Painting the scenery

The Village that Died for England - Theatres of Memory
March 31, 1995

Ours has been the moment of Theory, and a dismal business it all was. It washed out such useful and usable canons as wisdom, virtue, goodness, judiciousness, because these are, variously, old-fashioned or oppressive or worse. It has made idealism itself into a swear word and thereby denied to our best students what they have looked to a university education to provide, ideals to live for and principles to live by in a society in which the master symbols of a national tradition have been made filthy with dishonest use by a government unable to distinguish between its own power and the good of the people.

Theory and its delusions have done their considerable bit to debilitate and disgrace intellectual opposition to that new-old corruption, and done so, as often as not, in the great names of solidarity and socialism. Thus the clerisy has once again turned treasonous. But not all of it. And in any case, perhaps things are on the turn. There is a sign or two which may be taken for wonders: Eric Hobsbawm's new book Age of Extremes, Valentine Cunningham's In the Reading Goal, Steven Connor's Theory and Cultural Value, Gillian Rose's astonishing and gallant essay Love's Work, Jim McGuigan's attack on and in Cultural Populism.

Raphael Samuel will, we know, be an eddy in this small, promising wave of non-reactionary reaction. Heir to the Communist Historians group of the 1940s, doyen of History Workshop, faithful in his station at Ruskin College, Samuel has kept up the great tradition of East End Communist Jewry as transmuted into the practice of history from below.

This hefty new book is the first of a trilogy specifically addressed to my hoped-for turning-point as the new epoch opens at the end of cold war. It is a candid celebration of popular, at times populist history as this is enacted and realised in the vast contemporary iconography of the heritage industry, and the weird bazaar of its hopes as these declare themselves in thousands of craft centres, second-hand clothes stalls, and the bric-a-brac adorning the kitchens and sitting rooms of the recently casualised house-owning classes.

Samuel's theme is less history than memory, and in his characteristically gentle introduction there is a surprising echo of a class enemy. Brideshead Revisited is, as well it might be, a metonymy always to hand for Samuel and also Patrick Wright. Waugh's novel turns on his own elegiac aphorism, "These memories, which are my life - for we possess nothing certainly except the past - were always with me", but in a striking metaphor, Waugh conjures his memories into the tumultuous crowds of the pigeons in St Mark's Place, startled into collective, huge and clattering flight above his head.

Samuel rejects the classical counterposition of memory as vague, inaccurate and subjective as opposed to history, abstract, objective, authoritative. Delighting in the polysemic permissions of post-modernism, he melds the two, figuring his ethnography of the past-in-the-present rather as Walter Benjamin says we do, catching hold of memory "as it flashes upwards at a moment of danger".

Samuel's England is in danger all right. What have they done to it? In 1985 Patrick Wright, returning from Canada, found himself "reeling with distance from a society which seemed to be making a new set of political principles out of hindsight . . . . I felt I had stumbled inadvertently into some sort of anthropological museum". Samuel, more optimistically, offers heritage England as a past recaptured for the present by the people. He re-presents an England of country house and cottage, of Portobello Road and farmhouse kitchen, Hussar uniform jackets and blue Vinney cheese, as a country in which the people play with and at the past, who possess it the more firmly for its becoming a ludic festival.

He turns, in a vigorous chapter, upon "the heritage baiters", kindly enough with Wright, more caustic with Robert Hewison, positively malicious with Neal Ascheson and David Cannadine, accusing them of condescension to this populist invasion of once untrespassable gardens, salons, clothes and food.

It is, naturally, a pleasure to see Samuel make a fair cop of the lowering efforts compiled by sanctimonious critics of ideology. These stooges are to be heard effortfully deriding the prose and paraphernalia of "Englishness", being as rude about Cardus on cricket as on reconstructions of the Blitz, either way, it would seem, little more than being nasty to father because he is the one who is at home and gets upset.

The trouble is that Samuel's own position veers so needlessly. He too animadverts upon the "cheapskate" and the "bogus-traditional", and his own slightly-too-smart term "retrochic" is itself a measure of queasiness, not so much about his own judgement as about the practice of judgement itself.

This is not the only place in a vast, absorbing work to be tainted a little by the self-righteousness of some of the robots of cultural studies. They have few doubts about anything. Cultural studies, a rich, gooey, savoury mess of an academic subject, is largely practised by daunting self-confident theoreticians who would simply never allow their aesthetic and their moral tastes to be on bad terms with each other.

Samuel at times follows this unbending correctness of attitude, but cannot bring it off. This is such a relief. But unsure of where the real enemy is - a source of particular wretchedness to an ex-Marxist - he tries to solve his difficulty by enlisting with the people in the people's war against the state, even when there turn out to be some very odd and unattractive fellow-soldiers on the same side (none odder than the heir apparent to the throne).

He is at his very considerable best when he forgets the class war and concentrates on the battle for standards. His admirable essays on the sentimentalities and historical softnesses of The Elephant Man and Little Dorrit could have gone straight into Scrutiny or the Left Review in 1939. In addition the several chapters on the historical uses of photography are always varied and interesting, even if they rather have the manners of pedagogic notes to a Ruskin diploma course of a quite different kind to the rest of the book.

Indeed, there are strictly formal problems with Samuel all the way. The chapters seem to jibe with the hard edge of advertising semantics - "Costume Drama", "Scopophilia", "Hybrids" - and their contents are torrential with detail. Samuel has emptied a vast database on to the page, but his conceptual distinctions distinguish hardly at all, his examples come overwhelmingly from London walks starting out from his Spitalfields home, and follow his gleeful, antinomian, indiscriminate eye as it intoxicates itself on all that style has brought to Islington and Camden since 1968.

This same terrific medley is disfigured, at times, not only by its being dressed as a later book embedded in many earlier essays, but by more than its fair share of errors and cliches. ("Arguably", that most exhausted of all the patients in Michael Frayn's Old Tropes Home is here promenaded as though the poor thing had never collapsed years ago.) All the same, I thank Clio for Samuel's generous two-hearted book, for his putting value back into the heart of culture and for framing each in the only theory which will make sense of them, which is to say, a story from history.

His story is, in spite of some grating differences, closer to Patrick Wright's than either might think. Both search for a plot which will be congruent with a strong feeling of love for their own land-and-townscape and the home these feelings look for in a patriotism the English left has so long been obliged to deny itself. Maurice Merleau-Ponty asked in 1945, "where can a man of honour be except on the left?", and this is still as true in England as it was in post-Vichy France. Wright sets himself to puzzle out the origins and outcomes of this question by way of the weird tale of Tyneham village in Dorset, gradually appropriated by the War Office between 1916 until the quiet, melodramatic moment just before Christmas 1943 when 225 villagers had to leave their homes for a duration which turned out to be a lifetime, so that the Tank Corps could continue to fire its guns without the inconvenience of having to avoid the locals in their houses.

Wright's is an extraordinary protracted narrative of slow encroachment, spirited resistance, collaboration and defeat, and he tells it with all the vividness and zest for its mad life which a novelist might bring to some much more likely antiquary's tale of mystery and imagination. Indeed, his pages are thick with other novelists, the Powys brothers, D. H. Lawrence, Sylvia Townsend Warner among them, taking their place in the purposeful rout of British fascists, Tory grandees, free-thinking communists and anarcho-mystics who crowd the pages with their determination to beat back the beast of modernity, or militarism, or the ruling class, or the state itself which has invaded and defaced a corner of that version of England and her merriment to which they have fastened the story of their lives, and of which the King Alfred Muster of the English Array is their immortal title.

Tyneham lived never more strongly than after its death, when the trope of a perfect Dorset settlement, thatched, sheep-thronged, owl-haunted, desolate, gave a plangent fall to many a newspaper threnody on the vanishing countryside and its ghostly incarnation in the ancient Isle of Purbeck, a token of what peacetime had elsewhere destroyed.

Wright finds an excellently Labourist moral in the closing years of a story without closure, when it is clear that the army and the state have colluded to turn Tyneham into a nature reserve as unexpected as the hawk stoops beside motorways. Like Samuel, Wright finds in 1968, in the emergence of the Greens and the colourful spectrum of their coalition, a capacious resource of hope. But more like the John Fowles of Daniel Martin than Samuel, he finds a future in the loopily eccentric independent-mindedness, the social class motley, the ardent dedication to local causes which, in spite of the fact that "suicide hangs over the whole story as the shadowy attendant of passionate idealism", makes it possible for him, and for us, still to put our trust in something which may yet be made to deserve the name of National Trust.

I salute both authors as one, perhaps to their mutual embarrassment. Cultural studies are much marked by an incapacity to do history properly, despite its being the foundation of the field. Its spokespeople are also marked by a refusal to join - whether it be the Labour Party, the nation, or even their own university. These two books, by contrast, teach the necessity of scholarship, an old-fashioned, unselfconscious faith in the story, and an upright allegiance to the name of home. They rejoin letters to life with the unexpectedness of art.

Fred Inglis is professor of cultural studies, University of Warwick. His biography of Raymond Williams will be published at the end of 1995.

The Village that Died for England

Author - Patrick Wright
ISBN - 0224 03886 9
Publisher - Jonathan Cape
Price - £17.99
Pages - 420pp

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