Novel ideas of national characters

The Oxford English Literary History, Volume 12
July 23, 2004

Once upon a time, everyone knew what it meant to be English - or at least the English did. And if they were not sure, they could always ask the Scots, the Welsh or the Irish. Should the answer not be to their liking, they could inquire farther afield, in India or Africa, where the population was sure to be more sensible of the blessings of English - or should that be British? - rule. But nowadays no one seems to have a clue about Englishness. Why this confusion? The loss of empire is one obvious answer.

When Britannia ruled the waves, the English had no need to worry about who they were. But the loss of imperial possessions precipitated an identity crisis that continues to this day. Are we British, English or even American? Another factor is the growth of secularism. Up to the time of Henry VIII, the English were part of Catholic Europe, but after the break from Rome they defined themselves as a Protestant nation.

Later, Nietzsche spoilt all that by announcing that God was dead - presumably of supernatural causes. Having lost their divinity and their territories, the English were in a bad way. And then the class structure, one of the defining features of English society, was superseded by the rise of mass culture and globalisation. Today, the English not only do not know who they are, they also do not know where they are.

Even their language does not seem to belong to them. Like their sporting achievements, it has been appropriated by the rest of the world. As the international medium of communication, English becomes ever more blind to national boundaries, its expressive possibilities eroded by political and commercial blandishments.

Randall Stevenson is not so certain. His book is titled The Last of England? and it is the question mark that matters. Has England declined or developed over the past 40 years? Those whose reference point for all things English is Brief Encounter will say it has worsened, those with a sense of history will disagree. In a typically English fashion, Stevenson sees merit on both sides.

He starts his survey, which covers literature, criticism, culture, society and publishing, in the 1960s, the decade in which the England of Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson dissolved like a pavement drawing in a downpour.

The disgrace of Suez, the Profumo affair and the defection of the spies Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean fuelled the rise of satire. Satirical magazines, stage revues and TV shows such as Private Eye , Beyond the Fringe and That Was the Week That Was blew a raspberry at the establishment. The end of national service, a rise in affluence, educational expansion and the lyrics of long-haired youth presaged a new order.

For a time, it seemed as if great things would be accomplished. Jimmy Porter may have complained in John Osborne's play Look Back in Anger that there were no more good brave causes, but in the 1960s there was Vietnam. And there was the new Jerusalem to build. At the high point of those heady times, the 1968 événements in Paris, workers and students nearly brought down the De Gaulle government. Disillusion then set in - never in the field of popular protest did it seem that so little had been achieved by so many.

To mention just one statistic: at the beginning of the 1970s, 7 per cent of the UK population still owned 84 per cent of the nation's wealth. Then came strikes, a hike in oil prices and a recession. A reaction against the 1960s brought Mrs Thatcher to power. She had that endearing English trait of thinking that the past was better than the present and declared that the adoption of Victorian values would make Britain great again. So back came the free market, poverty and the odd imperial adventure. Then, just before she reintroduced child chimney sweeps, she-who-was-not-for-turning unaccountably changed direction and set course for the Middle Ages by restoring the poll tax. Her quarrels with Europe were a reminder that some aspects of Englishness endure. Drunkenness was another; Daniel Defoe commented on it three centuries ago.

Stevenson's narrative is sound but his interpretation is sometimes questionable. He acknowledges that the gap between rich and poor has widened, yet he insists that class has ceased to matter. He does not explain, for instance, why many middle-class authors denounced the economic changes from which they benefited. Far from polarising over the past 40 years, he maintains that England has become a more plural society. Voices that could not be heard in the late 1950s - women, gays and ethnic minorities - are now part of the literary mainstream. We have seen, says Stevenson, "a transition from hierarchy to heterarchy".

Around 1960, "culture" as a term referred to all those who had a proper appreciation of the arts, but by 2000 it was referring to "the increasingly diverse tastes and outlook of the population as a whole, and to all the media and signifying practices" of the community as a whole. And this sets a problem: because of the multiplication of difference, there are now concerns about what we have in common - which is partly what lies behind the debate about Englishness.

A more complex factor is representation. Modernism, says Stevenson, has taught us that there is always an unbridgeable gap between what is real and what is represented. If this is the case, the "facts" of Englishness will never match ideas of Englishness. Yes, one can argue that identity is always a construct and never a correspondence, but that ignores our need to feel that our values are rooted in reality and sanctioned by tradition.

There is another problem, too. What happens to democracy if you succeed in undermining the idea of representation? The engine of Stevenson's argument, that English culture is now more representative than it ever has been, is stalled if the representation itself is faulty.

All the same, I wish I had written The Last of England? What a well-researched, carefully considered and deeply felt work it is. Talk about loading each rift with ore: there is a nugget on practically every page. I never knew that theatre managers looked favourably on absurdism because, with its bare set and small casts, it was cheaper to stage than some conventional drama, or that Paul McCartney had been considered for the post of poet laureate when Ted Hughes died.

Stevenson can certainly coin phrases that linger in the mind. From the pithy "what history refuses, culture provides" to the poetic - that playwright Peter Shaffer's protagonists are "sceptics still lusting for transcendence" - Stevenson makes you sit up and take note. Ah yes, the English always could write. Their recent writing, especially the novel, has for some time been suspended between tradition and innovation. Which way will they - or should that be we - jump?

Gary Day is principal lecturer in English, De Montfort University.

The Oxford English Literary History, Volume 12: 1960-2000, The Last of England?

Author - Randall Stevenson
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Pages - 624
Price - £30.00
ISBN - 0 19 818423 9

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