Will the real England please stand up?

Essays Published April 10, 2008 in Published in the Daily Telegraph, 18 April 2008

It’s a summer evening on Reculver Beach in Kent and I’m sitting cross-legged beneath the cliffs, piling driftwood onto a stuttering fire. The evening silence is broken only by the crackling of the burning wood, by hundreds of darting, chattering sand martins shooting in and out of slits in the sandy cliff faces and, now, the shifting of the gravel beneath Fergus’s feet as he makes his way back up from the shoreline.

“I gutted the fish,” he says. "How’s the fire going?

Fergus Drennan is one of England’s few professional foragers. He makes a living by seeking out and selling wild food. Our evening at Reculver brings to a close a day spent together in the Kent countryside. Now, below the red cliffs and under the red sun, we’re ending the day with the fruits of our labour: baked sea bass, dulse soup and fried sea beet, offset by strong sloe gin.

“The thing is,” says Fergus, as he unwraps one of the bass from its tinfoil, "we’re so cut off from the land now. It’s about culture, as much as anything. Remember those St George’s mushrooms we picked earlier? They got the name because they start to appear around St George’s Day – the 23rd of April. You hear people moaning about how the traditions of this country are disappearing, we’re not in touch with our heritage and nobody celebrates St George’s Day any more.

“But most of these old traditions, when they were living, came from the land and people’s attachment to it. These days we don’t know where we are, or what happens in our landscape, so we can’t create new ones. Traditions come from places – from the land, from our relationship to it. Once that’s gone, so has that living culture.”

What Fergus picked up on that evening on the Kentish beach was something too few of us today give any thought to, but that is a vital component of our identity as individuals, as communities and as a nation. As St George’s Day approaches and brings with it the traditional round of English agonising about who we are and where we are going, it is worth remembering that what really makes England – what creates and maintains our national identity – is our living landscape. It is the places we have made our own over the centuries: the combination of patterns of land use, vernacular architecture, community spaces, local culture and place-specific traditions, which, added together, form the patchwork we call our national character. Who we are, in other words, comes from where we are.

But if this is true, the English may be in trouble. For the things that make our landscapes different, distinctive and special are being eroded and replaced by things that would be familiar anywhere. It is happening all over the country: the same chains in every high street; the same bricks in every new housing estate; the same signs on every road; the same menu in every pub.

The small, the ancient, the unprofitable, the meaningful, the characterful and the quirky are being razed to make way for the clean, the sophisticated, the progressive and the corporate. In the name of economic efficiency, investment, growth, development, or simply money, the complex web of intimate relationships between people and communities and the landscape they inhabit is being dismantled, with nobody’s permission.

The English landscape, in common with the landscapes of other nations across the world, is being rapidly and thoughtlessly remoulded to meet the short-term needs of a global economy that is built on sand. The result is stark, sad and bitter: everywhere is becoming the same as everywhere else. As a result, England is losing its identity.

Take, for example, the English pub – perhaps the best marker of our national character. English ale (from the Saxon ealu) and the English inn are not precisely replicated anywhere on Earth. Yet we are losing 56 pubs every month, four every day. Six urban locals shut up shop every week and half of England’s villages are now “dry” – publess – for possibly the first time since the Norman Conquest. Along with them have gone the historic regional breweries, of which only 38 remain. A century ago, the nation was home to 6,000 breweries; now there are 600.

Or take the independent shops that made us, so famously, a “nation of shopkeepers”. The last decade alone has seen the end of nearly 30,000 independent food, beverage and tobacco retailers. Fifty specialist shops closed every week between 1997 and 2002, while the last quarter of the 20th century saw the number of out-of-town shopping centres quadruple. The “clone town” phenomenon, by which every high street comes to resemble every other, regardless of region or history, has become a national talking point.

Or how about the English countryside, which in so many of our imaginations is still at the heart of England – the landscapes of Constable, Wordsworth, Turner and Betjeman? Small and family farms are going out of business at a rate of knots, taking centuries of history and meaning with them. We have lost, for example, 40 per cent of our dairy farms in less than a decade. The amount of land taken up by traditional apple orchards – the home of our national fruit, of which we grow more varieties than any other nation – has halved in just a decade, too. Devon and Wiltshire have lost 90 per cent of their orchards; Somerset has lost 60 per cent in just two decades.

Villages are haemorrhaging shops, post offices and village halls, turning what were once communities into dormitories. In some villages in the tourist “honeypots”, up to 80 per cent of homes are owned by absentee landlords or set aside for holiday lets. House prices in some rural areas have increased by almost 400 per cent in a decade, pricing local people out and destroying centuries of rural tradition in the process.

Why is this happening, and why do we allow it? Responsibility can be pinned on three forces, which are meshing together to form a uniquely destructive whole: a powerful alliance of big business and big government; an unspoken, 21st-century class conflict, in which every nook and cranny is being made safe for the wealthy urban bourgeoisie; and a very English reluctance to discuss who and what we are as a nation or to stand up for our places, our national character and our cultural landscape.

The first of these three forces is probably the most conspicuous. In the high streets, saloon bars and market-places of England, the omnipresence of the chain store and supermarket is striking. Giant multinational companies dominate almost every area of national life, from finance to farming. They do so with the full and enthusiastic encouragement of the State, whichever political party happens to be managing it. Meanwhile, the same State busies itself enacting or enforcing laws, from health and safety legislation to EU hygiene directives, which crush the life out of the small, the independent and the local.

Second, there is the rise of the class missionaries who are aggressively paving the way for a new England: a smoke-free, health-conscious, well-dressed designer nation whose values are those of its new ruling class, the city bourgeoisie. The country is being remodelled and made safe for urban 4×4 drivers, gastropub diners, the owners of investment properties and the wearers of clean wellies and fashionable scents. As they come, they scatter before them those whose values are different; perhaps older, certainly less profitable, less controllable, less tamed.

These first two forces have taken hold so successfully because of a third element: a problem that the English people themselves have long had. Put simply, we are terrible at talking about who we are. As a nation, we are almost comically reluctant to discuss our identity, our culture or our sense of nationhood. It is nearly 70 years since George Orwell wrote: “England is perhaps the only great country whose intellectuals are ashamed of their own nationality.” England may no longer be a “great country”, but the rest of his comment still stands. This strange cultural self-loathing has left us open to the whims of those who would turn our landscape into a theme park in which the theme, overwhelmingly, is profit.

All of this is the result of putting a commitment to a narrowly-defined “economic competitive-ness” above the things that actually make everyday life worth living. As a nation, the English have been slow to recognise what makes their country unique and protect it from the worst depredations of progress. We are sleepwalking towards a future in which the country becomes a giant reproduction of Kent’s Bluewater shopping centre – the largest in Europe, a paradise of consumerism, CCTV, security guards and fake landscapes, where price trumps value and everything is for sale.

And yet something is stirring. All over England, people are starting to join the dots and recognise that what they previously saw as small, local, isolated changes are part of a bigger picture of a waning national identity. And all over England the bleaching out of character, community, place and meaning in the name of growth, investment and global competitiveness is causing ripples, resentment and resistance.

It can be seen in communities up and down the country, from Crouch End to Blackpool, Northallerton to Cirencester, who are taking to the streets in unprecedented numbers to oppose the closure of their local post offices. It can be seen in rural communities fighting to protect their village shops or getting together to set up their own, community-owned alternatives, as villagers have done successfully from Sulgrave in Northamptonshire to Blisland in Cornwall. It can be found in landlords in Brixton fighting the power of pub companies and small farmers in Cornwall resisting the bullying of the superstores.

It can be found in east London, where urban communities are trying to save the historic Queen’s Market from destruction, and in Sheringham in Norfolk, where shopkeepers and locals are banding together to fend off an enormous Tesco. It can be found on the waterways of Oxford, where boat-dwellers are battling to save the city’s last public boatyard from more executive flats.

It can be found, in fact, almost everywhere you care to look. So much so that it may be that a movement is afoot: a movement of people all over England who are beginning to get together and wage a battle for the soul of their nation. A battle led by those who see us not as “UK PLC”, but as a nation with a unique history and a fragile future.

There are, it seems to me, two possible futures for England. The first: business as usual. We sit back, complicit, while our historical landscapes, meaningful places and local communities are cast aside in the name of increasing our GDP. We lose the cosy local pub, the ancient hill farm, the village shop, the independent high street and the rare apple varieties in the old orchard on the hill, and with them we lose a sense of who we are and where we came from.

The other future is one in which we stand and fight for these things, because we know why they matter. We stand up for our localities and communities, we value our history and the glorious eccentricity of our landscape, and we refuse to allow it to be replaced by more strip malls, car parks and executive waterfront apartments. In doing so, we rediscover what perhaps for a while we forgot – what it really means to be English.

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