With the current chaos of a Conservative government tearing itself apart over the incoherence of Brexit, Stuart Cartland critiques 'heritage culture' and argues that the time is ripe for Corbyn’s Labour to step in and throw its weight behind the expression of a more radical, egalitarian national cultural identity.
The recent release of British nostalgia flick The Book Shop is the latest in a long line of relentless, seemingly endless cultural representations of a backward looking gaze into a mythical sense of nation and place. What we have witnessed over recent years is a nostalgia blitz (pun fully intended), a prevalence and immense popularity of television series and films set within this largely rural and historical traditional utopia. These cultural texts provide a medium through which a crisis of identity based upon the challenges of the present are mediated. In many ways this can be viewed as national escapism on one hand and a form of cultural legitimation on the other.
When the future (or even the present) is uncertain and unclear it can be very comforting to escape into a sense of constructed familiarity. The past is often a place that we create or is created for us, free from the chaos and uncertainty of the real lived experience, one that is also in many ways an ideological creation, one where we airbrush out the inconvenient or unpleasing elements, and create a type of social and cultural utopia far from any sense of reality. Such fantasy fiction set within historical periods play upon, and legitimise, created concepts of the past which in turn inform our understanding of the present, one where nostalgia and sentimentality inform a collective national imagining.
However such an exercise, particularly for the English in a post-Brexit reality, is arguably built upon repetition and melancholy, a longing for a lost age of national exceptionalism, independence and greatness. As pointed out by Mark Easton in a recent BBC/YouGov poll, “there is more than a hint of nostalgia about people’s sense of Englishness. Almost three times as many of its residents think England was ‘better in the past’ than believe its best years lie in the future”. Therefore it can be no surprise to witness this expressed in popular television series and movies in recent years. Period dramas are a national industry in the UK, yet we have witnessed a tidal wave of cultural nostalgia set within a context of political chaos, economic uncertainty and the crushing reality of austerity fraying the very fabric of British society.
The unprecedented popularity of Downton Abbey, Indian Summers, Call the Midwife, the Crown, Victoria and Poldark are all set in a (largely pre-industrial) bucolic space populated by virtuous citizens, where the working class and women knew their place, and the power and position of the status quo is unquestioned. This can be viewed as a propaganda cult of ideologically constructed national memory and image, where the viewer is transplanted to an age free from supposed political-correctness-gone-mad, gay marriage, health and safety regulations, national decline, multiculturalism and open border immigration.
The construction and use of nostalgia is nothing new, yet the current national situation of a perennial state of anxiety and crisis arguably perpetuates an obsessive gaze back, even to past times of national crisis. Crisis can then be seen as a tool of defensive representation, exceptionalism, and a wilful delve into ideologically constructed notions of the past and perceived ‘golden eras’. The good-old-days and the blitz-spirit is intertwined with Brexit anxiety, and helps perpetuate a surge among the English (in particular) of a sense of defensive and backward looking Englishness and a wave of popular nostalgia. It is a distinctively top-down, traditional and conservative interpretation of history that utilises the use of Churchillian rhetoric and a triumphant and uncritical interpretation of history that has become a dominant conservative narrative of contemporary renewal within a context of disengagement.
One only needs to look at the most popular British films over recent years to see this also played out in the cinema - Churchill, Darkest Hour and Dunkirk are all based upon this recurring theme. whilst other popular British movies continue the more general clamour for nostalgia and sentimentality such as Another Mother's Son, Murder on the Orient Express and Phantom Thread. There is nothing inherently conservative about these historical periods, however they have been stripped of any radical possibilities and have been re-situated within a longing for a national space set with the past.
This historicised national narrative built upon reconstituted social consensus certainly helped legitimise and justify many to vote ‘leave’ - the Leave campaign was built upon nostalgic pastiche and myth - but also in terms of anxiety of how we cope when we leave. The dominant narrative being that we are in fact the factual evidence of Shakespeare’s ‘sceptred isle’ adrift in the north Atlantic, supremely detached from European politics and problems. These sentiments have always conjured strong mythical images of splendid isolation, that we are a breed apart from those meddling Europeans, that we are not or have never really been European, that we are certainly separate, distinct and of course superior. Again, the symbolic re-purposing of a nation alone, choosing its own destiny yet couched within a language of austerity and images of war fetishism, feed into the symbolic imagery of a national space.
These narratives of crisis and longing for images of a green and pleasant rustic past are not just located on the small or big screen. The recycling of cultural and historical sites, figures, language and myth which have produced such a depth of cultural pastiche and revivalism have been symbolically repackaged within our everyday lives, a process which Owen Hatherley describes as ‘heritage culture’. Imagery of artisan, handcrafted, bespoke, boutique, rustic and vintage have become culturally homogenous as the cozy appeal of the safety blanket of nostalgia and an imaginary social and cultural utopia is spread over us within an over-riding sense of benevolent manufactured nostalgia through the prism of social and cultural conserv-atism.
The contested meaning of being English in an increasingly globalised world, with a nation trying to come to terms with devolution, EU integration and large scale immigration is clearly problematic but also rich with radical opportunity. However, the England sold to the world (and more importantly to itself) through a cultural obsession with tradition and nostalgia is reinforced through nostalgic paraphernalia such as calendars and tea towels, the cosy, comforting cultural security of the National Trust, Waitrose and farmers' markets. TV banality such as Midsomer Murders, the Great British Bake Off and Location, Location, Location. While movies such as the Iron Lady, Atonement, the King’s Speech, the Queen et al represent an ever present, and social aesthetically pleasing England, one viewed through the gaze of the middle or upper classes, set in rural idyllic English locations and often located within ideologically triumphant historical ‘golden eras’.
Examples such as these point toward a politically and culturally specific construction of nation and heritage, laden with cultural meaning and identity that purposely exclude those who do not fit the traditionalist images or values of the nation. It is a predominantly mythical representation that has no relevance to the majority of the population and one that most could never experience - yet it represents a well-established national, cultural and historical narrative, cleansed of social and cultural relevance. “The danger”, as Kazuo Ishiguro pointed out when discussing his novel Remains of the Day, “lies not only in the fact that politicians would sell this image to their electorate but also that the electorate might buy it”.
However, it is a cultural construction rich with radical possibilities, one which hopefully Mike Leigh’s forthcoming movie on the Peterloo massacre can help redress. Indeed, dominant, hegemonic cultural constructions have been challenged over recent years. Mike Leigh’s Spirit of ’45 being the most obvious example on the big screen, but also on the small screen examples such as Michael Sheen’s retelling of the 1839 Newport Chartist uprising in Valley Rebellion all point to radical alternatives.
Again, there is nothing inherent or or natural to support the claim that historical or rural representations need to be conservative. Indeed, there is a wealth of rich examples that can be utilised to represent and support a more radical and left leaning cultural identity, be it the Levellers or Diggers from the 1640s through to the campaign for the right to roam culminating in the mass trespass on Kinder Scout in the 1930s.
With the current and ongoing chaos of a Conservative government tearing itself apart over the incoherence of Brexit the time is ripe for Corbyn’s Labour to step in and throw its weight behind a national cultural identity based upon England’s rich cultural heritage of egalitarianism and radicalism and offer a way beyond the anxiety, conflict and crisis which the current Conservative-dominated narrative behind Brexit represents.
Stuart Cartland is a lecturer in Humanities at the University of Brighton.