society, where “someone with money can just pluck [their way of life] away, just like that, like it was a rosy apple on a tree” (143).

After all, this is a world painted without the concept of good faith, ethics or respectability; the “measuring instruments” (53) the Water Board favour work in units of land area and money, and numbers fly around them “like bubbles in the air, filmy and brilliant, incomprehensible […] in a bubble storm of noughts” (320). Pride is important too, of course, because this valley will be home to “the biggest earth dam in the British Isles”, a “great achievement. A masterpiece […] a symbol of rebirth” (94) and of British arrogance. Behind the propaganda, though, the war may be over but the devastation continues: another “great trench” is forged “like a massive quarry from one end of the valley to the other [and that] reached right into the centre of the earth” (165).

I have to say, it is this aspect of the plot – the fate of the valley and the changing definitions of land ownership – that interests me most and that makes the novel stand out. In contrast, the parts involving characters’ relationships to each other are believable and relatable, but not ground-breaking in their originality. The blind Seth, who becomes Madeleine’s closest friend and confidant, is the most striking persona for me, becoming the valley’s prophet Tiresias. This novel therefore deserves 3/5 stars.

Derwent Church tower, visible above the water line until it was demolished in 1947 to prevent people swimming out to it.

Derwent Church tower, visible above water until demolished in 1947 to prevent people swimming out to it.

However, possibly the saddest thing of all is something I haven’t yet mentioned: how quickly the feudal way of life is forgotten. Within two years everyone, in their brand new homes with electricity and indoor lavatories, is ready to admit that “it just feels as if the lake was always here” (339). Witness the unceremonious death of the past, and the murderers who got away with it, the novel seems to sigh.

Next time I’ll be reading Alan Garner’s Thursbitch for Cheshire. I have a feeling it’s going to be pretty awesome!

 

DOHERTY, Berlie. Deep Secret. London: Andersen Press, 2010.

Featured Image: Derwent Church and graveyard, derwent Village uncovered in 1995.

http://www.sheffieldhistory.co.uk/forums/index.php/topic/9822-derwent-village/