Cover of Real England

Kingsnorth, P. (2008) Real England: The Battle Against the Bland Portobello Books ISBN 978 1 84627 042 0

“Humanity has taken to monoculture once and for all, and is preparing to produce civilization in bulk, as if it were sugar-beet. The same dish is to be served to us every day.” Claude Lévi-Straus, Tristes Tropiques 1955

We see the signs of sugar-beet culture around us every day: in the chain cafes and mobile phone outlets that dominate our high streets; in the disappearance of those very high streets in favour of out-of-town malls; and in the regular headlines about yet another traditional industry going to the wall. Paul Kingsnorth saw the signs only too clearly too – but vitally – he made a further connection between isolated, incremental local changes and the bigger picture of a nation whose identity is being eroded.

Recorded in Real England are his travels around England over a period of just over a year (2007-2008) meeting farmers, fishermen, publicans and shop keepers. It’s a personal journey through a nation whose character, he passionately and profoundly argues, is being lost to the homogenising forces of globalisation and a top-heavy state. He visits threatened street markets and squatted cafes, privatised city centres and occupied boatyards, ancient orchards and giant shopping centres, and builds up a picture of a nation losing its identity and the people fighting back against this trend.

‘I occasionally say of a book that it is important, and that everyone should read it; this time I say so more emphatically than ever.’ – Nicholas Lezard, The Guardian, Paperback of the Week

I’m not sure how Real England escaped me when it was first published, but I’m grateful that Tate Modern saw fit to carry it in the bookshop outside the recent British Folk Art exhibition. As Nicholas Lezard says, it’s a thought-provoking and at times depressing read that’s lost none of its power or relevance in the six years since it was written. The crisis it outlines remains, as do the issues.

Real England is essential reading for anyone concerned with local distinctiveness, with local history, with any sense of connectedness to place.

“There’s a bit of Bluewater in every town in England. And not just in the towns; in the villages too, and even in the fields. On the motorways and the A roads, the coastal towns and conurbations, the fens and the forests. There is a bit of that manufactured, placeless, corporate landscape almost everywhere you go, and it is getting bigger. Spreading out. It is the story of our age. It is the future, if we allow it to be.” pg 6 Real England

“Whether the real England, for you, is the local newsagents or the local church, the thatched cottage or the city terrace, the hardware store that clings on in your high street, the struggling street corner pub, the patch of overlooked waste ground, the chaotic street market, the hedgerows or the downlands, an old farm or an urban canal; you can be sure that if it is not sufficiently profitable or obedient, then it is not safe from the accelerating forces of homogenization and control. It, too, will be Bluewatered in time.” pg 7 Real England

In many ways what Paul Kingsnorth was doing in Real England was to apply the concept of the edgelands or an ecological margin to English culture. In his 1980 book The Common Ground Richard 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 order for this global consumer economy to progress, we must cease to be people who belong to neighbourhoods, communities, localities. We must cease to value the distinctiveness of where we are. We must become consumers, bargain-hunters, dealers on a faceless, placeless international trade floor. We must cease to identify with our neighbourhood, our landscape and our locality, or to care much about it. We must become the citizens of nowhere.

Talking like this often brings on a barrage of pre-emptive aggression from people who assume that the speaker must be a nostalgic reactionary or a tiresome romantic, fuelled by loathing for a whole range of things – Europe, America, globalization, progress. But this is no paean to the past, or simply reaction against change. Neither is it an invitation to shore up the stockades of Little England. It is about promoting and defending cultural distinctiveness and the power of people and communities to define it. My landscape and its associated cultures – my England, if you like – has a real and living meaning. It matters to me. I do not want to see it destroyed for nothing. And I know I’m not alone.” pg 8-9

The three main factors that Kingsnorth identifies as contributors to this process, are an over-cosy partnership between global corporations and centralised government; the spread of gentrification in a covert “class war” pricing local people out of house and home; and a very English reluctance to stand up for places, national character or our cultural landscape, a by-product of our long-standing and irrational cultural self-loathing.

“In this context the reluctance, or the inability, of the English to discuss who they are is a key contributor to the decline of our landscapes, places and cultures. If we don’t know what England is, or what made us, or what we value, then how do we know what to retain, protect and develop? How do we know what matters and what doesn’t. If the English cannot be English, then what makes up England will cease to exist. There will be no good reason not to replace the lot with homogenous outdoor malls and executive lofts.” pg. 284-5

“We need, perhaps, a new type of patriotism, benign and positive, based on place not race, geography not biology. One which seeks to make the best of what we are and what we have. A national mission to reclaim the land and the landscapes for all the people who live in them and care about them.” pg 285

“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.”

The boldest part of Real England is perhaps the final chapter, ‘Know Your Place’, which calls for a combination of personal responsibility, community action, and an entirely new political settlement for England and the English: democratisation from the bottom up, and localisation of power to allow local people and local governments control over what happens to their own communities; including increased investment in affordable housing; and ultimately an English Parliament.

“How can we save the real England? Firstly, it seems to me, we all need to take back control of our own lives. We need to break that dependency on the Thing and take responsibility for our places. If we care about small shops, we need to stop going to Sainsbury’s. If we care about farms or orchards disappearing, we need to support them. If we care about our local area, we have to stand up and be counted. Blaming everyone and everything else won’t cut it. Societies are made up of people – people like us. It’s people who make cultures thrive or die. Blame the government, if you like, and blame Tesco too: they certainly deserve it. But don’t think that doing so is a substitute for looking in the mirror and asking yourself what you have done, and what you can do.” pg 276

If Real England is a call to action, if not a call to arms, half a decade after publication has anything radically changed?

Well… perhaps we have just a little more to feel optimistic about following the economic crash and recession which forced so many people, communities and institutions to take a long, hard look at the reality of an unfettered, unregulated global market that placed too much money in the wrong hands. Today there’s much more talk about what Englishness and locality mean and the global model that allowed the denuding of England – whilst hugely powerful still – is visibly crumbling at the edges and under scrutiny as never before

Perhaps we can also be optimistic on a smaller, more domestic and personal scale too, which is especially important if you have children, with more of us making the right decisions about what we buy and where and when we buy it; with more people making informed decisions about what’s essential or important and what’s not. Though it’s hard to see how the global machine will be dismantled through buying organic eggs, the Revolution (for a Revolution there must be) has to start somewhere.

I recycle, I buy local, I do all of it, and it does make a difference. There’s more cruelty free food on the shelves, and I saw the effects of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s Fish Fight in my local market. It can only be a good thing when people opt out of the worse aspects of the system even if personal action can never change the whole system. I guess at the end of the day, at least you know you’re not part of the problem. It’s a glacial change, but glaciers do change things.

In the concluding paragraphs Kingsnorth states:

“In Roman mythology, every place was distinct, and every place had its own guardian spirit. This guardian, usually in the form of an animal, was known as the genius loci. The identity of the guardian represented the character of the place. These days, the phrase has come to mean the spirit of a place in a different sense: its distinctiveness and character […] the genius loci of most places in England still exists. It is weaker, undoubtedly, than it has ever been, but it is still there, watching, waiting to see what we will do; whether we will notice it again, even consult it, or whether we are content to bury it forever.
[…]
We embody the genius loci – we create or destroy it. It is in us all, and we hold in our hands the future of our landscapes and communities. There is still a real England. It can live or it can die. We can be surrounded by plastic or be part of something real. We can be Citizens of Nowhere or we can know our place – know it and be prepared to stand up for it, because we understand how much it matters. The choice, as ever, is our.” pg 286

The gauntlets thrown down – now then, what can I or YOU do in response?

Further Reading:

Paul Kingsnorth’s website

Dark Mountain – an arts project co-founded by Paul Kingsnorth

Review of Real England in The Guardian 30.09.2009

Review of Real England in The Telegraph

Review of Real England in The Independent

Article on ‘what happened next’ from New York Times 20.04.2014

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