Spotlight on Paul Kingsnorth and Real England: The Battle Against the Bland
(In the Spotlight series, we highlight organisations or individuals who are making a contribution to the preservation and renewal of our diverse heritage.)
Review and Author Interview Real England: The Battle Against the Bland Paul Kingsnorth (Portobello, 2008)
Any reviewer of books on Englishness becomes used to the threnody of loss that runs through many of them, but, as such elegiac works are traditionally written by conservative (not to say Conservative) commentators, it is startling to find this theme taken up by someone like the environmentalist Paul Kingsnorth. In this impassioned and incisive polemic, Kingsnorth travels around England talking to the people who are making last stands against the globalising forces that are eradicating the distinctiveness of local landscapes by redeveloping pubs, shops, boatyards, orchards, markets, and even public streets. Opening the book with Chesterton's prescient warning against "enlargement without liberty and progress without hope," Kingsnorth catalogues the loss of many irreplaceable and unique features of English landscapes. He applies Richard Mabey's concept of the ecological margin to English culture; in his 1980 book The Common Ground Mabey showed how natural diversity had been pushed to the margins by intensive agriculture, and Kingsnorth suggests that, in much the same way, the distinctiveness of English cultures and places has been marginalised by rampant 'development' in a process that is part of global trends. Among the three main factors that Kingsnorth identifies as contributors to this process, which include the partnership between corporations and centralised government, and the spread of gentrification in a covert "class war," he identifies "a very English reluctance to stand up for our places, our national character or our cultural landscape," a product of a long-standing and irrational "cultural self-loathing." This last point consciously echoes Orwell, and throughout the book, Kingsnorth shows an awareness of forerunners, including Winstanley and Cobbett, who articulated similar concerns.
It is probably Kingsnorth's background in environmentalism that makes him so sensitive to the concomitant damage done to a whole community by the disappearance of an institution like a shop or a pub, as the price for economic growth is paid in intangibles like community feeling, sociability, identity, and a sense of belonging. In one of his interviews, the fundamental issues at stake are summed up by an independent shopkeeper in Sheringham, Norfolk: the struggle against homogenisation is "about what we are, and what we want to be. An individual town, or just like everywhere else? An individual life, or a life controlled by someone else?"
Though his heart is clearly in the countryside, Kingsnorth superbly balances his account between rural and urban issues. (Anyone with roots in the Old East End will find it hard to read the sections on the area's gentrification, steam-rolling over its working-class, multi-ethnic community traditions.) He begins by examining the disappearance of the distinctive local pub, as publicans are forced to follow a business model aimed at maximising profits above all else, and numerous pubs are sold off for property development--trends which threaten both the traditional village pub and the urban local, not to mention what remains of a once-rich brewing heritage. (Those who seek explanations for the current binge-drinking crisis might find one answer in the replacement of many urban locals with "'high volume vertical drinking establishments'," where there is nowhere to sit down and the music is too loud for conversation.) Kingsnorth emphasises the centrality of beer and the ale-house to our history in general and working-class history in particular, and the importance of pubs as meeting-places that hold a community together. When a village pub disappears, the village turns into a mere "collection of dwellings," another stage in the shift to a dormitory village.
The redevelopment of vast stretches of the canal system is the subject of another chapter, showing how the culture of the boaties who live and work on the canals is being steadily eroded by a number of factors, including the disappearance of lock-keepers as their cottages are converted into weekend retreats for the urban middle-classes, and the forced closure of boatyards. "An Accursed Altar of Mammon" covers the redevelopment of urban areas—including part of London's East End—against the will of local people, looking at how this process is leeching distinctiveness from high streets across the country, as property developers work hand-in-glove with big chains that use their commercial clout to undersell local businesses, under the protection of WTO and EU regulations that prevent the promotion or safeguarding of small enterprise. As Kingsnorth points out, the rise of these chains is a fundamental quality of life issue for local people: working for a chain is a very different experience to working for a local shop. Despite growing public awareness of the spread of 'clone towns' with identikit high streets, little has been done to arrest it.
The chapter on farming shows that there are good reasons for the growing despair amongst English farmers, particularly the small farmers who are often forced to sell their produce at a loss. (One theme of the book is the way in which our relentless quest for bargains causes suffering to producers; Kingsnorth remarks that it might be time to apply the principles of Fair Trade to England.) He comments that the steady decline of English farming has been a theme since Cobbett, who during the beginnings of the industrial revolution identified (in Kingsnorth's words) "the usurping of agri-culture by agri-business," but adds that the situation has worsened dramatically in recent decades with the EU's Common Agricultural Policy and its introduction of intensive agriculture. This brought about "a rural Year-Zero; a deliberate, systematic and heartbreaking clearance of character, meaning and life from a landscape which had built it up, layer by layer, over millennia." Kingsnorth is a firm and emotional believer in the rural ideal, and he views the plight of farmers as a serious national issue partly because of the importance of the farmed countryside to English identity: "Where would our national landscape, both internal and actual, be without the countryside? And where would that countryside be without its farmers?"
Kingsnorth revisits the issue of East End gentrification in "Trouble in Paradise," which examines the proposed redevelopment of the building housing the Queen's Market—both a lifeline for the poor, and one of those precious places where people from different ethnic communities mingle—and of the area surrounding it. However, the chapter's main focus is the privatisation of public streets, in London's Chinatown, and in the centre of Liverpool in an imitation of the 'malls without walls' that are now a feature of the American urban landscape, with private security guards instead of police, and opening and closing times. He predicts that such developments will bring attempts to keep away undesirables, such as the homeless, and restrict the right to protest, and ominously remarks that we are moving towards "not just clone towns, but private clone towns, where you will behave as instructed, you will shop sensibly, and you will leave at the designated time."
"The Village Green Preservation Society" examines the spread of suburbanisation, especially in the south-east, using as a case study Kingsnorth's ancestral Kentish village of Kingsnorth (slated for eventual absorption by 'greater Ashford'). His examination of the Cornish situation is the most shocking, however, helping to explain the recent growth in Cornish nationalism. Because of Cornwall's extraordinary natural beauty, the Cornish are faced with a heightened version of the problem confronting country people all over England, "being priced out of the villages their families grew up in." Due to increased demand for second homes, holiday cottages, and investment properties which usually stand empty year-round, the Cornish are forced to move in with extended family, or into council accommodation tucked away from the spectacular views that have made their villages so attractive to rich outsiders (but only if they are lucky, since the crisis has been compounded by the government's failure to adequately invest in affordable housing). On top of rural poverty caused by the decline of local industries, the Cornish are struggling to survive in what is now "the least affordable part of England in which to live, including London." Kingsnorth believes that this nightmare has been facilitated by the unresponsiveness of the structures which administer the English regions (defined so that Cornwall, despite its unique economic circumstances, is lumped in with the rest of the south-west region): the Regional Development Agencies, whose administrators are not answerable to voters, and the unelected regional assemblies that have run the English regions since 1998.
Kingsnorth is in awe of England's amazingly diverse apple heritage, which historically accounts for "more than a quarter of all the apple types on Earth," and "The Orchard on the Hill" examines the disappearance of ancient English orchards and their often unique apple varieties. In this poetic meditation on the national fruit, he comments that the loss of these orchards would be "a genuine folk tragedy." Nevertheless, he notes some hopeful signs in this area, such as the move by the big supermarkets to start stocking more English apple varieties. The boldest part of Real England is the final chapter, "Know Your Place," which calls for an entirely new settlement for England and the English: democratisation from the top down, and localisation of power to allow local people and local governments control over what happens to their own communities; increased investment in affordable housing; and --here Kingsnorth tackles the West Lothian question head-on—an English Parliament ("post-1997 devolution has created a situation in which the English are uniquely ill-served by British democracy..... Instead of our own elected Parliament or Assembly, we have undemocratic regional government".) One fundamental problem, he suggests, is the widespread perception that England and the English don't matter, reflected in the fact that following devolution, and unlike the Celtic nations, "Constitutionally....England does not even exist." The English are required to endure being the most under-represented and under-funded, proportionately, of all the UK's constituent nations, and "the only nation in Europe without its own parliament or government."
In Kingsnorth's view, one of the first steps is to break the silence surrounding Englishness and English concerns: "Regardless of their skin colour, religion or politics, the English need to be able to belong to and to cherish their places and their identity, to talk about who they are and to defend it, without fear of being associated with racism or xenophobia." Another fundamental key to challenging homogenisation is liberating ourselves from the rampant consumerism that fuels the drive for redevelopment. Unless we can become less materialistic, we will forever be alienated from our roots, "a cheap and nasty imitation of the worst of consumer America."
Despite the numerous horrifying statistics that pepper the book, there are some inspiring stories of people fighting back, in certain cases successfully: for example, there is the co-operatively-owned Old Crown pub in Hesket Newmarket, bought and run by the local community when the owner decided to sell up. Though Real England chronicles a harrowing catalogue of loss, it transcends the going-to-the-dogs genre through its hopefulness: "it is possible to visualise a future in which the many wonderful things I have seen are not wiped out but are preserved, promoted and enriched as part of a living landscape."
Unashamedly a work of liberal English nationalism ("England is a nation; Britain is a political convenience"), Real England is truly ground-breaking, the first major look at the impact on England of globalisation and its accompanying homogenisation to connect this theme with the ongoing debates surrounding English identity. Kingsnorth makes the familiar argument that the silence about Englishness permits its reduction to whiteness, but his innovation is to add that it also allows globalisation to eviscerate the distinctiveness of places (and, ultimately, of people). By focussing on both the natural and man-made environments, the book appears to take a lead from Common Ground; their instant classic England in Particular is quoted more than once. Kingsnorth's rhetoric occasionally becomes overheated, and he is a little didactic in places, but this is understandable given the urgency of the issues he is addressing. In this brave polemic, Kingsnorth links together nostalgia and radicalism, conservative and leftist critiques. Within the English-interest field, Real England is the publishing event of the year. Read it. It is not to be missed.--Isabel Taylor
Q & A with Paul Kingsnorth
In a recent Guardian piece you talked about the importance of devolution for the English and the need for everyone (the English as well as the Celtic nations) to get "Britain off our backs." How and why did you come to the conclusion that the Union is a bad thing?
I'm not anti the Union per se, but I am unhappy, as are growing numbers of people all over the UK, with the way it's currently constituted. I think the tensions have been growing for a while, probably decades, but the current problem for England stems from the devolutions to Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. The UK is a state made up of four nations. Three of them now have their own national governments. England, the largest and most populous, does not. We now have the absurd and unjust situation of Scottish and Welsh MPs imposing measures on the English (and controversial ones, too, like foundation hospitals and university tuition fees) which their own constituents will not have to suffer and for which they will not be answerable at the ballot box. The Union is unbalanced and unfair, and if the politicians who run it can't sort this injustice out soon, the Union may well break apart within the next ten years. If it does it could, in my view, be a good thing; all the nations within it would have to think hard about who they are and why they exist. England, because it has dominated the Union, has avoided doing this for decades. I think it would be very good for us.
What was it that turned you on to English issues? As you remark in the book, most of your career as an environmentalist has so far been focussed on overseas issues. Was there any particular event that sensitised you to what has been happening to England, or was it more of a gradual thing?
I've always felt very English. Both my environmentalism and my sense of Englishness were, I think, formed as a child, when my dad used to take me on long-distance walks all over the country. I've walked pretty much every long-distance path in England over the years, and camped all over the landscape, and it has given me a deep sense of what the country is made of. That plus my degree in history have combined to cement my sense of place and identity. Environmentalism is necessarily a global concept, but it pays attention to the particular too: small is beautiful, and all that. My previous book looked at how global capitalism was razing both the environment and local and national cultures around the world. This time I decided to bring it home, and mix my sense of Englishness with my international awareness.
What has the reaction been among your fellow commentators on the left to your declaring yourself an English nationalist in April (in the New Statesman)? Was that a difficult decision to make?
It was, initially, hard for me to use the word 'nationalist,' precisely because of its connotations with racism. But for a long time I have been passionate about reclaiming England from people like that. For the last few years there has been a heartening increase in people thinking the same way: think of Billy Bragg or Mark Perryman. A growing sense of Englishness, brought about in part by those devolutions but also by wider concerns about cultural loss, has led to people across the spectrum reclaiming Englishness for themselves. I took a conscious decision to reclaim the word 'nationalist' too. What I found interesting, actually, was that there was very little outrage from the 'left.' If I'd done it ten, or even five, years ago, there would have been a great liberal chorus accusing me of flirting with fascism, etc. This time there was actually more agreement than dissent. I hope that it's finally dawning on the left that fifty years of sneering at Englishness, apologising for it and abandoning it have only made matters a lot worse, and that a positive sense of national identity can be a good thing for everyone.
In Real England you seem to suggest that Englishness reduces to an identification with place, and that institutions and values have very little to do with it. How would you justify this point of view?
My point is that values often come from place, or rather, from what happens when people and places interact. But it is more than that too. I think institutions can be important. I think an English Parliament, for example, could help enormously to cement a sense of English national identity. The point I was trying to make was that trying to define your 'national values' is often a fruitless exercise (look at the government's definition of 'British values': tolerance, democracy, freedom ... they're actually all universal), and that institutions like the Church or the monarchy divide as much as they unite, whereas all of us belong to the landscape of England, and help to define it.
You seem to view traditional left/right distinctions as no longer relevant. What do you think of the argument that the demise of traditional unionism has helped to enable the creation of a cheap and flexible labour pool for the national/multinational chains? Is the growing gap between rich and poor partly responsible for the cheap chains' appeal to working-class consumers?
I think the traditional left/right distinctions have been rendered irrelevant by the triumph of global capitalism. It's not that I think there's not a need for a battle between labour and capital, as it were, but that the battle has to be waged in different terms. Socialism has failed, communism has failed, and consumerism is excellent at commodifying dissent. The anti-globalisation movement, which I wrote about with great hope in my first book, has faded away. The unions support the most right-wing Labour government in history. In effect, the left is dead. Many, many people oppose the current model of global capitalism, but no-one has a workable alternative. I don't think the demise of unionism created the cheap labour pool; I think it was the other way around. Corporations can go wherever they want for cheap labour now, and there's no-one to stop them. In those circumstances, a union based in one rich country like the UK has no leverage. The resulting cheap goods appeal to everyone, not just the poor or the working-class. I can't see any way to change this until some big shock goes through the system and derails it.
Do you think that higher fuel prices might actually help in the long term, by forcing the revival of local producers and local markets?
This could be the big shock.....Yes, if they continue they will force us to reconfigure society in a way which would be better both environmentally and culturally.
You point out that there is majority support for an English Parliament. What do you think it would take for the English to actually get one?
The SNP are hoping the scenario will go like this: in 2010, the UK will elect a Tory government. It will have few, if any, MPs in Scotland, and this will lead to an appetite in Scotland to break away. British nationalist politicians, both Labour and Tory, are terrified of this scenario because their jobs and their party bases are dependent on the Union. I think it could happen and that if it does it will necessarily lead us to think about how to govern England. But we shouldn't rely on the Scots to make the decision for us. The English need to pressure politicians and continually make the case for an English Parliament. I think the case is building and that something like an English Parliament is inevitable. I give it a decade at least, but I think we'll get there.
Many thanks to Paul Kingsnorth for his time. The interview was conducted by Isabel Taylor.