A few years ago I wrote an academic book on the idea of ‘Englishness’ in the 1930s and 1940s. Taking the title of J. B. Priestley’s wonderful 1934 work English Journey as my starting point, I added an ‘s’ to highlight the fact that I was concerned with the plurality of journeys made in and around England in the inter-war years, and the ways in which this heightened sense of national self-awareness created a store of patriotism that was usefully tapped in the struggle of World War Two. English Journeys was the result.
Researching and writing the book was an immensely enjoyable experience, bringing me into contact with a host of travel guides from the period, and giving me an opportunity to read in depth the work of authors – Betjeman, Priestley, Orwell – that had long been favourites. It was also a fascinating reminder that while the British public were being urged to jump into their cars and motor off in search of unspoilt village idylls they were also being urged to support campaigns for preservation and reform. As Priestley suggested, there were multiple ‘Englands’ to visit at this time: historic and ‘quaint’; (post)industrial and impoverished; ‘modern’ and soulless. Not every journey was a happy one, and the fault-lines of the 1930s opened wide in many travelogues. For every voice that hymned the ‘unchanging’ elements of British life in this period there was another calling for constructive change. This gave my book its overarching theme: that the wartime slogan ‘Your Britain: Fight For It Now’ was not merely a call to preserve the nation’s unspoilt beauty, but also a rallying cry that would run through to the Labour government’s election in 1945 and underpin the welfare state that was set up to address the poverty, disease, and ignorance that had blighted much of the pre-War country.
I need very little encouragement to collect books, and this project was an excellent opportunity to fill the shelves with all manner of 1930s travel literature, from the ‘King’s England’ series of Arthur Mee to the ‘English Heritage’ and ‘The Face of Britain’ books produced by the firm of B. T. Batsford. These are particularly collectible, on account of their wonderfully Art Deco-style dust jackets, with artwork supplied by Brian Cook. Although the content was not always so reassuring, these books conveyed the sense of England (which is, in much of this literature, a synecdoche for ‘Britain’ – problematic as that may often be) as an unchanging entity of country villages, old churches, castles, and pubs with thatched roofs. Second-hand bookshops were scoured at length as my collection of these grew – justified (in as much as one ever needs to ‘justify’ buying books) by their relevance to the work in progress.
Last week I sorted through this collection carefully, took out the volumes that I wished to keep and sold the rest on at a local antiquarian bookseller. I did this because I needed the shelf space (literally) but also because I’ve come to feel that the nostalgia that I explored in my research is part of the problem of where the UK has gone wrong, a naive sense of an idyllic past which resulted in the awful own-goal of last June’s ‘Brexit’ vote. I’m not blaming Batsford’s publications for the rise of UKIP, but at the same time it seems clear that so much of the great future that post-Brexit Britain is promised by advocates of life outside the EU is not really a future at all but a return to the past, or to a very specific and unattainable past that is found in the literature of the 1930s and offered, then as now, as the antidote to present woes.
Calls for the recovery of ‘lost’ greatness or tranquility are nothing new, of course: there have been lost ‘Golden Ages’ from Antiquity onwards. The rhetoric of life in 2017 Britain, though, is quick to proffer a world before the country was ‘sold out’ to Brussels as an ideal state to which return may, tantalisingly, be possible if the British people will only reject any notion of the world’s having moved on in the past 50 or so years. Hence, we see the delivery of the Article 50 leaving letter greeted, on the front page of a national newspaper, with a photo of a UKIP politician drinking a pint (naturally, there are no 500ml glasses in Britain) of (English) beer outside a pub, triumphantly reasserting the victory of ‘Britishness’ over the corrosive influence of EU bureaucracy. In such times, minor details become causes. In a land obsessed by a television programme about baking and still working through its Second World War nostalgia, turning the clock back to the 1950s feels perfectly logical. As Tom Whyman noted in a ‘New York Times’ article back in February, the post-Brexit UK is danger of becoming “the world’s biggest church fete” with its export policy seemingly structured around sales of cheese, jam, and biscuits.
What is missing in this facile re-working of the national past is any of the balance that made the 1930s such a fascinating decade for me to study. In as much as those books dealt with the nation’s past they also offered ideas and suggestions for its future. Not everything ‘old’ was by definition ‘good’, and slums did not become acceptable places to live just because the buildings had been built a century earlier. The authors I found myself admiring as I research the decade were not those content to praise the past but those like Priestley who wanted to forge a better country out of the better parts of its heritage and the desire that better things may be possible in its future. For all of the bold boasts to have followed last year’s events, the vision of the future is, as far as I can see, vague and unconvincing, best defined not by what it offers but by what has been cast off. The past tense is crucial: like an America destined to be “made great again” the British people have apparently “got their country back“.
Nostalgia is, now, all-encompassing, because if EU membership was a national mistake then something better than membership must be held up as a goal to be (re)claimed. Thus, the rhetoric of the ‘finest hour’ of World War Two victory resurfaces – when Britain resisted tyranny and kept freedom alive. Evidently, though, the intellectual contortions needed to make the nation’s struggle of 1940 – great and necessary as that certainly was – applicable to its current temper tantrum are beyond those would prefer to keep things simple. The Foreign Secretary, discussing the financial costs of Britain’s EU departure, advised other member states not to indulge in “punishment beatings” once the plucky Brits have once again managed to escape the Prisoner of War camp that is the European Union. That the EU has largely kept peace in Europe for sixty years does not make this WW2 fascination any less viable for those who think little of consequence has happened in Britain’s relationship with the continent since D-Day.
I don’t blame the Batsford guides for this, but as I looked at them I knew that if I was going to write anything new I needed room for other books, other ideas. Clearing the shelf was a prelude to a new project – a move away from nostalgia into other debates and enquiries. Bound as the country is to the wheel or nostalgic sentiment, it is too much to hope, I suspect, that the UK will undergo any such winnowing of its sentiments until the consequences of last June’s vote are unavoidably, painfully, clear to even the most hardened of the currently triumphalist 52% of the electorate who voted ‘Leave’. Even nostalgia, in the final analysis, is not going to be what it used to be.
Tom Whyman’s excellent article can be found at the link below: